Oliver Twist's Secret Message
A few weeks ago, the teen book club met to discuss Charles Dickens' book Oliver Twist. Out of the twelve regular attendees of book club, only three actually tackled reading Oliver Twist, while the other students opted to read the other book choice. When we met as a group, though, I realized how tough the book was for the students to read. Those who did read the book liked it for the following reasons: the language was lyrical and challenging, the author used caricatures and sarcasm which was expertly done, and the characters were engaging. All of these reasons seemed valid, of course, and honorable. But then the students expressed this notion:
It feels as though there is a hidden message in the text.
I've always hated it when students develop this idea about books. It makes it seem as though only detectives, literary sleuths or English PhDs can discover the meaning of the books, making it somewhat inaccessible for the regular reader. I simply don't want my students to think that's the case. I want them to believe that they can discover the meanings in the text without needing an expert to pull it out for them.
The problem is, Oliver Twist is very much a reflection of the time when Dickens wrote the book. Through Oliver's experiences, Dickens is criticizing government and church funding of the work houses, where those in need of monetary support would go if they wanted governmental help. How would the students know this if they didn't research the book and discover this information? Does that mean there is a secret message in the book that someone reading wouldn't discover simply through the book's pages?
I guess we are getting into literary analysis here and reader response versus historical analysis, but as the book club mentor, I would like the students to feel that their understanding of the book as is works. That it's okay to examine the book from a teen perspective with a teen's knowledge and experience, and take something from it. This isn't a secret message. There isn't hidden meaning. Perhaps there are different levels of understanding, but all levels are okay.
I have had a few jobs in my life that I didn't enjoy: detassling corn, working in a small motor parts factory, framing pictures, serving food, and rejecting bad eggs in an egg factory. Today, I take part in a book club for teens and I love every minute of it.