Lesson #198: Appreciating Descriptive Writing from Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’

📘 One of Charles Dickens’ most famous novels is Oliver Twist (1838), also one of his earliest works. 

Even if you haven’t read the book, you may well have watched one of the musicals or movies that have been made on the story. I watched the 1968 Oliver! musical when I was young, and it has remained one of my favourites since.

More recently I finished reading it again and wanted to share one of my favourite descriptive passages in the book, so quiet and picturesque as it is!

✏️ It illustrates some of Dickens’ most refined writing, and gives us a chance to try some reading comprehension exercises (with vocabulary provided below).

📘 The little room in which he was accustomed to sit, when busy at his books, was on the ground-floor, at the back of the house. It was quite a cottage-room, with a lattice-window: around which were clusters of jessamine and honeysuckle, that crept over the casement, and filled the place with their delicious perfume. It looked into a garden, whence a wicket-gate opened into a small paddock; all beyond, was fine meadow-land and wood. There was no other dwelling near, in that direction; and the prospect it commanded was very extensive.

– Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist


accustomed: used to 

when busy at his books: This is a nice way to say ‘when busy studying’

lattice-window: a window that has an open framework of metal or wood to let the light in – the framework is often in an ornamental pattern, with diamond-shaped openings. It is a popular choice of window frame in certain parts of England.

jessamine: jasmine

honeysuckle: another flower, with a sweet smell that often attracts small flies

casement: a window (or only a part fo a window) that is set on a vertical hinge, allowing it to open like a door

whence: from which

wicket-gate: a small gate for pedestrians that is built into a wall, a larger gate, or fence

paddock: a small field where horses are kept and exercised

meadow-land: an area of grassland (especially one that is kept for making hay)

dwelling: home or house, a place where people dwell

the prospect it commanded was very extensive: the view it had was very extensive, wide, far-reaching. Put differently: from it you could view a vast area – it had a very wide and vast view.


📘 One beautiful evening, when the first shades of twilight were beginning to settle upon the earth, Oliver sat at this window, intent upon his books. He had been poring over them for some time; and, as the day had been uncommonly sultry, and he had exerted himself a great deal, it is no disparagement to the authors, whoever they may have been, to say, that gradually and by slow degrees, he fell asleep.

– Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist


twilight: the soft left light glowing in the sky after the sun has set

settle: adopt or assume a more steady kind of life or existence

intent upon his books: [studying] his books with focus, intention, attention

poring: < to pore: to gaze intently; to study something with great attention, especially books or documents (usually used with ‘over’)

uncommonly sultry: unusually hot. ‘Sultry’ means uncomfortably hot, sticky, humid, and heavy (weather)

exerted: < exert: to invest or expend a lot of physical or mental effort into something

disparagement: the act of speaking about someone or something in a belittling way, showing that you do not respect them

… it is no disparagement to the authors: it is no disrespect to the authors (of his books) [that he fell asleep while reading them]


📘 There is a kind of sleep that steals upon us sometimes, which, while it holds the body prisoner, does not free the mind from a sense of things about it, and enable it to ramble at its pleasure. So far as an overpowering heaviness, a prostration of strength, and an utter inability to control our thoughts or power of motion, can be called sleep, this is it; and yet, we have a consciousness of all that is going on about us, and, if we dream at such a time, words which are really spoken, or sounds which really exist at the moment, accommodate themselves with surprising readiness to our visions, until reality and imagination become so strangely blended that it is afterwards almost a matter of impossibility to separate the two. Nor is this, the most striking phenomenon incidental to such a state. It is an undoubted fact, that although our senses of touch and sight be for the time dead, yet our sleeping thoughts, and the visionary scenes that pass before us, will be influenced and materially influenced, by the mere silent presence of some external object; which may not have been near us when we closed our eyes: and of whose vicinity we have had no waking consciousness.

Oliver knew, perfectly well, that he was in his own little room; that his books were lying on the table before him; that the sweet air was stirring among the creeping plants outside. And yet he was asleep.

– Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist


a kind of sleep that steals upon us sometimes: a kind of sleep that creeps over us, that comes quietly and without our notice, sometimes

ramble: to wander about, to walk around with no particular purpose or aim but just enjoying oneself

overpowering: overwhelming one with its power

prostration: the act of laying someone or something flat (as if by force or a blow)

consciousness: the state of being aware, conscious of or alert to something or one’s surroundings

utter inability: being completely and utterly unable to do something

accommodate themselves: adjust or adapt themselves

surprising readiness: with surprising quickness and alertness

visions: dreams, often more spiritual or purposeful in nature

blended: mixed together so that the lines between the two are blurred

that it is afterwards almost a matter of impossibility to separate the two: that it is afterwards almost impossible to separate the two from each other

phenomenon: an observable fact or event

incidental: happening as a secondary or less important accompaniment to something else, of lesser importance; happening because of something else that is more noticeable and important

to such a state: to such a situation, a state of existence or being

visionary scenes: the scenes that we can see or envision

materially: in a significant way

mere: simple, straightforward

vicinity: nearness, closeness

no waking consciousness: we have not been conscious of or aware of when we were awake

stirring: < to stir: moving about quickly and smoothly

creeping: < to creep: to move about secretly and slowly – here the plants are described as if they were growing slowly and secretively, gradually taking space 

We tend to associate Dickens’ with lively, funny, comic-tragic and even boisterous writing. But as this passage illustrates, he is also capable of very thoughtful and peaceful descriptions – the perfect reading as we begin the weekend, after a fruitful week’s study! 🌷🌼🌻

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)