Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Rereading Oliver Twist

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 16, 2012

I want to read only  what I’ll want to reread—the definition of a book worth reading once – Susan Sontag

Leaving aside the definition of what constitutes a classic, it is my belief that whatever one chooses to define as a classic should be read at least twice (if not more) in one’s lifetime. Rereading books (after a meaningful time gap) which have affected one deeply during the first encounter has its benefits: it gives the reader an opportunity to reassess the relevance of the book in a changed context. It is not the book that changes but the reader who would have changed with time. There is a refreshing joy and a pleasant element of surprise in assessing this personal transformation. It is very similar to the joy we get when we look at our childhood photographs. Looking at a photograph one invariably says “Oh! I can’t believe I looked like that”. Rereading a book one has an opportunity to say “Can’t believe that I liked this stuff as a child” or “I understand now why this appealed to me so much then” or “How impressionable I have been in my younger days” or “The impulses that have affected me as a child continue to affect me even today – not bad at all” or “I am a little surprised that I did not like it then”. These reactions and conclusions are in some sense resultants of our life-experiences and snugly encompass our respective personal transformations or the lack of them

Rereading Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” after a gap of nearly 25 years has given me an opportunity to assess where I stood with respect to this book. I remember liking it a lot then and now, I like it manifold more than I did in the past. It is a marvelous piece of fiction which is worth reading many times over  

Almost all of Dickens’s characters are generously endowed and exaggerated on specific human attributes: Bill Sikes is downright cruel and misanthropic till his last breath, Rose Maylie is all honey and milk without a trace of negativity, Fagin is an epitome of greed, cunning and graspiness, Fang, in his quest for dispensing justice, is impervious to acknowledgment that a human being is standing in front of him in the dock, Brownlow is unwaveringly consistent in holding his moral stance in an equilibrium which is perfect and unflapping, Charlie Bates can never be serious even if he is mortally threatened (barring in one scene in one of the last chapters where he rebels against Bill Sikes with a bitterness and anger that is surprising), Oliver is eternally tending towards honesty and kindness like a limit function in calculus, Noah Claypole is a shrunken version of Bill Sikes in his mental makeup – but complete in his own right, Mrs. Corney (who transforms into Mrs. Beadle) and Mrs. Sowerbury are perfect examples of what raspy shrews and born henpecks can be, Mr.Sowerbury, a role model of a henpecked, Toby Cratchit a perfect accomplice and side-kick. Mrs. Maylie and her son James are perfect mother-son pair – even the airing of their differences of opinions on the subject of Rose is a lecture in manners and civility for the readers. Only Nancy comes out as a real human being: an inherently good person driven to make a living by doing bad deeds forced by her company, association and upbringing – a genuine victim of her circumstances. Time and time again she reminds readers that she is aware of this position of hers and when there is an opportunity to redeem herself, like a majority of real human beings embraces it wholeheartedly. Despite a strong trace of caricaturization, practically all of Dickens characters are unforgettable and there is a puzzlingly inexplicable appeal to them. I think the writerly trick of Dickens lies in his containment of the degree of caricaturization which while being supremely successful in highlighting the targeted human trait, maintains a splendid balance and just does not roll off into excess which in the hands of any ordinary writer could lead to distortion and disbelief. It is this meticulous tightrope walk between purposeful highlighting and successful containment of potential excess the biggest appeal of Dickens’s characters

Dickens brings a wonderfully polyphonic nature to his writing. He dons the most appropriate writing hat depending on the need and situation. There is a chameleon like ability to alter the tone of writing through the book. Depending on the scene Dickens writes like: a zealous journalist – describing the London slums, the sprawling London city and its suburbs with a cinematic lens and haunting imagery; a passionate humanist – producing torrents of words, sentences and conversations with a power to captivate and move the reader; a dispassionate philosopher – gently ruminating the lot of human beings; an ardent reformer with a great sense of urgency and purpose, a natural mimic, an imitator of tones and a shrewd observer of human frailties – all with a wicked sense of comic, irony and sarcasm. There is an extra-ordinary ear for on-the-ground dialect. Oliver Twist is profuse with this variation in writing which is one of the great strengths of this novel. Here are a few superb examples that demonstrate this ability of Dickens to morph his writing to suit the context appropriately:

 Oliver is being prepared to be sent out as an apprentice to the chimneysweep Mr. Gamfield and the unconscionable cruelty of his potential master is portrayed like this:

‘Young boys have been smothered in chimneys before now,’ said another gentleman.

‘That’s acause they damped the straw afore they lit it in the chimbley to make ’em come down again,’ said Gamfield; ‘that’s all smoke, and no blaze; vereas smoke ain’t o’ no use at all in making a boy come down, for it only sinds him to sleep, and that’s wot he likes. Boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy, Gen’l’men, and there’s nothink like a good hot blaze to make ’em come down vith a run. It’s humane too, gen’l’men, acause, even if they’ve stuck in the chimbley, roasting their feet makes ’em struggle to hextricate theirselves.’

Gamfield is not even remotely conscious of the cruelty he is intending. (It is said that Victorian England was a place which was rampant with child labour, exploitation, prostitution and crime. However, there must have been a period in history when the Victorian society started to temper its vicious instincts to become more humane and inclusive. With 32% of Indian children malnourished and many more going hungry to bed, rampant corruption aided by crony capitalism, withdrawal of state from its fundamental responsibilities and a consistent mockery of democracy, it is urgent that this tempering mood sets in Indian society too. I am quite keen to know more about the impulses, enablers, drivers and mechanics of this transformative process)

 Here is another one as a conversation between Fagin and Noah Claypole (who hides behind a pseudonym of Morris Bolter) on their beliefs in self-interest and self-preservation

‘Every man’s his own friend, my dear,’ replied Fagin, with his most insinuating grin. ‘He hasn’t as good a one as himself anywhere.’
‘Except sometimes,’ replied Morris Bolter, assuming the air of a man of the world. ‘Some people are nobody’s enemies but their own, yer know.’
‘Don’t believe that,’ said Fagin. ‘When a man’s his own enemy, it’s only because he’s too much his own friend; not because he’s careful for everybody but himself. Pooh! pooh! There ain’t such a thing in nature.’
‘There oughn’t to be, if there is,’ replied Mr. Bolter.

 or

There are some promotions in life, which, independent of the more substantial rewards they offer, require peculiar value and dignity from the coats and waistcoats connected with them. A field-marshal has his uniform; a bishop his silk apron; a counselor his silk gown; a beadle his cocked hat. Strip the bishop of his apron, or the beadle of his hat and lace; what are they? Men. Mere men. Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine.

or

It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.

Lastly,

‘Hush!’ said Barney: ‘stradegers id the next roob.’
‘Strangers!’ repeated the old man in a whisper.
‘Ah! Ad rub uds too,’ added Barney. ‘Frob the cuttry, but subthig in your way, or I’b bistaked.’

  (Barney is afflicted with common cold)

 The credibility of the plot is sustained with the help of coincidences which are one too many. The presence of Fagin at Three Cripples during the arrival of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the journey of Oliver from the parish house to Mr. Brownlow’s house via Fagin’s mephitic den and then onto the comfort of Mrs.Maylie’s household after yet another detour through Fagin’s clutches, Monks as half-brother of Oliver are a little hard to believe. In a sense the plot is the weakest part of the novel

Despite dollops of sustained (and purposeful) exaggeration, caricaturization and theatrics, one comes out on the side of Dickens with a feeling that there is a larger motive to his writing beyond ordinary story telling: He is intentionally poking fun, laughing, shaming and mocking the inequities in Victorian England – all with a sense of large heartedness, authorial purpose and magnanimity which is staggering at one level and admirable at another level. There is a deep concern for the lives of people on the societal fringes: the poor, the destitute and especially the children. The underbelly of criminal London is brilliant in its portrayal. Fagin’s gang, although a microcosm, is a wonderful testimony to that. Dickens is at his best when he takes a dig at some of the institutions of his times and the practices they follow. The pomposity of the parish officialdom, the treatment of children living there, child-labour, the indifference of court officials while dispensing justice, self-importance of the on-duty policemen are simply unforgettable.

 Every age and every society has its peculiar ills and ailments. The role of an artist, among others, is to shed light on these ills and ensure that as many as possible see these ills vividly. As I read ‘Oliver Twist”, I felt that for Victorian England, Dickens upheld this role of an artist supremely well. Given the diversity and size of its ills, India too desperately needs its own Dickens- who can mock and laugh, tease and taunt, pull and poke, name and shame these ills. Wonder if this pressing need will be fulfilled at all!

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