May 20, 2013 | 05:47 AM (BD Time)
20 May, 2013 Monday
Oliver Twist, a story painted with poverty
Russian novelist Dostoevsky once said, "In Russia we understand Dickens, and may be even all his subtleties, almost as much as the English. We even love him as much as his own countrymen do." Tolstoy once said about Dickens' novel, "all his characters are my personal friends." Dickens was popular in Russia. Many of Dickens' novels had been translated in Russian as soon as they were published in English. Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England on 7 February 1812, raised in London and Kent. This year literary world has chalked out different programmes for celebrating 200th anniversary of his birth. As a part of this celebration, British Cultural Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently presented Charles Dickens' books to his cabinet colleagues. As an example British Prime Minister David Cameron has received "The Great Expectations" and "Hard Times", but Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has received "Oliver Twist". Critics say, because of his fascination about young people's employment in this country choice for Nick was "Oliver Twist". So, my choice of recent reading was tuned with Nick.
"Oliver Twist" was serialised during 1837-1839. The story seems like a sandwich, where poverty is a jam. Readers may remember that in this novel a woman in labour found on the streets and brought into a workhouse, where she gave birth to a child and died. Orphaned at birth Oliver Twist's life began in that way. After spending nine years in an orphanage, Oliver was sent to a workhouse, where he was mistreated and practically starved. Then he was sent off to become an apprentice to the local undertaker, Mr Sowerberry. One day, a fellow apprentice made an unpleasant remark about Oliver's mother, so Oliver beat him up and ran away towards London. Before reaching London he met a boy of his age, named Jack, who offered him food and shelter in the house of his benefactor, named Fagin. Fagin was, in fact, the ringleader of a group of children thieves.
It was revealed to Oliver when one day he went out with Jack and other kids and saw that they were stealing from the pocket of an elderly gentleman, later known by Oliver as Mr Brownlow. Mr Brownlow saved Oliver from the gang of thieves and took him from the street. Fagin was not happy about this. So, he sent Nancy and Bill to kidnap Oliver. Oliver was kidnapped, but Brownlow thought that Oliver was in fact a thief, so he ran away. Fagin then sent Oliver for a major robbery, where he was shot and left in a ditch. Oliver then went to a nearest house, where Mrs Maylie and her niece, Rose gave shelter and offered him protection. Oliver spent nice summer with them in the countryside.
Dickens at this stage introduced a mysterious Monk in his character list, who was working with Fagin in a plot to destroy Oliver's chances of happiness and discovering his background. Nancy, the girlfriend of Sikes become sympathetic to Oliver and organised a meeting with Rose and Mr Brownlow, to inform them of the plot against Oliver. But Sikes did not like such sympathy and decided to kill Nancy.
On the other hand, Mr Brownlow met Monks to understand the real reason behind his hatred for Oliver. It turned out that he and Oliver were actually half brothers and Monk wants to keep Oliver from claiming his share of the inheritance from their father, who died shortly before Oliver was born. When whole story was gradually unfolding, Monks agreed to tell all he knew in exchange for his immunity. Fagin was arrested and sentenced to death. Sikes accidently hanged himself while trying to escape capture.
At the end Charles Dickens gave us a happy ending of the story, when Oliver was adopted by Mr Brownlow. Part of the story seems very similar to Dickens's personal life. When he was twelve, his father was sent to debtor's prison. At that time Charles Dickens spent three months working in a boot blacking factory pasting labels on jars. It was a miserable time for Dickens, a disintegration of his life. Such inner disintegration might have inspired an outward integration of several characters and produced classic novels like Oliver Twist. So, I would like to argue that art is an outward integration inspired by the artist's inner disintegration.
Regarding this novel, interesting information has been revealed recently. Ben Macintyre reported in The Times that a court report published in The Times in 1834 may have inspired Dickens to write Oliver Twist. On January 14, 1834, The Times reported on the case of Edward Trabshaw, "an intelligent boy, aged 10 years, who had run away from home and fallen into Murphy's clutches." Claire Tomalin, a biographer of Charles Dickens said, " It's very striking, and could certainly have given Dickens ideas for Oliver Twist." Tomalin further added that "Clearly he visited the court and he may well have read law reports in The Times."
This comment gives us an insight into how Dickens gathered ingredients for his novel. This is not unlikely, because at the age of fifteen, Dickens began working as a clerk in a law office and later decided to become a freelance journalist reporting various court proceedings.
Oliver seems to me an orphan child of our time. We know most of the good love songs are about love lost. Such artistic expression in Dickens's novel resonates through poverty.
Dickens painted an image of Victorian England through Oliver Twist, which seems to me still relevant today. Child labour and child exploitation are still persisting in our society. Child poverty around the world and even in British society is still prevailing. So, I hope that Oliver Twist will generate a resonance in our conscience and spur a reformation of child welfare in our society.
(The writer lives and works in United Kingdom)
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