Saturday, May 07, 2011

Going back to Charles Dickens

I downloaded the 'Complete works of Charles Dickens' on my Kindle recently (thank Amazon for coming up with this blessed device). The toughest decision at hand before leaving Brisbane was which are the absolute essential books that I absolutely, positively cannot do without. After three rounds of serious grouping, I managed to narrow it down to eight kilograms. I had no qualms whatsoever about getting rid of two thirds of my entire wardrobe. In fact, I am sure I have created for myself a trail of unwanted garments going up to the Brisbane airport just like Seeta did, with her ornaments, when she was abducted by the cruel Ravana. So having a device that is handbag-friendly and can hold eight kilo worth of knowledge in paper, without making you sweat and panic is indeed a blessing for me.

I went back to Charles Dickens after about ten years. I read his books with a great adolescent appetite. Now I realize, most of it was just to put a 'Dickens Flag' on my "well-read-ness". The first book I chose to read this time is 'Great Expectations', and I cannot imagine how the seventeen year old in me could have appreciated it. Apart from the fact that I was immensely touched by the character Biddy, I think I missed most of the then-intangible and now-evident subtleties in the book.
I was drawn to this book again because of its mention in Amartya Sen's 'Idea of Justice'-- a highly academic yet refreshingly enlightening piece of work (which can only be ingested 10 pages at a time for someone like me). In his opening chapter Sen quotes none other than Pip from Great Expectations.
Pip is very sensitive to injustice and in one of his honest musings in the book, he says,

"In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice." Outwardly this seems like an obvious statement. Only upon reflection do you realize its perspicuity.Every adult, I guess, has a child in them that can go back and relive the grossest form of childhood injustice that was inflicted upon them.

When talking about the crystallization of memories, Dickens again makes me reflect when he says,
"Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day"
In his descriptions of an unfortunate orphan's thoughts, Dickens has planted carefully, these meandering memory lanes that invite everyone, no matter where they come from.

When little Pip goes away to town to play at Miss. Havisham's, he comes back feeling inferior about himself. The life that he has lived to that moment has never been labeled as 'common' or 'coarse' or 'low'. But fighting with this feeling of isolation, he wonders (and it brought tears to my eyes),
It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home. There may be black ingratitude in the thing, and the punishment may be retributive and well deserved; but that it is a miserable thing, I can testify.

When the utterly discontented and ashamed Pip begins work as an apprentice for his innocent mentor Joe, and his conscientious admission,
I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me, was something again that seems remarkably universal. The last three adjectives 'restlessly', 'aspiring' and 'discontented' make the sentence read as if it has been both conjured and meditated upon!

When the wise old Biddy talks to Pip about his attraction to the pretty and temperamental Estella, in one of their tender moments of truth, her words have been weighed and calculated to reflect and hide so many emotions:
..because, if it is to spite her, I should think-- but you know best--that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think--but you know best--she was not worth gaining over
I realize the significance of the 'you-know-best' now. It is such a subtle expression, yet without those you-know-bests, I don't think those lines would have so much meaning!

There is much more that I can add to this but I would like to leave the obvious for you to find out!