Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)

Oliver Twist was the second book by Charles Dickens, and was the first one to portray a child in the main role. The book tells of the struggles of this boy, Oliver Twist, having been born in poverty and suffering through large sections of his life. The book also portrays an England of that time as a time of suffering for the poor (something that typically does not come through many historical books of that period, which concentrate on the richer class of society). Charles Dickens is acknowledged as an all-time great writer, with his portrayal of a life more than ordinary. His characters typically go through great suffering, physical and emotional; sometimes they come out trumps, and many times their condition does not really improve that much. Books by Charles Dickens are a must read for most English literature courses, and once you read the book (and get through the emotions, you realize that these are great books).

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Many of Charles Dicken's books were serialized in magazines, with a chapter appearing in each issue of the magazine. Similarly, Oliver Twist was published in monthly installments in a magazine called 'Bentley's Miscellany' (starting in February 1837 and through to April 1839), with a steel etching by George Cruikshank for every installment. The book has 2 very famous phrases - 'Please, sir, I want some more', and 'The Law is a Ass'.
The story is about this poor orphan (his mother died in childbirth and father was absent) called Oliver Twist, who is forced to spend the first 9 years of his life at a 'baby farm' run by a lady called Mrs. Mann, done under the auspices of a law called the Poor Law. In reality, he is brought up in a life of few, with bad conditions and inadequate food. Around his 9th birthday, he is removed from the poorhouse and sent to work in a place with inadequate food. There, through a draw of lots, he utters a line that angers the folks running the establishment, 'Please, sir, I want some more'. They decided to send him off with anybody who is willing to pay 5 pounds; Oliver manages to avoid being sent off with a chimney sweep, instead he is sent off with Mr. Sowerberry (who is an undertaker for the local parish). Mr. Sowerberry treats Oliver well, and this angers his wife who treats Oliver badly. Similarly, another employee Noah Claypole and the maidservant Charlotte also mistreat Oliver.
Eventually, Oliver attacks Noah after one insult too many, and after being punished for this, Oliver runs away, wandering aimlessly for some time before heading towards London. in the journey, he encounters a gentleman by the name of Jack Dawkins, and this encounter is liable to cause him many problems; Jack Dawkins is not called the 'Artful Dodger' for no reasons, he lures Oliver to a lair called Saffron Hill that is the headquarters for the criminal called Fagin. He sets out with Dodger and another boy once for 'making handkerchiefs' and realizes too late that their mission is to do pick-pocketing. They are chased, and only Oliver gets arrested. He only escapes prison when a witness clears him. He is taken in by an elderly gentleman called Mr. Brownlow who cares for him.
However, this is shortlived as Fagin gets him back with the help of an accomplice called Nancy; and he is forced to take part in a burglary. The burglary goes bad and Oliver gets shot, however, he is again saved when the occupants of the house take him in and care for him. By this time, Nancy wants to save Oliver. Things start turning bad when a new person called Monks (who wants to destroy Oliver) joins Fagin's gang. Nancy manages to protect him till her secret of trying to protect Oliver is revealed and her lover Sykes kills her, and is himself killed while escaping.
And then the secret of Monks is revealed; he is Oliver's half-brother and is searching for Oliver in order to destroy him (not searching out of any love, but more to destroy him). Monks makes up with Oliver reluctantly, and moves to America where he eventually dies in prison after reverting to crime. Fagin is also arrested and sentenced to death. And then things turn out better for Oliver, with finding his mother's half-sister in the form of Rose. He eventually lives happily ever after with Mr. Brownlow.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

1984 by George Orwell

This is an epic novel published in 1949 by George Orwell (real name, Eric Arthur Blair). The book is seen as a landmark work, used extensively for teaching, and also as an example of a Government and society heading on the totalitarian path. The book has had a tremendous effect on the mass culture dealing with the rights of individuals versus the tyranny of a Government that believes in keeping an eye on all its citizens, governing their thoughts and actions. The novel led to the popularity of many terms such as 'Big Brother', and 'Orwellian'. It depicted the horror of a society where the Government controlled all aspects of life, and knew everything about every citizen. Soon after, a state came into being where this concept was very close to being achieved. It was in East Germany, a state that had an extensive network of internal spies, and for whom it was claimed that fully a third of the population informed on other people.

1984 by George Orwell

The year is 1984, the place is called "chief city of Airstrip One", a part of the large region known as 'Oceania' (the place where the protagonist works is actually London, but a London that has been wracked by civil war after World War 2 and was eventually made a part of Oceania). Oceania is one of the 3 totalitarian states, the other 2 being that which was formed by the USSR, and the third from East Asia. Oceania is a territory or a country that runs through terror and a deep desire to control every citizen. Photos of the leader called 'Big Brother' are everwhere with the caption 'BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU'. Every place has a two-way television (the telescreen) in order to make suer that nothing is secret, and there can be no voices raised against the state (people believed to be working against the state are first re-educated so that they start to love the Big Brother, and then they are executed). In addition, society is divided into 3 separate classes: (i) the Inner Party, (ii) the Outer Party, and (iii) the Proles (upper, middle and lower classes, respectively).
The members of the Inner Party and Outer Party were subjected to a thorough control (with the Proles being deemed to be the worker class, with not much worry being given to whether they needed to be indoctrinated). In the midst of all this, you had the protagonist, Winston Smith. Winston works in the aptly named Ministry of Truth where his job is to modify all records such that the Government is always shown to be true (and this includes removing people from photos once a person is deemed to be a unperson). Winston had lost his parents in the civil war, and the English Socialism Movement ("Ingsoc") had raised him up. However, he was beginning to have his doubts about the system (even while knowing that if these thoughts ever got out, he would be re-educated and then executed).
He meets Julie, a mechanic in the Ministry of Truth. He feels in her a partner in his feelings, and they start having a secret affair (hopefully away from the watchings of the Ministry, which would have believed this affair to be a betrayal and akin to treason). However, they are soon caught, and sent off to re-education in the dreaded Ministry of Love. There, Winston is subject to monologues from O'Brien, a functionary of the Ministry. There you come face to face with the true horror - the Party has only one aim; it has to keep itself in power, and the only way it can do that is by breaking the traditional friend and family bonds a person has. The person can only have a bond with the party and with Big Brother.
In the despairing end, both Winston and Julia are re-educated. You get to feel the absolute sense of despair when you read about when they meet again, with no feelings for each other (not even anger at each other's betrayal). They are well and truly successful citizens of Oceania now.