Saturday, January 28, 2006

I Keep Thinking about that Oliver Twist Moment

We encounter young Oliver as a rebel in the scene pictured below, when the little orphan approaches the master of the kitchen on behalf of his schoolmate to ask for more.

here's the scene as Dickens wrote it:

Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn't been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cookshop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel (r)per diem,� he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.

The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

"Please, sir, I want some more."

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.

"What!" said the master at length, in a faint voice.

"Please, sir," replied Oliver, "I want some more."

The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arms; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

The board were sitting in solemn conclave, when Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said,

"Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!"

There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.

"For (r)more!�" said Mr. Limbkins. "Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?"

"He did, sir," replied Bumble.

"That boy will be hung," said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. "I know that boy will be hung."

(go here to see an entire edition of the book online. It has a somewhat odd introduction by that troublesome and yet fascinating conservative Catholic British author, GK Chesterton.)

The episode speaks to me so as a parallel with the public reaction to the transit workers strike, and now no-vote, because of the rage that greets the request for "more" when it comes from a union member. "WHAT?!" The headlines of the papers seemed to scream, "THEY WANT MORE?!" Surely, "they will be hung," has been close to the conclusion that the press has drawn. It seems that no amount is too small to be "enough" and no request for "more" is small enough to be acceptable. "What?!- You want a decent pension with health benefits after you retire?"
"What?! You want bathroom breaks?"
Of course the Transit workers are not timidly begging for more and they are not recipients of even mean charity as Oliver was, but the moralistic horror of the bourgeoisie at the mere demand for MORE from the working class is, if anything, more dramatic in New York City over the transit workers and other union members' demands than in Dickens' most famous scene of the stereotypically myopic bourgeoisie.
Despite the horror! of the city's well heeled at the thought of another bout of conflict with the TWU local 100's workers....I think the workers are placing their faith in the support they hope for from the rest of the city's population. I promise a more substantial update tomorrow.

No comments: