Bildungsroman Smackdown: Dickens vs. Adiga

I read two books simultaneously recently:  Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.   Talk about a really fascinating juxtaposition!

Both are what you would call bildungsroman novels, meaning the plots  center around the development of a central character.  But talk about a brutal literary smackdown of  Victorian vs. Postmodern.  While others were staying up late watching the conclusion of the NCAA tournament, I was spending my sleepless nights biting my nails while these two novels traded punches with each other in my head.

Dickens’ is that of a poor kid who rises to fortune in Victorian England.

Adiga’s story is that of a poor kid who rises to fortune in modern day India.

But, from there, they take extraordinarily different turns.

Adiga’s protagonist, Balram, is unapologetically despicable, and rises to his fortune through murder, deceit.  You keep thinking, wishing, hoping for transformation – and he does: blacker and blacker.  Yet, there’s something about the rawness and cold reality of the character that keeps drawing you back to him and hoping – at least until the end.

Dickens’ character, Pip, rises to his fortune through the benevolence of another.  He is predictably – how can you say it? – a delinquent.   You clasp your fists and teeth in frustration at his choice, and want to pin him up against the wall by the collar, but eventually (predictably) he grows up.  Very, very classical.  And very, very predictable.

Yet, while the cynic (or is it Gen X?) in me is tempted towards the cold scientific realism of a character like Balram, somewhere deep inside lurks a classical romantic, who wants to believe in the ultimate redemption of the human condition.  And yes, I think I prefer to believe in fairy-tale princes over real monsters.  Call me naive.  I like optimist.

Don’t get me wrong, though, The White Tiger is a brilliantly contrived story, high on the social commentary, eminently believable and exceptionally well-written.  There’s a reason it won a Booker prize.

But, in this Bildungsroman smackdown, I’m going to have to proclaim Mr. Dickens and Pip the winners.  Or, at least that’s what I had to do to finally close my eyes and get a little sleep.

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