Saturday, February 11, 2012

Another View of Dickens

Dickens has been analyzed by critics as far removed from one another as G. K. Chesterton and T. A. Jackson; celebrated for his jollity, his story-making, his gallery of characters, his reformism. Shaw acknowledged a debt to Dickens; Mr. Edmund Wilson (who has a weakness for Victorians) thinks him one of the greatest ever. One opinion more or less should not make much difference: this writer's view is that Dickens was not an outstanding writer, and that his real importance lies in his relationship with the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

He was a novelist of urban life, a product of the cleavage between town and country which was made definite in the early nineteenth century. As with every other novelist of his time, his approach was individualistic; the main outline of his stories followed the pattern set by Fielding, Smollett and Richardson — a collection of incident, as David Cecil says, "clustering round the figure of a hero, bound together loosely or less loosely by an intrigue and ending with wedding bells." (Early Victorian Novelists). Whether Dickens is glorifying the good old pre-Victorian days of coaching, taverns and innocent jollity, or criticizing the imperfections of the world he knew, it is all done through highly individualized persons and never by direct reference to society.

Dickens's reformism was neither political nor sentimental. Pure and simple, it was fear of the masses. From the mob scenes of Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities to the ghost's cry in A Christmas Carol—"I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased "—Dickens begged the middle class to see that, unless better were provided for the poor, they would revolt. And bang would go the cosy middle-class dinners which were Dickens' favourite myth (and are still his devotees'). George Orwell has pointed out that Dickens never penned a decent picture of a working man, and his essay The Ruffian is a remarkably un-Dickensian piece of vindictiveness. Here it is, on what to do with criminals:

"Why is a notorious Thief and Ruffian ever left at large? He never turns his liberty to any account but violence and plunder, he never did a day's work out of gaol, he never will do a day's work out of gaol. As a proved notorious Thief he is always consignable to prison for three months. When he comes out, he is surely as notorious a Thief as when he went in. Then send him back again ... I demand to have the Ruffian kept out of my way, and out of the way of all decent people."

Benevolence was Dickens's ideal: the benevolence of rosy-cheeked, cheery old gentlemen, generous with handouts, amiable to children, beloved of their employees. Beginning from simple dislike of Victorian mobs and institutions, his line of thought developed first to deploring institutional human behaviour and then to investigating human nature itself. His later work is a near-frenzied posing of the "good" against the "bad" in man, and the final unfinished novel, Edwin Drood, is imbued with that obsession—the same which went toward Jekyll and Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Grey.

-from an article on Marxism and Literature by R. Coster in Forum, March 1956

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