Charles DickensCharles Dickens
Dickens has always presented problems for literary criticism. For theorists whose critical presuppositions emphasize intelligence, sensitivity and an author in complete control of his work the cruder aspects of his popular art have often proved an insurmountable obstacle, while for the formulators of traditions his gigantic idiosyncrasies can never be made to conform. If difficulties such as these have been overcome by the awareness that Dickens sets his own standards, there remains a further problem: his won lifetime Dickens has invariably seemed as much an institution as an individual. The institution of the ?Dickens of Christmas’, celebrated by Chersterton. The change may perhaps be defined by suggesting that it is now becoming increasingly necessary to insist that he was. Dickens’s art was at once varied and constant; if themes, emphases and preoccupations developed towards the ultimate pessimism of Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend, it is important to remember that Flora Finching and her aunt are cousins, not far removed. When he collapsed in 1870, having almost completed the sixth instalment of Edwin Drood, the manner of his death was peculiarly appropriate: his audience were left in the state of anticipation to which he had accustomed them, but this time there was to be no resolution.
In the nineteenth century the writing of novels emerged from a permitted indulgence to an acceptable career. It is customary to think of Dickens as a critic of much of the Victorian ethos, but whatever reservations the novels may express about self-aggrandizement, no career could demonstrate the ideal of the self-made man more effectively than his own. The facts of Dickens’s early life have been rehearsed frequently enough and there is little need to recount them here other than to emphasize the extent to which Dickens, the chronicler of afflicted children, saw in his own childhood the archetypal experience of the child frustrated by the pressures of an urban and commercialize environment. The account of his childhood employment in the blacking-shop, which he gave to his biographer Forster, has often quoted:
The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing way passing away from me, never be brought back any more, cannot be written. My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life. (John Froster, The Life of Charles Dickens, Bk. I, ch. 2)
Dickens is self-indulgent in this reflective mood, but the complaint is supported by the facts, and the tone of the passage, especially of its conclusion, was to be transmuted to the tone of David Copperfield and Great Expectations.
A glance through the list of novels shows the extent to which Dickens’s life was dominated by the demands of authorship, for apart from the gaps between the last three items there is scarcely an unproductive year. When one considers how each of the novels appeared in either weekly or monthly instalments, and that they were supplemented by short stories and occasional journalism, as well as, from time to time, the duties of an editor, it can fairly be said that Dickens’s literary activity over a period of more than thirty years was uninterrupted.
Serial publications thus posed its own technical problems and to a large extent dictated their solution. It had the effect of intensifying the relationship between the author and his audience to a degree that can perhaps be compared with the oral narrative poem of the Elizabethan stage. Tome some novelists, the need to tailor their novels to popular demand was a source of irritation. More than technical issues were at stake. In two vital areas audience-demand was a controlling factor over the content of exploitation of sentiment.
The emphasis on the pathetic can be attributed to some extent to popular demand: it is well know that at the time of writing The Old Curiosity Shop Dickens received numerous letters on the fate of his heroine. What must also be stressed are the powerful elements of sentimentality and morbidity in Dickens’s own character that enabled him to respond to this aspect of popular taste. Little Nell was the fictional parallel of Dickens’s sister in law Mary Hogarth, over whose early death he had grieved inconsolably. She became more that a figure of fiction to her creator, however: approaching the climax of The Old Curiosity Shop Dickens told Forster,
All night I have been pursued by the child; and this morning I am unrefreshed and miserable.’ (Forster, op. cit., Bk II p.7)
Dickens’s readings from his works show clearly the way that he wished not only to gratify his won emotional needs in his fiction, but also to witness the effect on his audience. With the comic scenes, he liked to include in his programs the most affecting or disturbing passages from the novels- the death of Paul Dombey, the Bob Cratchit scenes from A Christmas Carol, -and he measured his success by the degree of emotional response that he could exact from an often weeping audience. In a revealing letter to his wife, describing a private reading, he wrote:
?If you had seen Macready last night, undisguisedly sobbing and crying on the sofa as I read, you would have felt, as I did, what a thing it is to have power.’ (Quoted in E. Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, 1953, p. 532)
Even he can hardly have been aware of the full implications of the form for the development of his art.
Much has been written of his comic technique, but his letters reveal very clearly that the source of his comedy was not a conscious technique, but a combination of vision and expression that was habitual to him.
The origins of Dickens’s literary career can be traced to his early employment as a journalist. This work took him first to the Law Courts, including the Court of Chancery, and then to Parliament, and his contempt for these institutions, evinced most powerfully in Bleak House but reappearing consistently throughout his work, is based on the first-hand knowledge of them that he gained at the outset of his career.
The world of Pickwick Papers, is not simply the world of Dingley Dell and Eatanswill, neither is its total effect as disjointed, as its loosely constructed technique would perhaps imply. The novel is given shape both by a subtle development in the character of Pickwick himself and by the way in which its thematic concerns, most notably in the sequence of events involving Pickwick and the law, have the common element of an attack on inhumanity and selfishness. As Pickwick becomes more deeply involved with the legal process, described as an instrument for ?the torture and torment of his majesty’s liege subjects’ and ?the comfort and emolument’ of its practitioners, there is an increasingly serious edge to the comedy.
The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, cab be considered as a pair in that they appeared in quick succession in a periodical of his own devising, as distinct from the other early novels, they involved a more hectic process of composition, appearing in weekly instead of monthly instalments. The very factor that was responsible for The Old Curiosity Shop’s compulsive effect on Dickens’s contemporaries, his treatment of the life and death of the heroine Little Nell, has led to its notoriety with succeeding generations. Edward FitzGerald copied out all the parts of the book that involved Little Nell herself.
In 1842, Dickens visited America as a literary celebrity. The visit began auspiciously enough, but despite his appreciation of the lavish hospitality of his host Dickens could not resist the opportunity to refer repeatedly in his public pronouncements to the vexed issue of international copyright, and in particular to the pirating of English works by American publishers. While undoubtedly in the right, as ever he lacked discretion and the result was a series of attacks on him in American newspapers for which he, in return, exacted revenge, at first mildly in his American Notes, published in 1842, and then more vehemently in the American sections of his novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. This novel is not only memorable for its comedy, but in its variety of scene it achieves considerable atmospheric complexity and in its London scenes in particular it suggests that sense of the density of urban experience that was to become the hallmark of the later novels. When Pecksniff brings his daughters up to town be brings them to an exciting new world of
…steeples, towers belfries, shining vanes and masts of ships: a very forest. Gables, house-tops, garret-windows, wilderness upon wilderness. Smoke and noise enough for all the world at once.
To the onlooker, however, the scene becomes one of menace:
The tumult, swelled into a roar; the host of objects seemed to thicken and expand a hundredfold; and after gazing round him, quite scared, he turned into Todgers’s again, much more rapidly than he came out…(ch. 9)
And when Mercy Pecksniff is inveigled into marriage with Jonas Cuzzlewit, who during the course of the novel becomes wife beater, murderer and suicide, the threat becomes reality.
Dickens’s concept of character is similarly uncomplicated: hence the optimism which they imply, which in itself is made more acceptable by the way in which they are distanced in time. He locates his action in the immediately contemporary world, most empathetically perhaps in Dombey and Son itself, with its constant reference to the railway.
To emphasize the extent of his social preoccupations in Bleak House Dickens deliberately contrived a dual-narrative in which the life-story of his heroine is interwoven with an extensive range of imaginative social documentation provided by the author himself. The effect is a subtle one-the novel gains stability from the progressive unraveling of ester’s story, while leaving Dickens free to expatiate on various examples of social abuse in the manner of his earlier picaresque method. The evils, which he attacks, are indeed related to the main plot, but the fact that the novel is deliberately compartmentalized in this way allows Dickens to extend his social criticism without limitation.
There is a further effect of the narrative method that is vital to an understanding of Bleak House. If *censored*ens supplies his analysis in what might loosely be called the picaresque section of the novel, his remedy is contained in the ?linear’ narrative of Esther’s life story, and in particular in its account of her relationship with Jarndyce, the father-figure of the novel, who know the ways of Chancery and constantly asserts the futility of opposition.
The unrealistic nature of Jarndyce’s role in Bleak House is an expression of pessimism about the prospects of social change a intense as any expressed by the social analysis itself; in that Ester’s narrative is ostensibly, the dual-narrative method can be seen as enabling Dickens to put toward solutions to the problems outlined n the novel which he could scarcely have endorsed in rational terms.
The reservations expressed by some of the reviewers about the social stance adopted by Dickens in his later novels seem not to have been reflected in his general popularity. He was elected to be able to claim that Edwin Drood was meeting with more success than any of its predecessors. His death, like that of Tennyson, the other great Victorian writer to become an institution in his won time was an occasion for national mourning; a special train conveyed his coffin from Gad’s Hill to London for its interment in Westminster Abbey. Like Shakespeare, *censored*ens worked in a popular medium at a time when it was becoming the predominant literary form and like Shakespeare, he enriched it through the fertility of his imagination and the extent of his vision. In that vision, in even the darkest of the novels, remained fundamentally comic, I suspect that, where criticism has found him wanting, it is often because comedy, of its nature, presents particular problems for the moral certitude which criticism tends to embody. This in itself is a measure of Dickens’s greatness: like all great artists he forces us to reconsider the attitudes which we bring to art.
American History Essays