George Cruikshank's drawing of the Seven Dials area, a slum, for Sketches by Boz
November 9, 2014

The Dickens Page

Sketches by Boz

I think the earliest time I may have heard of Dickens was sometime between 1951 and 1958. If I remember correctly there was an episode of The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock in which Andy Devine's character, Jingles, proclaims to some Eastern schoolmarm, I don't like Dickens. Now the schoolmarm's taste in literature is seldom to be trusted, and schoolmarms, even in their latter day incarnation as professors, are prone to hypocrisy, but should the opinion of a character on a television program influence a child's opinion of an author? Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. The next encounter with Dickens came in 1960–1 when we had to read Oliver Twist. I remember being horribly bored by it, and repulsed by Dickens' sentimentality, which is not my sentimentality at all. The next time came in graduate school (Spring 1972) when I had to read Dombey and Son for a course in The English Novel. I never finished either Oliver Twist or Dombey and Son. I did, finally, finish a Dickens novel when I read Hard Times in the 1990s. So Dickens and I have a long history of not getting along.

Nevertheless, for some reason I decided to buy as much of Dickens as I could in the Penguin Classics editions. I have it in mind to read as much Dickens as I can stand, and to read him more or less in publication order. So, while I'm not going to pursue this as intently as I did the St. John's reading list, I'm going to get off to a start with Sketches by Boz, his first book.

It's been a while since I started the book, so rather than giving a detailed summary of the book, which is, as the title indicates, a series of sketches of scenes and people around London, I propose to comment on various aspects of the book, and possibly some scenes that stick in the mind.

Style—One thing that is noticeable is the accumulation of detail in series that seem to go on forever. In the section of Our Parish, the first major section of the book, we find this:

The little front parlour, which is the old lady's ordinary sitting-room, is a perfect picture of quiet neatness; the carpet is covered with brown Holland, the glass and picture-frames are carefully enveloped in yellow muslin; the table-covers are never taken off, except when the leaves are turpentined and bees'waxed, an operation which is regularly commenced every other morning at half-past nine o'clock - and the little nicknacks are always arranged in precisely the same manner.”*


Dickens is not the only 19ᵗʰ century writer to indulge himself in long serial formations. In the Origin of Species Darwin describes the mistletoe:
In the case of the mistletoe, which draws its nourishment from certain trees, which has seed that must be transported by certain birds, and which has flowers with separate sexes absolutely requiring the agency of certain insects to bring pollen from one flower to the other, it is equally preposterous to account for the structure of this parasite, with its relations to several distinct organic beings by the effects of ex- ternal conditions, or of habit, or of the volition of the plant itself.”*

* Quoted in The Role of the Will in Two Evolutionary Plays by Bernard Shaw, Thomas E. Hart, p. 19, retrieved from

Both of these give a sense of fullness and completeness. Dickens has fully described the sitting-room, and Darwin has fully exemplified the mistletoe. In Dickens the purpose is primarily, while in Darwin, especially in the Origin, the purpose is primarily demostrative, to lead one to a conclusion about the evolutionary forces acting on the mistletoe.

This serial piling up of detail can be used to great effect. In Faulkner's A Rose for Emily, the conclusion is one great piling up of detail about the surfaces upon which the dust has settled, until it finally reaches the horrific conclusion of what lies upon the bed.

Cigars—This is something which is minor, but striking. Most of us grew up in the cigarette era. Our mothers smoked cigarettes. Our fathers smoked cigarettes. It wasn't uncommon for us to be sent out to pick up a pack or two for our mothers and fathers. We wanted to smoke cigarettes. When I was in high school (1960–4) the high school had a smoking court that was reserved for seniors, and it was a privilege to hang out there. (I didn't smoke cigarettes, and while I smoked non-tobacco substances in the '60s, I never picked up the cigarette habit. In later years I've started smoking cigars every once in a while.) Either Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn or possibly both have, if I recall correctly, incidents of children smoking or trying to smoke, but my recollection is that it was pipes.

Dickens, however, has incidents of children, primarily boys, smoking cigars, which seems strange. While cigarettes were manufactured in France in the 1830s, the smoking of them in other countries appears not to have been popularized in other countries until the Crimean War of the 1850s.

Surrealism—Dickens is primarily a realistic writer, which is not to say that he's not a sentimental writer. He is. Very sentimental, though not so much so in the Sketches. He does have moments, however, in which he rises to the level of surrealism. For instance, in one sketch he imagines that a set of clothes belongs to one person. Now he doesn't really produce any evidence for this, so we have to accede provisional acceptance to this. He then imagines that he can tell the owner's whole social life, his rise, his fall, possibly even his demise, in the clothes in the pawnbroker's shop.

Newgate—One of the more memorable scenes is a visit to Newgate prison. Newgate housed the condemned, and Dickens records a visit to the condemned cell where three men who were due to be executed the following day. One received a commutation, and two others, who were jailed for homosexual offenses (non-violent), were executed in due course. Dickens here anticipates the thoughts of Fagin, in Oliver Twist, as he faces execution.

Irony—There are several instances, notably The Tuggses at Ramsgate and some of the other tales in which matrimonial adventurers or the upstart nouveau riche miscarry in their endeavours. In the case of matrimony the adventurer may start off intending to marry one girl, and wind up with another. There seems to be implicit here the notion that one girl is as good as another when it comes to marriage, and procuring wealth.

SentimentalityThe Black Veil and The Drunkard's Death both veer towards the sentimental. In the first a doctor is called upon to help a mother and her son. The second covers in a very few pages the course of a drunkard's life, his effect on his family, driving one son to emigrate to America, another into banditry, and forcing his daughter into a life of poverty and death by tuberculosis, before dying himself.

Overall the Sketches are more realistic than sentimental, or at least are not as mawkish as I remember Oliver Twist and Dombey and Son as having been.

Next up, I'll be doing Ulysses by James Joyce. Normally I don't blog about books that I've read before, and I've read Ulysses at least twice before. Once in high school, when I was 15 or 16, and some thirty years later in 1991 while I was on vacation in the Cayman Islands. I ran into one guy at my high school reunion who confessed that while he was an English major that he'd never read it, another acquaintance, also a high school classmate, has never read it, and an acquaintance who is getting her Ph.D. at Catholic University has also had problems with it, so I'm more or less reading it to inspire it to them join in.

General Remarks

This originally had a different title and URL, but I've decided to consolidate all of the Dickens books onto a single page rather than creating a new page for each. Consequently, I've left some of the original material, such as the traditional next up paragraph intact.

As of this date, (June 26, 2015), I've read Sketches by Boz, Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist,, and a little over 500 pages, out of 770±, of Nicholas Nickleby. As I read more, I'll blog about them here.


Some people like to make a distinction between genre novels, which they see as plot driven, and literary novels, which are light on plot, and heavy on other elements. Joyce, Faulkner, and some other writers are literary while Hemingway, Clancy, Pearl Buck, and some others write plot driven novels, and are more or less genre novelists. Now I think that's a silly distinction, and I read both literary, plotless, novels, and highly plotted novels with equal pleasure.

The point about plot, however, is that a bare telling of the plot of a play or novel should be sufficient to cause some movement of emotions. Aristotle speaks to this when he says that simply recounting the plot of Oedipus should cause the hearer to experience horror. Aristotle considers plot to be of two types, simple and complex, with the complex being the better of the two. The complex plot has either, or sometimes both, elements of reversal (peripateia, περιπέτεια), or recognition (anagnorisis, ἀναγνώρισις).

Now when Aristotle refers to reversal, I believe that he's talking about reversal of circumstances, such as Oedipus going from king to beggar, and not to conversion, such as St. Paul on the road to Damascus, which is also known by the Greek term metanoia. Now Pickwick is not heavily plotted. It is more a series of incidents that happen to the members of the club. Oliver Twist, however, is more heavily plotted, and uses both recognition and peripateia. The recognition is primarily through the objects that belonged to Oliver's mother. The peripateia is more complex, and affects more characters. In some cases, such as Oliver's you have a bit of a roller coast.

  1. Oliver is born in the workhouse.
  2. Oliver is taken in by Fagin. Arguably this is a downward movement, and represents the lowest that Oliver will ever go.
  3. Oliver is rescued by the Brownlows. This is a rise in social status for Oliver, and is the first upward instance of peripateia.
  4. Oliver is taken by the gang, and forced to rob a house. Here Oliver is at bottom again.
  5. Oliver is nursed by the Maylies, and becomes part of the family. This is as high as Oliver goes, and he experiences no further reversals.
The evil characters experience a more gradual slide into decline with Bill Sikes and Fagin hitting an absolute bottom (death by hanging, accidental in one case, execution in the other). The others wind up being transported, or becoming police informers, and in one or two cases undergoing actual reformation.

Virgins and Whores

Poststructuralists and postmodernists like to make a big todo about binary oppositions, and one such might be the infamous Madonna/whore complex that supposedly divides women into either good girls, i.e., virgins, and bad girls, whores. Now I was tempted to say that Dickens does that, but it's not a simple straight line proposition. Nancy, in Oliver Twist is a prostitute, but she is moved by Oliver's plight, and is conceivably on her way to redemption. Oliver's aunt Rose Maylie, a girl about Nancy's age, is a virgin. Other women, however, are not on the whore/virgin line, but branch off from it. You have a variety of women in Dickens, some pleasant, such as the residents of the Brownlow and Maylie households, and some unpleasant, such as Mrs. Bumble. This holds true for the women in Nicholas Nickleby as well.


Pounds to Dollars
Pounds$ Low$ High
American readers of English novels frequently struggle with the English monetary system, and wind up asking themselves, How much is that in real money? Now the US didn't have a measure of inflation prior to 1913, but there was a constitutional provision that put us on the gold standard. Throughout most of our history that was $20 per ounce of gold. Gold is now trading in $1,100-1,200 range. The CPI was 10 in 1913, and now hovers around 240. So you have a dollar inflation of 60 at the high end, and 20-24 on the low end.

The British pound is currently trading at about $1.60, but up until WW II was about $4.95 for the pound. So at the time that Dickens was writing £4 = $19.80, or $20 in round numbers. So each British pound equals between $120 and $300.

The Pickwick Papers

Pickwick is Dickens first novel, and it is fairly plotless. There are several journeys out of London to locations that appear to be about 100 miles from London, but there is no sustained plot running throughout the novel. There is one villain, Mr. Jingle, but even he does not appear frequently, and he undergoes redemption at the end. Throughout the journeys you have the characters pausing to read other stories, or to be told other stories. These are frequently ghost stories, and one of them appears to be a fore-runner to A Christmas Carol. The most elaborate plot, and the least humorous, involves a lawsuit against Mr. Pickwick breaking off an imaginary engagement. He refuses to pay damages, and is placed in debtor's prison. This provides an opportunity for the sharpest social criticism that is in the novel, and also an opportunity for Pickwick's man, Sam Weller, to demonstrate his loyalty.

Oliver Twist

As I've said above I took an early dislike to this one, and didn't finish a Dickens novel until I was well into my 40s. I think what I found disgusting was the sentimentality of Oliver's rescues by the Brownlows and the Maylies. This time around I was less offended by the sentimentality than I was as a teenager. Such is the difference between almost 70 and age 15.

The plot is fairly complex, and relies on recognition through a variety of tokens. This is always somewhat problematic, especially when its some object extrinsic to person, such as a locket, or a letter. Dickens uses the a letter and a piece of jewelry as his recognition tokens.

More problematic than the sentimentality for me was the anti-semitism of the portrayal of Fagin. Dickens defended himself on the grounds that most of the people that were fences at the time were Jews. That may or may not have been true. It does get a bit wearying to hear Fagin constantly referred to as the Jew. It is in Fagin and the society of the boys that Dickens is most savagely ironic. For instance, her refers to Fagin as a merry gentleman and his references to Fagin's den have a similar kind of irony.

It is not specified whether Fagin is also a pimp, but in one passage Nancy says that she has been working for Fagin since she was half Oliver's age. Since Oliver is described as being 9 in one place, and 11 in another, he is somewhere within those age limits, and Nancy must have come to work for Fagin at 5 or 6. Dickens does not, in the novel, go into any description of child prostitution, but Nancy has been servicing customers for a dozen years, making her about 18 at the time of the novel.

Dickens is not overt about Nancy's prostitution. There is no passage in which he says explicitly that she is a prostitute, whore, harlot, hooker, or anything like that, but it is fairly obvious that she is on the game, in current slang. Dickens does have what at first appears to be a ribald joke. One member of Fagin's gang is a youngster named Charlie Bates. He is referred to several times as Master Bates. Readers with a fondness for Richard Pryor movies may remember similar references in the movie The Toy. However, the OED gives 1857 as the first occurrence of the word in written English. Prior to that, from the 17ᵗʰ century on, the word used for the activity was masturprate based on the Greek etymological elements.

Oliver's end comes when Fagin is hung, and his gang broken up. Oliver is integrated into the Maylie family, and moves into a middle class status. Establishing a middle class existence will play an important part in the next novel, Nicholas Nickelby as well.

Nicholas Nickleby

Nicklebyis about as long as Pickwick, and not quite twice as long Oliver Twist, and while it is still picaresque, like Pickwick, it is more heavily plotted than the first novel. The plot can be broken up into several parts:
  1. Nicholas loses his father.
  2. Nicholas is employed by Squeers.
  3. Nicholas on the road with Smike.
  4. Nicholas in the Crummles troupe.
  5. Nicholas in the Cheerybles employ.
Nicholas's employment as an actor/playwright/translator with the Crummles is the most Bohemian, creative part of his life, which he gives up for the sake of his sister Kate. The Cheerybles, who are instrumental in the resolution of the novel, are also middle class, benevolent gentleman, and it is to this station that Nicholas aspires.

Kate Nickleby has a similar arc marked by employment, but she moves from being a seamstress to being a lady's companion to a hypochondriac.

Dickens does wax somewhat sentimental in his descriptions of Kate, but the sentimentality is kept pretty well in control.

The Old Curiosity Shop

Capitalism and Asceticism

Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism makes the point that it is the Protestant insistence on delayed gratification, asceticism, that makes capital formation possible. The good Protestant forgoes pleasures, no matter how innocent, in order to be a steward of the goods bestowed upon him by God. He cannot, in the Presbyterian forms of religion, be sure of his salvation, so he takes worldly goods as a sign of God's benediction upon him, while at the same time he engages in commercial activity as a form of distraction from the question of his salvation. He is, as T. S. Eliot puts it distracted from distraction by distraction, and he regards this as a good thing.

Nell's grandfather has put money aside for her and her brother, but loses it, and loses it in a particularly foolish way.

Gambling and Foolishness

Nell's grandfather decides that he wants to enlarge the fortune that he is going to leave her, and he decides that he'll make money by gambling, particularly by card play. Now I don't really pretend to even novice status when comes to game theory, but poker, and similar card games are zero-sum games. The amounts lost by the other players exactly equals the gain of the winner. (A similar thing happens in football. The yardage gained by the Redskins exactly equals the yardage lost by the Cowboys.) In card games between friends, where there is no cut to the house, the ability to win depends not just on the cards dealt, but on the play of the cards. If you're dealt a hand without so much as a pair, which happens in poker about 17% of the time, you need to be able to calculate the probability of improving your hand by drawing one or more cards from the deck. On the other hand if you're holding a straight flush, say for example the one shown in Wikipedia, 7 through Jack of spades, you should know the probability of one of your opponents holding a royal straight flush (0.0032%).

It's not specified whether Nell's grandfather loses in a friendly setting or not, but lose he does.

In other forms of gambling the customer is worn down by the house percentage. There was a time when the mob ran numbers, and made a tidy profit doing it. The number was a three digit number that derived from some race, or transaction. There are a thousand possible numbers (000-999), so a dollar bet should earn a return of $1,000. However, the mob never paid off at the true odds, and always took a percentage. When I was growing up I heard that the payoff was 600 for 1. So given a large enough number of people placing wagers, the mob would make $400 for every $1,000 wagered. When the various states decided to get into the rackets they lowered the payoff to 500 for 1. Of course, there was decided advantage that you wouldn't go to jail for wagering with the state, but that was countered by the fact that it could be traced, and taxed. The house percentage is much smaller at roulette, but still, given enough time, the house will inevitably come out ahead.

Nell's grandfather's foolishness with money is equivalent to Lear's foolishness with his kingdom, and as we shall see drives both pairs to their doom.

Satanic Mills/Green and Pleasant Land

William Blake in at least one place mentions the dark, Satanic mills, while in another he mentions building Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land. The editor of The Old Curiosity Shop describes the journey that Nell and her grandfather undertake is being modelled on The Pilgrim's Progress. Nell and her father pass from the point of origin (London) to their ultimate destination (the life beyond, the Celestial City). In chapters 44 and 45 Nell and her father pass through an industrial city which is described in terms of fire and smoke. One of the nameless beings who inhabits the city dwells by the furnace fire, and has never seen it go out. In the eternity of the fire, and in the life spent in the presence of the fire there are hints of the infernal and the demonic. The man who Nell encounters is not totally demonic, and is even more of a victim than an agent of evil, and is marked by his kindness to Nell. However, Nell's goal is to escape from the city and to get to the country. Here is the land of rest. If Nell's journey has taken her from Limbo (London) through the outer circles of hell, it is in the industrial city that she reaches the depths of hell. I don't think that Dickens believed in Purgatory, but the city where Nell rests before her death would correspond to the Dantean Purgatory, and her death and ultimate passage to the next world, to Paradise.

Quilp's Death

Quilp is about to be arrested by the police, and flees from his warehouse. In the process his building is set on fire, and he falls into the river where he drowns. His death echoes the nightmarish city of Nell's journey, and the hellish aspect of the denizens of that city. The river, which could be a symbol of cleansing, but is not, drowns him, and deposits his body on a spot where pirates had been hanged. There is an underlying equation here of piracy and usury, Quilps crimes being those of a moneylender. However, even this is not enough retribution for Dickens, and a coroner's inquest determines Quilp to have been a suicide, and he is buried at a crossroads with a stake through his heart.

Nell's Death

Nell's death was mocked by Oscar Wilde, and it is true that Dickens is at his most sentimental here. Dickens is at pains to portray Nell as completely innocent, and almost immaculate. Now this is in line with Romantic notions, stemming from Wordsworth, and possibly Rousseau, of the innocence of the child. It runs counter, however, to earlier notions of Original Sin, and the fallen will, or later notions, post-Freudian, of childhood and sexual interest and the assorted complexes. In any case, it is distinctly Victorian, and Nell dies, probably of tuberculosis*, and is described as taken into heaven. So her death is counterpoint to Quilp's, and where he is damned, and buried with a stake through his heart, Nell is buried among flowers and trees, and is assumed into heaven.

* Tuberculosis, for a time, possibly because it was associated with the death of Keats at 25, was supposed to be a disease in which the person became more spiritual, more ethereal. By the end of the century it was no longer a fashionable disease, and was associated with poverty and filth.

Barnaby Rudge

Barnaby Rudge for some reason is not as popular as other Dickens' novels. It is not a comic novel such as Pickwick, nor is it as sentimental as The Old Curiosity Shop, and it doesn't have a romantic character who dies for the woman he loves as does A Tale of Two Cities. What it does have is a hero who is an idiot, or simpleton, though perhaps not so simple. It has an unsolved murder, and riotous bigotry.

The story opens on March 19, 1775, the 22ᵈ anniversary of a double murder that took place in a suburb of London. Some friends are sitting around a table at the pub when a man comes in, and his appearance prompts the telling of the story of that murder, of Reuben Haredale and of his steward, Barnaby Rudge, Sr. Rudge's wife and son, also named Barnaby, now live in London. Barnaby's constant companion is a raven, named Grip.

I don't want to summarize the plot of the novel, which you can find on Wikipedia and elsewhere, instead I'll make some general comments on the characters and the situation.

Barnaby—He's described as a simpleton and an idiot, yet it seems to me that when he speaks his sentences are too linguistically complex to be those of a genuinely retarded person. He is simple, and optimistic, perhaps best described as a fool. Perhaps he has something in common with Parsifal, the holy fool, or Dostoyevsky's Mishkin. William Blake said that "if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise." In a way Barnaby persists in his folly, which is wishing to become rich in order to lift his mother and himself out of poverty, and he does attain a certain amount of wisdom, as he faces execution.

Two ravens at the Tower of London.
Grip—is Barnaby's raven. He's loquacious, and prone to saying things like I'm a devil. I'm a devil, or telling Polly to put the kettle on. He's Barnaby's pet and friend, and while his utterances don't necessarily move the story along, he's an important character in his own right. Edgar Allen Poe wrote two reviews of Barnaby Rudge, a short one while it was in serial publication, and a much longer one, which I haven't read, when it was published in full. Poe evidently felt that the raven should have had a more prophetic role than he does in the novel. His own poem may well have been inspired by the Dickens novel.

Simon Tappertit—I suspect more people have seen the movie Rebel Without a Cause than have read Robert M. Lindner's book of the same name. The book is about the hypnoanalysis (psychoanalysis while under hypnosis) of a criminal psychopath imprisoned in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Lindner describes the psychopath as the man who is perpetually unsatisfied with things as they are. In Tappertit Dickens has given us a portrait of a man who is perpetually unsatisfied. He seeks satisfaction through a political movement, at first a union* of apprentices, and later through participation in the No Popery movement of Lord George Gordon. Simon's goal is power through these movements, but the power is again a means to the satisfaction of fairly primal urges.

* I say "union" simply to signify a group united for a common purpose. I believe the union movement as such developed in Britain in the 19ᵗʰ century.

Hugh—This character is a thug through and through. There is an early description of a theft, and a near rape. He takes a leading role in the riots.

Dennis—He's modelled on the real Edward Dennis, the hangman, and like the hangman is condemned to the gallows for his part in the riots. The real life hangman, however, was pardoned, and had the privilege of hanging his fellow rioters. The fictional Dennis is convinced that his profession is of great service to the state.

John Chester—When I first encountered him he was telling his son about how they had to live by their wits, as he had exhausted their fortune, and my first reaction was that he sounded like a character out of Shaw (Doolittle pere in Pygmalion, as one example), or Wilde (just about anybody in The Importance of Being Earnest), however, his model is Lord Chesterton's letters to his son. (Samuel Johnson described them as teaching "the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master.")

Joe Willet—is a fairly conventional hero. He runs away from his father and joins the army. He returns from America, where he was wounded at the battle of Savannah, and has lost an arm. He plays an important role towards the end of the book.

Gabriel Varden—A Protestant, but he, unlike his wife Martha, is not fanatical about it. Dickens is religious, but his religion, which is probably pretty standard CoE, is not fanatical in its dislike of Catholics, and he has no use for the people who spend money for the relief of slaves abroad, or who would ban liquor. He believes in helping the poor in Britain, and in an occasional dram or two. Gabriel Varden is of Dickens' party, and his wife Martha is much of what Dickens dislikes. Gabriel is seen in uniform as a member of a regiment of militia, and plays an important part in the novel.

Lord George Gordon—Dickens does not portray him as an evil rabble rouser, but as a well-meaning, but mistaken man. It's perhaps a great irony that having led a movement against one persecuted group, he, in both real life and the novel, converted to perhaps the most persecuted group of them all, and became a Jew. He died as a Jew, and Dickens records that he extended charity to all, regardless of faith.

The riots—The riots lasted a week, and did an enormous amount of damage. Several hundred people died in the course of the riots, and 19 people who were involved in the riots went to their deaths on the gallows. Dickens spends well over a hundred pages on the riots themselves, and his handling of the events is deft, and actually thrilling. Russian formalists like to refer to ostranenie, or estrangement, the way that a novelist makes things new and unfamiliar in order to achieve greater effectiveness. Some see Tolstoy doing this in his battle descriptions, such as the opening of Austerlitz. I don't think Dickens does this, or at least not in the same way that Tolstoy does, and his description of the riots, and their effects achieves its greatness because of its familiarity. What is unfamiliar, what is strange, or ostranenie is the aftermath of the riots, the blighted landscape, the head dissolved in molten lead. I think that I'll remember portions of the riots for the rest of my life, whereas not 5 years after reading War and Peace I recall very little of Austerlitz and Borodino.

In the course of the riots there is an episode in which Gabriel Varden is urged to sign a statement that he is sympathetic to the aims of the rioters, and is told to put up a sign saying No Popery over his doorway. Things like this may have really happened, but what is most immediately striking is the Biblical passage that it echoes. The Hebrews in Egypt are told to put lambs blood on their lintels that the angel of death may pass over their houses and spare their children. The No Popery sign serves the same purpose. Gabriel Varden, however, will have none of that, and destroys the statement, and refuses to put up the sign. Varden, at this point, emerges as a heroic character, in contrast to those who out of fear submitted.*

* There's a similar refusal in the 1955 version of de Mille's Ten Commandments in which Dathan (played by Edward G. Robinson) refuses to put lamb's blood on his house. Where Gabriel Varden is a hero, Dathan is a coward and a villain.

Several things are outstanding in the riot, and of interest in a wider political area:

  1. The politicians, particularly the Lord Mayor, refuse to take action against the rioters. The mayor is portrayed as weak, cowardly, and ineffectual.
  2. The citizens cannot rely on the military, or on the civil authorities for defense against the rioters. The privy councilors are afraid to order the troops to fire on the citizens. Dickens does not record any instances of citizens defending their lives or property against the mob by the use of firearms. That doesn't mean that they didn't, or that they couldn't, just that Dickens doesn't record those incidents, if they did.
  3. The property damage is high, but Dickens portrays the loss of a store/distillery that meant more than just the loss of a building, and a few casks of whisky and gin, it also meant the loss of jobs and livelihoods for the workers as well. Property crimes are never solely against property.
It's not much of a stretch to see contemporary parallels to the real, and the fictional, people in Barnaby Rudge. During hurricane Katrina the local authorities proved ineffective in evacuating the city, and in maintaining order. Something almost exactly similar to the Lord Mayor's actions in Barnaby Rudge happened in Baltimore in which the mayor held back police control of the riots. The citizens of London, whether they were part of a formally organized body or not, needed to protect themselves against the rioters. The London police force of the time, the Bow Street Runners, were not capable of protecting the citizens, just as contemporary LEOs* throughout the world are incapable of protecting their citizens from riots, natural disasters, and random acts of violence. As Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit likes to say, When seconds count, we're minutes away.§ Finally, as I've argued before property is not just about sitting back in your easy chair and counting your money, it's a means to an end, and one of those ends is the employment of others. Mr. Langdale's distillery is not only worth £50,000, or $6–$15 million in current US money, but also a source of employment for carters, distillers, and others. Striking at Mr. Langdale impoverishes not only him but also his workers.

* Law Enforcement Officer (LEO), for those not addicted to police procedurals on the tube.

§ My own experience is that not only do they take a while to respond, they also go to the wrong address. As I said at the start, it's not an overwhelmingly popular novel, but I rather like it.

American Notes

Dickens paid an extended visit to America at the start of 1842. At the time he was a celebrated author and received treatment that later generations would extend to visiting rock stars. I'm going to try to comment on each chapter, some very briefly, and some at greater length.

Martin Chuzzlewit

Dickens considered Martin Chuzzlewit to be an attack on selfishness. The editor, in her introduction, remarks that the characters are either inward-directed, towards self, or outer-directed, towards others. It's notable, and I believe that she remarks on it, that the selfish characters are also active, while the other oriented characters tend to be acted upon, and this is certainly the case with someone like Tom Pinch, who is remarkably passive and unassuming in his relations with Pecksniff. Young Martin takes violent action, deciding to leave Britain for America, but then spends much of his time there laid up with what appears to be malaria.

Tom Pinch, who is Pecksniff's servant, is in some respects the hero rather than young Martin, the titular principal. He is not without his own acquisitive desires:

But what were even gold and silver, precious stones and clockwork, to the bookshops, whence a pleasant smell of paper freshly pressed came issuing forth, awakening instant recollections of some new grammar had at school, long time ago, with 'Master Pinch, Grove House Academy,' inscribed in faultless writing on the fly-leaf! That whiff of russia leather, too, and all those rows on rows of volumes neatly ranged within—what happiness did they suggest! And in the window were the spick-and-span new works from London, with the title-pages, and sometimes even the first page of the first chapter, laid wide open; tempting unwary men to begin to read the book, and then, in the impossibility of turning over, to rush blindly in, and buy it! Here too were the dainty frontispiece and trim vignette, pointing like handposts on the outskirts of great cities, to the rich stock of incident beyond; and store of books, with many a grave portrait and time-honoured name, whose matter he knew well, and would have given mines to have, in any form, upon the narrow shell beside his bed at Mr Pecksniff's. What a heart-breaking shop it was! “There was another; not quite so bad at first, but still a trying shop; where children's books were sold, and where poor Robinson Crusoe stood alone in his might, with dog and hatchet, goat-skin cap and fowling-pieces; calmly surveying Philip Quarn and the host of imitators round him, and calling Mr Pinch to witness that he, of all the crowd, impressed one solitary footprint on the shore of boyish memory, whereof the tread of generations should not stir the lightest grain of sand. And there too were the Persian tales, with flying chests and students of enchanted books shut up for years in caverns; and there too was Abudah, the merchant, with the terrible little old woman hobbling out of the box in his bedroom; and there the mighty talisman, the rare Arabian Nights, with Cassim Baba, divided by four, like the ghost of a dreadful sum, hanging up, all gory, in the robbers' cave. Which matchless wonders, coming fast on Mr Pinch's mind, did so rub up and chafe that wonderful lamp within him, that when he turned his face towards the busy street, a crowd of phantoms waited on his pleasure, and he lived again, with new delight, the happy days before the Pecksniff era.”*

* Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, (London: Penguin, 1999) 78.

Note, however, the differences: Tom's desire is for the books as something of an ideal, but they are not something to be grasped at. Further, the children's books store up memories of past times when he was not associated with Pecksniff.

Tom is inactive in many respects, particularly in regard to his emotional life, and is unable to declare his love for his beloved. Eventually it will be sublimated into love and affection for her children.

Young Martin, to distinguish him from his grandfather, also named Martin, breaks his bonds in an emotionally violent way by abruptly declaring that he will go to America. He goes in the expectation that he will emerge in triumph, and never appears to consider that the life of the pioneer is tough, and that as many go down in defeat as emerge in triumph.

Dickens, in American Notes made some observations about American manners, such as spitting, the obsessive use of fix, the ravenous appetites, and other features of American life, but in the context of other things that were positive. In the present book though he has given all of the unpleasant things, and has only one positive American character, Mr. Bevan. Among his dislikes is what he sees as the American obsession with guns and other weaponry:

Mr Chollop was, of course, one of the most remarkable men in the country; but he really was a notorious person besides. He was usually described by his friends, in the South and West, as 'a splendid sample of our na-tive raw material, sir,' and was much esteemed for his devotion to rational Liberty; for the better propagation whereof he usually carried a brace of revolving pistols in his coat pocket, with seven barrels a-piece. He also carried, amongst other trinkets, a sword-stick, which he called his 'Tickler.' and a great knife, which (for he was a man of a pleasant turn of humour) he called 'Ripper,' in allusion to its usefulness as a means of ventilating the stomach of any adversary in a close contest. He had used these weapons with distinguished effect in several instances, all duly chronicled in the newspapers; and was greatly beloved for the gallant manner in which he had 'jobbed out' the eye of one gentleman, as he was in the act of knocking at his own street-door.”*

*Dickens, Martin, 492.

I'm not quite sure what kind of gunnery Mr. Chollop was carrying, but it appears to have been something other than a modern style revolver, such as the Colt Single Action Army from the the 1860s. I think part of the reason for Dickens dislike for the presence of weaponry stems from the fact that at the time Britain was a settled, stable country, and he carried the prejudices of someone from a stable society into an area where there was continuous conflict, and where policing was best done by yourself rather than by the police.

Martin is among those who are not meant to be pioneers, and who are defeated by the task. However, in the process he comes down with malaria, and his suffering, combined with the care of Mark Tapley, followed by Mark's illness and Martin's care for him, knock the selfishness out of him, and he emerges a better man.

Jonas Chuzzlewit is one of Dickens' most evil characters. He contemplates the murder of his father, and he does murder another character. The murder is unusual in that Dickens describes everything leading up to the murder, and then, in the next paragraph, the murder has happened, apparently occurring in the space between paragraphs. Richardson did something similar in Pamela in which Pamela's marital defloration occurs between paragraphs.

Pecksniff reappears in a rather different guise 90 years later as two characters in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead. Pecksniff is an architect, as are Peter Keating and Howard Roark in the later book. Like Keating he gets his values at second hand and uses the work of other men as his own, which is to say he commits fraud quite readily. He also has the moralistic preachiness of Ellsworth Toohey.

Now it's fashionable to condemn Rand and her works, and to rate her novels pretty low. I haven't read her novels for about 30–40 years, but my recollection is that they were enjoyable. Obviously I dissent from a good portion of her philosophy. Rand wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness, which I confess I haven't read, but based on her other books, that I have read, how would she respond to Dickens' novel?

Her evaluation of Pecksniff would have been negative, just as her evaluations of Keating and Toohey were negative, because of the fraud and the hypocrisy.

Now the Randian hero is frequently condemned because he's egotistical, and is a pseudo-Nietzschean übermensch, but another way to look at him may be as somewhat who self-actualizes, i.e., who is fully integrated and creative. In this respect all of the characters fall short to some degree or other, or they achieve self-actualization slowly, and only towards the end of the novel. Thus when Tom Pinch loses his illusions about Pecksniff he is able to act in more positive ways. Young Martin and John Westlock are both able to marry the women they love, and enter into successful careers as architects.

Now the problem with Rand's idea of selfishness is that it neither reflects the way people act, nor does it properly direct the way people should act. Rand's relatives did not enter into an exchange of values with her, the sine qua non of love as described in Atlas Shrugged, but took care of her after she arrived in the U.S. from Russia out of more or less altruistic reasons. Nor does it generate any rationale for courage, or any of the other virtues that are widely recognized.

Dickens novel exists within, as expected, the Christian world and the Christian system of ethics, though Pecksniff does have much in common with Randian villains.

Dombey and Son

About 40 years ago, or a little more, I took a class in The British Novel, and had to read Dombey and Son as part of the class. Back then I hated Dickens, and regarded him as overly sentimental and not quite my cuppa at all, not at all. I got through between 200–250 pages, and more or less gave up. This past week I read it again, and actually found it quite enjoyable. Some comments on the book:


The story starts with the birth of Paul Dombey, the younger son of Paul Dombey, Sr. His mother dies in giving birth to him, and he is put out to a wet nurse, Polly Toodles, who is referred to as Mrs. Richards.* Paul is well cared for by Mrs. Richards, but when he is about 6 months old he is out with Mrs. Richards, Florence (his sister), and Susan Nipper (Florence's maid), when Florence becomes separated from the group and is rescued by Good Mrs. Brown. When Mr. Dombey finds out about this incident Polly is dismissed, which deprives Paul of any resemblance of maternal love again.

* Her name is changed because Mr. Dombey doesn't like her name. She is referred to for most of the rest of the novel as Mrs. Richards, but her husband is still known as Toodles. I know. It doesn't make much sense to me either.

Paul grows up a bit, but is always very sickly. He is sent away to Brighton, and after some apparent recovery is placed in school. Dickens describes the school as forcing education upon the students, but it is not as bad as Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby, and the staff are relatively decent.

Dickens does not go into a lengthy description of Paul's illness, and I thought it might be anemia or leukemia rather than tuberculosis, but I appear to have been wrong. A search shows that it is most likely consumption/tuberculosis. This would be in keeping with Dickens' earlier work (Sketches by Boz, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop) in which Rose Maylie, Smike, and Nell suffer from consumption.

Paul dies a quarter of way into the book, at which point the interest becomes Florence's attempt to regain her father's love.


I've noted up
above that Dickens tends to view his young women as Madonnas, i.e., virgins. Florence is no exception to that, and tends to be viewed through that somewhat sentimental eye. Her maid, Susan Nipper, is in many respects more energetic, and more interesting than Floy. That having been said though one of the more moving passages in the book comes when Florence, or Floy, as she is also called, contemplates the little girls who have affectionate fathers. The contrast between her unrequited love for her father, and the mutual love between those other little girls and their fathers is very affecting.

Floy's most active, and most tragic moment, is when her father lashes out at her and strikes her upon her breast. Then she flees from the house, and becomes a bit more active in her pursuits.

Alice, Edith, & the Matrimonial Market

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Shaw's Man and Superman portray upper class women in pursuit of men. Both of the two girls in Wilde's play want to marry men called Earnest. Now this isn't exactly romantic love, but it's not fortune hunting either. In Shaw's play Anne is in pursuit of John Tanner. Tanner, however, has written a pamphlet in which he decries the marriage market and considers marriage as being something in the nature of prostitution in that the woman exchanges her sexual favors for economic gain. They were not the first to do so.

Edith, Dombey's second wife, is from a family that is a bit down on its luck. Not bankrupt, but not as rich as it once was. Edith expresses her relationship to Dombey in purely economic terms, a transaction in which she has been sold:

Who takes me, refuse that I am, and as I well deserve to be,' she answered, raising her head, and trembling in her energy of shame and stormy pride, 'shall take me, as this man does, with no art of mine put forth to lure him. He sees me at the auction, and he thinks it well to buy me. Let him! When he came to view me—perhaps to bid—he required to see the roll of my accomplishments. I gave it to him. When he would have me show one of them, to justify his purchase to his men, I require of him to say which he demands, and I exhibit it. I will do no more. He makes the purchase of his own will, and with his own sense of its worth, and the power of his money; and I hope it may never disappoint him. I have not vaunted and pressed the bargain; neither have you, so far as I have been able to prevent you.”

* Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, (London: Pernguin, 2002) 432–3.

Alice, Good Mrs Brown's daughter, appears to have been a prostitute, and was involved in a theft to which Mr Carker was party. She describes herself as being for sale, but does not believe that upper class women are similarly bought and sold for economic reasons.


While the Dombeys have two children their lower class servants servants and employees, notably Mrs Richards and Perch have many children. Mrs Richards has been separated from the Dombeys for six years in the time between her dismissal and Paul's death. In that time she has borne four children, one of who apparently died. Similarly Mrs Perch seems to be in a state of continual pregnancy whenever she is seen.

Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations commented on the relativity disparity in fertility between the aristocratic/upper class people and the poorer people. Dickens continues that observation, but gives no reason for it.

If there was a disparity in fertility between the upper (aristocracy, wealthy merchants, etc.,) and lower classes (small farmers, laborers, clerical employees, etc.,) there could be several explanations for the comparative infertility of higher classes. These range from infrequency of coitus, non-coital sex, contraception, to extramarital sex. In any case the relative paucity of children has the function, in society in which primogenture is a feature, of preserving estates for the male heir, and freeing the family of having to find careers for younger males, or multiple spouses for the female children.

Language & Style

Dickens manages to give each of his principal characters his or her own style. Mr Dombey is always stiff and formal, never intimate. Captain Cuttle is prone to mixing up parts of the Bible and muddling quotations. Mrs Skewton, Edith's mother seems to have trouble with nouns both common and proper. This leads to her mangling perhaps the most famous Koranic quote of all: there is no What's-his-name but Thingummy, and What-you-may-call-it is his prophet!'

*Dickens, Dombey, 420.

I'm not sure why, but my reaction to her inability to come up with the word God was quite hostile. Major Bagstock is another character with peculiar linguistic habits. He continually refers to himself in the third person, and usually manages to find and use several variants of his name in the same speech. This is called illeism, and can serve to distance the speaker from himself. In Bagstoch's case it seems to be eccentricity, but his continual repetitions of his name seems to be a puffing up of himself in an attempt to make himself appear more important than he is.

There is a passage in Faulkner's A Rose for Emily in which he emphasizes and describes the contents of Emily's room through a series of prepositional phrases all beginning with upon. Dickens does the same thing in several passages. Here's some paragraphs from Carker's flight:

It was a vision of long roads, that stretched away to an horizon, always receding and never gained; of ill-paved towns, up hill and down, where faces came to dark doors and ill-glazed windows, and where rows of mudbespattered cows and oxen were tied up for sale in the long narrow streets, butting and lowing, and receiving blows on their blunt heads from bludgeons that might have beaten them in; of bridges, crosses, churches, postyards, new horses being put in against their wills, and the horses of the last stage reeking, panting, and laying their drooping heads together dolefully at stable doors; of little cemeteries with black crosses settled sideways in the graves, and withered wreaths upon them dropping away; again of long, long roads, dragging themselves out, up hill and down, to the treacherous horizon.

“Of morning, noon, and sunset; night, and the rising of an early moon. Of long roads temporarily left behind, and a rough pavement reached; of battering and clattering over it, and looking up, among house-roofs, at a great church-tower; of getting out and eating hastily, and drinking draughts of wine that had no cheering influence; of coming forth afoot, among a host of beggars—blind men with quivering eyelids, led by old women holding candles to their faces; idiot girls; the lame, the epileptic, and the palsied—of passing through the clamour, and looking from his seat at the upturned countenances and outstretched hands, with a hurried dread of recognising some pursuer pressing forward—of galloping away again, upon the long, long road, gathered up, dull and stunned, in his corner, or rising to see where the moon shone faintly on a patch of the same endless road miles away, or looking back to see who followed.

“Of never sleeping, but sometimes dozing with unclosed eyes, and springing up with a start, and a reply aloud to an imaginary voice. Of cursing himself for being there, for having fled, for having let her go, for not having confronted and defied him. Of having a deadly quarrel with the whole world, but chiefly with himself. Of blighting everything with his black mood as he was carried on and away.

“It was a fevered vision of things past and present all confounded together; of his life and journey blended into one. Of being madly hurried somewhere, whither he must go. Of old scenes starting up among the novelties through which he travelled. Of musing and brooding over what was past and distant, and seeming to take no notice of the actual objects he encountered, but with a wearisome exhausting consciousness of being bewildered by them, and having their images all crowded in his hot brain after they were gone.

“A vision of change upon change, and still the same monotony of bells and wheels, and horses' feet, and no rest. Of town and country, postyards, horses, drivers, hill and valley, light and darkness, road and pavement, height and hollow, wet weather and dry, and still the same monotony of bells and wheels, and horses' feet, and no rest. A vision of tending on at last, towards the distant capital, by busier roads, and sweeping round, by old cathedrals, and dashing through small towns and villages, less thinly scattered on the road than formerly, and sitting shrouded in his corner, with his cloak up to his face, as people passing by looked at him.

“Of rolling on and on, always postponing thought, and always racked with thinking; of being unable to reckon up the hours he had been upon the road, or to comprehend the points of time and place in his journey. Of being parched and giddy, and half mad. Of pressing on, in spite of all, as if he could not stop, and coming into Paris, where the turbid river held its swift course undisturbed, between two brawling streams of life and motion.

“A troubled vision, then, of bridges, quays, interminable streets; of wine-shops, water-carriers, great crowds of people, soldiers, coaches, military drums, arcades. Of the monotony of bells and wheels and horses' feet being at length lost in the universal din and uproar. Of the gradual subsidence of that noise as he passed out in another carriage by a different barrier from that by which he had entered. Of the restoration, as he travelled on towards the seacoast, of the monotony of bells and wheels, and horses' feet, and no rest.

“Of sunset once again, and nightfall. Of long roads again, and dead of night, and feeble lights in windows by the roadside; and still the old monotony of bells and wheels, and horses' feet, and no rest. Of dawn, and daybreak, and the rising of the sun. Of tolling slowly up a hill, and feeling on its top the fresh sea-breeze; and seeing the morning light upon the edges of the distant waves. Of coming down into a harbour when the tide was at its full, and seeing fishing-boats float on, and glad women and children waiting for them. Of nets and seamen's clothes spread out to dry upon the shore; of busy sailors, and their voices high among ships' masts and rigging; of the buoyancy and brightness of the water, and the universal sparkling.

“Of receding from the coast, and looking back upon it from the deck when it was a haze upon the water, with here and there a little opening of bright land where the Sun struck. Of the swell, and flash, and murmur of the calm sea. Of another grey line on the ocean, on the vessel's track, fast growing clearer and higher. Of cliffs and buildings, and a windmill, and a church, becoming more and more visible upon it. Of steaming on at last into smooth water, and mooring to a pier whence groups of people looked down, greeting friends on board. Of disembarking, passing among them quickly, shunning every one; and of being at last again in England.

*Dickens, Dombey, 835–7.

Note the repetition of the old monotony of bells and wheels, and horses' feet, and no rest, which seems to give the passage added force, emphasis, and speed. Dickens has done this before in Dombey, and he uses a similar piece of repetition in the chapter Retribution in which there is a periodic refrain that the rats have fled from the house. This can be taking in at least two ways, that Dombey and Son, a shipping firm, is itself a sinking ship, and secondly that the departure of the servants, described in that chapter, is itself a form of rats deserting a sinking. In either case it imparts added force to the narrative.

David Copperfield

The Hero

David Copperfield opens with this statement:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.”*

* Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, (London: Penguin, 2004) 14.

George Bernard Shaw in his Epistle Dedicatory to Man and Superman says this:
The comparison between Falstaff and Prospero is like the comparison between Micawber and David Copperfield. At the end of the book you know Micawber, whereas you only know what has happened to David, and are not interested enough in him to wonder what his politics or religion might be if anything so stupendous as a religious or political idea, or a general idea of any sort, were to occur to him. He is tolerable as a child; but he never becomes a man, and might be left out of his own biography altogether but for his usefulness as a stage confidant, a Horatio or "Charles his friend" what they call on the stage a feeder.”

* George Bernard Shaw, xxx, (xxx: xxx, xxx) xxx.

Is Shaw's criticism justified? Shaw is interested in a particular kind of artist, whom he calls the artist-philosopher. Now while this may include people such as the Greek dramatists, it would effectively exclude Plautus and Terence, neither of whom, to my recollection exhibit any specific philosophical bent. Many artists evince no particular religious or political agenda. As to David's religious or political ideas I think those are more or less along the lines of Anglican Christianity, decidedly non-evangelical, and for better treatment for the workers and the poor. Somewhere along the liberal-radical axis of the 19ᵗʰ century without crossing over into revolutionary communism, as it did in parts of Europe during the period after 1848.

Does David act, or is he more acted upon? As an infant and a child he's more passive, however, when he does act he breaks away from the Creakle's school, and strikes off for Betsy Trotwood's. He is an observer of Steerforth's relationship with Emily, and while repulsed by Uriah Heep is not active in bringing about Heep's downfall. That honour belongs first to Micawber, and then when Uriah is due to be transported to some unnamed person. He is active in his relationship to Dora, and to Agnes.

Whether he should be considered the hero of his own life is ultimately dependent upon how you regard the relationship of the author to the subject of the autobiography. David is witness to events to which he was not a participant, does that mean that he is not the hero of his autobiography or not?


Dora and Agnes, David's first and second wives, are opposites. Dora has been infantilized in her relationship with her father, and is incapable of performing her duties as a wife. Her failure at making a pudding* is symptomatic of hir incapacity as a housewife. She uses a cookbook that David bought her as a stand for her dog. She cannot do the bookkeeping to manage household expenses. She is finally incapable of providing a child and dies during her pregnancy.

Agnes, however, has taken care of her father, and she is a very grown up young lady, even when twelve year old David meets her for the first time. She is capable of cooking, sewing, maintaining the budget, and of bearing multiple children.

Language Again

David Copperfield is not as stylistically inventive as Dombey and Son, but Heep and Micawber each have their own style. Heep's is characterized by his constant profession that he is umble in which the dropped haitch functions as a linguistic marker of lower social status.

Micawber's speech is marked by a long, drawn out sentences which should be periodic, a sentence with the verb delayed until the end, but which peter out. The overall effect being largely comic.

There is also that piling up of detail through the loading on of prepositional phrases, the description of David's wedding to Dora being a good example:

A dream of their coming in with Dora; of the pew-opener arranging us, like a drill-sergeant, before the altar rails; of my wondering, even then, why pew-openers must always be the most disagreeable females procurable, and whether there is any religious dread of a disastrous infection of good-humour which renders it indispensable to set those vessels of vinegar upon the road to Heaven.

“Of the clergyman and clerk appearing; of a few boatmen and some other people strolling in; of an ancient mariner behind me, strongly flavouring the church with rum; of the service beginning in a deep voice, and our all being very attentive.

“Of Miss Lavinia, who acts as a semi-auxiliary bridesmaid, being the first to cry, and of her doing homage (as I take it) to the memory of Pidger, in sobs; of Miss Clarissa applying a smelling-bottle; of Agnes taking care of Dora; of my aunt endeavouring to represent herself as a model of sternness, with tears rolling down her face; of little Dora trembling very much, and making her responses in faint whispers.

“Of our kneeling down together, side by side; of Dora's trembling less and less, but always clasping Agnes by the hand; of the service being got through, quietly and gravely; of our all looking at each other in an April state of smiles and tears, when it is over; of my young wife being hysterical in the vestry, and crying for her poor papa, her dear papa.

“Of her soon cheering up again, and our signing the register all round. Of my going into the gallery for Peggotty to bring her to sign it; of Peggotty's hugging me in a corner, and telling me she saw my own dear mother married; of its being over, and our going away.

“Of my walking so proudly and lovingly down the aisle with my sweet wife upon my arm, through a mist of half-seen people, pulpits, monuments, pews, fonts, organs, and church windows, in which there flutter faint airs of association with my childish church at home, so long ago.

“Of their whispering, as we pass, what a youthful couple we are, and what a pretty little wife she is. Of our all being so merry and talkative in the carriage going back. Of Sophy telling us that when she saw Traddles (whom I had entrusted with the licence) asked for it, she almost fainted, having been convinced that he would contrive to lose it, or to have his pocket picked. Of Agnes laughing gaily; and of Dora being so fond of Agnes that she will not be separated from her, but still keeps her hand.

“Of there being a breakfast, with abundance of things, pretty and substantial, to eat and drink, whereof I partake, as I should do in any other dream, without the least perception of their flavour; eating and drinking, as I may say, nothing but love and marriage, and no more believing in the viands than in anything else.

“Of my making a speech in the same dreamy fashion, without having an idea of what I want to say, beyond such as may be comprehended in the full conviction that I haven't said it. Of our being very sociably and simply happy (always in a dream though); and of Jip's having wedding cake, and its not agreeing with him afterwards.

“Of the pair of hired post-horses being ready, and of Dora's going away to change her dress. Of my aunt and Miss Clarissa remaining with us; and our walking in the garden; and my aunt, who has made quite a speech at breakfast touching Dora's aunts, being mightily amused with herself, but a little proud of it too.

“Of Dora's being ready, and of Miss Lavinia's hovering about her, loth to lose the pretty toy that has given her so much pleasant occupation. Of Dora's making a long series of surprised discoveries that she has forgotten all sorts of little things; and of everybody's running everywhere to fetch them.

“Of their all closing about Dora, when at last she begins to say good-bye, looking, with their bright colours and ribbons, like a bed of flowers. Of my darling being almost smothered among the flowers, and coming out, laughing and crying both together, to my jealous arms.

“Of my wanting to carry Jip (who is to go along with us), and Dora's saying no, that she must carry him, or else he'll think she don't like him any more, now she is married, and will break his heart. Of our going, arm in arm, and Dora stopping and looking back, and saying, 'If I have ever been cross or ungrateful to anybody, don't remember it!' and bursting into tears.

“Of her waving her little hand, and our going away once more. Of her once more stopping, and looking back, and hurrying to Agnes, and giving Agnes, above all the others, her last kisses and farewells.”


Some of the characters are marked by their ability, or inability to handle money. Dora is an incompetent bookkeeper. Micawber is constantly hatching schemes or waiting for his ship to come in, which it never does. Though it may be that Micawber is meant to catch an outgoing ship, because when he emigrates he does well in Australia. Agnes is proficient at managing the household finances, which marks her as a good wife.

Micawber and Dora in their childishness both seem to foreshadow Skimpole in Bleak House, while Richard, in the latter book, seems to come from Nell's grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop. I'll have more to say about Skimpole and Richard in the entry for Bleak House.

Bleak House

Bleak House is Dickens longest novel, and it is one of his most complex. I can't do full justice to the novel. Some aspects of it that do stick out are the split narrative, charity, smallpox, Esther's self-perception, and various characters.

The Split Narrative

The story is told through narrators, an omniscient, third person narrator, who is absent whenever Esther is present. This narrator is capable of great effects that convey a cinematic grandeur, as in the open paragraphs:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.” *

* Charles Dickens, Bleak House, (London: Penguin, 1996) 13.

We zoom in from overhead and as we come closer we see, or think we see an ancient beast roaming the city streets, then he resolves into the London crowd and we see dogs, horses, men. The second paragraph piles up the details and emphasizes the fog, so we see things obscured.

Esther's voice is softer and more feminine:

I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever. I always knew that. I can remember, when I was a very little girl indeed, I used to say to my doll when we were alone together, "Now, Dolly, I am not clever, you know very well, and you must be patient with me, like a dear!" And so she used to sit propped up in a great arm-chair, with her beautiful complexion and rosy lips, staring at me—or not so much at me, I think, as at nothing—while I busily stitched away and told her every one of my secrets.”

*Dickens, Bleak, 27–8.

Esther is narrates the scenes in which she appears, while the omniscient narrator does the remaining scenes. While the omniscient narrator's voice is constant throughout I think Esther's voice shows some growth in emotional depth as her story proceeds. There is also the matter of her perception of herself, especially after she recovers from smallpox.


There is an old saying that Charity begins at home. Now that's frequently used in dramas by villains to justify their unscrupulous behavior, and yet it may well be that there's some truth in that observation. When Esther and Ada first arrive at the Jellybys' they encounter a multitude of children, and a house in disarray while Mrs. Jellyby is busy with charity work directed toward African natives. When they go to bed the following ensues:
'What a strange house!' said Ada when we got upstairs. 'How curious of my cousin Jarndyce to send us here!'
'My love,' said I, 'it quite confuses me. I want to understand it, and I can't understand it at all.'
'What?' asked Ada with her pretty smile.
'All this, my dear,' said I. 'It MUST be very good of Mrs. Jellyby to take such pains about a scheme for the benefit of natives—and yet—Peepy and the housekeeping!'”

*Dickens, Bleak, 58.

Dora in David Copperfield did not live to be a mother, and while she was not devoted to foreign charities, she was a bad housekeeper, and that was a major sin to David, and probably Dickens as well. Esther her points to something that she will make more explicit later on, that charity begins with the immediate circle of people around you, and then moves out to the greater world. Here is what she writes when she encounters Mrs. Pardiggle:
At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself. All this I said with anything but confidence, because Mrs. Pardiggle was much older than I, and had great experience, and was so very military in her manners.”

*Dickens, Bleak, 128.

Esther is deferential here, but by the end of her story will be quite a bit stronger.


Dickens' world was a world in which disease was rampant. There was a vaccine for smallpox, but polio, tuberculosis, diptheria, measles, and a host of other diseases had yet to have treatments or vaccines devised for them.

While tuberculosis features in Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, & Dombey and Son, and malaria in Martin Chuzzlewit, in Bleak House it's smallpox. Esther and Charley apparently catch it from Jo, the street sweeper. While its effects are not described as particularly bad for Charley, Esther describes the disease as marring her face. This leads to the question of Esther's self-perception.

Esther's Self-Percpetion

While Esther describes herself as scarred by the disease, no one else appears to react to her scarring with the exception of Guppy, who withdraws from a marriage proposal. There is one other minor reaction, which I cannot find now, but Guppy's withdrawal is the most noticeable. This raises the question as to whether Esther's perception of herself is realistic or not. It is also possible that the people in Esther's circle are tied to her by love, and genuinely do not notice, or care about the scars on her face.

The conclusion of the novel is ambiguous regarding the extent of her scarring:

'My dear Dame Durden,' said Allan, drawing my arm through his, 'do you ever look in the glass?'
'You know I do; you see me do it.'"My dear Dame Durden," said Allan, drawing my arm through his, "do you ever look in the glass?"
'And don't you know that you are prettier than you ever were?'
'I did not know that; I am not certain that I know it now. But I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent face that ever was seen, and that they can very well do without much beauty in me—even supposing—.'”

*Dickens, Bleak, 989.

Should this be taken to mean that Esther's scarring is at most superficial, possibly non-existent, or that something else is at play here? Dickens leaves it ambiguous.


Dickens reuses characters from previous novels, but recasts them in a different light. In Harold Skimpole we see Micawber's inability to handle money. However, Micawber is at least aware of what money is, and what it is used for. Skimpole is continuously saying that he has no idea what pounds, shillings, and pence are, and that he is a child in these matters. Inspector Bucket has a different, more sinister interpretation of Skimpole's character:
Whenever a person says to you that they are as innocent as can be in all concerning money, look well after your own money, for they are dead certain to collar it if they can. Whenever a person proclaims to you 'In worldly matters I'm a child,' you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person's number, and it's Number One. Now, I am not a poetical man myself, except in a vocal way when it goes round a company, but I'm a practical one, and that's my experience. So's this rule. Fast and loose in one thing, fast and loose in everything. I never knew it fail. No more will you. Nor no one. With which caution to the unwary, my dear, I take the liberty of pulling this here bell, and so go back to our business."”

*Dickens, Bleak, 875.

Skimpole does not come off as well as Micawber. Where Micawber is inept, which is innocent enough, Skimpole is more scheming. We would classify him as somewhere along the sociopathic/psychopathic line.

Richard Carstone shares the delusion that crushes Nell's grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop that he can get rich by speculation. Nell's grandfather chooses to gamble with cards, and Richard chooses to gamble with a court case. Both are uncertain, and the odds are against the individual player in each case. In Richard's case the only winners are the lawyers, who get exorbitant fees, and the chancery court, which gets equally enormous court costs. Anyone who has paid a traffic ticket can appreciate how absurdly high court costs are for a minor infraction, and how high they must run for major offenses.

Some critics contend that the novel is preachy and sentimental. There is some truth to that, but it is not as bad as they contend. 19ᵗʰ century sentimentality is not the same as our 21ˢᵗ century variety, and the preachiness, such as it is, frequently occurs in direct dialogue, or in descriptions of dialogue, such as Esther's response to Mrs. Pardiggle.

Overall it may be Dickens greatest novel, as has been said by others. That doesn't mean that it's my favorite, which I think is probably Nicholas Nickleby so far.

Hard Times

Cartoon from 1887 issue of Punch depicting a Gradgrindian schoolroom.
Hard Times is perhaps the Dickens novel with the most contemporary relevance, at least in terms of current educational debates. People in liberal arts are frequently asked, What are you going to do with that degree in art history? Although English, Comparative literature, philosophy, or anyone of the other liberal arts subjects could fill in for art history. It is frequently said that the educational system needs to focus on STEM over the soft subject matter of the liberal arts. Now this omits the fact that it is just as hard to understand, and just as important, to understand written and oral material as it is to understand Einstein's field equations. It also omits the fact that facts in themselves do not confer values.

Dickens opens with this statement:

‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’”

* Charles Dickens, Hard Times, (London: Penguin, 2003) 9.

This is Thomas Gradgrind's statement of educational principle. A bit later, in the opening of the second chapter there is an interesting description which anticipates two later books, one American, and one English:
Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir—peremptorily Thomas—Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all supposititious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind—no, sir!”

*Dickens, Hard Times, 10.

In 1929 the poet E. E. Cummings would publish a book of poems Is 5 in which he opposed the freedom of imagination to the hard mathematical reality advocated by the Gradgrindian school. In 1949 George Orwell has Winston Smith proclaim the truth 2 + 2 is 4 against the tyrannical fantasy of the party which believes that it can manufacture reality out of its own desires. Now Dickens obviously had no knowledge of his successors, but the book raises the problem of the relationship of imagination and fact.

When Sissy Jupe is asked to define a horse she is unable to do so, and Gradgrind turns to Bitzer:

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’ ‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer. ‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’ ”

*Dickens, Hard Times, 12.

In fact Sissy knows nothing about a horse from this definition. She does not know the shape of its head, how tall it is, how it is shaped, whether it has a tail. She does not know whether horses are gentle, loving and affectionate, easy to startle, need riding crops. She has no association of the horse with the talking horses of The Iliad, and their emotional resonance, or of Alexander's horse Bucephalus, or Caligula's horse Incitatus, or the horses of the heroes in Ariosto. Bitzer's definition of a horse really says nothing interesting or important about a horse. When Gradgrind finds Louisa and Tom at a circus he tells his wife: ‘And, Mrs. Gradgrind,’ said her husband in a lofty manner, ‘I should as soon have expected to find my children reading poetry.’*

*Dickens, Hard Times , 23.

Here we are at Plato's Republic with its banishment of the poets. Now Plato banished the poets because they were immoral, and told stories of the loves of the gods, and rather disgraceful episodes that were not necessary to the foundation of the state. Gradgrind wants to banish poetry because it is not useful. Now poetry does not necessarily have a moral function. It can simply be delightful, as Chaucer's Parliament is delightful, and it can simply celebrate the beauty of nature, as the opening of The Canterbury Tales does. It can also inquire into philosophical matters, as Lucretius does, or Cavalcanti or Dante. Gradgrind may well have in mind something like Wordsworthian nature poetry, or simply poetry in general.

Perhaps the strangest example of Gradgrind's lack of whimsy is this:

‘As if, with my head in its present throbbing state, you couldn’t go and look at the shells and minerals and things provided for you, instead of circuses!’ said Mrs. Gradgrind. ‘You know, as well as I do, no young people have circus masters, or keep circuses in cabinets, or attend lectures about circuses. What can you possibly want to know of circuses then? I am sure you have enough to do, if that’s what you want. With my head in its present state, I couldn’t remember the mere names of half the facts you have got to attend to.’”

*Dickens, Hard Times, 23–4.

This is strange because it presumes that the only facts that can be dealt with are the facts which can be stored in little cabinets and pulled out at will for examination. Yet the circus is a fact. It is a fact of human imagination, of the need for laughter and amusement, and as such it is just as deserving of recognition as a reality as is the fossil of a trilobite.

It is out of this atmosphere of emotional starvation that the action of the novel flows. Tom becomes involved in gambling and theft. Louisa marries Bounderby, a man 20 years her senior. Now in many stories the older man who takes a younger wife is a fool, and usually gets his comeuppance from his wife's younger lover. Samples can be found in Bocaccio and elsewhere. Dickens has a younger man who aspires to be Louisa's lover, but Louisa resists temptation and remains chaste.

The cabinet of specimens noted earlier, reappears later when the narrator describes the Hands.

In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man’s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death; in the last close nook of this great exhausted receiver, where the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it; among the multitude of Coketown, generically called ‘the Hands,’—a race who would have found more favour with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs—lived a certain Stephen Blackpool, forty years of age.”

*Dickens, Hard Times, 65–6.

Stephen is at once an individual, but he is also a sample, a specimen of the Hands. Now the utilitarian philosophy shows one of its worst aspects, it reduces everything to groups or sets, in the mathematical sense. There is one set composed of Hands, another of Owners, another of the materials of the different sciences and so on. However, putting people into various sets, Hands, black, white, rich, poor, cops, robbers, and so forth reduces and eliminates the reality of the individual.

Now it's noteworthy that in all of this preaching by Gradgrind no one asks him how he arrives at his principles. He doesn't justify them, he just presents them as infallibly true as if he has received them from God himself. Some years back an article appeared in one of the AEI's publications in which the author argued that liberalism was a species of gnosticism. Gradgrind does not derive his principles from any antecedents, they simply are, and it is as if he, and he alone has access to the special knowledge that conveys authority to his principles.

Once the boundaries of utilitarianism have been established Dickens races to his conclusion which involves Louisa having an emotional breakdown, Tom's theft, the discovery of Bounderby's lies, and the ultimate resolution in which Gradgrind realizes that his system denies the reality of human experience.

Dickens doesn't, in my opinion, assert the superiority of fancy or imagination over fact, but rather the necessary interplay between the two, and the balance of fact and imagination.

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit is not as suspenseful and quick moving as Bleak House, which may strike some as unusual because I don't believe that Bleak House has a reputation for suspense and quickness. In any case I got rather distracted by other things, and it took me a bit longer to finish the later book. Several things are striking about the book.

Hitting Bottom

Many years ago I read James Burnham's The Suicide of the West, and one point that he made was that social service programs, particularly those that clean up slums and such like things, eliminate the bottom. You'll sometimes hear addicts or alcoholics speak of hitting bottom. Once they have hit bottom they either try to end their addiction, or they succumb to it. The point is that you have to be assured that you have hit the worst. Now Burnham, as I recall, argued that removing the bottom you removed anyway for a person to know that they were at the nadir of their existence. Little Dorrit's father has a conversation with the doctor at the Marshalsea, and the doctor says:
That a child would be born to you in a place like this?' said the doctor. 'Bah, bah, sir, what does it signify? A little more elbow-room is all we want here. We are quiet here; we don't get badgered here; there's no knocker here, sir, to be hammered at by creditors and bring a man's heart into his mouth. Nobody comes here to ask if a man's at home, and to say he'll stand on the door mat till he is. Nobody writes threatening letters about money to this place. It's freedom, sir, it's freedom! I have had to-day's practice at home and abroad, on a march, and aboard ship, and I'll tell you this: I don't know that I have ever pursued it under such quiet circumstances as here this day. Elsewhere, people are restless, worried, hurried about, anxious respecting one thing, anxious respecting another. Nothing of the kind here, sir. We have done all that— we know the worst of it; we have got to the bottom, we can't fall, and what have we found? Peace. That's the word for it. Peace.' With this profession of faith, the doctor, who was an old jail-bird, and was more sodden than usual, and had the additional and unusual stimulus of money in his pocket, returned to his associate and chum in hoarseness, puffiness, red-facedness, all-fours, tobacco, dirt, and brandy.”

* Dickens, Charles, Little Dorrit, (London: Penguin, 2003) 78.

The doctor expresses Burnham's idea, and admits that the residents of the Marshalsea have given up. He seems to be a precursor of the denizen's of Harry Hope's saloon in Hell's Kitchen.


Dickens gave his characters names that range from the comical (Pickwick) to the unpleasant (Squeers, Quilp, Scrooge). In the case of the great antagonists of Little Dorrit he has used a name that is symbolic and descriptive of their function within the bureaucracy of the Circumlocution Office: Barnacle. Now a barnacle is a real thing, it is a marine lifeform that attaches itself to ships and other things, and impedes their motion. This is explicitly acknowledged:
If that airy young Barnacle had been there, he would have frankly told them perhaps that the Circumlocution Office had achieved its function. That what the Barnacles had to do, was to stick on to the national ship as long as they could. That to trim the ship, lighten the ship, clean the ship, would be to knock them off; that they could but be knocked off once; and that if the ship went down with them yet sticking to it, that was the ship's look out, and not theirs.”

*Dickens, Dorrit, 136.

The Barnacle family is ubiquitous, and is destinedto obstruct progress everywhere the Empire is:
To have got the whole Barnacle family together would have been impossible for two reasons. Firstly, because no building could have held all the members and connections of that illustrious house. Secondly, because wherever there was a square yard of ground in British occupation under the sun or moon, with a public post upon it, sticking to that post was a Barnacle. No intrepid navigator could plant a flag-staff upon any spot of earth, and take possession of it in the British name, but to that spot of earth, so soon as the discovery was known, the Circumlocution Office sent out a Barnacle and a despatch-box. Thus the Barnacles were all over the world, in every direction— despatch-boxing the compass.”

*Dickens, Dorrit, 422.

Truly a depressing thought.

Dickens conceals a bit of grade school humor in some of his names. In David Copperfield we have Mr Murdstone. Now I tend to associate his name more with murder than anything else. However, his name can also be taken as resembling that of the Emperor Copronymus, or even suggestive of coprolite (dung stone). In short, it resembles the French word for excrement. Mr Merdle, the financial villain in this book, has a facility for building vast empires of dreams, but being dreams they ultimately prove unsubstantial, and turn to merde.

The Associative Monologue

Joyce and Faulkner popularized the stream of conscious, and the association of ideas as a way of capturing the free flow of ideas through the mind. Dickens doesn't use the interior monologue, he externalizes it, and it is most evident in the character of Flora:
'In Italy is she really?' said Flora, 'with the grapes growing everywhere and lava necklaces and bracelets too that land of poetry with burning mountains picturesque beyond belief though if the organ-boys come away from the neighbourhood not to be scorched nobody can wonder being so young and bringing their white mice with them most humane, and is she really in that favoured land with nothing but blue about her and dying gladiators and Belvederes though Mr F. himself did not believe for his objection when in spirits was that the images could not be true there being no medium between expensive quantities of linen badly got up and all in creases and none whatever, which certainly does not seem probable though perhaps in consequence of the extremes of rich and poor which may account for it.'”

*Dickens, Dorrit, 558.

Flora's speech is not that far from Molly Bloom's monologue at the end of Ulysses

The Anti-Fairytale

Most of the fairy tales that we, those of the generation born towards the end of WW II, grew up on were somewhat bowlderized. The sisters in Cinderella go back to their house to live in disappointment. In the original fairy tale their bodies are mutilated by birds. In another fairy tale the evil queen is forced to wear red hot shoes, and dances herself to death. The usual arc for the protagonists of the fairy tales we remember though the arc is fairly simple. The beautiful daughter or the fair son wins the hand of the prince or princess, and with it great wealth, and they live happily ever after.

In Little Dorrit the arc is a bit more complex. The Dorrits start out in poverty, and spend most of the first half of the book in the Marshalsea. Dorrit, however, receives a fortune, and is liberated from the prison. At this point most fairy tales would go for the happily ever after. Dickens, however, takes the family to Italy, where a number of episodes indicate their pretentiousness. Merdle serves as the means of bringing the family down again. They are not quite as impoverished as they were before. Merdle's scheme also affects Arthur Clennam, Little Dorrit's love interest, so that he is obligated to spend some time in the Marshalsea. In the course of the denouement Clennam's fortunes are revived, and Little Dorrit learns that she has an inheritance through Arthur's mother. Taking the latter would elevate her to great wealth, but she rejects it, and lives in married bliss with Arthur on his income.

Now I've said before, and this is most applicable to the earlier novels, that Dickens stories tend to end with the protagonists joining the middle class. The Dorrits have the opportunity to participate in the upper class, which they do at first, but that is ultimately rejected by Amy, and she opts for a more modest, more middle class life.

A Tale of Two Cities

I think almost everyone has seen at least one of the film adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities, either the one from the 1930s with Ronald Colman, or the one from the 1950s with Dirk Bogarde and Dorothy Tutin. So the story is fairly well known. The novel is more detailed, naturally, and covers the period from 1775, when Dr. Manette is rescued from the Bastille, until 1793 or '94 when Sidney is executed. My recollection is that the movie versions rather telescope the time span.

Dickens portrays the French peasantry and the urban poor as being oppressed by their aristocratic masters. Scenes such as the slaughter of a young by an aristocrat's carriage, and the accompanying dismissal of the parents' grief are particularly telling. However, while Dickens, characteristically sympathises with the poor he does not regard the Revolution as a wholly good thing. One thing that is arresting in Dickens' portrayal is that the aristocrats were guillotined not for anything they did, but for the faults of their ancestors, or, often, simply for being aristocrats. The aristocrats are simply a set of people who share a common characteristic. In this they resemble kulaks, gypsies, Jews, Blacks, or others who have been oppressed.

One of the more troubling Bible verses is Romans 5:7, not the following which refers to Christ, but Paul's belief that one will scarcely die for a good man. I can't immediately recall all the passages of Livy devoted to self-sacrifice, but soldiers did die for their country, and for their comrades in Paul's time. Today the rolls of awardees of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Victoria Cross teem with individuals who have sacrificed themselves for some individual or some small group of fellow warriors. So Paul's words are fairly puzzling.

Dickens, however, has no problem with Sidney sacrificing himself, not for Darnay's life, but for his wife that she may be happy with her husband.

Great Expectations

This is perhaps Dickens' most perfect novel. That doesn't necessarily mean it's his greatest. That honor probably goes to Bleak House, but that it's free of faults that sometimes mar his other novels. It's free of the sentimentality of that is present in his earlier books such as Oliver Twist or The Old Curiosity Shop. Pip's misapprehension of his benefactor seems emotionally right, as does his enchantment with Estelle, and his eventual relinquishment of the enchantment. That he may be able at the end to form a more attachment to Estelle, though Dickens leaves it uncertain, is also right.

Our Mutual Friend

The Mystery of Edwin Drood


Index to Dickens