Charles Dickens

This essay has a total of 2108 words and 10 pages.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Dickens has always presented problems for literary criticism. For theorists whose critical presuppositions emphasize intelligence, sensitivity and an author in complete control of his work the cruder aspects of his popular art have often proved an insurmountable obstacle, while for the formulators of traditions his gigantic idiosyncrasies can never be made to conform. If difficulties such as these have been overcome by the awareness that Dickens sets his own standards, there remains a further problem: his won lifetime Dickens has invariably seemed as much an institution as an individual. The institution of the ĎDickens of Christmasí, celebrated by Chersterton. The change may perhaps be defined by suggesting that it is now becoming increasingly necessary to insist that he was. Dickensís art was at once varied and constant; if themes, emphases and preoccupations developed towards the ultimate pessimism of Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend, it is important to remember that Flora Finching and her aunt are cousins, not far removed. When he collapsed in 1870, having almost completed the sixth instalment of Edwin Drood, the manner of his death was peculiarly appropriate: his audience were left in the state of anticipation to which he had accustomed them, but this time there was to be no resolution.

In the nineteenth century the writing of novels emerged from a permitted indulgence to an acceptable career. It is customary to think of Dickens as a critic of much of the Victorian ethos, but whatever reservations the novels may express about self-aggrandizement, no career could demonstrate the ideal of the self-made man more effectively than his own. The facts of Dickensís early life have been rehearsed frequently enough and there is little need to recount them here other than to emphasize the extent to which Dickens, the chronicler of afflicted children, saw in his own childhood the archetypal experience of the child frustrated by the pressures of an urban and commercialize environment. The account of his childhood employment in the blacking-shop, which he gave to his biographer Forster, has often quoted:

The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing way passing away from me, never be brought back any more, cannot be written. My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life. (John Froster, The Life of Charles Dickens, Bk. I, ch. 2)

Dickens is self-indulgent in this reflective mood, but the complaint is supported by the facts, and the tone of the passage, especially of its conclusion, was to be transmuted to the tone of David Copperfield and Great Expectations.

A glance through the list of novels shows the extent to which Dickensís life was dominated by the demands of authorship, for apart from the gaps between the last three items there is scarcely an unproductive year. When one considers how each of the novels appeared in either weekly or monthly instalments, and that they were supplemented by short stories and occasional journalism, as well as, from time to time, the duties of an editor, it can fairly be said that Dickensís literary activity over a period of more than thirty years was uninterrupted.

Serial publications thus posed its own technical problems and to a large extent dictated their solution. It had the effect of intensifying the relationship between the author and his audience to a degree that can perhaps be compared with the oral narrative poem of the Elizabethan stage. Tome some novelists, the need to tailor their novels to popular demand was a source of irritation. More than technical issues were at stake. In two vital areas audience-demand was a controlling factor over the content of exploitation of sentiment.

The emphasis on the pathetic can be attributed to some extent to popular demand: it is well know that at the time of writing The Old Curiosity Shop Dickens received numerous letters on the fate of his heroine. What must also be stressed are the powerful elements of sentimentality and morbidity in Dickensís own character that enabled him to respond to this aspect of popular taste. Little Nell was the fictional parallel of Dickensís sister in law Mary Hogarth, over whose early death he had grieved inconsolably. She became more that a figure of fiction to her creator, however: approaching the climax of The Old Curiosity Shop Dickens told Forster,

All night I have been pursued by the child; and this morning I am unrefreshed and miserable.í (Forster, op. cit., Bk II p.7)

Dickensís readings from his works show clearly the way that he wished not only to gratify his won emotional needs in his fiction, but also to witness the effect on his audience. With the comic scenes, he liked to include in his programs the most affecting or disturbing passages from the novels- the death of Paul Dombey, the Bob Cratchit scenes from A Christmas Carol, -and he measured his success by the degree of emotional response that he could exact from an often weeping audience. In a revealing letter to his wife, describing a private reading, he wrote:

ĎIf you had seen Macready last night, undisguisedly sobbing and crying on the sofa as I read, you would have felt, as I did, what a thing it is to have power.í (Quoted in E. Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, 1953, p. 532)

Even he can hardly have been aware of the full implications of the form for the development of his art.

Much has been written of his comic technique, but his letters reveal very clearly that the source of his comedy was not a conscious technique, but a combination of vision and expression that was habitual to him.

The origins of Dickensís literary career can be traced to his early employment as a journalist. This work took him first to the Law Courts, including the Court of Chancery, and then to Parliament, and his contempt for these

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