"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Posts tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

Chesterton on Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit stands in Dickens’s life chiefly as a signal of how far he went down the road of realism, of sadness, and of what is called modernity. True, it was by no means the best of the books of his later period; some even think it the worst. Great Expectations is certainly the best of the later novels; some even think it the best of all the novels. Nor is it the novel most concerned with strictly recent problems; that title must be given to Hard Times. Nor again is it the most finely finished or well constructed of the later books; that claim can be probably made for Edwin Drood. By a queer verbal paradox the most carefully finished of his later tales is the tale that is not finished at all. In form, indeed, the book bears a superficial resemblance to those earlier works by which the young Dickens had set the whole world laughing long ago. Much of the story refers to a remote time early in the nineteenth century; much of it was actually recalled and copied from the life of Dickens’s father in the old Marshalsea prison. Also the narrative has something of the form, or rather absence of form, which belonged to Nicholas Nickleby or Martin Chuzzlewit. It has something of the old air of being a string of disconnected adventures, like a boy’s book about bears and Indians. The Dorrits go wandering for no particular reason on the Continent of Europe, just as young Martin Chuzzlewit went wandering for no particular reason on the continent of America. The story of Little Dorrit stops and lingers at the doors of the Circumlocution Office much in the same way that the story of Samuel Pickwick stops and lingers in the political excitement of Eatanswill. The villain, Blandois, is a very stagey villain indeed; quite as stagey as Ralph Nickleby or the mysterious Monk. The secret of the dark house of Clennam is a very silly secret; quite as silly as the secret of Ralph Nickleby or the secret of Monk. Yet all these external similarities between Little Dorrit and the earliest books, all this loose, melodramatic quality, only serves to make more obvious and startling the fact that some change has come over the soul of Dickens. Hard Times is harsh; but then Hard Times is a social pamphlet; perhaps it is only harsh as a social pamphlet must be harsh. Bleak House is a little sombre; but then Bleak House is almost a detective story; perhaps it is only sombre in the sense that a detective story must be sombre. A Tale of Two Cities is a tragedy; but then A Tale of Two Cities is a tale of the French Revolution; perhaps it is only a tragedy because the French Revolution was a tragedy. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is dark; but then the mystery of anybody must be dark. In all these other cases of the later books an artistic reason can be given — a reason of theme or of construction for the slight sadness that seems to cling to them. But exactly because Little Dorrit is a mere Dickens novel, it shows that something must somehow have happened to Dickens himself. Even in resuming his old liberty, he cannot resume his old hilarity. He can re-create the anarchy, but not the revelry.

It so happens that this strange difference between the new and the old mode of Dickens can be symbolised and stated in one separate and simple contrast. Dickens’s father had been a prisoner in a debtors prison, and Dickens’s works contain two pictures partly suggested by the personality of that prisoner. Mr. Micawber is one picture of him. Mr. Dorrit is another. This truth is almost incredible, but it is the truth. The joyful Micawber, whose very despair was exultant, and the desolate Dorrit, whose very pride was pitiful, were the same man. The valiant Micawber and the nervous, shaking Dorrit were the same man. The defiant Micawber and the snobbish, essentially obsequious Dorrit were the same man. I do not mean of course that either of the pictures was an exact copy of anybody. The whole Dickens genius consisted of taking hints and turning them into human beings. As he took twenty real persons and turned them into one fictitious person, so he took one real person and turned him into twenty fictitious persons. This quality would suggest one character, that quality would suggest another. But in this case, at any rate, he did take one real person and turn him into two. And what is more, he turned him into two persons who seem to be quite opposite persons. To ordinary readers of Dickens, to say that Micawber and Dorrit had in any sense the same original, will appear unexpected and wild. No conceivable connection between the two would ever have occurred to anybody who had read Dickens with simple and superficial enjoyment, as all good literature ought to be read. It will seem to them just as silly as saying that the Fat Boy and Mr. Alfred Jingle were both copied from the same character. It will seem as insane as saying that the character of Smike and the character of Major Bagstock were both copied from Dickens’s father. Yet it is an unquestionable historical fact that Micawber and Dorrit were both copied from Dickens’s father, in the only sense that any figures in good literature are ever copied from anything or anybody. Dickens did get the main idea of Micawber from his father; and that idea is that a poor man is not conquered by the world. And Dickens did get the main idea of Dorrit from his father; and that idea is that a poor man may be conquered by the world. I shall take the opportunity of discussing, in a moment, which of these ideas is true. Doubtless old John Dickens included both the gay and the sad moral; most men do. My only purpose here is to point out that Dickens drew the gay moral in 1849, and the sad moral in 1857.

 
-G. K. Chesterton, Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens

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What I’m Reading: Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit was written by Charles Dickens.  Even if you knew nothing else about the book, you’d probably be able to guess something about the central character.  Little Dorrit–officially named Amy Dorrit–is a young woman, a paragon of goodness, love, and mercy, while surrounded and attacked on all sides by the cruelties of a corrupt, shallow, and greedy society.  Dickens was and still is famous for creating characters like this.  Oliver Twist and Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop are two obvious examples.

But while those two examples are generally viewed as lesser works from the less mature part of Dickens’ career, Little Dorrit is instead characterized as one of his supreme literary works, and indeed as one of the great Victorian novels.  It unfolds against the background of a debtors’ prison, where Amy’s father is held for a debt caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare that neither he nor anyone else understands.  Amy is born in prison and spends her first twenty-two years there, passionately devoted to helping her father and everyone else.  Eventually two outsiders, Mr. Pancks and Aruthr Clennham, unravel the facts and find that the Dorrit family actually have an enormous fortune.  They leave the prison in triumph.

For the early Dickens, that would have been the end of the story.  For the mature Dickens, it’s the halfway point of the story.  After they leave prison, the Dorrits embark on a trip across Europe.  As they go, Mr. Dorrit’s character subtlely changes.  He becomes obsessed with the concept of being a gentleman, including such gentlemanly pursuits as abusing the servants and harshly judging anyone poorer than himself.  He also becomes determined to remake Amy and her sister as members of the upper class.  To that end, he hires a strict governess named “Mrs. General”, and together they try to twist Amy into the ‘proper’ mold.  The irony is self-evident.  When Amy lived in prison with her father, she was free to pursue genuine goodness and love.  Once the family is free and out of prison, she is boxed in by society on every side.

Literary critics have written more about Dickens than any other English author but Shakespeare.  While there’s undoubtedly an enormous amount to discover in the depths of Dickens’ novels, one can get so wrapped up in it as to miss the main points.  The first main point is wealth.  To Dickens, wealth is a corrupting force.  The poor characters tend to be meek and mild, innocent and wholly good.  The world of the wealthy is a world of corruption, pretension, indifference to suffering and general meanness.  Of course one can find characters that buck the trend on either side, but on the whole the pattern holds strongly; Dickens must have viewed it as a central truth of humanity.  The second main point, obvious related, is Christian goodness.  Goodness is recognized by care and generosity, while badness is greedy, stingy, nasty, and self-centered.  In Little Dorrit one of the main villains is Mrs. Clennham, the widowed mother of Arthur, who has spent decades sinking into an Old Testament-fueled Calvinist obsession with sin and punishment.  At the end of the novel she is brought to a climactic meeting with Amy, who shows her the genuine goodness of Christ.  This dramatic clash of personality types, and many others like it, carry Little Dorrit into the highest echelons of literary achievement.

Day 6: A book that makes you sad

There are two ways to interpret this one.  I could choose a book that captures the essence of the tragic and succeeds as a tear-jerker.  Alternately, I could choose a book that’s simply dreadful, that’s somehow offensive and makes one weep for the future of the human race.  Not wanting to be excessively negative, I’ll go with the first interpretation.

You can learn a lot more about humanity from bad books than from good ones.  If you read a great piece of literature, you might, for instance, learn a lot about Danish Princes struggling to avenge their father’s death at the hands of their uncle.  The truth is, though, that such people are rather thin on the ground.  If you read a bad book such as The Old Curiosity Shop you may not get much depth.  It may be a load of pure emotional manipulation.  But it certainly tells you a lot about how people are manipulated.

At its core, The Old Curiosity Shop is about a young girl and her elderly grandfather, who are driven out of house and home by a greedy dwarf named Quilp.  Little Nell and her plight are crafted by Dickens with the sole intention of pumping tears.  Quilp is a villain with no redeeming qualities, existing only to provoke outrage.  None of the minor characters are in any way more honest or three-dimensional.  So The Old Curiosity Shop is, by common measures, a bad book, yet it is one of the best bad books ever written.

The adventures of Nell and her grandfather while on the road could easily have been dull, yet they are not.  Dickens exerts ever ounce of creative energy to fill the book with local color and life.  The two main characters encounter a traveling troupe of midgets and another of giants, a wax museum, and many other unique things.  While so many authors struggle to come up with even one memorable encounter during a travelogue, Dickens turns them out with seeming ease.  He also mixes quiet episodes in with the colorful ones.  A simple scene where Nell and her grandfather stop at a farmhouse and the farmer’s wife tends Nell’s blistered foot is overpowering with its depiction of simple kindness.

The book is weepy and sentimental from start to finish, but it teaches us what we should weep at and feel sentimental about.  Like everything Dickens wrote, it is an affirmation of the values common to all good people: charity, kindness, honesty, friendship, family, and love.  The scene with the farmer’s wife captures the essence of of what it means to love one another.  Nell’s plight overall informs us that all children deserve a good and stable place to grow up.  Quilp’s vileness, though in some ways unfortunate, also conveys the true fact that capitalism and business can twists a man into a disgusting shape.  There is, in short, much to learn from The Old Curiosity Shop before reaching the answer to the question that mobs of New Yorkers at the docks asked when the final installment of the novel arrived from England: “Is Little Nell dead?”

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