The Canon


If Charles Dickens is not as widely read and appreciated by modern readers as he should be, this is no doubt due in part to the horrible way Dickens has been "taught" in American high schools. By and large, the Dickens novel most frequently thrust into the hands of high school students is A Tale of Two Cities, inarguably his least representative work, and arguably his weakest. It is used in this way, in fact, because it generally contains fewer of those characteristics that make Dickens Dickens: his picaresque abandon, his outsized characters, his exuberant and fluent style, above all his humor. In my opinion, no writer in any language is funnier than Charles Dickens.

Here's a passage that illustrates many of the features I've just mentioned. It's from Dombey and Son and introduces "Miss Tox":

The lady thus specially presented was a long lean figure, wearing such a faded air that she seemed not to have been made in what linen-drapers call "fast colours" originally, and to have, by little and little, washed out. But for this she might have been described as the very pink of general propitiation and politeness. From a long habit of listening admirably to everything that was said in her presence, and looking at the speakers as if she were mentally engaged in taking off impressions of their images upon her soul, never to part with the same but with life, her head had quite settled on one side. Her hands had contracted a spasmodic habit of raising themselves of their own accord as an involuntary admiration. Her eyes were liable to a similar affection. She had the softest voice that ever was heard; and her nose, stupendously aquiline, had a little knob in the very centre or keystone of the bridge, whence it tended downwards towards her face, as in an invincible determination never to turn up at anything.

Miss Tox is a relatively minor character in the novel, but she's as absolutely vivid a character as many a protagonist in novels by lesser writers. And Dicken's novels are full of such characters, all of them at once both distinctive and colorful as well as identifiable as "types" that must have been instantly recognizable to readers in Victorian England--creating this sort of characterization itself being one of Dickens's great gifts, perhaps unrivaled by any other novelist. The humor of this passage is also typically "Dickensian": observant, tolerant of eccentricities, and devastating all at the same time. His comedy can sometimes be "gentle," but it is frequently also quite caustic, even dark. Here is the first paragraph of Dombey and Son: "Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new." This seems a homey enough scene, except that, as it turns out, Dombey's ultimate actions toward Son are indeed such (if ultimately unintentional) as to "toast him brown." (And the fireside vignette is taking place at the same time Dombey's wife is dying after giving birth to Son.)

The effect of both the comedy and the characters in Dickens's novels is to convey a world that is utterly real but also completely removed from the "real world": a Dickens-world that no one could mistake for another writer's creation, or for that matter the usually banal world we all inhabit. This does not mean Dickens is for "escapist" readers. Few novelists have ever been as engaged with the social and cultural and economic conditions of his/her time as Dickens. Dombey and Son depicts the horrendous consequences of the mercantile mindset in a way that should make us ashamed to have sentimentalized A Christmas Carol as much as we have done. There's no more scorching indictment of "the law" as Bleak House. (Perhaps Gaddis's A Frolic of His Own.) Hard Times portrays the ill effects of utilitarianism with compact (for Dickens) precision. But his novels are first and foremost fully realized aesthetic creations in which the comedy and the satire and the characterization and the social commentary are all inextricably joined.

Which is not to say there are no flaws in Dickens's fiction. If we've sentimentalized Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, there's truth in the charge they're latently--maybe more than latently--sentimental figures to begin with. Florence Dombey is the Tiny Tim of Dombey and Son, and here's a description of her: "Florence was little more than a child in years--not yet fourteen--and the loneliness and gloom of such an hour in the great house where Death had lately made its own tremendous devastation might have set an older fancy brooding on great terrors. But her innocent imagination was too full of one theme to admit them. Nothing wandered in her thoughts but love--a wandering love, indeed, and cast away--but turning always to her father." This at a point in the novel when Florence's father could not be less deserving of her love. There's no getting around the fact that Dickens's novels are to some degree enfeebled by the too-frequent appearance of characters and scenes like this. Luckily, his best books are relatively free of them, and such characters as Florence Dombey do have a role to play in the overall moral dynamics at work in his fiction. (One of the consequences of assigning them this role, however, is that with these characters we are deprived of the great comic flourishes of which Dickens is otherwise such a master.) Furthermore, the great strengths of his work, the strengths I have tried here to indicate, however sketchily, vastly compensate for the emotional flaccidity the sentimental moments occasionally introduce.

In short, if there is an impression that Charles Dickens is old-fashioned, stodgy, associated with a now superseded approach to writing fiction, that assumption is completely wrong. Readers and writers can still learn much about what fiction is capable of achieving by reading him.

Nor should his immense popularity, both during his lifetime and subsequently, be held against him. It is merely one of the few examples of the public actually being right.


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