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Boz, Dickens and social critiques, early or late Dickens?

Admittedly, there are many things about Dickens that drive me nuts.  However, I do truly love the way in which he captures the desperation, despair, and ennui of his newly industrialized world and the mechanizations of the society thereby created. I think these issues are just as pertinent now as they were then. We in the 21st century first world merely live in a society that has eased and beautified our existence, which is to say: our more rampant consumerism blinds us to our own ennui and the dregs of our society are always in another part of town, if not another part of the world.

As Dickens shows in “The Streets–Night”, the dregs are ever in view and their despair is on display. “A brutal laugh at her weak voice is all she has gained.  The tears fall thick and fast down her own pale face; the child is cold and hungry, and its low half-stifled wailing adds to the misery of its wretched mother, as she moans aloud, and sinks despairingly down, on a cold damp door-step,” is how the lens of Dickens’ pen catches one such instance. No hope here, the camera says and we know it never lies, yet we tramp onward with faces down against rain and view alike.

In “Thoughts About People”, Dickens offers a scene a few rungs up the social ladder that may be less despairing but is still drenched in ennui and quiet desperation. The officer worker in the park, freed from his “dingy little back office”, his life consumed by office labor like clock-work, “as monotonous as his whole existence.” All too familiar, and the more fearful for it. In what way is either existence in any way natural?

And then there is “The Prisoners’ Van.” Ah! and more young women to be locked behind bars! But nevermind moralising. What of the irony of the Van’s title: “Her Majesty’s carriage was merely another name for the prisoners’ van, conferred upon it, not only by reason of the superior gentility of the term, but because the aforesaid van is maintained at Her Majesty’s expense”? And what do the people know of her majesty? Nothing. For the only immediate access any one has to civil authority is through the police. The most present members of government in the lives of the people! And where were they before King Capital’s glorious Industrial Revolution?

Of course the latter instance here may have been far from Dickens’ intent, but I find these sorts of depictions to be the best of Dickens. The later novels we’ve read, I’m thinking Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, capture social issues quite nicely. However, that is nearly all that I’ve gotten from them. Although A Tale and Barnaby Rudge clearly deal with social issues, they are outside the Victorian milieu of industrialization and therefore at another remove from our world. Yet, I enjoyed the two historical novels far more than the later works. Less (needless) characters, more action (tighter plots). So, after reading a bit of a Boz in addition to the novels: early Dickens gets my vote.




Dickens and prisons

Turning to the question of prisons, I will set aside my Panoptic obsession, yet I still wish to discuss Dickens’ visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Obviously this prison is outside of the U.K., but it was (obviously, again) situated in the Victorian period.

Reading Dickens’ account of his visit, I was suprised to find that women were also “housed” at Eastern State. And it is in his description of two young women met there that most tugged at my heart strings (you’re making me all soft and saccharine sweet, Charlie ole pal). And tugging away, Dickens writes: “Their looks were very sad, and might have moved the stearnest visitor to tears” and that one of these young women, “not [even] twenty”, was visibily “penitent and very quiet” (251). At which point, nearly bawling, I yet managed to read on and thus find a parroted, catechismic exchange between Dickens’ “companion” and the young woman. The query directed towards her happiness, she responds that “She tried to be; she uttered no complaint; but it was natural that she should sometimes long to go out of that one cell: she could not help that” (251-252). What I find most disturbing here is the nearly brainwashed state of the girl (the cause of her third person usage?). Most moving: the slight defiance, the refusal to ignore the unnatural torture of isolation, that is rather modestly, demurely and naively displayed. Sometimes pathos and sentimentality can be agreeable bedmates.

Dickens, Charles. American Notes. Vol. I. London: Chapman and Hall, 1842.

A bit of Ruskin in bullit points

  • Born on February 8, 1819 in London. Died on January 20, 1900 of influenza.
  • In 1848, the year of revolution, he marries his cousin Euphemia Chalmers Gray.
  • He was largely responsible for the accepatance of Turner’s painting and the rise of the PRB.
  • in 1854, his marriage is annuled on the grounds that it was never consumated. Rumors persist to this day that Ruskin was shocked and appalled to discover that women have of pubic hair. However, considering that he was an avid art critic it seems unlikely that he would have been aware of this (in my opinion). Ultimately, Effie marries the PRB painter  John Everett Millais in the wake of the annulment.
  • in 1858, he abandons the evangelical Protestantism of his youth. He never actually becomes a Catholic, however. He drops his Protestant leanings after witnessing a particularly firy and absurd Protestant sermon in Turin; he fleas back to nature and art.
  • In the 1860s, begins to be more and more concerned with social criticism and seeks to combat the negative impact of industrialization, capitalism, and utilitarianism. Unto This Last published in 1862.
  • in 1871, he begins writing the letters that make up Fors Clavigera. A proto-blog of sorts, these letteres were published monthly and intended for the working classes of Great Britain. As a proto-blog, Ruskin generally wrote what ever was on his mind. Usually social issues of the day, his own form of agrarian socialism (though he didnt like the “S” word), the meaning of Christian charity and things of this nature were his major areas of focus.
  • Fors ceased publication in 1878, the same year that Ruskin founded The Guild of St. George, which is still in existance to day. Through the guild, Ruskin sought to implement his social ideas and agrarian theories.
  • in 1886, begins to fully succomb to madness in the years leading to his death.
  • of all the works of Dickens, Bleak House had the greatest impact on Ruskin. The discriptions of poverty therein were particularly important to Ruskin’s social writings (if I am not mistaken).

The Victorian Web. “A Ruskin Chronology”.

Digging Barnaby

So I think if the current pace and atmosphere is maintained, Barnaby Rudge could quickly become my favorite Dickens novel. I am so glad the number of characters is being held in check and that Dickens is not slowly producing action atop a slowly built and meandering base.

Also: an idiot, a fallen woman, a fallen house, a mansion, the threat of a duel, unwanted courtships potentially leading to violence, a personification of evil running around and even holding people hostage. Faulkner, is that you in there? “The stranger” feels like something between Popeye from Sanctuary and McCarthy’s The Judge. At one point, I thought the stranger might actually shoot the raven. Then I remembered that I wasn’t reading Blood Meridian. Oh well, I am seriously enjoying this one.

The end. Mirrors. Labyrinths.

So, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how I feel about Bleak House after having finishedit. This was the one Dickens novel I always felt the need to read, yet I once more feel lukewarm. However, it had its moments.

For instance, a number of things stood out to me in Chapter LI. This is the chapter where both Ada and Esther visit Richard, and Esther describes as young Richard as “poring over a table covered with dusty bundles of papers which seemed to me like dusty mirrors reflecting his own mind” (681). Dickens has made great use of mirrors in all the books that we’ve read, but this particular image is one of my favorites. I really like that Richard’s mind is being reflected in his (bleak) reading material. Perhaps his mind is also a mirror and we can have a 1001 days of reading case files. An interesting thought, as the doubling mirrors produce a labyrinth, which is a word (and image) that pops up through out the book, including three paragraphs down in this chapter. There Richard tells Ada that Woodcourt “can’t be expected to understand such labyrinths” (681). Later when Bucket is on his search, London becomes a “labyrinth of streets”, which it is (756). I almost feel the need to find every labyrinth reference in the book. Very Borgesian, very.

OMF and the Unexpected

So, I did not see the convergence of Rokesmith/ Bella/ Lizzie happening as it did/ at all. I mean, I never thought Lizzie would be the catalyst for the beginnings of a real conversation between Rokesmith and Bella. I knew they would have to come together eventually, Rokesmith being Harmong and all. I also didn’t expect such a philosophical conversation between them. The whole thing gets awfully Socratic awfully fast with all that talk of knowing oneself ( which is not unrelated to the post below), and then Bella is telling Rokesmith that he is “repressed” and acts a “passive part” (521). Suddenly, the talk gets real. And of course Rokesmith is repressed and passive; he is suppressing an entire human being inside himself.

I also didn’t expect Bella to factor into what Lizzie saw in the fire (529). I’m not sure how I feel about that. I guess I’ll wait and see.

A Brief Bleak House Moment with Esther

A number of Dickens’ favorite themes, and some of my favorite of his themes, have continued to pop up in Bleak House. One scene in this week’s reading literally jumped off the page and grabbed my attention (being weakened by sickness, I could hardly fight back). My attention fully seized and contained, it struck me that this particular scene contained several tried and true themes: identity, mirrors, and texts (even the fire place gazing kind). Yet all of this was dealt with via first person narrative, the differentiating aspect (as in differing from the other novels we’ve read) of Bleak House that I have found most interesting.

The scene is in Chapter XVII, and we’ll do a play by play:
1. Esther, “little inclined to sleep”, sits up working.
2. Via 1st person, we see directly into the faltering steps of Esther’s thought process. She wonders whether she actually knows why she is “wakeful and rather low-spirited” and concludes “perhaps I do, but I don’t think it matters.” Stutter stepping, equivocation into denial of own essence and refusal to examine one’s cognitive depths. A sort of “dare i disturb the universe” moment. Sadly, answered with a “no”. If I was a therapist, I would not approve.
3. Dialogue with self/ watching oneself/ gazing upon her own self filled with anxiety, quite literally, in the mirror. Wow.
4. Then we’re downstairs. And by golly, here’s John ignoring his book
and staring into the ashes of the fire place all Lizzie Hexamesque
(well, minus the flames).
5. Potentially sexist remark, followed by gushy memories, and then…
6. A new text… The letter from Esther’s….mother?…A writer who has “blotted out all trace of her existence”. And so, we have a mystery writer that may be a mystery mother with a nihilistic view of existence.

So much happening in this book, so much.

Dickens, Charles. “Bleak House”. New York: Modern Library, 2002. pgs. 233-235.