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VII Chapters of Dickens, a Crash Course in the Dregs of Victorian Society

January 19, 2012

What Dickens does in demonstrating the nature of Victorian society is a grand show of shadowplay. That is to say, the “two countries” that make up Victorian England are delineated in the author’s willingness to delve into the shadowy realms of industrialized London. The underclasses of Dickens’ universe, the urchins, the peddlers, the gaffers, inhabit a netherworld cut off from the light of a sun that is said to never set.

A “gaffer” like Jesse Hexam is already damned to an underworld where he does not transport the dead across the river but instead pulls them from its watery clutches. He is little more than one of his own collected corpses, for he is already buried beneath the grotesque monotony of his meaningless existence. He can do nothing more than drink himself deeper. The very weight of his social position even threatens to drag his family down with him– it can ultimately only serve to snuff out the light of Lizzie’s beauty and Charley’s brains. But what can be done? As a poor Victorian, he is rowing against an impervious current.

Likewise, Silas Wegg must monger his ballads and peddle his fruit fatefully lost under the layer of ever present dust. What little learning he has can only be used to trick and deceive his way into drink and cullinery delights. Even though his character is far more humorous than Hexam, he is no less damned. Here even the humor is tinged with the grotesque.

None of this is pretty, but it is real. Of course it is heightened, for Dickens does not intend “realism”. But one begins to feel that this reality can only be shown, that the shadows can only be seen into, through the lens of the author’s fantastical vision. Here lies Dickens’ power of social criticism. In the shadows, his genius.


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  1. I love that you point out the “shadows” of Victorian England.

  2. I am glad that you emphasized the Two Nations idea.This idea is not only in Victorian England, but also how we view poverty and wealth today and especially in the sixties and seventies, Post World War II and the rise of the middle class actually divided classes and kept them farther apart.

    • Oh, this is most certainly an on going problem. A problem, I think, we have failed to address in an honest and meaningful way. Much like all serious problems in our society. This is where the convergence of Dickens and Ruskin will get interesting. (Who knows, maybe Marx will show up to).

  3. OOOOOOH. Marx would be so great to mix in with these guys… he was working in the British Library in the mid-19th century, after all. 🙂

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