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

April 13, 2012

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.




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  1. I really like the early Dickens, too. I forgot that until I started poking around on the links to the readings. I read many of them (they are so short) and I can see the writer he would become in little bits here… the one on gin shops was really great since he writes so much about addiction.

  2. I like the early stuff, too. I think the clearness (or focus) of the novels and their characters make them more engaging. I feel like I was constantly being (deliberately) sidetracked from the interesting issues in OMF and Bleak House.

  3. Your comments about lenses and cameras got me thinking…today’s documentaries and investigative news cameras capture life in much the same way as Dickens’ eye and pen. I think of how the modern day camera moves the public at large to action — human trafficking, political scandals, animal cruelty in slaughterhouses, “To Catch a Predator,” etc. — yet never (in my mind anyway) as profoundly as did Dickens. His challenge was to move people through literature, something that certainly can be easy to ignore if one tries hard enough. But the momentum builds among readers, as the messages (installments) are passed from hand to hand, until finally they reach a hand that is far enough up the chain of power to actually DO something about it. The power of the media – for good or ill — to isolate a moment in time and then propel it (sometimes violently) into the public eye is something I don’t really see Dickens doing. He is more subtle, and in that subtley I think he more successfully gets under the skin. At any rate, I’d rather read Dickens than watch cable news anyway.

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