Charles Dickens and tales of Providence

Today, on his 200th birthday, Charles Dickens is a writer for our times. Dickens is the rare artist appreciated both in his own day and by succeeding generations. Art that can be explained away by its component parts is not likely to be great art; the greatness of Dickens’ art, ultimately, is that je ne sais quoi that separates a good work from the masterpiece.

Even so, some aspects of Dickens’ artistry are clearly identifiable. His characters are mythic, yet seem to pulse with the blood of real individuals. His narrative voice captures equally the comic and tragic, the local and the epic, the silly and satiric, the sentimental and the dramatic. His intricate, improbable plots demand the willing suspension of disbelief as we surrender ourselves in delight to the laws that govern his imaginative worlds.

Dickens was no aloof artist who fancied himself above the materials of his craft. He knew the world he lived in with a depth and intimacy few can claim: he knew fatherlessness, poverty, debt, envy, struggle, and hard-won success. It is said he walked hundreds of miles through the roughest pockets of London. With that knowledge, he reflected in his works the variety, abundance, and oddity of a universe that is at once the source of much wonder and despair. He arouses in the reader sympathy for orphans; sorrow over death that comes too soon; outrage at injustices great and small; admiration for selfless blacksmiths; disdain for hypocrites, greedy guardians, faux gentlemen, miserly employers, and cruel sisters who bring you up by hand; pity toward forlorn criminals. Dickens can elicit these emotions in us only because he felt them, too.

Yet, the novels don’t merely reflect society as would a mirror. Like a lamp, Dickens’ words shine on the dark places that the blinders of familiarity shield from sight.  Like a prophet, Dickens proclaims the truths neither his contemporaries nor we can, or will, see. In expressing the particularities of his own time and place, his stories continue today to illuminate universal truths of the human condition. A Christmas Carol exposes the Scrooge in all of our hearts. Great Expectations portrays the journey we all take to find our true identity and our true home. The labyrinthine Bleak House embodies the idea that justice delayed is justice denied. A Tale of Two Cities, a gospel-saturated work, depicts institutionalized evil, and yet at the heart of the story is a man who lays down his life for another—and, in losing his life, saves it. All of his works exhibit an overarching worldview that recognizes Providence as reigning over even the deepest depravity of man.

Dickens himself was far from an exemplary Christian; both his life and his theology were flawed. For Dickens, as for many in his Victorian society, Christ’s humanity often eclipsed His divinity, and an emphasis on works sometimes overshadowed the doctrine of grace. Yet the body of Dickens’ work reveals an honest struggle to distinguish the outward forms of religion from its essence, and pharisaical piety from Christ-like love. Such an effort is as timely today as it was then.

For Discussion

  • What is your favorite Dickens novel?
  • What Biblical themes do you see in his work?
  • How does Dickens' writing still resonate today?

 

Karen Swallow Prior is Associate Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University. A member of the Redbud Writers Guild, she also blogs regularly at  Her.meneutics. / H.K. Browne engraving for Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son courtesy of iStockphoto.

Comments (8)

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Nice piece here, Karen. Dickens's influence is understandable when you consider how he did things: raw characterization, plots that doggedly remain in the soil in which he planted them, entertaining writing that manages to expose society's unseemly sides without devolving into prurience.

That said, though, I'm not a fan. Not in the sense of enjoying Dickens, anyway. Is that sacrilegious? Admittedly, I've only tried one of his stories all the way through: A Tale of Two Cities. But it's just not my cup of tea, sad to say.

For example, in ATOTC the only character I found truly lifelike was the London grave robber Jarvis Lorry, but Dickens lost me with him when Lorry went to Paris with the protagonists and just happened to have the information they needed about someone because he had robbed the man's grave. Sheesh! And I don't think it's just ATOTC, either. I've read excerpts of other works and I'm not inclined to give them a further read either.

My loss, I'm sure, but you'll have a Dickens of a time convincing me I should give him another go.

Cheers,
Tim
Tim, you are not alone. Dickens fell out of favor with the modernists and their penchant for realism, a tendency I, too, harbor. The improbability and sentimentality of Dickens can be a stumbling block. If you were to give him another try, however, I'd suggest my favorite, Great Expectations. Its many moments of laugh out loud humor and its moving picture of Christlike love in the blacksmith Joe make it a very different read from ATOTC. But if you forego the suggestion, we can still be friends. :)
Whilst I agree that Dickens has the capacity to 'illuminate universal truths of the human condition' I firmly believe that if his most famous and best known work 'A Christmas Carol' was written today he would make an important alteration. When the ghost of Christmas Present takes his leave, Scrooge summons up the courage to ask what it is that he hides beneath his garment. The spirit pulls his cloak aside to reveal two dirty, emaciated children. The ghost of Christmas Present informs Scrooge that the boy is 'ignorance' the girl is 'want'... 'beware them both and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is doom'. If Dickens wrote that critique today he would change ignorance for apathy. For it is apathy which we christians fight against more than ignorance in the 21st century.
OK, to show you what a sport I am Karen (and that I value your literary taste and opinion highly) I just went to Project Gutenberg for an ebook version of GE.

I'll report on my progress, Professor.
Oh dear. I'm reminded now that two dear friends have been stuggling to forgive me for urging them to read GE. One refers to her "lost summer" and the other has picked it up and started all over again too many times to count. I hope this time turns out a bit better for all concerned! :)
Paul, TimF, and KSB: I agree that Dickens had the "capacity to 'illuminate universal truths of the human condition'", but I also agree that he deviated from what many would call "realism."

To me, that's part of the beauty and charm of his works.

None of us can deny that the strange, the coincidental, is part of the human experience. One of the truly important aspects of Dickens' writing is the ability to fold this "in-credible" (in the denotative sense of the word) into the mundane.

This is literature; and every great piece of literature is as soundly praised as it is harshly criticized. One could almost call that a mark of greatness.

But when it all boils down, it's about preference. I like what G. K. Chesterton wrote about Dickens in his introduction to Chuzzlewit:

"We go for a particular novel to Dickens as we go for a particular inn. We go to the sign of the Pickwick Papers. We go to the sign of the Rudge and Raven. We go to the sign of the Old Curiosities. We go to the sign of the Two Cities. We go to each or all of them according to what kind of hospitality and what kind of happiness we require."
Agreed! And Chesterton provides a very balanced and fair evaluation of Dickens.

Here's to beauty and charm in its myriad forms!
I wonder how anyone could not be a fan of the spontaneous combustion in Bleak House, and I wonder how many people read Oliver Twist as darkly as I do. That said, I agree with J. Hillis Miller that Dickens relies on quantity of character, rather than depth of it, to piece together a coherent picture of his London. The image Miller uses, if I remember correctly, is one of walking down the street and bumping into person after person, the result of which is only knowing them in passing. In this regard I prefer Dickens's protege and friend, Wilkie Collins, particularly the sympathetic portrayal of Rosanna Spearman and Ezra Jennings in The Moonstone.

 

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