Although most readers associate his name with novels rather than short pieces, Charles Dickens began his literary career with short fiction, and he never entirely grew away from it. In Sketches by Boz, the collection of his first literary work, readers find sketches and short stories that braid together the realism and fancy that mingle more naturally in Hard Times, Little Dorrit (1855-1857), and Great Expectations (1860-1861). The sketches, such as “Seven Dials,” “The Election for Beadle,” and “A Visit to Newgate,” offer a subjectively perceived picture of real people, places, and events: As Dickens informs his reader in the last of these three pieces, “We took no notes, made no memoranda, measured none of the yards. ” Instead, “We saw the prison, and saw the prisoners, and what we did see, and what we thought, we will tell at once in our own way.” Thus, the sketches offer readers reality filtered through a consciousness that a reader of the novels will identify at once as distinctively Dickensian. In contrast, the short stories, such as the melodramatic “A Black Veil,” are imitations and read like what they are, an apprentice writer’s attempt to purvey the gothic eeriness and jailyard gloom that proved eminently marketable in the 1820’s and 1830’s.
When the astonishing success of the Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) launched Dickens as a novelist, he was still relying heavily on the tactics of short fiction. The adventures of Mr. Pickwick and his friends might almost be seen as a loosely joined series of short stories; and Dickens repeatedly interrupts the main action of the novel with “interpolated tales,” most of them somber or supernatural such as those found in Sketches by Boz. In the Pickwick Papers, however, the tales of melancholy, deprivation, and loneliness do more than accommodate the tastes of the audience; they counterpoise the generally cheerful, comfortable, sociable climate of Mr. Pickwick’s world.
For example, the story of the “Queer Client,” related by an old frequenter of the Inns of Court, connects the worlds of innocence and guilt by showing the naïve Mr. Pickwick how little he knows of the sorrows these ancient legal chambers have witnessed: “the waiting—the hope—the disappointment—the fear—the misery—the poverty.” The tale begins in the Marshalsea, where Heyling, a young man cruelly forsaken by his prosperous father and yet more cruelly prosecuted by his father-in-law, has been imprisoned for debt, as Dickens’s father had been. In the dark, unwholesome prison, Heyling watches first his infant son and then his wife weaken and die. When, through ironic fate, he inherits the paternal fortune that has been withheld during his father’s lifetime, Heyling leaves the prison, but the prison does not leave him. Prematurely aged and consumed from within by a passion for revenge, he devotes all his energies to making his father-in-law pay for his former brutality. Chance brings Heyling to a deserted beach where the old man’s son is drowning, and, by withholding aid, Heyling achieves half his revenge. Then, with the help of an attorney “well known as a man of no great nicety in his professional dealings,” Heyling gradually buys up the loans his father-in-law has taken out and at last confronts the old man with the same fate his daughter had suffered: “Tonight I consign you to the living death to which you devoted her—a hopeless prison.” This vengeance, however, loses some of its sweetness when the victim, hounded beyond endurance, dies on the spot.
The tale of the Queer Client is in a number of ways typical of its author. In the story we see Dickens’s characteristic dislike for the legal system, which he repeatedly portrayed as a pernicious and parasitic institution that corrupted lawyers while it ruined clients, and his indignation at the inhumanity of the prisons, of debtors’ prisons in particular. Like so many of Dickens’s short pieces, the story of the Queer Client involves improbable if not downright supernatural happenings, and, like the other tales in the Pickwick Papers, it serves as a kind of gloss to the comic action in the main plot. Heyling, imprisoned and warped by his imprisonment, both resembles and differs from Pickwick, who is unfairly jailed for breach of promise but does not permit himself the perverse self-indulgence of revenging himself on those who have wronged him. Both the parallels and the contrasts prove significant here. By including the tale of the Queer Client in his novel, Dickens shows that the Pickwickian idyll is precarious—a subtle shift of circumstances could easily swing Mr. Pickwick’s plight from comedy to tragedy—but, by making the short tale extraneous to the main plot, he undercuts this very point. Pickwick and Heyling, although they endure the same wrong, inhabit different worlds.
Thus, Pickwick Papers contains short tales at least in part because the young Dickens found in them an ingenious if obviously mechanical means of bringing the darker realities into the charmed lives of his characters. With experience he learned to weave darkness more naturally into the texture of the worlds he fashioned; in Little Dorrit, written some twenty years after Pickwick Papers, he uses the interpolated tale in a more sophisticated way. The caustic Miss Wade’s autobiographical manuscript, “The History of a Self-Tormentor,” gains a measure of sympathy for a previously unsympathetic character by letting the reader see how the embittered woman views herself and others and hence understand, though not excuse, her actions.
Although Dickens used first-person narration only occasionally in his novels, many of his short pieces are related from this point of view. In the collaborative sequences of tales that make up the special Christmas numbers of Household Words (1850-1859) and All the Year Round (1859-1870), the comments of individuated narrators such as Charley at the Holly Tree Inn, Dr. Marigold, Mrs. Lirriper, and the Boy at Mugby Junction frame and connect the tales. In many of the independent short pieces, the first-person narration proves yet more important, for it permits Dickens to offer his reader, as he does in “The History of a Self-Tormentor,” a glimpse into an unconventional consciousness. Perhaps the most subtle of these psychological experiments, and the piece of short fiction that has most intrigued Dickens’s critics, is George Silverman’s Explanation.
George Silverman’s Explanation
George Silverman begins his tale as many a storyteller has done: “It happened in this wise,” but he breaks off directly, as if unsure whether he has hit on the right words to explain his explanation. He resumes with the same phrase and again pauses, tentative, tongue-tied—a clumsy start, the reader might conclude, but after finishing the narrative he may be more likely to see the opening passage as an artful affectation of artlessness. For once George Silverman launches in earnest into his narrative, he uses language shrewdly and skillfully to gain sympathy and approval for a code of behavior that is more than a little curious.
Born in abject poverty, George is from infancy abused as a “worldly little devil” for desiring and demanding the necessities of life: food, drink, warmth. Bent by his early experience, he goes through life continually trying to demonstrate his unworldliness but continually failing to do so. Convalescing at a farmhouse, the recently orphaned George shrinks away from the young girl who lives there. His motives, as he presents them, are noble—he fears that he will infect young Sylvia with the disease that killed his parents—but his actions make the household consider him sullen and solitary.
Later in his career, George exonerates the pious hypocrite of a guardian who has very clearly swindled him out of his inheritance. His reward is to be denounced as a worldly sinner by the old fraud he has shielded and his whole Evangelical congregation. Having gained a university education, George accepts a meager post as clergyman from the tightfisted Lady Fareway, who shamelessly takes advantage of his unworldliness by making him her unpaid secretary and her daughter’s unpaid tutor. Miss Fareway, who turns out to be beautiful, good, and intelligent, comes to love her tutor, who cherishes a secret love for her. Rather than accept the gift that fortune has presented, however, Silverman high-mindedly contrives to transfer Miss Fareway’s love to a “more worthy” object, his student, Mr. Wharton. Silverman, as self-denying as William Makepeace Thackeray’s Captain Dobbin or Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano, marries the woman he loves to the man he has caused her to love, and, for his disinterestedness, loses his job and his reputation since the vindictive Lady Fareway charges him with accepting a bribe to snare her daughter for Wharton.
On first reading, George Silverman’s Explanation seems a plausible account. We accept Silverman as what he claims to be, a selfless, unworldly soul victimized by others. It is well to remember, however, that the story we have before us is of Silverman’s own telling. When we separate the actual events from the subjective interpretations accorded them by the narrator, Silverman’s merits seem less certain. Might not his perennial self-sacrifice be an inverted form of selfishness? In keeping the world at arm’s length and in refusing the blessing of love, wealth, and companionship, is not Silverman showing himself to be more concerned with his private code than with his fellow men? Can we admire such a sterile ethic? Ultimately George Silverman’s Explanation makes very little clear. The narrator’s plight is undeniably pathetic, but his true character remains an enigma.
The Christmas Books
If Dickens’s reasons for writing George Silverman’s Explanation are uncertain, he left no doubt as to his objectives for his five Christmas books, which appeared between 1843 and 1848. “My purpose,” Dickens wrote of these short books, “was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good humor of the season justified, to waken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land.” Christmas as Dickens describes it, with its feasting and dancing, its cozy firesides and frosty landscapes, is more a secular than a religious celebration. The message that his Christmas books convey is likewise a human rather than a divine one: good will to humans.
This recurrent moral is stated at its simplest in a Christmas tale from the Pickwick Papers, “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” in which Gabriel Grub, a morose gravedigger who scoffs at humanity, is carried off by the Goblins on Christmas Eve, shown many a scene of mortal joy and sorrow, and thus taught to sympathize with his fellow humans. The most sophisticated rendition of the idea occurs in the last of the Christmas books, The Haunted Man, in which Redlaw the chemist, a memory-plagued solitary with much wisdom of the head but little of the heart, gains the power to take away people’s remembrances but renounces it when he learns the Christmas lesson that recollection of good and bad experiences alike is what binds humans to humans. However, the best-loved variation on the theme is A Christmas Carol, the short piece that is probably Dickens’s most widely known work.
A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol begins, naturally enough, on Christmas Eve, as the miserly misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge repeatedly demonstrates to his nephew, his poor clerk Bob Crachit, and other holiday-makers that Yuletide cheer is, to him, “humbug.” At home in his gloomy chambers, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, who has been dead seven years to the very day. Encumbered by a chain of cash boxes, padlocks, keys, and purses, Marley explains to Scrooge that he wears a chain he had forged in his own lifetime and that he now walks abroad because in life his soul had never ventured beyond the limits of their counting house. Before departing, Marley urges Scrooge to avoid the same sort of fate and tells him that for his future good he will be haunted by three spirits.
The first of these, the Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge back to earlier Christmases in his life. The miser’s leathery old heart begins to soften as he feels the sadness of being a small boy left behind at school, the conviviality of a holiday dance at old Fezziwig’s, where the young Scrooge had been an apprentice, and the shame of being set free by the gentle girl who knew that her suitor’s heart had come to have room for but one ideal—“the master-passion, Gain.” The lusty Ghost of Christmas Present escorts Scrooge through London and shows him the domestic felicity that Yuletide celebrations confer on humble households and prosperous ones, on the Crachits and his nephew’s family. Finally, the shrouded specter of Christmas Yet To Come presents the future that lies ahead if Scrooge fails to open his heart and mend his ways. The Crachits will grow yet poorer, and their lame Tiny Tim will die; Scrooge himself will pass unlamented from the scene, and the charwoman, the laundress, and the undertaker’s man will divide his possessions.
The story ends on Christmas Day, when Scrooge ventures forth a changed man. Having learned to look beyond himself, Scrooge now understands how to keep Christmas. He gives generously of his wealth and himself to his fellow men. This conversion story, a timely one for the smug and prosperous Victorian middle class, has continued to speak to Dickens’s readers, who find in A Christmas Carol a very clear version of a point that Dickens makes in most of his writings. Perhaps the one great gift that his fiction offers people is the encouragement not to conform to any particular standard to perfect themselves but to savor the diverse spectacle of humanity and to play their own parts in the pageant with compassion and good cheer.