Charles Dickens Short Fiction Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 2313 words.)
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