Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038
Barnaby Rudge is Charles Dickens’s first attempt at writing a historical novel, something he accomplished with greater success in A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Barnaby Rudge ambitiously treats such matters as parental relationships (especially father-son relationships) and complex political situations. All too often, however, critics have ignored it or else attempted to excuse it as a misguided attempt at historical drama in the style popularized by Sir Walter Scott. Other criticisms of the novel have included unsatisfactorily developed female characters (a common criticism of Dickens’s work) and the fact that so much of its purposes are enmeshed strongly with complex, contemporary political issues of Dickens’s time.
Dickens’s main subject in the novel is the Gordon Riots, which took place in the 1780’s. The riots were a misguided movement, largely motivated by religious bigotry with no particular social grievance, and were one of the last great shows of anti-Catholic sentiment in England. When Dickens was writing Barnaby Rudge, he was perhaps motivated in part by his own fears about the potentially revolutionary situation existing in England at the time, a result of a clash between Chartism and Unionism. The novel’s riots might be said to represent that most explosive of all political situations and the direst threat imaginable to Dickens and his middle-class audience: an alliance between the two political extremes, radical and reactionary. However, in the novel, the riots are brought about more by the collision of various personal motives on the parts of its leaders than by any political or revolutionary motive. Each of the mob’s leaders has his own differing personal motives, which are only momentarily submerged in a common cry, in this case “No Popery.”
One of the great strengths of the novel is in the descriptions of its crowd scenes, as the mob sweeps from the pastoral landscape of the Maypole Inn to London’s Newgate prison. The riot offered Dickens the opportunity to explore the way in which an explosive social situation can come into existence. He shows how intolerable social conditions can produce fuel for riot, destruction, and social chaos and how the social evil of the riots was primarily caused by those who saw no common human bond between themselves and those economically less fortunate. Dickens attributes much of the willful destruction of the existing order to selfish indifference or ignorance about the part on the past of such characters as Simon Tappertit, John Chester, Gashford, Hugh, and Barnaby Rudge. In some way or another, they all are alienated from an identity grounded in the social structure they want to smash.
Dickens uses the riots to expose a fundamental sickness in society, the mindless urge to destroy. He forces himself and his readers to confront the harsh realities of riot and revolution through the great detail in which he presents scenes of destruction. These scenes forcefully bring home to his readers, almost in a cautionary manner, the reality of what revolution means. The looting of The Warren, Geoffrey Haredale’s home, for example, which takes place over the course of several pages in the novel, shows in its remorseless attention to detail how determined Dickens was that his readers be spared nothing of the pain of this destruction. Likewise, in his description of the destruction of the Maypole Inn, Dickens’s prose takes on a note of recognizable rage at what he sees as an offense against nature. He is determined to show his readers that the average as well as the exceptional must suffer from revolution. The inn represents a modest way of life that is just as susceptible to the madness of revolution as the great house.
Barnaby Rudge presents the causes and conditions that made the riots possible through a...
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