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...
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revolution as the great house.
Barnaby Rudge presents the causes and conditions that made the riots possible through a series of dramatic oppositions. The most notable opposition that Dickens sets up is that of the influence of the past on the present, of the old order against the new. The pastoral world, represented by the Maypole Inn at Chigwell, just outside London, is an obvious image of a stable social order rooted in the past. The opening sentences of the novel, however, suggest that this is a way of life that has grown old and apparently deserves to die.
In part, in these opening scenes, Dickens seems to be implicating the landed aristocracy, which gave up its age-old responsibility to provide governance and guidance to its tenants. This is represented in the character of Sir John Chester, one of the driving background forces of the mob violence. Through John, Dickens also explores a familiar topic of great concern to him, that of parenthood, in this case the relationships between fathers and sons. By disowning his sons Edward and Hugh, John does not merely threaten his way of life by irresponsibility but brings about its downfall by the willful destruction of his lineage. His son Hugh is the final product of a way of life that falls into decay; allowed to live as an animal, he is quite willing to help destroy the society that created and disowned him.
Barnaby, the title character, is similar to Hugh in that he, too, is the son of a wicked father. Simple-minded and ready to believe what people tell him without question, Barnaby is caught up in the riots as their revolutionary leader. Barnaby complements Hugh well, since the situation of the riots in which they both willingly participate is, in part, brought about by the actions of fathers such as theirs who selfishly destroy the traditional order of society. This selfishness damages the future, through their sons, as much as it destroys the past.
Barnaby is also an obvious image of the irrationality of violence, perhaps too obvious an image (although Dickens originally planned to have three escapees from the Bedlam asylum lead the mob). However, virtually no one connected with the riots has any more idea than Barnaby as to why he is where he is.
Often overlooked among Dickens’s many novels, Barnaby Rudge certainly deserves more serious consideration. The novel is a complex treatment of the conditions that give rise to political disorder, coupled with a detailed treatment of one of Dickens’s favorite themes, the relationship between parents and children.