Charles Dickens Long Fiction Analysis
The “Dickens World,” as Humphrey House calls it, is one of sharp moral contrast, a world in which the self-seeking—imprisoned in their egotism—rub shoulders with the altruistic, freed from the demands of self by concern for others; a world in which the individual achieves selfhood by creating a “home” whose virtues of honesty and compassion are proof against the dehumanizing “System”; a world in which all things are animate and where, indeed, metaphors for moral perversity take on lives of their own, like the miasma of evil that hangs above the houses in Dombey and Son.
Many of Charles Dickens’s most memorable characters are those whose language or personality traits are superbly comic: Sairey Gamp, the bibulous nurse in Martin Chuzzlewit, with her constant reference to the fictitious Mrs. ’Arris; Flora Finching, the parodic reincarnation of a stout, garrulous Maria Beadnell in Little Dorrit; and Turveydrop, the antediluvian dandy in Bleak House. Providing characters with distinguishing traits is, of course, a dramatic device (to see red hair and a handkerchief is to be reminded of Fagin, and knitting, of Mme DeFarge); more important, however, such traits carry a moral resonance. While Dickens’s villains grow more complex as his writing matures, most share an overriding egotism that causes them to treat people as things. Perhaps that is why things become animate; in a world in which human traits are undervalued, objects achieve a life and controlling power of their own. The miser Harmon disposes of Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend as if she were a property to be willed away; the convict Jaggers creates a “gentleman” out of Pip in Great Expectations; both Carker and Dombey see Edith as a valuable objet d’art in Dombey and Son.
Dickens’s later heroes and heroines are characterized by their movement toward self-actualization. In the early novels, Rose Maylie, Mr. Brownlow, Tom Pinch, Nicholas Nickleby, and even Pickwick represent compassionate but stereotyped models. Later, however, Dombey is thawed by his daughter Florence’s love; Eugene Wrayburn, the blasé lawyer, is humanized by Lizzie Hexam; and Bella Wilfer gives up self-seeking for John Rokesmith. Some, however, must go through the reverse process of acquiring self-assertiveness. Florence Dombey is such a one; only by fleeing her father’s household and establishing a family of her own can she achieve perspective. Amy Dorrit is another; she must grow up and then willfully become as a child again for the benefit of Arthur Clennam, who needs to be convinced of his worth. Esther Summerson is yet a third; persuaded of her worthlessness because of her illegitimacy, she must learn a sense of self-worth before she can marry Allan Woodstone.
Many of the heroes and heroines are tested by touchstone figures, such as Smike, Jo, Mr. Toots, Maggie, and Sloppy—unfortunates whose lack of mental capability or personal disfavor provides a test for altruism. Many of Dickens’s child characters serve a similar purpose, from Oliver Twist and his famous request for more gruel to the itinerant Little Nell.
All of the characters are subject to the effects of the “System,” in whatever shape it takes: Dotheboys Hall and the Gradgrind’s school, the Circumlocution Office, the middle-class complacency of Podsnappery, the unsanitary conditions of Tom All Alone’s, or the financial shenanigans of Montague Tigg’s Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Insurance Company. Far worse are the hypocrisy of Pecksniff, the concupiscence of Gride, the utilitarianism of Gradgrind, and the lovelessness of Estella, but all are personal evocations of the evils of the “System.” Even as early as Oliver Twist, Dickens seemed to recognize that no one individual could rectify evil. As Stephen Marcus has observed: “Pickwick Papers is Dickens’s one novel in which wickedness, though it exists, is not a threat. The unfortunate and the deprivedhave only to catch a glimpse of Pickwick...
(The entire section is 4,658 words.)