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Dickens, Charles 1812-1870
(Full name Charles John Huffam Dickens; also wrote under the pseudonym of Boz) English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and essayist.
Although Dickens is perhaps best known for his novels, he wrote short fiction throughout his career, from the early Sketches by Boz to the acclaimed Christmas stories and the journalistic Uncommercial Traveller. Dickens's short stories, like his longer works, mix humor with macabre imagery to create vivid illustrations of the lives of ordinary people. Designed to uncover social injustices and promote reform in his own time, the endearing characterizations and moving situations presented in Dickens's shorter pieces have appealed to audiences up to the present day; indeed, his short story A Christmas Carol is one of his most enduring works. For much of the Englishspeaking world, this tale has played an important role in defining the Yule spirit; according to May Lamberton Becker, "every year at Christmas time, thousands of families wherever the English language is known would scarcely think Christmas really Christmas without listening to this story read aloud."
Dickens was the son of John Dickens, a minor government official who, because he continually lived beyond his means, was briefly imprisoned for debt. During his father's confinement, the twelve-year-old Dickens was forced to leave home and work in dreadful conditions in a blacking (shoe polish) warehouse. This experience left an indelible impression on Dickens, who portrayed the difficulties of the poor in most of his writings. Late in his teens, Dickens learned shorthand and worked as a reporter. In 1833 he began contributing sketches and short stories to various periodicals. These were eventually compiled into two volumes under the title Sketches by Boz. He continued to use serial publication for all of his works, including his novels, for he cherished the constant contact with his readers the method provided. Throughout his career, Dickens gave numerous public readings from his works in both England and America, an activity that left him exhausted. Many believe that increasing physical and mental strain led to the stroke Dickens suffered while working on the novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which he left unfinished at his death.
Major Works of Short Fiction
In his short fiction, Dickens variously combines humor, sentiment, autobiography, spirituality, and both Gothic and realistic elements. Sketches by Boz, provides comic and closely observed characterizations drawn from Victorian London's lower and middle classes. Celebrated stories from this compilation include: "A Visit to Newgate," which details a criminal's final hours before his execution; "The Black Veil," a tale about a woman whose life is evaluated according to the worth of her husband; and "Mr. Minns and His Cousin," which shows that adherence to social conventions can cause misery. Continuing to focus on the lives of ordinary people, Dickens began writing Christmas stories, which include A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain. His intention for these tales was, he wrote, "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." Generally, these books feature fallen protagonists who, through a chain of remarkable, even otherworldly, events, realize the mistakes they have made in life. For example, A Christmas Carol chronicles the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge (Dickens's most famous character) from a miser to a generous being after he receives startling visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. In The Chimes Toby Veck represents members of the lower class who have acceded to society's opinion that the poor are inferior; his conversion involves restoring faith in himself and his class. The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain—the most sophisticated version of the common theme in the estimation of many critics—portrays Mr. Redlaw's realization that his new-found ability to erase memories is harmful to others. After writing these holiday tales, Dickens, using material from his own life, penned the more journalistic The Uncommercial Traveller. One story in this collection, "Dullborough Town," describes the setting of Dickens's childhood, and another, "City of London Churches," recounts a love affair similar to the writer's first relationship.
Hailed for his comic and journalistic abilities, powerful and provoking depictions of the poor, unforgettable characters, and the moral-filled Christmas stories, Dickens was one of the most successful writers of his time. Enormously popular in England, he was, before he turned thirty, honorably received in America as well. Dickens wrote of the reception: "There never was a king or emperor upon the earth so cheered and followed by crowds, and entertained in public at splendid halls and dinners, and waited on by public bodies and deputations of all kinds." Although some critics have asserted that Sketches by Boz focuses too heavily on the lower class and that the author's stories are at times too sentimental and laden with exaggeration, many have extolled them for their expressions of a fundamental faith in humanity and their unflagging censure of social injustice. A. Edward Newton perhaps best summarized the high esteem in which countless readers hold Dickens when he declared that "in the resplendent firmament of English literature there is only one name I would rank above his for sheer genius: Shakespeare."
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Sketches by Boz [as Boz] 1836
A Christmas Carol 1843
The Chimes 1844
The Cricket on the Hearth 1845
The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain 1848
Reprinted Pieces 1858
The Uncommercial Traveller 1861
*Other Major Works
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [as Boz] (novel) 1837
Oliver Twist (novel) 1838
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby (novel) 1839
Barnaby Rudge (novel) 1841
The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841
American Notes for General Circulation (travel essay) 1842
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (novel) 1844
Pictures from Italy (travel essay) 1846
Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son (novel) 1848
The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1850
Bleak House (novel) 1853
Hard Times for These Times (novel) 1854
Little Dorrit (novel) 1857
A Tale of Two Cities (novel) 1859
Great Expectations (novel) 1861
Our Mutual Friend (novel) 1865
No Thoroughfare [with Wilkie Collins] (drama) 1867
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished novel) 1870
*All of Dickens's novels were first published serially in magazines, usually over periods ranging from one to two years.
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SOURCE: A review of The Chimes, in The Edinburgh Review, Vol. LXXXI, January, 1845, pp. 181-89.
[In the excerpt below, the anonymous critic discusses Dickens's exposure of the plight of the poor in The Chimes.]
Tray, Mr Betterton,' asked the good Archbishop Sancroft of the celebrated actor, 'can you inform me what is the reason you actors on the stage, speaking of things imaginary, affect your audience as if they were real; while we in the church speak of things real, which our congregations receive only as if they were imaginary?' 'Why, really, my lord,' answered Betterton, 'I don't know; unless it is that we actors speak of things imaginary as if they were real, while you in the pulpit speak of things real as if they were imaginary.' It is a clever answer; and as applicable now as when the archbishop put the question. Indifference makes sorry work of Truth, in half of what is going on around us; and what truthful and serious work may be made of Fiction, Mr Dickens helps us to discern.
We do not know the earnestness to compare with his, for the power of its manifestation and its uses. It is delightful to see it in his hands, and observe by what tenure he secures the popularity it has given him. Generous sympathies and kindest thoughts, are the constant renewal of his fame; and in such wise fashion as the little book before us, he does homage for his title and his territory. A noble homage! Filling successive years with merciful charities; and giving to thousands of hearts new and just resolves.
This is the lesson of his Chimes, as of his delightful Carol; but urged with more intense purpose and a wider scope of application. What was there the individual lapse, is here the social wrong. Questions were handled there, to be settled with happy decision. Questions are here brought to view, which cannot be dismissed when the book is laid aside. Condition of England questions; questions of starving labourer and struggling artizan; duties of the rich and pretences of the worldly; the cruelty of unequal laws; and the pressure of awful temptations on the unfriended, unassisted poor. Mighty theme for so slight an instrument! but the touch is exquisite, and the tone deeply true.
We write before the reception of the book is known; but the somewhat stern limitation of its sympathies will doubtless provoke remark. Viewed with what seems to be the writer's intention, we cannot object to it. Obtain, for the poor, the primary right of recognition. There cannot, for either rich or poor, be fair play till that is done. Let men be made to think, even day by day, and hour by hour, of the millions of starving wretches, heart-worn, isolated, unrelated, who are yet their fellow-travellers to eternity. We do not know that we should agree with Mr Dickens' system of Political Economy, if he has one; but he teaches what before all economies it is needful to know, and bring all systems to the proof of—the at once solemn and hearty lesson of human brotherhood. It is often talked about, and has lately been much the theme; but in its proper and full significance is little understood. If it were, it would possibly be discovered along with it that life might be made easier, and economies less heartless, than we make them. Such, at any rate, appears to be the notion of Mr Dickens, and, to test its worth, he would make the trial of beginning at the right end.
Begin, he would seem to say to us, with what the wretched have a right to claim as part of a lost possession. Acknowledge some spiritual needs, as well as many bodily ones, and let not your profession of raising the poor man be but another form of the cant that has kept him down. Pompous, purse-proud, pauper Charity will avail him little. Ground to the earth as he is, he may be even spared the further grinding of Justice, if, with a great, huge, dead, steam-engine indifference, it would but crush him to the shape of its own hard requirements. On the other hand, principles of the breed of sans culottes adjusted with the tie of a Brummell, Jack Cade progression in the West-end boots of Hoby, will make still scantier way in his behalf. And from that other extreme of sublimated sense in the city, which detects all kinds of sham but its own, and puts down distress and suicide as it would put down thieving, Heaven in its mercy help him!
Let us away, says Mr Dickens in effect, with all these cants. If we cannot have a higher human purpose, let us have fewer selfish projects. Better for the poor man, if we cannot yield him some rightful claim to nature's kindly gifts, he should be wholly set aside as an intruder at her table. But better far for us, that we know his claims, and take them to our hearts in time. That we understand how rich, in the common inheritance of man, even the poorest of the poor should be. That we clearly understand what Society has made, of what Nature meant to make. That we try in some sort to undo this, and begin by making our laws his security, which have been heretofore his enemy. That even in his guilt, with due regard to its temptations, we treat him as a brother rather than an outcast from brotherhood. For that, in the equal sight of the highest wisdom, the happiness of the worst of the species is as much an integrant part of the whole of human happiness as is that of the best.
In this spirit the little story before us is concieved. There is bitter satirical exposure of the quackeries of quasi-benevolence. There is patient, honest, tender-hearted poverty, forgetting its weary wants, in the zeal with which it ministers to wants even wretcheder than its own. There is the awful lesson, too little thought of by the most thoughtful men, of how close the union is between wants of the body and an utter destitution and madness of the soul. There is profound intimation of the evil that lies lurking in wait for all the innocent and all the good over all the earth. There is the strength and succour of Guilt Resisted, and deepest pity for Innocence Betrayed. And all this, gently and strongly woven into a web of ordinary human life, as it lies within the common experiences; woven into that woof of tears and laughter, of which all our lives are day by day composed, with incomparable art and vigour, and the most compassionate touching tenderness.
Could we note a distinction in the tale, from the general character of its author's writings, it would be that the impression of sadness predominates, when all is done. The comedy as well as tragedy seems to subserve that end; yet it must be taken along with the purpose in view. We have a hearty liking for the cheerful side of philosophy, and so it is certain has Mr Dickens: but there are social scenes and experiences, through which only tragedy itself may work out its kinder opposite. Even the poet who named the most mournful and tragic composition in the world a Comedy, could possibly have justified himself by a better than technical reason. Name this little tale what we will, it is a tragedy in effect. Inextricably interwoven, of course, are both pleasure and pain, in all the conditions of life in this world: crossing with not more vivid contrasts the obscure struggle of the weak and lowly, than with fierce alternations of light and dark traversing that little rule, that little sway, which is all the great and mighty have between the cradle and the grave. But whereas, in the former stories of Mr Dickens, even in the death of his little Nell, pleasure won the victory over pain, we may not flatter ourselves that it is so here. There is a gloom in the mind as we shut the book, which the last few happy pages have not cleared away; an uneasy sense of depression and oppression; a pitiful consciousness of human sin and sorrow; a feeling of some frightful extent of wrong, which we should somehow try to stay; as strong, but apparently as helpless, as that of the poor Frenchman at the bar of the Convention, who demanded of Robespierres and Henriots an immediate arrestment of the knaves and dastards of the world!
But then, says the wise and cheerful novelist to this, there are knaves and dastards of our own world to be arrested by all of us, even by individual exertion of us all, Henriots and Robespierres notwithstanding. It was for this my story was written. It was written, purposely to discontent you with what is hourly going on around you. Things so terrible that they should exist but in dreams, are here presented in a dream; and it is for the good and active heart to contribute to a more cheerful reality, whatsoever and howsoever it can. For ourselves, we will hope that this challenge may be taken. Those things are to be held possible, Lord Bacon thought, which are to be done by some person, though not by every one; and which may be done by many, though not by any one; and which may be done in succession of efforts, though not within the hour-glass of one man's effort. And thus we will think it possible that something may at last be done, even by hearts this little book shall awaken to the sense of its necessity, in abatement of the long and dire conspiracy which has been carried on against poverty, by the world and the world's law.
In so far as there is the machinery of a dream, the plan of the Carol is repeated in the Chimes. But there is a different spiritual agency, very nicely and naturally derived from the simple, solitary, friendless life of the hero of the tale. He is a poor old ticket-porter of London; stands in his vocation by the corner of an old church; and has listened to the chiming of its Bells so constantly, that, with nothing else to talk to or befriend him, he has made out for himself a kind of human, friendly, fellow voice in theirs, and is glad to think they speak to him, pity him, sympathize with him, encourage and help him. Nor, truly, have wiser men than Toby Veck been wise enough to dispel like fancies. There has been secret human harmony in Church-Bells always; life and death have sounded in their matin and vesper chime; with every thing grave or glad they have to do, prayer and festivity, marriage and burial; and there has never been a thoughtful man that heard them, in the New-Year seasons, to whom their voice was not a warning of comfort or retrieval—telling him to date his time and count up what was left him, out of all he had done or suffered, neglected or performed. It is the New-Year season when they talk to Toby Veck; but poor Toby is not sufficiently thoughtful to avoid falling into some mistakes now and then respecting what they say.
He is a delightfully drawn character, this unrepining, patient, humble drudge—this honest, childish-hearted, shabby-coated, simple, kindly old man. There is not a touch of selfishness, even in the few complaints his hard lot wrings from him. Thus, when a pinching east wind has nigh wrenched off his miserable old nose at the opening of the story, he says he really couldn't blame it if it was to go. 'It has a precious hard service of it,' he remarks, 'in the bitter weather, and precious little to look forward to: for I don't take snuff myself '. But there is a wrong extreme even in unselfishness, and Toby is meant for its example. He has had such a hard life; has hope of so little to redeem the hardship; and has read in the newspaper so much about the crimes of people in his own condition—that it is gradually bringing him to the only conclusion his simple soul can understand, and he begins to think that, as the poor can neither go right nor do right, they must be born bad, and can have no business on the earth at all. But while he argues the point with himself, the bright eyes of his handsome little daughter look suddenly into his own, and he thinks again they must have business here, 'a little.' What follows lets us into their humble history; and we learn that this pretty, hard-working girl, has been three years courted by a young blacksmith; and that Richard has at last prevailed with Meg to run the risks of poverty against the happiness of love, and marry him on the morrow, New-Year's Day. So, for further celebration of this coming joy, she has brought her father an unexpected dainty of a dinner of tripe; and as he eats it with infinite relish on the steps of an adjoining house, where they are joined by Meg's lover himself, the door opens and other personages step upon the scene.
Mr Alderman Cute and his friend Mr Filer. The Alderman, great in the city; shrewd, knowing, easy, affable; amazingly familiar with the working-classes; a plain practical dealer in things; up to all the nonsense talked about 'want,' all the cant in vogue about 'starvation,' and resolved to put it down. Mr Filer, a dolorous, dry, pepperand-salt kind of man; great in calculations of human averages; and for filing away all excesses in food and population. Thus he falls at once on poor Toby's tripe, which he shows to be so expensive a commodity, with such a deal of waste in it, that Toby finds himself on a sudden robbing the widow and orphan, and starving a garrison of five hundred men with his own hand.' The Alderman laughs at this mightily, takes up the matter in his livelier way, and gives it quite a cheerful aspect. There is not the least mystery or difficulty in dealing with this sort of people if you only understand'em, and can talk to 'em in their own manner.' In their own manner, accordingly, the good justice talks to them. He proves to Toby in a trice that he has always enough to eat, and of the best. He chucks Meg under the chin, and shows her how indelicate it is to think of getting married; because she will have shoeless and stockingless children, whom he as a justice will find it necessary to put down; or she will be left to starve, or practice the fraud of suicide, and suicide and starvation he must put down. He banters the young smith with increased urbanity as a dull dog and a milksop, to think of tying himself to one woman, a trim young fellow like him, with all the girls looking after him. And so the little party is broken up: poor Meg walking off in tears; Richard gloomy and down-looking; and the miserable Toby, in very depths of despair, receiving a sixpenny job of a letter from the alderman. He is now confirmed in his notion, that the poor have no business on the earth. The Bells chime as he goes off upon his errand, and there is nothing but the Cute and Filer cant in what they seem to say to him. 'Facts and figures; 'facts and figures!' 'Put 'em down; put 'em down!'
The letter is to a very great man, who flounders a little in the depth of his observations, but is a very wise man, Sir Joseph Bowley. It is about a discontented labourer of Sir Joseph's, one William Fern, whom the alderman has an idea of putting down; and Toby, in delivering it, has an opportunity of hearing this philosopher's views about the poor man, to whom he considers himself, by ordainment of Providence, a friend and father. The poor man is to provide entirely for himself, and depend entirely on Sir Joseph. The design of his creation is, not that he should associate his enjoyments, brutally, with food, but that he should feel the dignity of labour: 'go forth erect into the cheerful 'morning air, and—and stop there!9 Toby is elevated by the friendly and fatherly sentiments, but as much depressed to hear they are repaid by black ingratitude. And his heart sinks lower as he listens to Sir Joseph's religious remarks on the necessity of balancing one's accounts at the beginning of a New-Year, and feels how impossible it is to square his own small score at Mrs Chickenstalker's. He leaves the house of this great man, more than ever convinced that his order have no earthly business with a New-Year, and really are 'intruding.'
But on his way home, falling in with the very Will Fern whom the alderman and Sir Joseph are about to put down, he hears somewhat of the other side of the question. The destitute, weary countryman, jaded and soiled with travel, has come to London in search of a dead sister's friend; carries a little child in his arms, his sister's orphan Lilian; and sudden sympathy and fellowship start up between the two poor men. Fern denies none of the Bowley complaints of his ingratitude. 'When work won't maintain me like a human creetur; when my living is so bad, that I am Hungry out of doors and in; when I see a whole working life begin that way, go on that way, and end that way, without a chance or change; then I say to the gentle folks, "Keep away from me. Let my cottage be. My doors is dark enough without your darkening of 'em more. Don't look for me to come up into the park to help the show when there's a birthday, or a fine speechmaking, or what not. Act your Plays and Games without me, and be welcome to 'em, and enjoy 'em. We've nought to do with one another. I'm best let alone!'" Toby brings him to his sorry home; secretly expends the sixpence he has just earned, for his entertainment; and half loses his wits with delight as he sees his dear Meg (whom he had found in tears; her proposed wedding broken off as he imagines) bring back cheerful warmth and comfort to the poor little half-starved Lilian. There is not a more quiet, a more simply unaffected, or a more deeply touching picture, in the whole of Mr Dickens's writings; often as they have softened, in the light of a most tender genius, the rough and coarser edges of lowly life. His visitors gone to what indifferent rest he can provide for them, old Toby is again alone. He falls again into the thought of the morning; pulls out an old newspaper he had before been reading; and once more spelling out the crimes and offences of the poor, especially of those whom Alderman Cute is going to put down, gives way to his old misgiving that they are bad, irredeemably bad; which turns to frightful certainty when he reads about a miserable mother who had attempted the murder of herself and her child. But at this point his friends the Bells clash in upon him, and he fancies they call him to come instantly up to them. He staggers out of the house, gropes his way up the old church stairs into the Tower, falls in a kind of swoon among the Bells, and the DREAM has begun.
The third quarter of the little book opens with the goblin scenes; done with a fertile fancy, and high fantastic art, which tax even the pencil of Mr Maclise to follow them. The Bells are ringing; and innumerable spirits (the sound or vibration of the Bells) are flitting in and out the steeple, bearing missions and commissions, and reminders and reproaches, and punishments and comfortable recollections, to all conditions of people. It is the last night of the old year, and men are haunted as their deeds have been. Scourges and discord, music and flowers, mirrors with pleasant or with awful faces, gleam around. And the Bells themselves, with shadowy likeness to humanity in midst of their proper shapes, speak to Toby as these visions disappear, and sternly rebuke him for his momentary doubt of the right of the poor man to the inheritance which Time reserves for him. His ghost or shadow is then borne through the air to various scenes, attended by spirits of the Bells charged with this trust: That they show him how the poor and wretched, at the worst—yes, even in the crimes which aldermen put down, and he has thought so horrible—have yet some deformed and hunchbacked goodness clinging to them, which preserves to them still their right, and all their share in Time.
He sees his daughter after a supposed lapse of nine years, her hopes and beauty faded, working miserable work with Lilian by her side; and sees, too, that her own brave and innocent patience is but scantily shared by her younger and prettier companion. He sees the Richard that should have been his son-in-law, a slouching, moody, drunken sloven. He sees what the Bowley friends and fathers are; what grave accounts the punctual Sir Josephs leave unlooked at; and what crawling, servile, mean-souled mudworms of the earth, are the Aldermen who put down misery. He sees what their false systems have brought his poor Will Fern to, and hears his solemn warning. 'Give us, in mercy, better homes when we're a-lying in our cradles; give us better food when we're a-working for our lives; give us kinder laws to bring us back when we're a-going wrong; and don't set jail, jail, jail, afore us, every where we turn.'
More years pass, and his daughter is again before him; with the same sublime patience, in an even meaner garret, and with more exhausting labour. But there is no Lilian by her side. The worst temptation has availed, and those nineteen years of smiling radiant life have fallen withered into the ways of sin. We will not trust ourselves to say to what a height of delicate and lovely tenderness these sad passages are wrought, by the beauty of merciful thoughts. Most healthful are the tears that will be shed over them, and the considerate pity they will awaken for all human sin and sorrow. We see the fallen Richard, in sullen half-drunken dreams of the past, haunting Meg's miserable room; and there, at Meg's feet, we see poor Lilian die. Her earthly sin falls from her as she prays to be forgiven, and the pure spirit soars away. 'Oh, Youth and Beauty, happy as ye should be, look at this! Oh, Youth and Beauty, blest and blessing all within your reach, and working out ends of your beneficent Creator, look at this!'
But for the old man is reserved an even more desperate trial. After lapse of further years, his daughter Meg is presented in another aspect. As the last chance of saving Richard she has married him; on his death is left with an infant child; sinks to the lowest abyss of want; and at last into the clutches of despair. Seeing death not distant from herself, and fearing for her child the fate of Lilian, she has resolved, in Toby's sight, her father's, to drown herself and the child together. Hogarth never painted a scene of mingled farce and tragedy with more appalling strength, than one which precedes this terrible resolve. But before she goes down to the water, Toby sees and acknowledges the lesson taught him thus bitterly. He sees that no evil spirit may yet prompt an act of evil. He observes Meg cover her baby with a part of her own wretched dress, adjust its squalid rags to make it pretty in its sleep, hang over it, smooth its little limbs, and love it with the dearest love that God has given to mortal creatures. And he screams to the Chimes to save her, and she is saved. And the moral of it all is, that he, the simple half-starved ticket-porter, has his portion in the New-Year no less than any other man; that the poor require infinite beating out of shape before their human shape is gone; that, even in their frantic wickedness, there may be good in their hearts triumphantly asserting itself, though all the Aldermen alive say No; and that the truth of the feeling to be held towards them, is Trustfulness, not Doubt, nor Putting them Down, nor Filing them Away. 'I know,' cries the old man in an inspiration the Bells convey to him, 'that our inheritance is held in store for us by Time. I know there is a Sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves. I see it, on the flow!'
And as the imaginative reader fancies he sees it too; as he listens for the rush that shall sweep down quacks and pretenders, Cutes, Filers, and Bowleys; peradventure, as his lively fancy may even see old Toby clambering safely to the rock that shall protect him from the sweeping wave, and may watch him still hearkening to his friends the Bells, as, fading from his sight, they peal out final music on the waters . . . . Toby wakes up over his own fire. He finds the newspaper lying at his foot; sees Meg sitting at a table opposite, making up the ribands for her wedding the morrow; and hears the bells, in a noble peal, ringing the old year out and the new year in. And as he rushes to kiss Meg, Richard dashes in to get the first new-year's kiss before him—and gets it; and every body is happy; and neighbours press in with good wishes; and there is a small band among them, Toby being acquainted with a drum in private, which strikes up gaily; and the sudden change, and the ringing of the Bells, and the lively music, so transport Toby, that he is, when last seen, leading off a country-dance in an entirely new step, consisting of that old familiar Trot in which he transacts the business of his calling.
May this wise little tale second the hearty wishes of its writer, and at the least contribute to the coming year that portion of happiness which waits always upon just intentions and kind thoughts.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6540
SOURCE: "Dickens at Work: The Chimes," in Dickens and the Scandalmongers: Essays in Criticism, University of Oklahoma Press, 1965, pp. 50-70.
[Wagenknecht is an American biographer and critic. His works include critical surveys of the English and American novel and studies of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Henry James, among many others. In the following excerpt, which was originally published in the 1931 edition of The Chimes, Wagenknecht asserts that this story is an important source for understanding Dickens's art and spirit.]
The enormous vogue of A Christinas Carol has probably served, in a measure at least, to draw the attention of at least the casual reader away from the fact that Dickens wrote four other Christmas books on a similar plan. I do not claim that The Chimes is worthy to stand beside the incomparable Carol. I do not even think it attains the stature of The Cricket on the Hearth. But it does happen to afford an unusually interesting test case for the contemplation of Dickens as both artist and prophet: first, because we know more about the circumstances of its genesis and growth than we do of many of his works; and, second, because its social and moral teaching is not only daring but interestingly anticipative of some more recent attitudes.
The Chimes was written in Genoa in 1844. This time Dickens began not with a story or a situation, but with an idea, a character, and a purpose. Just as, in writing A Child's History of England, he found it impossible to write about the past without importing all the problems and prejudices of the present into it, so now, during his Italian journey, he found it impossible, as he gazed upon foreign scenes, to withdraw his mind from a constant preoccupation with the problems of the London poor. "Ah!" he cried to Forster upon his return, describing the glories of Venice, "When I saw those places, how I thought that to leave one's hand upon the time, lastingly upon the time, with one tender touch for the mass of toiling people that nothing could obliterate, would be to lift oneself above the dust of all the Doges in their graves, and stand upon a giant's staircase that Sampson [sic!] couldn't overthrow!" The purpose, then, here as in the Carol, was to strike a blow for the poor, and never was Dickens more passionately sincere, never did he give stronger evidence of his astonishing capacity for complete surrender to the emotional appeal of the creatures of his own fancy than when he was writing this book.
The method of The Chimes differs widely, however, from that which he had used in the Carol Here the protagonist, Scrooge, was an enemy of the poor, a man himself in comfortable circumstances, and the story, detailing his conversion, became in effect an appeal to the prosperous people of England, begging them to extend help and sympathy to those less fortunate than themselves. Implicitly, to be sure, this appeal inheres also in The Chimes. Indeed, at the very end it becomes explicit, in the author's direct appeal to the "listener," to "try to bear in mind the stern realities from which these shadows come; and in your sphere—none is too wide, and none too limited for such an end—endeavour to correct, improve, and soften them." But this is secondary. The principal character in The Chimes is the poverty-stricken ticket-porter, Toby Veck. He represents the poor themselves, not their oppressors, and it is as a symbol of the poor that he seems to Dickens to stand in need of conversion. Essentially the problem of The Chimes is a problem of faith—the individual's faith in himself and his ability to adjust to his world. Whatever else happens, Dickens seems to be saying, the poor must on no account be allowed to stop believing in themselves. Beauty and faithfulness and love are not incompatible with poverty; glee and merriment may even, on occasion, join hands with it. But once destroy the poor man's faith in himself and in the goodness of life, and there will be nothing left. Drunkenness, prostitution, arson, suicide, murder—all these must follow as the night the day.
In order to show that I have not misread his purpose, and to provide a basis for what is to follow, I must transcribe the following long sketch of how Dickens originally planned to develop The Chimes. It was sent, in a letter to his friend and future biographer John Forster, along with the First Quarter of the tale, in October, 1844:
The general notion is this. That what happens to poor Trotty [nickname for Toby] in the first part, and what will happen to him in the second (when he takes the letter to a punctual and a great man of business, who is balancing his books and making up his accounts, and complacently expatiating on the necessity of clearing off every liability and obligation, and turning over a new leaf and starting fresh with the new year), so dispirits him, who can't do this, that he comes to the conclusion that his class and order have no business with a new year, and really are "intruding." And though he will pluck up for an hour or so, at the christening (I think) of a neighbour's child, that evening: still, when he goes home, Mr. Filer's precepts will come into his mind, and he will say to himself, "we are a long way past the proper average of children, and it has no business to be born": and will be wretched again. And going home, and sitting there alone, he will take that newspaper out of his pocket, and reading of the crimes and offences of the poor, especially of those whom Alderman Cute is going to put down, will be quite confirmed in his misgiving that they are bad; irredeemably bad. In this state of mind, he will fancy that the Chimes are calling to him; and saying to himself "God help me! Let me go up to 'em. I feel as if I were going to die in despair—of a broken heart; let me die among the bells that have been a comfort to me!"—will grope his way up into the tower; and fall down in a kind of swoon among them. Then the third quarter, in other words the beginning of the second half of the book, will open with the Goblin part of the thing: the bells ringing, and innumerable spirits (the sound or vibration of them) flitting and tearing in and out of the church-steeple, and bearing all sorts of missions and commissions and reminders and reproaches, and comfortable recollections and what not, to all sorts of people and places. Some bearing scourges; and others flowers, and birds, and music; and others pleasant faces in mirrors, and others ugly ones; the bells haunting people in the night (especially the last of the old year) according to their deeds. And the bells themselves, who have a goblin likeness to humanity in the midst of their proper shapes, and who shine in a light of their own, will say (the Great Bell being the chief spokesman): "Who is he that being of the poor doubts the right of poor men to the inheritance which Time reserves for them, and echoes an unmeaning cry against his fellows?" Toby, all aghast, will tell him it is he, and why it is. Then the spirits of the bells will bear him through the air to various scenes, charged with this trust: That they show him how the poor and wretched, at the worst—yes, even in the crimes that aldermen put down, and he has thought so horrible—have some deformed and hunchbacked goodness clinging to them; and how they have their right and share in Time. Following out the history of Meg, the Bells will show her, that marriage broken off and all friends dead, with an infant child; reduced so low, and made so miserable, as to be brought at last to wander out at night. And in Toby's sight, her father's, she will resolve to drown herself and the child together. But before she goes down to the water, Toby will see how she covers it with a part of her own wretched dress, and adjusts its rags so as to make it pretty in its sleep, and hangs over it, and smooths its little limbs, and loves it with the dearest love that God ever gave to mortal creatures; and when she runs down to the water, Toby will cry "Oh spare her! Chimes, have mercy on her! Stop her!"—and the bells will say, "Why stop her? She is bad at heart—let the bad die." And Toby on his knees will beg and pray for mercy: and in the end the bells will stop her, by their voices, just in time. Toby will see, too, what great things the punctual man has left undone on the close of the old year, and what accounts he has left unsettled: punctual as he is. And he will see a great many things about Richard, once so near being his son-in-law, and about a great many people. And the moral of it all will be, that he has his portion in the new year no less than any other man, and that the poor require a deal of beating out of shape before their human shape is gone; that even in their frantic wickedness, there may be good in their hearts triumphantly asserting itself, though all the aldermen alive say "No," as he has learnt from the agony of his own child; and that the truth is Trustfulness in them, not doubt, nor putting down, nor filing them away. And when at last a great sea rises, and this sea of Time comes sweeping down, bearing the alderman and such mudworms of the earth away to nothing, dashing them to fragments in its fury—Toby will climb a rock and hear the bells (now faded from his sight) pealing out upon the waters. And as he hears them, and looks round for help, he will wake up and find himself with the newspaper lying at his foot; and Meg sitting opposite to him at the table, and making up the ribbons for her wedding to-morrow; and the window open, that the sound of the bells ringing the old year out and the new year in may enter. They will just have broken out, joyfully; and Richard will dash in to kiss Meg before Toby, and have the first kiss of the new year (he'll get it too); and the neighbours will crowd round with good wishes; and a band will strike up gaily (Toby knows a Drum in private); and the altered circumstances, and the ringing of the bells, and the jolly music, will so transport the old fellow that he will lead off a country dance forthwith in an entirely new step, consisting of his old familiar trot. Then quoth the inimitable [Dickens's whimsical name for himself]—Was it a dream of Toby's after all? Or is Toby but a dream? and Meg a dream? and all a dream! In reference to which, and the realities of which dreams are born, the inimitable will be wiser than he can be now, writing for dear life, with the post just going, and the brave C. booted. . . . Ah how I hate myself, my dear fellow, for this lame and halting outline of the Vision I have in mind. But it must go to you. . . . You will say what is best for the frontispiece.
Forster himself pointed out some of the principal differences between this first sketch and the story as it was written: "Fern the farm-labourer is not here, nor yet his niece the little Lilian (at first called Jessie), who is to give the tale its most tragical scene; and there are intimations of poetic fancy at the close of my sketch which the published story fell short of." Other differences remain to be noted. For example, the story as it now stands leaves no place for the christening of the neighbor's child which was first intended to occupy Toby's New Year's Eve; and the contemplated exposure of Sir Joseph Bowley has been omitted altogether. But the most striking and important change is that in the published version the Chimes do not intervene to save Meg from infanticide and self-destruction.
For all these changes the Ferns are directly responsible. When Toby unexpectedly took them into his house, it immediately became impossible for him to spend the evening with his neighbors. Dickens seems to have stumbled across them in the dark quite as suddenly as Toby himself did, and when they entered the story, they brought tragedy with them. The writer's mood seems now to have changed; he became more and more earnest, more and more relentless. He did not abandon his plan for the conversion of Toby, but in his most serious moments, he found himself thinking, more and more, of others. "You comfortable ones," one can almost hear him say, "you who regard the outcasts of the world as outcasts by choice, inferior creatures, evil to the heart's core. I will show you a child, an innocent, lovable child who will awaken all your sympathies. Then, virtually without preparation, I will plunge her, almost simultaneously, into girlhood and vice, and you who have loved her will not dare, as you read my pages, tell me that you would have done better in her place." And if Lilian were to be destroyed, why not Meg also? He would employ no last-minute rescue, no jot of supernatural melodrama: he would let them go—Meg and her child—they must die. Those readers of his who had shuddered with horror over newspaper stories of women killing their children: for once he would show them why women kill their children. He would show a Dickens heroine doing it, not because she was bad but because she was good, because she wanted to save her child from something worse than death. And Richard? Richard should not be a good and happy husband. Instead he should become a disillusioned drunkard and a criminal. For once Dickens would eschew romance: he would study relentlessly the forces that doom the poor to the destruction of their bodies and their souls. Why not?—since the moral could be made all the more powerful that way. And so, calamity having thus been piled upon calamity, the contemplated return to the earlier mood of the story and the reintroduction of Sir Joseph Bowley were seen to be impossible, and the apocalyptic splendors originally planned for were dropped as unnecessary and ineffective.
I have not forgotten that it is Dickens whose mood I am here attempting to reconstruct, and I am not unaware that all this seems—for him—somewhat bitter. But not any more bitter, I believe, than the story itself, and we have his own explicit testimony that his experience in writing it was very unusual.
This book. . . has made may face white in a foreign land. My cheeks, which were beginning to fill out, have sunk again; my eyes have grown immensely large; my hair is very lank; and the head inside the hair is hot and giddy. Read the scene at the end of the third part, twice. I wouldn't write it twice for something. . . . Since I conceived, at the beginning of the second part, what must happen in the third, I have undergone as much sorrow and agitation as if the thing were real; and have wakened up with it at night. I was obliged to lock myself in when I finished it yesterday, for my face was swollen for the time to twice its proper size, and was hugely ridiculous.
Third of November, 1844. Half-past two, afternoon. Thank God! I have finished The Chimes, This moment. I take up my pen again to-day, to say only that much; and to add that I have had what women call "a real good cry!"
Concerning Forster's own suggestions toward the improvement of the tale, while it was yet in the manuscript stage, the biographer has, as usual, told us little, though what details he does give are in this instance rather clearer and more definite than usual. "The red-faced gentleman with the blue coat" who appears in the First Quarter with Alderman Cute and Mr. Filer, we owe indirectly to Forster: he replaces a "Young England gentleman" to whom the biographer objected. It seems clear also that Forster softened Mr. Filer on the ground that, as Dickens had originally drawn him, he would offend the political economists, which, for that matter, he did, even as he now stands. "File away at Filer, as you please; but bear in mind that the Westminster Review considered Scrooge's presentation of the turkey to Bob Cratchit as grossly incompatible with political economy."
In the Preface to the "First Cheap Edition" of his Christmas Books, Dickens explained of all of them that "the narrow space within which it was necessary to confine these Christmas Stories when they were originally published, rendered their construction a matter of some difficulty, and almost necessitated what is peculiar in their machinery. I never attempted great elaboration of detail in the working out of character within such limits, believing that it could not succeed." The effect on characterization here alluded to will be considered later. Here let us glance at the effect on construction. As we have already seen, the end of The Chimes was not in sight from the beginning, but it did appear at a comparatively early stage. By the beginning of the Second Quarter the general outline was fixed and the space to be devoted to each portion at least roughly determined. The advantage of this careful planning may be judged by its results: The Chimes is, in every way, an admirably constructed story.
Especially skillful is the way the story opens. The First Quarter begins with an introductory paragraph in which, after earnestly declaring that "a story-teller and a storyreader should establish a mutual understanding as soon as possible," Dickens runs off into his usual burlesque style, and issues a mock-challenge to his readers, offering to meet all doubters, individually if need be, and thus demonstrate the unquestionable truth of his initial statement that "there are not many people . . . who would care to sleep in a church." There follows, in the second paragraph, the famous personified description of the Night Wind, always likely to be the most fearsome and awe-inspiring element in the experience of anyone who should attempt such a rash experiment. The third paragraph takes reader and Night Wind together "high up in the steeple," inevitably the most ghostly part of the church. Now that we are in the steeple, we are ready, of course, for the introduction of the Chimes themselves, the description of which occupies the fourth and fifth paragraphs. And then the principal character, Toby Veck, enters the story also, quite casually and incidentally.
In paragraphs six to eleven Toby is described—his character, his occupation, his station in life. Then, in paragraph twelve, Toby and the Chimes are clearly connected. First we are told about the old man's love for the bells; then the author goes into a fanciful elucidation of the "points of resemblance between themselves and him." In the thirteenth paragraph there is more about Toby's love for the Chimes, and of how "he invested them with a strange and solemn character." Nevertheless, he "scouted with indignation a certain flying rumor that the Chimes were haunted." Hereupon the introduction ends; Meg enters with Toby's dinner; the dramatic method is now employed; and the story proper may be said to have begun.
Now what has been accomplished so far? More, I think, than may as yet be apparent. The tone of the story has been determined and its principal character introduced and described. The very first statement of all—idle as it seems and whimsically as it is maintained ("There are not many people. . . who would care to sleep in a church")—has a certain suggestiveness in the way of foreshadowing, while the later insinuation of a "certain flying rumor that the Chimes were haunted" still further suggests the supernatural character of the tale. The air of weirdness may thus be said to predominate, but there are undertones which are quite as important. Thus, at the close of the second paragraph, we find this: "Ugh! Heaven preserve us, sitting round the fire!"—the appeal to the homing instinct and domestic comfort, always so characteristic of Dickens, the skillful suggestion that domestic comfort is to be an important part of the tale. A little later, the sympathetic quality of the Chimes is even more carefully suggested: they are "bent upon being heard on stormy nights, by some poor mother watching a sick child, or some lone wife whose husband was at sea." Then, the casual introduction of Toby Veck, as a kind of afterthought to the description of the Chimes themselves, suggests the curious way in which his life is to be bound up with them. Finally, this connection is made all the more inescapable by means of the comparison between Toby and the Chimes which has already been referred to.
It is not necessary to go through the entire story in such detail. But the element of careful preparation and foreshadowing is everywhere apparent. The first two quarters prepare carefully for the last two: all the elements which enter into Toby's waking life are given forth again, in new and hideous combinations, in his dream. Thus the dream is consistently presented to us from Toby's own point of view.
When he first appears before us, Toby is already a man whose faith in himself, in his class, and in life itself has been somewhat disturbed. There follows in quick succession a series of experiences all calculated to increase his doubts: Mr. Filer's demonstration that Toby himself is unpardonably past the average age, and that when he eats tripe he is stealing his food out of the mouths of widows and orphans; Alderman Cute's denunciation of Meg's desire to wed; Sir Joseph Bowley's horror that, unlike himself, Toby is not entering the New Year with a clean slate; finally, the hideous newspaper account of the poverty-stricken mother who has slain herself and her child. No one of these details is included idly. Each contributes to Toby's mood; each is to be used in working out the final resolution of the tale.
In the vision itself there are other careful bits of foreshadowing. Especially noteworthy for its delicate handling of a gross subject is the scene between Meg and Lilian in the Third Quarter, where we get the first hint that Lilian is to become a prostitute. Equally effective is Toby's repeated wondering, as he searches the throngs of his vision, concerning the whereabouts of Richard. In this way suspense is developed, and Richard's first appearance, dissipated and broken by hardship and disappointment, is made all the more impressive. The Chickenstalker episode, at the beginning of the Fourth Quarter, serves as legitimate comic relief, but it does more than that. It has a vital connection with the story, and the conversation between Mrs. Chickenstalker and Toby includes a careful summary of the various influences that have conspired to wreck Meg and Richard. Best of all is the use made of Meg's love for her child. "' Thank God!' cried Trotty, holding up his folded hands. 'O God be thanked! She loves the child!' " But soon comes the warning voice: " 'Follow her!' was sounded through the house. 'Learn it from the creature dearest to your heart!' "
It would be interesting to know what were the original contents of the note which Toby carries to Sir Joseph Bowley. By the time this message is delivered, in the Second Quarter, Dickens has, as we have seen, made up his mind concerning the roles which Lilian and her uncle are to play in the working out of his story. But at the time the note is sent, this idea has not yet been developed. It is nevertheless entirely possible that the note may have been conceived originally just as it now stands—an expression of Alderman Cute's stern determination to put Will Fern down. Originally, we may suppose, the incident was intended simply to illustrate the characters of Cute and Bowley, and this before the idea had come to Dickens of introducing Will Ferm into the story as anything more than a name. As the thing stands, it does illustrate perfectly both the obsequiousness of Cute and the impotent grandiloquence of Bowley; what other purpose could any other note, in this contingency, have served? It is probable, then, that when the idea of Lilian came to Dickens, he picked up this thread, and made the incident, originally a very minor one, a bit of preparation for more important matters.
Dickens's own opinion with regard to characterization in his Christmas Books has already been cited. In The Chimes, Toby alone is anything more than the suggestion of a character. There is no character development even in Toby, but there is progressive revelation of character, and this extends clear through the first half of the tale. Here it is dropped, and our attention is centered upon the vision. Toby is individualized through description, soliloquy, and dramatic scene. The crowning revelation of his character comes in the Second Quarter, when he offers shelter to Lilian and Will Fern.
The other serious characters can hardly be said to be characterized at all. Lilian must have been real in Dickens's imagination, or he could not have been so moved as he was by her fall, but he can hardly be said to have communicated a sense of her reality to the reader. For this reason, the scene at the end of the Third Quarter seems to me artistically ineffective, though its social implications are suggestive indeed. Alderman Cute, Mr. Filer, and Sir Joseph Bowley—though we catch hardly more than a glimpse of each—are far more vivid, much more real than Lilian, Meg, or Richard. Next to Toby himself, Sir Joseph is certainly the best character. His passion for entering the new year with all the obligations of the old behind him is a convenient "tag" of the kind Dickens could always use skillfully, but better still is his highly characteristic speech—his curious hesitancy, his hovering on the edge of pious generalities only to lapse immediately again into the mundane.
So much for the art of The Chimes; what now of its spirit? First of all, it has a definite affinity with the teachings of Carlyle. After finishing the story in Genoa, Dickens made a special trip to England to read it to a group of friends. "Shall I confess to you," he writes to Forster, "that I particularly want Carlyle above all to see it before the rest of the world?" The tale has often been criticized on the ground of Dickens's alleged ignorance of the real causes of social misery. . . .
The most startling thing about The Chimes, however, is that here, in 1844, we find Dickens asserting without compromise that prostitution, drunkenness, murder, arson, and revolution come into the world, not because prostitutes, drunkards, revolutionists, and their kind are by nature viler than other human beings, and not because they love darkness better than light, but simply because, as our social order is constituted, some of its members never do get a fair chance for their share of the decencies of life. I do not pretend that Dickens would defend all his criminals thus; certainly no such plea could cover Fagin or Bill Sikes. But this is unmistakably his teaching in The Chimes. Lilian becomes a prostitute because her soul is crushed by unrewarded toil; Richard, frightened away from marriage and domestic happiness by his poverty, sinks lower and lower into drunkenness and sloth until at last he revenges himself upon society as a revolutionary firebrand; Meg slays her child to obviate the possibility that she may live to follow in Lilian's footsteps. And in every case, says Dickens, it is society, not these poor outcasts, that is to blame.
It must have been startling beyond belief in 1844, so startling that probably not many readers grasped all its implications. If they had, the matter could hardly have been permitted to pass off so quietly. For, on a broader scale, Dickens here lays down precisely the same principle which Bernard Shaw was to enunciate with reference to prostitution at the close of the century. Listen to Shaw's defense of Mrs. Warren's Profession:
The play is, simply, a study in prostitution, and its aim is to show that prostitution is not the prostitute's fault, but the fault of a society which pays for a poor and pretty woman's prostitution in solid gold, and pays for her honesty with starvation, drudgery, and pious twaddle.
It is surely not necessary to enlarge here on the consternation with which Mrs. Warren's Profession was greeted well into the twentieth century. In some cases, the anxiety went to the length of expressing itself in police prosecution. William Winter, dean of American drama critics, saw in this play and others like it the overthrow of whatever was pure, lovely, and of good report in the theater.
The case of Richard has a definite bearing also on the much-mooted matter of Dickens's sentimentalism. In Toby's dream, Meg and Richard do finally marry, but they marry too late. As Mrs. Chickenstalker explains it to Toby: "He went on better for a short time; but his habits were too old and strong to be got rid of; he soon fell back a little; and was falling fast back, when his illness came so strong upon him." And even as she speaks, the word comes that Richard has passed away.
Now if there is anything characteristic of the sentimentalist, it is the belief that good resolutions can effect anything. It is notable, and it should be considered in the discussion of Dickens, that in this case good resolutions accomplish precisely nothing. As irrevocably as any determinist today, Dickens says: It is too late. The die is cast. Richard must perish.
But there is still another aspect of the story which we have not yet considered, and whose consideration may bring us closer to anything that has been said thus far to the secret of Dickens's art. It must be remembered that all the terrible things of which I have spoken take place in a dream. When Toby wakes up, it is to learn that Meg is going ahead with her wedding plans in spite of Alderman Cute, and the story ends in general festivity and merry-making. The enemy of Dickens points triumphantly to this circumstance as an example of the novelist's shallowness and cowardice. When he did face the realities of life, it was only in a dream! Dreams are realities in his world, and realities have become dreams. We close in a stifling atmosphere of bourgeois respectability. But let us see.
It must be admitted that out-and-out realism was not the fashion in Dickens's day, and great writers, as well as small ones, are conditioned by literary fashion. This is nowhere more evident than among those who object to Dickens's alleged optimism: they are simply following the pessimistic, naturalistic trend of their day! If they would really be independent and original, let them turn to romance. It would be far more audacious, in this year of grace, to write like Dickens (if they could!) than to write like Gorky. But a dream within a dream can hardly be considered, in any appreciable degree, more unreal than the dream itself. The whole story of The Chimes exists in the imagination: that which Toby dreams is quite as vividly presented as that which actually happens to him, and he who pretends that it would take a very brave man to present these things as having actually happened while any coward might present them as dreams, has surely forgotten that he is dealing, not with life, but with a work of fiction. Finally, it may be urged, the exigencies of his plan and purpose compelled Dickens to use the method he chose. The theme of the story was the restoration of Toby's faith in himself and his class. Following as it did in the wake of A Christmas Carol, supernatural machinery was absolutely necessary. Toby, like Scrooge, sees in a dream the dark road whither he is tending: he wakens with relief and turns his feet in another direction.
Dickens may very well have believed that something like that actually could be effected in human experience. He was no wide-eyed innocent during his later years, and the atmosphere of some of the last novels is pretty somber. But he never became a futilitarian, and though he may have felt at times that he had lost the way, he always knew that there was a way. It is here, I think, that we touch the prime difference between Dickens and many contemporary writers. He saw evil quite as clearly as they do, and he was quite as courageous, but, unlike many of them, he had retained faith. And by this I do not mean faith in God merely (though that is involved in it) but faith in humanity and in the world's destiny. Consequently, where they deal in fears and despairs, he deals in hopes and promises. Consequently (though I assert no parity with Dante), his work is a great comedy, not a great tragedy.
G. K. Chesterton [in Charles Dickens, 1956] had much to say on this point in connection with his inquiry as to why it was that "this too easily contented Dickens, this man with cushions at his back and (it sometimes seems) cotton wool in his ears, this happy dreamer, this vulgar optimist . . . alone among modern writers did really destroy some of the wrongs he hated and bring about some of the reforms he desired." And he went on to answer his own question in words that are beautifully illustrated in The Chimes:
And the reason of this is one that goes deep into Dickens's social reform, and, like every other real and desirable thing, involves a kind of mystical contradiction. If we are to save the oppressed, we must have two apparently antagonistic emotions in us at the same time. We must think the oppressed man immensely miserable, and, at the same time, intensely attractive and important. We must insist with violence upon his degradation; we must insist with the same violence upon his dignity. For if we relax by one inch the one assertion, men will say he does not need saving. And if we relax by one inch the other assertion, men will say he is not worth saving. . . .
Out of this perennial contradiction arises the fact that there are always two types of the reformer. The first we may call for convenience the pessimistic, the second the optimistic reformer. One dwells upon the fact that souls are being lost; the other dwells upon the fact that they are worth saving. . . . The first describes how bad men are under bad conditions. The second describes how good men are under bad conditions.
There is much more to the same effect that I have not space to quote. Now turn, for illustration of the other method, to the suggestive analysis of Van Wyck Brooks (in Emerson and Others ) of the reasons for what he considers Upton Sinclair's failure as a social reformer through fiction:
But suppose now, that one wishes to see the dispossessed rise in their might and really, in the name of justice, take possession of the world. Suppose one wishes to see the class-system abolished, along with all the other unhappy things that Mr. Sinclair writes about. This is Mr. Sinclair's own desire; and he honestly believes that in writing as he does he contributes to this happy consummation. I cannot agree with him. In so far as Mr. Sinclair's books show anything real they show us the utter helplessness, the benightedness, the naïveté of the American workers' movement. Jimmie Higgins does not exist as a character. He is a symbol, however, and one can read reality into him. He is the American worker incarnate. Well, was there ever a worker so little the master of his fate? That, in point of fact, is just the conclusion Mr. Sinclair wishes us to draw. But why is he so helpless? Because, for all his kindness and his courage, he is, from an intellectual and social point of view, unlike the English worker, the German, Italian, Russian, the merest infant; he knows nothing about life or human nature or economics or philosophy or even his enemies. How can he possibly set about advancing his own cause, how can he circumvent the wily patrioteers, how can he become anything but what he is, the mere football of everyone who knows more than he? Let us drop the "cultivated-class" standpoint and judge Mr. Sinclair's novels from the standpoint of the proletariat itself They arouse the emotion of self-pity. Does that stimulate the worker or does it merely "console" him? They arouse the emotion of hatred. Does that teach him how to grapple with his oppressors or does it place him all the more at his oppressors' mercy? The most elementary knowledge of human nature tells us that there is only one answer to these questions.
With the justice or injustice of Brooks's evaluation of Upton Sinclair, I am not here concerned. The interesting thing is his substantial agreement with Chesterton that the pessimistic reformer is ineffective. Perhaps, after all, it was not mere cowardice and love of middle-class creature comfort that led Dickens to use humor and optimism in his pictures of the poor.
I began this study of The Chimes with the statement that it afforded a test case for the study of Dickens. The nineteenth century is not yet very far from us in point of time; it would not seem that any great feat of orientation must be performed in order to understand it. Yet if, as the advocates of the millennium assure us, we now move more rapidly in fifty years than we used to travel through the course of centuries, then it may well be necessary, now and then, to check up on our prepossessions to avoid the danger of judging nineteenth-century writers by their standards rather than our own. Many of the unfavorable judgments of Dickens that were in vogue some years ago, when he was less in fashion than he is at present, were, it seems to me, determined by failure to observe this caution, though I should hesitate to say that when we differ from him, the reason must be that we are right while he is wrong. Perhaps the most penetrating of all Chesterton's wise observations was that our time is a time, not the Day of Judgment.
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SOURCE: "The Reception of Dickens's First Book," in The Dickensian, Vol. XXXII, No. 237, December, 1935, pp. 43-50.
[In the following essay, the critic presents extracts of original reviews of Sketches by Boz.]
The Centenary of Pickwick is likely to overshadow another very important centenary in the life of Dickens, and we must not lose sight of the fact that Dickens's first book was published only about two months before the immortal Pickwick made his first bow to the public.
Sketches by Boz in two volumes at one guinea was published on or about 8th February, 1836; as we all know, it was a collection of short stories and sketches which had previously appeared in various publications. The publisher was John Macrone, and Dickens's correspondence with him was first published in The Dickensian in 1934. These letters threw many a side-light on the struggling young journalist, and showed the assistance given him by the editor of the Morning Chronicle in singing the praises of the new author.
Sketches by Boz was well advertised in the principal literary weeklies, of which there appear to have been quite as large a number then, as there are to-day.
The Morning Chronicle notice, the work of George Hogarth, Dickens's father-in-law-to-be, was as follows:
We need hardly tell our readers that "BOZ" is a nom de querre assumed by a satirical essayist, whose lucubrations, during the past twelve months, have frequently appeared in our pages. The two volumes before us consist partly of a selection from the papers which this writer has contributed to various periodicals, and partly of matter hitherto unpublished; and he has been induced to publish the work (he says in his preface) by "the favourable reception which several of these Sketches met with on their original appearance." The new matter forms a considerable portion of the volumes, and includes some of the most remarkable and striking of the author's productions.
These "Sketches" are evidently the work of a person of various and extraordinary intellectual gifts. He is a close and acute observer of character and manners, with a strong sense of the ridiculous and a graphic faculty of placing in the most whimsical and amusing lights the follies and absurdities of human nature. He has the power, too, of producing tears as well as laughter. His pictures of the vices and wretchedness which abound in this vast city are sufficient to strike to the heart of the most careless and insensible reader.
His disposition, however, evidently leads him to look on the bright and sunny side of things; and a kindly and benevolent spirit tempers the severity of his ridicule of folly, and softens the gloom of his descriptions of vice. The same turn of mind makes him dwell with heartfelt satisfaction upon the pleasures, comforts, and innocent recreations of the middle classes of society, especially in London; witness his "Christmas Dinner" a charming paper, which might have been written by Washington Irving in one of his happiest hours.
Our author possesses, too, a rich and fertile imagination.
Many of these Sketches are in the form of tales, some of which are of considerable length. These tales are in general very interesting and entertaining; and several of them are so ingenious in their plot, so full of ris comica, and told in so dramatic a manner, that they want little more than a division into scenes to become excellent theatrical pieces. To one of them "The Bloomsbury Christening," Mr. Buckstone is indebted for his very popular piece of "The Christening," and the admirable tales, "The Great Winglebury Duel," "The Boarding House," "Horatio Sparkins," and the "Passage in the life of Mr. Watkins Tottle," are equally rich in dramatic materials.
The most remarkable paper in the book is that entitled "A Visit to Newgate." It contains a minute, and we believe, a very accurate description of this dismal abode, and of its guilty and miserable inmates. It is written throughout in a tone of high moral feeling, and with great eloquence, and must leave a deep and lasting impression on the mind of every reader. The concluding picture of a condemned criminal passing his last night on earth in his solitary cell is drawn with terrible power.
The idea is similar to that of Victor Hugo, in his "Dernier jour d'un condamne" but there is a certain and artificial and exaggerated air—a sort of French tournure—in Victor Hugo's description, from which that of our countryman is free; and being equally eloquent and more simple, it is even more pathetic and impressive than the celebrated passage to which it may be compared.
The book is richly illustrated by the modern Hogarth, George Cruikshank, who has evidently laboured con amore, and has equalled—indeed we may say surpassed—any of his previous efforts. The illustrations (of which there are a considerable number in each volume) are beautiful and highly finished etchings, admirable as pieces of art, and full of the truth, nature, grotesque humour, and irrestible drollery, which distinguish this unrivalled artist. Nothing can excel the ability with which he has embodied the conceptions of his coadjutor, and placed before the very eyes of the reader, the scenes and characters which "Boz" has presented to his imagination.
The earliest independent notice was that given in The Literary Gazette for 13th February where it had a prominent display:
"The scenes of many coloured life he drew" may be fairly applied to the present essayist who displays not only humour and feeling, but a genuine acquaintance with his subjects in these numerous sketches of common life. The author has traced his characters, their occupations, their pursuits, and their pleasures with much talent and apparent fidelity; and those who wish to have a peep into pawnbrokers' shops, dancing academies, private theatres, ginshops, marinestores, marine excursions, and similar resorts and occupations of the middling and lower orders, will find them cleverly and amazingly described in these pages. We would quote a specimen, but believe they are almost all already familiar to the readers of periodicals, being now only collected and improved in effect by the concordant pencil of George Cruikshank.
The Satirist which made a specialty of literary reviews gave the following notice during the same week, and Dickens must have felt proud indeed at so kind a reception:
We have seldom read two more agreeable volumes than these. We have before had a laugh over some of the well-drawn sketches they contain, and which are in their way inimitable. The author is a man of unquestionable talent and of great and correct observation. George Cruikshank has ably executed his portion of the work, and entered fully into the spirit as well as the feeling of the writer.
In The Sun the book was advertised on the 15th February and reviewed the same day at the top of a column in centre page, as follows:
The majority of these "Sketches" have already appeared in the columns of an evening contemporary, and some few of them in the Monthly, Magazine; and as they were uniformly well received, the author has very properly consented to their republication. They evince great powers of observation, and fidelity of description combined with a humour, which though pushed occasionally to the very verge of caricature, is on the whole full of promise. But their principal merit is their matter of factness, and the strict literal way in which they adhere to nature. The characters are not idealities, but have all the "mark and likeliehood"—especially the admirable one of Long Dumps, the splenetic old bachelor—of set portraits. Two more amusing volumes in their way have not appeared this season, and we have little or no doubt that they will grow rapidly into favour with country readers, who must naturally feel a curiosity to read about the oddities which are to be met with, in such abundance, among the middle and lower classes of metropolitan society. The work is illustrated by George Cruikshank in his best manner. We subjoin a pleasing extract from an article entitled "Hackney Coach Stands" . . . .
The week following The Athenæum noticed the book in the following terms:
Many of the papers in this collection have appeared before. They are well characterised by the writer, as illustrative of every-day life and every-day people. There are scenes and characters sketched with admirable truth; but a suspicion crossed our minds during the perusal, whether the subjects were always worthy of the artistic skill and power of the writer; some of the papers, however, are excellent.
An understanding review, certainly, yet the writer was not quite sure if the subject was sufficiently refined for the gifts of the writer; similar expressions will be found in some of the other notices which follow. The critics were not as yet accustomed to writers who could pen interesting sketches of "every-day life and every-day people."
The same week saw two other favourable notices in important weekly papers. The first here given is from The Court Journal of 20th February, 1836, where, first of all, Cruikshank takes all the honours.
It is a bold thing to say, but we more than suspect that these illustrations comprise some of the very best things that Cruikshank ever executed; and we half suspect that they are, taken all together, his very best. They may not be so extravagantly droll as some, but they are more even and true to middle-life characters; there is more of slyness and quaintness of humour in them; and they are far more carefully executed. Even Cruikshank improves upon himself when he takes pains. Here, then, is one strong feature of recommendation; and the humour and variety of the sketches themselves, enable us to extend our favourable testimony still further. These volumes are the merriest of the season. "Boz" is a kind of Boswell to society—and of the middle ranks especially. He is an old favourite of ours; we remember laughing at two or three of these sketches when they first appeared in a contemporary, and we roared at "The Christening," as introduced by Mr. Buckstone at the Adelphi. Few of them are inferior even to that in broad humour—coarse, it is true, but very real. The subjects of "Boz" generally preclude refinement. Of these there are about thirty, all evincing a shrewd, quizzical insight into ordinary character, an apt knowledge of "every-day character." The keen, but not ill-natured spirit, and the truly whimsical humour of these sketches, will be displayed in a quotation or two. It hardly matters which chapters we select from.
There followed a generous selection from "Shabby Genteel People."
Sketches by Boz was advertised in the News and Sunday Herald in two separate places on the front page on 28th February. The previous week the following review had been given.
These sketches have, if we mistake not, already appeared in the columns of The Morning and Evening Chronicle. They are replete with talent; and when we say that we are left in doubt whether we most admire the racy humour and irresistible wit of the "sketches" or of the "illustrations" in George Cruikshank's very best style, our readers will agree that we could not well give higher commendation. Some of the sketches display a feeling far deeper than the professed character of the work would prepare us to expect. In all, from grave to gay, the delineation of character displayed is inimitably accurate. So accurate are the characteristics of the Cockneys exhibited in these sketches, that they might have been aptly entitled "Idiosyncracies of Cockneydorn." The broad humour with which the most pungent absurdities of each character are drawn forth, justify us in conscientiously prescribing these volumes as the best we have ever seen for a cure of the blue devils.
The same week The Sunday Times, where the book had been advertised the week before, said:
The majority of these very pleasant sketches have already appeared in the columns of The Evening Chronicle, and the interest which they excited has, it seems, induced the author to publish them in their present form, with appropriate graphic illustrations of George Cruikshank, whose genius, like the purse of Fortunatus, is inexhaustible. If we mistake not, Boz whoever he is, will one day make Tom Hood look to his laurels.
Among the literary contents of The Atlas for 21st February, 1836, appeared the following review:
Sketches by Boz, 2 Vols. A series of sketches, chiefly dedicated to the everyday life of London, which for the greater part, originally appeared in an evening paper. There is some raciness and whim in these essays, but they seem to have been written in haste, and to want concentration and design. The style is loose and rambling, and the author sometimes falls into that manner of caricature and broad painting which is considered, we believe, by those whose tastes are not very delicate, to be clever of its kind, but which, we confess, appears to us to be sheer vulgarity. The difficulty of truly describing city life without reflecting its vulgarities, more or less, we admit; but this writer has a gout for them which precludes him from the benefit of the argument of necessity. Yet the work is, nevertheless, amusing, and some humorous wood-cuts by Cruikshank will help out its entertainment with the multitude.
Before the month was out John Forster wrote the following review in The Examiner. At this time Forster had not met Dickens; in fact a year elapsed before they first met each other at the house of Harrison Ainsworth.
It appears in the most important part of the journal, in the columns entitled "The Literary Examiner."
We were much struck by some of these sketches when we first read them in the publication in which they originally appeared, and a second perusal has strengthened the favourable impression. The author is a good observer; his perception of the ludicrous is quick, his humour is of a rich vein, and his little touches of pathos scattered here and there, are of that kind which nature has placed in the closest neighbourhood to humour. The style is unaffected, racy and agreeable.
The fault of the book is the caricature of Cockneyism, of which there is too much. This common-place sort of thing, is unworthy of the author, whose best powers are exercised obviously with great facility on the less hacknied subjects. He shows his strength in bringing out the meaning and interests of objects which would altogether escape the observation of ordinary mortals.
We quote a short specimen of the author's manner.
(This was an extract from "Omnibuses.")
The Weekly Despatch was rather late in coming out with its review; it did not appear until 28th February although the book had been advertised in its columns with a very bold headline "Boz's Sketches" three weeks before.
Here are two very agreeable volumes of sketches, and tales illustrative of every-day life and every-day people. Some of the contents have appeared from time to time in various periodicals and the author was justified by public approbation in collecting them, and reprinting them, with additions, in their present shape. George Cruikshank has enriched the work with numerous pictures in his peculiary characteristic style, and the volumes will form a very pleasant and handy addition to the library. They will amuse all and instruct many. We trust the success of this work will be such as to encourage the author to future undertakings of a similar description.
This must have been not only very gratifying to "Boz," but helpful to the sales, for The Weekly Despatch had a large and popular circulation. The concluding paragraph, was no doubt well meant; yet it is interesting to note that when, just over a month later, the first monthly part of The Pickwick Papers appeared, this newspaper entirely ignored it, and subsequent issues.
The Morning Post on the March 12th, under the heading "Literature," reviewed the book as follows:
Under the eccentric signature attached to the above work, it may perhaps be recollected that the columns of a contemporary have contained a series of essays which have deservedly attracted much attention. They are now collected together, with sundry additional sketches, and it must be admitted that they fully merit a more lasting popularity than could have been afforded by the ephemeral reputation of a newspaper. The author is evidently a close and accurate observer of events in "life's dull stream" and, he has infinite skill in giving importance to the complex scenes of every-day occurrence. The varied aspects of society in the middle and lower classes are touched off with admirable truth and veracity. The graphic descriptions of "Boz" invest all he describes with amazing reality. This pleasing vraisemblement is the great charm of these "sketches" as they are modestly termed by the author. Natural humour and striking fidelity are, however, not the only praises to be bestowed. The pathetic powers of "Boz" are of a high order. We regret that our limits will not allow us to extract an inimitable specimen of the intense feeling he has displayed in the tale of the broker's man. These volumes ought to be read both in town and in country. The inhabitants of the great "Wen" will find correct and able pictures of metropolitan society, and provincial readers will have a good insight into the manners and customs of some extraordinary classes of people in the British capital. We should add that the "Sketches" are illustrated, and that the illustrator is George Cruikshank, the mention of whose name is sufficient to guarantee the perfection of the cuts.
The Metropolitan Magazine was one of the very first of the critical journals to recognise that "Boz" was an entirely new force in literature, one who was not traversing any of the old and well recognised paths.
In its issue for March, 1836, it said:
We strongly recommend this facetious work to the Americans. It will save them the trouble of reading some hundred dull-written tomes on England, as it is a perfect picture of the morals, manners and habits of a great portion of English Society. It is hardly possible to conceive a more pleasantly reading book; delightful for the abundance of its sly humour, and instructive in every chapter. The succession of portraits does not reach higher than of the best of the middle classes, but descends with a startling fidelity to the lowest of the low. Where all are so good, it would be needless for us to particularise any one of these admirable sketches. . . .
There was a reference in this review to the suitability of many of the stories as admirable groundwork for light comedies and farces. Dickens had not overlooked this possibility as we know, and the notice in The Metropolitan must have been a commendable urge to him. It concluded:
We do not know the author, but we should apprehend that he has, from the peculiar turn of his genius, been already successful as a dramatist; if he has not yet, we can safely opine that he may be if he will. Taken altogether, we have rarely met with a work that has pleased us more, and we know that our taste is always that of the public.
Chambers's Edinburgh Journal on April 9th reprinted "The Boarding House" with the following eulogistic note:
The following tale is abridged from Sketches by Boz, illustrative of every-day life and every-day people. Two volumes, recently published by Mr. Macrone. This work appears to be an early—perhaps a first—attempt of some new writer; if so, we would recommend him to proceed, for, unless he fall off very miserably in his subsequent efforts, he can scarcely fail to become a successful and popular author. His chief object in the present publication had been to depict life and character, as exemplified in the ranks of the metropolis; and this he has accomplished in a style, which, bating a little caricature and exaggeration, strikes us as extremely happy. He has much comic power, perceives traits which are not consciously noted by ordinary observers, and yet, when mentioned, remind everybody of the thing described. We warmly recommend these two volumes to the notice of our readers.
The Mirror of April 16th was somewhat supercilious. It remarked that the sketches were "descriptive of everyday life and every-day people and are certainly written with a considerable share of broad humour"; adding that they thought them "too every-dayish."
They want relief and their incidents border too closely on the commonplace, so as to belong to the slightest magazine writing, which can only be said to amuse without any higher effect. This is to be regretted, because Sketches such as "Boz" can write may be pointed with a moral, and made the vehicle of some excellent instruction and improvement of the heart. Here is too much cockney vulgarity, and the incidents savour too strongly of low London life. We detach a few passages from Sketches free from these eccentricities.
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SOURCE: "Some Candid Opinions on A Christmas Carol "in The Dickensian, Vol. XXXIV, No. 245, December, 1937-38, pp. 20-4.
[Here, in an essay that was originally presented as a lecture in May, 1937, Berrow reacts negatively to A Christmas Carol.]
There has been much said this evening in praise, I might almost say in adulation, of Charles Dickens. Just by way of a change I want to offer a few words of criticism. In case some of you might consider these words as something of the nature of an attack, I should like to point out, though there is really no need to do so, that a man who stands in such an impregnable position as Dickens does not fear attack. But a little criticism may not be amiss.
I should like to give some honest opinions on the Christmas Book; and by the Christmas Book I mean A Christmas Carol, the best known of all the Christmas Books, the one that everybody knows—Dickens readers and others—the one on which young people so often cut their Dickens-teeth.
You will understand that these are my personal opinions. It is probable that a large number of you will disagree with me; if you do I hope you will get up and say so. Discussion is the life-blood of study, and we are a study-circle. Discussion is as good for the intellect as confession is for the soul.
Well, my candid opinion of A Christmas Carol is that it is the best of a rather poor lot of stories. In fact, when I consider that it was written by a giant and a genius like Charles Dickens, I think it is the poor best of an exceedingly poor lot.
To begin with, it is humourless. By that I do not mean that it isn't funny or witty—although it most decidedly isn't either—but I mean that it is, to my mind, devoid of that impalpable flavour that may permeate any book, grave or gay, serious or frivolous; that impalpable flavour that almost instantly puts the reader on good terms with himself and with the author. Humour is that quality in literature that gives content.
Humour has nothing to do with farce or wit. If you look up the word in any good dictionary you will find that it gives some such definition as this: "Disposition of mind or feeling; frame of mind;" and so forth. It is the quality in a book that gains your immediate sympathy with the author, the aims and objects of his writings, and all that he stands for as expressed in his work. In a word, humour, in a book, makes you good-humoured.
But A Christmas Carol does not give me content, and it does not make me good-humoured; I'm afraid it only irritates me. I have the queerest impression that, though Dickens set himself to write a happy story, he was not altogether a happy man when he wrote it.
My second grievance is that it is childish. The story may not be, but the style is. The opening paragraphs, for instance, give me the impression that Dickens was not writing for intelligent grown-ups, but for rather backward children. In the first page or two he seems to be hammering home a few points into the fickle and wandering mind of a backward child. By the time he has finished with the matter, it is quite clear to even a half-witted Troglodyte that, firstly, Marley was dead, and, secondly, that Scrooge was aware of the fact.
In this opening Dickens is, of course, making a bid for the reader's sympathetic attention to his tale; he is striving for that humour I have just spoken of. But honestly, he does not get my sympathetic attention. I think he fails lamentably.
This is very strange when we consider the glorious openings to some of his other books. Consider, for example, that brilliant discourse on the Chuzzlewit family tree; the account of that meeting that is our introduction to the Pickwick Club; the swing and the rhythm of the account of Veneering's first dinner-party. Veneering's dinnerparties were actually rather dreary affairs to attend; but to read about them is sheer delight, a delight which brings a smile to our lips and a sudden gush of warmth to our hearts whenever we come upon the name of Veneering. And that smile is not a smile of sympathy and affection for Veneering and Company, but a smile of sympathy and affection for Dickens and his handling of Veneering and Company. I have to admit that the name of Scrooge brings me no such joyous glow of recognition. I have no smile to summon up for his handling of the firm of Scrooge and Marley (deceased).
But my chief quarrel is with the story as a story. It has, of course, a moral, as I well know. But I hate morals hurled at my defenceless head with the vigour and mercilessness with which this one has been hurled. I prefer to extract the moral from a story for myself. And, having decided to write a moral story for Christmas, Dickens decided also to lay it on with a trowel. You don't gild lilies. You paint 'em. You gild refined gold—see Bible. He painted the lily.
A Christmas Carol is a story about Christmas and the awakening of the Christmas spirit in the stony breast of a miser and a skinflint through the medium of supernatural agencies. It is saturated with an exaggerated Christmas fervour; it is larded with soggy and indigestible lumps of sickly sentiment; and it is—or, rather, it is meant to be—made terrible and hair-raising by the introduction of three ghostly apparitions. Of these I say simply this: they may have raised the hair of our fathers and mothers, but I do not think they curdle the blood in our veins to any great extent. In these days we are, to use a colloquialism, more hard-boiled. And there is the inevitable impossible and sanctimonious infant in the person of Tiny Tim. I am sympathetic towards Tiny Tim because he was a cripple, but had he been a hale and hearty child I should have looked almost with kindness on any person who had made away with him.
Dickens, by the way, was never very happy with children. Look at Little Nell, with her graveyard complex; Paul Dombey, with his philosophical discourses on the subject of the wild waves' conversation; Kit Nubbles, with his unnatural conscientiousness; and others. To say the least of it, his child characters were more than a little smug They were angels. We all know very well that children are most decidedly not angels. I have not any children, but if I had and they started speaking and acting like Little Nell, or Little Paul, or Tiny Tim—even if they were cripples—I should have a doctor in right away, and suggest a good hearty blood-letting.
These harsh words are not directed against an author who struggled and fought and passed on to have his place taken by others who came after him. They are directed against the gigantic, irreplaceable figure of the greatest man in English literature, probably the greatest man in the literature of the world. Consequently they are spoken more in sorrow than anger, and without prejudice. They are the candid opinions of one who knows very well that there are those who will spring to the defence of a man, who, incidentally, does not need any defending.
Feeling as I do about the Christmas Carol, I rather wonder how Dickens ever came to write it. I have a theory about that, but first I should like to digress a little. I am, in my way, a very humble member of Charles Dickens's profession, and I have often been asked the question: Why does a man write books? Well, there are several answers. He may write a book for money. He has only to write two or three to see the fallacy of that particular answer. He may write a book to gain fame. But there again, apart from a few literary giants, the average author's literary fame—if any—is terribly evanescent and lost in the multitude.
As a matter of fact, the real reason why a man, or a woman, writes fiction is that there is a sort of poison in the blood that wells up and demands outlet in the form of literary expression. The man has to get rid of it or burst. That is a rather forceful way of putting it, but that is the idea. And if he is a born story-teller, no sooner does he get rid of one lot of poison than another wells up inside him. There are, of course, people who feel the urge to write but who never do write. In their case the poison is not so virulent. It wells up, simmers for a time, giving them a kind of mental indigestion, and then dies down again, and they go on with their jobs as usual. There are also pangs in mental creation . . .
But there are also pleasures. I personally get a lot of fun in concocting those slight, if blood-thirsty, yarns of mine. True, the mechanical process of typing three hundred or so pages is apt to grow rather wearisome, but the pleasure is there. A man writes what pleases him, and his writing gives him pleasure. That, of course, I need hardly point out, does not mean to say that it will necessarily please his readers. On the other hand, in my short experience, I have found out that there is a great deal of truth in Emerson's dictum: that a man who writes to please himself, pleases everybody; and a man who writes to please other people, pleases nobody.
Now, in the case of A Christmas Carol, I feel that Dickens set out to please other people, and not altogether to please himself. The writing of the Carol was not so much a pleasure to him as a task. Christmas had come round again, the next issue of his magazine was to be a Christmas number, therefore a Christmas story had to be written. And he wrote it, not because he wanted to write it, but because convention demanded that it should be written. And so he did not do himself justice.
I put forward another point to be considered at the same time. Dickens was in the hey-day of his production—I do not say powers, because his powers never waned—in the flood-tide of his popularity.
He was, I feel sure, an eminently modest man, as all truly great men are, but he was beginning to realise that he was a force in the land. The whole country was laughing uproariously at the antics of Pickwick and his disciples. It had wept over Oliver Twist, followed with breathless interest the adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, devoured The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, and had plunged into Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens had discovered that he could sway the nation, and so, when Christmas time of 1843 came round, he decided to sway the nation with a Christmas Moral Story. I can see him in his study, at the well-known desk with the sloping surface, driving a dogged pen and muttering:
"I'll make them feel good-will to all men; by Heaven, I will!"
He did the same the following Christmas, with The Chimes, and again I get that impression of dogged determination, of the accomplishment of a task. He begged for sympathy—not for himself, but for others—and at the same time, to give force to his message—I might almost say his lecture, his sermon—he made the flesh creep. Or he tried to.
And in placing this condition upon himself, in writing to order, as it were, the creating of a moral story containing nothing that would bring the semblance of a blush to the cheek of the young person and a vast amount of what was good for that same young person, I think we find something of the reason why these Christmas Books, again to my mind, fall far short of his usual brilliantly high standard.
There is not an atom of bitterness in what I have said. These books detract in no way from the huge enjoyment we all get in reading his other works. But I want to remind you, by way of conclusion, that we are Dickens students, and not just blind Dickens worshippers. We should never forget that, though he was a giant, a genius, a mob in revolt, as Chesterton once so aptly and pithily described him, he was also a very human man, subject to very human faults and frailties.
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SOURCE: "The Sketches by 'Boz'," in The Dickensian, Vol. XXXVI, No. 254, Spring, 1940, pp. 69-73.
[In the essay below, American educator Boll examines how the stories in Sketches by Boz anticipate the themes and characters of Dickens's later novels.]
We gain something worth while when, to our enjoyment of the individual writings of an author we add an understanding of his works as a comprehensive whole. We enjoy a person's sense of humour, or his good taste in clothes, or his power of quick sympathy, and dislike his bad temper, his penuriousness, or his accent; but we do not understand him until we make an effort to knit together the various threads of his nature into a complete pattern. The truth applies to a man's traits and to a man's books.
There are really many kinds of threads we can use to gather together an author's works: characters, situations, devices of craftsmanship, direct revelation, and many more. Some of the characters created by Dickens had an imaginative life in Sketches by Boz before they joined the novels. Naturally, we find more of them in the earlier novels than in the later. In three of them we see figures that were later to be called Nancy and Bill Sikes. They are a drunkard ruffian and the loyal, uncomplaining wife whom he neglects or beats. In the sketch, "The Hospital Patient," the woman, before she dies of her husband's blows and kicks, protests to the police that she had hurt herself. The prostitute in the sketch, "The Pawnbroker's Shop," whose eyes fill with tears at sight of a young woman and her mother pawning their last pieces of modest jewelry, might well have been Nancy. In the sketch, "Meditations in Monmouth Street," there walks a stout broad-shouldered ruffian with a dog at his heels. It is Bill Sikes preparing for his life in Oliver Twist.
That amusing Mr. Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, who stars in the Bow Street Police Court in a burlesque drama of indignation over the blindness of English law, makes an anonymous appearance as a lad in Old Bailey, in the sketch, "Criminal Courts." The lad insists that fifteen gentlemen are waiting outside to vindicate his character. Like the Artful Dodger, he invites the court attendants to carry him off if they want him out, and he too relishes his little heroic scene before a kindred audience, the same kind of audience that still waits in a long queue in Newgate Street on mornings during Sessions.
The kill-joy was an impressive and very much loathed reality to Dickens. Gabriel Grub in Pickwick Papers, Scrooge in the Carol, Tackleton the toy manufacturer in The Cricket on the Hearth, Mr. Dombey, and Gradgrind and M'Choakumchild in Hard Times are the main impersonations of the character of the kill-joy. We find him already in the sketch, "The Bloomsbury Christening," under the truly depressing name of Nicodemus Dumps. Dumps enjoys only making everybody round him wretched. At the christening supper in honour of his nephew's first born he makes a doleful speech. He names all the evils the child might cause its parents to suffer, all of which misfortunes Dumps solemnly hopes the parents may be spared. He goes home pleased with the misery he leaves behind him. This kill-joy is not converted.
Dickens did not idealise his materials so much then as he was to idealise them later. One example of that contentment with the usual is the continued misanthropy of Dumps. Another is found in the story of "The Drunkard's Death." There we observe that the drunkard's daughter, who has kept house for him, ill as she was, deserts her father after he has in drunken carelessness turned informer against his son. The later Dickens would not have allowed this desertion to occur.
The majority of the characters in these youthful stories and sketches are, very naturally, young men of many kinds. Those two clerks, Thomas Potter and Robert Smithers realistic heroes of "Making a Night of It," are very interesting for several reasons. The most important is that they are completely alive. The second is that Robert Smithers is a miniature self-portrait of Charles Dickens. Another is that they foreshadow those other gay young friends, Ben Allen and Bob Sawyer in Pickwick, Herbert Pocket and Pip in Great Expectations, Lightwood and Wrayburn in Our Mutual Friend. The gay young man is broadly comical as Dick Swiveller in Old Curiosity Shop, sinister as Steerforth in David Copperfield, pathetic as Richard Carstone in Bleak House, falsely glamourous as James Harthouse in Hard Times, despicably selfish as Tip Dorrit. He is irreclaimable and yet heroic as Sydney Carton. Sydney Carton died on the guillotine, but he was brought back to life again as Eugene Wrayburn, and reclaimed to virtue.
The agreeable young men, who are so happy when they are helping somewhere: Tupple in the sketch "The New Year," and Percy Noakes, the manager of "The Steam Excursion," and a "devilish good fellow"; continued to grow in the mind of Dickens. The composite figure grew in wisdom, in sense of humour, in power of sacrifice, until it took on the glorious personality of Mark Tapley, in Martin Chuzzlewit.
The elderly bachelors who are so lightheartedly discussed at the beginning of the story about Mr. John Dounce come to separate lives in the lovable persons of Pickwick, Grimwig in Oliver Twist, the Cheerybles in Nickleby, the Single Gentleman in The Old Curiosity Shop, and John Jarndyce in Bleak House.
The shabby-genteel who are described in "Thoughts about People" and in "Shabby-Genteel People" foretell a host of the pitiful and broken, among them the Chancery Prisoner in Pickwick, Newman Noggs in Nickleby, old Mr. Trent in The Old Curiosity Shop, Gridley in Bleak House, and Frederick Dorrit, brother of the Father of the Marshalsea.
That mixture of rogue, comedian, and object of charity, Alfred Jingle, in Pickwick, has a younger brother in the Sketches; he is Horatio Sparkins, who, like Jingle, palms himself off as a gentleman, and talks exquisite nonsense as he tries to sustain the role. But Sparkins is exposed as a counter-jumper, the most junior of partners in a shabby Tottenham Court Road draper's shop.
But more than characters unite these early papers to the whole range of the novels. There are also situations that are returned to frequently enough to show that they represent a habit of mind, that they are the repeated expressions of the same personality. One of the most brilliantly impressive passages in Oliver Twist is that which creates the terror of Fagin during his last night in the condemned cell. The first version of the very same situation is found toward the end of the sketch, "A Visit to Newgate," and it is as powerful as any of Dickens's masterpieces in that difficult art that I may call "subjective melodrama." The condemned prisoner dreams that he is walking with his wife; he begs her to forgive his unkindness toward her. He dreams his trial and his sentence. But in his dream he escapes from prison, and he runs with marvellous speed and ease out into the open countryside. But there he still feels anxious, oppressed . . . Then he wakes; it is the morning of his execution.
That dream race over the open fields at night is run again in the flight of Bill Sikes from Nancy's dead eyes, and in the escape of Smike from Squeers at the Dotheboys Hall.
The Christmas dinners and games that light up chapters of Pickwick and of the Carol with a heavenly humour we find already described in the sketch "A Christmas Dinner." We must in passing acknowledge that the gift of the Christmas story came to Dickens from Washington Irving. The huge feast, centering round a roast fowl, the baking of cakes and pies, the blazing fire, the filled glass, the Christmas pudding decorated with holly, the game of blind man's buff, the meeting of lips under mistletoe, the songs and speech-making, the bond of hearty affection, all these we find in this early sketch.
The situations describing tragedy and death also tie these sketches with scenes in novels. There are several death-bed scenes that anticipate deeply moving passages in the novels. They are an essential element in the art of Dickens.
The natural mistake that may occur in large inns whose corridors are labyrinthine, the mistake of guests entering the wrong room in search of their own, is mentioned in the story of "The Great Winglebury Duel," and as such prepares us for Mr. Pickwick's surprise in the Great White Horse Inn in obtaining his first view, on embarrassing terms, of a lady brushing her hair before retiring for the night.
The spontaneous combustion that enables the rag and paper dealer, Krook, in Bleak House, to make his very dramatic final exit, was already thought of in the sketch, "The Streets—Morning." There, a general servant wishes, as she struggles through an early rising, that spontaneous combustion would ignite the kitchen fire for her.
In a third way do we find these early papers claiming an alliance with the whole pattern of Dickens, and that is in certain matters of style, and spirit, and form. To suggest his style, we have time for only one phase, an expression of his mental alertness and buoyant good humour, and that shall be his punning. In "Private Theatres" we hear this report about a complaint from the orchestra: "The flute says he'll be blowed if he plays any more." It's really an admirable little pun within a pun. There are also many puns set in a careful balance of phrasing. With reference to a delinquent tenant of a shop, in "Shops and their Tenants," we learn that when he failed, he "locked the door and bolted himself."
And about the spirit of this early writing we shall notice again just one characteristic: the grand joy Dickens takes in a bustle. I don't mean the bustle that rustles; I mean the bustle that hustles: many actions, swiftly performed actions. We may even say that Dickens "spreads himself " on his bustles. Again and again, after whirling our imagination round with an account of activities in a crowded scene, Dickens stops to admire and comment on "the bustle and confusion" ("The Boarding-House" and "The Steam Excursion"); or the "life and bustle" ("The Tuggses"); or the "exhilarating bustle" ("The Great Winglebury Duel"). And there is no novel of Dickens that does not give us joy through its author's unique gusto in hustling life.
When we look for similarities in craftsmanship we notice that every kind of farce, humour, grotesquerie, satire, description, melodrama, burlesque, and sentimental mystery that was to be employed later is found represented in these early writings. The type of the sentimental mystery is of Dickens's own fashioning from earlier romance. We find it in the powerful story of "The Black Veil," as fascinating a gem of the macabre as any that Poe wrote, and yet sane throughout, one of the great stories in English.
A deficiency in these stories that is not surprising to Dickensians is the absence of any normal sentimental romance, of sensible courtship. There is plenty of foolish and repented-of passion, there is coquetry and jealousy because of it, there is the loyalty of a brutally treated wife, there is young married love suffering persecution, but there is no scene of simple love-making. In only one story is there an adumbration of it. In the story of "The Black Veil" the young physician daydreams about his distant beloved, named Rose. The relative rareness with which Dickens throughout his novel-writing life could make convincing love-making that was not comical, or pathetic, or insanely passionate, is represented in this earliest collection of his writings by no attempt at all.
There is also, and this is my lastly, much of that direct confession that is a part of the many confidences Dickens makes to us throughout his novels and shorter papers. You will remember David Copperfield confessing his passion for imagining the lives of people he passed in London streets. In five of the sketches Dickens speaks about that love for creative speculation, and in all five he gives demonstrations of his marvellous genius in the art. Among these are the life-story of a youth, imagined from the observation of a number of suits hanging in a pawnbroker's shop, in "Meditations in Monmouth Street," and that fine study of anxiety and terror in the last night of a condemned prisoner, in "A Visit to Newgate."
There are many more ties, of many kinds, between the Sketches by Boz and the novels. I have mentioned only a small proportion of the characters, situations, elements in style and form, and direct confidences of the author that claim for the Sketches the right of the closest organic membership with the whole body of Dickens's writing. And I have tried to show the benefit of understanding the connectedness of a writer's creative imagination from work to work. As a last point, much more important than any fact of ties between the early writings, and the novels, is the realisation that these early stories and sketches have an excellent merit in their own right, a high power of giving pleasure.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2949
SOURCE: "The Christmas Carol and the Economic Man," in The American Scholar, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1951-52, pp. 91-8.
[Johnson is a major Dickens scholar whose Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1952) is considered the definitive biography of the novelist In the following essay adapted from that work, Johnson expounds on the social importance of A Christmas Carol.]
Everyone knows Dickens' Christmas Carol for its colorful painting of a rosy fireside good cheer and warmth of feeling, made all the more vivid by the contrasting chill wintry darkness in which its radiant scenes are framed. Most readers realize too how characteristic of all Dickens' sentiments about the Christmas season are the laughter and tenderness and jollity he poured into the Carol. What is not so widely understood is that it was also consistently and deliberately created as a critical blast against the very rationale of industrialism and its assumptions about the organizing principles of society. It is an attack upon both the economic behavior of the nineteenth-century business man and the supporting theory of doctrinaire utilitarianism. As such it is a good deal more significant than the mere outburst of warmhearted sentimentality it is often taken to be.
Its sharper intent is, indeed, ingeniously disguised. Not even the festivities at Dingley Dell, in Pickwick Papers, seem to have a more genial innocence than the scenes of the Christmas Carol. It is full of the tang of snow and cold air and crisp green holly-leaves, and warm with the glow of crimson holly-berries, blazing hearths, and human hearts. Deeper than this, however, Dickens makes of the Christmas spirit a symbolic criticism of the relations that throughout almost all the rest of the year subsist among men. It is a touchstone, revealing and drawing forth the gold of generosity ordinarily crusted over with selfish habit, an earnest of the truth that our natures are not entirely or even essentially devoted to competitive struggle.
Dickens is certain that the enjoyment most men are able to feel in the happiness of others can play a larger part than it does in the tenor of their lives. The sense of brotherhood, he feels, can be broadened to a deeper and more active concern for the welfare of all mankind. It is in this light that Dickens sees the Spirit of Christmas. So understood, as the distinguished scholar Professor Louis Cazamian rightly points out, his "philosophie de Noël" becomes the very core of his social thinking.
Not that Christmas has for Dickens more than the very smallest connection with Christian dogma or theology. It involves no conception of the virgin birth or transubstantiation or sacrificial atonement or redemption by faith. For Dickens Christmas is primarily a human, not a supernatural, feast, with glowing emphasis on goose and gravy, plum-pudding and punch, mistletoe and kissing-games, dancing and frolic, as well as open-handedness, sympathy, and warmth of heart. Dickens does not believe that love of others demands utter abnegation or mortification of the flesh; it is not sadness but joyful fellowship. The triumphal meaning of Christmas peals in the angel voices ringing through the sky: "On earth peace, good will to men." It is a sign that men do not live by bread alone, that they do not live for barter and sale alone. No way of life is either true or rewarding that leaves out men's need of loving and of being loved.
The theme of the Christmas Carol is thus closely linked with the theme of Martin Chuzzlewit, which was being written and published as a serial during the very time in which the shorter story appeared. The selfishness so variously manifested in the one is limited in the other to the selfishness of financial gain. For in an acquisitive society the form that selfishness predominantly takes is monetary greed. The purpose of such a society is the protection of property rights. Its rules are created by those who have money and power, and are designed, to the extent that they are consistent, for the perpetuation of money and power. With the growing importance of commerce in the eighteenth century, and of industry in the nineteenth, political economists—the "philosophers" Dickens detested—rationalized the spirit of ruthless greed into a system claiming authority throughout society.
Services as well as goods, they said, were subject only to the laws of profitable trade. There was no just price. One bought in the cheapest market and sold in the dearest. There was no just wage. The mill owner paid the mill hand what competition decreed under the determination of the "iron law of wage." If the poor, the insufficiently aggressive, and the mediocre in ability were unable to live on what they could get, they must starve—or put up with the treadmill and the workhouse—and even these institutions represented concessions to mere humanity that must be made as forbidding as possible. Ideally, no sentimental conceptions must be allowed to obstruct the workings of the law of supply and demand. "Cash-nexus" was the sole bond between man and man. The supreme embodiment of this social theory was the notion of the "economic man," that curiously fragmentary picture of human nature, who never performed any action except at the dictates of monetary gain. And Scrooge, in the Christmas Carol, is nothing other than a personification of economic man.
Scrooge's entire life is limited to cash-boxes, ledgers and bills of sale. He underpays and bullies and terrifies his clerk, and grudges him even enough coal in his office fire to keep warm. All sentiment, kindness, generosity, tenderness, he dismisses as humbug. All imagination he regards as a species of mental indigestion. He feels that he has discharged his full duty to society in contributing his share of the taxes that pay for the prison, the workhouse, the operation of the treadmill and the poor law, and he bitterly resents having his pocket picked to keep even them going. The out-of-work and the indigent sick are to him merely idle and useless; they had better die and decrease the surplus population. So entirely does Scrooge exemplify the economic man that, like that abstraction, his grasping rapacity has ceased to have any purpose beyond itself: when he closes up his office for the night he takes his pinched heart off to a solitary dinner at a tavern and then to his bleak chambers where he sits alone over his gruel.
Now from one angle, of course, A Christmas Carol indicts the economic philosophy represented by Scrooge for its unhappy influence on society. England's prosperity was not so uncertain—if, indeed, any nation's ever is—that she needed to be parsimonious and cruel to her waifs and strays, or even to the incompetents and casualties of life. To neglect the poor, to deny them education, to give them no protection from covetous employers, to let them be thrown out of work and fall ill and die in filthy surroundings that then engender spreading pestilence, to allow them to be harried by misery into crime—all these turn out in the long run to be the most disastrous shortsightedness.
That is what the Ghost of Christmas Present means in showing Scrooge the two ragged and wolfish children glaring from beneath its robes. "They are Man's," says the Spirit. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased." And when Scrooge asks if they have no refuge, the Spirit ironically echoes his own words: "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"
Scrooge's relation with his clerk Bob Cratchit is another illustration of the same point. To say, as some commentators have done, that Scrooge is paying Cratchit all he is worth on the open market (or he would get another job) is to assume the very conditions Dickens is attacking. It is not only that timid, uncompetitive people like Bob Cratehit may lack the courage to bargain for their rights. But, as Dickens knows well, there are many things other than the usefulness of a man's work that determine his wage—the existence, for example, of a large body of other men able to do the same job. And if Cratehit is getting the established remuneration for his work, that makes the situation worse, not better; for instead of an isolated one, his is a general case. What Dickens has at heart is not any economic conception like Marx's labor theory of value, but a feeling of the human value of human beings. Unless a man is a noxious danger to society, Dickens feels, a beast of prey to be segregated or destroyed; if he is able and willing to work, whatever the work may be—he is entitled at least to enough for him to live on, by the mere virtue of his humanity alone.
But the actual organization that Dickens saw in society callously disregarded all such humane principles. The hardened criminal was maintained in jail with more care than the helpless debtor who had broken no law. The pauper who owed nobody, but whom age, illness or industrial change might have thrown out of work, was treated more severely than many a debtor and jailbird. And the poor clerk or laborer, rendered powerless by his need or the number of others like him, could be held to a pittance barely sufficient to keep him and his family from starvation.
Against such inequities Dickens maintains that any work worth doing should be paid enough to maintain a man and his family without grinding worry. How are the Bob Cratchits and their helpless children to live? Or are we to let the crippled Tiny Tims die and decrease the surplus population? "Man," says the Ghost, "if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is and Where it is. . . . It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!"
Coldhearted arrogance and injustice storing up a dangerous heritage of poverty and ignorance—such is Dickens' judgment of the economic system that Scrooge exemplifies. But its consequences do not end with the cruelties it inflicts upon the masses of the people or the evils it works in society. It injures Scrooge as well. All the more generous impulses of humanity he has stifled and mutilated in himself. All natural affection he has crushed. The lonely boy he used to be, weeping in school, the tender brother, the eager youth, the young man who once fell disinterestedly in love with a dowerless girl—what has he done to them in making himself into a money-making machine, as hard and sharp as flint, and frozen with the internal ice that clutches his shriveled heart? That dismal cell, his office, and his gloomy rooms, are only a prison within which he dwells self-confined, barred and close-locked as he drags a chain of his own cash-boxes and dusty ledgers. Acting on a distortedly inadequate conception of self-interest, Scrooge has deformed and crippled himself to bitter sterility.
And Scrooge's fallacy is the fallacy of organized society. Like his house, which Dickens fancifully imagines playing hide-and-seek with other houses when it was a young house, and losing its way in a blind alley it has forgotten how to get out of, Scrooge has lost his way between youth and maturity. Society too in the course of its development has gone astray and then hardened itself in obdurate error with a heartless economic theory. Scrooge's conversion is more than the transformation of a single human being. It is a plea for society itself to undergo a change of heart.
Dickens does not, it should be noticed, take the uncompromising position that the self-regarding emotions are to be eradicated altogether. He is not one of those austere theorists who hold that the individual must be subordinated to the state or immolate himself to the service of an abstract humanity. Concern for one's self and one's own welfare is necessary and right, but true self-love cannot be severed from love of others without growing barren and diseased. Only in the communion of brotherhood is it healthy and fruitful. When Scrooge has truly changed, and has dispatched the anonymous gift of the turkey to Bob Cratehit as an earnest of repentance, his next move is to go to his nephew's house and ask wistfully, "Will you let me in, Fred?" With love reanimated in his heart, he may hope for love.
There have been readers who objected to Scrooge's conversion as too sudden and radical to be psychologically convincing. But this is to mistake a semi-serious fantasy for a piece of prosaic realism. Even so, the emotions in Scrooge to which the Ghosts appeal are no unsound means to the intended end: the awakened memories of a past when he had known gentler and warmer ties than in any of his later years, the realization of his exclusion from all kindness and affection in others now, the fears of a future when he may be lonelier and more unloved still. And William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience provides scores of case-histories that parallel both the suddenness of Scrooge's conversion and the sense of radiant joy he feels in the world around him after it has taken place. It may be that what really gives the skeptics pause is that Scrooge is converted to a gospel of good cheer. They could probably believe easily enough if he espoused some gloomy doctrine of intolerance.
But it is doubtful whether such questions ever arise when one is actually reading the Christmas Carol From the very beginning Dickens strikes a tone of playful exaggeration that warns us this is no exercise in naturalism. Scrooge carries "his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days." Blind men's dogs, when they see him coming, tug their masters into doorways to avoid him. The entire world of the story is an animistic one: houses play hide-and-seek, doorknockers come to life as human heads, the tuning of a fiddle is "like fifty stomach aches," old Fezziwig's legs wink as he dances, potatoes bubbling in a saucepan knock loudly at the lid "to be let out and peeled." Scrooge's own language has a jocose hyperbole, even when he is supposed to be most ferocious or most terrified, that makes his very utterance seem half a masquerade. "If I could work my will," he snarls, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!" Is that the accent of a genuine curmudgeon or of a man trying to sound more violent than he feels? And to Marley's Ghost, despite his disquiet, he remarks, "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blob of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an under-done potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"
All these things make it clear that Dickens—as always when he is most deeply moved and most profound—is speaking in terms of unavowed allegory. But the allegory of Dickens is in one way subtler than the allegory of writers like Kafka or Melville. Kafka is always hinting the existence of hidden meanings by making the experience of his characters so baffling and irrational on a merely realistic level that we are obliged to search for symbolic significances. And Melville, too, by a score of devices, from those rolling, darkly magnificent and extraordinary soliloquies to the mystery of Ahab's intense and impassioned pursuit of the White Whale, forces us to realize that this is a more metaphysical duel than one with a mere deep-sea beast.
Dickens, however, leaves his surface action so entirely clear and the behavior of his characters so plain that they do not puzzle us into groping for gnomic meanings. Scrooge is a miser, his nephew a warmhearted fellow, Bob Cratchit a poor clerk—what could be simpler? If there is a touch of oddity in the details, that is merely Dickens's well-known comic grotesquerie; if Scrooge's change of heart is sharp and antithetical, that is only Dickens' melodramatic sentimentality. Surely all the world knows that Dickens is never profound?
But the truth is that Dickens has so fused his abstract thought and its imaginative forming that one melts almost entirely into the other. Though our emotional perception of Dickens' meaning is immediate and spontaneous, nothing in his handling thrusts upon us an intellectual statement of that meaning. But more than a warm-hearted outpouring of holiday sentiment, the Christmas Carol is in essence a serio-comic parable of social redemption. Marley's Ghost is the symbol of divine grace, and the three Christmas Spirits are the working of that grace through the agencies of memory, example and fear. And Scrooge, although of course he is himself too, is not himself alone: he is the embodiment of all that concentration upon material power and callous indifference to the welfare of human beings that the economists had erected into a system, businessmen and industrialists pursued relentlessly, and society taken for granted as inevitable and proper. The conversion of Scrooge is an image of the conversion for which Dickens hopes among mankind.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2422
SOURCE: An introduction to Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens, Oxford University Press, London, 1957, pp. v-xi.
[In the essay below, Holme praises Dickens's descriptive writing style in Sketches by Boz.]
One evening in the autumn of 1832 the manuscript of a fictional sketch entitled 'A Sunday out of Town' was dropped 'with fear and trembling into a dark letter-box in a dark office up a dark court in Fleet Street'. Its author, describing the event to a friend, gives a picture of the sequel. We see him in a Strand bookshop, hurriedly searching through a copy of The Monthly Magazine. He pauses, gazing at the page before him. His sketch—its name 'transmogrified' to 'A Dinner at Poplar Walk'—is there, 'in all the glory of print'. Thrusting his way through the crowded Strand, the young Charles Dickens hurries blindly towards Westminster Hall where he may pace in solitude—'my eyes so dimmed with pride and joy, that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to be seen'.
The delight of seeing his work in print was the only reward offered by The Monthly Magazine, whose Editor presently sent a 'polite and flattering communication' asking for more. He was duly supplied with 'Horatio Sparkins', 'The Bloomsbury Christening', and 'The Boarding House'. This last was the first sketch to bear the author's signature—'Boz'. The pseudonym was, as he afterwards put it, 'the nickname of a pet child, a younger brother whom I had dubbed Moses, in honour of The Vicar of Wakefield; which, being facetiously pronounced through the nose, became Boses, and, being shortened, became Boz'.
The following year, Dickens, who was now twenty-one and earning five guineas a week as a reporter on The Morning Chronicle, was sent to review a new farce at the Adelphi Theatre. He found that the author, J. B. Buckstone, had unashamedly used the plot and many of the jokes from his own sketch, 'The Bloomsbury Christening'. Already he had been paid the doubtful compliment of plagiarism.
By now several influential men were becoming aware of young Boz, among them the successful author Harrison Ainsworth, who introduced him to his own publisher, Macrone. One night, after spending the evening at Ainsworth's house in Willesden, Dickens and Macrone walked back into the city together. The publisher declared that the Sketches, of which twenty or so had now appeared in The Morning Chronicle and other papers, were 'capital value'; and suggested their being collected into a volume for publication. Cruikshank the cartoonist, he added casually, might be the man to illustrate them. It is not difficult to imagine the enthusiasm with which this suggestion was received, or the eagerness with which Boz—in the spare time snatched from his travels as a parliamentary reporter in election time—was to fling himself into the production of a quantity of new sketches to complete the two volumes finally commissioned by Macrone. His mind was filled with ideas: he wrote with speed. In the end it was Cruikshank, not Dickens, who held up publication.
At last, on 7 February 1836, its author's twenty-fourth birthday, the First Series of Sketches by Boz was published. Its immediate success was almost immediately eclipsed; for some six weeks later the first number of The Pickwick Papers appeared. After a doubtful start this serial was to achieve, with the introduction of Sam Weiler, a swift and enduring fame. By the time the Second Series of his Sketches appeared, Boz and Pickwick were household words.
Perhaps', said Cranford's Miss Jenkyns, 'the author is young. Let him persevere, and who knows what he may become if he will take the great Doctor for his model.' 'Doctor Johnson's style', she reiterated later—after listening 'with patient gravity' to a chapter of Pickwick—'Doctor Johnson's style is a model for young beginners.'
It is true that Mrs. Gaskell, in introducing Boz as a bone of contention between two of her characters, was incidentally paying a witty compliment to the Editor who had commissioned her work. But the fictitious Miss Jenkyns's attitude may well have had its counterpart in reality. The impact of Dickens upon the more reactionary of his readers must have been startling. After the rolling phrases, the remote philosophizing characters of Johnson; the exotic phantasmagoria of Gothic romance; even after the fastidious realism of Jane Austen—'Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can'—the contrast is remarkable. Here was Boz, reflecting a completely new outlook, the outlook of the man in the street; setting down in his Sketches all the small events in the everyday life of common persons—bank clerks, shop assistants, omnibus drivers; laundresses, market women, and kidney-pie sellers: directing his powers of observation and description upon scenes and characters within the daily scope of any loiterer in London. 'I thought I knew something of the town', commented one of his fellow clerks in the law firm of Ellis and Blackmore; 'but after a little talk with Dickens I found that I knew nothing. He knew it all, from Bow to Brentford. . . . He could imitate, in a manner I never saw equalled, the low population of the streets of London in all their varieties.'
In these sketches we see a reflection of the tremendous social changes that were beginning to take place. On the one hand Dickens depicts in relentless detail the horrors of poverty, disease, and crime—legacy of eighteenth-century London; on the other the prosperous vulgarity of the rapidly rising middle class. The young Boz stood, as it were, between two worlds; and we are reminded that Dickens the Eminent Victorian was born in the reign of George the Third. Through his eyes we watch Hogarthian scenes of misery and despair, offset by brightly coloured pictures of mass jollification reminiscent of Frith's 'Derby Day'.
The heat is intense this afternoon, and the people, of whom there are additional parties arriving every moment, look as warm as the tables which have been recently painted, and have the appearance of being red-hot. What a dust and noise! Men and women—boys and girls—sweethearts and married people. . . . Gentlemen in alarming waistcoats, and steel watchguards, promenading about, three abreast . . . ladies, with great, long, white pockethandkerchiefs like small table-cloths in their hands, chasing one another on the grass in the most playful and interesting manner, with the view of attracting the attention of the aforesaid gentlemen—husbands in perspective ordering bottles of ginger-beer for the objects of their affections, with a lavish disregard of expense; and the said objects washing down huge quantities of shrimps and winkles, with an equal disregard of their own bodily health and subsequent discomfort—boys, with great silk hats just balanced on the top of their heads, smoking cigars, and trying to look as if they liked them—gentlemen in pink shirts and blue waistcoats, occasionally upsetting either themselves, or somebody else, with their own canes.
I suppose it is almost inevitable that one should consider these sketches in terms of painting, for their writer is already a master of pictorial description. He lays on his colours boldly, giving us sharp contrasts of light and darkness in his 'Visit to Newgate', and bringing to life with vivid touches his portraits such as 'The Last Cab Driver' who is described as 'a brown-whiskered, white-hatted, nocoated cabman; his nose was generally red, and his bright blue eye not unfrequently stood out in bold relief against a black border of artificial workmanship'. His neck, we are told, 'was usually garnished with a bright yellow handkerchief. In summer he carried in his mouth a flower; in winter, a straw—slight, but, to a contemplative mind, certain indications of a love of nature, and a taste for botany.'
It is difficult to make a fair assessment of the literary value of these early sketches because, in doing so, one must temporarily forget the masterpieces of which they were the harbinger, and of which one is so frequently reminded by small inspired touches, or by the foreshadowing of characters as yet unborn. Dickens himself, years later, described his first book as 'often being extremely crude and illconsidered, and bearing obvious marks of haste and inexperience'. This may indeed be true of some of the 'Tales', such as 'Mr. Minns and His Cousin' (the original 'A Sunday out of Town'), which, after an amusing and carefully contrived start, ends with such suddenness that one wonders if the author had run out of paper; and also of the irritating humours of 'The Mudfog Association' in which the comic genius of Boz seems to have lost its way.
But as an example of what is now called 'documentary' the Sketches deserve a unique place in literature. It has been pointed out elsewhere that more than half this volume's contents are facts: facts observed with an astonishing precision and wealth of detail. But Boz is no objective reporter: the facts he presents are invested with his own reaction to them, and in some cases are lifted by his imagination into tragedy or fantasy. An example of this is to be found in 'Meditations in Monmouth Street', where, speculating upon the contents of a second-hand clothes shop, he creates the life story of a wastrel from some of the garments displayed; and then, 'by way of restoring the naturally cheerful tone of our thoughts', begins to fit 'visionary feet and legs into a cellar-board full of boots and shoes'. With a swift stroke of invention he brings to life a whole cast of characters, imagines their relationships one with the other, and sets them before us in a sort of comic ballet.
It is interesting to note that at the time of their publication, the two Sketches singled out for praise were concerned with tragedy—'The Black Veil' and 'A Visit to Newgate'. The former, which is included among the Tales, is a highly dramatic, not to say melodramatic, story, of which the theme is a recurrent one throughout the Sketches: the ruin of a woman's life by the worthlessness of the man to whom she has devoted it. In this case it is a mother whose fruitless efforts to save her son from the gallows have driven her insane. We are spared few of the horrors of this woeful tale; there are moments when the dialogue is worthy of the Radclyffian title.
'Who was he?' inquired the surgeon.
'My son', rejoined the woman; and fell senseless at his feet.
But in contrast we find masterly passages such as that describing 'the back part of Walworth'; and the 'corpulent round-headed boy' at the opening might be a rough sketch of the fat boy in Pickwick.
Dickens admitted that he found Newgate Prison 'a very difficult subject'. There is little doubt that he found it a heart-rending one. Reading this account one cannot fail to be aware of the pity with which his imagination works upon the mournful groups he describes: the women conversing through the bars of 'a kind of iron cage . . . through which the friends of the female prisoners communicate with them'; the three condemned murderers—one of them entertaining some hopes of reprieve, and holding aloof from his two companions, who, as the turnkey intimated in a confident undertone, 'were dead men'. After a pitiful description of fourteen infant pickpockets 'drawn up in line for our inspection' in the prison school, he writes, 'There was not one redeeming feature among them—not a glance of honesty—not a wink expressive of anything but the gallows and the hulks, in the whole collection'; and concludes, 'We have never looked upon a more disagreeable sight, because we never saw fourteen such hopeless creatures of neglect, before.' Here, surely, is something greater than pity and horror: the imaginative insight into the cause of crime which was later to inspire his relentless exposure of social evils. Already, it would seem, the foundations have been laid for Oliver Twist-, and the images of Fagin and his gang have peered at their creator from out of the shadows of Newgate.
It is for the glimpses they afford us of their author that these sketches have a special fascination: not only in foreshadowings of future greatness but in those touches which reveal the young Boz himself. In 'Making a Night of It' he gives us what is thought to be a self portrait. He is the romantic Smithers in his 'brown hat, very much turned up at the sides', who found his appreciation of a theatrical performance somewhat marred by the effects of Scotch whiskey and Havannah cigars. Young Boz must undoubtedly have met 'The Theatrical Young Gentleman' who is the subject of another sketch, and who called Drury Lane the lane, and the Victoria the vic. His own interest in theatrical matters is unquestionable; and in 'Private Theatres' it is clear that his knowledge of these places of entertainment extended backstage.
In the National Portrait Gallery there hangs a painting by Maclise, of which Thackeray declared, 'Here we have the real identical man, Dickens.' It shows a youthful figure seated in a crimson and gilt armchair before a writing desk, his left hand firmly placed upon a manuscript—an attitude which seems to suggest that he is playing, with enjoyment, the part of a famous writer. The pale smooth face is turned, like an actor's, full into the light. One observes the elegant folds of his black satin cravat, the neatness of his small well-polished boots. Then, drawing nearer, one becomes aware of the power and vitality in that face with its strong nose and sensuous, sensitive mouth—and the large brilliant eyes which, turned away from the artist, gaze thoughtfully out of the window. These are the eyes which observed the tragedy and comedy of life in such vivid detail; which saw and recorded brutality and pathos, courage and despair, and all the innumerable absurdities of human behaviour.
This portrait was painted three years after the publication of Sketches by Boz, when its subject was assured of fame; but it is not difficult to recognize the author of these early works. It is in company with this same youthful, energetic figure that, reading them, we walk the streets and visit the entertainments and institutions of the London of William the Fourth. There are many rewarding discoveries for the explorer among these pages; many opportunities to exclaim in echo of Thackeray, 'Here we have the real identical man, Dickens!'
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Uncommercial Traveller and Reprinted Pieces, Etc. by Charles Dickens, Oxford University Press, London, 1958, pp. v-x.
[In the following essay. Staples centers on Dickens's use of autobiographical material in The Uncommercial Traveller and Reprinted Pieces.]
The genius of Dickens needed space to attain its full stature. Twenty monthly 'parts' of thirty-two pages each were not too much for the telling of his tales. In the preface to the best known of his shorter works he complained of the difficulty of its construction within a 'narrow space'. He remarked that he 'never attempted great elaboration of detail in the working out of character within such limits, believing that it could not succeed'. And yet what memorable characters he did in fact create within the narrowest limits. In the novels one immediately recalls Trabb's boy and, within the narrowest limits imaginable, the nervous young man interposing in a conversation and getting no further than Esker . . . ? and then stopping dead. In the short articles we are to consider in this [essay], when space was indeed narrow, examples abound, perhaps less known but scarcely less remarkable.
It was as a journalist that Dickens first made his mark with the reading public, and a good case could be made out for the theory that if Dickens had never published a novel his collected journalistic pieces would have secured for him some small niche in the temple of fame. His earliest essays, collected under the title Sketches by Boz, make up a book which has been described as the Overture to the Opera of Dickens. Almost all the themes dealt with in the novels are foreshadowed here. They were the work of a high-spirited young man in his early twenties, and exhibit a gusto that is infectious and was to reach its fine flowering a year or two later in Pickwick.
The journalism [we shall consider]. . . is of a very different character, and is contemporary with his maturity, as is self-evident in much of The Uncommercial Traveller. There are no undisciplined high spirits here, but the polished prose of the established master. Yet for all their apparent effortlessness a world of pains had gone into their composition. One of the most revealing things to be seen at the Dickens House in London is a page of the manuscript of Pickwick, a masterpiece written at the age of twenty-four, which has no more than half a dozen words corrected, lying side by side with that of one of his later journalistic papers, which has hardly a line that was not scored out and rewritten.
Dickens's weekly journal All the Year Round had been running for two years, following its predecessor's eight, when he commenced the series he called The Uncommercial Traveller. Until then, all the contributions in these journals, with the exception of his own serialized novels, had been anonymous; but he was announced to be the author of these articles, among which are to be found the finest of his fugitive writings, and in which, as he explains in the prefatory paper, "His General Line of Business," he proposed to travel, uncommercially, for the firm of Human Interest Brothers. In addition to recounting current experiences, he frequently drew upon his memories of the past, and not the least interesting feature of the papers is the autobiographical material that is to be found in many of them. Here is much that he probably originally intended for the autobiography that he never wrote, and much to supplement what we gather about his early life in David Copperfield.
The city of Rochester, 'the birthplace of his fancy', as it has been called, figures in many of his works, but in "Dull-borough Town" we have his picture of it as the background of his own childhood, and not as a setting for his characters. His vivid memories of it should be read alongside the pictures painted of it in his first book, Pickwick, and again in his last, Edwin Drood. In every case the old city inspires him with the tenderest affection.
Of course the town had shrunk fearfully since I was a child there. I had entertained the impression that the High Street was at least as wide as Regent Street, London, or the Italian Boulevard at Paris. I found it little better than a lane. There was a public clock in it, which I had supposed to be the finest clock in the world; whereas it now turned out to be as inexpressive, moonfaced, weak a clock as ever I saw. It belonged to a Town Hall . . . a mean little brick heap, like a demented chapel, with a few yawning persons in leather gaiters, in the last extremity for something to do, lounging at the door with their hands in their pockets, and calling themselves a Corn Exchange!
In "Travelling Abroad" there is the oft-quoted story of his being taken to Gad's Hill as 'a queer small boy' by his father, and shown the great house there. If he worked hard, he was told, he might one day come to live in a house like that. A parental prophecy that came true, for he did indeed come to live, and to die, there. More childhood memories are to be found in "Nurse's Stories," in which Dickens makes yet another plea that a child's imagination should be treated with the most delicate care.
Memories of his early manhood are no less interesting. In "City of London Churches" we get a delightful glimpse of his first love affair. For Angelica, beside whom he writes of himself as sitting in an all but empty city church one Sunday morning, must surely have been Maria Beadnell, alias Dora Spenlow.
I mind when I, turned of eighteen, went with my Angelica to a city church on account of a shower (by this special coincidence that it was in Huggin Lane), and when I said to my Angelica, 'Let the blessed event, Angelica occur at no altar but this!' and when my Angelica consented that it should occur at no other—which it certainly never did, for it never occurred anywhere, and oh Angelica, what has become of you, this present Sunday morning, when I can't attend to the sermon; and more difficult than that, what has become of Me, as I was when I sat by your side?
In "Recollections of Mortality" there is a humorous account of the purchase of his first horse, when he was living at Devonshire Terrace, and in the same paper the story of his serving on a coroner's jury empanelled to investigate the death of 'a very little mite of a child'. The story of his purchase of a performing goldfinch, and the little creature's refusal to perform without the personal attendance of its vendor, is to be found in "Shy Neighbourhoods."
Later recollections include those of his eccentric sculptor friend, Angus Fletcher, whose portrait as Mr. Kindheart in "Medicine Men of Civilisation" is not unworthy to stand beside many more elaborate portraits in the novels; and of his visit to the little house in Shadwell that was the seed of a great children's hospital, in "A Small Star in the East." And how delightful it is to meet again the little wooden midshipman of Dombey and Son in "Wapping Workhouse."
In addition to the autobiographical, the series has the widest of range, and embraces most of the author's extremely varied interests and styles; maritime rescue work in "The Shipwreck," popular entertainment in "Two Views of a Cheap Theatre," a very familiar subject such as the description of "Titbull's Alms-houses," and characteristic imaginative writing such as "Arcadian London," and "Chambers," in which latter paper Dickens once again inveighs against Gray's Inn. Why, one wonders, did he so seldom miss an opportunity of doing so? Was he unhappy there, as a lawyer's clerk?
I look upon Gray's Inn generally as one of the most depressing institutions in bricks and mortar known to the children of men. Can anything be more dreary than its arid Square, Sahara Desert of the law . . .
Despite the passage of a century, not to speak of the falling of high explosives, a great deal of the old London described in these chapters is still to be seen, and explorations in the author's footsteps are among the most rewarding experiences of the Dickensian in London. Many of the city churches so vividly characterized are still to be identified.
An interesting example occurs here of Dickens making amends for mistaken criticism. In "A Small Star in the East" he had something to say about the conditions under which people worked in East London lead mills. The passage coming to the notice of the gentlemen who ran the mills with which Dickens dealt, they got into touch with him and invited him to see how carefully they sought to protect their workers. Dickens made honourable amends in "On an Amateur Beat," and his correspondence with the firm is now in the Dickens House in London.
Some attention has been paid in recent years to "The Ruffian," but it is too controversial a matter to be usefully discussed in the limited space available here. The paper is long likely to remain fruitful material for assessing Dickens's social conscience.
Turning to Reprinted Pieces, we have a somewhat earlier collection, all the items of which appeared in Household Words between 1850 and 1856, and all anonymously. This selection of his contributions to that journal was made by Dickens himself for the Library Edition of his works. . . .
Here again, the autobiographical element is of great interest. Again we are taken back to his earlier days. "Our School" gives a vivid picture of his brief schooldays at Wellington House Academy in Hampstead Road: that part of it which was not sliced away by the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway, as described in the paper, remains to this day. Clearly it was not a remarkable school, but Dickens was glad to be at any kind of school after the misery of the blacking factory. Some of his recollections of it went into the creation of Creakle's school in David Copperfield, And then we have a delightful picture of Broadstairs, to which he regularly returned, summer after summer, from 1836 to 1851, in "Our English Watering-Place." Although considerably larger than in Dickens's day, the older part of the town has retained its character to a remarkable degree and the landmarks with which he deals are still to be seen. Readers of this chapter will also hail an old friend with a great deal of pleasure, Miss Julia Mills, from David Copperfield.
Miss Julia Mills has read the whole collection of these books [in the circulating library]. She has left marginal notes on the pages, as 'Is not this truly touching? J. M.' 'How thrilling! J. M.' 'Entranced here by the Magician's potent spell. J. M.' She has italicized her favourite traits in the description of the hero, as 'his hair, which was dark and wavy, clustered in rich profusion around a marble brow, whose lofty paleness bespoke the intellect within.' It reminds her of another hero. She adds, 'How like B. L. Can this be mere coincidence? J. M.'
"Our French Watering-Place" is Boulogne, which almost replaced Broadstairs in Dickens's affection for a season or two. Apart from the autobiographical, the series deals with the widest range of subjects, from "A Child's Dream of a Star," among the most sentimental of his writings, to "A Mounment of French Folly," a fierce attack on what Dickens regarded as a great public scandal.
After presenting three miscellaneous items written at different periods of Dickens's life—"The Lamplighter," "To be Read at Dusk," and "Sunday under Three Heads"—this volume concludes with three pieces commissioned for publication in America. The author received a thousand pounds for each of these; Forster comments on the unprecedented figure for writings of their length. Julius Slinkton in "Hunted Down" was founded upon Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, the poisoner and forger. Prominent in the contemporary world of letters, he was 'Janus Weathercock' of the London Magazine. We probably read more of him in Dickens's Jonas Chuzzlewit. "Holiday Romance" contains the favourite "Magic Fishbone." To one of its companion pieces, "Captain Boldheart," its author was especially partial. "George Silverman's Explanation" has mystified most of the critics. It is possibly the least characteristic of Dickens's shorter writings. The key to it, in all probability, is psychological, as at least one commentator has demonstrated.
To know Dickns one must be familiar with a dozen major novels, but the knowledge is incomplete without some familiarity with his journalistic work. . . .
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SOURCE: "Comic Viewpoints in Sketches by Boz, " in English, Vol. XII, No. 69, Autumn, 1958, pp. 132-35.
[In the essay below, English scholar and critic Cox traces the humor in Sketches by Boz, finding that the characters depicted represent for Dickens "the comic situation of man in the universe. " ]
The scenes, characters, and tales included by Dickens in Sketches by Boz are of unequal merit. Many of the tales are simple and naïve in their treatment of character, and others, such as "The Black Veil" and "The Drunkard's Death," are heavily melodramatic, but among these failures are other sketches which demonstrate why Dickens is one of the greatest of our humorists. His stories are not merely a series of fancies and jokes, but show through humour his attitudes towards man's position in society and in the universe. In Sketches by Boz, the comic viewpoints which are implied in his later works can be seen in the process of development.
Dickens's humour in his treatment of society operates on many levels. In these early sketches he often seems only to be laughing at oddities, at people who do not behave in conventional ways, but already his treatment of such characters implies much more than simple mockery of eccentrics. A good example of a more complex viewpoint is to be found in the description of the half-pay captain, one of the many portraits included under the heading "Our Parish." The captain is bluff and unceremonious, and invades the privacy of a quiet old lady, his next-door neighbour. Some ordinary jokes are included, such as the description of how the captain takes the lady's clock to pieces, and replaces the parts so that the large hand has done nothing but trip up the little one ever since; but one detail gives the sketch the true Dickens touch. The captain delights in making experiments with the old lady's property:
'One morning he got up early, and planted three or four roots of full-grown marigolds in every bed of her front garden, to the inconceivable astonishment of the old lady, who actually thought when she got up and looked out of the window, that it was some strange eruption which had come out in the night.
This passage shows that the captain is not just a curiosity to be laughed at because he is so unconventional. There is something beautiful in his fantastic idea of planting the marigolds. The scene suggests that even though man is a strange, comic figure, out of his peculiarities beauty is often created, coming, like the vision of marigolds to the old lady, with a shock of surprise. The same effects are given when Dickens describes the cabriolet-driver:
In summer he carried in his mouth a flower; in winter, a straw—slight, but to a contemplative mind, certain indications of a love of nature, and a taste for botany.
The driver may be an oddity, but his habit of carrying a flower in his mouth shows a delightful response to beauty.
These simple examples point to important implications of Dickens's attitude towards society. Characters such as the half-pay captain and the cabriolet-driver are contrasted with people who have become the slaves of social conventions. There are many portraits of snobs such as Mr. and Mrs. Malderton and Flamwell in the story of Horatio Sparkins. Dickens suggests that the order and propriety which seem proper to civilized manners almost inevitably lead to a sense of dignity and pride which limit enjoyment of experience. His comic portraits underline the value of individuals who may seem odd to conventional eyes, but who succeed in finding a means of expression for their love of life. One of the purposes of civilized customs is to bolster up man's faith in his own importance, to give our ordinary enjoyments, of eating and drinking, for example, a covering of pomp and ceremony, and to ensure that even our suffering is not without its proper dignity. Dickens prefers those who enjoy pleasure frankly and heartily, and who are not reticent in expressing their emotions. This is one of the reasons why both his gay pictures of Christmas exuberance and his emotional outbursts over human suffering have often found little favour with the sophisticated tastes of the twentieth century. He feels that civilized restraint can limit expression of affection and love, and withdraw the mind from sympathy with mankind. He admires men and women who commit themselves to life in all its fullness, and he suggests that such committal necessarily involves some sacrifice of what is normally considered as dignified behaviour.
A good example of these attitudes is to be seen in the story "Mr. Minns and his Cousin." Augustus Minns hates dogs and children:
He was not unamiable, but he could at any time have viewed the execution of a dog, or the assassination of an infant, with the liveliest satisfaction. Their habits were at variance with his love of order; and his love of order was as powerful as his love of life.
The story is first of all a simple satire on Minns's ambition to impose order on all his actions. He is visited by a relative, Mr. Budden, whose large white dog puts its paws on the table, and begins to eat the bread and butter. He travels in a coach, and is joined by a child and its mother: The child was an affectionate and an amiable infant; the little dear mistook Minns for its other parent, and screamed to embrace him.' But the story is more than a series of jokes about man's inability to impose his sense of order and propriety on the raw material of life. Mr. Minns is contrasted with Mr. Budden, whose love of good eating and fellowship exposes the emptiness of the bachelor life of Mr. Minns. Mr. Budden is a jolly, lively man, who loves his wife and child, his brandy and water, and his country home. When he visits Minns for breakfast, he eats heartily with a fine disregard for conventional manners. Budden is comic in his excesses, but, like so many Dickens characters, his refusal to obey social conventions is the mark of his exuberant joy in life. In contrast, Mr. Minns's ordered existence is drab and cold.
Some of the most lively of Sketches by Boz represent this belief that we only enjoy ourselves to the full when we forget conventional standards of propriety. In his description of "Greenwich Fair," Dickens gives a vivid account of The Crown and Anchor, a temporary ballroom:
The dancing, itself, beggars description—every figure lasts about an hour, and the ladies bounce up and down the middle, with a degree of spirit which is quite indescribable. As to the gentlemen, they stamp their feet against the ground, every time 'hands four round' begins, go down the middle and up again, with cigars in their mouths, and silk handkerchiefs in their hands, and whirl their partners round, nothing loath, scrambling and falling, and embracing, and knocking up against the other couples, until they are fairly tired out, and can move no longer.
Dickens pokes fun at the clerks and apprentices who finish the night of the dance with aching heads, empty pockets, and damaged hats; but the scene shows their energetic joy in life. All the feasts described in the sketches run to the same pattern. There is zest and animation, the best of food and drink, and exhilarated by the occasion, some gentleman always insists on giving a speech. His attempts at high-flown phrases sound ludicrous, and often his audience do not even understand him, but they applaud with great approval. These comic scenes show that we can never maintain a pose of dignity, and our attempts to do so will appear pompous; but as long as our desire to strut and stick our chests out does not stop us from enjoying ourselves, this does not matter. One of the reasons for Dickens's appeal to a wide popular audience is that he understood the value of committing onself to pleasure, whatever the loss of social dignity this may entail. He tells us to eat pickled onions with relish, to lie in the sun and allow our children to heap us over with sand, and, on all occasions, never to despise the pleasures of the ordinary man.
Although he admires the half-pay captain and the cabriolet-driver, Dickens is always aware that they are oddities. As such they represent for him the comic situation of man in the universe. Dickens sees that there is something peculiarly comic about the way man is tied to the body, and to one place on earth, and however seriously he takes his activities, they will soon be forgotten in the flow of time. We are all ignorant of the future, and our fate is often determined by forces over which we have no control. In Sketches by Boz Dickens's comic approach to the human predicament is reflected in simple form in the racy remarks of Mr. Bung, the beadle. Mr. Bung remarks that he is not 'one of those fortunate men who, if they were to dive under one side of a barge stark-naked, would come up on the other with a new suit of clothes on, and a ticket for soup in the waistcoat-pocket. . . . He is just one of the careless, good-for-nothing, happy fellows, who float, cork-like, on the surface, for the world to play at hockey with. . . . ' These images show in comic form the haphazard way in which fate deals with man. Bung's vivid expressions make us laugh not only because they are a delightful freak of fancy, but because they suggest the crazy, unexpected quality of good fortune in this world. But the final effect of these images is not one of futility. The relish with which Bung describes his own fate, his delight in his own fancy, stand as a positive value, showing a vitality which fortune cannot overthrow. On one occasion Bung describes how he 'felt as lonesome as a kitten in a washhouse copper with the lid on'. He is a ludicrous figure, but not one to be sneered at, for he himself enjoys the oddity of his own misfortunes.
Many of the anecdotes in Sketches by Boz describe how man's energetic search after pleasure leads to comic misfortune, but also they show how the zest with which he performs these antics is a sign of vitality. Mr. Percy Noakes makes careful preparations for a party on a steamer up the Thames. There is singing and flirtation, cold boiled leg of mutton and hearty sirloin of beef, and the scene is one of colour and high-spirited frolic. Then come wind and storm, no one can eat the food, and they return sick and dispirited. Whereas Mr. Bung's expressions suggest man's enslavement by fate, the party of Mr. Noakes shows man to be the sport of nature. These attitudes to misfortune are typical of the early work of Dickens. He is determined to be gay whatever may happen, to enjoy whole-heartedly the peculiarities of life. This is seen in an extreme form in the story of Mr. Watkins Tottle, where Dickens jokes about a shy, middle-aged bachelor whose misfortunes in money and in love end in suicide.
As Dickens developed, his view of misfortune and of evil grew more sombre, and he found it increasingly difficult to adopt the comic point of view. In Sketches by Boz, only occasionally do morbid anecdotes dispel the prevailing notes of joy and exhilaration, but already there are signs of a tragic awareness of life. Certain passages in Sketches by Boz are ambiguous in their effects because Dickens moves in one short passage from a comic to a tragic viewpoint. When describing gin shops, he begins with his usual delight in a scene of riot and confusion, but ends on a very different note:
The knot of Irish labourers at the lower end of the place, who have been alternately shaking hands with, and threatening the life of, each other for the last hour, become furious in their disputes, and finding it impossible to silence one man, who is particularly anxious to adjust the difference, they resort to the infallible expedient of knocking him down and jumping on him afterwards .. . a scene of riot and confusion ensues . . . the landlord hits everybody, and everybody hits the landlord . . . the remainder slink home to beat their wives for complaining, and kick the children for daring to be hungry.
In this passage Dickens turns from laughter at inappropriate high spirits to a pathetic account of human cruelty. Yet even in his most vivid descriptions of suffering, he shows a faith in the power of love. In his story "The Black Veil" it is the love of the mother for the hanged felon which is the mainspring of the plot.
It is this faith in individual goodness which prevents Dickens's humour from ever becoming cynical. In his comic treatment of reality, he shows two very different approaches to the enigma of human existence. On the one hand, he sees man as a fool—like Mr. Percy Noakes or Mr. Watkins Tottle, a creature whose attempts to take himself seriously are worthy only of ridicule; yet, on the other hand, the vigour with which such characters pursue their activities redeems them from futility. Above all, Dickens's comic characters love people and love life. The comedy of Dickens suggests a fundamental paradox: man is a puny creature a few feet high whose pretensions are mocked by the vastness of time and space; he is also endowed with a capacity for love which makes the facts of time and space seem unimportant.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5377
SOURCE: "Dickens' Artistry and The Haunted Man," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LXI, No. 4, Autumn, 1962, pp. 492-505.
[Stone is an American scholar and critic, whose works—many award-winning—include Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making (1979) and The Night Side of Dickens: Cannibalism, Passion, Necessity (1991), In the following excerpt, Stone examines the evolution of Dickens's writing style as evidenced by his skillful uniting of elements of fairy tale, allegory, autobiography, and psychology in The Haunted Man.]
If one reads Dickens' novels chronologically, one is astonished upon beginning Dombey and Son (1847-48). The first half of Dombey is almost perfect in conception and execution; each scene connects with the next, each throws light on what has come before and what is yet to come. Dickens calls up intricate themes and images, develops them, sustains them, and finally merges them with one another. He introduces experimental techniques—the child's point of view, the microcosmic world as chorus—and does so with great assurance. But above all, he masters a new structural method, a method which fuses autobiography, psychology, symbolism, and fancy.
This transformation had hardly been hinted at in Dickens' earlier novels. His six previous novels blended the rich heritage of the eighteenth-century novel with an intermittent attention to new (or newly emphasized) Victorian concerns and techniques: serious attention to such elements as shabby-genteel life, reform, and symbolic plot structure. But such elements, especially the last, were not yet central to Dickens' conceptions and, despite occasional experiments and innovations, in the 1830's and early 1840's he was content to regard himself as continuing the tradition of the prose-fiction masters; characteristically, he replied to criticism of Pickwick's desultory narrative method by invoking in his defense the methods of "some of the greatest novelists in the English language." Yet he was disturbed by the formlessness of Pickwick, and he sought to give his subsequent novels a cohesiveness which would transcend their broken, month-by-month composition and publication. In part he succeeded. No other Dickens novel is quite so episodic and haphazard as Pickwick But the machinery of lost wills, unknown relatives, and unbelievable coincidences which he used to integrate his novels prior to the Christmas books gave those novels only the appearance of unity; he had introduced no substantial change in his underlying method. Martin Chuzzlewit, the last of the early novels, was, it is true, designed to have a central theme, to exhibit selfishness in some of its many disguises, and the book was begun with the awareness that arrogant hypocrisy would be unmasked by the fairy-tale machinations of old Martin. But the unifying devices were still excrescences, the social criticism largely non-organic, and the milieu remote or exotic.
Yet even before the Christmas books Dickens had captivated the English-speaking world. His fame, however, was an acknowledgment of sheer creative exuberance. His preeminence resulted from a series of dazzling tours de force, from an ability to animate isolated characters and scenes with an eidetic reality. The contemporary reader adored Dickens not for his style, his criticism, his vision, or his architechtonics—all of which are undervalued even today—but because he invented Tony Weiler, Little Nell, and Mrs. Gamp; or because he portrayed Bardell vs. Pickwick, Nancy being murdered, and Mr. Pecksniff drunk and amorous. Such set pieces are brilliant, and after the Christmas books there are multitudes of similar characters and scenes, but they do not tower above the rest of the work in the old manner; they are subordinated to the larger requirements of plot and theme, and must play their diminished roles on a stage crowded with new interests and new purposes.
This transformation was prompted by a variety of circumstances. The hiatus between Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son gave Dickens his first real chance for leisurely observation since he had begun to write. He found that both he and his age were in a state of transition. He was beginning to grow disenchanted with the fruits of success, and he had already begun to anatomize his mounting restlessness and unhappiness. At the same time he was gaining a new cosmopolitanism and objectivity. He could spend long periods away from England now. (He lived on the continent for almost half the four years between Chuzzlewit and the completion of Dombey.) The vantage point of Italy and Switzerland gave him a fresh perspective. He was able to view the new English society—the commercial-industrial society about which he would now write—with a critical detachment.
But above all, the years between Chuzzlewit and the completion of Dombey provided him with unique opportunities for literary experimentation. In the Christmas books he wrote during that interval (A Christmas Carol , The Chimes , The Cricket on the Hearth , The Battle of Life , and The Haunted Man —the last conceived and partly written in the interval, but not finished until Dombey was completed) he had five opportunities to experiment with structure, symbol, and subject matter, to manipulate in exceptionally fluid and foreshortened form old elements which had troubled him, and new elements he had not yet used or mastered. The Christmas books profoundly altered his artistic methods. In these works he set out self-consciously to blend autobiography, social criticism, storytelling, and fairy tales; as he put it, he was taking fairy tales and "giving them a higher form."
Dickens was using the term fairy tales in an idiosyncratic way; he was (to repeat what I have said elsewhere) giving a convenient label to his special blend of fairy story, fantasy, myth, magic, and folklore. That blend is all-important, for Dickens usually makes it subserve one of several purposes, and these purposes, plus the materials themselves, give his writings their characteristic fairy-tale quality. He likes, for instance, to create an atmosphere in which the supernatural seems plausible; or, conversely, he likes to take supernatural events and creatures and give them a factual underpinning. Or, yet again, by a species of double vision, he imposes an aura of fantasy on everyday places and persons: a real London house gradually metamorphoses into an enchanted castle, a veritable childhood nursemaid slowly emerges as a frightful witch. If Dickens has done his job well, such transformations build that extrarational resonance which causes the reader to suspend his disbelief. Dickens can now safely use non-realistic devices and magical manipulations—spells, prophetic signs, reversals of fortune, blood relationships—to emphasize his thesis and enforce the demands of poetic justice. Such manipulations owe something to other traditions, to the Gothic novel, the ghost story, the melodrama, the pantomime, the "Ancient Mariner" genre, the Bunyanesque allegory, and the moral tract, for instance. But for Dickens such elements were primarily a reflex of his fairy-tale vision and purpose—significantly, he not only spoke of his Christmas books as fairy tales, he subtitled The Cricket on the Hearth, "A Fairy Tale of Home"—so that the term fairy tale may properly be used (and it will be so used in this essay) to designate this crucial confluence in his writings.
The method Dickens uses in his Christmas-book fairy tales for the times consists of taking a protagonist who displays false values and making him, through a series of extraordinary events, see his error. The fairy-tale machinery dominates the story, for the bulk of the action takes place in a dream or vision presided over by supernatural creatures who control what goes on. The resolution occurs when the happenings of the vision—a magically telescoped survey of the protagonist's life, and a masquelike representation of the consequences of his views—force him to reassess his life and undergo conversion. This structure was of immense value to Dickens. It gave him a framework that provided an aesthetic justification for the legerdemain which in his earlier works (especially in his finales) had always appeared, not as fairy-tale felicities, but as contradictory fairy-tale wrenchings which weakened the story. He could now show misery and horror and yet do it in a context of joyful affirmation. He could depict evil flourishing to its ultimate flowering and still deny that flowering. He could introduce the most disparate scenes, events, and visions without losing the reader's confidence. He could manipulate time with no need to obey the ordinary laws of chronology. He could make his characters and events real when he wished them real, magical when he wished them magical. He could effect overnight conversions which could be justified aesthetically. He could teach by parable rather than exhortation. And he could deal with life in terms of a fairy-tale logic which underscored both the real and the ideal.
These potentialities, fundamental ingredients in Dickens' mature narrative method, are exploited with varying degrees of success in all his Christmas books, but in none with such intricacy as in The Haunted Man, the last of his Christmas-book experiments. The Haunted Man epitomizes, therefore, in an especially complex and foreshortened form—a form which makes Dickens's artistry peculiarly amenable to analysis—techniques he would depend upon in all his subsequent writings.
The Haunted Man tells the story of Mr. Redlaw, a learned professor of chemistry who is appalled by the misery he sees about him. His own life has been filled with death, betrayal, and unfulfilled love, and he longs to blot out these memories which darken his daily existence. But his mind is divided. Although he yearns to escape from painful memories, he broods over the past. One Christmas Eve as he sits before his fire haunted by sad recollections, that part of his mind which desires to suppress memory takes on corporeal being as a phantom mirror image of himself. The phantom presses its arguments powerfully and wins Redlaw to its point of view. Redlaw will forget, he will have surcease from feeling, but he will retain his learning and acuteness. But the gift contains an additional feature: his forgetfulness will be transmitted to those he meets. Redlaw soon discovers his gift is a curse. For in forgetting past sorrow and feeling, he has destroyed all that is softening and human in life. Suffering and joy, loss and achievement are so intertwined that killing one kills the other. The unhappy multitudes whose misery he had hoped to relieve by his gift are not relieved. As he goes among them he produces discord; he destroys the knot of affection and forbearance which is the saving grace of their hard lives. Only two creatures take no infection from his approach. One, a street waif, remains unchanged because his bestial life has known no human feeling and so can know no loss. The other, Milly, the wife of one of Redlaw's servants, is love and goodness incarnate, and thus proof against his curse. His experiences teach him his error, and with the help of Milly, he redeems himself and removes the blight from those he has cursed.
Apart from Dombey, The Haunted Man was the most multi-leveled work Dickens had yet written. He had produced a story in which fancy, allegory, and psychological truth were balanced and coexistent. The Haunted Man can be read, really must be read, as fairy tale, symbolic exemplum, and psychological self-portrait. The very title of the first chapter, "The Gift Bestowed," recalls a typical fairy-tale situation in which a protagonist is given some special power which he is sure will be a blessing but which proves a curse. This fairy-tale situation is reinforced by the woodcut illustration (suggested and approved by Dickens) which appeared on the first page of the original edition and which depicts, among other things, scenes from the Arabian Nights, The Tales of the Genii, and Cinderella—all childhood favorites of Dickens and all mentioned in the story. But the characters and settings contribute most to the fairy-tale atmosphere. Redlaw's home is an enchanted castle, a group of mouldering medieval college buildings standing in the midst of the bustling city and wrapped in a symbolic atmosphere of murky shadows and muffled shapes. His home reminds one of a witch's castle. It was always "thundering with echoes when a distant voice was raised or a door was shut,—echoes, not confined to the many low passages and empty rooms, but rumbling and grumbling till they were stifled in the heavy air." With this and similar descriptions Dickens intensifies his mood, until he creates an atmosphere in which the supernatural and the realistic mingle and then combine. Here, a few lines later, is Radlaw as he sits before the fire at the moment his Christmas Eve adventures begin:
You should have seen him in his dwelling about twilight, in the dead of winter time.
When the wind was blowing, shrill and shrewd, with the going down of the blurred sun. When it was just so dark, as that the forms of things were indistinct and big—but not wholly lost. When sitters by the fire began to see wild faces and figures, mountains and abysses, ambuscades, and armies, in the coals.
"You should have seen him in his dwelling about twilight, in the dead of winter time." The images and the associations they arouse are wonderfully appropriate, for Redlaw is another metamorphosis of Dickens' recurrent witch-godmother. Redlaw's witch-like appearance, his "hollow cheek . . . sunken brilliant eye . . . black attired figure . . . grizzled hair hanging, like tangled seaweed, about his face"; his witchlike traffic with phantoms and the secrets of nature (for he is a most learned chemist); and his witch-like ability to cast potent spells—all these mark him as the evil enchanter of fairy lore. Yet like many of Dickens' witch-godmothers, like old Martin and Scrooge, for example, he is not entirely evil; he is a good human being gone wrong, he can be redeemed. And Milly, like her prototype, Little Nell, in The Old Curiosity Shop, is the fairy princess, an embodiment of perfect goodness who will magically effect Redlaw's salvation. In The Haunted Man the Quilp-like character who is evil incarnate (to continue the parallel with The Old Curiosity Shop) has undergone the greatest change. The incarnation of evil is now combined with the abandoned waif, a portentous character whose origins go back to Dickens' own childhood, to his blacking-warehouse abandonment, and a character who reappears in his writings in countless permutations: as Oliver in Oliver Twist, Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, the allegorical waifs in A Christmas Carol, Paul and Florence in Dombey and Son, David in David Copperfield, Jo in Bleak House, and Deputy in Edwin Drood. In The Haunted Man the very real waif—"a baby savage, a young monster, a child who . . . would live and perish a mere beast"—has become a symbol not merely of nascent evil but of society's guilt in producing evil. Continuing the process begun in the other Christmas books, Dickens' recurrent fairy-tale figures—the excrescential or allegorical waifs and ghosts and bell goblins of A Christmas Carol and The Chimes—are taking on an enlarged significance, and though retaining their fairy-tale or symbolic origins, are becoming more closely linked with contemporary life, realistic psychology, and thematic motifs.
In The Haunted Man Dickens uses many devices commonly found in fairy tales. He uses fairy-tale repetition, for instance, to enhance the tale's atmosphere of enchantment and to unify the story. The words of the phantom's gift-curse, words repeated throughout the story, intensify this unity and enchantment. Redlaw soon discovers that "blowing in the wind, falling with the snow, drifting with the clouds, shining in the moonlight, and heavily looming in the darkness, were the Phantom's words, The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will!' " The repetition of the curse becomes, in fairy-tale fashion, a magical refrain which gathers suspense until the climax and reversal when the curse-refrain is replaced by its opposite, a refrain which had been developed contrapuntally throughout the story: "Lord keep my memory green." But it is more than the curse, it is the imagery of Redlaw's loss associated with the curse—imagery connected with his new insensitivity to nature, time, and music—that is repeated. Furthermore, each time the curse is transmitted, the recipient signifies his infection by a telltale action: "the wandering hand upon the forehead." These and other repetitions (which are frequently joined with each other) become increasingly magical and ritualistic, as in the following pattern of reiterations: "Three times, in their progress, they [Redlaw and the waif] were side by side. Three times they stopped, being side by side. Three times the Chemist glanced down at his face, and shuddered as it forced upon him one reflection." The dovetailing of such incantations with their many analogues interconnects their meanings. For example, Dickens links the Redlaw-waif walk and its three pauses (labeling them "first," "second," and "third") with images of memory, night, moonlight, and music—images he had been reiterating throughout the story by means of the poetic leitmotif associated with Redlaw's fairy-tale curse. Once this leitmotif and its many associations are established, Dickens is able, by means of the leitmotif, to call up Redlaw's loss with great economy and centripetal effect. Fairy-tale repetition and incantation thus helped Dickens develop the unifying device of the symbolic leitmotif—a device he toyed with in his earlier novels, expanded in his first Christmas books, used effectively here and in Dombey, and then elaborated in many later works.
Paralleling the fairy-tale level of The Haunted Man is an allegorical level which underlines Dickens's message. Dickens was perfectly aware of the allegorical nature of what he had written. In the penultimate paragraph of The Haunted Man he points to the possibility of such an interpretation: "Some people," he wrote, "have said since, that he [Redlaw] only thought what has been herein set down; others, that the Ghost was but the representation of his own gloomy thoughts, and Milly the embodiment of his better wisdom. I say nothing." Dickens was suggesting various modes of interpreting his story but very properly endorsing no single mode. Yet any reader who failed to make use of each of his suggestions would miss part of what he was saying. To cite the most striking instance of this danger, the climactic scenes of The Haunted Man—the scenes in which Redlaw finds himself divorced from life, locked in his room with the beast-waif, and imprisoned by his mental state—these scenes, as we shall see in a moment, can only be appreciated in their full power in terms of the allegory.
The allegory of The Haunted Man is designed to enforce the message which the other levels develop)—that good and evil are intertwined, that memories and feelings associate pain and joy, and that such associations can be dissolved only at the expense of that which makes one human. Redlaw, before he is given the gift, is man in his suffering but human condition; after the gift, he is man as a mere analytical chemist, man in an emotionless, blighted, arid state. The phantom is that portion of Redlaw's mind which longs for surcease from feeling and tempts him to an attitude toward himself and his fellows which will produce such surcease. The gift is the symbolic result of Redlaw's assent to these promptings of his mind; it is the effect on himself and others of acquiescing in such a philosophy of life. Milly stands for love, and the softening, saving influence of love. The waif represents two things: first, human nature bereft of feeling and sympathy, that is human nature completely dehumanized, human nature which displays the end result of Redlaw's foolish yearnings; and second, the evil and guilt of a society which produces creatures such as the waif. Dickens uses the waif image in The Haunted Man to make the same point he had made with similar images in A Christmas Carol and The Chimes, but now the waif has become one of the central characters in his design; and the symbolism of the waif, lest any reader miss its sociological significance, is translated unmistakably toward the end of the story:
"This," said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, "is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up. No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts. . . . All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness. All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness. Woe to such a man! Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds, and by thousands!"
The allegory of character is intensified by the allegory of setting. The worn-out leftovers of Mr. Tetterby's defunct business are ever-present tokens of his ineffectual personality; the tortuous slum Redlaw visits mirrors the twisted lives he finds within. But the chief backdrop for the action—Redlaw's college chambers—is the most revealing of the settings. The fortress in which he lives is a fitting representation of his mind. And when his mind changes, changes also occur in his frost-bound home. When he allows love to reenter his heart, his dungeon and heart reawaken alike: "Some blind groping of the morning made its way down into the forgotten crypt so cold and earthy. . . and stirred the dull deep sap in the lazy vegetation hanging to the walls, and quickened the slow principle of life within the little world of wonderful and delicate creation which existed there, with some faint knowledge that the sun was up."
In the first two chapters of The Haunted Man—comprising over 70 per cent of the text—allegory blends unobtrusively with fairy tale, psychology, and autobiography and adds force to what Dickens is saying. This force may be felt most powerfully in the climactic scenes already referred to, the scenes which end the second chapter. Those scenes commence with a journey. Redlaw needs someone who can guide him through the jumbled streets of the slums. He remembers that a waif has recently found his way from the slums into the college buildings, and he seeks the child out as a fitting conductor—a hell-babe guide for the streets of hell. Dickens does not make the connection with hell explicit, but his imagery makes the connection for him. Redlaw finds the waif "coiled asleep" on the floor before the fire, in a room where "the blaze was reddening" the "old beams in the ceiling and the dark walls." "The creature," says Dickens, "lay in such a fiery heat, that, as the Chemist stooped to rouse him, it scorched his head." The waif is so alarmed by Redlaw and so mistrustful of his proposition, that he snarls, "Let me be, or I'll heave some fire at you!" and instantly prepares "with his savage little hand, to pluck the burning coals out." Redlaw looks down at this "baby-monster" with "cold vague terror." "It chilled his blood to look on the immovable impenetrable thing, in the likeness of a child, with its sharp malignant face turned up to his, and its almost infant hand, ready at the bars." But the two make a compact, and the waif, running a few yards before or after Redlaw, and alternately burnishing the shillings Redlaw has given him or stuffing them into his mouth for safekeeping, takes Redlaw into the slum streets. By the time Redlaw has returned to his fortress chambers, he has gone through all the experiences necessary to teach him the significance of his error. He locks himself and the waif into his lonely rooms, throws the child a few shillings, and broods despairingly.
After an interval, Milly knocks on Redlaw's door. "Pray, sir, let me in!" she cries. Symbolically love is knocking at the locked chambers of Redlaw's heart and asking to be let in. "No! not for the world!" is his ironic answer. The waif, who has been fed and tended by Milly, cries out, "Let me go to her, will you?" (The evil which society has produced will respond to love, cries out for love.) Milly, not knowing Redlaw is the cause, tells him of the disasters his slum visit has brought. "Pray, sir, let me in," she repeats. Redlaw is horrified, contrite, anguished, but his heart is still frozen; he cannot really feel or remember, he is not yet ready to let love enter. "Pray, sir, let me in!" cries Milly, but Redlaw answers, "No! No! No!" and restrains the waif "who was half-mad to pass him, and let her in." Redlaw prays to his phantom alter ego for relief, vows not to taint Milly with his curse, and thus refusing to confront love, stands in an agony of guilt before the door he himself has locked. The phantom does not answer Redlaw's prayer. "The only reply still was, the boy struggling to get to her, while he held him back; and the cry, increasing in its energy . . . 'pray, pray, let me in!' "
With these words the second chapter ends. Dickens' method is effective and sophisticated. It reminds one of Hawthorne's technique, of those portions of The Scarlet Letter or "Rappaccini's Daughter" in which the central allegory shades into subtle and varied suggestiveness. For when Redlaw calls out to his fairy-tale phantom and hears Milly's allegorical plea, he is also acting out a psychological drama which, as Professor Edgar Johnson points out in his admirable biography [Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, 1952] of Dickens, has parallels in Dickens' life. Dickens is an author who frequently, perhaps compulsively, freighted his work with cathartic autobiography. In his earlier writings, in the brilliantly satiric American scenes of Martin Chuzzlewit, for example, these autobiographical materials were usually forced upon the structure, disturbing and weakening it. The Christmas books helped Dickens wed autobiography unobtrusively to the more universal levels of his writing; autobiography now usually increases the psychological richness of his work and strengthens his art.
The third concurrent level of Redlaw's story—the psychological and autobiographical—appears in The Haunted Man from the beginning. Dickens makes it easy for the reader to regard the phantom as the representation of Redlaw's "gloomy thoughts." The phantom materializes only after many directive signs, which can be explained as natural or supernatural, have heralded its appearance. These manifestations come in conjunction with Redlaw's internal debating and self-absorption. Consequently, when the signs coalesce and then develop into the full-fledged phantom, the reader is ready to accept the apparition as another part of the carefully developed fairy-tale atmosphere, and as an appropriate representation of one portion of Redlaw's mind. Once the latter notion is established, the story becomes a study of psychological strife. The conflict is depicted by utilizing the technique Tennyson used in "The Two Voices"; Redlaw's divided mind is engaged in a dialogue with itself:
"If I could forget my sorrow and wrong, I would," the Ghost repeated. . . .
"Evil spirit of myself," returned the haunted man . . . "my life is darkened by that incessant whisper."
"It is an echo," said the Phantom.
"If it be an echo of my thoughts. . . why should I, therefore, be tormented? . . . Who would not forget their sorrows and their wrongs?"
"Who would not, truly, and be the happier and better for it?" said the Phantom. . . .
"Tempter," answered Redlaw. . . "I hear again an echo of my own mind."
Dickens may well have been impelled to write this fairy tale of memory, love, and mental conflict because of the death a few months earlier of his sister Fanny. Her long deathbed talks with him had called up memories of their close childhood relationship (commemorated a few years later in "A Child's Dream of a Star"), other sadder childhood recollections, and later memories of more deaths and more separations. The Haunted Man is Dickens' attempt to come to terms with these memories, to find a philosophical justification for recollected sorrows. For as Professor Johnson demonstrates, Redlaw, even more than the young Scrooge, has much of Dickens in him. In many ways, Redlaw's occupation, mannerisms, and surroundings suggest Dickens himself. But the autobiographical parallels go deeper. Dickens openly attaches to Redlaw the emotional experiences which dominated his own life. Redlaw's early history is a mosaic of references to Dickens' blacking-warehouse days, neglectful parents, struggles with shorthand, British Museum studies, and affair with Maria Beadnell; to sisterly Mary Hogarth's coming to live with him, taking pride in his fame, and dying in his arms expressing her love for him; and to sister Fanny's closeness to him as a child and self-effacing deathbed conversations with him.
Dickens softened his own self-pity and resentment by creating the parable of Redlaw's rebellion and redemption. He was expressing in fictional fullness what later he said more succinctly in his own person. Speaking of his past suffering, and referring specifically to his mother and the blacking warehouse, he remarked "how all these things have worked together to make me what I am." The past, therefore, must be accepted not only as a humanizing influence, but as the sine qua non of his art.
But it is not the message or the autobiography, it is the technique which makes The Haunted Man significant. Professor Johnson, in concentrating on the former elements, neglects the crucial role that The Haunted Man and the other Christmas books played in Dickens' development. The characters, images, and actions which earlier had existed in disturbing isolation are now ordered and unified. The distance Dickens has traveled since his apprenticeship writings can be measured by comparing early fairy-tale characters—old Martin and Scrooge, say—with Redlaw. All three characters have the same attributes and purpose: they combine human and supernatural ingredients, and Dickens uses their special situations to twist or even reverse the plot and to teach lessons. Old Martin is a mere piece of machinery, Scrooge is a partially developed embodiment of social and autobiographical truth, but Redlaw is much more. His role in the story is so central and suggestive that his actions and words unite fairy tale, allegory, autobiography, and psychology. That this is so is largely the result of the fairy-tale conception which underlies the story. For the mood Dickens sets at the opening, the fairy-tale devices he used to unify his plot and emphasize his message, and the fabular quality he gives to what he is saying, prepare the reader for the apocalyptic truth he is trying to convey—a truth in which simple realism, ordinary events, and humdrum detail are less important than a heightened, extrareal vision of life which quickens one's perception of the very reality it transcends.
Yet The Haunted Man falls off sadly in its third and final chapter. There the various levels of the story come unstuck and produce the same artificial effects that weakened the Carol, The Chimes, and the apprenticeship novels. Dickens now reverses the tragic sequences he had set in motion earlier; he digs up lost relatives, rewards suffering finacées, and rehabilitates suicidal derelicts. Psychological truth, social seriousness, autobiographical analysis, aesthetic balance—all are sacrificed to a neat winding up in the old wrenching fairy-tale manner, and the violence done to everything but the fable destroys the effectiveness of the fable itself. The reader no longer suspends his disbelief. Fairy gold becomes ordinary lead, and the final effect is meretricious moral orderliness.
Dickens himself felt the Christmas books were deficient; perhaps this feeling was a major reason for his abandoning the form. "The narrow space," he wrote in 1852, "within which it was necessary to confine these Christmas Stories when they were originally published, rendered their construction a matter of some difficulty, and almost necessitated what is peculiar in their machinery." But even while planning The Haunted Man Dickens had begun Dombey and Son, his first full-length novel since his Christmas-book experiments. Those experiments had served him well, for his later works are invariably enhanced with Christmas-book machinery. In the magical mansion and symbolic staircase motifs, the expressionistic ogress- and witch-figures of Dombey and Son; in the domesticated godmotherhood of Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield; in the subtle fairy-tale portents and gifts, the over-all fairytale structure of Great Expectations—in these and a multitude of other ways he used Christmas-book techniques to superimpose meanings, universalize characters, probe psyches, heighten scenes, and tighten structures: to give his novels a deeper unity and a more inclusive richness.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6803
SOURCE: "Sketches by Boz," in Dickens and the Twentieth Century, edited by John Gross and Gabriel Pearson, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962, pp. 19-34.
[In the following essay, Browning depicts Sketches by Boz as a realistic account of early Victorian England.]
Writing To John Forster from Lausanne in 1846, Dickens declared that he found it difficult to write fast when away from London:
I suppose this is partly the effect of two years' ease, and partly of the absence of streets and numbers of figures. I can't express how much I want these. It seems as if they supplied something to my brain, which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose. For a week or fortnight I can write prodigiously in a retired place (as at Broadstairs), and a day in London sets me up again and starts me. But the toil and labour of writing, day after day, without that magic lantern, is IMMENSE!! [W. Dexter, The Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. I, 1938.]
The Sketches by Boz is Dickens's first published work, and it is appropriate that it should record his intimacy with London and its citizens.
In Thoughts About People' (Characters, I), where Dickens describes a group of London apprentices on a Sunday jaunt, we can discern the stimulation the want of which he felt in Lausanne:
We walked down the Strand, a Sunday or two ago, behind a little group; and they furnished food for our amusement the whole way. They had come out of some part of the city; it was between three and four o'clock in the afternoon; and they were on their way to the Park. There were four of them, all arm-in-arm, with white kid gloves like so many bridegrooms, light trousers of unprecedented patterns, and coats for which the English language has yet no name—a kind of cross between a great-coat and a surtout, with the collar of the one, the skirts of the other, and pockets peculiar to themselves.
Each of the gentlemen carried a thick stick, with a large tassel at the top, which he occasionally twirled gracefully round; and the whole four, by way of looking easy and unconcerned, were walking with a paralytic swagger irresistibly ludicrous. One of the party had a watch about the size and shape of a reasonable Ribstone pippin, jammed into his waistcoat-pocket, which he carefully compared with the clocks at St. Clement's and the New Church, the illuminated clock at Exeter 'Change, the clock of St. Martin's Church, and the clock of the Horse Guards. When they at last arrived in St. James's Park, the member of the party who had the best-made boots on, hired a second chair expressly for his feet, and flung himself on this two-pennyworth of sylvan luxury with an air which levelled all distinctions between Brookes's and Snooks's, Crockford's and Bagnigge Wells.
The stimulation was bred partly of familiarity and partly of the variety of spectacle, the sheer thickness of impressions. In different sketches, Dickens drops in at the bar of a large gin-shop and watches the washerwomen and Irish labourers taking their quarterns of gin, he calls at Bellamy's, the dining room of the Houses of Parliament, and marks a gourmet peer gloating over a Stilton, he joins the coal-heavers 'quaffing large draughts of Barclay's best' in the old pub in Scotland Yard, and he peers between the blue curtains of a West-end cigar shop to see the welldressed malcontents relieving their boredom by flirting with the young lady 'in amber with large earrings' who sits behind the counter 'in a blaze of adoration and gas light'.
The London of the Sketches is not fictitious. Dickens's realism, unlike the superficial realism of Pierce Egan's Life in London, does not confer glamour on the sordid and squalid. And whereas Egan confines his regard to central London, St. James's to St. Giles, Dickens takes in the whole metropolis with its rapidly extending suburbs, such as Stamford Hill, Camberwell, Norbury, and Richmond. He chronicles much that is small in scale and dull-toned with such fidelity, that it is the distinction of the Sketches, as it is that of Joyce's Dubliners, that the reader senses the life of a whole city.
Just as the London of the Sketches is, despite changes, recognizably the London Hogarth drew, so it is recognizably the London we know today. Small eating-houses and taverns have not changed as much as might be thought. Their ambience is much the same. The chaffing humour of Dickens's cabmen and omnibus cads is still to be met with in their modern counterparts, taxi-drivers and bus conductors, when those are Cockneys. The British Museum still knows readers like the one described by Dickens in 'Shabby-Genteel People' (Characters, X):
He was in his chair every morning, just as the clock struck ten; he was always the last to leave the room in the afternoon; and when he did, he quitted it with the air of a man who knew not where else to go for warmth and quiet. There he used to sit all day, as close to the table as possible, in order to conceal the lack of buttons on his coat; with his old hat carefully deposited at his feet, where he evidently flattered himself it escaped observation.
About two o'clock, you would see him munching a French roll or a penny loaf; not taking it out of his pocket at once, like a man who knew he was only making a lunch; but breaking off little bits in his pocket, and eating them by stealth. He knew too well it was his dinner.
And the contents of junk-shops in the suburbs answer very well to the description in 'Brokers' And Marine-Store Shops' (Scenes, XXI).
On a board, at the side of the door, are placed about twenty books, all odd volumes; and as many wine-glasses—all different patterns; several locks, an old earthenware pan, full of rusty keys; two or three gaudy chimney-ornaments—cracked, of course; the remains of a lustre, without any drops; a round frame like a capital O, which has once held a mirror; a flute, complete with the exception of the middle joint; a pair of curling-irons; and a tinder-box. In front of the shop window are ranged some half-dozen highbacked chairs, with spinal complaints and wasted legs; a corner cupboard; two or three very dark mahogany tables with flaps like mathematical problems . . .
Of course, Dickens is more than a good observer, even in this his first book, but he was, in Henry James's phrase, 'one of the people on whom nothing is lost', and it is the first recommendation for this volume, that in it he gave such a lively account of what he saw and heard in London. At the time of writing most of the papers here collected, Dickens was a press reporter; and, whatever the deficiencies of his formal education, it is clear that he could hardly have had a better training for the craft of novel writing.
Modern reprints of Sketches by Boz follow the Chapman and Hall edition of 1839 in the disposition of material, most of which had previously appeared in journals and in the two issues by Macrone (First Series, 1836; Second Series, 1837). In 1839 the papers were distributed into four groups: 'Seven Sketches from our Parish', 'Scenes', 'Characters', and 'Tales'. This arrangement is perhaps regrettable inasmuch as the Parish sketches [in Sketches by Boz, 1836], with which a new reader is likely to begin, are too consciously droll for modern taste. The age was one of popular humorists, and the proliferating journals of the day were crammed with comicalities and facetiae. The Regency love of punning had not abated; both Theodore Hook and Thomas Hood were, at their worst, gravely funny. Dickens did not altogether escape the infection, and a few of the sketches are disfigured by tasteless drollery. The Parish sketches are not without merit, but they are much inferior to others in the collection.
Dickens owes not a little to the ephemeral publications of the eighteen-twenties and eighteen-thirties. Mr. Pickwick and (in the Sketches) Mr. Minns may be related to the literature of comic discomfort. But granting that, the differences are as remarkable as the affinities. It is instructive to compare John Poole's paper on 'Early Rising' [in Sketches and Recollections, 1835] with Dickens's 'Early Coaches' (Scenes, XV). Poole exaggerates:
Two towels, which had been left wet in the room, were standing on a chair, bolt upright, as stiff as the poker itself, which you might almost as easily have bent. The tooth-brushes were riveted to the glass in which I had left them, and of which (in my haste to disengage them from their stronghold), they carried away a fragment; the soap was cemented to the dish; my shaving-brush was a mass of ice. In shape more appalling Discomfort had never appeared on earth.
Dickens is notably more restrained and more truthful, and leans not at all on tired figurative language:
You proceed to dress yourself, with all possible dispatch. The flaring flat candle with the long snuff gives light enough to show that the things you want are not where they ought to be, and you undergo a trifling delay in consequence of having carefully packed up one of your boots in your over-anxiety of the preceding night. You soon complete your toilet, however, for you are not particular on such an occasion, and you shaved yesterday evening.
It says much for Dickens's taste that he eschewed the kind of extravanganza that Hook and Poole affected. If Dickens exaggerates, as he does in the Tales' and in later fictions, he does not do so pompously. The writing is brisk and nimble. The contemporary writer whose influence was strongest and most beneficent is Leigh Hunt. This is the third paragraph of Dickens's 'Greenwich Fair' (Scenes, XII).
The road to Greenwich during the whole of Easter Monday, is in a state of perpetual bustle and noise. Cabs, hackney-coaches, 'shay' carts, coalwaggons, stages, omnibuses, sociables, gigs, donkey-chaises—all crammed with people (for the question never is, what the horse can draw, but what the vehicle will hold), roll along at their utmost speed; the dust flies in clouds, ginger-beer corks go off in volleys, the balcony of every public-house is crowded with people, smoking and drinking, half the private houses are turned into tea-shops, fiddles are in great request, every little fruit-shop displays its stall of gilt gingerbread and penny toys; turnpike men are in despair; horses won't go on, and wheels will come off; ladies in 'carawans' scream with fright at every fresh concussion, and their admirers find it necessary to sit remarkably close to them, by way of encouragement; servants-of-all-work, who are not allowed to have followers, and have got a holiday for the day, make the most of their time with the faithful admirer who waits for a stolen interview at the corner of the street every night, when they go to fetch the beer—apprentices grow sentimental and straw bonnet makers kind.
With this we may compare Leigh Hunt's paper, 'A Now: Descriptive Of A Hot Day' [in The Indicator, June 28, 1820]:
Now blinds are let down, and doors thrown open, and flannel waistcoats left off, and cold meat preferred to hot, and wonder expressed why tea continues so refreshing, and people delight to sliver lettuces into bowls, and apprentices water door-ways with tin-canisters that lay several atoms of dust.
I think that Dickens learnt from Hunt this technique of a congery of simple sentences (often in the passive). From Hunt, too, he may have acquired a feeling for the poetry of the urban scene. This influence, if influence it is, is completely digested in 'The Streets—Morning' (Scenes, I). That sketch is written with a tact and delicacy that Dickens did not always command, and it called forth one of George Cruikshank's best designs in illustration, that of a street breakfast. A reader unacquainted with Sketches by Boz would do well to begin with it.
In 'Astley's' (Scenes, XI), the sketch of a visit to the circus, a family party in the audience is described with a simplicity and economy that looks deceptively easy:
The first five minutes were occupied in taking the shawls off the little girls, and adjusting the bows which ornamented their hair; then it was providentially discovered that one of the little boys was seated behind a pillar and could not see, so the governess was stuck behind the pillar, and the boy lifted into her place. Then pa drilled the boys, and directed the stowing away of their pocket-handkerchiefs, and ma having first nodded and winked to the governess to pull the girls' frocks a little more off their shoulders, stood up to review the little troop—an inspection which appeared to terminate much to her own satisfaction, for she looked with a complacent air at pa, who was standing up at the further end of the seat. Pa returned the glance, and blew his nose very emphatically; and the poor governess peeped out from behind the pillar, and timidly tried to catch ma's eye, with a look expressive of her high admiration of the whole family.
It is as fine a distillation of early Victorian England as any of the genre paintings it so much resembles. From the family group Dickens turns his regard to the clown, the riding-master, and the bare-back rider, with a digression on what such performers look like beyond the glamour of sawdust and flaring gas-jets. By this means Dickens neither ignores nor dispels the illusion. His viewpoint is neither naïve nor cynical:
Nor can we quite divest ourself of our old feeling of reverence for the riding-master, who follows the clown with a long whip in his hand, and bows to the audience with graceful dignity. He is none of your second-rate riding-masters in nankeen dressing-gowns, with brown frogs, but the regular gentleman-attendant on the principal riders, who always wears a military uniform with a table-cloth inside the breast of the coat, in which costume he forcibly reminds one of a fowl trussed for roasting. He is—but why should we attempt to describe that of which no description can convey an adequate idea? Everybody knows the man, and everybody remembers his polished boots, his graceful demeanour, stiff, as some misjudging persons have in their jealousy considered it, and the splendid head of black hair, parted high on the forehead, to impart to the countenance an appearance of deep thought and poetic melancholy. His soft and pleasing voice, too, is in perfect unison with his noble bearing, as he humours the clown by indulging in a little badinage; and the striking recollection of his own dignity, with which he exclaims, 'Now, sir, if you please, inquire for Miss Wool-ford, sir', can never be forgotten. The graceful air, too, with which he introduces Miss Wool-ford into the arena, and, after assisting her to the saddle, follows her fairy courser round the circle, can never fail to create a deep impression in the bosom of every female servant present.
We must hesitate, even as Dickens does, to find the ridingmaster ridiculous. The description of the man and his deportment, though ironical, is respectful. This man personates the idea of a circus riding-master to perfection. As such he cannot be false, even though he owes his manly chest to a table-cloth stuffed inside the jacket of his uniform.
Dickens is viewing the circus with evident nostalgia, as the first paragraph of the sketch avows. The circus and its personnel were to the child the very enshrinement of beauty, grace, and wit. For the grown man the enchantment has fled, but not the affection. Such illusions and such impostures are beneficent.
Dickens digresses, as he says, to describe the misery and squalor of 'the class of people, who hang about the stagedoors of our minor theatres in the daytime' hoping for employment:
That young fellow in the faded brown coat, and very full light green trousers, pulls down the wristbands of his check shirt, as ostentatiously as if it were of the finest linen, and cocks the white hat of the summer-before-last as knowingly over his right eye, as if it were a purchase of yesterday. Look at the dirty white Berlin gloves, and the cheap silk handkerchief stuck in the bosom of his threadbare coat. Is it possible to see him for an instant, and not come to the conclusion that he is the walking gentleman who wears a blue surtout, clean collar, and white trousers, for half an hour, and then shrinks into his wornout scanty clothes: who has to boast night after night of his splendid fortune, with the painful consciousness of a pound a week and his boots to find; to talk of his father's mansion in the country, with a dreary recollection of his own two-pair back, in the New Cut; and to be envied and flattered as the favoured lover of a rich heiress, remembering all the while that the exdancer at home is in the family way, and out of an engagement?
The poor player has an almost symbolic rôle. Many of Dickens's fictional heroes are suspended between poverty and riches, between comfort and squalor, between respectability and crime. The actor of bit parts in minor theatres is, in a special way, of their number. He, and the circus personnel who resemble him, acquire a moral significance for Dickens: they act a lie, as (more subtly) Oliver Twist, William Dorrit, and Pip act a lie. The riding-master who personates a gentleman is a figure whom Dickens will not ridicule, partly from sentimental regard, but partly, too, from an unspoken, and probably unconscious, identification with the man. There are subtler and less amiable frauds than a table-cloth thrust into a jacket.
'The Mistaken Milliner' (Characters, VIII) is not completely successful. The story is a little huddled. But it opens brilliantly:
Miss Amelia Martin was pale, tallish, thin, and two-and-thirty—what ill-natured people would call plain, and police reports interesting. She was a milliner and dressmaker, living on her business and not above it. If you had been a young lady in service, and had wanted Miss Martin, as a great many young ladies in service did, you would just have stepped up, in the evening, to number forty-seven, Drummond Street, George Street, Euston Square, and after casting your eye on a brass door-plate, one foot ten by one and a half, ornamented with a great brass knob at each of the four corners, and bearing the inscription 'Miss Martin; millinery and dressmaking, in all its branches'; you'd just have knocked two loud knocks at the street-door; and down would have come Miss Martin herself, in a merino gown of the newest fashion, black velvet bracelets on the genteelest principle, and other little elegancies of the most approved description.
If Miss Martin knew the young lady who called, or if the young lady who called had been recommended by any other young lady whom Miss Martin knew, Miss Martin would forthwith show her upstairs into the two-pair front, and chat she would—so kind, and so comfortable—it really wasn't like a matter of business, she was so friendly; and then Miss Martin, after contemplating the figure and general appearance of the young lady in service with great apparent admiration, would say how well she would look, to be sure, in a low dress with short sleeves; made very full in the skirts, with four tucks in the bottom; to which the young lady in service would reply in terms expressive of her entire concurrence in the notion, and of the virtuous indignation with which she reflected on the tyranny of 'Missis', who wouldn't allow a young girl to wear a short sleeve of an afternoon—no, nor nothing smart, not even a pair of ear-rings; let alone hiding people's heads of hair under them frightful caps. At the termination of this complaint, Miss Amelia Martin would distantly suggest certain dark suspicions that some people were jealous on account of their own daughters, and were obliged to keep their servants' charms under, for fear they should get married first, which was no uncommon circumstance—leastways she had known two or three young ladies in service, who had married a great deal better than their missises, and they were not very good-looking either; and then the young lady would inform Miss Martin, in confidence, that how one of their young ladies was engaged to a young man and was a-going to be married, and Missis was so proud about it there was no bearing of her; but how she needn't hold her head quite so high neither, for, after all, he was only a clerk. And, after expressing due contempt for clerks in general, and the engaged clerk in particular, and the highest opinion possible of themselves and each other, Miss Martin and the young lady in service would bid each other good night, in a friendly but perfectly genteel manner: and the one went back to her 'place', and the other to her room on the second-floor front.
The first paragraph consists of three sentences. The first two are statements made with almost epigrammatic incisiveness. The third is a long elastic sentence that interestingly develops a borrowed idiom, that of such a young lady in service: 'you would just have stepped up. . .you'd just have knocked . . . and down would have come Miss Martin herself. Even in this mildly oblique way, the narration acquires actuality.
The second paragraph is made up of three long sentences. Here Dickens mingles third-person narration with oratio obliqua in the most fluent manner. The first sentence modulates into the serving-girl's speech 'and chat she would—so kind, and so comfortable'. From this mixed tissue there emerges an imagined colloquy eloquent of the lives and characters of Miss Martin and her customers. This is done without actually introducing any serving-girl, since none is needed for the story.
As so often in Dickens, the account is minutely particular. The handsome brass door-plate and Miss Martin's elegant costume are the tokens of her respectability, her gentility, and her professional skill. In feminine society the dressmaker may be a kind of leveller. A serving-girl, in her person and in her dress, may have the advantage, or may think she has the advantage, on her employers. And it is to this self-promotion, social and sexual, that Miss Martin ministers. Her understanding of her customers is perfect.
Again we may notice that Dickens is not ridiculing. There is no narrative condescension of the kind George Eliot might have shown.
Thoughts About People' (Characters, I) is a good sketch, but one that may at first sight seem insipid. The style is restrained, the phrasing modestly telling. The sketch is largely occupied by two generic portraits: the unloved and the unloving. For the first, he takes an unmarried city clerk of middle age. By a judicious selection of glimpses—we see him arriving at the office, we see him at his books, at his eating-house, and at the home of his employer—the man is brought before us, and our sympathy secured. Dickens then turns for contrast to a class of men for whom he feels little sympathy. They are handled with considerable acerbity:
These are generally old fellows with white heads and red faces, addicted to port wine and Hessian boots, who from some cause, real or imaginary—generally the former, the excellent reason being that they are rich, and their relations poor—grow suspicious of everybody, and do the misanthropical in chambers, taking great delight in thinking themselves unhappy, and making everybody they come near, miserable. You may see such men as these anywhere; you will know them at coffee-houses by their discontented exclamations and the luxury of their dinners; at theatres, by their always sitting in the same place and looking with a jaundiced eye on all the young people near them; at church, by the pomposity with which they enter, and the loud tone in which they repeat the responses; at parties, by their getting cross at whist and hating music. An old fellow of this kind will have his chambers splendidly furnished, and collect books, plate, and pictures about him in profusion; not so much for his own gratification, as to be superior to those who have the desire, but not the means, to compete with him. He belongs to two or three clubs, and is envied, and flattered, and hated by the members of them all. Sometimes he will be appealed to by a poor relation—a married nephew perhaps—for some little assistance: and then he will declaim with honest indignation on the improvidence of young married people, the worthlessness of a wife, the insolence of having a family, the atrocity of getting into debt with a hundred and twenty-five pounds a year, and other unpardonable crimes; winding up his exhortations with a complacent review of his own conduct, and a delicate allusion to parochial relief. He dies, some day after dinner, of apoplexy, having bequeathed his property to a Public Society, and the Institution erects a tablet to his memory, expressive of their admiration of his Christian conduct in this world, and their comfortable conviction of his happiness in the next.
There Dickens stigmatizes what, morally, he recoils from. In Mr. Minns (Tales, II) and Mr. Dumps (Tales, XI) we see more of such life-haters. Mr. Minns is unfavourably shown in contrast to his vulgar, but genial relations. Scrooge is the best known of Dickens's life-haters.
The sketch concludes with another generic portrait: that of the London apprentices. They are the 'anti-type'. Dickens remarks that 'they are usually on the best terms with themselves, and it follows almost as a matter of course, in good humour, with everyone about them'. For much the same reason Dickens likes hackney-coachmen, cabmen, and cads. He relishes, in especial, 'their cool impudence and perfect self-possession'.
The types are nicely brought into conflict in 'The Bloomsbury Christening' (Tales, XI). The cold and irritable Nicodemus Dumps is chaffed by the omnibus cad:
'Don't bang the door so,' said Dumps to the conductor, as he shut it after letting out four of the passengers; 'I am very nervous—it destroys me.'
'Did any gen'lm'n say anythink?' replied the cad, thrusting in his head, and trying to look as if he didn't understand the request.
'I told you not to bang the door so!' repeated Dumps, with an expression of countenance like the knave of clubs, in convulsions.
Oh! vy, it's rather a sing'ler circumstance about this here door, sir, that it von't shut without banging,' replied the conductor; and he opened the door very wide, and shut it again with a terrific bang, in proof of the assertion.
In 'Omnibuses' (Scenes, XVI) Dickens enlarges on the mischievous enterprise and ready wit of omnibus cads, and in 'The Last Cab-Driver, And The First Omnibus Cad' (Scenes, XVII) he introduces a notable individual, Bill Barker ('Aggerawatin Bill'). Barker belongs to the sub-criminal class, but Dickens can no more withhold admiration from him, than from the Artful Dodger.
At the end of the last-mentioned sketch, Dickens writes regretfully, 'Slang will be forgotten when civility becomes general'. As Pip's history shows, civility is, for Dickens, a doubtful good. Characters like Bill Barker or Sam Weiler are enviably uninhibited. They are like a gust of fresh air in bourgeois society. They spoke out, as—on a very different level—Dickens himself spoke out in his writings.
What Dickens spoke out against was Victorian civility: a civility based on the pursuit of wealth and status, and riddled with snobberies and fetishes.
In 'Horatio Sparkins' (Tales, V) the Malderton family have the still-recognizable English weaknesses:
Mr. Malderton was a man whose whole scope of ideas was limited to Lloyd's, the Exchange, the India House, and the Bank. A few successful speculations had raised him from a situation of obscurity and comparative poverty, to a state of affluence. As frequently happens in such cases, the ideas of himself and his family became elevated to an extraordinary pitch as their means increased; they affected fashion, taste, and many other fooleries, in imitation of their betters, and had a very decided and becoming horror of anything which could, by possibility, be considered low. He was hospitable from ostentation, illiberal from ignorance, and prejudiced from conceit. Egotism and the love of display induced him to keep an excellent table: convenience, and a love of good things of this life, ensured him plenty of guests. He liked to have clever men, or what he considered such, at his table, because it was a great thing to talk about; but he never could endure what he called 'sharp fellows'. Probably he cherished this feeling out of compliment to his two sons, who gave their respected parent no uneasiness in that particular.
The family were ambitious of forming acquaintances and connexions in some sphere of society superior to that in which they themselves moved; and one of the necessary consequences of this desire, added to their utter ignorance of the world beyond their own small circle, was, that any one who could lay claim to an acquaintance with people of rank and title, had a sure passport to the table at Oak Lodge, Camberwell.
A young man with black whiskers, a white cravat, ingratiating manners, and poetical conversation has just 'come out' at their local assembly, and it has been generally concluded from appearances that 'he must be somebody'. Mr. Malderton is easily prevailed upon to invite him to Oak Lodge, by Mrs. Malderton, who is looking for a husband for her eldest daughter, twenty-eight and single. Mr. Sparkins, the young man, accepts an invitation to Sunday dinner, but the family's exultation at this coup is tempered by regret when Mrs. Malderton's brother invites himself for the same meal. This brother is one of those who speak out:
'Upon my word, my dear, it's a most annoying thing that that vulgar brother of yours should have invited himself to dine here today,' said Mr. Malderton to his wife. 'On account of Mr. Sparkins's coming down, I purposely abstained from asking any one but Flamwell. [Flamwell is a small-time tuft-hunter.] And then to think of your brother—a tradesman—it's insufferable! I declare I wouldn't have him mention his shop, before our new guest—no, not for a thousand pounds! I wouldn't care if he had the good sense to conceal the disgrace he is to the family; but he's so fond of his horrible business, that he will let people know what he is.'
The dinner takes place. There is an exchange in which the author makes his point with a pun:
Talking of business,' interposed Mr. Barton [the vulgar brother], from the centre of the table. 'A gentleman whom you knew very well, Malderton, before you made that first lucky spec of yours, called at our shop the other day, and—'
'Barton, may I trouble you for a potato?' interrupted the wretched master of the house, hoping to nip the story in the bud.
'Certainly,' returned the grocer, quite insensible of his brother-in-law's object—'and he said in a very plain manner—'
'Floury, if you please,' interrupted Malderton again.
The tale has a very simple peripety and discovery. Horatio Sparkins who 'seemed like the embodied idea of the young dukes and poetical exquisites' the Malderton girls dreamed about, and who had a very flowery utterance ('he talks just like an auctioneer' is the comment of the unenchanted younger Malderton son) is encountered unexpectedly by Mrs. Malderton and the giris, when they are on a shopping expedition:
At length, the vehicle stopped before a dirtylooking ticketed linen-draper's shop, with goods of all kinds, and labels of all sorts and sizes, in the window. There were dropsical figures of seven with a little three-farthings in the corner, 'perfectly invisible to the naked eye'; three hundred and fifty thousand ladies' boas, from one shilling and a penny halfpenny; real French kid shoes, at two and ninepence per pair; green parasols, at an equally cheap rate; and 'every description of goods', as the proprietors said—and they must know best—fifty per cent. under cost price'.
'Lor! ma, what a place you have brought us to!' said Miss Teresa; 'what would Mr. Sparkins say if he could see us!'
'Ah! what, indeed!' said Miss Marianne, horrified at the idea.
'Pray be seated, ladies. What is the first article?' inquired the obsequious master of the ceremonies of the establishment, who, in his large white neck-cloth and formal tie, looked like a bad 'portrait of a gentleman' in the Somerset House exhibition.
'I want to see some silks,' answered Mrs. Malcerton.
'Directly, ma'am.—Mr. Smith! Where is Mr. Smith?'
Mr. Horatio Sparkins answers the summons. English society being what it is, the Malderton family suffer the mortification of having sought the acquaintance of an assistant at a cut-price shop. Mr. Sparkins, like the chief salesman, is a bad portrait of a gentleman. As such, he is related to the riding-master of Astley's.
The same axiom, that snobbery is the comic flaw of the English, is illustrated by 'The Tuggses at Ramsgate' (Tales, IV). Mr. Tuggs, who keeps a grocer's shop on 'the Surrey side of the water, within three minutes' walk of the old London Bridge', unexpectedly inherits twenty thousand pounds. His family all agree that to leave town is 'an indispensable preliminary to being genteel'. And they decide where to go, in this fashion:
'Gravesend?' mildly suggested Mr. Joseph Tuggs. The idea was unanimously scouted. Gravesend was low.
'Margate?' insinuated Mrs. Tuggs. Worse and worse—nobody there, but tradespeople.
Ramsgate is their choice, and there they fall in with a dashing couple, Captain and Mrs. Waters. They keep company, and go one day to the Pegwell Bay Hotel for lunch. Dickens's description of this middle-class idyll is beautifully ironic:
Mr. and Mrs. Tuggs, and the captain, had ordered lunch in the little garden behind:—small saucers of large shrimps, dabs of butter, crusty loaves, and bottled ale. The sky was without a cloud; there were flower-pots and turf before them; the sea, from the foot of the cliff, stretching away as far as the eye could discern anything at all; vessels in the distance with sails as white, and as small, as nicely-got-up cambric handkerchiefs. The shrimps were delightful, the ale better, and the captain even more pleasant than either. Mrs. Captain Waters was in such spirits after lunch!—chasing, first the captain across the turf, and among the flower-pots; and then Mr. Cymon Tuggs; and then Miss Tuggs; and laughing, too, quite boisterously. But as the Captain said, it didn't matter; who knew what they were, there? For all the people of the house knew, they might be common people.
But Captain and Mrs. Waters are bad portraits of a gentleman and lady, and they 'bounce' the Tuggses for a large part of their inheritance. The situations are unforcedly comic, and the life of a Victorian watering-place is brilliantly evoked.
The best of the Tales is probably 'A Passage In The Life Of Mr. Watkins Tottle' (Tales, X). The characters are well diversified: Watkins Tottle, timid and formal; Gabriel Parsons, rude and facetious; the wayward Fanny Parsons, the simpering Miss Lillerton, the smoothly ingratiating Reverend Charles Timson; Ikey and the denizens of the Cursitor Street sponging-house. The construction is artfully episodic, so that the first chapter includes the contrasting narration of Gabriel Parsons's wooing of Fanny, and the second chapter includes the story of the young couple hounded by vindictive parents (a story that anticipates that of 'The Queer Client' in Pickwick Papers). It has the kind of multiple texture that is a feature of Dickens's later work.
Dickens is commonly good at dinner-table scenes, but in the whole of his work there is none better than that where Parsons is endeavouring to tell a story:
'When I was in Suffolk—' said Mr. Gabriel Parsons.
'Take off the fowls first, Martha,' said Mrs. Parsons. 'I beg your pardon, my dear.'
'When I was in Suffolk,' resumed Mr. Parsons, with an impatient glance at his wife, who pretended not to observe it, 'which is now some years ago, business led me to the town of Bury St. Edmund's. I had to stop at the principal places in my way, and therefore, for the sake of convenience, I travelled in a gig. I left Sudbury one dark night—it was winter time—about nine o'clock; the rain poured in torrents, the wind howled among the trees that skirted the roadside, and I was obliged to proceed at a foot-pace, for I could hardly see my hand before me, it was so dark—'
'John,' interrupted Mrs. Parsons, in a low, hollow voice, 'don't spill that gravy.'
'Fanny,' said Parsons impatiently, 'I wish you'd defer these domestic reproofs to some more suitable time. Really, my dear, these constant interruptions are very annoying.'
'My dear, I didn't interrupt you,' said Mrs. Parsons.
'But, my dear, you did interrupt me,' remonstrated Mr. Parsons.
'How very absurd you are, my love; I must give directions to the servants; I am quite sure that if I sat here and allowed John to spill the gravy over the new carpet, you'd be the first to find fault when you saw the stain to-morrow morning.'
'Well,' continued Gabriel, with a resigned air, as if he knew there was no getting over the point about the carpet, 'I was just saying, it was so dark that I could hardly see my hand before me. The road was very lonely, and I assure you, Tottle (this was a device to arrest the wandering attention of that individual, which was distracted by a confidential communication between Mrs. Parsons and Martha, accompanied by the delivery of a large bunch of keys), I assure you, Tottle, I became somehow impressed with a sense of the loneliness of my situation—'
Pie to your master,' interrupted Mrs. Parsons, again directing the servant.
'Now, pray, my dear,' remonstrated Parsons once more, very pettishly. Mrs. P. turned up her hands and eyebrows, and appealed in dumb show to Miss Lillerton. 'As I turned a corner of the road,' resumed Gabriel, 'the horse stopped short, and reared tremendously. I pulled up, jumped out, ran to his head, and found a man lying on his back in the middle of the road, with his eyes fixed on the sky. I thought he was dead; but no, he was alive, and there appeared to be nothing the matter with him. He jumped up, and putting his hand to his chest, and fixing upon me the most earnest gaze you can imagine, exclaimed—'
'Pudding here,' said Mrs. Parsons.
'Oh! it's no use,' exclaimed the host, now rendered desperate. 'Here, Tottle; a glass of wine. It's useless to attempt relating anything when Mrs. Parsons is present.'
This attack was received in the usual way. Mrs. Parsons talked to Miss Lillerton and at her better half; expatiated on the impatience of men generally; hinted that her husband was peculiarly vicious in this respect, and wound up by insinuating that she must be one of the best tempers that ever existed, or she never could put up with it. Really what she had to endure sometimes, was more than any one who saw her in every-day life could by possibility suppose.
That exchange does not forward the (very simple) plot, and it is only incidentally a presentment of character. But the story is about a bachelor who is to be coaxed into marriage, and it is the artist's concern to exhibit married life in more than one aspect. But one feels, in any case, that Dickens could not help it: the prompting to set down what he had so often heard was too strong.
No account of Dickens's fictions that concerns itself solely with the plot or with the moral scheme, important as those are, can do them justice. There is an unhappy boyhood and an unhappy manhood behind his life's writing, and the great novels are remarkable for the exploration of personality and the mechanism of society. But Dickens also felt the artist's primary need, to record. The Sketches by Boz give clear evidence of this. They are instinct with moral feeling, but they are, first and foremost, an artist's impressions of the life around him. For this reason, I suggest, he could not write for long in retirement.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4022
SOURCE: "The Conversion of Scrooge: A Defense of That Good Man's Motivation," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 1, Fall, 1965, pp. 46-55.
[In the following essay, Morris examines Ebenezer Scrooge's "conversion" in A Christmas Carol. According to Morris, "Dickens does not intend Scrooge's awakening to be a promise for all covetous old sinners, but only a possibility to be individually hoped for. "]
As everyone knows, being called a "scrooge" is bad. When labeled like this, one is considered "a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone . . . Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and selfcontained, and solitary as an oyster." In reality, and in short, one is a party-pooper, afflicted with general overtones of inhumanity.
This is the popular definition of the word Scrooge, and it is unfairly the usual description of Charles Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge, of A Christmas Carol Scrooge's conversion to a permanent goodness, which is every bit up to those impossible standards met by the totally admirable Cheerybles and Mr. Brownlow, seems to have been utterly forgotten, or ignored. Popularly lost is Dickens' last word on Scrooge: " . . .it was always said of him that he knew how to keep a Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge." By common consent Scrooge has been a villain at every Christmas season since 1843. Indeed, that reformed old gentleman might well answer, " 'It's not convenient, and it's not fair.' "
What "we" remember about A Christmas Carol is the flinty employer, the humbly simple (and sentimental) clerk, and sweet Tiny Tim. If the general reading public remembers Scrooge's conversion at all, it sees the alteration as a punishment brought about and maintained through fear. The conversion is seen as only a part of the story, when in fact it is what the story is all about. A Christmas Carol is not, as some readers seem to think, "The Little Lame Prince" or "The Confidential Clerk." It is the reawakening of a Christian soul, although (as Edgar Johnson makes clear [in Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph, 1952]) it is not a religious conversion. Religious or not, the story is a celebration of an important conversion, the sort of conversion on which Dickens pinned his hopes for social, moral, economic, and even political recovery in England. The carol sung here is a song of celebration for a Christmas birth that offers hope; it is not a song of thanks for revenge accomplished or for luck had by the poor. To be an "old Scrooge" is, in the final analysis, a good thing to be. And with careful rereading of the tale the clichés of a hasty public would surely disappear.
What is more damagingly unfair than the popular mistake is the critics' treatment of Scrooge's conversion, which ranges from Edgar Johnson's insistence that Scrooge is "nothing other than a personification of economic man" to Humphry House's assertion [in The Dickens World, 1941] that "his conversion, moreover, seems to be complete at a stroke, his actions after it uniform." At the critics' hands the enlightenment of Scrooge is not individual, believable, real, or even interesting. Perhaps the most surprising comment is this one by Chesterton [in Chartes Dickens, 1906]:
Scrooge is not really inhuman at the beginning any more than he is at the end. There is a heartiness in his inhospitable sentiments that is akin to humour and therefore inhumanity; he is only a crusty old bachelor, and had (I strongly suspect) given away turkeys secretly all his life. The beauty and the real blessing of the story do not lie in the mechanical plot of it, the repentance of Scrooge, probable or improbable; they lie in the great furnace of real unhappiness that glows through Scrooge and everything round him; that great furnace, the heart of Dickens. Whether the Christmas visions would or would not convert Scrooge, they convert us.
It is my contention that the story records the psychological—if overnight—change in Scrooge from a mechanical tool that has been manufactured by the economic institutions around him to the human being he was before business dehumanized him. His conversion is his alone, not that of "economic man"; Dickens does not intend Scrooge's awakening to be a promise for all covetous old sinners, but only a possibility to be individually hoped for. Further, if the visitations by Marley and the three spirits be accepted as dreams ("Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that."), their substance, as well as their messages and their effects, must have come from the recesses of Scrooge's own mind. And finally, if the conversion comes from within Scrooge, it could have been effected at a stroke, for surely it had been subconsciously fermenting for a long time. Of such things Christmas miracles, or epiphanies, may very well be made. Scrooge explains it: " 'I haven't missed it. The spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can!' "
From the Marley-faced doorknocker to the third Phantom's hood and dress shrinking, collapsing, and dwindling down to the bed post, Scrooge is dreaming, awake and asleep. The entire substance of the dreams has been all of Scrooge's own making; he has, in an agitated state, conjured up those things that he has until now hidden from himself but has not been unaware of: his own compounded sins, and Marley's; his happy and sad boyhood; his small sister and the memory of an unkind father; the gay times working under old Fezziwig on a Christmas long ago; Scrooge's denial of Belle, the girl he was to have married; the supposed or heard-of later happiness of the same girl (at Christmas, of course), married to another man; the eve of Marley's death; the Christmas gaiety of common people at the present Christmas season (which he had known, for he spoke harshly of it at his place of business only that afternoon); the happy Cratchit home this Christmas, with its touching sight of Tiny Tim and the blight of the subdued Cratchit opinion of Scrooge; Christmas present with miners, lighthouse keepers, and seamen—all more content than Scrooge despite their condition; the bright games at the Christmas home of his nephew, a place to which he was invited and angrily refused a few hours ago; the sight of the two tattered children under the Spirit's robes—the boy Ignorance, the girl Want; his own cheap funeral and the theft of his possessions; the scorn of him among business men; the death of Tiny Tim and the view of Scrooge's own tombstone. All these would have been known to him, through experience, imagination, or the public press or gossip.
The dream visions are connected, as dreams, not only to what he knew or feared or imagined, but to each other through recurring scenes, motifs, verbal expressions, and physical props. They are believably motivated—that is, if dreams are ever believably motivated.
In Stave One, before Scrooge goes to sleep, Dickens presents several clues to what trouble his dreams; we can infer the other clues from the dreams themselves. First the reader learns that this afternoon is cold, foggy, and dark. And during the dreams cold, fog, and darkness persist and dominate until they are the atmosphere of the dreams. Cold, which dominates the day, runs through the dreams, relieved only by and for persons who share each other's company. It is not relieved for Scrooge, who in his dreams can no longer use the imagination which Dickens says he relied upon to defeat cold at his counting-house. Cold is the most persistent element in the story—more pervasive than even the fog and darkness. It is the temperature of the world that cannot be shed or blown away by anyone but must be lived with and among. It is triumphed over only by the philanthropy of fellowship (which might be more specifically called kindness, love, tolerance, and sympathy between individual persons), not by the misanthropy of solitaries or the collective bargaining of institutions (" 'I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there,' " explains Scrooge). Here is that assertion dramatized:
The cold became intense. In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowing suddenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.
The great fire in the brazier of the workmen is the exact opposite of Scrooge's "very small fire" and the one he allows his clerk ("it looked like one coal"); their rapture is not at all like Scrooge's grouchiness and gloom. In contrast to the laborers', Scrooge's overflowings are congealed and turned to misanthropic ice, like the water-plug left in solitude. It is the solitude of Scrooge that has congealed him so that no outside force of weather knows where to have him. It could not be less open to the warmth that in this story is equated to human companionship.
And yet Scrooge does feel the cold, in spite of what people thought. He has caught cold in the head; he does bundle up; he does sit close to the small fire in his chambers and brood over it. The denial of cold as an economic hindrance is part of a public role that he has taken on as he has slipped into isolation. Fuel costs money just as warmth costs human feeling; and human feeling leads into a world which he has come to foreswear. "What shall I put you down for?" asks one of the gentlemen who come in the spirit of charity to collect money for the needy on Christmas Eve. " 'Nothing!' Scrooge replied. 'You wish to be anonymous?' 'I wish to be left alone,' said Scrooge." What Scrooge comes to see (and thus the reason for his conversion) is that if one is left alone he does become anonymous.
Over and over in the dreams, this is Scrooge's fear: that he will be left and forgotten, that he will die and no one will care. This fear grows as the suggestion of anonymity recurs more frequently during the course of the dreams. Defense against cold is the first demand Scrooge makes of Bob Cratchit on the day after Christmas, for a fully awakened Scrooge says, " 'Make up the fires and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!' " At last Scrooge has determined to keep human warmth about him.
Fog and darkness become symbols for incommunication and isolation in the dreams; their opposites become symbols for communication and integration with mankind. Light and clarity of vision are subdued, except in flashes of Christmas past when Scrooge is a schoolboy at play, or a young man at old Fezziwig's party, or an onlooker at Belle's happy home. These flashes are only glimmers in a usually dark atmosphere. One of the few bright outdoor scenes is the one in which Scrooge is shown himself playing as a boy: "The city had entirely disappeared. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground." But, as the Spirit of Christmas Past reminds him, "These are but shadows of the things that have been." Fog and darkness dominate until the last section of the story, when Scrooge awakes on Christmas morning and puts his head out the window to find, "No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring cold; cold piping for the blood to dance to; golden sunlight; heavenly day; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!" Throughout the dreams Scrooge's mind has kept the real weather of the day on which he retired.
Part of the darkness motif is figured in the games hideand-seek and blindman's-buff. It may be paraphrased as "none are so blind as those that will not see." Apparently in the recent past Scrooge has noticed the blind men's dogs pulling their masters from his path, and then wagging their tails as though they said, " 'No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!' " The observation must have been Scrooge's. Perhaps, too, was the plight of his house, "up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again." Even Scrooge on this evening is being buffeted like a blind man in trying to find his house amid the fog and dark. His flight of fancy about the house ("one could scarcely help fancying it") must surely reflect his unformulated yet subconscious worry about his own state, which the personification of the lost house parallels. Whether Scrooge knew that Cratchit hurried home to play blindman's-buff we do not know, though his dreams and his Christmas actions in behalf of the Cratchits indicate that he knew a great deal about his clerk's family. In any case, in his dreams Scrooge imagines a game of blindman's-buff at his nephew's home, and he also imagines Martha Cratchit playing a game of hide-and-seek with her father. The blind men are buffeted out of love; their awakenings are joyous—in Scrooge's dreams, in his yearnings. It must be the case with Scrooge that he is lost yet struggling to be found.
Cold, fog, and darkness afflict Scrooge's sight and feeling. The sound of bells also plagues him. It is significantly recurrent. At his counting-house it has long disturbed him: "The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremendous vibrations afterward, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there." In his chambers, "his glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten with a chamber in the highest story of the building." This is the bell that starts ringing mysteriously, then stops, and is followed by the clanking noise of Marley's ghost. This bell, as well as the others, symbolizes the mystery of what is lost to Scrooge—the proper use of time and service, of a call to human beings. Bells toll the coming of the spirits, though Scrooge's sense of time causes him to doubt their relevance ("The clock was wrong. An icicle must have got into the works.") Bells call happy people to church; they punctuate parties and other human assembly. At last Scrooge responds to bells without fear, but happily to "the lustiest peals he had ever heard." He has found the purpose for which the bell communicated with a chamber in the highest story of the building. He has had bells on his mind since the evening before, not merely because they marked time's passing but also because they connected people in warmth, worship, play, death, and love. This last would have a special tug upon Scrooge: the girl he was to have married long ago was named Belle.
The hardware of life haunts Scrooge, too—the forged metals which he has depended upon in place of human relations to secure, lock up, and insure what he will possess of existence. He has replaced with metal "solidity"; he has forged a chain, has relied on steel. But the hardware is unsubstantial. On Christmas Eve it melts into the hallucination of a doorknocker that comes alive in the likeness of Jacob Marley. And, though Scrooge doublelocks himself in, the hardware of Marley clanks to him, as does that of numerous other phantoms. Hardware reappears several times more as an undependable tool of life. The last of the Spirits takes Scrooge to a filthy den, a junk heap. "Upon the floor within, were piled up heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds. Secrets that few would like to scrutinise were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchres of bones." It is here that the dreamed-of charwoman, laundress, and undertaker's man bring to sell for hard cash the only effects of dreamed-of dead Scrooge. And his imagined effects belong here, among the junk. For these, material possessions, Scrooge has traded human love. In the dreams his fear of losing them has emerged. Spirits from the outside world have come into Scrooge's counting-house this afternoon—his nephew, the charity gentlemen, the lad who sang through the keyhole:
'God bless you, merry gentleman!
May nothing you dismay!'
They have asked for his money and love. Worse, they have threatened his only security: the belief in only material possession. In the dreams their invasion is reasserted by magnification into phantoms who would take away his wealth.
Selling Scrooge's possessions in the dream, the women say, " 'Who's the worse for the loss of a few things like these? Not a dead man, I suppose?' 'No, indeed,' said Mrs. Dilber, laughing. 'If he wanted to keep 'em after he was dead, a wicked old screw,' pursued the woman, 'why wasn't he natural in his lifetime?' " Scrooge, like an old screw—a piece of hardware himself—has not been natural. This he has known subconsciously. He is struggling through metaphor to make himself aware of it; for he is not yet, in spite of appearances, inhuman. He is not yet as dead as a doornail, which, as Dickens observes at the outset, is considered "the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade." It was what Marley was as dead as, but not Scrooge, thanks to his submerged conscience.
It is easy to see why several other motifs should run through Scrooge's dreams—the many references to death and burial, to the passage of time, to the poor, to persons unhappy alone and happy gathered together. They are life that Scrooge has tried not to live by.
One motif, marriage, needs exploration, however. The Christmas Eve of the dreams was not only the seventh anniversary of Jacob Marley's death—of Scrooge's last connection with a true fellow misanthropist—but it was also the afternoon he had replied to his nephew's invitation to dinner by saying he would see the nephew in hell first, then had blurted out as rationale: " 'Why did you get married?' " Love, to Scrooge, was the only symptom nearer insanity than the wish for a merry Christmas. Scrooge had built a wall of scorn against happy married life, and in the dreams we see his return to the problem, before and after the wall was built. In Stave Two, Belle sums up the problem: "You fear the world too much,' she answered, gently. 'All your hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you.' "
But why does gain obsess him? Why has he given up Belle for gold? And why does marriage appall him? The answers may be revealed in the dreams. Taken back to his solitary and unhappy days as a schoolboy, Scrooge sees his old imagined friends of those days, characters from The Arabian Nights, and he cries: " 'And the Sultan's groom turned upside down by the Genii; there he is upon his head! Serve him right. I'm glad of it. What business had he to be married to the Princess!' " The groom is not good enough to marry the Princess, for he is poor. In the next scene of the dream Scrooge appears as a boy left at school while his classmates have gone home on holiday. He is discovered by his sister Fan (later to become mother of Scrooge's nephew), who announces her errand to take Scrooge home:
'To bring you home, home, home!'
'Home, little Fan?' returned the boy. 'Yes!' said the child, brimful of glee. 'Home, for good and all. Home for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home's like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you're to be a man!' said the child, opening her eyes, 'and are never to come back here; but first, we're to be together all the Christmas long, and have the merriest time in all the world.'
We can conjecture the relationship between Scrooge and his father; surely the father had been a tyrant, and possibly he had shaped the ideal of marriage for his son. Or, if one guesses, perhaps the father's cruelty resulted from money worries so that Scrooge felt marriage was possible only if the husband were secure financially. This at least seems to have led to the rift between Scrooge and Belle, which could very well have stemmed from the example of Scrooge's father. The simple fictional childhood of Arabian Nights and Robinson Crusoe ("Poor Robinson Crusoe, where have you been, Robinson Crusoe?") has been lost, cut in upon by the harsh facts of economic life. Obsession with wealth for its own sake has begun as a desire to build a platform on which to base married life. The obsession has made love for anything but gold impossible. This is what ailed Scrooge—this and the submerged struggle against the master-passion, Gain at the expense of humanity and in the interest of dehumanization.
Scrooge has observed and evidently thought kindly upon the marriages of the Fezziwigs and Cratchits. But the former was overshadowed by fear of insecurity in marriage; Scrooge's youthful sympathy for the Fezziwigs' union was submerged. Similarly, Scrooge's reveling in the happyand-threatened Cratchit family remained under his flinty consciousness until the dream conversion. Of his sister's marriage we learn only that it resulted in Fan's death; apparently Scrooge cannot think upon it further. He has believed the only safe road is the one to personal economic security. Travel along that road, as Scrooge takes it, necessitates avoidance of human love.
No change can come from without his mind. His emergence must originate in his mind, for that is where he has locked everything up. The dreams are remembrances and imaginings based on remembrance. They are subconscious fears. Moreover, they have been so tightly, inhumanly, pressed that they must burst forth, and Scrooge must either in his crisis reform totally or not at all. There is no degree of inhumanity. It is true that he overcompensates and becomes a ridiculous countercaricature. But then he has shocked himself severely. The understanding of self has been huge; so its early manifestations were bound to be foolish. If it is difficult to imagine such overnight conversion, it is even more difficult to imagine a gradual one. He is being smothered by his isolationist creed; so he must throw it off violently. Scrooge is either a human being and must understand it, or become a thing. On this fateful Christmas Eve he has denied all he has had of human life—family, friendship, love, charity—indeed, all fellowfeeling. He can no longer find life enough to breathe in isolation; he must break out into the world. The dreams—inner explosions of conscience—are the last resort.
They are not reform theory. They do not echo pamphlets, or legislation, or sermons from the public pulpit, but individual human conscience. They come from the effects of a lifetime at last asserted. Thus they can, apparently at a stroke, overset the habits of many misled years.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5658
SOURCE: "Stalking the Figurative Oyster: The Excursive Ideal in A Christmas Carol" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 1-14.
[Here, Buckwald examines the theme of restriction and containment in A Christmas Carol, as exemplified by the description of Scrooge as "solitary as an oyster. "]
Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and selfcontained, and solitary as an oyster.
If at the beginning of A Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge apparently lacks a heart, he is at all times the undisputed heart of the story he inhabits. It is thus entirely fitting that this formal introduction to the miser's objectionable qualities, occurring in the piece's sixth paragraph, anticipates much in the narrative fabric that follows. We could, for example, profitably begin an interpretation of the tale with the first two figures in the description—the "tight-fisted hand" and the unproductive "flint"—for from them spring the images of closed and open and clasped and touching hands; feeble and potent fires; and brightness and darkness through which Dickens' Christmas message palpably appeals to the imaginations of its readers. And yet, the centrality of hand and flint notwithstanding, I want to focus on the culminating simile in which Scrooge is compared to an oyster. The oyster image, I argue, despite its unassuming character, is really a kind of master-trope for the story, one that casts new light not only on Scrooge but on imagery, structure, and meaning in the Carol as a whole.
To assess the oyster image's importance in the story, we need to begin with the simile's three-part characterization of Scrooge: "secret, and self-contained, and solitary." That the Scrooge of the first "stave" is "solitary as an oyster," isolated from his fellow creatures as an oyster's body is by its enclosing shell, needs only acknowledgment here. This fact is both generally evident in the story and specifically remarked by the narrator: "To edge his way along the crowded paths of life," we are told, "warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call 'nuts' to Scrooge." By identifying reclusiveness and misanthropy with miserliness, the story characterizes Scrooge's habitual shunning of other people as the denial of the human commerce upon which a healthy society depends.
Unlike the accusation of reclusiveness, the charge that Scrooge is "secret . . . as an oyster" seems suspect. "Secret," if it is not to be confused with the other terms, implies in this context that there is not only something hidden inside of Scrooge but something good, some equivalent to an oyster's tasty flesh or cradled pearl. We might well be puzzled by such a notion because beneath the miser's outward chilliness, there seems to be, as the narrator says, more "cold within him." But true to the simile, Scrooge does have something better deep inside of him, though for the most part it is kept hidden even from us. Two earlier incarnations comprise the first part of his secret: once there was a Scrooge who, craving love, longed to leave school to join his family for Christmas just as later there was a Scrooge who gratefully, gleefully partook of the Fezziwigs' abundant and caring Christmas hospitality. Like the rooms in his present house that are now let out as offices, the younger Scrooge once belonged to a home; and like the house itself, which once "playfed]" with other houses, the older Scrooge belonged to a festive community. The second part of Scrooge's secret is that, beneath his rough shell, something of his earlier incarnations still lives and can even on occasion be glimpsed, though by now, with respect to his daily life and outward behavior, it has been rendered as feeble as the small fire he allows his clerk; nearly as contained as fire within flint; and as incapable of issuing forth on its own as is his house, which, during its game of hide-and-seek, must have hidden itself "where it had so little business to be . . . and . . . forgotten the way out again." It is only granting this surviving inner warmth that Scrooge's feeling response to the ghostly visions, at first guarded but soon afterwards engaged-in openly, is at all probable.
It is the narrator's claim, however, that Scrooge is "self-contained . . . as an oyster" that proves the most fruitful, only partly because it addresses both the miser's solitariness and secrecy. If we take into account the way the adjective is colored by the oyster image—an image of a crusty shell "containing" an organism quite shut-off from the world around it—"self-contained" points to a condition best summarized thus: what there is inside a thing is kept under wraps, prevented from finding its way to the outside, and what might be larger is kept smaller. It is in this dual sense that the simile speaks expressively of Scrooge.
The narrator's first pointed words about Scrooge, "Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone," prepare us for the extreme containment of his physical self. "The cold within him," we are told, "froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait"; we hear of his "thin lips" and "wiry chin." When, a few paragraphs later, we learn of Scrooge's predilection "to edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance," it is impossible not to imagine him keeping to the edge of the sidewalk when he must venture out onto the London streets. In short, restriction defines, literally or imaginatively, not only Scrooge's physique and physiognomy but his stiff gait, the area trodden by that gait, and his bodily activity in general. In case we fail to notice these physical containments, we are given a foil in Bob Cratchit, who, when finally released from the dungeon-like counting-house for the holiday, emblematically celebrates his freedom in a burst of bodily kinesis. Cratchit, we are told, "went down a slide on Cornhill, at the end of a lane of boys, twenty times, in honour of its being Christmas-eve, and then ran home to Camden Town as hard as he could pelt, to play at blindman's-buff." The active expansiveness of the clerk's physical presence, his body now vertical, now horizontal, his legs kicking out in front of him as he races home, is matched by the extravagance of his movement over land, twenty trips downhill when one would have been out of his way.
But later we are also given foils with an added dimension. When the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge the vision of Belle as a grown woman, she is at home with her daughter, and both are surrounded by activity personified—more children than Scrooge can count, and "every child. . . conducting itself like forty." The narrator, however, enviously sexualizes the "young brigands' " "ruthless" "pillag[ing]" of Belle's daughter. He confesses that though he longs to be "one of them," he could never take such liberties with the daughter's person:
And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest licence of a child, and yet been man enough to know its value.
Later, Scrooge witnesses a game of blindman's-buff played by the company at his nephew's house, during which the narrator disingenuously deplores the conduct of the young man called Topper, who somehow manages to pursue "that plump sister in the lace tucker" wherever she goes, and finally traps her in a corner where he engages in conduct "the most execrable." Whether in the horde of rampant children freely touching Belle's daughter, or in Topper's pursuit and braille identification of Scrooge's niece, the dimension of sexuality is admitted into the expansive physical activity which in the story counterpoints the unredeemed Scrooge's "stiff gait."
Scrooge's self-containment, of course, is more than physical. His obsession with business and wealth not only occupies his time and energy but constitutes the frame of reference by which he judges everything and everyone in his world: "can even I believe that you would choose a dowerless girl," says Belle to Scrooge in one of the first spirit's vision, "—you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by Gain . . . ?" Proving Belle's appraisal, Scrooge earlier reacts harshly to his nephew's greeting of "merry Christmas":
Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? what reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough.
What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?
In addition to an idolization of wealth, Scrooge betrays in these lines a problem of comprehension, an inability to see beyond the containment of his own perspective and understand his nephew's opposing values: "what reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough," he cries in the second of his three questions. The fact that Scrooge concerns himself with his nephew's fortunes at all reveals that more than self-concern is at work here: he attempts to purge Fred of his Christmas spirit precisely because it makes no sense to him that Fred should keep it. In other words, Scrooge's anti-Christmas speech is, oddly enough, his least selfish moment in the first stave, for it is an attempt to disabuse Fred of unprofitable behavior for Fred's own good. The attempt is feeble, however, due to the very philosophy that Scrooge champions. As he says later to the "portly gentlemen" who urge him to know the conditions and suffering of the poor, "It's not my business. . . . It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!" Even Scrooge's unself-conscious use of the word "business" here for "responsibility" reveals that his perspective is contained by his miserly occupation, just as his lonely living quarters are surrounded by offices, or as an oyster's body is by its shell.
It is perhaps remarkable that Scrooge says as much as he does to Fred about the irrationality of the Christmas spirit, for speech is apparently another activity he prefers to curb. The scene with Fred is of great importance to the story because we witness in it the sparring of opposite philosophies of Christmas. Thus it is necessary that Scrooge, then Fred, each have his say, though Cratchit's applause from the next room after Fred's humane, eloquent utterance ensures that not even the most Scrooge-ish of readers will fail to recognize which philosophy the story sanctions. But once the positions are stated, little more is said, mostly because Scrooge closes his mind to any further discussion and shuts off his flow of words with a resounding "Good afternoon!"—an utterance that he repeats four times, until his nephew is convinced of the impasse and leaves the office. Scrooge also condescends to a brief and unpleasant exchange with the gentlemen who ask him for a Christmas contribution for the poor—an exchange also ended by an unambiguous "Good afternoon . . . !"—and two briefer ventings of spleen directed toward his clerk. We know of no other words he shares with anyone of flesh and blood until Christmas morning.
Marley's ghost clearly emblematizes an oyster-like containment of body and bodily activity when he laboriously drags up to Scrooge's sitting-room the heavy chain of "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel" which "wound about him like a tail." That his condition also represents containment of mental activity is revealed in the Ghost's declaration, "My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house—mark me!—in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole." Leaving nothing to chance, the phantom makes the connection that hardly needs making: "would you know," he asks Scrooge, "the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!" Scrooge has, we might remember, just "doublelocked" himself into his chambers for the night.
Which brings us to the message of the Carol, only part of which, in accordance with Marley's appraisal of his own oyster-against-the-"ocean" life, has traditionally been grasped. Responding to the Ghost's lamentations, Scrooge says, "But you were always a good man of business, Jacob":
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
If Scrooge's notion of his life has been limited by too narrow a focus on financial gain, Marley's appraisal of his past life is similarly limited by too narrow a focus on social responsibility. While the story unequivocally prefers reformed Marleyism to unreformed Scroogism, it advocates the former philosophy as only part of a more inclusive program for existence.
A good life, the story tells us, is a vitally excursive one. Such a life requires, first, that the individual go beyond the containing limits of the merely self-concerned self to benevolent participation with one's proper society—that is, with humanity or, in Fred's words, with one's "fellowpassengers to the grave." Of course, this participation includes the guardianship of "the common welfare" that Marley outlines, and the love and festivity that he fails to mention, but also more-mundane behaviors such as walking full in the center of a busy sidewalk; frank and honest communication with members of one's family; spontaneous snow-sliding with neighborhood boys; knowledge and sympathetic understanding of other people, ideas, and things; friendly conversation with relatives, solicitors, and employees; even romance and physical sexuality. A "good man" or woman, according to the Carol if not to Marley, is social in a very wide sense of the word.
And yet, the story tells us, a properly excursive life also means that the individual, by engaging in the benignly expansive behavior that is all of our nature, realize for his or her own benefit the manifold possibilities of being, mental and physical. To put it another way: Scroogism not only damages society but the self that, through action and interaction, could be much more. It is this concern for the self's potential that accounts for the persistent and disturbing imagery of individual impairment and thwarted development in the story: the flint unproductive of fire to which Scrooge is compared; Scrooge's "shrivelled" cheek; the gold and coals in Scrooge's care that are not turned to the human comfort that is their purpose; Belle's daughter who figures to Scrooge the daughter he might have fathered; the Cratchits' threadbare and meager existence; and most pointedly, Tiny Tim, who is in the first scheme of things both lame and destined for a childhood grave. A concern for the self, independent of any concern with social justice, also accounts for the sympathy which the story encourages in us for Scrooge in his manifestly unhappy humbug existence and which is articulated by the Carol's spokesperson for the Christmas spirit. As Fred says regarding his uncle's refusal to join him for Christmas dinner:
the consequence of his taking a dislike to us, and not making merry with us, is, as I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do him no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts, either in his mouldly old office, or his dusty chambers. I mean to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not, for I pity him.
The story, insisting again and again that self-interest and social good coincide, refuses either to choose or to distinguish between them. In the Carol, really one of the most optimistic of all possible worlds, self-interest (properly defined) and social good are quite simply the same thing. It is precisely this identity that is figured in the mutual pleasure-taking/pleasure-giving between Topper and the "plump sister" during blindman's-buff as well as in the nameless phantoms' misery over not being able to help others when Scrooge glimpses them from his own window; and it is precisely this identity that the miser Scrooge, setting his interest at odds with others', cannot see.
Appropriately, the final stave shows that Scrooge-the-oyster has opened his shell, or had it opened, or lost it altogether, as a condition of his redemptive humanization. Where initially he is unrelentingly "solitary," at the end he turns up at the door of his nephew and niece's where he is made to feel at "home" amid the Christmas company; in coming years, he becomes "a second father" to Tiny Tim and "as good a friend . . . as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." Similarly, where Scrooge initially keeps his surviving warmth of heart "secret" beneath a wintry exterior, fellow-feeling, sympathy, and joy cascade out of him when he wakes on Christmas morning.
To be sure, his gift to the Cratchits is anonymous. But rather than betraying a division between self and others, his anonymity demonstrates a selfless generosity apparently common enough in the world of the story that the collectors for charity readily assume Scrooge means this when he tells them to "put [him] down for" "Nothing!" But there is a further distinction to be drawn as well. The anonymity of Scrooge's gift, as well as similar instances of "secret" behavior in the story, socializes and thus redeems secrecy by making it a condition of festive surprises. We have seen such surprises when, on Christmas day, Martha is playfully hidden from, then revealed to, Bob Cratchit in the spirit of holiday merriment and when Topper seems to be blindfolded and disinterested, but inexplicably pursues the "plump sister" until he uncovers his matrimonial design with gifts of ring and necklace. In the final stave, playful surprise explains Scrooge's side-"splitting" glee that Bob Cratchit "shan't know who sends" his family the large prize Turkey, and is perhaps partly behind the miser's unannounced poking of his head into Fred's dining room when, for the first time ever, he has come to join the holiday celebration. And such surprise is triumphantly seen in Scrooge's reversal of manner, from "feign[ed]" surliness and displeasure to joyful fellow-feeling, when Bob arrives at the office late on the day after Christmas:
"Now, I'll tell you what, my friend," said Scrooge, "I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore," he continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again: "and therefore I am about to raise your salary!"
Scrooge also escapes his various self-containments. Where the "old" Scrooge is contained in person and activity, the "new" Scrooge, like Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve, explodes with joyful, expansive physical activity, flailing his arms as he wildly attempts to dress himself, "running to the window" and "put[ting] out his head," and then dancing while he shaves. When he gets out "into the streets," instead of keeping to the edge of the sidewalk, literally or figuratively, Scrooge meets passersby "with a delighted smile," heartily shakes hands with one of the "portly" men who visited his office the previous day, and "pat[s] children on the head." "He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness." Scrooge never gets to engage in the sexual fondling that the narrator earlier envies, but he does show a decided, and joyful, inability to keep his hands to himself on the day after Christmas, playfully giving his clerk a powerful "dig in the waistcoat" as he offers him a raise and a clap on the back while he says—"with an earnestness that could not be mistaken"—"A merry Christmas, Bob!" In the same way, where the "old" Scrooge suffers from a containment of perspective, the "new" Scrooge clearly shows that he understands the importance of the Christmas spirit when, for instance, he unreflectingly chooses to enhance the Cratchits' meager celebration or decides to join the festivity at his nephew's home. Finally, where Scrooge at first seems intent on restricting his speech, he now exhibits a positive delight in it. Waking on Christmas morning, he spontaneously "Whoop[s]" and "Hallo[s]" to "all the world" his new-found Christmas spirit. He reveals a fondness for conversation when he shouts from his open window to a boy on the street below:
"Do you know the Poulterer's, in the next street but one, at the corner?" Scrooge inquired.
"I should hope I did," replied the lad.
"An intelligent boy!" said Scrooge. "A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they've sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?"
"What, the one as big as me?" returned the boy.
"What a delightful boy!" said Scrooge. "It's a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!"
Scrooge is so filled with Christmas spirit that even the boy's "smart" response is to him an "intelligent" one, and a simple question is "delightful"—so welcome is any conversation now to a man who has just found the joy of what lies beyond himself, that "everything could yield him pleasure." The identity of self-interest and social interest that the earlier staves so optimistically assert is also asserted in the final stave, most clearly in Scrooge's interaction with the poulterer's man and the boy when they return with the prize turkey: for every coin paid, there is at least one "chuckle" as Scrooge is giddy with the privilege of making expenditures that will bring the Cratchits happiness.
Scrooge, in short, finally passes beyond his shell And yet, if we stopped here, we would be ignoring the peculiar resonance that the oyster image has for the larger structure of the story. To perceive it, we need to begin with a couple of facts about the Carol.
The first pertains to the "old" Scrooge. Though initially he is far from being another mobilely malignant Iago, neither is Scrooge the innocuous stay-at-home that a shut oyster is. If he were only this, people and dogs would not fear to meet him on the street as they do, nor would we be so sure in our disapproval of him. The truth is that Scrooge is a positive source of pain to others, though only if they have the misfortune of crossing his path, or in some other way rubbing against his immovable, "abrasive" character. When Fred wishes him, "A Merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" Scrooge snaps back, "Bah! . . . Humbug!" Later, when an unlucky caroller stops at Scrooge's keyhole, the miser chases him away with a ruler. Of course, the best example is Bob Cratchit, who suffers in Scrooge's presence but whose spirits soar when he leaves the office. Interestingly, other characters can feel Scrooge's unpleasantness when his presence has merely been invoked. Bob's family feels it when, in the vision of Stave Three, he bids them toast his employer with their holiday concoction of gin and lemon, and, we are told, "the mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the party, which was not dispelled for full five minutes." Scrooge's niece, in another of the second spirit's visions, also finds the festivity of her evening disrupted by talk about her uncle. Scrooge's "abrasiveness," his power to cause discomfort through no special effort of his own, is surely one of the ways in which he is "hard and sharp as flint."
The second fact concerns nearly everybody in the story except Scrooge. The "old" Scrooge is unique in the sense that he lacks the Christmas spirit nearly all of the world of the Carol possesses so wholeheartedly. If Scrooge is "hard and sharp as flint," the other characters can be seen as "soft"—a word appropriate anyway to the human compassion and lack of severity comprising the Christmas spirit. Softness also inspires the words of the engagingly intrusive narrator. When, for example, the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals the power of his torch to placate angered dinner-carriers, the narrator enthusiastically explains, "For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day. And so it was! God love it, so it was!" Even the narrator's active disapproval is expressed with appropriate softness—with lightness, even affection: "Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!" The colloquial ring of the initial metaphor, and the participial tour de force that follows—both in charged exclamation—are simply too gleeful to allow us to feel the narrator is repulsed, alarmed, or even greatly disturbed by Scrooge's example. There is an amusement and relish in these lines reminiscent of the oral storyteller each time he or she introduces an eccentric character who has taken the polish of time and become a favorite. Perhaps nothing, however, so well articulates the dual attitude of the narrator toward Scrooge as the final "old sinner!"—a label expressing both disapproval and warm familiarity. To sum up, we can see how the story's fictional world and the words of the narrator are consonant, enveloping the "hard," "sharp," "abrasive" Scrooge with concentric layers of "soft" matter.
My point, of course, is that Scrooge is lodged within his world, and his story, as an irritating grain of sand against the fleshy part of an oyster. A benefit of this analogy is that it not only describes the state of things in the first stave but also how the rest of the story works: Scrooge, undergoing a process of transformation through the visits of the three spirits, finally emerges as the story's "pearl."
There is some sense in regarding Scrooge's transformation as the result of a destructive process. If we see him as an oyster within a crusty shell, closed to the world, Marley's ghost and the three spirits force their way into his mind and heart just as they force their way into his locked apartments. They either pry open his shell bit by bit, or neutralize its hardness through the bombardment of pathetic visions: thus, sounds accompanying a childhood scene "fell upon the heart of Scrooge with a softening influence," and "he softened more and more" when his niece plays on the harp "a simple little air" once familiar to his sister. As a result of the visitations, Scrooge is able to pass through his containing shell as easily as he and the first spirit "passed through the wall" of his solitary dwelling en route to the place of his boyhood.
But the problem with this view of the transforming process is that it does an injustice to Scrooge. Is he defeated by the spirits who come to him for his benefit? Compared with his old humbug self, does the Scrooge of Christmas morning seem diminished in stature or completeness? The answer to both questions is clearly, no. The first spirit increases Scrooge by bringing into his everyday consciousness Christmas memories long-stored in some secret, lost place within him. The second and third spirits augment this consciousness with knowledge of the present and predictions of the future. Together, Marley's ghost and the spirits give Scrooge the wisdom of a new perspective, which then branches out in the qualities of love, compassion, altruism, and joyfulness that he previously lacked. Many of the visions, like that of the Fezziwigs' ball, are a pleasure to Scrooge, but even when he is most plagued by what the spirits show or say to him, he is only set back briefly, the pace of his travels allowing him little time for grief or self-reproach.
In fact, generally speaking, Scrooge's own spirit is unmistakably ascendent during the night. His curiosity, and desire to benefit from the unpreventable visitations, soon supply their own momentum. Vision after vision holds his attention and provokes his questions and comments; "the game of How, When, and Where" that is played at his nephew and niece's Christmas gathering even provokes guesses which none of the company can hear. By the time Scrooge meets the second spirit, it is clear that he accepts the entire supernatural enterprise as his own: " 'Spirit,' said Scrooge submissively, 'conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it'." With the appearance of the third spirit, whose "mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread," Scrooge's determination and eagerness seem still greater: " 'Lead on!' said Scrooge. 'Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!' " Because he does possess this momentum, which aligns his will with that of the spirits, we see again how the story is both unequivocally critical of Scrooge's attitudes and behaviors, and merciful to Scrooge the man. Holding him up to rebuke and humiliation and blame is not the story's intent. Rather, the dissociation of the man from his sins allows Dickens to make his point doubly: Dickens condemns Scroogism while he exemplifies an un-Scrooge-like mentality by showing Scrooge authorial kindness.
If Scrooge may be considered ascendent during the night, he emerges positively triumphant on Christmas morning when, among other robust exuberances, he shouts from his window to the street below, adding his joyful noise to the general peals of church bells, "the lustiest peals he had ever heard." Scrooge's expansive vocalizing and bodily movements on Christmas morning are appropriate to a character who seems not to diminish but to grow stronger and more complete before our eyes.
A better way to regard the movement of the story is to discern the "abrasive" anti-Christmas Scrooge made compatible with the "soft" pro-Christmas company comprised of nearly all of the fictional world surrounding him and the narrator as well. Indeed, Scrooge finally joins the others in Christmas spirit and activities. And yet, we have to realize that Scrooge is not so much remade in the others' image as he is remade according to it. In no other character are Christmas qualities given such a dazzling embodiment as in Scrooge on Christmas morning: "I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man," he cries. Scrooge is so charged here with seasonal energy that he takes on multiple identities—another way in which he is "more" or greater at the end of the story than at the beginning. Too charged is more precise, for the "new" Scrooge ceases to be merely mortal: he is really the Christmas spirit personified, its pure essence, and an embodiment more important to the story's meaning than the allegorical and spooky Ghost of Christmas Present because he provides us with a human model of behavior, if also an exaggerated one. It is Scrooge's super-Christmas spirit which gives the story such a satisfactory climax (how less exciting if Scrooge awoke merely to become like Fred!) as well as dictates the brevity of the final stave—such dazzle cannot be prolonged without devaluation. Scrooge's dazzle is the appropriate end-product of the story, a treasured moment revealed only after the necessary processes of generation are complete. Dickens' story, it might be said, finally opens in the last stave to offer us this treasure, this "pearl." When Thackeray praised the Carol as "a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness," he implicitly paralleled its writing and publication with the giving of a gift [Fraser 's Magazine 29 (February 1844)]. More Christmas present than mere gift, the story proceeds, even as it obeys the dynamic of a pearlgenerating oyster, from the concealment of Scrooge's inner goodness to a climactic unwrapping of that goodness that involves each reader with Dickens in a personal enactment of a Christmas ritual. And so author and reader participate in the excursive sociality that A Christmas Carol celebrates.
We can never know, of course, the extent to which Dickens conceived of the structure of his story according to the image of a pearl-generating oyster. But there is some reason to conclude that he would have welcomed such an interpretation as consonant with his own sense of how his story works and of the nature of his authorial role. The careful mothering of supernatural agents effects Scrooge's change, accreted wisdom making Scrooge both more than what he was and better. But behind these spirits is the narrator—certainly an alter-ego of Dickens himself—who really presides over the re-creation. Thus, we should not be surprised to hear the narrator's comment on Scrooge's Christmas laugh: "Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!" In Genesis we hear of another Creator who, once the work was done, looked down with approval on his Creation. Just what is created in A> Christmas Carol is glimpsed in the newly awakened Scrooge's own words: "I don't know anything. I'm quite a baby. Never mind. I don't care. I'd rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!" In an oyster's experience, the nearest thing to a baby is a pearl.
Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704
Churchill, R. C, ed. A Bibliography of Dickensian Criticism, 1836-1975. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, Vol. 12. New York: Garland Publishing, 1975, 314 p.
Guide to writings about Dickens published between 1836 and 1975.
Cohn, Alan M., and Collins, K. K. The Cumulated Dickens Checklist, 1970-1979. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Publishing Co., 1982, 391 p.
Listing of 1970s publications on Dickens and his works.
Gold, Joseph. The Stature of Dickens: A Centenary Bibliography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971, 236 p.
Catalogue of biographical and critical studies on Dickens.
Darton, F. J. Harvey. "Dickens the Beginner: 1833-1836." The Quarterly Review 262, No. 519 (January 1934): 52-69.
Portrays Dickens's early years as a writer.
Dexter, Walter. "The Genesis of Sketches by Boz." The Dickensian XXX, No. 230 (Spring 1934): 105-11.
Recounts the first periodical printings of Dickens's sketches and short stories later compiled in Sketches by Boz.
Forster, John. Forster's Life of Dickens. Abridged and revised by George Gissing. London: Chapman & Hall, 1907, 349 p.
Standard biography for many years, written by Dickens's friend. Forster is often criticized for minimizing Dickens's other friendships and omitting crucial facts, but this book contains valuable primary source material.
Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952.
Definitive modern biography. Johnson makes use of much previously unavailable material.
Becker, May Lamberton. Introduction to Christmas Stories: A Christmas Carol The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, by Charles Dickens, pp. 7-10. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1946.
Discusses the seasonal spirit in Dickens's Christmas stories.
Brown, John Mason. "Ghouls and Holly." In his Seeing More Things, pp. 161-67. New York: Whittlesey House, 1948.
Contemplates the tradition of reading A Christmas Carol during the Yuletide and examines Scrooge's conversion.
Butt, John. "A Christmas Carol: Its Origin and Design." The Dickensian LI, No. 313 (December 1954): 15-18.
Provides an analysis of Dickens's thoughts while writing A Christmas Carol and occurrences that may have influenced his composition.
Carlton, William J. "Portraits in 'A Parliamentary Sketch.' " The Dickensian L, No. 311 (June 1954): 100-09.
Surveys Dickens's depictions of Parliament members in Sketches by Boz.
Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. Charles Dickens: A Critical Study. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1906, 300 p.
Overview of Dickens's life and career. According to Chesterton: "The Christmas Carol is the conversion of an anti-Christmas character. The Chimes is a slaughter of anti-Christmas characters. The Cricket, perhaps, fails for lack of this crusading note."
Jaffe, Audrey. "Spectacular Sympathy: Visuality and Ideology in Dickens's A Christmas Carol" PMLA 109, No. 2 (March 1994): 254-65.
Argues that A Christmas Carol casts Scrooge—and, by extension, the reader—as a "spectator" of society and links "visual representation to the production of individual sympathy and thus, ultimately, to social harmony."
Ley, J. W. T. "'A Sledge-Hammer Blow': How The Chimes' Came to Be Written: The Source of Dickens's Inspiration." The Dickensian XIX, No. 2 (April 1923): 86-9.
Maintains that The Chimes was written to incite social reform in regards to the treatment of the poor.
Major, Gwen. "Scrooge's Chambers." The Dickensian XXIX, No. 225 (Winter 1932-33): 11-15.
Describes the probable site in London on which Dickens based Scrooge's residence.
McNulty, J. H. "Our Carol." The Dickensian XXXIV, No. 245 (December 1937-38): 15-19.
Ponders the realism in A Christmas Carol and describes the tale as the "one perfect short story Dickens wrote." McNulty also claims that "if every copy were destroyed to-day, it could be rewritten tomorrow, so many know the story by heart."
——. "A Double Centenary." The Dickensian XXXIX, No. 268 (September 1943): 163-65.
Marks the one-hundredth year since the publication of A Christmas Carol and Martin Chuzzlewit. McNulty identifies the similar uses in the two volumes of selfishness, conversion, fog, and snow.
Morley, Malcolm. "Ring Up The Chimes." The Dickensian XLVII, No. 300 (September 1951): 202-06.
Chronicles various stage adaptations of The Chimes.
Newton, A. Edward. "The Greatest Little Book in the World." The Atlantic Monthly 132, No. 1 (December 1923): 732-38.
Proclaims A Christmas Carol "the greatest little book in the world," and adds that it "makes everyone want 'to make the world a little better'."
Additional coverage of Dickens's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832-1890; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 21, 55, 70; Discovering Authors; Junior Discovering Authors; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 3, 8, 18, 26, 37; Something about the Author, Vol. 15.
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