For a modern reader, the books of Charles Dickens present a conundrum.
Dickens, of course, is one of the most enduring writers of the 19th Century. Schools all over the world continue to teach his works. And many of his stories and characters have become embedded in our shared culture.
There are many good reasons to read Dickens. He crafted some of the most vibrant and memorable characters in 19th Century British literature. He had a true gift for transporting a reader to the time and place of his novels. His dedication to exploring issues of his time through literature was admirable and in some ways trailblazing.
At his best, Dickens could craft passages that stick with a reader for a long time. He was the original stylistic gadabout. His stories encompassed tragedy, comedy, satire, historical drama, mystery, adventure and absurdism. And he fearlessly mixed and matched genres within one book.
But then, the Dickens conundrum. As good a writer as he could be, Dickens possessed numerous stylistic tics that can make reading his work a maddening experience. Those could be a minor bump in his best books. For his less successful outings, Dickens’s tics could push chapters to alienating opacity.
Dickens was fond of long, rambling sentences. He was given to repeating certain words and phrases to the point where a reader’s eye begins to skip the repetitions. Dickens was fond of long-winded characters who wouldn’t shut up.
As a satirist, Dickens was guilty of a dearth of subtlety. Character names, especially, tended to be ludicrous. Dickens had a condescending and ill-advised penchant for writing in “patois,” trying to emulate what he viewed as the speech patterns of certain groups of society (usually the poor lower classes). And, unsurprisingly given his own torturous relations with women, his female characters tended to be embodiments of certain traits instead of fleshed out human beings.
Hard Times, one of Dickens’s less engaging novels, is a good example of many of these qualities.
Hard Times was Dickens’s exploration of the effects of the industrial age on everyday lives. His main character extolled the virtue of facts above all else. Dickens showed little sympathy for the new industrial endeavors. But his presentation of the labor movement was equally as dismissive. That’s not a complete shock. Dickens was an individualist. His works are full of characters fighting for their right to live their own truths in the face of various social structures.
The characters of Hard Times are typically Dickensian. The villains were the bloviating, hypocritical industrialist Bounderby and the shrewish Mrs. Sparsit. The misguided philosopher who prized facts above all else, especially in the education of his children, was called Tom Gradgrind. The doomed laborer who never caught a break was Stephen Blackpool. Most ludicrously, a very minor character who happened to be a schoolmaster had the inane surname of “M’Choakumchild.”
Subtle, it wasn’t. The problem with such defiantly cartoonish names is that satire that hits you over the head with how satirical it is tends to be the least effective. Readers can get that the bloviating industrialist is a jerk without his name telegraphing that he’s a “bounder.” Nor was it necessary to call out that his sidekick’s virtues were sparse.
Bounderby embodied many of the worst Dickens qualities. He was a cartoonish villain. He was given to page-long rambles about his own would-be virtues, or those of Mrs. Sparsit. His need to choke the air with verbiage was intentionally offputting, yes, but that made it no more enjoyable to read. He was repetitive. He went on, time and again, about his workers demanding silver spoons and turtle soup. Again, he was intentionally ridiculous, but readers could get the point of that after one such soliloquy. After a few of them, you start to skip those paragraphs entirely.
That Dickens felt the need to try to mimic what he viewed as the patois of the lower classes was misguided. He clearly thought it lent authenticity. But giving Stephen lengthy discourses choked with Dickens’s approximation of working class slang and enunciation made those passage nearly unreadable. Worse, they carried the air of a privileged writer condescending to the masses. In Hard Times, Dickens compounded that misstep by assigning another minor character a pronounced speech impediment, which the writer insisted on mimicking in the long oratories Dickens gave him (changing each “s” to “th”). Beyond being offputting, the choice was migraine-inducing. Again, Dickens clearly thought he was adding authenticity to the work, but it came off as condescending. Arty for no good reason.
The female characters of Hard Times reflect a classic Dickens approach. Mrs. Sparsit was a caricature of the kind of meddlesome society viper that Dickens loathed. But devoid of any human qualities, she was difficult to take seriously. At the other end were Rachael and Sissy, who were impossibly idealized embodiments of grace. All nurturing and sweetness. Rachael happily sacrificed herself to spinsterhood for a man she loved but could never be with. Sissy’s very inability to grasp the intellectual rigor of Gradgrind’s philosophy was presented as the means of the family’s salvation.
Louisa Gradgrind was the closest to a fully fleshed out female character in Hard Times. But even there, Dickens couldn’t quite commit to her personhood. Louisa was a cool, distant Sphinx. A willingness to sacrifice herself for the sake of her brother was one of her rare human qualities. But rather than being the sum of her own choices, Louisa was presented as the product of her father’s stifling intellectual philosophy. It’s true that each person is the product of her environment, and especially the circumstances of her upbringing. But to place the responsibility for Louisa’s emotional paralysis on her father was to deny any agency in the character herself. Louisa’s personality wasn’t what she did to survive her upbringing. It was what was done to her. That couldn’t help but make her less interesting.
Hard Times is possibly the least charitable example of Dickens one could produce in a discussion like this. Even his best books (A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House) aren’t free of these tics. But those books possessed literary and stylistic virtues that elevated them. They showed the genuine heart of not only the material but of Dickens himself.
I don’t argue that people should stop reading Dickens. I’ve read several and will probably read others. There’s a lot that’s worthwhile in his books. You just have to prepare for the fact that some outings will prove more frustrating than others.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on April 22, 2015.