Charles Dickens: Contribution as A Victorian Novelist

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      In the nineteenth century the novel assumed a new phase and acquired a new popularity. The growth of the periodicals and the rise of the middle class accounted for the phenomenal development of the novel during the Victorian era. The novel came to be looked upon as a favourite form of entertainment and the middle class reading public were attracted to it for amusement. Certainly there were many serious writers who contributed to the development of the novel as an artform.

A new and vivid realism vitalises the novels of Charles Dickens. It is a realism humorous and tender by turns. Dickens's realistic scenes are now lit up by laughter, now warmed by pity.
Charles Dickens

      Charles Dickens is the most pre-eminent among Victorian novelists. After his Preliminary sketches by Boz, he published Pickwick Papers in 1856: This is the Supreme comic novel in English language. The comedy is never superimposed, for is an effortless expression of a comic view of life: The character of Pickwick is as interesting as that of Don Quixote in Cervantes's novel. The Pickwick Papers is a parody of eighteenth century picaresque adventure. This was followed by Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, A Christmas Carol, Dombeyand Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend.

      In Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby, A Christmas Carol, Little Dorrit and Hard Times, Dickens devoted himself to the social conditions with a reforming zeal. David Copperfield is an autobiographical novel, but the main stress is on the social conditions of the period. Bleak House is the most conscious and deeply planned novel in Dickens' whole work. Great Expectations shows his artistic capacity. Hard Times is a social tract, but in its compactness and symbolism, Dickens' art is evident. It has been called 'a flawed classic'. Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Too Cities are historical novels.

     A new and vivid realism vitalises the novels of Charles Dickens. It is a realism humorous and tender by turns. Dickens's realistic scenes are now lit up by laughter, now warmed by pity. He is a typical Victorian novelist; his genius was quickened by the industrial England of grim cities where the poor died, worn out by despair and hardship and where the bright hopes of youth were destroyed by drudgery and squalor. The Reform Act of 1832 gave some importance to the middle class and Dickens satisfied the middle class readers by mingling slapsticks with sentiment. Dickens knew from painful experience the life of the workshop, the office and the terrible life of the streets. He lays the settings of his story in London with extraordinary vividness. His characters move in all atmosphere of London fog, London smoke and pale dusty London sunshine.

      In his novels he is a social critic; he attacks the social conditions of his time and his criticism is bathed in humour and pathos. The Old Curiosity Shop shows pathos triumphing over humour specially in the death of Little Nell. He shows in his novels the torments of industrial England - the slums, the educational system, the child labour and the methods of bureaucracy. In Oliver Twist he shows the dark underworld of the poor. Child labour, Poor Law, Reform Act, Educational system, legal system, Industrial slums and prostitution come in for criticism in all his novels. Nicholas Nickelby exposes the goings on behind private schools. Hard Times is a scathing criticism of Industrial Coketown and the utilitarian education of the time. But his social criticism is never radical or revolutionary. It is diluted by humour and pathos. It therefore appealed to the middle class readers who found his novels amusing and instructive. Dickens pandered to the middle class taste by punishing the wicked and rewarding the virtuous.

      Secondly, Dickens is the great master of the art of story-telling. The brisk narration has sometimes the dynamics of drama. He gives the series of the adventures of Pickwick and his comrades in such an interesting manner as to hold the attention of the readers to the end. His story is vitalised by his creative imagination. He tums upon a great variety of English scenes and characters in his novels, but specially upot work-houses, debtor's prisons, law houses, lurking places of vice, crime and pain. He seeks to arouse the conscience of the British public. Humour is a very important thread in the web of Dickens novel. His characterisation is always vitalised by this humour which comes from his fantastic imagination. Mr. Micawber, Mr. Pickwick, Mrs. Habisham are immortal comic creations. Humour and pathos are almost always alied in his novels. Thus Dickens gives to English novel a new realism by making it a picture of industrial England and by giving it a new vitality born of characterisation with humour and satire. Dickens was immensely popular during his time. His novels had all the features that the Victorian readers wanted - melodrama, pathos, sensation, sentiment and romance. But he transcended these qualities by his creative vitality and humour. His intense comic sense ana gusto made him create a series of novels that are of lasting interest for their vivid characters and genial humour.

      Dickens has a brisk style of narration. His language has a vigour and go. He can adapt the language to the necessity of characters and situations. Pegotty in David Copperfield speaks in regional language while Micawber speaks in stilted language. His style is enlivened by humour, genial as well as satirical.

      Dickens is the best fiction writer among all the English novelists. Previous to his day the novelists only wrote of the life and adventures of the rich and aristocratic sections of society. Dickens was the first to introduce to the reading public the life of the poor and. the oppressed. He had a very marked sense of humour, and his appeal is to the heart rather than the head. He rouses in us pity for the lot of the poor whose sufferings he describes, and resentment against those who ill-treated, and exploited them. He had a special love for orphan children as he had been left an orphan himself and had suffered, much cruelty in his early years. His Oliver Twist (1838) is a powerful indictment of the education of poor children of his day.

      The Novelist of the Hearth and the Home. Dickens is pre-eminently the novelist of the hearth and the home and no where does this note ring clearer and truer than in David Copperfield. The love of his mother and his home is deep seated in the unfortunate little hero; throughout the chapters, he betrays his affection for Blunde-stone Rookery and all its dear associations. Not less striking than the mutual love of mother and son is the loyalty of Agnes Wickfield to her father; for Dickens is with Shakespeare and Scott in desiring to depict the sympathetic care and the charming solicitude of a daughter. There is, moreover, another side of happy home life illustrated by the dependence of Wilkins Micawber and his wife upon each other; the single-souled fidelity of Peggotty to her mistress and little David completes the picture drawn by the Novelist of Home.

      Dickens is particularly good with children, and there comes to mind at once his delightful little Emily. But he is more than merely a charming picture painter of little boys and little girls; he never forgets to set down the evils to which a faulty social system exposes young people, and by so doing to make a powerful appeal for amelioration. In David Copperfield, he treats particularly of child labor and the reform of schools. No one can be more tender than Dickens in protecting the innocence of childhood and the purity of young womanhood; in the latter case, he comes once more into line with Shakespeare and Scott.

      Dickens's Humour. To write of Charles Dickens at all is to presuppose his humour: it was the supreme quality of his genius. It was as a humorist that Dickens made his name. Humour is the soul of his work. Even as a writer of true farce, we suppose, Dickens has never been surpassed. Pickwick abounds in farce, now quite distinct from, and now all but blending with, the higher characteristics of Humour. At his worst, he is capable of facetiousness like: "Madame Mantalini wrung her hands for grief and rung the bell for her husband: which done, she fell into a chair and a fainting fit simultaneously. (Nicholas Nickleby) The scene between little David Copperfield and the waiter (in Chapter V of David Copperfield) seems to Gissing "farce, though very good; country inn-keepers were never in the habit of setting a dish-load of cutlets before a little boy who wanted dinner, and not even the shrewdest of waiters, having devoured them all, could make people believe that it was the little boy's achievement; but the comic vigor of the thing is irresistible."

      But between Dickens' farce and his scenes of humour the difference is obvious. In Mantalini, for example, we have nothing illuminative. He amuses, and there the matter ends. But true humour always suggests a
thought, always throws light on human nature. Both the Wellers, (father and son) are strictly humorous. Neither the old coachman nor his son is ever shown in a grotesque, or improbable situation; no one takes Mantalini to his heart; but Tony and Sam Weller become in very truth our friends, and for knowing them, we know ourselves the better. They are surprising incarnations of the spirit of man, doomed to inhabit so variously. Sam, at ease in the world, makes life his jest, and we ask nothing better than to laugh with one who sees so shrewdly and feels so honestly. We look on, and feel in our hearts the warmth of kindly merriment. In the celebrated Mrs. Gamp, the same perfect method of idealization as in Shakespeare's Falstaff is used in converting to a source of pleasure things that in life repel or nauseate. And in both cases the sublimation of character and circumstances is effected by a humour that seems unsurpassable. Take Spenlow and Jorkins—take Todger's (in Martin Chuzzlewit.) Dickens had remarkable acquaintance with the Inn Waiter: read the Waiter's autobiography in "Somebody's Luggage".

      Dickens's Pathos. Inseparable from the gift of humour is that of pathos. Sometimes indeed, his emphasis and reiteration lead to the charge against him of mawkishness, e.g., in the death of Paul Dombey, or of Jo, the crossing sweeper. But of true pathos Dickens has an abundance, the earliest instance being that of the death of the Chancery prisoner in Pickwick. He is at his best in bringing out the pathos of child-life. We see how closely the truly pathetic and a quick observation are allied in Dickens. Little Dorrit is strong in both pathos and humour. Dickens's memories of childhood made his touch yery sure whenever he dealt with the squalid prison World, and life there was for him no less fertile in pathos than humour. Pathos of a graver and subtler kind is the distinguishing note of Great Expectations. Perhaps, however, his best pathos is seen in the Christmas books. In style, he continues the work of two writers whom he always held dear, Goldsmith and Sterne. Goldsmith's sweetness and Sterne's sensitive Humanity had no small part in forming Dickens. There is a foretaste of Dickens's humour in Moses the son of Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield. Dickens is truly and profoundly national of humour the very incarnation, he cannot think of his county without a sunny smile.

      Dickens's Style. Dickens is one of the masters of prose in his own way, though his style cannot be commended for flow of pure idiom or command of subtle melodies. He is often too much-mannered. Facetiousness is now and then to blame for an affected sentence, but he never wrote slovenly English. Barnaby Rudge is written in a style simple, direct and forcible. In narrative, he is always excellent when describing rapid journeys. His easy graphic power first presupposes vision, and vision of extraordinary clearness, too. In the story of David Copperfield's journey on the Dover road, we have as good a piece of narrative prose as can be found in English. Equally good, in another way, are those passages of rapid retrospect, in which David tells us of his later boyhood; a concentration of memory perfumed with the sweetest humour. The chapter entitled Our Domestic Life is perfect writing, with perfect proportion of detail, with unflagging interest. Another kind of descriptive writing appears in the funeral of old Anthony, conducted by Mr. Mould, (in Chap. XIX of Martin Chuzzlewit).

      A fine piece of the grimly picturesque is Quilp's death. Better still is the narrative in Barnaby Rudge of the day and night before the goal delivery. He is very strong in pure description and in elaborate picturing. He is great in locality, and there is no English writer, or perhaps no writer in any literature, who so often gives proof of wonderfully minute observation. It is an important source of his strength; it helps him to put people and things more clearly before us than, as a rule, we should ourselves see them. One example is Peggotty's purse given to little David Copperfield on his departure from Yarmouth, which was found to contain three bright shillings, "which Peggotty had evidently polished up with whiting for my greater delight." No other novelists afford such instances of observation, memory and imaginative force, all evinced in a touch of detail so indescribably trivial - its very triviality being the proof of power. When Dickens writes in his pleasant mood of things either pleasant in themselves, or especially suggestive of humorous reflection, his style is faultless, perfectly suited; e.g. The Uncommercial Traveller, he is almost invariably happy in phrase and in easy flow of language, and fully equal of the eighteenth-century essayists in light and deft handling of idiomatic English.

      Alan Clutton-Brock says: "Dickens was master of a sound and even classical prose style. His teachers were Smollett, Fielding and Defoe; and he had learned from them thoroughly. He wrote like a man, with a masculine weight, clearness, and balance."

      Autobiography in His Novels. Those who have read Dickens's books will see from even this slight outline how largely he drew on his own experience and observation. David Copperfield the most generally admired of his novel, contains a large amount of autobiography. His early knowledge of lowlife of London supplied material for Oliver Twist, his school-days for Nicholas Nickleby, his visit to the Marshalsea, where his father was imprisoned, for Little Dorrit, his life in a law office for treatment of legal matters in Bleak House and other novels. Many more instances could be given. He constantly walked and rode about London, and nothing escaped his observation. As important as these reproductions of actual scenes from his past is his attitude towards various classes of society, which was determined by what he had felt and seen. He had a profound sympathy with poverty and wretchedness, and his moving portrayal of innocent suffering and of the crime which is due more to conditions than to bad character, stirred the heart of England.

      Dickens as a Reformer. Having gained the attention of the public, he resolved to use the opportunity to try to cure some of the evils which produced the suffering he knew so well, and his efforts met with great success. The measures for the treatment of the poor were improved largely through books like Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend; the law's delays through his satire on the Court of Chancery in Bleak House and on the "Circumlocution Office" in Little Dorrit; boys schools through his exposure of Mr. Squeers; the debtors' laws through Little Dorrit. All this was a great service to society, and was well worth doing.

      Defects of His Method. On the permanent value of his books as literature, however, the effect was not wholly good. We, to whom the English poorhouses and debtors' prisons of seventy years ago are remote facts of history, are apt to get tired of the insistence of Dickens on their injustice; and their prominence in his view of life produces an effect of unreality. This is emphasized by his tendency to exaggeration in the treatment of character. In his drawing of humorous types, Dickens carried eccentricity to an extreme which sometimes prevents our believing in these people at all; in pathetic characters, he works on our emotions so cruelly that we are apt to rebel; in his villains, he depicts blackness that belies human nature. His taste for the theatre had its effect not only in the production of effective dramatic situations, but in the employment of melodrama, in which we are given powerful shocks by the sacrifices of probability and truth to human nature. And in his later works there is a tendency to use again and again tricks and devices for comic, pathetic, or dramatic effect which lose their power as the reader begins to recognize the method.

      Chief Merits. Yet too much stress should not be laid on these criticisms. The novels contain an amazing number of people vividly pictured and convincing enough to have become a part of our world; and few authors of any time have created such a vast panorama of enthralling incidents. The plots of his novels are apt to be exceedingly involved on account of the great number of characters and the intricate nature of their relations, and the plots themselves are often hard to recall; but they never cease to hold our interest while we read. In such a book as The Tale of Two Cities, the result of Dickens's reading of Carlyle's French Revolution, he shows that he can construct a well-built plot and avoid obscuring the main current of the action with a confusion of minor episodes.

      It is usual to begin Dickens with David Copperfield and the plan is a good one, since there is so much of the author himself in the book. With it, as examples of his power of pure story-telling and the creation of great number of entertaining people, should be placed Nicholas Nickleby Our Mutual Frieud, and Martin Chuzzlewit. Oliver Twist is a good example of his treatment of the criminal classes and his deliberate attempt to direct public attention to the redress of social injustice. The Pickwick Papers remains his greatest comic work; and his pathetic power is exhibited in The Old Curiosity Shop with its perhaps over emphasized but extremely touching figure of Little Nell, in the Christmas stories such as The Chiems, The Christmas Carol, and The Cricket on the Hearth, and in the earlier chapters of Dombey and Son. But so full and rich is the inheritance he has left us that it is difficult to stop in such an enumeration before one has exhausted the whole list of his writings.

      Conclusion. There could be no truer epitaph for Charles Dickens than the words Carlyle wrote on learning that the great novelist was dead:

"The good, the gentle, high-gifted, ever-friendly, noble Dickens every inch an honest man."

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