Charles Dickens Art of Characterization

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Dr. Johnson: ‘Greatest Character Monger’

      Though Fanny Burney is referred by Dr. Johnson as the ‘greatest character monger’ yet if this phrase is really apt for someone after William Shakespeare it is Dickens. There is almost an inexhaustible list of memorable characters formed by the novels of Dickens — Pickwick, Fagin, Sikes, Bumble, Micawber, Betsy Trotwood, Pecksniff Mrs. Gamb, Mark Tapley Peggoty Uriah Heep, Pumblechook, Wemmick, Jaggers etc. Such a great world was created by Dickens. He really deserves reverence for creating such bulk of characters. Perhaps, most of the novelists would feel exhausted even to create half a dozen of these characters. But with Dickens it is very effortless and spontaneous. It is really astonishing to see the immense variety vividness and magnitude of the world of Dickens.

The Various Categories of Dickens’ Character

      Broadly we can categorize most of the characters of Dickens’ novels into three or four to which they belong. To start, Dickens has created several innocent little children like Oliver, Joe, Paul, Little Nell and Tiny Tim. Every human heart has been appealed by these sweet characters. Then comes the callous, horrifying, and disgusting characters like Fagin, Sikes, Uriah Heep etc. There is a series of humorous characters also like Micawber, Sam Weller and last but not least comes the category of those characters who are powerfully drawn, like Lady Dedlock, Sydney Carton who are risen to the dignity of real characters.

Idiosyncratic Characters

      Dickens is most famous for his eccentric characters. These characters are—Mr. Micawber, Miss Betsey Trotwood. Among all the categories eccentric characters bear the real stamp of Dickens. They are all great, or they are entirely fools. You may say they are all great fools, but whatever, they can be called better than so-called wise. G.K. Chesterton has admirably commented on them: “The key of the great characters of Dickens is that they are all great fools. There is the same difference between a great fool and a small fool as there is between a great poet and a small poet. The great fool is a being who is above wisdom rather than below it. A man carl be entirely great while he is entirely foolish. We see this in the epic heroes, such as Achilles. Nay a man can be entirely great because he is. entirely foolish. We see this in all the great comic characters of all great comic writers of whom Dickens was the last. Bottom the Weaver is great because he is foolish; Mr. Toots is great because he is foolish. The thing I mean can be observed, for instance, in innumerable actual characters. Which of us has not known, for instance, a great rustic? — a character so incurably characteristic that he seemed to break through all cannons about cleverness or stupidity; we do not know whether he is an enormous idiot or an enormous philosopher; we know only that he is enormous, like a hill. These great, grotesque characters are almost entirely to be found where Dickens found them among the poorer classes. The gentry only attain this greatness by going slightly mad.”

Depiction of Physical Appearance

      Many of Dickens’ character seem alive and seen by us. It is just because they are faithfully depicted from outside also. Dickens had keen eyes that instantly caught even the trivial and insignificant activities or gestures which lay them their individuality. This makes the reader see them in words. For instance the description of Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist: “He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age, with, rather bow-legs, and little, sharp ugly eyes. His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall every moment—and would have done so, very often, if the wearer had never had a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again. He wore a man’s coat, which reached nearly to his heels.”

      Another remarkable example is of Mr. Grimwig, “Mr. Grimwig had a manner of screwing his head on one side when he spoke; and of looking out of the corners of his eyes at the same time which irresistible reminded the beholder of a parrot.”

Stamping the Characters

      In order to lay the individuality to his characters Dickens gives them stamps or tags. Sometime it is given on external details like Artful Dodger always wears a man’s coat which reaches nearly to his heels or Uriah Heep has virtually no eyelashes, no eyebrows etc. But in few cases these tags are given to the speeches of the characters: Fagin has the. habit of addressing everybody as ‘my dear’, the typical phrase of Mr. Griming, “I shall eat my head”, or at all odd moments Mr. Micawber keeps on stating, “I will never desert Mr. Micawber.”

Role of Speech Peculiarity in Characterization

      Dickens depicts the peculiar style of speech of his characters through consummate skill. He observes the favorite phrases the characters repeat, the themes which are indispensable to them wit or stupidity, certain turns of speech to which they are habitual, and describes these peculiarities with due attention in order to make his characters real and alive. Just observe the manner Jack Dawkins addresses Oliver in his first meeting, “Hello, my covey! What’s the row?” We have not to strain our mind to know whether Fagin is speaking or Sikes but the style of their speech enables us to distinguish.

Characters are less Psychologically Analysed

      Dickens’ method of drawing characters is of exultant exhibition. He did not pay much attention to analyzing characters psychologically He creates a memorable, ineradicable and sharp image of a character with powerful impression of richness beneath. First, he makes us feel the beauty of ugliness of character, thereafter he analyses their mind or thoughts. The genuineness of Fagin, Bumble, Sikes, Artful Dodger, Noah and Bates is undoubtedly vivid. Likewise elaborate are the characters Peggoty and Hain, Agnes and Dora, Micawber and Betsey Trotwood etc. So sharp image is of Sydney Carton that no other analysis can present him better. Thus if there is no psychoanalysis of characters in Dickens’ novel they are not incomplete or vague to understand.

The Melodramatic Intensity and Humour of Dickens’ Characters

      Humour is the essence of Dickens’ novels. In the absence of humor, melodramatic intensity pervades his novels. Micawber and Betsy Tratwood are everlasting because of humor. But Sikes and Fagin are good examples of melodramatic intensity. The good characters of Oliver Twist like Mr. Brownlow, Mrs. Maylie, Rose, fail to be real characters. They seem puppets or without life. They become unsuccessful to be particular individuals or a real figure.

Major Characters are Representatives

      It is a great feature of Dickens’ characterization that his characters, besides being an individual, represent something. Few characters are like the characters of Ben Jonson governed by senses of humor, but their senses of humor their traits have been universalized. In this reference Lord David Cecil remarks: “Thus Pecksniff is not only Mr. Pecksniff, but he is also the type of all hypocrites. Jelyby is not only Mrs. Jelyby, she is also the type of all professional philanthropists; Mr. Sergeant Buzfuz is not only Mr. Sergeant Buzfuz, he is the type of all legal advocates. Like the writers of the old moralities, Dickens peoples his stage with virtues and vices, and like them he does it gaily; presenting them as no frigid abstractions, but as clowns and zanies thwacking their bladders, exuberant in Motley and Bell.”

Characters from Low and Middle Class

      The most successful and famous characters of Dickens are being the lower middle classes of society. Dickens had the deep knowledge of this class and thus very confidently and skillfully he depicts them. He also had tried his hand to portray characters from upper-class aristocratic society but his success was comparatively little and less worthy to glorify In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham appears to be theatrical rather than actual. Dickens did not have that Shakespearian imagination which had triumphantly presented Kings, Lords, Knights and nobles without even being personally associated with them. Hugh Walker has criticized Dickens on this point: “Society he did not know at all, and above the rank of the lower middle class his knowledge grew more and more scanty The assertion that he could not delineate a gentleman in the conventional sense of the word is substantially true.

Weak and Artificial Female Characters

      Indeed Dickens is ‘Capital at a baby’ but his female characters are commonly viewed as feeble and artificial. Those women who are eccentric somehow convince us, for example Miss Betsey Tratwood and Madame Defarge. But normal female characters fail to convince women who are in love and are portrayed with little knowledge of sex life. But Dickens seems a failure in front of the Juliet, Magie Tulliver, Tess.

Dickens’ Flat Characters

      E.M. Forster regards Dickens’ characters as flat; “In their purest forms, they are constructed round a single idea or quality; when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round.”

      For Forster the ‘humourous’ characters of seventeenth century are flat characters. They may be also said caricatures or types. Forster says that really flat character can be interpreted in single sentence such as ‘I will never desert Mr. Micawber’ There is Mrs. Micawber—she tells that she would not leave Mr. Micawber, she does not, and there she is. Forster has pointed out some of the benefits of flat character. He says that they are easily recognized when they enter and easily remembered by the reader thereafter. But Forster does not regard these characters as great. He does allow them a little importance and some place in literature. “The case of Dickens is significant. Dickens’s people are neatly all flat (Pip and David Copperfield attempt roundness, but so diffidently that they seem more like bubbles than solids). Nearly everyone can be summed up in a sentence and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth. Probably the immense vitality of Dickens causes his characters to vibrate a little, so that they borrow his life and appear to lead one of their own. It is a conjuring trick; at any moment we may look at Mr. Pickwick edgeways and find him no thicker than a gramophone record. But we never get the sideway view. Mr. Pickwick is far too adroit and well trained. He always has the air of weighing something, and when he is put into the cupboard of the young ladies’ school he seems as heavy as Falstaff in the buck-basket at Windsor. Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognize the instant they re-enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow. Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad. He is actually one of our big writers, and his immense success with types suggests that may be more in flatness than the severe critics admit.”

      Robert Liddel has also some relevance when he says that ‘almost every successful comic character is flat’. We do not anticipate a comic figure to put on three-dimensionality. When he attempts it and avoids his stock phrase and utters something quite different, we feel hopeless. But Dickens is unparalleled in creating these unchangeable comic characters in fiction. A character like Mr. Bumble has to be ‘flat’ because only by being a straight character does he fulfill the purpose of Dickens—criticism of society. Mr. Bumble’s inefficiency and indolence to the feeling of responsibility interests Dickens in his portraiture. Thus Mr. Bumble is not just a human being but representative of the particular social institution which is too selfish and disregards the needs of poor and wretched people.

Characters are Caricatured

      Most of the critics say that Dickens has caricatured his characters. Somer set Maugham in his book The Novels and Their Authors remarks, “Dickens’ genial method of creating character was to exaggerate the traits, peculiarities, foibles of his models and to put into the mouth of each one some phrase, or string of phrases, which stamped his quintessence on the reader’s mind.” Of course Dickens’ characters can be called the caricatures of people he had met but who attracted him through scorn and dislike, not through love.

      It would be probably more appropriate to say that Dickens did not caricature but exaggerate. A caricature may be called as a grotesque portrayal of a character by laying much stress on characteristic traits. A caricaturist can draw a person’s nose like a bamboo but Dickens never attempts this. He has not changed the proportion. He can show a mouse in monkey’s stature but with sure impression that you’re looking at a little magnified mouse. We can say that his imagination works best on grotesques and he exaggerates them. It is very difficult to understand Dickens’ characters for those readers who do not see anything comic or strikingly different habit in other men’s behavior or physical appearance. Santayana says in his fine essay on Dickens entitles Soliloquies in England: "When people say Dickens exaggerates, it seems to me they can have no eyes and no ears. They probably have only notions of what things and people are; they accept them conventionally at their diplomatic value. Their minds run on in the region of discourse, where there are masks only, and no faces; ideas and no facts; they have little sense for those living grimaces that play from moment to moment on the countenance of the world.”

Certain Restraints

      Lord David Cecil will have pointed out few more limitations of Dickens’ art of characterization. “Dickens often fails over his characters. His serious characters, with a few brilliant exceptions like David Copperfield, are the conventional virtuous and vicious dummies of melodrama. He cannot draw complex, educated or aristocratic types. And, what is more unfortunate, even in his memorable figures he shows sometimes an uncertain grasp of psychological essentials. He realizes personality with unparalleled vividness; but he does not understand the organic principles that underlie that personality. So he can never be depended upon, not to make someone act out of character. Mr. Montague Tigg, that harmless good companion, turns without a world of warning into a sinister conspirator: Mr. Micawber, king of congenitally inefficient optimists, is transformed by a wave of Dickens’s wand into a competent colonial magistrate.”

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