Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On Charles Dickens's 200th Birthday

Well, I have some other blog posts slowly brewing in my "drafts" folder, but today's auspicious anniversary makes me feel the need to post immediately.

When I logged onto my home computer today, I noticed the artistic rendering of "Google." A quick scroll-over revealed that it was Charles Dickens's 200th birthday. It is an anniversary that will probably pass unremarked-upon by most. It may even elicit some grumbles from others. They remember struggling through Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities. They remember his long-winded prose and the foisting of it upon their young minds. These people who complain about Dickens are not limited to the illiterate or even to those whose artistic tastes have been numbed by so much reality television. Unfortunately, many of the people I know who will grumble today are English teachers.

Dickens is, for me, one of the greatest writers in history. He may be the greatest novelist in history. But for a few generations now he has gone unappreciated. Many high schools will limit their Dickens reading to one of the aforementioned novels, with "A Christmas Carol" thrown in on occasion. The sentences are long and the prose can be difficult. And we have, over time, slowly begun to shelve Dickens alongside other largely forgotten British and American authors such as James Fennimore Cooper or John Milton.

And we have lost something here. Dickens is a master of characterization. Sometimes his characters are largely stereotypes, some of them racist stereotypes (such as Oliver Twist's Fagin the Jew). But that may undersell them. They seem many times to almost be archetypal characters, characters that we recognize in our own lives. By way of example, I offer the first chapter of his Hard Times:

'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!'
The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker's obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, - nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, - all helped the emphasis.

'In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!'

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

Dickens offers us the imperious schoolteacher, the teacher who is willing to push his sole view of the world on his students uncompromisingly. He is a character that we all, even in the twenty-first century, recognize. And his singular view of the world, repeated over and over again in an almost fractal pattern in Dickens's prose, is that the only thing that matters in the world are facts. Not love, not honor, not interhuman relations. Just the facts, ma'am. And Dickens's closing metaphor, of the "little vessels" and the "imperial gallons" that are going to fill them, shows an excess and bombardment of these very facts that will end up warping a whole generation. 

He very intentionally batters us with the "emphasis" of this worldview. He shows us the metaphorical choking effect that living life solely by "facts" can have on a person. He forces the idea on the reader in much the same way that our instructor foists it upon his charges. 

Dickens also foreshadows the main action of the novel: the very warping that our archetypal instructor is inflicting upon his students has also been inflicted on his own children. And that warping is the central tragedy of the tale. And if you didn't get it through his very short first chapter, don't worry, the title of the second clues us in further. It is entitled "Murdering the Innocents."

Dickens is long-winded. Twenty-first century readers are used to "sound-bytes" and quick cuts in films. They are used to an immediacy that would have been completely alien to Dickens. But this prolix writing also allows for playfulness and for repetition. I see it as kind of like watching an old movie. The pacing is unfamiliar. It's off. It takes too long to get to a point. But there's a refinement and subtlety that this slow pacing allows that has been lost to current readers. 

So I greet his 200th birthday with mixed emotions. I am happy that Google still sees Dickens as worthy of its title page. But I also see the day when Dickens will be someone we have all but forgotten. His irony, his wit and his subtlety are slowly passing away. I won't condemn what comes to replace it. I certainly love the breakneck pacing of todays media and I am certainly a consumer of sound-bites. But I would prefer to see Dickens appreciated alongside our current media.

Of course, that's my heart speaking. The "facts" tell me otherwise.  

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