On Charles Dickens

I made offhand reference to this view in the comments to a post of Phoebe's on The Goldfinch, and occasionally make reference to the same on twitter, so it seemed worthwhile to flesh out the entire view that Charles Dickens Being the Primary Highbrow Literary Reference of Our Time Says Nothing Good About Our Time:

When I was making my first serious inroads into adult literature in high school--attempting to be systematic in my reading--I read a lot of literary theory. All the figures I read, regardless of where they sat on the major critical questions of the 1950s (I was reading at my school library, of course), agreed that Dickens was a novelist of the second rank. "Of second rank," for those unfamiliar with British-inflected critical discourse, means "basically unimportant, and producing nothing worth discussing at all." The argument for this position is simple: the 19th century was full of excellent authors and novelists, particularly in English, and was the century in which non-English novelists took the form to new heights. Dickens has to be judged against Flaubert's realism, Zola's political and economic interests, bravura scenes like the battle in The Charterhouse of Parma, Balzac's commitment to depicting every corner of his world (one of the few people who can out-volume Dickens, and with a more obvious masterwork--Lost Illusions--as well), Dostoevsky on religion and psychology, and Tolstoy's Tolstoy-ness. In English, he has to be set against Thomas Hardy's introduction of realism and Henry James' stylistic refinements. Even in the world of the plot-driven novel he has to compete against Jane Austen and George Eliot. And this is to say nothing of modernism, or any of the various changes of the 20th century.

On the level of detail, it's not hard to see why he comes up short. Dickens produced very few memorable lines, far fewer than any master stylist might, astonishingly few for the volume of his writing and its wide readership. Of course, authors like Dostoevsky were also terrible stylists, but could produce quite memorable scenes. Here again Dickens must be judged to be lacking: for the number of stories and their penetration into the collective unconscious, there are very few that are memorable in detail: people remember Miss Havisham, not any one particular scene she was in. So also Mr. Micawber, et al. The most common compliment paid to Dickens is to say he wrote 'memorable characters,' but this is another backhanded compliment: it's not very hard to write a memorable character or two even in the most hopeless of books; it can usually be managed even when the novel itself is mismanaged.

What Dickens has in abundance is dramatics, which in his case are melodramatics: the story must be written in such a way that the characters are thrown into peril or subjected to 'unexpected' twists, where one must neglect to notice the presence of the twist near the end of the relevant section of the text. Occasionally this works to great effect: David Copperfield has the lived-in quality of an autobiography precisely because its narrator can effectively pretend not to know where his own story is going, as he must have in experiencing it for the first time. At the worst, there's the Oscar Wilde line about The Old Curiosity Shop: "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

That is to say, the characteristic Dickensian effect is to lose the distinction between drama and melodrama, between those things that accurately reflect plausible dynamics in a story well-told, and those that are there because the novel needs another 100 pages and something has to happen between now and then, those artificial manipulations that slide easily into self-parody or camp. And to read or appreciate Dickens as a first-rank author, one has to neglect to notice this distinction oneself.

And so it is these days: one has to fill 13 episodes, or 22, or 90 (120, 150) minutes of a movie with something, and dramatic twists or fight scenes have to be spaced out.* But those twists have to land, so whatever happens in the meantime can't have too much effect on the story, and thus: backstory, expository dialogue, pointless 'philosophical' ramblings or playing with (obvious) symbolism or metaphors.

*Terminator is an excellent example of a movie with this problem--it's just three big fight scenes/chases--that resolves it by doing interesting and relatively cliché-free things with the downtime.

1 comment:

Phoebe said...

Interesting! My impression had just been, Dickens is Old and Important and thus society is divided between those who can learned-ly nod along when "Dickensian" is used, and those who can't.

Do you think there's more "Dickensian" going on than, I don't know, "Kafkaesque"?