The number of children in America claiming subsidized meals in school has shot up; the homeless are increasing by the hour; the formerly prosperous are laid off without so much as a thank you; the young struggle to find any work at all; beggars are making a comeback on the streets of cities as if they had been hiding all these years, waiting for the right moment to emerge from their subterranean lairs into the world above.
The February bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, then, could hardly come at a more appropriate moment in economic history, for Dickens was the revealer, the scourge, the prose poet, of urban destitution—a destitution that, in our waking nightmares, we fear may yet return.
Dickens knew whereof he wrote. It was his habit to walk miles through the streets of London, and no man—except perhaps Henry Mayhew—was more observant than he. Often accused by his detractors of exaggerating reality, he claimed in the preface to Martin Chuzzlewit that he merely saw what others did not see, or chose not to see, and put it into plain words. What was caricature to some was to him no more than the unvarnished truth. He held up a mirror to his age.
The adjective “Dickensian” is more laden with connotation than the adjective that pertains to any other writer: Jamesian, for example, or Joycean, even Shakespearian. We think of workhouses, of shabby tenements with bedding of rags, of schools where sadistic and exploitative schoolmasters beat absurdities into the heads of hungry children, of heartless proponents of the cold charity, of crooked lawyers spinning out their cases in dusty, clerk-ridden chambers. We think of Oliver Twist asking for more, of Wackford Squeers exclaiming, “Here’s richness for you!”, as he tastes the thin slops his school doles out to his unfortunate pupils, of Mrs. Gamp looking at her patient and saying, “He’d make a lovely corpse!”
If he had been only a social commentator, though, Dickens would have been forgotten by all except specialist historians of his age. But he is not forgotten; he survives the notorious defects of his books—their sometimes grotesque sentimentality, their sprawling lack of construction, their frequent implausibility—to achieve whatever immortality literature can confer. Over and over again, in passage after passage, the sheer genius of his writing shines from the page and is the despair of all prose writers after him.
When Dickens called himself “the Inimitable,” he was speaking no more than the truth; he was the greatest comic writer in his, or perhaps in any other, language. And the comedy runs deep: it is not trivial, for while it depicts absurdity, pomposity, and even cruelty, it has the curious effect of reconciling us to life even as it lays human weaknesses out for our inspection.
Sairey Gamp, for example, the drunken, slatternly nurse in Martin Chuzzlewit, is as undesirable a creature as it is possible to be. Who would want to be nursed by her? She is, in effect, the exemplar of the need for the reform of an entire profession. Yet by a peculiar kind of alchemy Dickens makes us glad that there is a world in which a Mrs. Gamp can exist. A world without characters such as she would be the poorer for their absence.
When, gloriously, she says of the gin in the teapot, “Don’t ask me to take none, but put it on the chimbley piece, and let me put my lips to it when I feel so dispoged,” our hearts leap with an indefinable joy. The verbal genius of the simple replacement of the s in disposed by the g delights us. (Though no doubt Dickens would have told us that he actually had heard such a transposition rather than invented it, so that his genius was in noticing and remembering, not in inventing, which is a reproach to our own lack of observation.) The slattern’s ridiculous pretension to gentility and refinement, while maintaining her slovenliness, incites us to reflect upon our own pretensions—pretense being the permanent condition of mankind.
And while our love of Mrs. Gamp, tinged as it no doubt is by guilt that we can feel any affection for so disgraceful a being, does not prevent us from recognizing the obvious need for nursing to be placed on a more respectable footing, it also performs the function of restraining our wish for soulless perfection. A perfect world, or rather an attempted perfect world, in which there were no Dickensian characters would be a living hell.
I think this is what a student of English at the North Korean Foreign Languages Institute was driving at when he sidled up to me in Pyongyang and said, quickly and sotto voce (for unscripted communication with foreigners was dangerous for North Koreans), “Reading Shakespeare and Dickens is the greatest, the only, joy of my life.” I was, of course, in great admiration of the feat of his having learned English of such proficiency that he could appreciate the two authors while never having left his hermetic native hell and communicate his enthusiasm for them so elegantly. No doubt Dickens had been taught to him as a means of demonstrating the diabolical nature of capitalist society; but the lesson he had drawn from Dickens was quite otherwise, that Mrs. Gamp (for example), impoverished and degraded as she was, at least spoke in what was unmistakably her own voice and not that compelled by any political master. She was free as no North Korean was free.
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As we live in hard times, it is worth considering Dickens’s novel of that title, especially as political economy is one of its most important themes. Has this book, published more than a century and a half ago, anything to say to us about our present predicament, beyond young Tom Gradgrind’s exclamation, “For God’s sake, don’t talk about bankers”?
Dickens is often reproached for his absence of firm and unequivocal moral, political, and philosophical outlook. He veers crazily between the ferociously reactionary and the mushily liberal. He lampoons the disinterested philanthropy of Mrs. Jellyby (in Bleak House) with the same gusto or ferocity as he excoriates the egotism of Mr. Veneering (in Our Mutual Friend). He suggests that businessmen are heartless swine (Bounderby in Hard Times) or disinterestedly charitable (the Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby). He satirizes temperance (in The Pickwick Papers) as much as he derides drunkenness (in Martin Chuzzlewit). The evil Jew (in Oliver Twist) is matched by the saintly Jew (in Our Mutual Friend). As Stephen Blackpool, the working-class hero of Hard Times says, “it’s aw a muddle.”
George Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, saw in this philosophical and moral muddle not a weakness but a strength, a generosity of spirit, an openness to the irreducible complexity of mankind’s moral situation, an immunity to what he called “the smelly little orthodoxies that are now contending for our souls.” And indeed, the principal target of Hard Times is such an orthodoxy, namely a hard-nosed utilitarianism combined with an unbending liberalism. (Liberal in the economic, not cultural, sense.)
The principal bearers of the doctrine are Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby. Gradgrind is a teacher whose statement of pedagogical philosophy is surely one of the greatest opening passages of any novel ever written:
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!
By the end of the novel, Gradgrind has learned the insufficiency of facts for the conduct of human life, as he might have done merely by a little self-examination or reflection on the nature of moral and aesthetic judgment. It cannot be said that Gradgrind is a caricature, a character so exaggerated that he never did or could exist: passage after passage in Hard Times parallels almost exactly the account of John Stuart Mill’s education in his Autobiography, published 19 years after the novel. Furthermore, “the minds of reasoning animals” exactly captures the flavor of much recent scientistic writing about the human condition. Like hope in the human breast, scientism springs eternal in the human mind.
Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, the mill owner, claims to have come up in the world the hard way:
My mother left me to my grandmother, and, according to the best of my remembrance, my grandmother was the wickedest and the worst old woman that ever lived. If I got a little pair of shoes by any chance, she would take ’em off and sell ’em for drink… . She kept me in an egg-box. As soon as I was big enough to run away, of course I ran away. Then I became a young vagabond; and instead of one old woman knocking me about and starving me, everybody of all ages knocked me about and starved me.
This turns out to be quite untrue. In fact, his parents made sacrifices on his behalf, but the lie justifies his philosophy, that workers who ask for higher pay want turtle soup to be fed them from a golden spoon, that the slightest regulation of child labor will drive employers into bankruptcy and force them to abandon their factories, that the smoke belching from the mills not only cannot be reduced but is actually healthful for the lungs, that any form of collective action by the “hands” is the first stage of violent revolution, that any form of charity is the encouragement of idleness. In short: “What you couldn’t show to be purchasable in the cheapest market and salable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.”
Again, this is scarcely caricature. During the Irish famine, liberals like Charles Trevelyan—at the time to the left of the political spectrum—argued that to provide any form of relief to the starving was to encourage the very habits and practices, to say nothing of the overpopulation, that caused the famine in the first place. An abstract truth, as they believed it to be, overrode all considerations of humanity. True compassion consisted of letting events take their course.
One might have supposed, then, that Dickens would be much in favor of the unions; but in fact his depiction of the union leader, Slackbridge, in Hard Times is very unfavorable. He realized that demagogic leaders were perfectly capable of ensnaring good men en masse:
Slackbridge was not so honest, he was not so manly, he was not so good-humored [as his audience]; he substituted cunning for their simplicity, and passion for their safe solid sense… . Strange as it always is to consider any assembly in submissively resigning itself to the dreariness of any complacent person … it was even particularly affecting to see this crowd of honest faces, whose honesty in the main no competent observer free from bias could possibly doubt, agitated by such a leader.
Under the impact of today’s economic crisis, the shrillness of opposing camps, of diagnosers, prognosticators, and curers, has increased. Even the same financial page of the same newspaper may have articles proposing diametrically opposed solutions, the only thing in common between them being the certainty with which they are offered. Each has a single simple principle, Gradgrindian or not, that is the supposed key to happiness, prosperity, economic growth. But now more than ever it is necessary to suppress our inherent tendency to seek the key to all questions, and reading Dickens may help us to do it.
Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.