The Art of Charles Dickens as a novelist

According to David Cecil, Dickens is “the most representative of Victorian novelists. Some will contend that he is also the greatest. No doubt he lacks the profundity of George Eliot, the consuming passion of the Bronte sisters, and the peculiar eclat of Thackeray, yet he surpasses them all in his basic humanity, a childlike naivete, and an amazingly fecund imagination.

These qualities place him among the foremost of all English novelists. Dickens achieved in his lifetime wide popularity among all sections of readers. Cambell, the famous Lord Chief Justice, remarked that he would have been prouder of having written Pickwick Papers than of all the honours he had earned at the Bar. Dickens’ popularity overstepped the frontiers of his country and spread in most countries of Europe, as also across the Atlantic. While he was in America, he received a hero’s welcome everywhere. Children festooned him as if some sort of Santa Claus had come. Even in Russia Dickens found a wonderful response. And when he died, an Italian newspaper bore very characteristically for its headline the news: “Our Charles Dickens is dead.” Indeed, Dickens was not of his country alone but of all he world. He will be read as long as books are read. This “forecast” is based on the fact that up to today, about a century and a quarter after his death (1870), there has been no time when his popularity suffered any noticeable decline, whereas all these years too many literary reputations have been made and marred.

Dickens and Social Reform:
It must be understood at the very outset that Dickens’ art is art with a purpose. In the Victorian age even poetry-perhaps the most “aesthetic” department of literature-was approached by many writers as handmaiden of social reform. Tennyson’s is atypical case. The Pre-Raphaelites and some others, no doubt, did not let their Muse soil her wings by allowing her to fly too close to the earth. But the Pre-Raphaelites were not typical Victorians. They represented a revolt rather than a tradition. Dickens did not shut himself up in an ivory tower of such a kind as “aesthetic culture” or “Gothicism.” In his novels he strikes from first to last a loud and clear note of humanitarianism. which is the most attractive note in the Dickensian orchestra. He can be called one of the greatest social reformers of his time. That he works in earnest is unquestionable-but he does not let himself fly into tantrums or slide into the quagmire of cynicism of which the work of such social reformers as Ruskin is not altogether innocent. Many a novel of Dickens seems to have been built around a particular social theme. For instance, Bleak House attacks “the law’s delays”; Nicholas Nickleby, the abuses of charity schools and the sadism of school-masters; Hard Times, the pet concepts of the then current “political economy” which was also attacked by Ruskin and Carlyle; Little Dornit, the inhumanities to which poor debtors are often subjected; and so forth. But above all such social criticism is the basic lesson of humanness and charity which almost all Dickens’ novels teach implicitly or explicitly. And then there is the most ebullient, convivial optimism of Dickens, which, even though-rrof altogether acceptable as the last word on the philosophical exploration of life and the universe is yet acceptable for its basic good humour and throbbing humanity. An opinion runs : “Despite its many evils—the Hardness of heart and-the selfishness of those in high places-the greed and hypocrisy which were so prevalent-the wicked class prejudices which divided man from man-the world was still for Dickens a very good  world to live in.” Nowhere does Dickens say that “all is right with the world,” but nowhere does he say either that “al 1 is wrong with the world.” He is a realist no less than an optimist.
The fertility of Dickens’ creative imagination is simply amazing. His first novel, Pickwick Papers, had a swarming mass of finely delineated characters, and he kept up the pace of supply for all the subsequent novels. One very peculiar feature of Dickens’ work as a novelist is that his novels, when joined together, create a world of their own, somewhat different no doubt from our world and even the real world of his own day but none-the-less akin to both in many ways. We cannot exactly talk of the world of Thackeray’s or George Eliot’s novels, but we can talk of the world of Dickens’ novels which has very recognizable contours and peculiarities and which is full of characters whom we know better than even bur aunts and uncles. Take any character from Dickens. He seems every inch a denizen of Dickens’ world. We generally find it difficult to recall to which novel he belongs, but we do not find it difficult to say to which world he belongs. Asa painter of the life ofhis day Dickens works on a very crowded canvas, and very often he uses colours which are too blazing to be compatible with reality. This brings us to the oft-repeated charge that he gives not characters but caricatures. There is some substance in the charge. But all his characters are not caricatures. After Compton-Rickett we can divide Dickens’ characters into various groups as shown below:

Dickens’s   Characters
(1) The normal                                                                      (2) The abnormal
(i) Satirical portraits              (ii) The grotesques                (iii) The villains
                                          (drawn for a special purpose)
The abnormal characters do not embody “normal” reality, but they are not essentially unrealistic. It is curious that Dickens succeeds better with the abnormal than with the normal characters. Normality does not attract him on account of being dull and “ordinary.”
Dickens is more successful with characters drawn from the middle and lower classes of his society. As a child and young man he had seen and even experienced the life of these classes. It was in his blood even after he had become a high-hat with his thumping success in the field of fiction. He is much less successful with the bigwigs and aristocracy. There ate some set types which make their appearance much too often in Dickens’ novels. Some of them, according to a critic, are:
(i)         “the innocent little child, like Oliver, Joe, Paul, Tiny Tim, and little Nell, appealing powerfully to the child love in every human heart”;
(ii)        “the horrible or grotesque foil, like Squeer, Fagin, Quilp, Uriah Heep, and Bill Sykes”;
(iii)       “the grandiloquent or broadly humorous fellow, the fun master, like Micawber and Sam Walter”;          
(iv)       “and fourth, a tenderly or powerfully drawn figure like Lady Dedlock of Bleak House, and Sydney Carton of A Tale of Two Cities, which rise to the dignity of true characters.”
Applying E. M. Forster’s distinction between “flat” and “round” characters to the characters of Dickens’ novels, we find that almost all of them are flat, not round. A Dickens character is usually built, like a Jonsonian “humour,” around a single quality, and is incapable of surprising us in a convincing way. Dickens’ characters do not “develop,” and they do not surprise. But in spite of their lack of development and their numerous oddities, they are “living” beings, being the effusions of a tremendously vital imagination.
On the strictly structural side of his art, Dickens can boast only of modest success. Several of his novels mock the very ideal of structure, or even any other principle of pattern. It was only in his latest novels-Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and Our Mutual Friend-thai he was able to offer somewhat coherent plots. For the rest, they all exhibit a gross neglect of all architectonic principles. For one thing, he is always more interested in individual episodes and individual characters than in the job of integrating them into a well-proportioned pattern. Many characters—and, some of them, most interesting-serve no structural function; but they are there all the same, and we too wish them to be there in spite of their egregious structural irrelevance. Among such characters may be mentioned Mrs. Gamp, Mr. Micawber, Mr. Crummels, and Flora Pinching. As a novelist, Dickens is a traditionalist, as he accepts the formal pattern of the novel handed over to him by Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett-his love from childhood. Some of his novels depict the career of the hero from his infancy till manhood. This naturally involves him in the handling of a mass of vicissitudes as variegated as life itself. To impose even a passable unity on the sprawling episodes representing these vicissitudes is definitely beyond him.
One of the very important reasons for the weakness of the structural unity of Dickens’ novels is to be sought in the mode of their original publication: they were published serially in newspapers. Now, the serial mode of publication asks for a particular kind of discipline on the part of the author, but it is also excessively detrimental to the structural pattern of the novels so published. From month to month or week to week or fortnight to fortnight (as the case may be) the author goes on and on without having a clear idea as to what he is heading for. He receives letters from fans asking him to give this or that turn to the events-to kill a character, to make someone rich or poor, to arrange a marriage, and so on. And he obliges some. In every instalment there has to be some “kick.” Between one instalment and the next, organic development naturally suffers, because the author sends one instalment and goes about whistling till the time for the next compels him to take pen in hand once again. It is natural, therefore, for Dickens’ novels to be ill-constructed. “Very often”, observes David Cecil, “he leaves a great many threads loose till the last chapter; and then finds there is not enough tie them up neatly. The main strands are knotted roughly together the minor wisps are left hanging forlornly.”
But we readily excuse Dickens architectonic deficiency the moment we take congnizance of his humour. Humour is the very soul of his work. It presents his novels from becoming tiresome and itself is not tiresome. He is never a bore, as Thackeray is sometimes, and George Eliot not unoften. Dickens’ humour arises from a deep human sympathy and is ever fresh and refreshing. It is customary to compare him with such great humorists before him as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Fielding. Sometimes his humour is corrective and satiric-but it always has the quality of geniality, charity, and tolerance. Humour with him is not only an occasional mood but a consistent point of view, and even a “philosophy of life.” His comic fertility is indeed amazing. We have above referred to Dickens “world.” This world is peopled by a vast number of humorous characters. Dickens is at his best in what is called the humour of character. We meet with few Falstaffs in his novels, but his “comic fecundity” is greater than Shakespeare’s.
It must be admitted that Dickens’ humour is not very subtle. As a humorist he does not rise to the subtlety even of Fielding and Thackeray. Fielding was often as coarse and farcical as Dickens-and sometimes even surpassed him; however, that profundity of sustained ironical attitude which we find in his Jonathan Wilde lies obviously beyond the capability of Dickens. Dickens’ humour is superficial rather than profound. Very often it is of the nature of full-blooded farce or caricature. In most of his characters we find a persistent reiteration of one particular note which becomes comic simply because of the number of times it is flaunted for our attention-very like the comic snatch of a circus buffoon, which is greeted with uproarious laughter when it comes after, say, the third time. Mr. Micawber always waiting for something to “turn up”, Barkis who is always “willing”, Mrs. Gummidge always complaining that things are going contrary with her-all are abundantly comic figures; but they lack any subtle or profound touch.
But in one way, at least, Dickens’ humour rises above being a flashy, superficial affair, and that is its prorximity to pathos. Like Lamb’s, Dickens’ laughter is never far from tears. He makes us smile sometimes through our tears. It will be unfair to say that he is entirely superficial, even though splendidly superficial, and ignorant of the tragic facets of life. Life he views as a tragi-comedy, and if he laughs and laughs, he does so not because he is unaware of the tragic part of it, but because his attitude is “healthy” and untainted by morbidity. In such novels as Hard Times he manifests a surprisingly profound nowledge of and concern for some fundamental problems of the machine age which his England had begun to take congnizance of. And his treatment of these problems is far from frivolous.
Dickens was as considerably influenced by Goldsmith and Steme as by Fielding and Smollet. Sterne’s sentimentalism and rather hypersensitive human sympathy as also Goldsmith’s fundamental sweetness and fellow-feeling often make themselves felt in Dickens’ work. The earliest attempt made by Dickens at the delineation of the pathetic is to be found in his very first novel Pickwick Papers-the death of the Chancery prisoners. He is wonderfully successful in delineating the pathos of child life. As a child, he himself had suffered much, and his accounts of such life are always redolent of his personal experiences. Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and many more novels are rich in pathetic accounts of the lives of their heroes in childhood. What is more, pathos in them mingles and merges with humour, creating very peculiar effects.
Autobiographic Touches:
A peculiar feature of Dickens’ art as novelist is his tendency to be autobiographic. He constantly draws upon his own experience, and the sympathies and antipathies which we find so persistenly manifested by him in his work very often have their origin in the years of his adolescence. Many of his novels are the records of his own life-though modified by subjection to the canons of art. Thus David Copperfield is, in essentials, Dickens’ autobiography. Oliver Twist uses a lot of material supplied by his own experience of the low life of London in his tender years. In Bleak House he draws substantially upon his early knowledge of law courts and legal affairs. He recollects his school days in Nicholas Nickleby. And so forth.
In spite of the formidable number of flaws and limitations from which Dickens’ art as a novelist suffers, he is a great novelist. His humour, basic human sympathy, and his rich, vitalising imagination are his basic assets, even though he is deficient in the architectural skill as well as other formal and “technical” qualifications as a novelist. He may be coarse and superficial, but we must remember that he is never a bore. And when that is said, much is!

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