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About Charles Dickens

 


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   Charles Dickens lived during a time of great social change in Europe. Having published novels during the late 19th century, the subject of his writing typically focused on class structure, poverty, and treatment of the especially underprivileged. Dickens was particularly interested in the years  immediately preceding...and leading up to his own adulthood. Between the 1770s and the 1840s, England underwent a sweeping transformation from a sleepy agrarian society to an intensely industrial one. For the first time, the English merchant was able to acquire wealth and power, the likes of which had previously only been available to the noble. However, the flip side of this situation was that England acquired a new class of poor people -- ones that were even poorer than their predecessors. The fate of the new poor is described unflinchingly in Charles Dickensí shortest novel, Hard Times.

   In similar theme comes the novel "Great Expectations" which is both an absorbing mystery as well as a morality tale. It centers around the story of "Pip" (Philip Pirrip), a poor village boy, and his expectations of wealth. First published serially in 1860-61, it was released as a book in 1861. "Great Expectations" was certainly one of its author's greatest critical and popular successes. The story is told as a first person narrative with Pip explaining his life and times. Raised by his unpleasant older sister and her husband, the first evidence of friendship in the book is the relationship between Pip and his brother-in-law, Joe Gargery. However, the reader learns in Chapter Two how Pip views their relationship: "Has she been gone long, Joe?' I always treated him as a larger species of child, and as no more than my equal."

  Dickens' depictions of poverty were often quite profound. Indeed, every society has had its poor, and the poor never live as well as the rich. But there is a difference between, say, a teenaged girl like A Christmas Carolís Martha Cratchit who worked as a maidservant for a wealthier family, and the grimly hardscrabble existence of Dickens' Oliver Twist. Oliver was literally worked to the bone, and he was literally starved -- deliberately so. Dickens, always ready to serve as commentator, observes that "I wish some well-fed philosopher, whose blood is ice, whose heart is iron; could have seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands the dog had neglected. I wish he could have witnessed the horrible avidity with which Oliver tore the bits asunder with all the ferocity of famine" (Twist 53).

   What is remarkable about Dickensí portrayal of Oliver (one of literature's most famous orphans), however, is not the inhumanity with which nineteenth-century society treated its poor, but the complexity of the relationships of the people trapped within its system. Dickens never allows his characters to be mere cardboard representations of moral attributes, but paints them as fully-fleshed individuals reacting, for better or worse, to the conflicting demands of society and conscience. 

  What can we learn from Dickens? The most enduring legacy of the Industrial Revolution -- a legacy just as tenacious in our own day as it was in Dickensí-- is the complacent belief that the poor are completely responsible for their own situation, and that if they had any spunk, ambition, or brains, they would be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get out of this mess. This is, obviously, a middle class perception unshared by anyone who has ever been poor. In our day, just as in Dickensí, the violent cleavage between classes renders the poor almost subhuman in societyís eyes. Dickens did a tremendous job of combating this smug assumption in Hard Times, but we need to reinforce messages such as his with compassion toward those less fortunate than ourselves...

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