Friday, June 1, 2007

Book Review: Dickens - Writer With A Mission

I've begun Bleak House, actually I'm about half-way through, as the first book of my Summer Reading Challenge. I'm sort of re-reading it - I had to read it in an undergraduate course called Dickens and Dostoyevsky in which we had so much assigned - The Opium Eaters, Oliver Twist, Anna Karenina, Dostoyevsky's short stories, Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment AND Bleak House - that something had to go. I read half of Bleak House, which I couldn't stand at the time, and asked my friend Pam to tell me the rest of the story. If I recall right, I did at least as well as she on the final and she wasn't too happy about that. I think I'm just at the point of the story where I'm not re-reading anymore.

Now that it isn't an assignment, I am loving it! I'm struck by three things in Dickens' writing. Well more than three, but I’ll write about three:
1) He writes from passion. This man is driven by mission - he sees injustice and hypocrisy in the world and he writes about it. I can't think of a better reason to write. But he doesn't lecture us at all, he writes a great story so that we actual want to read on and find out what happens. I'm finding this one a page-turner.

“This boy,” says the constable, “although he’s repeatedly told to, won’t move on-”

“I’m always a moving on, sir,” cries the boy, wiping away his grimy tears with his arm. “I’ve always been a moving and a moving on, every since I was born. Where can I possible move to, sir, more nor I do move!”

“He won’t move on,” says the constable, calmly, with a slight professional hitch of his neck involving its better settlement in his stiff stock, “although he has been repeatedly cautioned, and therefore I am obliged to take him into custody. He’s as obstinate a young gonoph as I know. He WON’T move on.”

“O my eye! Where can I move to!” cries the boy, clutching quite desperately at his hair, and beating his bare feet upon the floor of Mr. Snagsby’s passage.

“Don’t you come none of that, or I shall make blessed short work of you!” says the constable, giving him a passionless shake. “My instructions are, that you are to move on. I have told you so five hundred times.”

“But where?” cries the boy.

“Well! Really, constable, you know,” says Mr. Snagsby wistfully, and coughing behind his hand his cough of great perplexity and doubt; “really, that does seem a question. Where, you know?”

“My instructions don’t go to that,” replies the constab le. “My instructions are that this boy is to move on.”

Do you hear, Jo? It is nothing to you or to any one else, that the great lights of the parliamentary sky have failed for some few years, in this business, to set you the example of moving on. The one grand recipe remains for you – the profound philosophical prescription – the be-all and the end-all of your strange existence upon earth. Move on! You are by no means to move off, Jo, for the great lights can’t at all agree about that. Move on!


Social criticism and humor and pathos are all wrapped up together in this one little scene. It sounds like bureaucracy hasn’t changed in 150 years.

2) The psychology of the characters and the story telling are complex and completely modern. I know some site Dickens as the ultimate caricaturist, but I think his best characters are boldly drawn but stop just short of caricatures, you really get them and can laugh out loud at their behavior.

Mr. Snagsby is sure he is being used by an influential lawyer, yet he can’t quite put his finger on how. His behavior becomes distracted. His wife, seeing her husband distracted is sure that her husband is keeping something from her:


To know that he is always keeping a secret from her; that he has, under all circumstances, to conceal and hold fast a tender double-tooth, which her sharpness is ever ready to twist out of his head; gives Mr. Snagsby, in her dentistical presence, much of the air of a dog who has a reservation from his mater, and will look anywhere rather than meet his eye.

Isn’t that marvelous – ‘dentistical!’ Mrs. Snagsby begins to go through her husband’s pockets, his letters, his safe, putting together a completely false story:

Mrs. Snagsby screws a watchful glance on Jo, as he is brought into the little drawing-room by Guster. He looks at Mr. Snagsby the moment he come in. Aha! Why does he look at Mr. Snagsby? Mr. Snagsby looks at him. Why should he do that, but that Mrs. Snagsby sees it all? Why else should that look pass between them; why else should Mr. Snagsby be confused, and cough a signal cough behind his hand? It is as clear as crystal that Mr. Snagsby is that boy’s father.

It proceeds from her husband being distracted to his having a secret, out-of-wedlock child, which bespeaks volumes on her character. What would a modern couples’ therapist say about this!

Sometime the character insights are profound. Richard is around 19 years-old. He has been made party of an interminable case stuck in the Court of Chancery for years and years that is at the center of this novel, because he is a descendent of one of the original plaintiffs. Knowing he will one day have money, he tries medicine, the law, and the army – beginning each with enthusiasm – knowing it will be the answer - but each one fails to live up to his expectations and he quits. His happy-go-lucky façade combined with his inability to “settle down” causes Jardynce and Esther much worry. Their heart-to-heart chats about this young man, whom they both love deeply, read like contemporary pillow-chat of 21st century parents.

It’s another modern touch that this novel presents the story not in one voice, but in two – a personable, omniscient narrator gives us a third-person view on much of the story – on London, on a tremendous number of characters who, by the half-way point in the book, are being brought closer and closer together. This tends to be the more humorous voice. But we learn most about the core of central characters – Esther, Ada, Richard, and their guardian – the wonderful Mr. Jarndyce, through Esther’s first-person account. Two completely different tones pervade the story and alternate nicely, creating contrasting rhythms, points of view and suspense – since you're wondering what’s happening in the one world after you’ve been in the other for a while.

3) Now, I mean this in a good way, by this novel reminds me of nothing so much as serialized television. It is driven by plot – i.e. you want to know what will happen next, it’s characters are oversized, it comments on the issues of the day – the corrupt Court of Chancery, the immense inequity of the way those with and without live their lives, and it’s massively entertaining. His books are assigned in school now and Dickens has achieved the ranking of “classic,” but really these are popular entertainment, and the parallels with our own day in every realm – from social injustice to the hypocrisy of human behavior – are striking.


I am just loving this book.

12 comments:

Prabal Aggarwal said...

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June 1, 2007 7:20 AM

Dewey said...

I love Dickens in general. Isn't it amazing how much more we can enjoy something when it's not associated with a deadline or a grade?

Ted said...

Yes, Dewey - so SO true! I watched my partner's two-year-old nephew last weekend want not the bread on his plate, but the bread on your plate - which must be better! Kind of like the books you picked for me vs the books I've chosen myself - I guess we never change.

sheila said...

I'm going to be reading Bleak House this summer - I've never read it! I love Dickens. Ted - have you ever read Orwell's enormous essay about Dickens? OhmyGOD - it's sooo good. He's honest about what he loves, doesn't love - and some of his observations are so spot on it's almost scary. I can get you a copy next time I see you if you haven't read it. Fantastic.

Ted said...

I haven't read that essay, Sheila. And I've read a lot about what great things Orwell says on Andrew Sullivan's Inc. Absolutely - bring it on when we get together. I'll wedge it in between Autism and the Summer Reading Challenge!

sheila said...

Quote from Orwell's essay - which is actually a mini-book - I think it's over 100 pages long - but anyway, here's an excerpt:

No one, at any rate no English writer, has written better about childhood than Dickens. In spite of all the knowledge that has accumulated since, in spite of the fact that children are now comparatively sanely treated, no novelist has shown the same power of entering into the child's point of view. I must have been about nine years old when I first read David Copperfield. The mental atmosphere of the opening chapters was so immediately intelligible to me that I vaguely imagined they had been written by a child. And yet when one re-reads the book as an adult and sees the Murdstones, for instance, dwindle from gigantic figures of doom into semi-comic monsters, these passages lose nothing. Dickens has been able to stand both inside and outside the child's mind, in such a way that the same scene can be wild burlesque or sinister reality, according to the age at which one reads it.

Ted said...

That is fantastic - I feel like I've read some excerpts, but never the whole thing.

Imani said...

That was one thing puzzled me about English uni courses after I tried the first -- so many books are assigned in a semester that I could not fathom how I could complete such courses successfully.

I haven't read any Dickens for a long time, since I was a teenager. You've made me want to read more of him.

Literary Feline said...

My only experience with Dickens is having read Oliver Twist many moons ago. Oh, I loved that story--even thought my high school teacher at the time felt it was one of his weaker novels. I would like to read more my Dickens and recently came across an anthology of some of his work.

Wonderful post, by the way. You have me convinced I need to explore Dickens, especially Bleak House more.

Ted said...

Hi Lit Feline
Well, Oliver is a real romance. I loved Dombey & Son and also The Old Curiosity shop. They're also easy to read when you have other things to do because each chapter is a little episode unto itself and the chapter heading will remind you what happened last if you had to skip a few days.

Campaspe said...

I enjoyed this (came here via Sheila's place). I am a big Dickens fan, but The Old Curiosity shop is one that I have not tackled. It has gone from being his best seller to being something of a stepchild now. You are possible the first person I read who really loved it. If you have a minute, I would love to hear why.

I am wondering if I should try one of the few Dickens I have left, Little Dorrit, for my own summer reading. Bleak House is my favorite, but Little Dorrit is a start-and-stopper for me. Must have tried five different times.

Ted said...

Campaspe
Your experience with Little Dorrit is mine w/ Our Mutual Friend. I keep trying to get into it because of recommendations and just can't.
I enjoyed Old Curiosity Shop a lot. If Bleak House is more plot driven, Old C Shop is perhaps more character driven. Although it's a great adventure story too.
Little Nell's adventures are heartbreaking, Quilp is one of the most relentlessly evil bastards you will ever meet! Nell's grandfather is a complex character - loving and greatly flawed. It's a great portrait of an addict.
I guess the story is like asking: What would you do if you were reduced to having absolutely nothing at all and the meanest guy in creation after you?
Good story!