What does Dickens teach the fiction writer in 2020?
What does a best-seller from the mid-1800s have to say to us today?
Pretty much everything.
1. Detail. Fiction writers closely observe human experience, and transform those close observations into clear prose with the balanced amount of detail. We may feel that, due to his long sentences and sometimes archaic words, Dickens goes too far in the detail, but I don’t think so. Yes, we would use shorter sentences, more direct sentences, and maybe more action or concrete words, but perhaps those words were considered concrete during the Civil War. I’ve always felt it is easier to edit too much detail from a piece than to create more in it.
2. Humanity. While Dickens can make fun, and while he is never blind to the evil and selfishness that can live in a human heart, he is never really cynical, sarcastic, sneering, or contemptuous. He may not have loved people, but he doesn’t write in a way that sets humans up to ridicule (only laughter) or causes the reader to hate them. He does this in general and specific ways. In the general sense, I offer this passage from A Tale of Two Cities:
A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!
This strikes me the same now as the first time I read it. What Dickens does is treat all his characters, even the worst, as fully formed humans. Not necessarily sympathetic ones, but full ones. Dickens paints like Franz Hal (see The Laughing Cavalier) or Vermeer or other Dutch Masters, not like an Impressionist. At the same time, he can hold up anyone to judgment if their behavior deserves it.
Even the ridiculed and evil can repent. Martin Chuzzlewit is a cantankerous and ungenerous old man; but he sees the error of his ways. So does Scrooge, in a story we have seen parodied so much we fail to see its brilliance.
The suspense flows from character and situation, not manufactured technique. Pip in Great Expectations spends his life believing that his benefactor is Miss Habersham, but without any real proof. We learn who it was, and he and the readers are horrified, yet it feels right, and he returns to his humble life lost when the benefactor has tried to repay him for a kindness by setting him up as a “gentleman.” We see how pointless the life of an unemployed, privileged young man of means can be, and so does Pip. His great expectations come to nothing, and he must find his own way. The human effort, the human plans, are mislaid ones. In the process he rejects the best man he knows, his brother-in-law, the modest ironsmith. The mystery of his benefactor and whether he will be caught in the end is not made up or false.
4. Hope. A Christmas Carol is his most well known work; what story could be more hopeful that a miser could change, deep in his heart, by truly seeing the world as it was, is, and will be? Sight and knowledge can change us. Dickens work is immensely hopeful, which has to come from the benefits of religion but really from a belief that people, at least some of them, have that good within them that, when expressed, can improve the lots of others. I don’t know if Dickens could be called dualistic in this respect. I don’t think he paints an abstract good and evil, light and darkness, that exists outside of men. Good, which is for the betterment of circumstances of others, and evil, which is selfishness that causes pain and deprivation of others at any cost, live inside humans and comes out, rather than being forces outside of mankind acting on them randomly.
Ultimately, mankind is responsible for their actions, mankind is able to change their actions, mankind maybe judged or held accountable for their actions, and mankind’s actions affect others in those webs of connections. He does not so much “world-build,” a popular term today, as community-build. Where is God in this world, or this community? There, but aloof for the most part. But not ignorant or uncaring. Still Dickens’ hope is not a theological or eschatological one, but a human one.
After watching Little Dorrit and Bleak House on Masterpiece, I read them both. What a complex web of characters and relationships and events, and yet he keeps it all character-driven, for the most part (one could probably argue he lets some events, and some rhetorical points he wants to score, take over). In Little Dorrit, the Father of the Marshallsea astounds with his obtuseness, Amy Dorrit touches us with her constancy, Arthur Clenam frustrates us with his bad decisions and not standing up for himself to his vengeful stepmother, and these three stand in the middle of a constellation of Amy’s hapless siblings, Arthur’s vicious stepmother, her vile business partner, Tatty Coram, Miss Reed, French villains (Dickens is not too keen on the French), the struggling, dancing studio couple and the husband’s effete father (fathers don’t do well in Little Dorrit, either) in a tapestry to beat any woven Moroccan rug for its complexity.
Bleak House is much the same, although slightly less complex in the number of characters and a good bit more tragic in regard to Esther’s mother. (And the story where a character dies from spontaneous combustion, of all things, because of his alcoholism.) Readers of the Victorian era wanted plot; readers today no less. Most readers don’t really want a prose poem, where a tree takes three pages to describe. They want something to happen, and that’s what Dickens gave them. Sometimes more melodrama than literary critics would like, but something was always going on.
The artist, the writer, reaches for and creates a world and character who often are not reflected in his or her own being. Dickens had a lot of children with his wife (ten) and then fell for a younger woman who was thin and small. At the same time, his life is in his pages, especially his father’s time in debtor’s prison and his childhood as a laborer. We all write a form of autobiography, I suppose, because from whose life other than our own can we really draw, authentically?