The World of Dickens

I have to admit that the first time I encountered Dickens, when assigned A Tale of Two Cities in ninth grade, I cursed every moment of it. But when re-introduced to the novel in college, it suddenly dawned on me what a magnificent story-teller Dickens was. Of course, modern readers have to get used to is his circumlocutory style, which was probably more appreciated by pre-television Victorian audiences. But he is not just being prolix. Everything Dickens says is full of meaning and imagery. This, for example, is the opening to Bleak House:

Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

Great authors know how to build atmosphere. As for dwelling so much on the bizarre and squalid, it is what Dickens found interesting. It is a paradox of our nature that what is beautiful and grand is more difficult to convey in words. That may be why Dante’s Inferno is more popular than his Paradiso.

The English novelist strove for the picturesque in surroundings, often by raising the prosaic to the level of poetry. But this was always as a backdrop for something more important. If his settings are disreputable, like the great dust heaps of Our Mutual Friend, his themes and heroes are not. It is on that point that many later authors miss out. They neglect the contrasts of good and evil, and leave us with so much dirt and grittiness. By contrast, story-telling like Dickens’ remains compelling because it gives us a fable with a moral. Other literary displays may be may be more conspicuous, but they are never as satisfying.

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