My wife Popie and I just finished watching the 8-part BBC series of Bleak House. Both of us had recently re-read the novel, and watching the BBC’s dramatization brought back and solidified in our minds the whole magnificent array of characters. Some of Dickens’ novels tell a better story—David Copperfield, for example, or Tale of Two Cities. But none, I think, assembles a greater cast of monsters and gargoyles.
Dickens uses the whole range of society, high and low. The poor always exist in his world, and not just as an abstract reality but as specific individuals. You cannot read Dickens without feeling uncomfortably aware of poor people, not as a social phenomenon, but as people. Contrast that with modern novels, in which I think it’s fair to say poor people hardly exist at all. George Orwell wrote in 1940: “The typical modern novel is a novel about a novelist.”
Orwell also wrote that while Dickens was not particularly religious, he was “Christian.” “Where he is Christian is in his quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors. As a matter of course he is on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere.” That fighting sense, along with the constant presence of the poor, awakens the moral sense when one reads Dickens.
Orwell’s magnificent essay on Dickens is worth reading and re-reading. (http://orwell.ru/library/reviews/dickens/english/e_chd). Here are a few quotations:
“His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.”
“It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong’s school being as different from Creakle’s ‘as good is from evil’. Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different.”
“That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong. All he can finally say is, ‘Behave decently’, which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other.”
“The central problem — how to prevent power from being abused — remains unsolved. Dickens, who had not the vision to see that private property is an obstructive nuisance, had the vision to see that. ‘If men would behave decently the world would be decent’ is not such a platitude as it sounds.”
“Dickens is obviously a writer whose parts are greater than his wholes. He is all fragments, all details — rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles — and never better than when he is building up some character who will later on be forced to act inconsistently.”
“Why is it that Tolstoy’s grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens’s — why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself? It is not that he is more gifted, or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens’s are already finished and perfect. In my own mind Dickens’s people are present far more often and far more vividly than Tolstoy’s, but always in a single unchangeable attitude, like pictures or pieces of furniture.”