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Pickin' on Dickens

For a while now I've been trying to place what it is that makes me dislike Charles Dickens' stories--or, at least, the few I'm familiar with, from book, film, or stage. What I initially decided was that he doesn't write characters, exactly: he writes caricatures. But today I pinned it down even further. As caricatures, the characters fail the Numero Uno rule (going by modern standards) of what must happen in a story: they are supposed to change from beginning to end. Dickens characters, the ones I've been acquainted with, simply don't.

The notable exception is Scrooge, who, as we all know, changes dramatically by the end. No coincidence, I wager, that A Christmas Carol is Dickens' best-known and best-loved work. (Plus, the 3-ghosts trick is a pretty cool plot device.) Others in the story are exactly the same from start to finish, though that's okay for supporting characters.

But elsewhere...egh. I sat through a dozen performances of Oliver!, in the light booth a few years ago for community theater, so I can safely say I know that story in and out. Oliver Twist, as the protagonist, doesn't really change. His circumstances change, but at the beginning he's a good-hearted, suffering, brave orphan boy, and the end he's still a good-hearted brave orphan boy, but with less suffering since now he has an adopted family. He basically wanders around the story getting batted from one set of adult caretakers to another, without changing as a person. Fagin doesn't change, of course, either. Neither does Dodger. They're interesting as portraits, but they don't quite seem three-dimensional. Nancy almost changes, but dies before she gets too far.

OK, but Oliver is young, and the story only covers a small portion of his childhood. Maybe something bigger? Well, same problem in Great Expectations, which I slogged my way through a couple years back after Amazon kept insisting to me that I'd love it. Pip starts out as a good-hearted, suffering, brave orphan boy (hmm, deja vu), gets his hopes raised, gets his hopes dashed, gets his hopes raised again, gets his hopes dashed again, and ends up a good-hearted, suffering, brave adult. Throughout, he is likeable but frustrating: he keeps waiting for life to change for him; for his "great expectations" to finally kick in and for things to magically improve on their own. Nothing he does makes any difference, and he ends up older, a little wiser, and ultimately not different enough to keep me from closing the book in disgust and vowing to stop reading Dickens.

Now, Miss Havisham, in the same book, makes a very memorable figure out of her habit of not changing. She takes it to such extremes that it's actually interesting. But you can't have all the characters fail to change, and just stand there helplessly while circumstances morph around them. At least, I wouldn't think you could, but Dickens' huge popularity seems to suggest I'm wrong. Maybe if I read Bleak House or something I'd change my mind on this whole thing. You tell me.

Aw, but Molly (you may be saying), back in the early 1800s in England, people's financial circumstances really were out of their control for the most part, and really did dictate their quality of life. You came into money, or you didn't, and your whole lifestyle hung upon the point.

Okay, true. I know that. But one can read other books from that era (or set in that era) and get the same dilemma, while meeting characters who actually do change from start to finish. Take Pride and Prejudice: the Darcy/Elizabeth love story is such a delight because it involves such internal struggle and revision of prejudices for both of them. They go from "You? Why would I want to dance with you?" to "Okay, I've thought it over, and despite your awful family and all the other social difficulties, I've decided I can't live without you; and you know what? Screw the rest of the world." Same case in Jane Eyre, with even bigger social difficulties. Les Miserables is chock-full of characters who undergo tremendous shifts in their world-view. It leads some of them to suicide, some to repentance, some to tragically noble ends, and a select few to redemption, but man, you stand still in Les Mis and wait for your expectations to improve, and you're either going to starve to death or get a cannonball in your chest.

I apologize to stalwart Dickens fans. This is, of course, just one reader's opinion. But I've long tried to place why I groan when I imagine tackling another Dickens novel, but fervently wish someone would uncover a lost Bronte novel; and I think I've come close to the explanation here.

All the same, tip of the hat to Dickens, who managed to write a zillion novels while supporting some dozen children, and who brought the country's attention to the atrocities of child labor and poverty, and is still a household name almost two centuries later. May we all fare half as well in our final curriculum vitae.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 12th, 2005 08:38 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty much with you when it comes to Dickens. I remain unimpressed by A Christmas Carol, but maybe it's been plagiarized too many times. I remember seeing Oliver! as a child, but it didn't make a very strong impression on me. They made us read Great Expectations in school, and I was so bored by it that I didn't read another line of Dickens for over two decades. Then this past fall, I saw the 1950's movie of A Tale of Two Cities and loved it so much I had to read the book. I can hardly believe it's by the same author as the other Dickens works I'm familiar with.

I don't think that many characters really change in AToTC, but they do things. They make valiant, heroic, tragic and in some cases infamous efforts to do things, to avenge wrongs, to rescue the innocent, to redeem themselves, to protect and preserve. You won't find a character in this novel sitting around waiting for their expectations to improve. I think it stands far above Dickens' other works.

/my two cents
Mar. 12th, 2005 11:56 pm (UTC)
Actually, Tale of Two Cities is the one Dickens novel I've thought I should give another chance. I read parts of it in high school, for class, and remember liking it well enough. Besides, I have a Scarlet-Pimpernel-ish soft spot for the rescuing of people from the guillotine, so I'd probably enjoy it at least for that. Guillotines always promise good adventure. :)
Mar. 13th, 2005 08:56 am (UTC)
Heh, they do. I do recommend giving that one another chance; it's one of THE great books. Alternately, you could watch the 1950's movie -- I don't know if any of the others are up to par, but that one is very faithful to the book and very very good.

So much so that I then went and got a soundtrack to the musical of Tale of Two Cities, plus a tape of a Takarazuka Revue production of the story. (I haven't watched it yet, so I don't know if they used the same music.)
Mar. 12th, 2005 10:05 pm (UTC)
Two words: Sidney Carton. :D

But yeah, I think Dickens spent a bit too much of his childhood in the boot factory, and his outlook was probably permanently soured as a result.

If you're ever forced to read more Dickens, though, by all means read A Tale of Two Cities. It's not your same gloom and doom. Oh, it's GOT gloom and doom, to be sure, but not the SAME G&D. :D
Mar. 12th, 2005 11:58 pm (UTC)
Indeed--see above comment. :D That's the one Dickens I'm likeliest to try (or try again, technically, though I was uh...13?...last time I opened it, so I didn't count it in my evaluation). But the French Revolution is automatically good drama. Now I'm picturing the TNT logo..."1789: We Know Drama."
Mar. 13th, 2005 03:15 pm (UTC)
I think Dickens is wonderful, even though what you say is true. The characters are often two dimensional - the minor characters just caricatures, the main characters bland. The women are either harridans or simpering virgins. The plots are messy and take ages to go anywhere. But he's still wonderful. The writing is vigorous, the pace energetic, and sometimes the man is so funny. And he can be breathtakingly satirical. His comments on the government in Little Dorrit, for instance, are still important today. And no one writes about London better.
Mar. 16th, 2005 02:21 pm (UTC)
There is definitely a theatricality about Dickens that part of me still finds appealing. And naturally I have a soft spot for anything having to do with London... :)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )