Christian, humanist and ethical themes
in Charles Dickens' Novels
Peter Ackroyd in print and on television has made me more interested in the man than what Dickens wrote. It seems to me from my own reading that Dickens represents the good and bad of the Victorian conscience driven social liberal - who sees the need for thorough reform but is trying to hold the lid by accepting small changes only. I like the following source for relating Dickens to Christianity.
Charles Dickens 1812-1870
The Old Curiosity Shop
Dombey and Son
A Tale of Two Cities
Our Mutual Friend
There are a number of Christian, humanist and ethical themes in Dickens' work. Dickens work has the New Testament about it. There is the contrast of good and evil, where evil is dominant and society needs redeeming but Dickens seems unable to bring this about by people taking collective action. This universe of evil is grotesque and mythic, where an unlikely promised good future is so much more uncluttered and humanistic. Goodness seems to be in small places and individual and involves sacrifice and suffering. The humanity in people comes in their comic ways; our foolishness is what makes us human. So the Dickens' novel is of course a social criticism, is in praise of humanity in its struggle and has a related religious content.
- Dickens opposes crime and corruption.
- He would see it tackled head on.
- However he also contains forgivenness for the wrongdoer.
- There is also the beatitudes in the sense of blessed are the meek.
- Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, whom he influenced, both regarded Charles Dickens as a Christian writer.
- On encountering Darwin Dickens thought that bishops and scientists would come to agreement.
- Yet the context of his writing is increasing doubt about the Christian narrative.
- He was almost Unitarian and non-metaphysical but conjured up a metaphysical world for expressing evil.
- He was anti-Puritan in terms of wanting ordinary downtrodden people to have the pleasures of life.
- A lot in Dickens is dark, hellish, evil, and illustrates demonic powers.
- To generate a devil contained Christian world, Dickens produces a kind of gothic atmosphere.
- Barnaby Rudge also combines the (mythic) fairy tale and strange.
- When he looks backward, his world is imaginary and old and fearful.
- But when he looks forward it is new and fresh and hopeful.
- Fagin and Quilp are hints of the mediaeval.
- The new future would be the Kingdom of God whereas the detested past is the corrupt materialistic society.
- Love comes best in dark situations, as with Bradley Headstone and John Jasper.
- The Old Curiosity shop has a series of grotesque characters and two good ones, Kit Nubbles is really in the world whereas Little Nell is over idealised.
- When he looks forward then the future is humanistic.
- Given the opportunity, most people would be good but society as it was undermined them and brought about evil patterns of behaviour.
- There is a contrast between modern future reason and a breakdown into old-present world of evil and chaos.
- Dickens is on both sides of the French Revolution.
- He is as critical of politics and society but also revolution in terms of subsequent breakdown of the social order.
- He feared the loss of reason as in the French Terror.
- He was even critical of the Chartists.
- Whilst he is critical of society, he also fears its breaking up.
- Revolutionary change can bring about disorder too.
- Edwin Drood has an insight of psychology into breakdown.
- Barnaby Rudge and The Tale of Two Cities contains the violence of a feared breakdown in social order and Barnaby Rudge is full of the motivation of hatred.
- Therefore his displays of goodness come in individual characters and never in a systematic breakthrough into some social alternative.
- The world is never reformed.
- As a reporter of parliament and a clerk in a law office, Dickens had looked at these corrupted institutions from below.
- In Barnaby Rudge Dickens criticises both the stiff upper lip establishment as in the Chesters
- In Barnaby Rudge the active romantic hero of Willet's bastard son is the potential disaster of a revolutionary Britain.
- The Maypole Inn is a happy place yet run by John Willet, a dogmatic tyrant, and although it burns down with some justice Dickens fears this social breakdown.
- Later novels do increase the level of collective response to evil to fight back, especially in Edwin Drood.
- The clergy there become the institutional foolish people if not the evil ones.
- Power is seen as being pursued over love.
- Dombey and Son contains a heavy criticism of capitalism where the pursuit of money for power is due to a lack of fundamental love.
- Dickens tries to make Florence, a weakly created character, a redemptive character in relation to her father, to regain his love.
- Redemption is inadequate as it only comes when he is ill.
- Little Dorrit might make her father see himself for who he is and repent.
- Her father would not be able to take the truth and so her efforts are to hide the truth from him.
- It seems to be the only thing that gives her real meaning and satisfaction.
- It imprisons her so her virtuous life is built within a trap.
- Class gets the Dickens treatment especially in Bleak House
- In Bleak House the theme is that everyone is in it together.
- The mist evelops all, but so will disease that may come from the slums catch anyone, whatever their class.
- So guilt and responsibility spread to all.
- There's a Christian conclusion in the doctor going north to do what medical work can be done.
- Dickens took from Shakespeare.
- Life is comic and so are the characters.
- Dickens' characters make life into an art that is moving, tragic and transforming.
- Finding comedy is a kind of personal authentic victory in rotten circumstances.
- The existence of social evil is handled even tolerated by use of comedy.
- Examples are Pecksniff, Mrs Gamp and Flora Finching.
- Flora Finching is foolish yet good in intention, while Mrs F's Aunt though senile is evil.
- So good and bad run often together closely.
- Innocents who cannot see what the world is doing become funny.
- Hypocritical moralists like Pecksniff keep up their act and are comic in doing it.
- The comedy was less successful in later and shorter novels which became more serious and thematic.
- Examples are Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, also Hard Times.
- The comedy was less pronounced in less sketchy novels.
- Hard Times displays a total mentality
- A Tale of Two Cities displays violence
- Great Expectations has obsession playing on a sensitive person who thus finds himself.
- Magwitch, Miss Havisham and Orlick want to destroy Pip but he isn't and understands himself better.
- Comic treatment is a means by which Dickens gives his characters full humanity.
- But sometimes the women (especially in Dombey and Son) do not get the full comic treatment and are therefore less than human compared with males.
- Perhaps this is a reflection of the distance from his own wife.
- He also maintained an affair and kept it secret for respectability.
- Dickens' very feminine women have an intuitive knowing and strength against evil.
- The selfless Esther Summerson tells the wrongdoers what she thinks and creates a domestic world of goodness.
- There is also Riah, Jenny Wren and Lizzie Hexam.
- Even the not good female characters have this intuitive sense whereas the men often have no insight at all as to what is being done.
- These good characters deny their goodness yet in the story they are denying what they do know.
- Dickens believed in real charity rather than patronage.
- He probably believed that the State could not produce reform to the good.
- He disliked the sanctimonious nature of Ragged Schools which forced pupils to read scripture parrot fashion.
- There is a contradiction in his view of evil and the good.
- To produce the good Kingdom, we should be as little children.
- But some play at being the little children (Mr Skimpole) in order to do bad.
- Secondly those who are humble are often not effective.
- Tom Pinch and Arthur Clenman are examples.
- The effective characters, who take decisions, are not humble
- After Pickwick and Gabriel Varden (Barnaby Rudge), the effective energetic characters are not the good ones.
- Thirdly, virtuousness seems to imply sacrifice and lack of impact.
- Gabriel Varden resists social evil although he cannot handle the social revolution.
- There is a sense anway that what separates good from evil is slight.
- Sam Weller in Pickwick Papers has an economically deprived childhood like the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, but Same Weller ends up living a stable good life whereas the Artful Dodger ends up being transported.
- It depends on as little as the accident of who you meet.
- The good is always threatened.
- As when Fagin looks through the window when Oliver has been safe in the country.
- As when the banquet of the dolls' dressmaker is to be destroyed by Fascination Fledgeby on the roof.
- This reflects Dickens' childhood when insecurity left goodness vulnerable to its own collapse.
- Dickens believes in the afterlife but has doubts about it which get covered up.
- The afterlife is linked to the small areas and people of goodness who do not penetrate into society and its evil.
- It's as though they'll get their reward in heaven instead.
- There is some psychological insight.
- Little Dorrit uses the symbolism of the prison for something about the human condition.
- Some are in the prison, but others are in the prison of their own tormented and egotistical minds.
- People also wander including aimlessly, or ever onward, and some like Little Dorrit may come to a place of better promise.
- So life is like a pilgrimage.
Summary points from a dialogue between Angus Wilson, a humanist, and Anthony Dyson, a Christian (went on to be a bishop), in Watts, C. (intro.) (1976), The English Novel, Questions in Literature series, London: Sussex Books, 53-75.