Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dickens’s Dark Side

Charles Dickens definitely had a dark side. About twenty years ago, a good friend asked me what attracted me to Dickens so much, and I said that in his books, the main characters see a parade of love and joy that they are hopelessly separated from. That answer surprised him, and he said he’d have to have another look at my favorite author.

My answer surprised me more than a little, too, if I’m being honest. Beyond what it revealed about my own emotional state at the time, it’s not the standard take on CD. And for good reason. If you just think about Scrooge dancing around as merry as a schoolchild at the end of his story, you think of Dickens’s world as one in which bad people get their just deserts, good people find happy endings, and a very few special people are shown the path that will lead them from the first group back to the second.

But while recently rereading all of Dickens in (mostly) chronological order, it becomes increasingly clear to me that my answer applies quite accurately to the second half of the Great Man’s career. In every completed novel after David Copperfield, prominent – if not leading – characters lead frustrated, dissatisfied lives while the dance of Dickensian giddiness goes on around them. In Bleak House, Richard Carstone wastes his life trying to break open an old Chancery case while John Jarndyce puts up every guard just to stay away from the case. In Hard Times, Stephen Blackpool looks for a way out of his poverty, but finds life “aw’ a muddle.” In Little Dorrit, Arthur Clennam considers himself past age to find earthly happiness in marriage and resents the Puritan upbringing that left him with no desire for heavenly bliss. In A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton can only dream of the garden of delights that his dissipation has made an impossibility, and Charles Evremonde says he is bound to a cursed system of aristocracy that he can neither condone nor deny. In Great Expectations, Pip decides he’d rather be poor than live with ill-gotten gains, and he ends up, in Dickens’s original ending, with neither the money nor the girl. And in Our Mutual Friend, Eugene Wrayburn suffers a debilitating malaise that wastes all his talents and opportunities.

These characters, as distinct as the master of character makes them, nevertheless have a lot in common. They aren’t villains, for one thing. These are all characters accepted by and beloved by the good characters. They’re all men, too, and I think Dickens identified with these characters as he wrote them. (I know I identified with them the first time I read most of these books.) He was ashamed of his terrible marriage but didn’t do much (if anything) to correct the situation. The Anglican Church had dissatisfied and angered him to the point that he left it for a time to flirt with Unitarianism. Knowledge of these biographical facts together with the grave tone of the later novels puts together a picture of a generally unhappy man.

And yet the same man in these same years produced Lawrence Boythorn, Caddy Jellyby, the Plornishes, Miss Pross, and John Wemmick – all unstoppably determined, unstoppably trusting, unstoppably optimistic. And, except for the ending his publisher wouldn’t let him give to Pip, he always found happy endings for his tales, even if, in the midst of the guillotine’s thirsty rampage, he had to get Sydney Carton out of the terrestrial vale of woe and give him The Happy Ending: a far, far better rest in the Celestial City.

And I have to remember this faith in the happy ending as I read through Little Dorrit. It’s the grimmest of Dickens’s books, bleaker than Bleak House, and harder than Hard Times. But it’s a beautiful artistic response to the dark night that Dickens went through, and I have to let him go through it. I know I’ve been through it.

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