June 5, 2009
I recently read Hard Times, by Dickens. I enjoyed it; it’s amusing, and the plot draws you in. It has a light, witty tone, but also a serious, impassioned tone; it’s the perfect balance of light and heavy.
Hard Times is about a hyper-rational man, Mr. Gradgrind, and his effort to stuff facts into the heads of his children. Gradgrind seems much impressed by the science of economics, and he names two of his children “Adam Smith” and “Malthus.” One might describe Hard Times as a satire of economics, and of rational thinking in general. Ruskin was also a critic of economics, and as I read Hard Times, I was reminded of Ruskin’s dictum, “There is no wealth but life.”
A disturbing fad among American youngsters, especially girls, is self-injury — sometimes called “cutting” since it usually takes that form. There have been several movies and books about self-injury (have these movies fueled the fad?).
I was surprised to find an example of self-injury in Hard Times. In the following passage, Mr. Gradgrind’s daughter, Louisa, has just received a kiss from Mr. Bounderby, whom she abhors:
Louisa’s self-injury is irrational, and shows that her father’s rational system of education has failed, that man isn’t rational. Tom, Louisa’s brother, is as negative and irrational as Louisa:
Tom even engages in some self-injury; he is described as “chafing his face on his coat-sleeve, as if to mortify his flesh, and have it in unison with his spirit.”3
In my old Norton edition of Hard Times, there’s an essay called “The Brother-Sister Relationship in Hard Times,” by Daniel P. Deneau. Deneau also finds perversion in Louisa and Tom, but not the same kind that I noticed. Deneau calls the relationship between Louisa and Tom “abnormal,” and discusses a scene (Book 2, Ch. 8) that has “sexual overtones”: “Dickens’s reference to ‘a loose robe’ and Louisa’s more pointed reference to her state of undress — ‘barefoot, unclothed’ — are pretty insistent details.” Deneau quotes Louisa’s father: “I think there are qualities in Louisa, which — which have been harshly neglected, and — and a little perverted.” Perhaps Deneau’s incest argument and my self-injury argument strengthen each other, since they find perversion in the same two characters. Incest and self-injury are used by Dickens to build a case that the Gradgrind educational system is unhealthy, perverted.
Another example of perversion in Hard Times is Bounderby’s behavior toward Louisa, when Louisa is still a child, and hasn’t yet been married to Bounderby. Bounderby’s behavior should probably be called sexual abuse, or sexual harassment, and it leaves Louisa with a horror of Bounderby.
These three cases of perversion in Hard Times strike me as psychologically accurate, or at least plausible. Hard Times depicts working-class characters (Stephen Blackpool and Rachael) in a way that’s notoriously sentimental and unrealistic, but its depiction of various kinds of perversion seems true-to-life. Dickens has a firm grasp of the negative, irrational side of human nature.
One of the characters in Hard Times is a suave aristocrat named James Harthouse. Harthouse has no enthusiasms or convictions. Harthouse says,
Dickens speaks of “[Harthouse’s] conviction that indifference was the genuine high-breeding (the only conviction he had).”5
Readers of this e-zine will recall that, just as Dickens criticizes Harthouse for his lack of strong convictions, so I criticized Louis Menand and the New Yorker for a lack of strong convictions, in a recent issue. A lack of strong convictions is sophisticated and fashionable, and protects one from something that a person in society fears most: ridicule. Two years ago, I criticized Alain de Botton for his sophisticated tone:
Like Dickens, Proust noted that people in high society lack strong convictions. Proust said that Swann avoided
In his book The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard argued that the famous irony of Socrates wasn’t based on indifference or cynicism, but rather on depth of spirit, ethical passion. Kierkegaard contrasted Socrates’ irony with that of modern writers.
My Norton edition of Hard Times contains an essay by George Bernard Shaw. Shaw argues that the first half of the 19th century was self-satisfied, and considered itself a very advanced civilization, while the second half of the 19th century considered itself to be on the wrong track, a deeply flawed civilization. Shaw says that Hard Times, which was written in 1854, represents a watershed in Dickens’ work: before Hard Times, Dickens was “light-hearted and only occasionally indignant,” while in Hard Times and his later works, one finds a “passionate revolt against the whole industrial order of the modern world.” Shaw complains that critics generally prefer Dickens’ early work, and overlook his later “masterpieces.”
Another characteristic of Dickens’ later work is that it has an elaborate plot, whereas his early work is sometimes a series of disconnected episodes. Here the “watershed work” is probably Bleak House; Bleak House is probably the first carefully-plotted Dickens novel.
Shaw points out that one of the themes of Hard Times is unhappy marriage. Dickens suggests that an unhappy marriage should be dissolved. Dickens had first-hand experience of unhappy marriage.
Surprisingly, Dickens was a fan neither of labor unions nor of democracy. According to Shaw, Dickens “adopts the idealized Toryism of Carlyle and Ruskin, in which the aristocracy are the masters and superiors of the people, and also the servants of the people and of God.”
F. R. Leavis, perhaps influenced by Shaw, said “Dickens has no glimpse of the part to be played by Trade Unionism in bettering the conditions he deplores.”7 Leavis goes further, and says Dickens “has no notion of the part played by religion in the life of nineteenth century industrial England.” Nonetheless, Leavis is a big fan of Dickens in general, and of Hard Times in particular. Leavis praises Dickens for his mastery of symbol and language. Leavis’ essay on Hard Times is perhaps the best and most influential study of the novel.
According to Leavis, Dickens believes that we can’t follow reason alone, we must connect to fairy-tale, art, feeling, the unconscious; we must be whole, not just rational. Morality must come from the heart, not the reason, and life must be lived from emotion, not intellect. As Leavis says, “Sissy [in Hard Times] stands for vitality as well as goodness — they are seen, in fact, as one.” Sissy represents “the life that is lived freely and richly from the deep instinctive and emotional springs.” The failure of calculating characters like Scrooge and Gradgrind is a failure of both morality and vitality.
Animals are connected to the “deep instinctive and emotional springs,” and in Hard Times, the dog Merrylegs has an instinctive wisdom that resembles the highest flights of the human spirit. Merrylegs has a wisdom that is non-rational, and that defies rational explanation.8 Dickens tells us to admire the wisdom of the dog and the horse, rather than the calculations of the economist.
Several essays in the Norton edition criticize Leavis, and argue that Hard Times isn’t the masterpiece that Leavis says it is. Leavis responded in a “Note” appended to his essay on Hard Times (see Leavis’ Dickens: The Novelist, chapter 4). Leavis’ “Note” is valuable because it connects Hard Times to other Dickens works, and shows that Dickens’ major concerns can be traced through his entire corpus.
Just as Dickens criticizes Louisa’s upbringing (in Hard Times), so he criticizes Judy’s upbringing (in Bleak House): “Judy never owned a doll, never heard of Cinderella, never played at any game.” Judy’s brother is also deprived of play and fantasy, but he’s helped by his friendship with Mr. Guppy, whom his elders dismiss as a “fool.” Likewise, in Dombey and Son, Paul is helped by his friendship with “old Glubb.”
So there’s a recurring theme in the work of Dickens: life is desiccated by reason, calculation, and economics, and saved by feeling, fairy-tale, and play, and by people like Sleary (in Hard Times), Guppy (in Bleak House), and Glubb (in Dombey and Son). It would be surprising if there weren’t a recurring theme in Dickens’ work, since most imaginative writers are preoccupied by one idea/pattern/theme. In an earlier issue, I discussed The Shakespeare Pattern, and in my book of aphorisms, I discussed The Kafka Pattern. One scholar wrote, “Proust saw in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, The Well-Beloved, and A Pair of Blue Eyes the same nucleus. He recognized the same basic content in all the work of any one artist.”9 Leavis’ “Note” helps us recognize the nucleus, the recurring theme, in Dickens’ work.
Is this a timeless theme? Or is it a response to Dickens’ historical situation? As we see in Hard Times, Dickens is critical of contemporary economics, and contemporary business. There was a trend, in Dickens’ day, to prefer positivism over poetry, reason over faith. Dickens is reacting to this trend; he champions fairy-tale against science, feeling against reason. So the recurring theme in Dickens’ work is a response to his historical situation. On the other hand, the claims of feeling and the unconscious are eternal, so there is a timeless quality to The Dickens Theme.
Leavis says that the best Dickens biography is John Forster’s. Forster has “an intimate personal knowledge of his friend,” and he “gives us the sense... of being in the same room as Dickens, and even, more important, of being really inward with Dickens’ personality and character.”10 The Forster biography is 900 pages long. In recent years, Dickens biographies have been published by Peter Ackroyd and Fred Kaplan. (This Fred Kaplan has edited several Norton Critical Editions of Dickens novels. This Fred Kaplan should not be confused with another Fred Kaplan; nor should he be confused with Justin Kaplan, though both of them have written biographies of Mark Twain.)
Ruskin thought that Hard Times was one of Dickens’ best works. Though he was generally fond of Dickens’ work, Ruskin complained that Dickens was too preoccupied with contemporary society; he called Dickens, “a pure modernist... he had no understanding of any power of antiquity.”11 Ruskin said that Dickens fostered “the distrust both of nobility and clergy,” and that Dickens was “an apostle to the mob.” Dickens also fostered (according to Ruskin) an unhealthy “love of excitement, in all classes.” In short, Ruskin wished that Dickens was a bit more like Walter Scott, who was probably Ruskin’s favorite novelist.
Dickens’ style is wordy and ornate. His style draws attention to itself, rather than shining a light on what he’s describing. If a great style is (as Orwell put it) as clear as a window-pane, Dickens’s style is like clouded glass, through which we see the world darkly. He never uses one word if he can use two or three. The speech of his characters is utterly unlike real speech. (Shaw says of Sissy Jupe’s conversation, “This is the language of a Lord Chief Justice, not of the dunce of an elementary school in the Potteries.”) When he isn’t constructing long and ornate periods, he’s writing dialect and jargon, so his language isn’t easy for the modern reader. I recommend reading Dickens in an annotated version, such as the Norton Critical Edition. I like the old Nortons — the ones put together before the humanities were politicized.
Dickens is amusing and interesting, but he falls short of the sublime. He’s a master of bathos, but falls short of pathos; he’s a master of comedy, but falls short of tragedy. He depicts many characters that you can ridicule or despise, some that you can pity, but few that you can admire. His characters are caricatures — exaggerated rather than life-like. His characters are too black-and-white, too one-dimensional, to be realistic; they aren’t a mix of light and shadow, they’re either all light or all shadow.
Hard Times contains only traces of the occult. If Dickens was interested in the occult, that interest doesn’t come to the fore in Hard Times.
Dickens deals with social issues like labor unions, and many of these issues are no longer relevant. He doesn’t deal with the eternal facts of human life — birth, death, etc. — as Tolstoy does, and he doesn’t deal with the eternal question of personal growth, as Lawrence does. Dickens’ reputation is mixed: while many critics praise him, others (including Henry James and Virginia Woolf) are scornful of him. Though I enjoy Dickens, I can understand why E. M. Forster said that the great ages of English literature were the Elizabethan age and the Romantic age, not the Victorian age. Perhaps Dickens was the greatest writer of his time and place, but it wasn’t a great time and place for writers.
One of the most obvious flaws in Dickens is that he covers romantic relationships with a thick layer of sugary, teary-eyed sentimentality. He also has a sentimental piety, an emotional Christianity. At times, sentimental romance combines with sentimental religion, and the reader feels like he’s swimming through honey. This thick sentiment is one of the weaknesses of Victorian culture.
The relationship between Harthouse and Louisa is devoid of physical passion, and Louisa’s retreat to her father’s house is utterly unrealistic, Victorian. One appreciates D. H. Lawrence more when one sees how Dickens handles man-woman relationships.
Dickens lived at a time when the middle class was expanding, and becoming more important in English society. Dickens was a product of the middle class, he wrote for the middle class, and he often wrote about the middle class. While Scott had written about the old aristocracy, Dickens wrote about contemporary society. One might say that Dickens modernized Scott, as Kafka later modernized Dickens.
When I finished Hard Times, I read one of Dickens’ most popular works, the novella A Christmas Carol. Oddly enough, I had never read it before, perhaps because I dismissed it as “kids’ stuff.” I enjoyed it, I recommend it, and I can understand why it has enduring popularity. It’s one of those rare literary works that has achieved the status of a “culture myth.” Here in the Providence area, a dramatized version of Christmas Carol is the most popular play, performed every Christmas-time by the local theater company (Trinity). The only work that enjoys a comparable popularity is the Nutcracker ballet.
Dickens is a great affirmer of life, a great glorifier of existence. Isn’t this the ultimate achievement for any artist? Here is his description of the Ghost of Christmas Present: “Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air.”
And who can forget Scrooge’s joy at the end of the story, when he has a chance to mend his ways, and right prior wrongs?
The Dickens Pattern that we discussed above is found in Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a cold, unfeeling character who reminds us of Gradgrind (Gradgrind Senior), Mr. Dombey, etc. Like Gradgrind, Scrooge learns the error of his ways in the course of the story, and is transformed by suffering. Fezziwig is a warm-hearted character who reminds us of Sleary; Fezziwig has a “comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice.”
Dickens is opposing the philosophy that tries to arrange society, educate children, etc. according to rational principles. He’s opposing Malthus and other economists, who try to regulate society by statistics, who overlook feelings. He’s opposing Nietzsche, who wrote “The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so.”12
Early in Christmas Carol, two men ask Scrooge to donate to a fund to help the poor. When Scrooge says the poor can go to prisons and work-houses, one of the men says, “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” To which Scrooge responds, “If they would rather die... they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” This is the approach of Malthus, Nietzsche, and others.
Later in the story, the ghost throws this comment back at Scrooge, and Scrooge is “overcome with penitence and grief.” The ghost asks Scrooge, “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die?” This is the tremendous question that hangs over the philosophy of the 19th century, and the politics of the 20th century. This question is only asked when people try to arrange society according to rational principles. It was first asked by the French revolutionaries, who enthroned the Goddess of Reason. It is this Goddess that Dickens is trying to dethrone in Christmas Carol, Hard Times, etc.
About 15 years ago, when the U.S. was engaged in Somalia, I saw George Kennan on TV.13 Kennan said that if we tried to relieve famine in Somalia, we would increase the population, and make future famines more likely. This shows that even a moderate, widely-respected sage like Kennan subscribes to ideas that resemble those of Malthus and Scrooge. These ideas aren’t dead, the philosophy that Dickens opposes is not dead.
Perhaps truth lies somewhere in the middle — somewhere between complete obedience to reason, and complete obedience to feeling.
As I read Christmas Carol, I missed my Norton Critical Edition. Dickens refers to many things that a modern reader is unfamiliar with. I looked for an annotated Christmas Carol online, but didn’t find one. Wouldn’t this be a good project for a young scholar? Why not make classics available online for free, with notes and criticism instead of as plain text?
I wanted to read a short biography of Dickens, and found a book by Stefan Zweig called Three Masters: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky (available on GoogleBooks). I discovered, though, that the section on Dickens isn’t a biography, and isn’t literary criticism. It looks at Dickens in relation to his time and place. It gives the reader generalizations, not anecdotes. Zweig is an excellent writer — profound, poetic, readable. His eloquence shines through even in translation (the translation is by Eden and Cedar Paul). What must he be like in the original German?!
Stefan Zweig should not be confused with the writer Arnold Zweig (no relation). Stefan and Arnold were both of Jewish descent, both born in the 1880s, both wrote in German, both had pacifist tendencies, both were friends of Freud and corresponded with Freud. Arnold was a Zionist for a time, before throwing in his lot with Communism, and moving to East Germany. Stefan had a cosmopolitan attitude, and was critical of Zionism. In 1942, at the age of 61, Stefan was living in Brazil, and committed “double suicide” with his wife.14 “I think it better,” he wrote, “to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.” “[Stefan Zweig’s] autobiography The World of Yesterday is a paean to the European culture he considered lost.”15 Though primarily known for his fiction, Stefan Zweig wrote numerous biographies — Nietzsche, Freud, Romain Rolland, Marie Antoinette, Magellan, etc. He said that his biography of the humanist Erasmus was a concealed autobiography. Perhaps we should see Zweig as the Erasmus of his time: a citizen of the world, a champion of the humanities and of Western literature. Zweig had a special interest in Balzac.16 When Zweig died, he left behind an unfinished biography of Balzac, which has been called his magnum opus.
Zweig begins his Dickens essay with a delightful little chapter called “A Writer Loved More Than All Others,” in which he talks about Dickens’ enormous popularity, and about how people in England eagerly awaited the next monthly installment of his work, walking miles to the post-office (not patient enough to wait for the postman to reach their house), and reading as they walked home. Then he talks about the popularity of Dickens’ public readings:
Not content to describe Dickens’ popularity, Zweig attempts, in the next chapter, to explain it. He says that most geniuses are in opposition to their times (as Kierkegaard put it, “Genius like a thunderstorm comes up against the wind”17), but Dickens was in harmony with his times. “Dickens [was] perfectly satisfied within the four walls of the English tradition. He felt at ease in this atmosphere, and never travelled beyond the frontiers of English art, morality, and aesthetics.” Zweig contrasts Dickens with other English writers — Byron, Shelley, Wilde — who tried to break free from England, and become citizens of the world (we might add D. H. Lawrence to this list).
In the third chapter, Zweig discusses Victorian society, and how Dickens’ place in history destined him to be a certain kind of writer. Living at such a time, Dickens could not be Shakespeare. Shakespeare was the expression of a different era; Shakespeare could only have emerged when he did.
The Victorian public preferred the sentimental to the tragic: “In the books they read, just as in their everyday life, they wish for tempered passions; they have no desire for ecstasy, wanting merely to experience normal emotions that will run a demure course.” Dickens and his contemporaries were content, self-satisfied: “There was no wrath in his heart, urging him to stir up, to goad, to uplift.” Zweig downplays Dickens The Prophet, Dickens the critic of the social order:
Zweig says that Dickens was the poet of the common man. “The wealthy, and people of aristocratic birth, all the spoiled darlings at life’s table, were obnoxious to him.”18 Dickens glorified the simple man’s simple pleasures, and he appealed to middle-class readers because he
Zweig makes some penetrating criticisms of Dickens as a creator of characters:
Zweig argues that Dickens is excessively moral and sentimental, and falls short of the heroic and tragic:
Zweig says that, in the Victorian period, adult Englishmen censored their feelings, but children were natural. Dickens had difficulty depicting adults as they really are, but he could depict children well; this is his specialty, “here he is incomparable.”27 Zweig notes that he was also fond of depicting child-like adults — feeble-minded people who never grow up.
Zweig emphasizes Dickens’ sunny humor:
I hope these selections from Zweig’s 50-page Dickens essay have thrown some light on Dickens, and also persuaded you that Zweig is both an elegant stylist and a deep thinker, who can give us a better appreciation of Dickens, though he doesn’t discuss individual works in detail, and doesn’t discuss the life of Dickens in detail.
|1.|| I, 4 back|
|2.|| I, 8 back|
|3.|| I, 8 back|
|4.|| II, 2 back|
|5.|| III, 2 back|
|6.|| Swann’s Way, “Combray,” pp. 122, 123 back|
|7.|| Leavis’ essay on Hard Times can be found in the Norton Critical Edition of Hard Times, in Leavis’ Dickens: The Novelist, and in Leavis’ Great Tradition. back|
|8.|| III, 8 back|
|9.|| Nostalgia: A Psychoanalytic Study of Marcel Proust, by Milton L. Miller, ch. 10 back|
|10.|| Dickens: The Novelist, preface back|
|11.|| See Ruskin’s letter to Charles Eliot Norton on the death of Dickens, in Ruskin’s Collected Works, vol. 37, p. 7 back|
|12.|| The Anti-Christ, 2 back|
|13.|| He was on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. back|
|14.|| If I remember correctly, Milton Himmelfarb once wrote that assimilated Jews like Stefan Zweig were crushed by World War II and Nazism, whereas more conservative Jews could fit World War II into their worldview — it was another chapter in the long history of Jewish persecution. back|
|15.|| Wikipedia’s article on Stefan Zweig back|
|16.|| As we noted in an earlier issue, Balzac had a deep interest in the occult. Zweig writes, “For Balzac, indeed, a face was a stone tablet whereon the life-will had placed its sign manual. And, just as geologists are able to tell the story of a whole epoch by studying the lesson of the rocks and the fossils to be found therein, so, Balzac contended, should an imaginative writer be able, by studying faces, to decipher the character and the inner possibilities of men. The charm he found in the art of reading physiognomies led him greatly to appreciate Gall’s work in this field; his topographical studies of the capacities residing in the brain led him to the reading of Lavater’s books. Lavater, likewise, maintained that facial geography was nothing other than a life-will expressed in flesh and bone, nothing other than character transferred to the exterior. Everything which emphasized this magical interplay of the inner and the outer life, seemed to Balzac a desirable asset. Mesmer’s teaching about the magnetic transference of the will of a medium into another person, was an article of faith with him. Nor was he less credulous in his belief that the fingers were endowed with a magnetic power whereby the will could be transmitted from individual to individual. He linked these ideas up with the mystical spiritualizations of Swedenborg. All such ideas he compacted into a more or less systematic theory, and gave utterance to them through the mouth of Louis Lambert, the ‘chemist of the will,’ cut off in his prime. This Louis Lambert is at one and the same time a portrait of Balzac as he was, and a sketch of the perfected Balzac he would have liked to be; and that is why Lambert embodies more autobiography than any other of Balzac’s imaginary figures.” Notice that Zweig describes Balzac as “credulous,” which suggests that Zweig himself isn’t receptive to the occult. back|
|17.|| The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, edited by A. Dru, long version, Oxford University Press, 1938 back|
|18.|| p. 69 back|
|19.|| p. 69 back|
|20.|| p. 77 back|
|21.|| p. 78 back|
|22.|| p. 79 back|
|23.|| p. 82 back|
|24.|| p. 83 back|
|25.|| p. 83 back|
|26.|| p. 83 back|
|27.|| p. 87 back|
|28.|| p. 91 back|
|29.||p. 93 back|