My objective in offering a humble but handsome and glowing tribute to the most read, admired, reverenced, idolized and loved British novelist, Charles Dickens, on his bi-centennial celebrations, is not to narrate the stories of his novels (all of which I have not read) and portray his most conspicuous and most memorable characters in his mammoth crowd but to express myself about the grandeur of his fantastic, creative imagination and genius. Our Charles Dickens is known to be very well read, and had fully enjoyed Shakespeare, Smollet, Fielding and Goldsmith; he had also read the two cart-loads of References on the French Revolution which, on being asked, had been sent to him by that famous Scot, Carlyle, to enable him to understand Carlyle’s French Revolution. It may be especially observed here that Don Quixote and Gil Blas had infused in Dickens the ever-fresh currents of light and lightning, constantly felt in his humour, pathos and sentimentalism. How strange when we learn that Dickens had no formal education!
Our Charles Dickens was born as a favourite child of utter penury, suffering and misery and also unknown humiliation. He had calmly and gracefully endured his poignant participation in the most dehumanizing social, economic and political conditions of his time. All his life, he desired and struggled in his own novel way, to correct them to the ease and comfort of the masses. In his reformist zeal, are omnipresent his genuine humanitarian sympathies, his forceful protests against the complicated and callous legal system, total lack of child-labor laws, repressive, exploitative and offensive general working conditions, starving and suppressed childhood, degrading and crime-breeding slums and jails - all in Fair England - and which had wounded and bled the conscience of our Charles Dickens. So he used every civilized and cultivated mean to civilize and cultivate the uncivilized and uncultivated conscience of the mighty powers of England.
The dramatic touch in his eloquent endeavors was never missing and perhaps, that is the reason that he remained and remains in “the glare of footlights.” His intensely dramatic situations might seem to be on the verge of sensationalism, sentimentalism and melodrama but it is ennobling, elevating and inspiring. These incessantly reveal his spontaneous and inborn love for the denied and the deprived. He was not even cynical about the unfortunate goings-on and was perfectly balanced in his views and vision. He is profoundly reflective in the description of the times he lived in:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
- “A Tale of Two Cities” - opening lines
Yes. Our Charles Dickens was born at a time when the British nation had been still tainted with the social and economic ills and the masses were living in naked poverty. This poverty had caused a wide-spread virus, not infection, of suffering, misery and wretchedness. The bitter fruits of the Industrial Revolution had been the ordained destiny of these helpless poor on whom the French Revolution [FR] had not yet flashed the message of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. This bloodiest revolution in the history of the world had written the golden chapter of human dignity, human freedom, human rights, awakening and regenerating the human aspirations for an honorable earning and decent living. Cowper’s The Task, Shelley’s Song to the Men of England and Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Cry of the Children had well captured the bleak and dismal and highly deplorable living conditions of the masses. The message of the FR had already initiated the process of the cleansing and transforming the social and economic mess of human society and also revolutionized human thinking.
The world has never been the same since then. Those men of letters who had been either influenced and shaped to the core of their being by the teachings of the Father and the Architect of the French Revolution, Jean Jacque Rousseau who was dead eleven years before the FR actually occurred in 1789 or those who had lived through Hard Times with Great Expectations in the Bleak House were eloquently enlightened in awakening the callous rich and rulers to their sense of humanity. Those who spiritedly espoused the cause of the down-trodden and storm-tossed humanity were especially Shelley, Ruskin, Carlyle, Dickens etc. Some others also fully deserve to be saluted for the purpose but those mentioned deserve more richly our honest gratitude and glowing tribute for widening the territories and sowing the seeds of humanism there. Thanks to the winds across the continent which scattered those seeds into far-off places where they have grown into dense forests today bringing liberation and cheers to millions, notwithstanding the onslaughts of globalization, multi-nationalism and multi-culturalism.
Depressing childhood experiences and influences, instead of dimming the light of conscience and frustrating Dickens, re-demarcated the course of his destiny. Without any formal education, Dickens’ true and determined mastery over self-education alone strengthened and sharpened his understanding of the social, economic and political environment of the England of his time and sensitized him cutely to humanity. Helpless surrender to such a situation would have been maddening. Silent and noble endurance of the acute wants of daily life alone ensures the honest purpose and cheerful accomplishment of living. This is how the best of mankind emerge. And who has done better and fulfilled better than our Charles Dickens?
He successfully worked for urgently desired and needed social and economic reforms in his fiction. Oliver Twist, no doubt exciting and pathetic, is an exposition and condemnation of the working of the orphanages. It is also a crushing indictment of the London slums which were the virtual crime schools for breeding the victimized paupers. Dickens alone could tell us about Fagin’s academy where pick-pockets were trained. Country schools as described in Nicholas Nickleby were equally cruel and savage. The death scene of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop dramatizes the exploitation of sentimental pathos. However, Dickens reached the pinnacle of glory with David Copperfield which is largely autobiographical and has a great variety of characters. Here Dickens shows his strong hatred of the debtors’ prisons, reminiscent of his father’s imprisonment in Marshalsea Prison and the family experiences there. The poignant and heart-rending scenes in his novels leave not only lasting imprints but also deep scars sometimes. He has shown his concern equally well with equal enthusiasm with other problems and themes of social reform in Bleak House, Hard Times and Great Expectations. The pages and portraits of the then British society have been shown with the pure artistry of a true prophet with deep sympathy, humor, humanity and unblurred vision of a realist. Hugh Walker has rightly said: “He lives in the lives of his creations, suffers with them and rejoices in their good fortune.”
It is said that Dickens’ characters will populate a town to elect a member to Parliament. His concerns and message embraced the whole of mankind as they are invariably woven in the eternal pattern of life and they are visibly seen and felt in the eternal flow of life everywhere and their movement in the procession of humanity finds strength and energy from our Charles Dickens. Says Richard Church:
“………..But even so he makes us love him and his hundreds of creatures. For to hate Sykes, Fagin, Uriah Heep, Scrooge, and all the other villains, freaks and misfits who whine and roar their way through his books, is really to love them, because they are tangible, they take us by the heart, and enlarge our acquaintance not only with humanity as it is, but as it might become if life should but take another slant.”
- The Growth of the English Novel p 143
Ever alive to the pains of the poor, he taught how to laugh away the stresses and strains, keep oneself cheerful and work hard in honesty to share one’s earned happiness with the fellow beings and brighten the foggy weather. That is how he awakened the conscience of his nation that needed hard lessons and training in humanity. 19th century British nation comes vividly alive before our eyes in the pages of Dickens.
Dickens was a living legend then and so is he even today. He was a hero of the masses who felt for them heroically and led them heroically. It is said that a hero is a person who dares more than others, suffers greater possibilities of death and destruction and emerges triumphant with a flame of liberty and light. Dickens’ heroism expressed itself in all these. That is why he was accorded a hero’s welcome wherever he went and his influence was also heroic. His mass appeal counted for his envious popularity and it was so wide that it erased all barriers across nations, cultures, races and societies. Gogol. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had been deeply and immensely influenced by our Charles Dickens. America, in spite of Martin Chuzzlewit, could never overcome the hangover of his visit. When he died, human faces hung everywhere like flags at half-mast. An Italian newspaper characteristically published the headline -
“Our Charles Dickens is dead.”
French Revolution, with the finest chapter on human liberty, equality, fraternity, dignity in the entire course of human history, expressed itself the best in our Dickens. He understood fully what democracy meant and what it should work for and what conditions are necessary for its success. David Cecil has made an enlightening observation on Dickens saying -
“Dickens is the great democrat of English literature. His every book is a crowd; and it is a crowd of democracy, the exuberant, restless, disorganized, clamorous, motley crowd of Hampstead Heath on a Bank holiday, with its charabancs and coconut shies and skirling mouth organs and beery conviviality, squalid and sunny , domestic and indelicate, sharp and sentimental, kindly and undignified.”
- Early Victorian Novelists, p 50
Our Charles Dickens has never been out of fashion whatever have been and are the tastes of the reading public, not because he is popular and admired and idolized but because he is the most loved for he is a fair feast to satiate and stimulate every taste. What Dickens has done has been summed up by Richard Church:
“He has in some degree changed the atmosphere of our national life. His people walk the streets, sit in church, theatre, and parliament, larger than life. The most unlikely people carry his chips on their shoulders: poets, statesmen, divines, lawyers, navvies, and charwomen. They all mention Dickens, and some of them quote him.”
- The Growth of the English Novel p 127
It hardly needs to be emphasized that Dickens valued and created true democracy and today the British nations basks in its sunshine warming others too.
Finally we may say that those who are born in the thick of adversities for no fault of their own and face it honestly with patience and perseverance, grit and guts, grow more sensitive to the demands of daily life. Life teaches them better how to live marching, accomplishing and conquering. This is how our Charlse Dickens was born and this is how he lived leaving behind his pure glowing humor delighting the crowds of mankind everywhere through their suppressive, offensive, disgusting and even humiliating life. Dickens turned out to be more a prophet than a pure artist. David Cecil has paid a splendid tribute to him, perhaps none could do better -
“He is also a prophet. He is out to expound a gospel, a view of life, a scale of values which he wishes his fellowmen to accept. As was to be expected, it is a very simple gospel; it does not appeal to the intellect. It is the result of intuition rather than of logic or learning. Even when he is prophesying, Dickens remains the semi-educated Cockney. But his gospel has its own force; it comes from conviction born in experience, not in abstract thought.”
- Early Victorian Novelists p 55
- Church, Richard: The Growth of the English Novel; Published by Methuen & Co Ltd. in University Paperbacks, London, Ed. 1961
- Cecil, David: Early Victorian Novelists; Collins Fontana Library Ed. 1964
- Hornstein, Percy et al: The Reader’s Companion to World Literature; Pub. by the New American Library, New York; Ed. 1964
- Slater, Michael: Charles Dickens, Paperback ed, 2010
- Tomalin, Claire: Charles Dickens: A Life; Hardback ed. 2011
- Cockshut, A.O.J: Charles Dickens ( Notes on A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations pub. by The British Council, London)
- Allen, Walter: The English Novel; A Penguin International Edition, 1970
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