A writer for new hard times

Two hundred years after his birth, the British novelist Charles Dickens still has much to tell us about capitalist society. Bill Keach explains what.

Charles DickensCharles Dickens

CHARLES DICKENS, who was born on February 7, 1812, is one of the most popular British novelists of all time. As readers around the world celebrate his 200th birthday, they are also acknowledging his power in depicting the contradictions in British society during the first great age of industrial capitalism.

One of Dickens' contemporary admirers was Karl Marx, who praised him in an article for the New York Tribune on August 1, 1854:

The present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together, have described every section of the middle class, from the "highly genteel" annuitant and fundholder who looks upon all sorts of business as vulgar, to the little shopkeeper and lawyer's clerk.

And how have Dickens and Thackeray, Miss Brontë and Mrs. Gaskell painted them? As full of presumption, affectation, petty tyranny and ignorance; and the civilized world have confirmed their verdict with the damning epigram that it has fixed to this class, that "they are servile to those above, and tyrannical to those beneath them."

Dickens was born into the lowest sector of the class Marx focuses on here: his father was a clerk in the Navy pay office. Unable to sustain himself and his family on a miserable salary, Dickens' father was sent for three years to the Marshalsea debtors prison in London.

Dickens had to leave school temporarily at age 12 and work in a series of low-paying jobs--including six months in a factory that made boot-blacking. This experience left a deep mark on his attitude toward work and toward money.

In 1824, Dickens returned to school and eventually took jobs as a law clerk, a shorthand reporter in the House of Commons, and a newspaper reporter--all positions that enriched his knowledge of the spectrum of London social identities and institutions. His first collection of stories appeared in 1836, his first novel, Pickwick Papers, in 1837.

Over the next four years, Dickens published five novels, the best known of which is Oliver Twist. This book demonstrates Dickens' characteristic concern with Victorian institutions such as orphanages and workhouses, with the fantasies and realities of social mobility, and with an amazing array of both comic and frightening figures drawn from London street life.

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IN 1842, Dickens made the first of two visits to the U.S., where he was widely read and enthusiastically received. But his experiences during this five-month visit generally disillusioned him about the promises of American democracy.

Later that year, he published his impressions in American Notes, which contains, among other things, a chapter on his visit to the textile mills in Lowell, Mass. There is also a chapter entitled "Slavery," "the atrocities of which system, I shall not write one word for which I have not had ample proof and warrant."

Today, Dickens is best known for A Christmas Carol (1843), the first of a series of Christmas books that he wrote to make money--but that also contain sharp social criticism along with the familiar seasonal appeals to Christian charity and redemption. Scrooge's haunted journey from miserly cruelty to compassionate generosity typifies a recurrent pattern in Dickens' fiction.

Dickens' one novel from the late 1840s, Dombey and Son (1847-8), though it lacks the political resonance of his later work, is an ambitious exploration of how family and other personal relationships are distorted in bourgeois society.

Flawed at times by sentimentality, especially in its imagining of some of the children and women characters, it nevertheless anticipates the sharper social drama and satire of the major novels to come.

Throughout the 1840s, Dickens also continued to work as a journalist. He helped found the London Daily News and, in 1850, began his own weekly magazine called Household Words.

Almost all of Dickens' novels initially appeared as serial installments in periodicals. And it was here in Household Words that Dickens' most direct fictional representation of the ravages of Victorian industrialism first began to appear in April 1854. It was called Hard Times.

One of the shortest and most concentrated of Dickens' portraits of British social inequality and exploitation, Hard Times is set in a fictional version of Preston, an industrial city in northwest England where a bitter strike and then lockout of textile workers began in December 1853. Dickens traveled to Preston himself in January 1854 and wrote an article for Household Words called "On Strike."

In the novel, Preston becomes "Coketown," one indication among many of the way in which Dickens' depiction of social reality often takes the stylized form of satirical caricature. Though the novel is about a society defined by the realities of industrial production, it begins in a school established by "Mr. Gradgrind," in a classroom where the teacher is "Mr. M'Choakumchild."

Other characters include the tyrannical, hypocritical factory owner "Mr. Bounderby" and an honest, despairing worker, "Stephen Blackpool." The way in which these names often make us laugh even as they indicate the novel's focus on exploitation and suffering is characteristic of Dickens' genius.

Although Hard Times is an open denunciation of the horrors of industrial capitalism, it does not project a serious economic and political alternative. Dickens understood and to some degree sympathized with workers' anger, but he was skeptical about and even feared militant class conflict and organized resistance.

A chapter called "Men and Brothers" early in the book is sympathetic to the workers in Bounderby's factory who assemble in a union hall--but it implies criticism of the union movement itself in the figure of "Slackbridge," a union organizer who harangues the workers with no concern for their own independent opinions.

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DICKENS BRILLIANTLY represents the destructive effects of industrial capitalism, but when it comes to imagining a counterforce to such destructiveness, he appeals to the human capacities for kindness, love, charity and play. Like Thomas Carlyle, to whom Hard Times is dedicated, he understood that capitalism was generating the conditions of class warfare--but he feared violent confrontation.

The example of the French Revolution at the end of the previous century haunted Dickens and many of his contemporaries. While inequality and suffering could be courageously endured and mitigated by Christian kindness and generous reforms, any militant effort to transform the system that produced a "Coketown" could only end in disaster.

Despite these limitations in Dickens' political vision, his representations of capitalism's darkest, most grotesque side are vivid and insightful in ways that Marx and many readers since Marx have deeply valued. Hard Times is often grouped with Bleak House (1853) and Little Dorrit (1857) as the "Dark Period Novels."

Both of these latter books run to almost 900 pages. Their plots ironically intertwine the lives of people living in poverty and dependency at the bottom of society with the rich and powerful.

Bleak House famously satirizes the British court system as an institution where the law grinds ordinary people down as it advances the interests of the wealthy and well-connected. Little Dorrit takes its title from a young woman who was born and lives much of her life in the Marshalsea debtors prison, but whose fate eventually comes to be linked to that of the financial tycoon Mr. Merdle.

When Merdle's empire collapses, with devastating effects on almost everyone, Dickens' bitter irony is captured in a remark heard on the streets of London, "It's nobody's fault." This will still sound familiar to many readers now.

Dickens' most popular novel these days is probably Great Expectations (1861). The story centers around a parentless young man named "Pip" whose ambitions of becoming a wealthy gentleman are destroyed when he learns that the source of money that has mysteriously come to him is actually an escaped convict whom, as a child, he had helped to survive.

Delusions of wealth and social prestige are a major point of emphasis throughout Dickens' career and are complicatedly linked to his own personal economic ambition and anxiety.

The last novel Dickens published before his death, Our Mutual Friend (1865), is one of his darkest and most powerful. The characters include Lizzy Hexham (whose father "Gaffer" survives by trolling for dead bodies in the River Thames), Noddy Boffin (the "golden dustman"), Silas Wegg (a con-artist with a wooden leg), Mr. Venus (a taxidermist who is hopelessly in love) and Bradley Headstone (a school teacher driven to insane violence by erotic fixation and jealousy).

In this book, human relations often threaten to dissolve entirely into capitalist property relations, and garbage itself becomes a prized commodity.

Dickens loved the theater and gave dramatic performances drawn from his novels. So he might well have approved of some of the more than 200 films based on his writings. The 1946 film of Great Expectations, directed by David Lean, is worth seeing. Lean's 1948 Oliver Twist is even better.

A new BBC TV mini-series version of Great Expectations is scheduled to be shown in the U.S. this spring. There is an excellent 1988 film version of Little Dorrit featuring Alec Guinness and Derek Jacobi. Other good and fairly recent TV mini-series available on DVD include Hard Times (1997) and Bleak House (2005).

But don't stop with the films. Read Dickens. If you're not up for 800-900 pages, start with the much shorter Hard Times or Great Expectations. Dickens isn't a revolutionary, but his representations of 19th-century capitalist society speak powerfully to the need and desire for revolution. His novels are among the most amazing things in the English language--and in world literature.