By Zhang Huaming
Charles Dickens –an insightful Social Critic
[Dickens’s] graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicist, and moralists put together. (Peter Demetz, 45)
The novels of Charles Dickens, and the Dickens phenomenon more generally, were landmarks of literature in English and of English literature in the nineteenth century. As Peter Ackroyd writes, in his monumental biography of Dickens, “no novelists, no writers, had ever achieved such national acclaim”. Patronized by some contemporaries as “a little Shakespeare –a Cockney Shakespeare”, Dickens has, nevertheless, come to occupy a place in English literature history as Shakespeare’s equal. Dickens was “the Shakespeare of the novel”, the people’s Shakespeare, as it were. As his friends and literary collaborator Wilkie Collins put it, Dickens was “eminently the people’s author”; an author, moreover, whose work was read by “people who never read any other novels”. (Lyn Pykett, 3)
Dickens is highly critical of his age. Social criticism is a hallmark is all his works. He is supremely human and keenly sensitive to the problems of his age and the plight of his people. (Chang Yaoxin, 236) Read any of such novels as David Copperfield, The Old Curiosity Shop, The Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit, Bleak House and Hard Times, and one will understand the fury that the author feels and the emotional intensity with which he deals with these subjects. On the other hand, Dickens is stands forever on the side of the poor and feels adamant about the just and righteous nature of their struggle for survival.
Dickens’s province is the whole of English society of his time, with its debtors in prison, its law-courts, the new police force, parliamentary elections, government offices, the poorhouses, an assortment of social abuses, and child labor. It is a world thronged with the diverse specimens of humanity: characters that come from all walks of life –the disinherited orphans and street boys, children chimney sweepers, swindlers and thieves, cold hearted employers, hypocritical philanthropists and evangelists, people as hart-hearted as Gradgrind (Hard Times), people as benevolent as Pickwick, people in the process of self-discovery and change like Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), very evil people without any conscience, very good people with no character flaws, and very funny people like Mr. Bumble ( Oliver Twist) and the Micawbers. It is a world read the readers get a bird’s-eye view of the panorama of English life then. All the different decades overarching the whole historical period of his creative life get their share of description and offer a historical backdrop of his writings. The mood is Hard Times covers all the Victorian age. A Tale of Two Cities is set in the time of French Revolution; The Pickwick Papers is clearly of Victorian life. The imprint of the 1820s is visible in Little Dorrit, that of the 1840s in Dombey and Son, the 1850s in Edwin Drood, and the 1860s in Our Mutual Friend, to quote a few.
Dickens offers his readers a world of cheer and evil, a world of melodrama and pathos. To gauge the mood swings of this world, the readers in fact need only to observe the way Dickens pictures London. It is in his beloved city, one that he can never stay away for too long, and one that is his best source of inspiration for his endeavors. If London’s cityscape is upbeat and bright such as is found in The Pickwick Papers, then England is doing god, and the mood of the Dickensian world is happy and hopeful. This is the case with Dickens’ early phase of creativity. A gloomy London, with muddy streets and enveloped in fog and soot and gloom such as is found in his later novels, means England is sick and needs diagnosis. To say that Dickens is a social historian is not in fact saying much.
- Lyn Pykett, Charles Dickens, Macmillan Press Ltd, 2002
- Peter Demetz, Marx, Engels and the Poets, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1967
- Chang Yaoxin, A Survey of English Literature, China, Nankai University Press, 2006