Dickens at 200: still the best we’ve got on being poor

His way of forcing the reader to see and smell the squalor of 19th century England is still unmatched in its moral force

Andy Martini/Flickr

How apt that today’s bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens arrives at a moment when the widening gap between rich and poor is so prevalent in public-policy debate, and the grim conditions in China’s factories are back in the news.

Dickens is of course our greatest writer on the imperative to acknowledge what poverty is and try to do something about it. His way of forcing the reader to see and smell the squalor of 19th century England is still unmatched in its moral force.

In this, we think of him as a master of a sort of courageous realism, and no doubt he was. Yet there are all sorts of outrageously unrealistic characters and crazy plot turns in his novels, to say nothing of his unmatched ghost story, A Christmas Carol.

So Dickens shows us how a flight of fancy works best when tethered to the real, grimy, conscience-pricking world. By the same token, the most rigorous, fact-based disquisition on inequality—say, the latest Gini coefficient analysis—doesn’t do much for us when detached from subjective description of how people work and live.

By and large, we’ve grown too timid about writing that stretches to find words adequate to the world’s glories and disgraces. We’re attracted by Elmore Leonard’s rule, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” We’re crimped by what Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison astutely describes as “our predilection for understatement and uneasiness about rhetorical display.”

Understatement isn’t likely to awaken anyone’s sense of injustice. Too much of it is also plain dull. The more unlikely figures in Dickens are also the most fun—he’s never just driving home a moral. How we react to them, Heep and Magwitch and the rest, divides us. “Some readers will complain that Dickens has relapsed into ‘mere’ caricature (as though caricature were easy),” wrote Northrop Frye. “Others, more sensibly, simply give up the criterion of lifelikeness and enjoy the creation for its own sake.”

And somehow that giving yourself over to the pleasure of the improbable in Dickens still manages to leave you thinking more honestly about what’s really going on.

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