Why are we still reading Dickens? — Great Expectations “This Love” Video — Charles Dickens speaks to 21st century’s hard times — Dickens Is Back. Watch Your Wallet — Charles Dickens on the Coming Revolution
“Dickens, and the other novelists of Victorian England, …issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together…” Karl Marx
Read Dickens with an open mind and all manner of delights await you…
“We need to read Dickens’s novels: because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are.”
The great Victorian is probably even more ubiquitous now than he was in his lifetime. How he remains such vital reading is an intriguing question
guardian.co.uk, By: Jon Michael Varese, 4 September 2009
It seems that you cannot turn a corner this year without bumping into Charles Dickens. So far we’ve seen the release of four major novels based on the Victorian icon’s life: Dan Simmons’s Drood (February), Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens (March), Richard Flanagan’s Wanting (May), and Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress (July).
Earlier this year BBC1’s lush new production of Little Dorrit was nominated for five Bafta awards in the UK, and 11 Emmys in the US. Newspapers and magazines have run stories on his relevance to the current global economic crisis. And with the Christmas season now only four months away, it seems that there is no getting away from him any time soon.
As someone who teaches and writes about Dickens, the question of why we still read him is something that’s often on my mind. But that question was never more troubling than one day, nearly 10 years ago, when I was standing as a guest speaker in front of a class of about 30 high school students. I had been speaking for about 20 minutes with an 1850 copy of David Copperfield in my hand, telling the students that for Victorian readers, Dickens’s writing was very much a “tune-in-next-week” type of thing that generated trends and crazes, much as their own TV shows did for them today.
Then a hand shot up in the middle of the room. “But why should we still read this stuff?” I was speechless because in that moment I realised that, though I had begun a PhD dissertation on Dickens, I had never pondered the question myself. The answer I gave was acceptable: “Because he teaches you how to think,” I said. But lots of writers can teach you how to think, and I knew that wasn’t really the reason.
The question nagged me for years, and for years I told myself answers, but never with complete satisfaction. We read Dickens not just because he was a man of his own times, but because he was a man for our times as well. We read Dickens because his perception and investigation of the human psyche is deep, precise, and illuminating, and because he tells us things about ourselves by portraying personality traits and habits that might seem all too familiar. His messages about poverty and charity have travelled through decades, and we can learn from the experiences of his characters almost as easily as we can learn from our own experiences.
These are all wonderful reasons to read Dickens. But these are not exactly the reasons why I read Dickens. My search for an answer continued but never with success, until one year the little flicker came – not surprisingly – from another high school student, whose essay I was reviewing for a writing contest. “We need to read Dickens’s novels,” she wrote, “because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are.”
There it was, like a perfectly formed pearl shucked from the dirty shell of my over-zealous efforts – an explanation so simple and beautiful that only a 15-year-old could have written it. I could add all of the decoration to the argument with my years of education – the pantheon of rich characters mirroring every personality type; the “universal themes” laid out in such meticulous and timeless detail; the dramas and the melodramas by which we recognise our own place in the Dickensian theatre – but the kernel of what I truly wanted to say had come from someone else. As is often the case in Dickens, the moment of realisation for the main character here was induced by the forthrightness of another party.
And who was I, that I needed to be told why I was what I was? Like most people, I think I knew who I was without knowing it. I was Oliver Twist, always wanting and asking for more. I was Nicholas Nickleby, the son of a dead man, incurably convinced that my father was watching me from beyond the grave.
I was Esther Summerson, longing for a mother who had abandoned me long ago due to circumstances beyond her control. I was Pip in love with someone far beyond my reach. I was all of these characters, rewritten for another time and place, and I began to understand more about why I was who I was because Dickens had told me so much about human beings and human interaction.
There are still two or three Dickens novels that I haven’t actually read; but when the time is right I’ll pick them up and read them. I already know who it is I’ll meet in those novels – the Mr Micawbers, the Mrs Jellybys, the Ebenezer Scrooges, the Amy Dorrits. They are, like all of us, cut from the same cloth, and at the same time as individual as their unforgettable aptronyms suggest. They are the assurances that Dickens, whether I am reading him or not, is shining a light on who I am during the best and worst of times.
The Victorian novelist wrote about the dangers of greed and the effects of grinding poverty.
To the jaded Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye,” he was the guy responsible for “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” In “The Wire,” he’s the obsession of a philistine, prize-obsessed editor who can’t stop drawing glib parallels between contemporary Baltimore and 19th century London. To Oscar Wilde, the man’s most serious tragedy provoked tears . . . of laughter.
Novelist Charles Dickens, who died in 1870 at 58, has taken a beating over the years. But he appears to be having the last laugh — and not just because he’s gone from being the most popular writer of the Victorian age to the era’s best-read emissary for contemporary readers. He’s become to the boom-and-bust early 21st century what Jane Austen was to the roaring, chick-lit-besotted ’90s.
“Masterpiece” (formerly “Masterpiece Theatre”) devoted its February to May schedule to no fewer than three new Dickens adaptations (“Oliver Twist,” “Little Dorrit” and “The Old Curiosity Shop”) alongside a revival of “David Copperfield,” the novelist’s favorite and most autobiographical book. The authors Dan Simmons and Matthew Pearl have just published takes on Dickens’ unfinished last novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
Newspaper dispatches seem increasingly drawn from his pages, especially from books like “Oliver Twist,” which chronicles crushing urban poverty, and “Little Dorrit,” which follows the main character’s brutal fall in the social order. The phrase “hard times” — the title of one of Dickens’ least characteristic novels but one expressing his abiding concern for children and the poor — shows up in headlines almost daily.
As things get worse, then, Dickens looks better and better.
“The fact that the economy is in free fall,” jokes Rebecca Eaton, “Masterpiece’s” executive producer, “is just lucky for us.”
But even before the recession and its ratcheting up of debt, poverty, homelessness and other familiar Dickensian themes, the author’s work was becoming pertinent in the 21st century.
“Practically every piece of Dickens’ is the story of the corrosive power of money,” Eaton notes, whether it’s “David Copperfield,” or “Great Expectations,” or the author’s most famous work, “A Christmas Carol,” which is best known for Scrooge’s greed.
Eaton adds that the grandfather in “The Old Curiosity Shop” — played by Derek Jacobi in the version that broadcasts May 3 — suffers from compulsive gambling; he’s like today’s day traders.
Jonathan Grossman, an associate professor of English who describes himself as “the Dickens freak at UCLA,” sees a related strain in Dickens. Students often think about the 19th century as being covered in smog and defined by industrialism. “But Dickens was writing about London, which was the capital of finance, with startling parallels to today’s Wall Street,” he says.
“In ‘Martin Chuzzlewit,’ you have a real-estate scam run by a guy forever building castles in the air,” and a company like AIG, whose risky investments tied to subprime mortgages resulted in the company’s disastrous fall and contributed to imperiling the global economy. And “Little Dorrit,” he points out, includes “a financier who everyone worships but who turns out to be running a Ponzi scheme.”
When Grossman was lecturing on this nefarious Mr. Merdle character in his Victorian lit course last winter, Bernard L. Madoff’s grand jury indictment was coming down: “My students couldn’t believe it.”
Made for TV
The 19th century classics have things to recommend them — that’s why they’re classics. But many popular or esteemed Victorian novelists — seen a good Trollope adaptation lately? — haven’t made the transition to the theater or to the contemporary world’s electronic media. By contrast, Dickens is almost perfectly suited to them.
The fact that he wrote for magazine publication, with their cliffhangers and winding plots, suits him well to the television miniseries, and is likely why sophisticated long-form dramas like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” are sometimes called “Dickensian.” His strength as a visual writer — as well as his zest with language and names — Mr. Fezziwig, the Aged P, Squeers and Grandgrind — and his fondness for large canvasses rather than difficult-to-dramatize interior monologues — doesn’t hurt.
Dickens was speaking for himself when he said in an 1858 speech: “Every writer of fiction, though he may not adapt the dramatic form, writes in effect for the stage.” Dickens loved a live audience, giving spirited readings of his work, in the U.S. and elsewhere, nearly up to the day he died.
And as British fantasy novelist Philip Pullman puts it in his “Oliver Twist” introduction timed to Roman Polanski’s surprisingly straightforward 2005 film: “Later in Dickens’ career, he was actually writing for a medium that didn’t yet exist: I mean the cinema.” Scenes from “Bleak House” and “Our Mutual Friend,” Pullman writes, “are nothing less than shooting scripts complete with camera angles, and with stage direction in the appropriate present tense.”
Pullman, whose “His Dark Materials” trilogy many consider the finest fantasy series since Tolkien’s “Ring,” is one of many writers Dickens has influenced or inspired. (The trilogy’s two child-heroes could come right out of “Oliver Twist.”) That list is long and varied: Salman Rushdie’s teeming Bombay (most memorably portrayed in “Midnight’s Children”) has been termed Dickensian, as has Zadie Smith’s comic-ethnic London in “White Teeth” and, before them, the crowded Cairo of Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz.
“People tend to associate Dickens with extreme poverty,” Grossman says, “as well as the entwinement of the rich, the middle-class and the poor. He was famous in his own time for showing their connectedness.”
Chinua Achebe wrote “Things Fall Apart” — still probably the key novel from Africa — after growing up reading Dickens in Nigeria. Los Angeles writer Bruce Wagner, whose work often concentrates on Hollywood, modeled his “I’ll Let You Go” on Dickens. Tom Wolfe compared himself to the master, and vampire queen Anne Rice called Dickens “my hero because he was both a popular writer and a great writer.” Graphic novelist Alan Moore, author of “Watchmen,” included a cameo by Oliver Twist in his Victorian-era “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”
There’s a whole strain of fantasy and YA writers deeply rooted in Dickens, including Neil Gaiman (“Neverwhere”), steampunk writer Philip Reeve (the “Mortal Engines” series) and J.K. Rowling: The every-year-or-two release of the Harry Potter books, with its orphan hero barely escaping plots and traps, was sometimes compared to the ardor of Dickens fans who couldn’t wait to receive a story’s latest installment. (Potter fans take note: “Masterpiece’s” “David Copperfield” stars a 10-year-old Daniel Radcliffe alongside Bob Hoskins and Ian McKellen.)
Dickens, then, hasn’t wanted for readers or for literary offspring. Or for respect in the academy: UCLA’s Grossman said the author’s stock has remained high for decades, though it’s seen differently at various intellectual moments: In the ’80s, “Bleak House” was widely taught, and Dickens’ work was sometimes seen to anticipate the critical theory of Michel Foucault. These days, “Little Dorrit,” with its vision of a globalized economy and its bureaucracy-from-hell called the Circumlocution Office, is esteemed by many scholars. The novel is seen as the precursor to both Kafka’s work and to the scientific discipline of systems theory.
“Masterpiece’s” Eaton wonders if some of Dickens’ hopefulness will get through to people. “He had an almost romantic sense that love will see you through. That may be what’s happening to people now — after being hypnotized by money, we’re snapping out of it. He showed people striving to survive and be good when money was pulling them along.”
Dickens, of course, had a very personal reason to be fascinated with topics like money, class and the heartlessness of large systems. These, after all, were the stories of his life.
Born in Portsmouth, on England’s south coast, in 1812, Dickens watched his father sent to debtors’ prison — Marshalsea, portrayed in “Little Dorrit” — when he was 12. As a boy he devoured picaresque novels, worked briefly pasting labels on jars of shoe polish, and largely taught himself to write before becoming a reporter and publishing work in magazines.
Thanks to his serialized novels of the 1830s — “The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby” — he became an enormous success, traveled to the U.S., and put some of his fame into a push for reform. He became what Grossman calls “the star of the 19th century,” and worked himself almost literally to death.
“Dickens wrote about greed and debts — over and over,” Eaton says. “He himself was deeply scarred by his father’s fecklessness. And then he became a very rich man. And boy, are we in the middle of that now. He wrote about rags to riches, but also about rags to riches to rags.”
The term “Dickensian,” became a kind of punch line in the final season of “The Wire,” set in a decimated Baltimore Sun and a city wracked with childhood poverty. But at least one of the celebrated show’s writers, former Sun reporter Rafael Alvarez, all but worships Dickens. Alvarez read “David Copperfield” as a teenager, and the book taught him to structure a narrative, and he now makes his living writing for the page and the screen. Alvarez respects Dickens’ portrayal of the little man and his sheer powers of entertainment.
“With a commercial run to rival the Beatles,” he says, “he popularized for a mass audience, and shamed the establishment. His characters will live long after the conditions that gave them life have been forgotten.”
If you want to understand the economy, don’t turn to the author of Oliver Twist for answers.
Reason OnLine, Tim Cavanaugh | July 2009
How can Charles Dickens come back if he never went away?
Acolytes of the Victorian novelist have recently arisen to champion his rescue from imaginary obscurity. In a masterful false-consensus lead, an April Los Angeles Times story smacks Dickens’ critics, including Oscar Wilde, The Wire co-creator David Simon, and Holden Caulfield, then reveals that Dickens—currently enjoying a miniseries boom that includes Little Dorrit, Oliver Twist, and The Old Curiosity Shop—is this year’s Jane Austen. The London Times claims, “America is again in the grip of ‘Dickens-mania.’ ” The Boston Globe says Dickens “is hotter than ever.”
Dickens, we’re told, is not just newly popular but newly relevant. A Washington Post puff piece on the PBS program Masterpiece’s adaptation of Little Dorrit declares that a plot line involving an investment swindle is “eerily similar to the situation of those duped by disgraced financier Bernard L. Madoff.” Masterpiece Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton intones, “We are eternally distracted by money,” whose “corrosive power” Dickens well understood.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies, a tireless exhumer of 19th century Brit Lit, opines that Dickens didn’t believe in “using money to make money.” “Mr. Dickens is reading our mail,” writes a columnist for the Culpeper, Virginia, Star-Exponent—referring, confusingly, to A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’ riff on Thomas Carlyle’s riff on the French Revolution. The tea party movement must be bigger than I thought.
With Dan Simmons’ variation on Dickens’ unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood in bookstores and a recent Broadway version of Tale, the “Dickens Is Back” stories write themselves. There’s just one problem: This revival has been going on forever. Long before either bubble or bust, the DVD remainder bins were stuffed with old and new Nicholas Nicklebys, Oliver Twists, David Copperfields, and Great Expectationses. Clogged with talents as varied as David Lean, Roman Polanski, and Daniel Radcliffe, the trail of Dickens adaptations stretches as far into the past as memory goes.
And the future? Only the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come can see that, and lucky for us, A Christmas Carol—Dickens’ most durable franchise, although it gets little mention in recent news coverage—has been produced for the big screen thrice in the last twelvemonth: as an upcoming Jim Carrey vehicle, as a chick flick (Ghost of Girlfriends Past), and as a neoconservative farce that may well be the worst picture ever released (An American Carol).
Audiences tend to stay away from these films, but if you need a prestige-picture workhorse, you can’t do better than Dickens. The early-industrial, little-Britain look of the sets never gets old; the grotesque characters are always game for fresh scenery chewing; and the improbable, coincidence-driven plots (reviled by every generation of readers following the one that read Dickens as he was meant to be read, in cheap periodicals) work beautifully in long-form visual media.
But if Dickens has anything to teach us about money, we’re in trouble. The author’s own career demonstrates the good things that can come in a culture of vigorous lending, borrowing, buying, and selling. (From an impoverished childhood, Dickens rose to record-busting international sales and proto–rock star glory.) Yet the premise underlying all his work is that money grows on trees, that wealth exists in some leprechaun’s mug and never runs out.
Again and again in Dickens’ work, money problems get resolved not through sound financial management or hard work but through patronage. Mr. Brownlow, the rich mark who adopts Oliver Twist, whiles away his days hanging around bookstalls, helping out orphans, and taking trips to the West Indies. The source of his fortune? He’s just rich.
John Jarndyce, of the comically long estate lawsuit that fuels Bleak House’s dense plot, ends up (spoiler alert) with his family fortune eaten up by legal fees. Yet whatever diminution in lifestyle this causes remains unclear. Jarndyce is simply relieved of the burden of all that money, with no loss in his ability to arrange matters happily for good characters.
Even mighty Ebeneezer Scrooge, who at least pays capitalism the respect of constant toil and worry, turns out just to be working too hard. It’s like an early variation of the platitude about wanting what you have instead of having what you want. Scrooge just has to stop being so concerned with money, and then Tiny Tim will become miraculously uncrippled. (Or so it seems; the book is nebulous on Tiny Tim’s fate. Adaptations have taken various views, with some going so far as to have the unfortunately named tyke throw off his crutches, Lourdes-style.)
As a journalist, Dickens had inklings of where money gets made. In a wonderful reversal in Great Expectations, the eponymous fortune comes not from several expected sources but from the convict Magwitch, whom we earlier saw transported to Australia. Tellingly, it’s never explained how he got rich. Apparently, just farming down under for a few years will fill up your Swiss bank account.
George Mason University economist David M. Levy has tracked some of Dickens’ creepier predilections, including his curious hatred of the anti-slavery movement. “Dickens is attacking classical economics from the right,” Levy says. “But right-wing attacks on markets are very popular on the left.”
There are feudal elements in Dickensomics, a fondness for a universe where everything stays in its proper place. G.K. Chesterton shrewdly praised one of Dickens’ literary virtues that others might treat as a vice: that his characters by and large do not change in the course of the story. But what comes across most clearly is a journalist’s fake sophistication about money, a belief that the wealth just somehow exists and needs only to get to the right people (or be returned to them, sometimes after being retrieved from Jews and moneylenders).
It’s a boom-time mentality, the kind of thing you can only believe when you are, as Dickens was, well into a period of massive wealth creation, so that you have come to take good fortune for granted. If that’s Dickens’ lesson for our Hard Times, somebody ought to call CNBC.
Revolution Radio Org: Posted on Sep 1, 2009 by Paul Martin
by Jeff Snyder
It is not morning in America…
Those who want to ponder the possibility of the things that can’t happen here may want to spend some time looking to literature and history in their reflection on current events, for a little additional perspective and illumination. At times during the last year I could not help but recall Charles Dickens’ famous description of the behavior of the ruling class and wealthy in the days preceding the French Revolution.
It is an accomplishment of the best of our times that the times Dickens describes no longer seem so very different from our own, some horrific state of affairs that existed once, long ago, but which, mercifully, could never happen under so resplendent a democracy as ours, founded as it is on respect for the rights of man. I am referring, of course, to A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and particularly to Dickens’ portrayal of French society in Book II, Chapter 7, “Monseigneur in Town.”
For those who aren’t familiar with it, the story is a romance. One of the lovers, the man, is a decent enough fellow but, unfortunately for him, a member of a hated aristocratic family. He, his lover and her father must escape France and the fury of the mob. A not uncommon predicament at that time, apparently, as it is estimated that about 160,000 fled France during the Revolution, most of them aristocrats and clergy.
As a novelist, Dickens was not trying to provide an analytical or historical explanation of the causes of the French Revolution. His task was simply to provide sufficient context so that his readers would understand the long pent-up rage breaking forth, sweeping the Ancien Régime away in a tsunami of blood and destruction, and his readers would feel the lovers’ great peril.
I have reprinted the chapter below. There is much that could be said about Dickens’ portrait of French society in the days before the Revolution, but the reader will enjoy mulling it over for himself. I think it worthwhile to draw attention to a few notable aspects.
First, while Dickens certainly alludes to, and occasionally describes, the extremes of wealth and poverty of that time, it is not this great discrepancy, but the behavior and attitudes of the upper classes that are the focal points of his description of pre-revolutionary French society. It is a great example of the subtlety of Dickens’ social and political observation. He tacitly recognizes that it is not the poverty of the masses, or the great wealth of the upper classes per se, but the way the upper classes behave and the way they treat the masses, that fuels the coming violence.
His portrait of this behavior is scathing. The preoccupations and diversions of their own class are their greatest care, and the basis for their administration of the state:
“Monseigneur was out at a little supper most nights, with fascinating company. So polite and so impressible was Monseigneur, that the Comedy and the Grand Opera had far more influence with him in the tiresome articles of state affairs and state secrets, than the needs of all France. . . . Monseigneur had one truly noble idea of general public business, which was, to let everything go on in its own way; of particular public business, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea that it must all go his way – tend to his own power and pocket.”
The bubble world they have constructed for themselves, that they travel and live in, is so artificial, so isolated and shielded from the realities of everyday life and the conditions of human life that their own lives have become “unconnected with anything that [is] real.” or any “true earthly end.” While a few exceptional people among them have begun to have “some vague misgiving . . . that things in general were going rather wrong,” their focus and activities remain fixed on their own well-being. Their efforts to address this unease are of a “spiritual” nature, completely inward and self-absorbed:
“Besides these Dervishes, were other three who had rushed into another sect, which mended matters with a jargon about ‘the Centre of Truth:’ holding that Man had got out the Centre of Truth – which did not need much demonstration – but had not out of the Circumference, and that he was to be kept from flying out of the Circumference, and was even to be shoved back into the Centre, by fasting and seeing of spirits.”
Not for one instant does it occur to them to question, address or alter the actual way in which they live their lives, the conditions of their fellow man, or the fundamental structure of their society.
Certainly the upper classes don’t feel any kinship with the people, or feel that they, with them, are a part of some overall common society. Expecting that degree of feeling would be completely utopian. No, the French upper classes don’t recognize that they have anything to do with the people. The people are a completely different, and lower, order of being. They are not even human. When describing the aristocratic perspective, Dickens refers to the people as “dogs,” and “rats.”
And yet this indifference to and disassociation with their fellow man, this elevating conceit of the upper classes really is remarkable, and a fatal flaw, because the reality is that their wealth in fact comes from the people, from their labor and production, and the fate of the upper classes ultimately depends upon, and is completely bound up in, the condition of the people.
While our own ruling class may not have reached the extreme of behavior described by Dickens, we can see some degree of semblance of this indifference and disregard in the business practices of the last few decades. For example, over the last three decades, American companies eliminated manufacturing jobs here and had their goods made abroad, thereby lowering production costs, lowering prices and increasing sales and profits. What happened to the American skilled laborers who lost their jobs? Not the companies’ problem.
Dickens’ description of consequences visited upon the common people by the actions of the upper classes is as accurate for America as it was for pre-revolutionary France: “In this matter, as in all others, the common wretches were left to get out of their difficulties as they could.” (Don’t think that, unlike then, the “safety net” provided by our welfare state makes some kind of difference. That prevents people from starving, at least as long as enough people still have jobs to pay the taxes that fund the programs. It does not create new productive enterprises that replace the lost ones.)
While moving manufacturing to low-cost venues abroad seemed a really good idea for the individual company, the reality was that this was not just the bright idea of one company, it fast became the bright idea of many manufacturers. So while the strategy promised increased profits, if enough Americans ceased making anything that people, somewhere in the world, wanted to buy, if enough Americans suffered this type of fate, who in America was going to buy all these goods, even at reduced prices?
Judging by the results, it would appear that factoring the long-term social and macroeconomic consequences of one’s business strategies into the formulation of those strategies is not a key lesson of the curriculum at America’s premier business schools or Fortune 500 internship, mentoring and manager training programs.
Yet, if they’re not taken into account, if they’re always someone else’s problem, at some point the common wretches’ problems will become the companies’ problems, possibly at the point that they overwhelm everything else. If your business strategy is based on playing the timing game of get while the getting is good and the rest be damned, at some point time runs out, and the heap of money that you’ve made before that date may not really be enough to weather the storm, and may vanish in an instant. See, e.g., current events.
The final aspect of Dickens’ portrait that I wish to highlight is the blindness of the upper classes to the coming bloodbath, and the apparent unshakable security of their position almost right up to the day it breaks. They have no sense that they are pushing people closer and closer to the brink, and never have the slightest doubt but that they are secure in the power that their position and wealth confers, and their insulation from the conditions of the rest of their society. As Dickens portrays it, even at the edge of the precipice, there is still no sign of their danger or impending doom, and it seems that things will just go on the same way forever.
We see this in the second part of the chapter, where a Marquis’ carriage runs over a small child in the streets of Paris, and the carriage stops to secure the horses. A crowd forms around the Marquis’s carriage, but Dickens notes that “[t]here was nothing revealed by the many eyes that looked at him but watchfulness and eagerness; there was no visible menacing or anger.”
The Marquis is imperial and speaks to people in the crowd, but does not doubt for one instant the security of his position. Nor would he have any cause to do so for, as Dickens notes, “[s]o cowed was their condition, and so long and hard their experience of what such a man could do to them, within the law and beyond it, that not a voice, or a hand, or even an eye was raised.”
It seems such people could never rise up to overthrow anything. The people have been brought so low, so reined in that they have no option but to continue paying, carrying and kowtowing to this predatory and useless class. But the reader knows, as the Marquis does not, that this is an illusion, that the pressure is growing, that the tighter the controls, the worse they are treated, the harder they are squeezed, the greater the coming explosion will be. The reader knows, as the Marquis does not, the dam will soon break and these people, silent and cowed today, will be part of a bloodthirsty mob tomorrow.
The facts that there are no rumblings of revolt, no outbreaks of hostility, no displays of anger, that the people are as subdued and tractable, as fully under thumb as ever, are absolutely no indication that all is well, that matters are not coming to a head. This, of course, is what makes the disconnectedness and self-absorbed, self-regard of the upper classes all the more dangerous and, ultimately, fatal.
Dickens sees that, for those living at that time, the French Revolution was not a gradual, unfolding series of events, each more clearly foretelling the horror to come, but a sudden, complete rupture of the social order, cataclysmic, like an earthquake. The ground is solid, permanent, fixed and unmoving; nothing is more stable or certain. Yet underneath the pressure is building until one day it reaches a point where the plates suddenly slip. The earth moves, a chasm may open beneath one’s feet, and the landscape is forever altered.
It is because Dickens shows life shortly before the Revolution proceeding the same as ever, that the concluding words of his chapter are so powerful: “all things ran their course.” The aristocrats are attending their Fancy Ball and “the rats,” meaning the people, “are sleeping in their dark holes.” Nothing has changed. There are no new developments that give cause for concern. Life is proceeding in the same way, everything is as it should be, all’s right with the world and it’s bright and wonderful and marvelous. Yet, as readers with the hindsight of history, we know where this course leads, and how it ends.
September 1, 2009
The Atlantic: Four Months with Charles Dickens, November 1870
Perfect People: Charles Dickens Videos
PBS Masterpiece Classic: Little Dorrit (Video)