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.


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

  1. We are offered no end of economic commentary these days … most of it assuming 
    that it is right and good that the population in general should be happy to serve as
    cannon fodder to The Economy. Only rarely is there an attempt to describe the effect
    on the lives of real people. For that we are usually required to seek for the truth in fiction.

  2. Everything we believe about Xmas involves Dickens….even though Xmas has long since turned into a gaudy-grubby consumer binge.

    And we’ve never solved the problem of poverty and blighted lives.

    Not Dicken’s fault, but true nonetheless.

  3. It’s an important reminder as to what was poor back then and what is “poor” in North America today.  Our free market system has allowed all of us to enjoy a standard of living unimaginable 200 years ago.  While a social safety net is important, we should never let the politics of envy destroy the best wealth creating system of our ages.

    The fact that before he died Steve Jobs enjoyed a lifestyle few of us could imagine doesn’t negate the fact that his technology is enjoyed by most, that “poor” households in the US on average have 2 TV’s, and no one is close to starving in North America.

    And let us never forget the horrors of the socialist “paradises” created in the former eastern bloc countries, Cuba, North Korea, the heart of which was the goal of wealth equality.   Thankfully all but the most sheltered in our society – academics and journalists, sheltered from the basic notions of math, supply and demand etc. free to dream of socialist utopias unfettered from the bounds of reality – know that the goal of forced government equality means that all are equal to languish in economic despair.

    Thank you Mr. Dickens for some important perspective at a time when the academic elites are once again seeking to pave, with good intentions, a road to hell for us all.

    • Now go look up how many ‘children in America’ are on foodstamps at best, and living on the street at worst.

      But I’m sure you can always throw a crust or a coin from your carriage.

      On edit….Dicken’s England btw was a totally capitalist society.

    • “It’s an important reminder as to what was poor back then and what is “poor” in North America today.”

      Spot on.

      Dickens is reminder why capitalism is awesome and makes our lives less nasty, brutish and short while Canada’s recent shift towards socialism is going to lead us back to times that Dickens would recognize.

      • I find it odd that someone using The Clash’s London Calling as an avatar is griping about socialism. And when did this shift “recently” happen, exactly? Very little of what you wrote there makes any sense.
        I suggest you go back and listen to what Joe Strummer was saying. “All the power’s in the hands of the people rich enough to buy it” — White Riot, 1977.

  4. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

  5. Dickens’ social message is touching, no doubt, but what impresses me is the power and finesse of the writing.  English being a second language, I will reread a well-crafted sentence and appreciate it as much as a sip of the finest wine.  The poverty we have now is also one of style and thoughtfullness.

    I was having this argument with some Québécois about G.-E. Cartier.  As we were exchanging lengthy quotes from the Parliamentary Debates (1865) I was overpowered by the quality of the discourse, the thoughtfullness given to what these people were saying.  The pace of life was far different then.  I may be a hopeless romantic but I think that even in the Twitter era Dickens would do much better than Tony Clement.

  6. In commemoration, a Canadian connection story about Mr. C. Dickens:

    As bit of a counter balance to Mr. Dickens’s vaunted sensitivity in matters of the disadvantaged, a recent Canadian documentary on John Rae’s heroic trek into the Arctic to determine the cause and fate of the lost Franklin Expedition also had a “Making of” program concurrently produced.  Anyhow, one scene in the Making Of show featured a confrontation/reconciliation between an Inuit elder & statesman and the great grandson of Charles Dickens.  It was painful to watch, because the younger Dickens had no idea what was being dished up for him.  He was all Brit modest/proud about representing his famous ancestor, smiling sheepishly & making ironic comments.  Well, it turns out that the Inuit gentleman had a bit of bee in his bonnet/bone to pick with the descendant Dickens.  The naughty elder Dickens apparently did not have very nice things to write about the Inuit that were living close to where Franklin’s ship went down and he used them as scapegoats because they were conveniently far away & did not have an active presence on Fleet Street.  Unsurprisingly, the Inuit were very displeased to hear they had been so viciously disparaged and the Inuit gentleman was not about to let this opportunity pass without airing his people’s grievance.  Oh, did he let the hapless Dickens have it!!  To see the deflation of the younger Dickens’s pride in his famed ancestor! I can assure you it only gets better in the jouissance.  Now that was TV, my friends.  
    To be fair, a reconciliation was affected with an appropriate exchange of apologies graciously accepted and looks of relief all around.  I could go on and on about the psycodynamics in the room.  I pvr’d it and watched it several times.  Anthropology caught on film.   Sweet.

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