Charles Dickens is to Victorian England what Shakespeare is to Renaissance England: he typifies the period his writings disclose and expose. The greatest comic genius of his age, Dickens relentlessly calls for reform at every level, implores us to embrace the disadvantaged for our own good, and offers the values of a loving heart and the image of a warm hearth as the emblem of the solution to the cruel and mindless indifference of a society given over to the pursuit of "money, money, money, and what money can make of life," as Bella Wilfer says in Our Mutual Friend.
Born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7, 1812, the second of John and Elizabeth Dickens's eight children, Charles was raised with the assumption that he would receive an education and, if he worked hard, might some day come to live at Gad's Hill Place, the finest house on the main road between Rochester and Gravesend. But John Dickens, on whom Mr. Micawber is based, moved the family to London in 1823, fell into financial disaster, was arrested for debt and imprisoned in the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison. Charles was forced to go to work at Warren's Blacking Factory at Hungerford Stairs labeling bottles. In his Life of Charles Dickens, John Forster shares the fragment of Dickens's autobiography upon which David Copperfield's Murdstone and Grinby experiences are based:
It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. It is wonderful to me, that, even after my descent into the poor little drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion on me -- a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally -- to suggest that something might have been spared, as certainly it might have been, to place me at any common school. Our friends, I take it, were tired out. No one made any sign. My father and mother were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge.
Dickens himself did not know how long this ordeal lasted, "whether for a year, or much more, or less"; surely it must have seemed as if it would last forever to this sensitive twelve-year-old boy and it so seared his psyche that Dickens the man never "until I impart it to this paper [a full quarter century later], in any burst of confidence to anyone, my own wife not excepted, raised the curtain I then dropped, thank God."
Dickens was able to continue his education after his father received a legacy from a relative and was released from the Marshalsea. Charles attended Wellington House Academy from 1824 to 1826 before taking work as a clerk in Gray's Inn for two years. In order to qualify himself to become a newspaper parliamentary reporter, Dickens spent eighteen months studying shorthand, a perfect command of which was "equal in difficulty to the mastery of six languages," he was cautioned, and studying in the reading room of the British Museum. He won a reputation for his quickness and accuracy during his two years (1828-1830) as a reporter in the court of Doctors' Commons before reporting for the True Sun and the Mirror Parliament and finally becoming a reporter for the Morning Chronicle in 1834.
Dickens's first published piece appeared in the December, 1833, number of the Monthly Magazine , followed by nine others, the last two appearing over the signature "Boz," a pseudonym Dickens adopted from a pet name for his younger brother. These sketches were collected into two volumes and published on Dickens's twenty-fourth birthday, February 7, 1836, as Sketches by Boz. Illustrative of Everyday Life and Everyday People. Dickens's skills as an observant reporter intimately familiar with middle and lower class London are demonstrated in these descriptive vignettes of everyday life, which also reveal his high humor and his deep concern for social justice, qualities that will dominate his novels.
On April 2, 1836, Dickens married Catherine
Hogarth, daughter of George Hogarth, with whom Dickens worked on the Morning
Chronicle . Catherine and Charles had ten children before they
separated in 1858. Mary Hogarth, Catherine's beautiful younger sister,
joined the Dickens household shortly after the honeymoon. Mary's death,
at seventeen years of age, in Dickens's arms established in his mind an
image of ideal womanhood that never left him. The ring he took from Mary's
dead finger remained on his hand until his own death.
The introduction of Sam Weller into the fourth number of Pickwick Papers (1836-37) launched the most popular literary career in the history of the language. Pickwick Papers became a publishing phenomenon, selling forty thousand copies of every issue. Published in twenty monthly installments, Pickwick took England by storm: Judges read it on the bench, doctors in the carriages between visiting patients, boys on the street. Carlyle tells Forster the story of a clergyman who, after consoling a sick person, was alarmed to hear the patient exclaim, upon the clergyman's leaving the sickroom, "Well, Thank God, Pickwick will be out in ten days anyway!" People named their pet animals after characters in the novel; there were Pickwick hats, cigars, and coats, and innumerable plays and sequels based on the original.
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick
Club chronicle the amusing misadventures of Mr. Pickwick, a lovable
innocent who seeks to discover the world with his youthful companions,
parodies of the lover, the sportsman, and the poet. While the Papers
begin as a hilarious romp parodying the eighteenth-century novels Dickens
had pored over as a child, they eventually assume a shape rising to the
mythic level of great literature. Pickwick's education, under the guidance
of Sam Weller, his streetwise, Cockney manservant, leads him to the discovery
of the world of shyster lawyers, guile, corruption, vice, and imprisonment.
The comic exuberance of
Pickwick dominates this dark underside,
though, and the sheer energy and wonderful good humor of the Papers
carries the sunny day. There are, however, the Interpolated Tales of madness,
betrayal, and murder, and Mr. Pickwick is forced to become a prisoner in
his own room in the Fleet, for three months. The horrors young Charles
Dickens had witnessed as a boy working in the blacking warehouse while
his father was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea are not eliminated
from Pickwick's world; indeed, his awareness of their existence is what
allows Mr. Pickwick to become a fully loving, if finally not fully effective
human being, who, with Sam's help, can see reality and relieve evil--to
the best of his limited abilities.
Even as Pickwick Papers was enjoying its huge success, Dickens started Oliver Twist; or The Parish Boy's Progress in January, 1837; it continued in monthly numbers through 1838. In Oliver , Dickens explores the social evils attendant upon a political economy that made pauperism the rule rather than the exception. Oliver flees the cruel Sowerbys where he is apprenticed as an undertaker, having been sold to them by the workhouse for daring to ask for more -- food, love, nutrition, warmth -- and seeks his fortune in the criminal slum world of London proper. Befriended by the irrepressible Artful Dodger, he discovers warmth and good humor in Fagin's den, among thieves, pickpockets, prostitutes, and burglars. Dickens presents an unrelenting portrait of the filth and squalor that surround poverty and, refusing to romanticize the criminal world, at the same time makes it clear that this sector has been abandoned by society just as surely as Oliver and the other Parish Boys have been abandoned by an unresponsive system. This is the world the young Dickens saw at the blacking warehouse.
The contrasting world of the Brownlows and
the Maylies may serve to rescue Oliver from the corruption of Fagin and
the brutality of Sikes, but the other boys in Fagin's gang--who have been
nurtured better by Fagin than Oliver's fellows had been in the workhouse--will
remain abandoned. Rose Maylie, Dickens's first resurrection of Mary Hogarth,
is discovered to be Oliver's aunt and Oliver is returned to her through
Nancy's intervention, When Bill Sikes learns of Nancy's betrayal of him
and the gang, Dickens has Sikes brutally murder her. Dickens's almost compulsive
public reading of the death of Nancy some thirty years later--readings
that shortened his own life--seems an insistent reminder to his public
that this problem has not been successfully addressed. The social system
has victimized Nancy
and Sikes just as surely as the Poor Law has
failed Oliver. There may be Brownlows and Maylies who can intervene individually
and occasionally--and miraculously--in the lives of some Olivers, but the
masses of screaming mobs hot in pursuit of Sikes for the murder of Nancy
need to know how those destructive forces can be reversed. Sikes has been
as brutalized by that society as Nancy has been by him. Dickens's novels
seek to help us understand this and to do something about it, as a society.
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby , appearing in twenty numbers from April, 1838, to October, 1839, returns to the comic exuberance and vitality of Pickwick Papers. Dickens is exposing the cruelty and exploitation of children in the Cheap Schools in Yorkshire, immortalized in the portrayal of Wackford Squeers at Dotheboys Hall. In Nickleby Dickens brings together the serious issues of social reform he addresses in Oliver Twist with the rollicking humor and vast landscape of humanity he presents in Pickwick Papers . The public responded enthusiastically with sales reaching fifty thousand.
Fearing the public might weary of long novels like Pickwick and Nickleby in twenty monthly installments, Dickens decided to embark on a publication resembling the Spectator , which would come out weekly and allow him--with the help of others--"to write amusing essays on the various foibles as they arise" and to introduce new characters, along with Pickwick and Sam Weller, to comment on passing events. Thus was born Master Humphrey's Clock (1840-41), a weekly magazine, the first number of which sold seventy thousand copies. However, as sales dropped off due to the lack of a sustained story, Dickens introduced the story of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity
Shop (1840), beginning with the fourth
number of Master Humphrey's Clock and resuming intermittently until
the ninth chapter, at which point it continued uninterrupted. The story
of the innocent Nell surrounded by surrealistic figures like Quilp and
his gang and continuing onto a nightmarish journey through the industrial
inferno with her half-crazed, gambleholic grandfather calls forth all of
Dickens's original genius. The death of Nell, based on the death of Mary
Hogarth, caused a nation to weep and skyrocketed sales to 100,000 copies.
The publication of The Old Curiosity Shop secured Dickens's success
not only in England but in America, where he was now famous as well.
Dickens followed The Old Curiosity Shop with Barnaby Rudge
(1841), also published weekly in Master Humphrey's
Clock . Set in the time of the Gordon Riots of 1780, this represents
Dickens's first attempt to write an historical novel. While the riots themselves
were inflamed by anti-Catholic sentiment, Dickens suggests throughout the
novel that they are actually an outburst of social protest. Dickens is
appalled by the mob violence he brilliantly depicts in the brutal riots,
but he expresses deep sympathy for the oppressed who are driven to such
lengths by an indifferent and unresponsive system. Dickens himself was
becoming increasingly impatient with England's political economy, which
he perceives as insensitive to the needs of the people, and is indignant
with the social conditions he sees around him. While he does not advocate
a violent outburst from those who are the victims of this oppression, the
explosive energy of the riot scenes in Barnaby offers a vision of
what is possible if the needs of the people are not addressed.
Upon completing Barnaby Rudge Dickens visited
America where he was absolutely lionized. However, after several attacks
on him for his insistent speaking out in favor of international copyright
laws and after further acquaintance with American ill breeding and overly
familiar intrusion on his and Catherine's privacy, Dickens became disenchanted
with his own vision of America as a land of freedom that was fulfilling
a democratic ideal. In American Notes (1842) he expresses his reservations
about America, much to the chagrin of his American audience.
With The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit
, Dickens returned to monthly numbers publishing in twenty installments
from January, 1843, to July, 1844. Martin Chuzzlewit is organized
around the theme of selfishness, and marks an advance in Dickens's development
as a novelist. However, sales dropped off to twenty thousand; in an effort
to increase sales, Dickens sends Martin to America where Martin discovers
the boorish behavior Dickens had only gently portrayed in American Notes
. But if Dickens is scathing in his portrayal of America in Chuzzlewit
, he is even fiercer in exposing greed, selfishness, hypocrisy, and corruption
in his homeland. He is able to sustain this satiric exposure with his comic
genius, creating here characters who have achieved a reality beyond their
pages. Sairey Gamp is no less real for us than Mrs. Harris is for her,
and Pecksniff's name has entered the language as descriptive of hypocritical
In December, 1843, Dickens published the most
popular and beloved of his works, A Christmas Carol, a work that
expresses succinctly his "Carol philosophy." Scrooge has sacrificed joy,
love, and beauty for the pursuit of money and is representative of a society
whose economic philosophy dooms the less fortunate to lives of want and
oppression. The ghosts help him to a Wordsworthian recollection of youth
and the promise of a better being, and as a result, Scrooge's imagination
is extended sympathetically beyond himself and he is redeemed. Dickens's
vision of a society redeemed through love and generosity will haunt his
works from now on. The alternative to this vision seems to be the threat
of revolutionary violence we see in Brandy Rudge .
Dickens traveled to Italy in 1844-45 and then
to Switzerland and Paris in 1846. His next Christmas book, The Chimes
(1844), continued the assault on the economic philosophy exposed in
Christmas Carol. Dickens ridicules Malthusian philosophy and the economic
theory that the poor have no right to anything beyond meager subsistence.
He is coming increasingly to believe that the social problems in England
are an inevitable byproduct of an economic philosophy that is fundamentally
wrong-minded. The Cricket and the Hearth (1845) and The Battle
of Life (1846) continue the Christmas books, and Pictures from Italy
recounts Dickens's impressions of his Italian travel.
Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son
appeared in seventeen monthly numbers from January, 1847, through April
1848, the last being a double number. In this work Dickens is able to integrate
his criticism of the social philosophy dominating nineteenth-century England
into the structure of the novel itself, as he will continue to do in Bleak
House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend. Dombey
and Son investigates the callous indifference of an economic system
that places the cash nexus before human relations. Mr. Dombey, who represents
the enterprising nineteenth century businessman, rejects the love of his
daughter in favor of the son who will become heir to the firm. Dombey's
universe collapses around him as his son dies, he drives his daughter away,
his second wife leaves him, his business goes bankrupt, and he loses his
fortune. Like Scrooge, though, Dombey is redeemed by memory and remorse--and
the loving forgiveness of his daughter.
The importance of memory once again becomes central
to Dickens's next Christmas book, The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain
(1848), the tale of a man who gets his wish to lose all memory of sorrow
at the expense of losing the attendant sensibility that comes with the
loss of memory. This Wordsworthian concern for the importance of recollection
of the past and the healing influence of memory--even the memory of sorrow
and grief--comes to be central for Dickens, as he has his story conclude
with the prayer, "Lord, Keep my Memory Green."
It is at this time that Dickens is writing the autobiographical fragment he shares with Forster and which he mined for his most autobiographical novel, The Personal History of David Copperfield , published in twenty monthly installments from May, 1849, to November, 1850, the last issue being a double number. David Copperfield opens with David, the narrator, indicating that the pages of his book must show whether he will turn out to be the hero of his own life. After overcoming the brutal experiences based on Dickens's own experience at the blacking warehouse, David eventually marries, sets up household, establishes a growing reputation as a novelist, and yet discovers "a vague unhappy loss or want of something" in his life. He wonders if this unhappiness is the result of his having given in to "the first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart" by marrying his child-wife, or if it is representative of the human condition. He does know it would have been better if his wife "could have helped me more, and shared the many thoughts to which I had no partner; and that this might have been; I knew."
Dickens was himself experiencing a similar sense of vague dissatisfaction at this time and may have wondered if his wife were not partly responsible. Whether she was or whether Dickens was experiencing the angst that every major Victorian thinker suffered from we cannot know. David's problem is settled by Dora's early death and David's recognition that Agnes has loved him all along and that on a level he was not aware of he had loved her too. They marry, have a lovely family, and share a fulfilled existence.
The novel ends with David's apostrophe to his true wife: "Oh Agnes, Oh my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!" In his Preface to the novel, Dickens talks about "dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world" as he finishes David Copperfield. Both Dickens and David equate the world of vision with the world of actuality--one is as impermanent as the other. For David, Agnes is pointing to a world he hopes lasts beyond the worlds of shadow. In 1842, Dickens had written to Forster in response to the overwhelming triumph of his welcome in Boston: "I feel, in the best aspects of this welcome, something of the presence and influence of that spirit which directs my life, and through a heavy sorrow has pointed upward with unchanging finger for more than four years past." He is referring, of course, to Mary Hogarth.
In the novel, David is able to realize his ideal vision, actually to possess the beauty that is his inspiration and end as artist. Mary Hogarth becomes, for Dickens, an idealized vision of beauty that cannot be possessed, but she serves "as a presence and influence of that spirit that directs" Dickens's life. Whether that ideal can be attained beyond this realm is not the issue. The ideal has allowed David to become the hero of his life, not by possessing the ideal but by acting on its inspiration. David the artist becomes artist as the result of realizing his imaginative vision, of creating art. In the act of creating art he possesses the vision.
The world David is born into is flawed.
He experiences the evil of the world, deeply at Murdstone and Grinby's,
and escapes it. In his adult world he participates in the evil, contributes
to it, unwittingly, as when he introduces Steerforth to the Peggottys and
brings ruin upon that innocent house. He feels responsible for Dora's death,
the loss of Em'ly, Steerforth, and Ham. But in the end he is able, with
Agnes's help, to put his universe back together. He has been involved in
a struggle, with his undisciplined heart on the one hand, with active evil
in the form of Uriah Heep on the other. Agnes tells David that she believes
simple love and truth will prevail over evil in the end. It will, for Dickens,
only if goodness has the measure of evil and if good people are willing
to use their creative energy to work hard to realize that goodness. The
evil that David experienced as a child on the streets of London sharpened
his wits so that, for example, David is able to catch Uriah staring at
him while pretending to write, on their first encounter. And as a result
of David's experience on the streets, he has the help of Mr. Micawber in
defeating Uriah in his scheme to take over the Wickfield firm, indeed to
take over the world of the novel. David's first-hand experience with the
evil streets of London as a boy gives him the knowledge and wherewithal
to take the measure of evil. His imaginative creativity, inspired by Agnes,
allows him to order his universe. The very powers that allow David Copperfield
to succeed as hero are the powers that allow Dickens to create David
Copperfield . He will extend those powers beyond the world of the novel
to continue to address the evils of a social system that is oppressive
and life denying.
Dickens extended his capacity to address social issues and to provide entertainment by founding Household Words , a weekly magazine that first appeared on March 30, 1850, and continued until he replaced it with All the Year Round , which he founded and edited in 1859.
In 1850 he also helped to establish the
Guild of Literature and Art to create an endowment for struggling artists.
Money was raised for the Guild through amateur theatrical performances
that Dickens usually performed in, directed, and managed. Dickens was a
brilliant actor and loved the stage, producing plays throughout his career
as fund raisers for the many charitable concerns he worked tirelessly to
support. His love for the theater culminated in his captivating public
readings from his own novels.
Bleak House , appearing in twenty monthly installments from March, 1852, to September, 1853, is a scathing indictment of government, law, philanthropy, religion, and society in nineteenth century England. The organizing principle of the plot is the hopelessly entangled lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which destroys the lives of all who become enmeshed in the Court of Chancery through the suit. The legal system is exposed as itself a symptom of what is wrong with a society that is structurally flawed. The mud, ooze, slime, and fog that symbolically dominate the world of this novel suggest that this society cannot be redeemed through a simple restructuring. The spontaneous combustion of Krook, the counterpart of the Lord Chancellor, indicates that this society must be fundamentally altered or it will explode of its own internal corruption. Jo, the crossing sweep, has neither the energy nor the tools to sweep away the mud and slime into which the slum of Tom-all-Alone's is crumbling. And Tom-all-Alone's is infecting all of London, just as surely as Jo's smallpox infects the novel's heroine, Esther Summerson.
If this society is to be redeemed, Dickens
insists, it will be through the values represented by Esther Summerson.
Jo's broom cannot sweep away the mud of Tom-all-Alone's, but the clarity
and warmth of Esther's sympathetic love may be capable, if it becomes contagious,
of illuminating this world and dissipating the fog. Esther and Allan Woodcourt,
the physician who attends Jo at his death, marry, and we believe that their
family can contain, in miniature, the order and love that must be transmitted
to the larger society if it is to be saved. But Dickens is not sure, at
this point, if what Esther and Allan represent can withstand the evils
of London: they set up household in a country cottage, provided by the
benevolent John Jarndyce, Esther's guardian.
In order to improve the sales of Household
Words , which had started to slip in 1854, Dickens began to publish
a new serial in weekly installments in that magazine. Hard Times. For
These Times , an assault on the industrial greed and political economy
that exploits the working classes and deadens the soul, ran from April
1 to August 12, 1854. The Gradgrind philosophy, based on Facts, Facts,
Facts of utilitarian calculus, is demonstrated as being not only cruel
and destructive to the workers--"hands"--it dehumanizes and exploits but
humanly inadequate to the Gradgrind family it purportedly serves. Mrs.
Gradgrind sees that her husband has missed something, "not an ology at
all," in his life, and Louisa and her brother Tom, "the whelp," are nearly
destroyed by the mechanical philosophy of Gradgrindery. Sissy Jupe, who
grew up among Sleary's Horse Riding Circus, represents the imaginative
creativity and generosity that the Gradgrind family miss. The union of
Sissy and Loo, at the conclusion of the novel, is emblematic of what Dickens
believes industrial England needs: "let me lay this head of mine upon a
loving heart," Loo says to Sissy at the end.
The Crimean War, which broke out in March, 1854,
prevented the government from addressing the domestic social ills Dickens
had been railing against since at least as early as Oliver Twist. The
inept government, which cannot seem to get beyond just muddling along,
is captured brilliantly in the portrayal of the Circumlocution Office in
Dorrit , published in monthly numbers from December, 1855, to June,
1857. The dominant symbol of the novel is imprisonment, and society itself
becomes the prison of its inhabitants. Dickens had begun the novel, significantly,
with the title "Nobody's Fault" in mind, but later entitled the work after
its heroine, Amy Dorrit. Amy is the daughter of the "Father of the Marshalsea,"
who has been confined in debtors' prison for twenty five years. Arthur
Clennam, whose gloomy childhood resembles what David Copperfield's would
have been had he been raised by the Murdstones, is a middle-aged man looking
for meaning in life. Clennam and Little Dorrit escape the imprisonment
of this stultifying society by discovering their love for each other, a
love that is difficult to discover since Arthur is so much older than Amy
and she has the goodness, and physical resemblance, of a child. Importantly
for Dickens, Arthur and Amy are willing to engage the fallen society of
London and to attempt to change it. After their wedding Arthur and Amy
"went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and
as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and
the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made
their usual uproar." Unlike Esther Summerson and her husband, Arthur and
Amy stay in London where they live "a modest life of usefulness and happiness."
On April 30, 1859, Dickens launched the weekly
journal, All the Year Round . To get the journal off to a good start,
the first installment of A Tale of Two Cities appeared in the inaugural
issue and continued in weekly installments until November 26, 1859. Set
in the time of the French Revolution, this novel once again looks at the
potential for revolutionary violence Dickens had explored in Barnaby
Rudge . If the ruling class in England does not take seriously the
lesson of the French Revolution, Dickens appears to be saying, such a violent
outburst is possible again. While Dickens deplores violence, his sympathies
are clearly with the victims of oppression. Only the kind of sacrificial
love represented by Sydney Carton's willing sacrifice of himself for his
loved ones will be able to prevent such a revolution if society continues
along its present course
In an effort to pick up declining sales of All the Year Round , Dickens once again published a novel in weekly installments of the journal. Great Expectations ran from December 1, 1860, to August 3, 1861. Dickens and Catherine had recently separated after over twenty years of marriage. Perhaps in an attempt to come to terms with his personal unhappiness, Dickens returns to the first person narrator in Great Expectations. To assure that he did not fall into "unconscious repetition" as he wrote this story of a "hero to be a boy-child, like David," he reread David Copperfield.
Pip is "raised by hand" by his shrewish older sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, whom Pip treats "as an older species of child." Pip comes into Great Expectations as the result of befriending the convict, Magwitch, but is led to believe that it is actually the eccentric and half-mad Miss Havisham to whom he is indebted. Pip is also under the misapprehension that the beautiful Estella, Miss Havisham's daughter by adoption, will become part of his inheritance. Pip's real education begins when he realizes that Magwitch is his benefactor and that he has betrayed the loving Joe for the false society made available by ill gotten gains from an escaped convict. His redemption comes as the result of his coming to love and value Magwitch, who, he realizes, has been much truer to Pip than Pip has been to Joe.
In the earlier novel based loosely on his
own life, Dickens has David Copperfield marry Dora, has him suffer the
consequences of yielding to the first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined
heart. When Dora dies, David is able to discover his true wife, Agnes,
who had seemed almost supernaturally removed from him. Here, Pip falls
hopelessly in love with Estella, who is as icily indifferent to him as
are the stars, because, as she says, she has no heart. Dickens originally
intended for Pip and Estella to remain apart in the end, but Bulwer Lytton
persuaded him to change the ending. Dickens has Estella discover, through
suffering inflicted in a brutal marriage, her own heart and the value of
Pip's love. At this time in his career Dickens seems clear about the values
that must be embraced if society is to succeed, the values of selflessness,
compassion, and sympathetic love. He does not seem as sure that those qualities
can sustain personal happiness, at least not for him at this point.
In Our Mutual Friend, published in twenty installments from May, 1864, to November, 1865, Dickens makes still another advance in his artistic vision. Dominated by the dust heaps and the spiritual wasteland they symbolize, the vision of this novel suggests that we must die to ourselves if we are to be redeemed, and society must forego material pursuits if it is to become spiritually and culturally whole. The recurrent theme of death and resurrection indicates Dickens's developing understanding of the meaning of personal fulfillment that he explores in earlier novels, particularly in David Copperfield and Great Expectations .
There is no first person narrator in Our Mutual Friend , as there is in David Coppperfield and Great Expectations, although we are given an interior monologue as John Harmon recounts his own near death by drowning. However the novel is framed by Mortimer Lightwood's stories: he tells the story of "The Man from Somewhere," John Harmon, at the beginning of the novel; his story of Eugene Wrayburn's marriage to Lizzie Hexam horrifies the "society" to whom he recounts this tale at the end. The narrator/hero role that is central to David Copperfield is shared in Our Mutual Friend among Harmon, Wrayburn, and Lightwood. The roles of the heroines are altered from the earlier novels as well. The Agnes who has been associated with stained glass windows becomes Lizzie Hexam, daughter of the water rat Gaffer Hexam; and the cruel Estella becomes the willful, mercenary Bella Wilfer. Dickens is reworking his themes and relationships from the earlier novels here, particularly those themes he explored in the novels written from the first person point of view, the more autobiographical novels.
Like David Copperfield, Lizzie Hexam has much to be grateful for in her sordid background. David's experiences on the streets allow him to take the measure of evil; Lizzie's sordid work with her father gives her the strength and the experience literally to save Eugene Wrayburn from drowning. As a result, Eugene is empowered to renounce the false society and indolent existence of his former self and to be redeemed by Lizzie's love. Bella Wilfer sees her own selfishness and vanity played out in Noddy Boffins's pretended miserliness, and sacrifices her great expectations in defense of John Harmon. In so doing, Bella demonstrates herself as worthy of Harmon's love, just as Eugene demonstrates his worth of Lizzie's love in repudiating the society he had been surrounded by. Unlike earlier Dickens heroines, though, Bella wants to become "something so much worthier than the doll in the doll's house," and does. Both Bella (the Estella figure) and Eugene (the Pip figure) prove themselves after marriage, when the real tests come. Marriage is no longer an end for Dickens, the symbol of order and success. Rather it is something that needs to be worked at and worked out. And Bella, who proves to be "true golden gold at heart," and Lizzie, whom Eugene calls a "heroine," live together with their husbands in London where, for Dickens, the real work needs to be done. Dickens celebrates the moment of Bella's marriage with John with the message that has been central to his vision from the beginning: and "O there days in this life, worth life and worth death. And O what a bright old song it is that O 'tis love 'tis love, that makes the world go round."
Our Mutual Friend ends with Mortimer Lightwood, who feels that, like Dickens, he has "the eyes of Europe upon him" as he tells his stories at the Veneerings' dinner parties, seeking the true voice of society while he reports the story of Eugene and Lizzie. He discovers it in Twemlow, who knows what it means to act nobly. Dickens must himself have been wondering about the voice of society with regard to his personal situation, and probably with Mortimer's perspective. Neither Dickens nor Mortimer participates directly in the happiness of those they tell stories about. But they share the vision and take joy in seeing the results of the stories and the effects those stories have on their audiences.
Dickens, our greatest storyteller, may not have discovered the personal happiness in his own marriage that Eugene and John Harmon, the Pip and David of his last completed novel, achieve, but in the end he achieves personal fulfillment through his art. David realizes, in the life of his novel, what Dickens saw represented in Mary Hogarth, and what was not attainable in his own life. That Dickens's own fulfillment is in creating the vision rather than attaining it here may be explained in part by the fact that Dickens is an artist and in part by the kind of artist he is. According to Forster, Not his genius only, but his whole nature, was too exclusively made up of sympathy for, and with, the real in its most intense form, to be sufficiently provided against failure in the realities around him. There was for him no 'city of the mind' against outward ills, for inner consolation and shelter. It was in and from the actual he still stretched forward to find the freedom and satisfaction of an ideal, and by his very attempts to escape the world he was driven back into the thick of it. But what he would have sought there, it supplies to none; and to get the infinite out of anything so finite, has broken many a stout heart.
Dickens has shown us how the real can more
nearly approximate his vision of the ideal through his novels. In his later
years he told those stories in brilliant public readings from his novels
in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and in America, where people stood
all night in lines one half mile long to purchase tickets to see him perform.
His last novel, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood
, was to be issued in twelve monthly numbers from April, 1870, but he died
in June, having completed half the mystery. In this novel, Dickens extends
his vision beyond England to include the empire itself. It appears as if
he would continue to make yet another advance in his artistic development
in this unfinished novel.
Dickens died June 9, 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. In a letter to Forster, Carlyle sends his condolences: "I am profoundly sorry for you and indeed for myself and for us all. It is an event world-wide; a unique of talents suddenly extinct; and has "eclipsed," we too may say, "the harmless gaiety of nations.' No death since 1866 [the year of Carlyle's wife's death] has fallen on me with such a stroke. No literary man's hitherto ever did. The good, the gentle, high-gifted, ever-friendly, noble Dickens, -- every inch of him an Honest Man."