”’Dickens novels are not about violence, but they have a great deal of violence in them — physical violence, psychic violence, obsession, cruelty, abuse, the works,” says Steven Marcus, George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and the author of ”Dickens From Pickwick to Dombey.” He points out that there is a murder in ”Bleak House” and lots of violence in ”David Copperfield” and ”Great Expectations.” There is a great deal about crime, too, in ”Oliver Twist” and ”Martin Chuzzlewit,” and of course there is child abuse everywhere in the novels.”

Chealrs Dickens

Chealrs Dickens

“Dickens’s childhood was a sorry mixture of the fondly remembered and the wholly detested. The Dickens family was both large and almost always hard-pressed. In the profoundly autobiographicalDavid Copperfield, the ever-pinched Mr. Micawber gives David some shrewd advice: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” And yet, like Dickens’s father, Mr. Micawber remains ever hopeful–”In case anything turned up” is indeed his favorite expression.”

“In 1840 only twenty precent of the children in London had any schooling. Many children worked 16 hour days under atrocious conditions, as their elders did.”

It was a nightmare of prisons, debtors and humiliation in a boot blacking shop. It was the early miserable life of Charles Dickens in the slums of London. It lasted only six months, but Dickens never got over it. The work in the factory  caused him shame, remorse and bitterness.  Mysterious references to Warren’s Blacking were even remarked by his children and appeared scattered in his works, from Pickwick papers to Barnaby Rudge. Throughout his life, Dickens appeared obsessed by poverty and debt which pushed him to over-work and likely shortened his life, perhaps exasperated and triggered by his childhood traumas, and latent pathologies that needed to be expressed beyond literary projection.

“The story of the orphan Oliver, who runs away from the workhouse only to be taken in by a den of thieves, shocked readers when it was first published. Dickens`s tale of childhood innocence beset by evil depicts the dark criminal underworld of a London peopled by vivid and memorable characters — the arch-villain Fagin, the artful Dodger, the menacing Bill Sikes and the prostitute Nancy. “

For Charles this enforced contact with working-class boys, illiterate and uncouth, was even more degrading than the drudgery of his work. He seemed forever cut off from the world he had known in the country at Chatham where at least the poverty was genteel and endurable. And now he was thrown into the company of boys such as Paul Green, whose father was a fireman at Drury Lane Theatre and whose little sister did imps in the pantomines; and Bob Fagin, who wore a paper cap and lived with his broher-in-law , a waterman. They called Charles ”the young gentleman” , and he, though ” perfectly familiar with them” , was forever conscious of what he called ”a space between us,” placed there by his ”conduct and manners”.

Dickens in 1839, age 27. Daniel Maclise

In a fragment of autobiography that he could not bring himself to publish but that later appeared almost word for word in David Copperfield, Dickens wrote: ” No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sank into this companionship; compared these everyday associates with those of my happier childhood; and felt my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my breast. The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing away from me cannot be written,… even now I often forget in my dreams… that I am a man ; and wander desolately back to that time of my life.”

As is frequently the case with reformers, Dicken’s acute social conscious was not based on simplistic, or pious benevolence.  Dickens was drawn to the very conditions that appalled him;  ”In seasons of pestilence, some of us will have a secret attraction to the disease,” he once wrote; there was a fixation on human pathology that was likely a major reason for an unwillingness to socialize as a child. There is a certain implied sympathy with the act of killing and the criminal mind; obsessions that probed quite profoundly and beyond the conventional morbidity of his era. His protagonists tended to be formulaic: Dickens engineered their worth through the recurring theme of moral recovery. Their flaws, and his own, of pride, snobbery, vanity or fantasy could be expiated through a sense of guilt, awareness of sin, and acts of reformation. But his characters of the darker side, were more fully developed since they had no guilt,were erotically charged,   and enjoyed and found their sometimes heinous acts to be pleasurable. Their palpable sense of alienation just seemed to make them more greedy for the pleasures they could experience.

Oliver Twist

…His misery aggravated an intestinal ailment he had suffered from as a small child, and one day he sat at his bench he suffered a violently painful seizure that made him roll on the floor in his agony. Bob Fagin made him a bed of straw in his old alcove in the countinghouse and filled empty blacking bottles with hot water and held them against his side and back where the spasmodic contraction of his inflamed kidney was causing him such excruciating pain. Gradually he began to feel better, and Bob Fagin said he would take him home.

Charles let Bob go with him part of the way, but then he tried to get rid of him. Bob, though, insisted on accompanying him all the way, so, as Dickens said ” I shook hanss with him on the steps of a house near Southwark Bridge on the Surrey side, making believe that I lived there. As a finishing piece of reality in case of his looking back, I knocked at the door, I recollect, and asked, when the woman opened it, if that was Mr. Robert Fagin’s house.”


It was not that Charles was unwilling to let his family see what sort of companion he had been forced among, but that he was too proud to let Fagin know where he was going. For he was going to visit his father, within a fortnight of Charles’s beginning work at Hungerford Stairs, had been arrested for debt and taken to the Marshalsea prison.

“Much given to both the grand gesture and grandiloquent locutions, John Dickens would be immortalized by his son as the ridiculous and yet endearing Mr. Micawber inDavid Copperfield (1849-50; 1850), a character who, in the midst of a crisis, likens himself to “a shattered fragment of the Temple once called Man.” Like the genial Mr. Micawber, he was able to forge his affection for the rhetorical flourish and his improvidence into a kind of art. Contemplating a long-lived relative, and presumably a little short in the pocket, he once said this: “

I must express my tendency to believe that his longevity is (to say the least of it) extremely problematical.” Forster records Dickens’s delight in this “celebrated sentence” of the well-intentioned but often exasperating father, whose industry, the son maintained with affectionate loyalty, was always “untiring.”

George Cruikshank

Dickens feelings towards his mother were much more ambivalent”.Declared insolvent in late May, John Dickens was released from prison; and eventually he removed his son from the blacking factory and placed him again in school. But Elizabeth Dickens could not comprehend why he should be removed from a situation of gainful employment–and for her son, this was a bitter betrayal. “I never afterwards forgot,” Dickens would write years later, in an autobiographical fragment that was not published until after his death, “I never can forget, that my mother was warm for sending me back.”

” ‘Dickens had always been interested in this sort of dangerous, irrational character,’ says Mr. Marcus,’but he hadn’t fleshed it out and dramatized it so deftly’ as he does in ”Our Mutual Friend” with his portrayal of Bradley Headstone, the schoolmaster whose obsessive passion for Lizzie Hexam and insane envy of her upper-class suitor incite him to pathological violence. ”Headstone is a young man from the lower classes who went to these new schools and learned an enormous amount by rote,” Mr. Marcus says, ”but underneath this layer of education and mechanical rationality, there is a criminal underside, a raging, aggressive, uncontrollable sexual appetite that accounts for his murderous personality.”

It all reflects, says Mr. Ackroyd, the ”persistent, almost obsessive, preoccupation with death and its aftermath” that gives Dickens’s late novels their mordant themes and haunting tones and — as even those scholars most enamored of the cheery Pickwickian charm of the early stories must acknowledge — their greater depth. ( Marilyn Stasio )

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