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Thomas International Center
July 2008


Ralph McInerny


Dickens Revisited



I have recently reread The Old Curiosity Shop and Great Expectations with the keenest of pleasure. Even those who love Dickens concede his faults - sentimentality, characters who are good or evil without nuance, contrived plots, and so on. One ticks these off easily because at the end of any list will come, "So what?" There is little point in trying to appraise Charles Dickens by supposedly standard criteria of what he should have done. He invented himself as a writer, beginning with Sketches by Boz, then the Pickwick Papers and on into David Copperfield and all the rest. The early works, including the early novels, are picaresque, moving on from one hilarious situation and character to the next; think of Nicolas Nicholby. The Old Curiosity Shop gets quickly out of London and on the road where comic situations and characters can be encountered and enjoyed for themselves. And of course it features the impossibly good Little Nell.

Dickens never really went to school and he was put to work at any early age. Where did he acquire such a mastery of English? Words run so readily from his pen that it may seem merely natural, a gift bestowed on him complete. But surely Dickens is always a conscious artist, mindful of what he is doing , the effect he wants and how to achieve it.

Like most prolific writers he was disciplined, ever at his desk in order to turn out the sections of the novel in progress, sections that would appear one by one, like magazines. And often the first number appeared before the novel was done. Only a truly professional writer could have flourished in such circumstances. And then there is his religion.

It has been said of Irving Berlin that he took the two greatest feasts of the Christian year and turned them into, respectfully, a nostalgic dream of a snowy home and parading one's spring finery on Fifth Avenue. Where is the Nativity or Resurrection in I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas and Easter Parade? Is that what Charles Dickens did to Christianity? A Christmas Carol puts before us greed and poverty and subjects Scrooge to a review of his life which ends with his conversion, whereupon he orders a goose for the Cratchit Christmas dinner, resolved to be good and generous. Christianity is reduced to practices, but the motive for them is left fairly obscure. This is not always true of the novels. While not preachy, they make overt appeal to prayer, the next life, this life as preparatory, and so on. Jesus? He is there only by implication. If He weren't there at all, the morality on which the stories rest would have become political or worse

His surname has so many usages in English it is hard to connect them. One is given the dickens (scolded), having a dickens of a time (happy), a plate may be hot as the dickens, and so on. The variety and equivocal character of these invocations seems appropriate. And the most appropriate description of his novels is that they are dickensian.


Ralph McInerny