I have been reading, marking and re reading bits of Orwell’s essays, that form part of a collection i got for next to nothing, in one of the amazon sales.
The essay I really enjoyed was on the author and social commentator, Charles Dickens. I haven’t read of all Dicken’s works. Great Expectations, Pickwick Papers, Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and David Copperfield – i remember having read. Of these, the only one’s that have left a mark are the Tale of Two Cities – Madam Defarge gave me nightmares; Oliver Twist – Faggin and Sikes were memorable characters; and i remember crying for Nancy; and Great Expectations – Ms.Haversham was the single spookiest character in English literature of that era. I have seen a number of adaptations of Dickens’ works, when i was a student. And, i really never thought too much beyond the fact that it was a good narrative.
Reading Orwell on Dickens, kind of slightly shifted my reading of Dickens. All authors tend to be recorders of their era. Even if the book is a love story, the milieu and social mores become very evident in the background information about the characters or the settings. And, given Dickens’ themes – the question asked is – what were his politics? Did he have any? Given that Orwell was writing in an era where socialist ideals, and Dickens wrote in an era when labour reform had already begun – could Dickens have been a socialist ? Orwell doesn’t think so
The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’s attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as “human nature.” It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a sytem. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power.
However, it was an era when the slightest criticism of the class structure was seen as being pro-socialist. So much so that Macaulay refused to review a book by Dickens. (yes, the very same Macaulay)
“It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its “sullen Socialism.” Obviously Macaulay is here using the word “Socialism” in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as “Bolshevism.” There is not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious, ”
Dickens, was not a revolutionary. rather, he believed in the innate goodness of people and their ability to do the right thing.
“It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong’s school being as different from Creakle’s “as good is from evil.” Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a “change of heart”—that, essentially, is what he is always saying”
For Orwell, the clash between those who want to change society inside out, and those who believe in gradual change through the changing of individual minds, is like an ongoing fight. Unlike Hegel’s dialectic this one is rather more violent
“Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old—generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee.
Once again, as in his essay on his rather brutal boarding school, Orwell makes some biting observations about the irresponsible rich of that era
“What now strikes us as remarkable about the new moneyed class of the nineteenth century is their complete irresponsibility; they see everything in terms of individual success, with hardly any consciousness that the community exists”
And, finally on Dickens’ writing
“I have been discussing Dickens simply in terms of his “message,” and almost ignoring his literary qualities. But every writer, especially every novelist, has a “message,” whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda. Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art. ……D. H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was “a gigantic dwarf,” and in a sense the same is true of Dickens. There are whole worlds which he either knows nothing about or does not wish to mention. Except in a rather roundabout way, one cannot learn very much from Dickens. And to say this is to think almost immediately of the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. Why is it that Tolstoy’s grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens’s—why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself? It is not that he is more gifted, or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens’s are already finished and perfect……In my own mind Dickens’s people are present far more often and far more vividly than Tolstoy’s, but always in a single unchangeable attitude, like pictures or pieces of furniture. You cannot hold an imaginary conversation with a Dickens character as you can with, say, Pierre Bezoukhov. And this is not merely because of Tolstoy’s greater seriousness, for there are also comic characters that you can imagine yourself talking to—Bloom, for instance, or Pécuchet, or even Wells’s Mr. Polly. It is because Dickens’s characters have no mental life.
And, finally on what Dickens was going to be remembered for – the ability to voice that sense of outrage, at injustice that leads to the idea of freedom and equality being curtailed. Orwell believes that it is because
since the French Revolution, the Western world has been haunted by the idea of freedom and equality; it is only an idea, but it has penetrated to all ranks of society. The most atrocious injustices, cruelties, lies, snobberies exist everywhere, but there are not many people who can regard these things with the same indifference as, say, a Roman slaveowner. Even the millionaire suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton. Nearly everyone, whatever his actual conduct may be, responds emotionally to the idea of human brotherhood. Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he could be both read by working people (a thing that has happened to no other novelist of his stature) and buried in Westminster Abbey.
Worth buying the book
George Orwell – A Collection of Essays