speaker at Friday’s conference is a specialist in Victorians and kept using Dickens in his examples. Now, I should be inured to all this. I had read Bleak House in its entirety, twice, before I was twenty-three years old. My husband played the Artful Dodger when he was twelve (yes, he still has that nose, but has mercifully lost the Cockney accent. Consider yers’lf forgiven). I read, but cannot for the life of me remember the title or author of, a mystery novel ostensibly narrated by Wilkie Collins who solved a crime with the help of “The Inimitable”; his friend Charles Dickens. (Readers, I welcome prods to my memory.)
Dickens is like Shakespeare in that people who know almost nothing about him have some idea about him. In his own time he was vastly popular, enough so that there were snobs who had to dislike him just to keep up appearances. (Like me with Dan Brown.) Yet some of his best work is dense and inaccessible enough for snobs to actually enjoy criticizing it. Let’s face it — they still don’t like it, but they are more willing to admit that they have read it. Their dislike is hard-earned.
So, anything new to say about Dickens? Plenty, it turns out. While many critics would have been happier if he had kept away from social commentary and stuck to heartwarming pickpockets, we have to acknowledge that his supposedly heavy-handed, sentimental, Manichean view of capitalism in the Industrial Revolution is remarkably observant. In Hard Times, everyone engaged in the capitalist adventure comes out looking criminal, or at least mightily foolish. Thus the system doth make suckers of us all.
Mr. Bounderby is a banker, the sort of man who believes that the workers are all doing everything they can to work as little as possible and to be rewarded with “venison and turtle soup served with gold spoons.” He cannot be in any way convinced that some of them might just want a living wage or perhaps not to drop dead of black lung or be mangled in the loom. It is the middle ground of these two extremes, of course, where all parties come out foolish, because if it really were about gold spoons and death by loom-mangle, any idiot could sort it out; it’s really about exactly what are the definitions of hard work (virtuous variety); hard work (debilitating variety); earned capital (reasonable based on risk) and earned capital (kind of obscene based upon level of risk and burden placed on others)?
Mr. Gradgrind is the middle ground on the industrialist’s side. He has a heart, but he believes firmly in a philosophical ethical system, Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism. When it works, it really works: slavery was opposed on Utilitarian grounds because the suffering of millions could not be justified against the monetary benefit incurred by a handful of rich landowners. But when it doesn’t work, it really sucks: The Poor Law Amendment, of which Dickens is about as fond as Harriet Beecher Stowe is of the Fugitive Slave Act, deliberately made workhouses, orphanages and other props of the social welfare system as miserable as possible on the theory that people would do anything, even, oh, think of it, work, to avoid it. Most people remember Scrooge complaining that the workhouses and prisons cost him enough and that anyone in need should go there; and the petitioner’s reply that many would rather die than do so; we are less familiar with Scrooge’s follow-up inquiry: “And the Poor Law…still in place?”
Mr. Gradgrind’s success story, a toady named Bitzer, has done so well grasping the precepts of Utilitarianism that he has sent his mother to a workhouse, although it is generally known that he undermines his faithful application of the theory by allotting her a half-pound of tea each year.
There’s no question that Dickens is heavy-handed in his treatment of the capitalists, but he is the same with at least one Progressive, the union leader who ostracizes workingman “hero” Stephen Blackpool. The problem with Stephen’s heroism is that he doesn’t really suffer the generic plight of the worker; he is not really a prototype of what Carlyle called “the Condition of England.” He has an idiosyncratic problem; he is stuck in a bad marriage. A union leader who let himself be guided by Blackpool’s particular complaints would be a very bad workingman’s advocate indeed; yet we are uncomfortable with this cold, single-minded dismissal of Stephen’s suffering. Neither man is wise enough to separate the “plight of the worker” from a workman’s plight. Stephen in particular is unable to sympathize with others simply because Bounderby is not the root cause of his suffering as he is of theirs (admittedly he is very little help in the situation, but what would you expect?). Instead, Stephen takes a holier-than-thou approach: He’s perfectly willing to work himself to death; march into his own martyrdom, to ease his own personal burden. Not the best example for Bounderby, who is already known to wonder why all the workers aren’t willing to work themselves to death or simply stop whining and earn themselves sixty thousand pounds in capital investment just as he has.
I flatly refuse to draw any parallels to modern politico-economics. If you see them, go ahead. But (as Eeyore put it) Don’t Blame Me. Talk to Dickens.