Under the Heavy Hand of Dickens

I recently finished my first Dickens novel – A Tale of Two Cities. To my shame, I’d never read him before. I could try to blame someone else, but my conscience won’t permit it. My tenth-grade English teacher, Lord bless her, assigned Two Cities for summer reading in the faith that I’d see the novel’s merit – alas, I preferred my Nintendo 64 and my Star Wars novels.

My English professors would have tried as well, but they made the mistake of creating a Film Studies concentration within the major. I can get class credit for watching movies and talking about them with interesting people?? Please, thank you, and sir, I want some more. But again, they didn’t force me into the concentration: I again chose a path that wouldn’t bring me through Dickensia. Various versions of A Christmas Carol were the only experience I had with the man’s work.

It was only on learning how much G.K. Chesterton loved Dickens’ work that I decided to read him. The silent reproach of my tenth-grade teacher’s memory led me to Two Cities first, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it was one of the best books I’ve ever read. I knew the end, and I still cried as I read it (not a crier). I’d heartily recommend it to anyone else who didn’t listen to their tenth-grade English teachers.

But this isn’t about A Tale of Two Cities.

I picked up Oliver Twist next and opened it, fully expecting to be swept away again.

Unfortunately, thirty pages in, I’ve been a bit … confused. All the wit and verve I expected from Dickens is here – he’s just as fun to read – but this book has a melodrama, a weepy pathos, that’s the tragic equivalent of twee. His characters are caricatures, sketches that may convey the essence of something but don’t yet ring true as people (and I don’t know if they will). Chesterton sums it up well:

Relatively to the other works of Dickens Oliver Twist is not of great value, but it is of great importance. Some parts of it are so crude and of so clumsy a melodrama, that one is almost tempted to say that Dickens would have been greater without it. … It is by far the most depressing of all his books; it is in some ways the most irritating; yet its ugliness gives the last touch of honesty to all that spontaneous and splendid output. Without this one discordant note all his merriment might have seemed like levity.

This gives me hope that Dickens’ other works may be as wonderful as A Tale of Two Cities. Even if I don’t finish Oliver, I certainly won’t be done with Dickens.

If you’ve read Dickens, what are your favorite of his works? What’s most worth reading?


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