A Lesson from the Life of Charles Dickens: Malignant Virtue

As I will proclaim again and again, G. K. Chesterton has a marvelous combination of two gifts – deep insight and clarity of communication – that make him one of the most worthwhile modern thinkers to read. I found this gem, of all places, at the end of a discussion of Bleak House, which I’m currently reading. After ruminating on one of the most disastrous characters in the book (Skimpole), Chesterton turns his thinking onto Dickens himself.

That is the thing Dickens was darkly trying to convey in Skimpole — that a man might become a mountain of selfishness if he attended only to the Dickens virtues. There is nothing that can be neglected; there is no such thing (he meant) as a peccadillo.

In Skimpole, Dickens takes one of his characteristic virtues – a childlike, almost irresponsible faith in Providence – and shows how it can become cancerous if allowed to run amok. Tragically, Chesterton goes on to say, this precise thing happened in Dickens himself:

I have dwelt on this consciousness of his [Dickens] because, alas, it had a very sharp edge for himself. Even while he was permitting a fault originally small to make a comedy of Skimpole, a fault originally small was making a tragedy of Charles Dickens. For Dickens also had a bad quality, not intrinsically very terrible, which he allowed to wreck his life. He also had a small weakness that could sometimes become stronger than all his strengths.

Dickens’ own cancerous virtue, Chesterton tells us, was the impulsive exuberance that makes his writing so lively:

His selfishness was not, it need hardly be said, the selfishness of Gradgrind; he was particularly compassionate and liberal. Nor was it in the least the selfishness of Skimpole. He was entirely self-dependent, industrious, and dignified. His selfishness was wholly a selfishness of the nerves. Whatever his whim or the temperature of the instant told him to do must be done. He was the type of man who would break a window if it would not open and give him air. And this weakness of his had, by the time of which we speak, led to a breach between himself and his wife which he was too exasperated and excited to heal in time. Everything must be put right, and put right at once, with him. If London bored him, he must go to the Continent at once; if the Continent bored him, he must come back to London at once. If the day was too noisy, the whole household must be quiet; if night was too quiet, the whole household must wake up.

Above all, he had the supreme character of the domestic despot — that his good temper was, if possible, more despotic than his bad temper. When he was miserable (as he often was, poor fellow), they only had to listen to his railings. When he was happy they had to listen to his novels.

This sounds comic, no? A flaw we know well and have laughed at so many times. In small form, it’s kind of adorable. But hear how Chesterton both acknowledges that and demonstrates how it breaks out of control:

All this, which was mainly mere excitability, did not seem to amount to much; it did not in the least mean that he had ceased to be a clean-living and kind-hearted and quiet honest man. But there was this evil about it — that he did not resist his little weakness at all; he pampered it as Skimpole pampered his. And it separated him and his wife. A mere silly trick of temperament did everything that the blackest misconduct could have done. A random sensibility, started about the shuffling of papers or the shutting of a window, ended by tearing two clean, Christian people from each other, like a blast of bigamy or adultery.  

Dickens’ adorable little cub of a weakness grew into a lion that devoured his marriage. This tragic truth reminds us that, as Christianity teaches, “virtue” is of itself no Savior, because in our hearts even the most admirable of virtues become cancerous. That is why salvation – not just becoming right with God, but being transformed into the human being we were meant to be – comes not through human effort, but through the divine Person of Jesus Christ.

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2 thoughts on “A Lesson from the Life of Charles Dickens: Malignant Virtue

  1. Dickens’ conduct during his divorce from his wife is not something most Dickens fans want to contemplate. By most accounts (in the two Dickens biographies I’ve read), Dickens and Catherine Hogarth were a bad match from the start. I have a feeling, shared by some of his biographers, that it was Dickens’ resentment of his own mother that may have contributed to many of the problems in his marriage.
    After long and ragged years together, they needed to separate. They were miserable together.

    I don’t think his problems in his marital life were a case of virtue gone malignant, honestly. I think he was a great man who was always capable of behaving badly. Dickens’ problems with depression, his legendary restlessness, irritability and hypersensitivity, were long-standing and may have begun in childhood. Divorce seldom brings out the best in people and it certainly seemed to have exacerbated Dickens’ dark side.

    I really love Bleak House, by the way.

    1. Cynthia, that’s a very thoughtful comment! Thanks for it.

      I’ve not read any Dickens biographies independently, so what I posted is a distillation of Chesterton’s work (so I can only speak for him). I believe Chesterton would consider that restlessness and hypersensitivity the “dark side” of his exuberance. Whether that’s accurate or whether it comes from something else, I couldn’t say.

      And I’m having a great time with Bleak House so far! Can’t wait to finish it.

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