February 2012 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.
Writing in Evangelicals Now, Ann Benton offers several points of interest in Dickens’ writings. Here’s a summary:-
1. His characterisation. Dickens’ characters are superbly described. We can see their mannerisms, their clothes, their gait. We can hear them talking. He saw the world vividly, and enjoyed observing peoples’ diversity and peculiarities. He had a deep psychological understanding of the reasons why people think and behave as they do. We see in his stories both the glories of humankind – the love, courage, endurance and compassion of people made in the image of God, and its fallenness – greed, cruelty, and revenge. And his characters are so sympathetically and realistically drawn that we really care about them. In almost every novel he included characters who were outsiders, or disadvantages in some way; though many in hs day would have despised such social rejects, Dickens taught us to sympathise with them.
2. His anger. Dickens felt strongly about injustice and the oppression of the poor. Then, as he became successful and mingled with the powerful and wealthy, he witnessed their frequent apathy towards the plight of the underprivileged. He would against against the effects of such inequalities.
3. His compassion. We cannot be immune to his descriptions of suffering (Little Nell), of loneliness (Tom Pinch), of abuse (Nancy). Life, for some of his characters, had been a hard road, and we feel it. Occasionally, even the villains invite our sympathy: as Pip warms to Magwitch, the convicted criminal, so do we. An author who makes us more tender towards our fellow-sinners is worth reading.
4. His parables. Especially in his later works, Dickens developed parables of life. They are moral fables. Great Expectations, for example, exposes the deceitfulness of riches and the emptiness of materialism. The whole story is told under the shadow of death, from the gibbets of the Kent marshes to the condemned cell of Newgate prison. For Pip, the love of money becomes a root of evil, and sours everything. But we see grace, too, in the character of Joe Gargery, who brings love, healing, the payment of debts and a new start. Hard Times condemns naturalism, Our Mutual Friend is a tale of death and rebirth, Little Dorrit deals with captivity, and Bleak House with the limitations of law.
5. His worldview. We cannot be sure whether or not Dickens was a Christian. He certainly found plenty of ammunition to direct against the religious hyocrisy of his day. But, being a man of his age, he was well versed in Scripture, held to an absolute moral code, and recognised that this life is not all. He wrote The Life of Our Lord for his children (it was not published until 1934) and in it expressed the hope that they would all meet in heaven. His deathbed scenes are replete with prayer and proper seriousness.
These are some of the many themes that the Christian can throw into a discussion about Charles Dickens and his legacy.