Reading Dickens in these trying times

Given the current homebound life, some have taken to filling time with all those things they wanted to get to but never did. For many, that means time is filled with personal endeavors rather than those once shared with others.

Conger Design, photo

Books are being opened now more than before. The TV is perpetually on — not just for the programming but also perhaps to provide another voice throughout the day. And music, well, it is always playing in my house.

When I finally got around to reading Dickens, I was impressed and admittedly jealous of his mastery of character development, pervasive use of detail and the many jabs he took at societal institutions. The commentary and actions by the myriad of characters inhabiting a Dickens novel are both layered and bold. They are also very real. Their dialogue, imbued with truth and feeling, can calm a reader’s soul, especially given our “new” way about life.

Buss, Robert William; Dickens’s Dream; Charles Dickens Museum, London

For me, reading for pleasure came late in life. When I was young, I usually found myself not with a book but outside playing. I was always in the neighborhood with my friends concocting schemes in play or sport. In retrospect, all of it would have been perfect fodder for Dickens to craft an episodic tale around.

Our times and what we are feeling can be found in Dickens. More importantly, too, is the fact that whatever life throws at one undoubtedly it has been thrown at a protagonist in a Dickens story. And, from those same pages, goodness does prevail while the magisterial uncertainty of life plays out in tiny bits and pieces of breath.

John Irving, University of Houston Digital Library photo

The writer John Irving knew he wanted to be a writer at the age of 14 after reading Great Expectations. Irving’s sweeping narratives find mismatched, odd and quirky personalities inhabiting all of his novels, too. Irving points to Dickens’ ability to feel what he places onto the page. “Dickens is not an analyst; his writing is not analytical — although it can be didactic. His genius is descriptive; he can describe a thing so vividly — and so influentially — that no one can look at that thing in the same way again.”

In Victorian times certain stories were serialized, allowing writers the opportunity to fully express a character’s development and interactions. Pieces of the story would then be rationed. Dickens was a master at this, with some of his early works dispensed to the public that way. According to Irving, Dickens would have been a great screenwriter.

It’s how life is for us right now during these scary times. Every morning statistics are doled out —the good and the bad — and then we move on, finding something to occupy the rest of our day while waiting for the next round of news.

We are like Oliver Twist— thrust into something not wanted, yet made stronger by the experience of it all. “Although the happiness and delight of my life lie buried there, too, I have not made a coffin of my heart and sealed it up forever on my best affections. Deep affliction has only made them stronger; it ought, I think, for it should refine our nature. —Oliver Twist

We are like David Copperfield, looking to persevere and ultimately come out whole on the other side. We are writing our story as a nation, and as a world at large, knowing deep down it will all be OK. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” —David Copperfield

And I think if Dickens were here now, living in this Covid-19 world, he would both on the page and out loud —along with a full-throated chorus of humanity— thumb his nose and shout “bah humbug” — all while reminding people to keep our sights turned towards the light while gaining strength in everything we do, together. “There are dark shadows on the Earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast.” — The Pickwick Papers

Dickens would look and see the wonderful responses by people from all walks of life to support one another and again remind us that instead of focusing on the bad we would be better served to always seek out the things that make us smile and laugh. “It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humor.”  A Christmas Carol

Today we live in a world of opposites. We feel fear, yet we see bravery. We feel sadness, yet we see kindness. These are the best of times and the worst. I am uncertain whether Dickens knew exactly where he was going with every story’s beginning, but as we continue forward with this crisis, in the end I believe we will find ourselves — as did Twist, Copperfield and even Scrooge — much more hopeful and empathetic.

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RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.