Monday, April 16, 2012

Why the Dickens?

I don't mind admitting that I like Dickens. Indeed, the very title of this blog is a quotation from Chapter 48 of Great Expectations, one of my favorites among his works. An admission, however, is no explanation, and I intend in my first post to explore some aspects of Dickens' works that may elucidate my grounds for liking him. This is not a Dickens blog per se, but considering its title and the presently occurring bicentenary of that novelist's birth, I find it not inappropriate to begin these pages with at least a Dickens post.
Liking an author is a simple way of saying someting multifaceted: more the beginning of a conversation than any sort of conclusion. The meaning of the phrase indicates something about the person who says it as well as the object of his predilection. Thus I cannot hope to include and conclude all at once. A couple introductory points follow, which will hopefully develop into a discussion and perhaps also a further series of posts on different, gradually diverging topics.

1. Philology in the broad sense
Dickens' writing strongly suggests that besides being able to write long books (as other lesser authors have insisted on doing repeatedly), not to mention long sentences chock-full of words and short sentences with only the right words in just the right places, he loves each of his words, each of his sentences, and each of his books. This love includes both enjoyment and care. Each of these aspects is displayed in the way he combines words in sentences, and sentences in paragraphs. He enjoys a pleasant or unpleasant juxtaposition or layering of sounds as is appropriate to the situation, and takes care to preserve that beauty which is τὸ πρέπον even in his ugliest and most disturbing scenes. The marvels of his paragraphs range from dramatic progression to commonplace events, all expressed in ways that promote interest, inspire commitment, and often evince a wide range of emotions, both in quantity and quality. In many cases he uses the particular ambiguities of language for any or all of the preceding effects, as well as for another, which will be the second section of this post.

2. Humor and character
Dickens has a well-developed sense of humor: humor in all its senses. He has an aptitude for portraying different temperaments, and he does so when he chooses with what to me at least amounts to incomparable hilarity. Now I don't mind admitting that when he refrains from this hilarity, his own temperament as well as the conventions of his period sometimes leads him to sentimentality -- and such in my mind are often the weakest points in his books -- but for the most part his use of the language, laden with enjoyment and care, tends to create identifiable and distinguishable characters and unforgettably funny speech and narration: at the parts where it is meant to be funny. Thus I distinguish four types of Dickensian writing
a. Sentimental (I don't really approve, and it is the least prevalent)
b. Serious (He is excellent especially at setting moods [the openings of Bleak House and Little Dorrit come to mind], and there is rarely a dull Serious moment)
c. Playful (This really deserves a more normal-sounding name, since it is actually his general mode of narration, but it means that the narrator is using the language perfectly correctly and basically seriously, but does not hesitate to notice little ambiguities and turns of phrase that pop up and deserve notice. See the last few paragraphs of Chapter 34 and the beginning of Chapter 35 of Great Expectations for a masterful transition from Playful to Serious.)
d. Downright Funny (Similar to Playful, but -- usually in direct speech -- often quite distinct)
The combinations and progressions among these four, combined with his general skill in language and his memorable characters and locales, come together to create much of what I love about Dickens. He has influenced my writing style, my taste in literature, and even, I think I may truthfully say, my view of the world. I owe a lot to him. I don't mind admiting that.

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  1. Couple comments.

    First, on the design of the site, you should probably make the link text color a different color than the regular text color (if that's a link. It highlights as a link, but doesn't link anywhere.) Other than that, awesome.

    Next, I want to read more, if you have the desire, about the sentimental character that Dickens goes into. Is this related to his preachiness or what?

    I'm trying to get through A Tale of Two Cities and I love it. It's a matter of finding the time. I would agree, his paragraphs are so brilliantly crafted that I can't help taking cues from him in my own writing.

  2. I don't mind admitting that I will be following your blog. I have not read any Dickens in a long, long time, but there is some slim chance you could convince me to remedy that. Anyway, hope you're well, O Tim! (I almost called you "O Time," but I'm happy that's not true. It's difficult to befriend an abstraction, especially one so bittersweet.)