12.18.2008

The prescient Mr. Dickens

“Hard Times” (1854) is Charles Dickens’ shortest novel and was generally disliked in its time, because it lacked the depth of character development that was the writer’s genius.

In 1948, however, F. R. Leavis in his controversial book, “The Great Tradition,” stirred a new interest in the novel when he labeled it a “moral fable.” Critics began to recognize the novel’s worth, viewing it in a different light. Essentially, “Hard Times” is a critique of “utilitarianism,” a theory espoused by John Stuart Mill. In brief, utilitarianism contends that:

* The greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of society;
* “Utility” must be the standard of what is good for man; and
* A democratic social system is based on “enlightened self-interest.”

Although I had planned, during the holidays, to listen to a couple of Dickens’ Christmas books, I was lured to advance to the next of his novels in chronological order – simply because its title, “Hard Times,” seemed appropriate to the here and now.

Self-interest, instant gratification, greed and excess are not confined to Dickens’ time. Walter Allen, in his Introduction, describes Dickens’ fictional Coketown as “the soot-blackened monument of human greed, the temple of a new god, the steam engine, whose ‘piston worked monotously up and down like an elephant in the state of melancholy madness.’ ” Today, we describe Dickens’ monuments of human greed in more sterile terms: "credit card," “war profiteering,” “global warming.” “Ponzi scheme.”

To fully win my heart in this novel, Dickens attacks an educational system which fails to emphasize disciplines which grace our lives. He attacks “facts” with equal fervor – not truth, but the facts, the required rote pounded into pupils’ heads. Children are required to learn astronomy, he writes, but “never learn to sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ ” The little daughter of a circus horseback rider is ridiculed by a pedagogue because she cannot scientically describe a horse. One character equates reading a poem with laziness.

John Stuart Mill illuminated Dickens’ intuition in his 1873 “Autobiography” when, according to Allen’s Introduction, he “describes the malaise that laid him low in young manhood; his conviction that his emotional and imaginative capacities had been starved by the relentlessly intensive, inclusively intellectual education his father had inflicted upon him.”

I was delighted to learn that Mills found “spiritual health, almost salvation” in the poetry of William Wordsworth.

No soul, no matter what lies at its core, can go unstirred, when Wordsworth, in “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” stumbles upon “a host of golden daffodils!”

There is so much to be learned from a reading of this brief Dickens book about the state the world finds itself in today. The effects of self-interest upon society were apparent in his century and are apparent in ours.

A social system built on self-interest will almost certainly lead to corruption. As one of Dickens’ characters explains his crime: “So many people are employed in situations of trust. So many people out of so many will be dishonest.”

Hard times teach hard lessons. Can we learn from them?

And, still enjoy the daffodils?

4 comments:

Tom said...

You don't just read a book, you eat it with a nice Chianti! Great review.

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tom said...

Thank you, format didn't want to take the comment, so I tried again. Hence, two of the same.

Anonymous said...

Great post, BJ. The message so prevalent to today's social and educational conditions. And the pinacle of greed tops the list for all the other dire conditions.

Dickens shows us that education comes with a price, but ignorance is free! Someday all humans are going to learn to be awake, alert, and realize what part each plays in these life dramas.

Can it come too soon?