Orwell’s essay on one of the best-known writers explores why Dickens is as popular as he is (Orwell calls him an “institution” ), what Dickens’ politics were (are), and Orwell questions the popular view of Dickens as a revolutionary.
About Dickens’ politics, Orwell decides that essentially, he has none. According to Orwell, Dickens steers clear of discussing policy or law, focusing instead on the individual. “Dickens’ criticism of society is almost exclusively moral” (51). Rather than giving solutions to pervasive problems, Dickens aims a purely moral eye at social questions, attacking “the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places” (51). Rather, Dickens only critiques policy and society in as much as he can critique an individual.
If the wicked nobleman could somehow have turned over a new leaf, like Scrooge, there would have been no [French] Revolution, no jacquerie no guillotine—and so much the better. (57)
In effect, according to Orwell, Dickens’ does not target injustice as a social problem, as “his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’ ” (51). According to Orwell, this is anti-revolutionary, especially since the values Dickens is using to frame his morality are classical and fairly conservative. In fact, as far as his opposition to the French Revolution and especially the Reign of Terror in A Tale of Two Cities is concerned, “It is a strange thing that Dickens, much more in sympathy with the ideas of the Revolution than most Englishmen of his time, should have played a part in creating [the impression of the French Revolution as ‘no more than a pyramid of severed heads’]” (59).
Rather than a revolutionary, Orwell’s reading of Dickens’ writing suggests Dickens was more doe-eyed and naive than anything else, wishing for the impossible ideal of a benevolent, moral government and system of watchmen.
As to Dickens’ enduring popularity, Orwell decides that it is for three reasons, the utter distinctiveness with which he frames and constructs his characters, the way certain passages and elements stick in his readers’ minds, and the ways that he made his prose so quintessentially English.
1. The distinctiveness of Dickens’ characters:
The fact that Dickens is always thought of as a caricaturist, although he was constantly trying to something else, is perhaps the surest mark of his genius. The monstrosities that he created are still remembered as monstrosities, in spite of getting mixed up in would-be probably melodramas. Their first impact is so vivid that nothing that comes afterwards effaces it. … Mrs. Squeers is always ladling out brimstone and treacle, Mrs. Grummidge is always weeping, Mrs. Gargery is always banging her husband’s head agains the wall, Mrs. Jellyby is always scribbling tracts while her children fall into the area… (98)
2. Certain passages stick in his readers’ minds:
Dickens is obviously a writer whose parts are greater than his wholes. He is all fragments, all details—rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles… (96)
3. The Englishness of Dickens’ writing:
“[T]he unmistakable Dickens though, the thing nobody else would have thought of, is the Baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it. How does this advance the story? The answer is that it doesn’t. It is something totally unnecessary, a florid little squiggle on the edge of the page; only, it is by just these squiggles that the special Dickens atmosphere is created. (93)
Also of note:
- On Dickens’ reputation as having been a crusader against child labor: “Of course Dickens is right in saying that a gifted child (i.e., Dickens himself) ought not to work ten hours a day pasting labels n bottles, but what he does not say is that no child ought to be condemned to such a fate, and there is no reason for inferring that he thinks it.” (54)
- Dickens on revolution: “Obviously he wants the workers to be decently treated, but there is no sign that he wants them to take their destiny into their own hands, least of all by open violence.” (55)
- On Dickens’ preoccupation with the stories of children: “Perhaps society is past praying for, but there is always hope for the individual human being, if you can catch him young enough.” (60)
- “Two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have changed human nature?” (64)
- On Dickens’ “lack of vulgar nationalism” (69): “It is perhaps more significant that he shows no prejudice against Jews [uncommon in preHitler Britain]” (71)
- On Dickens’ attitude towards the working class: “He has the sincerest admiration for people like the Peggottys and the Plornishes. But it is questionable whether he really regards them as equals.” (74)
- “However much Dickens may admire the working classes, he does not wish to resemble them.” (75)
- “In one of Tolstoy’s fables the peasants of a certain village judge every stranger who arrives from the state of his hands. If his palms are hard from work, they let him in; if his palms are soft, out he goes. This would be hardly intelligible to Dickens; all his heroes have soft hands.” (75)
- “[Dickens] is rather fond of the Victorian notion of a woman (women with a capital W) being ‘above’ a man.” (78)
- “[Dickens] was a Cockney, and London is the centre of the earth in rather the same sense that the belly is the centre of the body. It is a city of consumers, of people who are highly civilized but not primarily useful.” (81)
- “[English novelists of the nineteenth century] felt at home in the world they lived in, whereas a writer nowadays is so hopelessly isolated that the typical modern novel is a novel about a novelist.” (81)
- “When he speaks of human progress it is usually in terms of *moral* progress—men growing better; probably he would never admit that men are only as good as their technical development allows them to be.” (85)
- “If I were forced to compare Tolstoy with Dickens, I should say that Tolstoy;s appeal will probably be wider in the long run because Dickens is scarcely intelligible outside the English-speaking culture; on the other hand, Dickens is able to reach simple people, which Tolstoy is not. Tolstoy’s characters can cross a frontier, Dickens’ can be portrayed on a cigarette-card.” (99-100)
- “[A] man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once.” (100)
- “Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it.” (103)
Throughout this essay Orwell discusses an element of culture obscured by the last sixty years. I’d never seen one of the seaside postcards illustrated by Donald McGill, but the premise is fairly familiar. McGill wrote and illustrated the sorts of bawdy cartoons that you can now find in *Playboy* and countless places on the internet, though of course when they were as explicit as their modern equivalents, they were unprintable, and when they were printable, they were far more clever and suggestive.
I was dismayed to find that somehow McGill has not warranted one of those insightless blog compilation post, something similar to “Duh, my grandfather died and I found a whole buncha these trading card things and looked into the author, check out some of my favorites.” So, instead, have a google image search link for “Donald McGill” for an idea of the kind of work Orwell discusses.
To Orwell, this type of art is valuable chiefly because it has “no artistic pretensions” (105), and because it speaks to and for an aspect of humanity that is alive—if dormant—in all of us. Orwell calls it the “Sancho Panza view of life” (113), referring to Don Quixote’s squire. (Wait, is Sancho a real squire?) According to Orwell, this view is the fat little man with an eye always on safety, on number one.
His tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and woman with “voluptuous figures.” (113)
Orwell contrasts this with—selfevidently enough—the Don Quixote half of modern man, the one looking for adventure, the one obsessed with honor, the one who values a death on the battlefield. This is the value system espoused and encouraged by modern society, as the social contract requires selflessness and oppression. But, according to Orwell, no man can deny his inner Sancho all the time, and the type of humor in McGill’s postcards appeals to and acts as an outlet for this set of urges in modern humanity. “It will not do to condemn them on the ground that they are vulgar and ugly. That is exactly what they are meant to be” (115).
Also of note:
- “Not being debarred from smuttiness, comic post cards repeat themselves less often than the joke columns in reputable magazines.” (106)
- “The cuckoldry joke is very seldom exploited…” (107) I’m not sure what this says about post cards as a whole, the only parallel this observation brings to mind is that Shakespeare and his contemporaries got a lot of mileage out of the cuckold joke; even Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus uses the device for some reason.
- “[These post cards] are aimed at the better-off working class and poorer middle class.” (108)
- “There is no sign in them of any attempt to induce an outlook acceptable to the ruling class.” (109) Suddenly the reason for Orwell’s interest in these post cards becomes apparent.
- “[The McGill post card] is not intended as pornography but, a subtler thing, as a skit on pornography.” (110)
- “[T]he background of the McGill post card is marriage.” (110)
- On a particular post card which implies a newlywed couple has been “in bed” for four days after their wedding: “Its implication … is that marriage is something profoundly exciting and important, the biggest event in the average human being’s life.” (110)
- “Whatever is funny is subversive… A dirty joke is not, of course, a series attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise. So also with all other jokes, which always centre round cowardice, laziness, dishonesty, or some other quality which society cannot afford to encourage.” (114)
Never having read Kipling, this essay didn’t hold a lot of relevance with me, so I will only remark that Orwell classifies him as a “good bad poet” (129), since his poetry has staying power—evidently Orwell’s only yardstick for “good” writing—and appeals to people who may see through it. According to Orwell, the good bad poem is “capable of giving true pleasure to people who can clearly see what is wrong with [it]” (129). Orwell calls a good bad poem “a graceful monument to the obvious” (130) and lists off other examples, including Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Also of note:
- “No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force.” (118)
- “The modern totalitarians know what they are doing, and the nineteenth-century English did not know what they were doing.” (119)
- “Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists, or the accomplices of Fascists.” (131) Speaking of a “graceful monument to the obvious….”
Orwell compares a contemporary pulp novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, with a wellknown piece of similar fiction, Raffles to root out the differences in moral atmospheres in each of the books. Both novels are original for their genre in that they are crime novels that focus on the criminals, not the detectives.
Whereas Raffles is a crimiAlnal gentleman, an excrickiter that attempts to belong to the working class even as he supports himself secretly as a burglar—even dying for his conviction: after his secret is revealed, he accepts that he will never reenter society until he redeems himself, which he does by dying on the battlefield for England—with a code of ethics, the criminals in the later No Orchids have no such morals or ethics, and even the police are morally deplorable.
Orwell also comments on the popularity of such sensational pulp fiction in a time of war. Confronted by the fact that No Orchids saw its most popularity in 1940, Orwell explains it was “one of the things that helped console people for the boredom of being bombed” (140). Boredom at being bombed? I would say it’s more a case of shrinking such events to a more processable and understandable scale, but Orwell’s point is essentially the same. “It is taken for granted that an imaginary bullet is more thrilling than a real one” (140).
Orwell also states a sentiment expressed later in Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, or, Goodbye, Blue Monday! and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York:
The obvious explanation is that in real life one is usually a passive victim, whereas in the adventure story one can think of oneself as being at the centre of events. (140)
Also of note:
- “He is a popular writer … who has caught up with what it is now fashionable to call “realism,” meaning the doctrine that might is right.” (144)