The first circumstance that would strike an observer about Charles Dickens, the bicentenary of whose birth is being celebrated this month, is his phenomenal popularity the world over. The unprecedented popular success that enabled a rags-to-riches rise for him on the publication of his first novel in 1836 and made him the first global literary celebrity persists even today as his books, adapted into numerous plays and films, continue to be popular around the world.
Dickens works were among the first in the history of the English novel to have been spun around sociopolitical issues. They represented the plight of the working class people in the newly industrialised England, and his insight into the hearts of the poor and the outcast startled the country by the direct and powerful appeal it made for human sympathy.
Although injustice and misery formed much of his subject matter, Dickens novels, almost always enlivened with humour, are never pessimistic. The absorbing tales he spins leave the reader with the cheering messages that good wins out in the last, and that, although some errors have crept into the world, a little thoughtfulness and sympathy on the part of the powerful would make matters right. Politically a conservative, he laid a far greater store by the human potential for benevolence than by the changing power of revolutions.
Despite this political temperance some would call it timidity his novels have been successful in bringing about actual change. Thus, the poverty and the squalor infesting Jacobs Island, a London slum featuring in his second novel Oliver Twist, were mitigated following the publication of the book. Similarly, Nicholas Nickleby led to a reformation of private schools in England.
However, the real political value of Dickens novels inheres in the awareness he created in contemporary readers of the myriad ills that plagued Victorian social institutions and of the evils incident to a social order defined by rigid class stratification.
Morally, his works put forward a sustained antagonism to sham and to false societal values even as they unambiguously champion goodness and denounce evil.
FR Leavis, one of the prime literary critics of the 20th century and a major theorist of the relation between life and art, dismissed Dickens as an entertainer and excluded him from the great tradition of the English novel in his eponymous book published in 1948. In Leavis judgement Dickens, with his eccentric characters, his implausible coincidences, and his apparent want of thematic complexity, lacked the high moral seriousness that was the cornerstone of novelistic greatness. This negative evaluation was retracted in 1970 by Leavis in Dickens the Novelist, wherein he and his co-author QD Leavis proclaimed Dickens as one of the greatest of creative writers, whose wonderful resourcefulness was complemented by profundity and seriousness and a fully conscious devotion to his art.
Indeed, the belief in the power of literature to mould minds that is implicit in Dickens novels seems to be in splendid consonance with Leavis high conception of the civilising mission of literature at its best.
Dickens portrayal of inequity in the wake of industrial capitalism and his insight into the ways in which money and the machine often dehumanise people have a poignancy for us today, living as we do in a mechanised capitalistic world marked by extreme imbalances of wealth and power. And, despite allegations of anti-semitism, misogyny and racism against him, Dickens ardent championing of social justice remains an inspiration for those who dream of a fair world.
However, it is in neither the real-world impact of his novels in terms of reforms nor his much discussed contemporary relevance that the real worth of Dickens works consists. In the face of much that is evil Dickens reposes an implicit faith in the human potential for goodness and love, and trusts literature to quicken sensibilities and to awaken consciences.
This, in the last analysis, would seem to constitute his legacy to life and literature. In a crassly materialistic world that daily desensitises people to beauty and ugliness alike Dickens novels, instinct with moral clarity and a faith in humanitys capacity for self-redemption remain a source of hope and comfort to his readers.
Suparna Banerjee is an assistant professor based in Konnagar, West Bengal. She is the author of the forthcoming book Science, Gender & History: Mary Shelley & Margaret Atwood