Tuesday, December 14, 2010

People, Plots and Prose: A Dickens of a Time

I finished my Charles Dickens personal challenge in the past week. (Feel like I should say, "Rejoice with me!" But that might be carrying the point too far.)

I intended to read all 15 published novels, including the last, unfinished one, in chronological order. I finished Pickwick Papers (the first novel) way back in September 16, 2009 and I finished the last (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) December 12, 2010. I did not read his short stories, published articles or non-fiction writing.

Prince Charming told a woman about this feat of reading the other day. She just looked at me. "Why?" The only (unsatisfactory) answer I could come up with was, "Because I thought I ought to."

So here I am, a self-confessed  Dickens, if not quite hater, then a "not getting the point-er". And I think I may finally get the point(s):

1. The People. Each book has memorable characters, from Sam in Pickwick to Mr. Grewgious in Edwin Drood. Many times the best written characters are not the eponymous ones (i.e. The Adventures of Oliver Twist or The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby).

2. The Humor. Some books seem wittier than others, but that could be due to changing times as much as anything else. Many times the wit is manifested in character names, for example: The Veneerings of Our Mutual Friend.

3. The Spot-on Observation of Life.  Quotes like the following illustrate what I mean:
"...it being quite impossible that any difference of opinion can take place among women without every woman who is within hearing taking active part in it..." - from The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit
"[T]hroughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise." -from Great Expectations
Don't get me wrong, I am not yet a Dickens acolyte. There are several reasons for this, too:

1. The Plots. Specifically, the lack of them. Some books are worse than others in this respect (Pickwick Papers and The Old Curiosity Shop come instantly to mind). Some of the "twists" come across as cliche or obvious in our spoiled times but this is probably not always Dickens' fault, since he came before most of the literature that has turned certain plot twists into cliches.

2. The Wordiness. This is not Hemingway, to say the least. Dickens never used one word where three or four would also work (he would hate Twitter, I expect). There are at least two exceptions to this: Hard Times which is succinct and does not indulge in the multiple entwined story-lines Dickens often produced and The Mystery of Edwin Drood which is fast paced and immediately draws the reader in, which only increases regret over its not being complete.

3. The Sentimentality. I don't think Dickens ever met a death scene he didn't love. Also, in his earlier works his female characters are either Very Good or Absolutely Bad. This continues, to some extent, in most of the books but a few of his female characters do manage to escape this fate.

So, I am much more likely to pick up a Dickens' novel for enjoyment now. There are a couple I actually want to read again to see if I get a bit more from them now (Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House come readily to mind). And there are at least two I will never read again unless there's nothing else to read or someone convinces me I should (Pickwick Papers and The Old Curiosity Shop).

My only real question now is: what sort of reading challenge should I try now? I'm open to suggestions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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- Robson

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