I’m edging slowly toward a look at literary criticism as a theory in this blog, and the pronouncements of critics regarding Hard Times proves as edifying as I’d hoped. Some attack his characters. Some of these claim his multiplicity of characters water down his plot and his focus on social issues. Others wish to place Hard Times in historical context, as a social statement. Others praise the book, as I’ve done, but for other, sundry reasons.
This points up both the value of and weaknesses inherent in literary criticism. First, the weaknesses:
Critics tend to look down their long, crooked noses on writing that’s popular with the masses and to praise the more esoteric—principally because of the difficulties in its interpretation. A modern analogy might be critiques of Stephen King versus William Faulkner. The message they seem to want to send is that if a work proves accessible to the casual reader and draws a mass audience, its literary worth and longevity are halved.
And I’m often amused by literary criticism in another sense. As you know, I both read widely and write daily. From my perspective and writerly education and experience, a writer’s strategy is generally to plot a story that can be appreciated on the superficial level of conflict resolution and character growth. Beneath that—whether it’s done overtly by the writer or not—lies a multitude of subtle meanings and connections that often extend far beyond the text.
A writer of sufficient skill to have work published knows this occurs, whether he/she is consciously aware of ever-deeper details as they appear in one’s word processor. And writers still structure their novels as they’ve done for at least a century. Literary theory seems to be blithely unaware of this continuity of structure, preferring to see a literary text, as the old saying goes, as a glass of water half full. Meaning that, as literary theory has progressed, the critics’ social agendas seem to override an evaluation of the writer’s skill in story presentation and character development. Thus critical ideology has slowly come to count for more than literary merit—i.e., political and social correctness over how well a novel educates and entertains.
With my naysaying disposed of, I can say that the grander value in literary theory is to expose the authors’ nod to a degree of ambiguity, which enables a multitude of perspectives and social and personal agendas by readers and critics. If a writer is sufficiently skillful, he/she can appeal broadly, sometimes even with specific polemics, without watering down a story’s succession of ever-deeper meanings.
For this reason, I think Dickens has been unfairly treated in literary criticism. Hard Times, his last major work has drawn a level of criticism not pressed upon earlier works, such as David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, or A Christmas Carol. He presents well crafted stories in an accurate historical context without making them seem dated or overly didactic. He depicts characters that speak directly to human values and social conditions without being cloying or all-too-predictable.
Yes, his works’ technique might seem crude by today’s literary standards, but the novel is an ever-developing device. Yet Dickens' works speak to esthetic issues and readers’ sensibilities today as well as in his time. Hard Times was the culmination of his lifetime of writing. This too has been criticized—some critics see the novel as being derivative of earlier works, without sufficient originality. I disagree (here I’m pounding fist to desk). It’s clear that in this work he managed to distil his earlier novels into one cogent literary peek at English society in his day. This is hardly a lack of originality; instead it’s a rather sophisticated refinement of his thought concerning the British Empire of his day—including the stoutness of the British soul as well as that society’s difficulties.
Last week I promised a passage from Hard Times that places Dickens’ descriptive skills at center stage. Similarly to his character depictions, such narrative could stand alone as an indictment of industrialization, empire, and the subverting of many human values in order to make such a society work. Here’s my choice of such a sample, from Book Three, Chapter Six:
THE Sunday was a bright Sunday in autumn, clear and cool, when early in the morning Sissy and Rachael met, to walk in the country.
As Coketown cast ashes not only on its own head but on the neighbourhood's too-after the manner of those pious persons who do penance for their own sins by putting other people into sackcloth-it was customary for those who now and then thirsted for a draught of pure air, which is not absolutely the most wicked among the vanities of life, to get a few miles away by the railroad, and then begin their walk, or their lounge in the fields. Sissy and Rachael helped themselves out of the smoke by the usual means, and were put down at a station about midway between the town and Mr. Bounderby's retreat.
Though the green landscape was blotted here and there with heaps of coal, it was green elsewhere, and there were trees to see, and there were larks singing (though it was Sunday), and there were pleasant scents in the air, and all was over-arched by a bright blue sky. In the distance one way, Coketown showed as a black mist; in another distance hills began to rise; in a third, there was a faint change in the light of the horizon where it shone upon the far-off sea. Under their feet, the grass was fresh; beautiful shadows of branches flickered upon it, and speckled it; hedgerows were luxuriant; everything was at peace. Engines at pits' mouths, and lean old horses that had worn the circle of their daily labour into the ground, were alike quiet; wheels had ceased for a short space to turn; and the great wheel of earth seemed to revolve without the shocks and noises of another time.
They walked on across the fields and down the shady lanes, sometimes getting over a fragment of a fence so rotten that it dropped at a touch of the foot, sometimes passing near a wreck of bricks and beams overgrown with grass, marking the site of deserted works. They followed paths and tracks, however slight. Mounds where the grass was rank and high, and where brambles, dock-weed, and such-like vegetation, were confusedly heaped together, they always avoided; for dismal stories were told in that country of the old pits hidden beneath such indications.
Throughout Hard Times, such narrative is tautly drawn. And it’s as metaphorical and all encompassing as Wordsworth’s poetry.
Next week a shift of gears to a bit of professional criticism (and my own amaterurish version) as it might apply to Hard Times.
I recently swapped an old college copy of this novel for one the Missus had. It’s the Norton Critical Edition, and contains researched notes on Dickens’ developmental plans for the book, and not a few subsequent reactions to it over the years by literary critics. I was intrigued by the possibility of exhaustive criticism of this, Dickens’ last major work, but first I had to re-read it for perspective.
Dickens clearly had in mind the Industrial Revolution as it affected England in his day as he sat to write this serialized-form novel. But he took no superficial tack on it; instead he chose a storyline and characters that highlighted industrialization in Britain, including its philosophical spokespersons, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Adam Smith.
The story takes place in a fictional factory town in England, Coketown. Thomas Gradgrind, a retired merchant, becomes the zeitgeist of both the village and Great Britain—an espouser of rational thought, and utilitarianism, which holds that the interest of the most people should hold sway, but which quickly decays into self-interest.
Every social theory must have its practical application, and in Coketown this application came about through factory life. Here, as we often hear today, the thought is that workers who live on bare subsistence wages should be thankful for just that—the opportunity to toil their lives away for the sake of enough to keep them alive. And the person who personifies this rhetoric in Dickens’ story is Josiah Bounderby, a supposedly self-made man who seems to actualize Gradgrind’s zeitgeist.
The workers in Coketown want more than survival, of course, and they begin to mutter about a union and strikes against the factory owners. Meanwhile, we begin to see life through the eyes of Coketown’s women, principally Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa, and a waif, Sissy Jupe, whose lives are as submerged in this culture as those of the factory workers.
Louisa is forced into a loveless marriage to Bounderby, who is old enough to be her father, and Sissy becomes all but indentured to Gradgrind in order to attend school. With the women, particularly, passion and emotion submerged by Age of Reason’s version of rationality erupts through a series of family and romantic dramas.
I won’t outline the plot further; this teaser will leave you with a strong idea of the social conflicts Dickens set up in Hard Times. What interests me here is imagining what did not happen with Hard Times—Dickens’ story unfolding in serialized magazine or journal form to a crowd of readers anxiously awaiting the next episode. As alluded to earlier, he did write it in a serialized form, but it was never published that way. I think it may have appealed to the ongoing reading public more in serialized form and may have short-circuited some of the negative criticism the novel has drawn.
But I do have a couple of criticisms of Hard Times. Principally, after introducing his primary characters, he allows a long, rather philosophic section regarding the owner/worker conflicts that would bore today’s readers to tears. But perhaps it was the equivalent in Dickens’ day of writing about 9/11 or AIG and would have served as a hot-button polemic as well as an overarching social statement. But Dickens is, in my view, a master of character depiction, if not development. His characters, by their very natures, speak volumes about England’s social structure and strictures. For this reason, philosophical asides are hardly needed to press Dickens’ points.
Much has been written about the superficiality of Dickens’ characters, and I think that’s primarily because of the wonderfully humorous names he gives them. I suspect some critics have a hard time seeing beyond these names and consequently blast them as paper-thin. To me, these charming characters function, not as modern novels’ characters do, as complex psychological beings, but as personifications of the social issues Dickens tried to expose. In this sense, his characters are masterfully thought out and set a-functioning.
Dickens’ voice here is equally masterful. He displays an intelligent and witty mind in his narrative, constantly slipping in offhand bon mots that showcase the author’s more private thoughts, and his emotional makeup, without disrupting the story. Also, his descriptive narrative is incomparable for novels of this time.
Next week, an example.
A cousin handed me this book during last Christmas as we were chatting about books, current events, and family. “You want to borrow this one?” he asked. “It’s good.” So I put it on my stack and recently sat down with it as I began to recuperate from shoulder surgery.
I’d occasionally read nonfiction of this journalistic type before, but it had been awhile. In the interim, such celebrity journalism as a genre has blurred to a degree similar to that of the most postmodern fiction, creative nonfiction, and biography – and that’s a good thing. Written by both husband and wife, the story centers about ABC news anchor Bob Woodruff and his near-fatal wound during an IED attack in Iraq, where Bob was reporting live. Lee and Bob wrote alternating segments of this book, these snippets moving back and forth in time, giving the couple’s personal histories as well as how Bob moved from near-death to normal life. Such back-and-forth allows for a perspective that transcends a single, simple narrator’s telling. It provides both the personal and family drama within the context of world events leading to Bob’s injury.
It serves little purpose here to go into detail regarding Bob’s suffering, Lee’s shock, the stress Bob’s injury put her and their children and extended family through as they waited to see whether Bob would live. Suffice to say that the family demonstrated the best of human faith and persistence in supporting Bob throughout his crisis. Clearly, the Woodruffs’ extended family is of a goodly sort, a loving, supportive clan.
But a couple of things bothered me about this story. First, both Bob and Lee came from well-off families, which allowed them the latitude to take on lifestyles that are simply not real to most of us (the import of this concern will be more evident as I wander, below). They attended private secondary schools, elite colleges, and then almost fell into lives and careers that most of us might only gain through a more typically American process of clawing and scratching. One thing that exemplifies the relative ease this couple was afforded in moving into glamorous careers in exotic places was their considering a surrogate mother to have their children so as not to interrupt Lee’s – and Bob’s – lives with the inconveniences of pregnancy and child birth. To their credit, they rejected this option – something most of us hardly know exists.
The substance of Lee and Bob’s story, then, is that the prospect of death is the Great Equalizer, no matter how sheltered one’s life might have been. Even so, the Woodruffs had the benefit of complete support by the military community, the ABC corporate structure, and their own family’s financial resources. Still, Lee, while demonstrating pluck throughout this family crisis, writes as if Bob’s situation were an anomaly, a black cloud of bad luck the family could hardly bear.
I had to think of the less fortunate soldiers and Marines and their families, who continue to suffer similar injuries stoically with little of the medical and financial resources showered on the Woodruffs. And it’s only after Bob recovered and began visiting the rather shabby hospitals we afford our own wounded combatants that it dawned on him how fortunate he’d been to be swarmed by teams of attentive doctors and nurses, who provided him with the best medical technology has to offer.
My second troublesome moment with this book has to do with its projected readership. We in the U.S are so fascinated with the rich, beautiful, and celebrated that more and more we seem to deprive ourselves of our own dignity through such idolatry.
True, America has thrived on the promise of bettering our own lives, but we seem to increasingly forget the values inherent in being a good person living an uncomplex life. The Woodruffs seem good people. But they also seem ones who have been handed the brass ring in life. Their attitude toward such good fortune appears to this reader akin to that of Marie Antoinette who, when told of France’s starving masses during the French Revolution, suggested they eat cake if they had no bread. As such, Bob and Lee’s story is one of vulnerability to the normal ebbs and flows that most of us take in our daily stride. Fascination with lives such as theirs, then, seems a fey attempt to wish away such normal ups and downs. In that context, I can’t help but think of a recent bit of shtick by comedian Bill Maher, who gave examples of how the rest of the world see us U.S.-ites, not as admirable or even dangerous, but as a mass of silly, silly people.
Still, Lee Woodruff, who clearly had the most to do with this book’s writing, is a most adept wordsmith. Some of her prose would stand with the best that American journalism has to offer. And Bob, too, must be congratulated for attempting to make sense of his crisis and reducing it to the page. Even with my crabby concerns, this book is a decent read, something from which any reader might gain insight into the human condition as well as into the foibles of modern times in these United States.