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.