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Reading Dickens during the pandemic

By Richard Berg |
May 13, 2020
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Charles Dickens.
Charles Dickens.

Chicago, IL - I have lived into my sixties without giving really serious thought to 19th century English literature. My Catholic school teachers like Sister Irene and Sister Bridget continuously tried, but 45 years ago I was living the life of Eric Forman from That 70s Show. Younger and hipper lay teachers successfully introduced me to African American authors like Claude Brown, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. As a result, at the time I consumed Charles Dickens’ literature largely through a series of second-rate movies, cartoons and uneven theatrical performances that typically undermined the author’s work.

Over the years, I have found that liberals and many progressives like Dickens. He highlights class distinction while exposing the evil of poverty in his time. And there is no question that Dickens can tell a story.

I work closely with English teachers every day as an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, and many are moved by Dickens. I wanted to have a deeper understanding of why. So now as an aging trade unionist working from home during this pandemic, I finally sat down and read A Tale of Two Cities.

A Tale of Two Cities takes place at the time of the French Revolution (1792-94) in the cities of London and Paris. It is a story of love, politics and hope. No - scratch that. Not hope, or at least not much hope. Many of Dickens' characters have to overcome personal struggle. Dr. Manette, a physician, struggles to maintain his sanity after 18 years of imprisonment in the Bastille. Charles Darney has to decide whether to leave his family and risk his life to free a functionary jailed over a misunderstanding. Sydney Carton, a brilliant English barrister with a serious drinking problem, sacrifices all for love.

The list goes on. Notably, Dickens presents the desperate plight of the working class and peasantry. The acts of the aristocracy are limited only by their own personal morality, which is often lacking. The despicable acts of the aristocratic Marquis St. Evremonde are counterposed to the higher morality of his heir and “our hero,” Charles Darney. Similarly, the self-absorbed acts of the attorney Mr. Stryver are counterposed to the highly “moral” acts of a mid-level bank employee Jarvis Lorry.

What’s surprising is that the working-class characters have little agency. They tend to be ignorant, sometimes shiftless and blindly loyal, as in the case of the English bank messenger Jerry Crutcher or the French mender of roads. It Is the petty-bourgeoisie and the professionals who have agency. They lead the blind and sometimes mob-like working class throughout the story.

Moreover, Dickens' treatment of women is a disappointment. The first problem is that there are so few women in the story. He magnifies his crime by making the women characters that are present rather shallow. Miss Prosser is a servant who refuses to learn any French while living in Paris as her way to remain loyal to the English king. The “villainous” Madame Defarge, while a strong revolutionary is depicted by Dickens as a sociopath. And finally, Lucie Manette represents a loving, kind and airheaded virtue that cannot be contaminated with worldly affairs.

In the end, even with the hindsight of more than 60 years, Dickens is at best neutral in his view of the French Revolution. The real argument presented is that while the aristocracy is bad, the revolutionaries are probably worse. The working class and peasants are ignorant, so we need professionals of “moral character,” such as Dr. Manette, Charles Darney and Sydney Carton to deliver them.

Dickens portrays the French revolutionaries as primarily blood thirsty. They are represented by the petty bourgeois Madame Defarge and her husband. The revolutionaries are bent on wiping out an entire class and thus their class rule. For Dickens, this is probably worse than the hedonistic indifference of the aristocracy.

So, how are we to sum up this Dickens 19th century novel? An enticing story of love, drama, struggle, reawakening and ‘morality?’ Yes. Still, it is disappointing that such a classic novel takes the wrong side in the struggle between feudalism and capitalism.

The French revolution was at a time when feudalism had run its course. Under this system the function of peasants and workers was to serve the aristocracy. The revolutionaries in France fought a righteous fight to eliminate this feudal oppression. They succeeded. Capitalism, still in its infancy, represented a step forward. Just as today socialism represents a step forward. But now, it is time for capitalism, like COVID-19, to be extinguished.

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