How many times have you heard that you were “gonna get the dickens” from someone? What kind of punishment came with “the dickens”? Did you ever inquire about the origin of “dickens”?
I once was told that “dickens” came from writer Charles Dickens, who wrote scathing articles scolding government, businesses and individuals who polluted the air, water or ground; exploited children; tolerated slums; or were greedy.
I later discovered that “dickens” was a name used to refer to the devil, long before Charles Dickens was born. So, it is likely that “getting the dickens” and “getting the devil” meant about the same.
If you really want to know about Charles Dickens, there is a recently published book by Michael Slater that is worth reading.
Without hesitation, I can write that Dickens is one of the most gifted, creative and powerful writers I have ever encountered. As you read the list of his serialized articles, feature articles and novels, it is hard to believe that any one person could create such an impressive number of first-rate books and articles.
Dickens’ origin was certainly not suggestive of greatness. While his father had a job that provided subsistence, the family still struggled to meet only basic needs. This was because John Dickens was perpetually in debt — he had the bad habit of overspending. He served time in the debtor’s prison when Charles was a lad of only 12 and the family was uprooted by evictions from time to time.
At this tender age, Dickens’ education came to an end and he was forced to suffer in a sweatshop blackening shoes with other children. All of this, needless to say, had a profound influence on his perceptions of society and human nature. He became a crusader for slum removal, free public education for children and safer working conditions for laborers. His serialized articles and novels were fireballs aimed at the greedy. He really gave them “the dickens.”
Dickens began his career as a writer by reporting the daily misdemeanor trials for a local newspaper. He then became a parliamentary reporter, covering events in the British Parliament. His abilities as a writer opened the door to feature articles using the pseudonym BOZ. The whole city of London became the source for accounts about drunks, prostitutes, assaults and grubby politics.
Dickens could now afford better dress and he did his best to look like a “dandy.”
At the age of 23, Dickens was recognized for his abilities as a writer. He wanted to be known for his dedication to hard work and he took on many extra assignments, depriving himself of sleep and rest. This characterized his lifestyle until he died. Everything Dickens saw was incorporated into his serialized stories and books. Filthy streets, grotesque characters and shabby politicians were objects of his scorn. He literally gave British society the “dickens.”
“Oliver Twist,” “A Christmas Carol” and “David Copperfield” are three of Dickens’ best-known novels. The same themes, already mentioned, provided archetypal images of the hurt and suffering visible to all but the shortsighted. Dickens saw room for improvement for everything from filthy prisons to filthy factories and grubby streets. Dickens spent a lifetime comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted.
It is probable that Dickens had a strong influence on the American reformers who were labeled as “muckrakers.” They, too, wrote serialized stories about conditions in the meatpacking firms and the unprincipled, cutthroat business practices of Standard Oil at the turn of the century. Dickens made two visits to the United States and, as was true of his travels to Europe, he was raised to the level of near sainthood.
Hopefully, it is not amiss to mention that this human dynamo had feet of clay. Driven to such a level that he, on several occasions, was writing two novels simultaneously, directing a play or giving speaking tours that committed Dickens to 20 or more readings of his work, he might have come up short as a father and husband.
No matter, if he were alive today, the chances are good that the selfish, the insensitive and uncaring would “get the dickens.”
Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.