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A generous response to the story of Dickens

February 25, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL
  • Allan Powell
Allan Powell

There are rewards to writers for each genre of writing, be it history, poetry, biography, investigative reporters or columnists. The immediate response for weekly articles, while sometimes harsh, can be most gratifying. A recent column about the life of novelist Charles Dickens was especially appreciated.

Toward the end of January, my wife Joanie and I received an invitation to have lunch with retired engineer and businessman Robert Molten. He then made it known that he had a surprise for us. It turned out that Bob had a hobby of binding books and he had three samples of his craftsmanship to share. We were overwhelmed by what we saw.

Bob had beautifully bound three issues of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, for the months of January, February and March of 1856. Bob selected those three issues because there were serialized chapters of “Little Dorrit,” authored by Charles Dickens, in 1855. The magazines were in perfect condition and the binding was attractive. This was a very thoughtful gesture.

The novel, “Little Dorrit,” focused on the tragic life of an innocent, guileless young girl born in Marshalsea Prison where debtors served time until their debts were settled. “Little (Amy) Dorrit’s” name was descriptively accurate: her tiny physical structure was the result of her meager diet and long hours doing needle work to earn a pittance. Most of this money was then generously given to the support of her father who was also hopelessly imprisoned.

Analysts of this novel suggest that the prison and Dickens’ emphasis on the details of prison life is evidence of the symbolic power of a prison as well as the raw physical presence of the huge, dull, dark, smelly structure. There are many types of prisons in which we might become lost, ineffective, dehumanized and weak. In “No Exit,” Sartre uses only three dysfunctional people (but representing all mankind) who are locked in a huge mansion and constantly irritate and annoy each other. He then concludes that “hell is other people.” A mansion also can be a prison.

Dickens also introduces themes which appear in some of his other novels: the filth and squalor of London’s streets, the unhealthy condition such as impure water and the lack of free education. In this particular novel, Dickens unleashes his satire on the failures of government. He created the fictitious Circumlocution Office, which is supposed to be the center of action for solving problems and satisfying complaints of citizens.

Getting this bureaucratic nightmare into disciplined procedures to serve the public is sheer fantasy. Those who entered the various offices literally did go around in circles — shuffled from one office to another until, in utter frustration, they left. Today we call this bureau pathology and regard it as an organizational “sickness” — as did Dickens.

A word is in order about employment of the novel as a literary device. For many the novel is the most useful way to learn. This is understandable. It could be arguable that the novel is superior to the more direct form of narrative because the author is granted literary imagination not offered to the historian or scientist.

While Dickens used imagination to perfection, he was also amazingly accurate in his power of description and was a master in the use of adjectives. One can almost smell the stench of the debtor’s prison or feel the mushy ooze of the grungy streets of London.

My library is short on novels because of the concern for the slippery slide from facts to subjective wishes. Yet, one must fully recognize that the novel has a unique power to generate interest. It is hard to find a more compelling account of revivalism than the story of “Elmer Gantry” by Sinclair Lewis or the collapse of a democratic government into an authoritarian state than that portrayed by Jack London in “The Iron Heel.” Again, the novel is secure as an agent of knowledge.

This late-in-life introduction to the work of Charles Dickens is very much appreciated. There is something to be said about an engineer sharing the insights of a novelist with those who are trained in the liberal arts. Bob Molten’s life, it is certain, has been enriched because he expanded his vision to include the imagination of the novelist. The barriers of specialization have been removed and we have enjoyed the insights of an engineer. Quantification and qualification go hand and hand.
    
Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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