The Gospel in Dickens
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May 29, 2009


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That's an interesting take on things. Perhaps someone is purposely stirring the pot of controversy? I'm especially latching on to the "anti-abolitionist" notion. Dickens clearly let the world know his views on slavery - it is indisputable that he was against slavery. Even if he was "lampooning" abolitionists, that doesn't mean he was against the concept of abolitionism! That's like suggesting that, though I love football, not liking the Brett Favre means I'm anti-NFL. Did I just make a sports reference?

Was Dickens for or against abolition? I don't remember seeing evidence either way. Although I have not read Bleak House, in general I have a suspicion that almost all of his characters were based on (perhaps sometimes directly describing) certain real persons --- characters, of course, not the plot he put them in. I would not be surprised if he know a self-righteous abolitionist who irritated him to no end. So he vented his irritation in writing. Perhaps he had no strong opinions about the abolition movement --- but if he was strongly anti-anything, I'm sure he would have let us know that, just like how he let us know that he was anti-lawyers.

Such is the difference between ideology and good literature. The latter, annoyingly similar to real life, is never dichotomous and never about a single issue or matter.

To go off the last comment, we do have to recognize the difference between political tracts and fiction. Can we really presume that Bleak House was meant to be such a provocative statement against so many things? Certainly, some of what we read into the novel reflect Dickens's beliefs, but can we presume all?

Gina, Rob, and Jun, I completely agree with all of your observations and points. I AM reading "Bleak House" right now; and Dickens is most certainly not anti-abolitionist or anti-philanthropist, not in the slightest degree. While I am only 250 pages into the novel, Dickens is, as Gina says, pointing out there are many facets to each and every issue; whether it is the law and the courts, or do-gooders, or poverty and bad drinking water in the tenements. "Bleak House", like "Dombey and Son", is one of those books that truly makes the reader stop and think about the people around them and their lives, and that what we do has consequences, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Dickens used his pen like abolitionists used their pamphlets and rhetoric, and like the philanthropists used their money and their rhetoric. Take the results of Dickens' publication of "Nicholas Nickleby"; within a few short years the horrifying 'Yorkshire schools' were a thing of the past and the Master Squeers of the world were out of work or in prison. Finally, anyone who refers to "Bleak House" as a "cinder-block" may have a brick, or two, located, inconveniently, in other parts of their upper anatomy. Mr. Cavanaugh does NOT get Dickens at all. Cheers! Chris

It seems to me that, in Bleak House, Dickens is speaking of priorities - it's not so much that he is against abolition or philanthropy, he is just making a point that it is wrong to ignore and mistreat your home and your children while focusing on strangers in a totally different continent. Just my take. :)

To learn a little more about Cavanaugh's rationale for the "anti-abolition" charge, see his second link to David Levy (this one -- -- I hope it'll hyperlink, but I can't make any guarantees. If it doesn't, just copy and paste).

Levy's piece is a pretty remarkable example of twisting everything another author says, to my mind. Scroll down to the heading "Fixed or Malleable Human Nature: Reactions to Uncle Tom's Cabin," and read his fisking of Dickens and Henry Morley's 1852 article "North American Slavery," and I think you'll see what I mean.

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