Why Should We Read Charles Dickens? A TED-Ed Animation Makes the Case

You can’t go near the lit­er­ary press late­ly with­out hear­ing men­tion of Nathan Hill’s sprawl­ing new nov­el, The Nix, wide­ly praised as a com­ic epic on par with David Fos­ter Wallace’s Infi­nite Jest. Nov­el­ist John Irv­ing, to whom Hill has drawn com­par­isons, goes so far as to com­pare the nov­el­ist to Charles Dick­ens. Such praise goes too far, if you ask Cur­rent Affairs edi­tor Bri­an­na Ren­nix. In a caus­tic review essay, Ren­nix unfa­vor­ably mea­sures not only The Nix, but also the post­mod­ern nov­els of Wal­lace, Pyn­chon, McCarthy, Franzen, and DeLil­lo, against the bag­gy Vic­to­ri­an seri­al­ized works of writ­ers like Dick­ens and George Eliot. “Books like Mid­dle­march,” she writes, “took seri­ous­ly the idea that nov­els had the pow­er to trans­form human life, not merely—as seems to be the goal of a lot of post­mod­ern novels—to riff off its foibles for the pur­pose of mak­ing the author look clever.”

It’s pos­si­ble to appre­ci­ate Rennix’s essay as a read­er of more ecu­meni­cal tastes—as some­one who hap­pens to enjoy Dick­ens and Eliot and all the authors she dis­miss­es. There’s much more to the post­mod­ern nov­el than she allows, but there are also very good rea­sons par­tic­u­lar to our age for us turn, or return, to Dick­ens.

In the TED-Ed video above, script­ed by lit­er­ary schol­ar Iseult Gille­spie (who pre­vi­ous­ly made a case for Vir­ginia Woolf), we get some of them. For all the fun he had with human foibles, Dick­ens was also a social real­ist, the great­est influ­ence on lat­er lit­er­ary nat­u­ral­ism, who “shed light on how his society’s most invis­i­ble peo­ple lived.” Unlike many nov­el­ists, in his own time and ours, Dick­ens had the per­son­al expe­ri­ence of liv­ing in such con­di­tions to draw on for his authen­tic por­tray­als.

Nonethe­less, Dick­ens’ did not allow his enor­mous pop­u­lar suc­cess to blunt his com­pas­sion and con­cern for the plight of work­ing peo­ple and the poor and social­ly mar­gin­al­ized. The engross­ing, high­ly enter­tain­ing plots and char­ac­ters in his nov­els are always pressed into ser­vice. We might call his motives polit­i­cal, but the term is too often pejo­ra­tive. The “Dick­en­sian” mode is a human­ist one. Dick­ens’ did not push spe­cif­ic ide­o­log­i­cal agen­das; he tried, as Alain de Bot­ton says in his intro­duc­to­ry video above, “to get us inter­est­ed in some pret­ty seri­ous things: the evils of an indus­tri­al­iz­ing soci­ety, the work­ing con­di­tions in fac­to­ries, child labor, vicious social snob­bery, the mad­den­ing inef­fi­cien­cies of gov­ern­ment bureau­cra­cy.” He tried, in oth­er words, to move his read­ers to care about the peo­ple around them. What they chose to do with that care was, of course, then, as now, up to them.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Charles Dick­ens’ Life & Lit­er­ary Works

Stream a 24 Hour Playlist of Charles Dick­ens Sto­ries, Fea­tur­ing Clas­sic Record­ings by Lau­rence Olivi­er, Orson Welles & More

Why Should We Read Vir­ginia Woolf? A TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion Makes the Case

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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