meep (meep) wrote,

Fourth Day of Dickens: GK Chesterton on Dickens A Christmas Carol

I am a fan of G.K. Chesterton as well as Dickens (though I'm more into GKC's nonfiction than his fiction), and the way I came to GKC was through Dickens.

You see, GKC was a big Dickens fan, too, and wrote on all of Dickens' novels as well as other works.

So let's see what GKC wrote in an intro to A Christmas Carol (just an excerpt):

THE POPULAR paradox of "A Christmas Carol" is very well symbolised in its title. Everybody has heard Christmas carols; and certainly everybody has heard of Christmas. Yet these things are only popular because they are traditional; and the tradition has often been in need of defence, as Dickens here defended it.


He saved Christmas not because it was historic, but because it was human; but his own adventure serves to show how many things equally human had been suffered to become merely historic. Dickens struck in time; and saved a popular institution while it was still popular. A hundred aesthetes are always ready to revive it as soon as it has become unpopular. The modern intellectuals show great eagerness in reviving an old custom when once it is destroyed. They show particular eagerness in reviving it when they have themselves destroyed it. The educated classes are everlastingly sweeping things away as vulgar errors, and then trying to recall them as cultured eccentricities. The intellectuals of the twentieth century are now crying out for the folk-songs and morrice dances which the intellectuals of the nineteenth century condemned as superstition, and the intellectuals of the seventeenth century as sin. It would be an exaggeration perhaps to say that the advanced intelligence is always wrong. But it would be safe to say at least that it is always too late.

But Dickens was not too late. It was precisely because he was a man of the people that he was able to perpetuate the popular hold upon one of the customs that had only begun to slip from the popular grasp.

Then GKC goes on to blast eugenics (yes, really -- he, like the Catholic Church, was adamantly against eugenics when it was the preeminent progressive project).

What I find in common between GKC and Dickens is their focus on humanity. People may think this odd, given the grotesqueries of Dickensian characters, but as GKC notes in his book on Dickens:

It is exactly in these absurd characters, then, that we can find a mass of psychological and ethical suggestion. This cannot be found in the serious characters except indeed in some of the later experiments: there is a little of such psychological and ethical suggestion in figures like Gridley, like Jasper, like Bradley Headstone. But in these earlier books at least, such as The Old Curiosity Shop, the grave or moral figures throw no light upon morals. I should maintain this generalisation even in the presence of that apparent exception The Christmas Carol with its trio of didactic ghosts. Charity is certainly splendid, at once a luxury and a necessity; but Dickens is not most effective when he is preaching charity seriously; he is most effective when he is preaching it uproariously; when he is preaching it by means of massive personalities and vivid scenes. One might say that he is best not when he is preaching his human love, but when he is practising it. In his grave pages he tells us to love men; but in his wild pages he creates men whom we can love. By his solemnity he commands us to love our neighbours. By his caricature he makes us love them.

I happen to agree with GKC on this score -- Dickens' most effective characters and scenes tend to be the outrageously extreme ones. More on this in a later post, when I talk about the character I most identify with.
Tags: dickens
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