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Eleventh Day of Dickens: The Dignity of Labor

Any labor.

I have written about this before in my No Child's Ass Left Unkicked plan, so I might as well crib from myself:


One needs to appreciate the work done by others. .... There is dignity to work, and people would like to have that dignity recognized. Do not be snarky about the garbagemen or the secretaries. You should be even more deferent if these people are doing jobs for you that you don't want to do.

This puts to mind a scene from Martin Chuzzlewit, where Tom Pinch visits his sister Ruth at the home where she is governess. First, he notes the doorman (or whoever) is snarky about Ruth. Then, he notices his sister in tears, after which the mother and daughter of the house enter with complaints as to the daughter's total disrespect of Ruth. Mind you, Ruth isn't complaining about this, but the mother is. The daughter had called Ruth "a beggarly thing", and the mother thought this low behavior (which it was). Of course, during the mother's speech, her total contempt for the position of governess shines through. Oh sorry, the father is involved in this, too. The father, by the way, is New Money, being in the metal processing industry. Obviously, he has hired himself a full retinue of servants, and treats all with contempt.

Tom, after his break with his old employer Pecksniff bringing him further perspective on life, responds to this in righteous indignation. Here is what Tom has to say (as he takes his sister from the house):


‘I speak without passion, but with extreme indignation and contempt for such a course of treatment, and for all who practice it,’ said Tom. ‘Why, how can you, as an honest gentleman, profess displeasure or surprise at your daughter telling my sister she is something beggarly and humble, when you are for ever telling her the same thing yourself in fifty plain, outspeaking ways, though not in words; and when your very porter and footman make the same delicate announcement to all comers? As to your suspicion and distrust of her; even of her word; if she is not above their reach, you have no right to employ her.’

‘No right!’ cried the brass–and–copper founder.

‘Distinctly not,’ Tom answered. ‘If you imagine that the payment of an annual sum of money gives it to you, you immensely exaggerate its power and value. Your money is the least part of your bargain in such a case. You may be punctual in that to half a second on the clock, and yet be Bankrupt. I have nothing more to say,’ said Tom, much flushed and flustered, now that it was over, ‘except to crave permission to stand in your garden until my sister is ready.’


This is a piece of wisdom the rich and/or intellectual would do well to remember. Just because you may make more money, just because you may pay someone else to tend to your yard or take care of your children, this does not make you the better person.


To be sure, this is not the only time Dickens displays respect and dignity for those who work, no matter how lowly the work. But this is the most explicit statement, where generally he just shows the concept through characters.

He shows both men and women, boys and girls, hard at work at all sorts of jobs. There's Jenny of Our Mutual Friend, the dolls' dressmaker, who takes her crutch as she perambulates London, taking in the fashionable sights to think about her next dollish creation. There's Lizzie from the same book, who does a variety of jobs, and when on the run and is shown charity - in the old sense of caritas - by the saintly Jew Riah, it's that he gets a factory job for her out in the country, far away from her persecutors.  Yes, there are a lot of saintly girls and women hard at work, like Little Dorrit in the novel named for her, but also hard-working men, such as Stephen Blackpool of Hard Times (and he has a very hard time of it).

But even he shows the importance of a clerkish job well done, with Tom Pinch (from above) takes on loads of work for Pecksniff, but then finds his own secret benefactor for whom he puts a library in order, carefully cataloging everything. David Copperfield becomes a hard-working parliamentary reporter then professional writer (just like Dickens... yes, we know).

Whether it's just literary work, or business work, or hard manual labor, Dickens portrays all in equal dignity and reminds all that just because one is paying the worker does not make one higher than that worker.

Note: my last day of Dickens may be some time -- I'm waiting for a specific article I wrote to be officially published, and it may not be available online until March, though I wrote it back in December.  I've got a new project that shall be appearing shortly (opera notes!) -- I will not wait til the Dickens article comes up to start that.
Tags: dickens
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