Literature and the City the Presentation of London in Three Novels by Charles Dickens Essay

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London and Dickens

The City of London in Charles Dicken's Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and a Christmas Carol

The Dickensian city, while a reflection of social injustices, is not strictly limited to depicting humanity in the light of such suffering. For Dickens there is a wider hope -- a higher heaven than Victorian socialism can afford. Socialism is the economist's hope for heaven on earth. Dickens connects his London characters to another heaven -- this one attained by uniting oneself to the sufferings, not of the poor, but of the Christian Savior. It is no coincidence that in David Copperfield, the eponymous hero should fall in love with a girl named Agnes (who embodies all the virtues of meekness like the spiritual Lamb for whom she takes her name). The Dickensian city is, therefore, one part reality and one part allegory. or, as Francis Miltoun (1903) asserts, "the London that Dickens knew clung somewhat to Wordsworth's happy description" (p. 16). This paper will analyze the city of London through the lens of three of Charles Dickens' novels, showing how the author saw the city of London as a place of social ambition, financial slavery, and spiritual corruption.

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Essay on Literature and the City the Presentation of London in Three Novels by Charles Dickens Assignment

Victorian London was changing in several ways during the time of Dickens. Industrialization was underway, and Romantic/Enlightenment doctrine was in full swing. Social philanthropy was all the rage, and the city of London was an amalgamation of crime, poverty, charity, industry, pollution, friendship, and law. "Love of humanity" had blossomed in the 19th century as an outgrowth of the Romantic/Enlightenment doctrine that supplanted the old world, or medieval Church, concept of charity. Francis Bacon, writing in the 16th century, after England's break with the Church, was already promoting a new vision for mankind that was based on "philanthropia" ("I take goodness in this sense, the affecting of the weal of men, which is that the Grecians call philanthropia") (Bacon, 1909). While Bacon rooted his philosophy in beneficent feeling, his essay is a maneuver around Church doctrine, grace, and true charity -- concepts that had been dear to the old medieval world, but with which the new England (and the new London especially) in the wake of the Protestant Reformation definitively broke. By the 19th century, London had watched revolution in America and in France, and had seen its own royalty give way to regency. The Victorian Age was an age dominated by romanticism, and the Mid-Victorian novel was a medium filled with the philanthropic sentiment.

Charles Dickens, along with William Thackeray, held the heart of the Victorian reading public. Dickens, although he reflected human nature in all its extremes, still had a prominent interest in "philanthropia." As Matthew Bishop and Michael Green (2009) note in Philanthrocapitalism: "Philanthropists appear throughout his novel, not just as a dramatic device to offer hope (or not) to impoverished characters but also as a subject in their own right." Dickens' London, in other words, is a place for philanthropic contrivances.

Great Expectations

What distinguishes Dickens from Bacon, however, is a waning of optimism. Philanthropy in Dickens also concerns itself primarily with the spirit (and by that, one means specifically a Christian or "old world" spirit). But philanthropy, as a rule, is modern; divorced from old world spirituality and fundamentally based on Naturalism. In Dickens' London, spirituality (of the Christian variety) plays a predominant role -- above Naturalism. Great Expectations, for instance, reveals a London rife with social ambition (Miss Havisham), working class citizens (Joe), young clerks making their way (Pip), and a mysterious criminal element (Magwitch). While London on one level is a place for social mobility, on another it is a place from which good souls must flee.

In fact, social mobility, as is experienced by Pip in Great Expectations, is often illusory and full of traps that can very easily lead one into a life of cold-heartedness, gloom and despair. David Copperfield experiences a similar social ascension through employment under Agnes's father -- and in a kind of Romantic encounter with the Double he might have become had he pursued social ends only, he meets Uriah Heep -- a truly corrupt individual who has no sense of spiritual purpose or concept of the higher and more heavenly transcendental reward.

Fumie Tamai asserts that Great Expectations "was written in the years in which the Reform Bill submitted by the Derby government in 1859 activated the debate on democracy more than at any time since the passage of the first Reform Act in 1832. Whether by coincidence or not, the history of democracy was directly related to the history of the gentleman, for these were also years in which the discussion on gentlemanliness was reactivated by the publication of Samuel Smiles's Self-Help in 1859" (Tamai, 2002, p. 57). What Tamai does by analyzing Pip's journey against the debates of gentlemanliness (the prime title given to one who is at the top of the social class) and democracy (a kind of obeisance to the lower class in England) is to give Great Expectations a new look. That is to say, the social ascension of Pip in Great Expectations is only respectable because it is finally enforced by charity, humility, and perseverance, which are the true hallmarks of the gentleman. The democrat, however, whose social position is secured through changes in politics, arrives at a position of power not through decency and goodness but through the opposite -- much as Uriah Heep does in Copperfield.

In Great Expectations, the character who most embodies the such a vicious ascendancy is Orlick -- "the ultimate English democrat…the soured 'hand' turning to crime because of his inferior status…a man who in another novel might well have been the leader of a no-Popery mob or of physical-force Chartists'" (Tamai, 2002, p. 57). Orlick is to Pip what Heep is to David -- a possible double, or a foil -- or, rather, a representation of what the good character can become if not assisted by another who exists in the good. Tamai goes on to say that "Pip, who is bound to Orlick in an ego/alter-ego relationship, is also the representative of the English democrat and 'the soured hand,' but he is ultimately transformed into a 'gentleman' and incorporated into the mainstream of the power structure" (Tamai, 2002, p. 57). How is this transformation possible? Pip rises upward thanks primarily to the other -- call him the good angel (for he exists in Copperfield as well). He is the embodiment of goodness, without whom there is no advancement as far as Dickens is concerned. For one must remember that Dickens is not writing novels of socialism or of pure social reform: Dickens is first and foremost a narrator of spiritual reform, of spiritual growth and transformation.

As James Gregory (2011) states, "We know that a few important early Victorian novelists used their works to critique current penal practices -- Edward Lytton Bulwer had done this already in Paul Clifford in 1830, and Dickens expressed his distaste in Barnaby Rudge in 1841." Their reasons were founded on a distrust for the English courts -- expressed by William Makepeace Thackeray after witnessing the execution of a convicted murderer: "I came away from Snow Hill that morning with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder I saw done…I pray to Almighty god to cause this disgraceful sin to pass from among us, and to cleanse our land of blood" (Diamond, 2003, p. 157). The appeal to a higher tribunal, i.e., God's Judgment, was advocated by those who condemned the use of the gallows in England. Charles Dickens was such a one to advocate God's Judgment over England's.

David Copperfield and a Christmas Carol

London in David Copperfield is described mostly by way of an assortment of eccentric characters, from Mr. Micawber to Uriah Heep. What connects them (or at least these two in particular) are financial matters -- a point that strikes at the heart of London in Dickens' novel. London was a financial capital of the world -- and if Micawber is a man who squanders money, Heep is one who will do anything to gain it. David is representative of Dickens himself, growing up in a great city whose underbelly is crawling with some people who are kind (Micawber) and some who are crooked (Heep). Discerning the differences between the two becomes David's task, and it is Dickens' intention to help the reader do the same.

Indeed, this same emphasis on pecuniary measures plays central to the theme of Dickens' a Christmas Carol as well. Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly old man whose worth is measured not by goodness of character but by monetary savings. Dickens stresses, in this novel, the primacy that Londoners of his day and age give to financial matters, rather than to matters of the spirit. If philanthropy was a top concern of writers and social commentaries in Victorian England, it was no less so for Dickens, who even went so far as to open a shelter… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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