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The Best of Dickens?

November 22, 1987

In support of the proposition that literature ". . . does have a way of flourishing when other things are going down," Times book critic Richard Eder ("Hard Times, Good Books," Book Review, Oct. 25) cites the assertion that "Hard Times" is "Dickens' best book." He concedes that most people may not agree, or at least not unless "Hard Times" is placed alongside "Great Expectations" as one of Dickens' "two best books."

That assessment had its first currency in the 1948 survey of the English novel "The Great Tradition," by critic F. R. Leavis. Leavis himself, in fact, came to change his view and, in his later book, "Dickens the Novelist," embraced a more comprehensive appreciation of Dickens' work.

The earlier judgment obstinately persisted, however, and, in the 1960s, was regarded in British secondary schools as received wisdom. In my own case, it was not until studying literature at university (ironically at the same Cambridge College where Leavis had taught, but after he had retired) that I was helped to see the narrowness of Leavis' original view.

"Hard Times" and "Great Expectations" are of course wonderful books. But it is in the full-length later novels ("Little Dorrit," "Bleak House," "Dombey and Son," "Our Mutual Friend") that the sweep of Dickens' genius finds its full realization. The same comic delight in the surface of life is still there, as is the same burning sense of outrage at cruelty and injustice. Added to those elements in the longer books, though, are a dark intensity, and a supreme mastery of plot in the service of the central vision of the novels.

In the longer books of his later period, Dickens engages (in a phrase which appears in "Bleak House") "the whole framework of society": the systematic inhumanities and deliberate confusions of Victorian England. At one point in "Bleak House," the homeless child Jo, who ekes out a bare existence by sweeping street-crossings, looks up to see "the great Cross on the summit of St. Paul's Cathedral." As he looks up at the cross, Dickens writes that Jo's face registers "the crowning confusion of the great, confused city." He sits--as the crowd flows by, oblivious to him--until he is told to move on.

Although the hard times which provided the backdrop and the inspiration for Dickens' greatest novels thankfully have passed, his creative achievement in its entirety still stands as one of the towering pinnacles of world literature. And perhaps some of his lessons are not completely lost on us, even today.


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