February 7, 2012, is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens. The best of times, or the worst of times? One wonders if Dickens, who died thirty years before the turn of the 20th Century, would be pleased to know that his stories and characters are remembered well into an era he could not have conceived, yet arguably might have found a home in. You don’t have to have read his entire catalogue, or even a single volume of his works to know names like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, the Artful Dodger, Miss Havisham, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, and perhaps most notably, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge. As I’ve observed before, how we celebrate Christmas today is largely the result of how Dickens portrayed it. Dickensian is a familiar adjective that conjures immediately an idealized image of the grand old city of London, his everlasting muse. Stylistically, Dickens was a master of character, an expert wielder of the cliffhanger. Socially, he was a champion of the poor, an advocate of justice and a relentless believer in the capability of good to triumph over evil. Story was his sword, and with it he carved himself a legacy still seen in the most popular fiction of today – particularly that which celebrates the underdog and his fight against overwhelming odds.
The romanticism of the Dickensian tale resonates to this day, I believe, because he recognized that we all crave that same heightened sense of adventure in our own lives. Edyta Śliwińska of Dancing with the Stars fame, in discussing the various failed relationships that had sprung up between celebrities and partners during the course of the show, cannily observed their failure to know the difference between intense attraction and a lasting emotional connection – the mistaking, as it were, of movie love for real love. Fictional romances, whether on the screen or in printed pages, are a powerful narcotic because of their savvy manipulation of the universality of emotions. We want to be swept off our feet in slow motion to the swell of orchestral strings and walk into the sunset of the happily ever after. It is not that our real lives are less interesting – far from it when closely examined – but we are drawn in by the heightened and artificial reality of the story. The natural ebbs and flows of relationships are compressed into 90 minutes, the sweet moments escalated into diabetic fits of ecstasy. In the story you don’t see the sitting up at three a.m. worrying while your partner squats noisily on the toilet, and any screaming matches usually only happen in the last third of the second act; once the screen goes to black and the credits roll, all is right in the world forever and evermore. Real love is messy, and angry, and hurtful, even hateful at times. But it is real, and unlike the movie, it is lasting.
Why then, do we still want the storybook version? It is perhaps a gut reaction to the madness of the world outside, an existential search for meaning in the face of suffering. I choose to see it as a case for optimism about the nature of humanity. Like all of nature’s creatures we are designed for survival at all costs, often by the cruellest methods available to us. Yet paradoxically we are still drawn toward the positive, the sense of anticipation of the prosperous future. We hunger for the reassurance of the triumph of good against evil no matter what the stakes, or the cost. Charles Dickens knew it, and could translate that longing into characters and tales into which we could invest ourselves. That, I think is the key to Dickens’ lasting appeal – the nurturing of that tiny flame which continues to burn in every human heart, no matter how downtrodden, how wracked with despair at seemingly unending misery. The longing for the light. The everlasting sense of hope.
And I’m told he had great legs too.