An Analysis of Dickens' Use of Arbitrary and Hypocritical Societies in His Works
Jerome Meckier observes that "David Copperfield's lifestory could have been included among the hymns to self-advancement in Samuel Smiles's Self-Help" (Meckier 537). While Smiles' work was about the virtue of perseverance, Dickens did more than merely provide a literary backdrop for the sanctimonious espousal of Romantic/Enlightenment era virtue. Dickens used, rather, the arbitrary and hypocritical societies of these eras to underscore the necessity for Christian virtue. A Tale of Two Cities, for example, begins by juxtaposing the idea that his age had created "the best of times" with the fact that his age had also created "the worst of times" (1). Both David Copperfield and Pip, moreover, are certainly born into the worst of circumstances. Their survival in a Victorian England, plagued by arbitrary and hypocritical societal conventions, forms the essence of Dickensian conflict: Dickens analyzes, in other words, how a young man might become a good man in a world that is anything but good. As David Copperfield ruminates, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show" (1). Dickens relies heavily on Christian symbolism in his works: for instance, both Agnes (the Lamb) in David Copperfield and Magwitch in Great Expectations serve as Christ-symbols, who help the heroes of the novel come to good ends in spite of their surroundings. This paper will analyze Dickens' use of arbitrary and hypocritical societies in his writings and show how he used them as a source of conflict in his characters' heroic mission.
Dickens himself used fiction as a means of autobiography. His works were types of real life evidence, in other words, of the selfish, subjective and hypocritical culture he found in Victorian England. For example, Dickens deals readily with the fact that England's financial institutions were being run by con men when he creates the character of Uriah Heep. Yet, against Heep, Dickens sets the semi-heroic figure of Mr. Micawber. Traddles himself explains the significance of this juxtaposition: "I think we ought to consider that Mr. Micawber did right, for right's sake, when we reflect what terms he might have made with Uriah Heep himself, for his silence" (David Copperfield 552). It is an amazing thought, when one stops to consider it: Micawber's decency forbids him from entering into the con with Heep -- that is to say, Micawber is a man of honor and will not stoop to blackmail for the sake of financial gain or social mobility -- which is essentially what Heep does stoop to do.
From the very beginning of the Victorian era a debate had raged among citizens of both the left and the right on social issues like necessity of the death penalty and whether it would be beneficial to society to abolish it. The arbitrariness with which it was mainly accepted and enforced was especially painful for Dickens (as well as other writers and social critics of the time). As James Gregory 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 writings are rooted in a distrust for the English courts, a distrust most adequately expressed by William Makepeace Thackeray, who witnessed the execution of a convicted murderer and later wrote: "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 157). The appeal to a higher, objective God, a Supreme Law Giver, was not uncommon in Victorian England, and even Dickens took up this appeal in his works in order to help expose the rottenness and hypocrisy at the heart of his society.
Indeed, Dickens used the same theme of execution described by Thackeray as the threat at the heart of one of his most famous novels, A Tale of Two Cities, and as the driving force of the same novel's climactic scene. If in Great Expectations Dickens argues that English society is corrupt to the core and that real justice comes only from God, Whose "greater Judgment that knoweth all things and never errs" is supreme to any earthly judgment rendered by English courts (495), Dennis Walder notes that Dickens' Expectations is ironically the "least obvious" expression "of Dickens' religious views" (198). One must look, rather, to the sort of historical-romance that is A Tale of Two Cities to fully grasp Dickens' admiration of Christian self-sacrifice and his disdain for such arbitrary English laws as the death penalty, which to him reflected the more sinister values of the French Revolution. In Two Cities, the anti-hero turned hero is executed in a moment of self-sacrifice and becomes a blatant example of Dickens' convictions. Sydney Carton becomes the personification of Christ's assertion that "greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Indeed, it is through the unjust, arbitrary and hypocritical proceedings of the Reign of Terror that Carton proves himself. By juxtaposing his sense of righteousness with the lust for blood of the Revolutionaries, Carton (and Dickens) rises above the societal Terror. The Reign of Terror also serves, however, as a means by which Dickens can express his resentment and distrust of England's own use of the death penalty. In Two Cities, he shows a clear propensity to favor The Law of the Divinity over the law of the human, or more precisely of the Victorian legal system.
Pip in Great Expectations represents for Dickens a similar objection to societal ills and the need to transcend social hypocrisy. What Pip learns through the process of growing up in the Victorian bildungsroman is the fact that justice in this life is scarce and not to be expected but rather to be looked for in the next world at the Judgment seat of God. It is for this reason that Pip kneels at the bedside of the dying Magwitch to offer to God a prayer -- a petition, in fact, for the soul of Magwitch: "O Lord, be merciful to him, a sinner!" (Great Expectations 498). Pip may be understood as the personification of Dickens' own conviction that the same God Who will show justice at the end of time also possesses infinite mercy as well -- unlike the English courts.
Dickens uses the hypocrisy of society (as readily seen in the law courts) and hypocritical characters as foils for the good he strives to depict. Heep is one of the most corrupt characters in all of Dickens' works -- a man who operates by deception and lives for greed alone. Indeed, he is a character who embodies all the pitfalls of humanity: "He is likened to a fox, baboon, ape, vulture, bat, hound, scarecrow, fish, frog, snail, eel, hangman, devil, skeleton, cadaver, mask, incubus, and carved grotesque; he likens himself, as a lawyer, to sharks and leeches" (Thiele 201). Heep is, as David Thiele implies, an example of the kind of social hypocrisy (pretending to be good and decent on the outside, but actually corrupt and fatal on the inside) unaccompanied by the rewards of grace or the higher habits of virtue. Heep exists in "the social (or antisocial) role of corrosive upstart and in the physical (or metaphysical and metaphorical) role of living death" (Thiele 201). In other words, characters like Heep in Dickens' depiction of the society of finance is nothing more than the personification of social hypocrisy in a milieu ungoverned by morality.
Dickens' London is often a parlor where good and evil come toe-to-toe; where good must climb over the economic obstacles placed in his way and strive for a higher virtue than mere arithmetic. Schooling does not always count for much in Dickens' London, either. In Hard Times, the schools are filled with teachers who want to teach only "facts," and have nothing but distrust for the imagination. The factories draw workers from the rural areas and enslave them in the machine of commerce. It is a treacherous world in Dickens' London and no one is safe. In fact, most places of business, including schools, are little more than confidence games -- and everyone seems a con man. Schools are one example of the con game that lives on in the city. Whether in the bungling grave robbers of A Tale of Two Cities, or the pickpockets of Oliver Twist, the London underbelly is full of unsavory characters who live in a kind of hand-to-mouth fashion because they can afford themselves no better avenue toward stability.
In conclusion, therefore, it is telling when Francis Miltoun asserts that "the London that Dickens knew clung somewhat to Wordsworth's…