Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Tale of Two Novelists

“ I hope you say your prayers every night,” said another gentleman in a gruff voice, “and pray for the people who feed you, and take care of you, like a Christian.”

“Yes, sir,” stammered the boy. The gentleman who spoke last was unconsciously right. It would have been very like a Christian, and a marvelously good Christian, too, if Oliver had prayed for the people who fed and took care of him. But he hadn’t, because nobody had taught him.”

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

It's the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens's birth today. Dickens is still an immensely beloved and entertaining novelist who was, surprisingly, rated the finest novelist of all by an incomparably and obviously greater novelist, Theodore Dostoevsky. Why did Dostoevsky rise so far above him in profundity? I would aver it is because, unlike Dickens, Dostoevsky's work is imbued with a profoundly and rightly religious sensibility. Dostoevsky is obsessed with the redemption of the soul in the light of eternity. Dickens, by comparison, presents as the poet laureate of conventional English Christianity: dismissive of the value of doctrine, highly sentimental and reductive of Christianity to a religion of good works which it is entirely in our power to do perfectly.

Nothing wrong with good works, of course, and we should not gainsay the role of Dickens's novels in forming the collective conscience of middle-class England in the 19th century. And, as the quotation above from Oliver Twist shows us, Dickens was rightly sensitive of and concerned for the religious education of the great, wretchedly poor and ignorant masses of the English working class whom even Methodism had failed to reach entirely (who provided the human raw material, so to speak, for colonial Australian society, but that's another story. One of only two statues of Dickens can be found in Sydney). But what sort of religious education would Dickens, who once dabbled in Unitarianism, have liked to see Oliver acquire? One is inclined to think it would have been more along the lines of Tolstoy's (another Dickens admirer) rationalistic religion of good works than Dostoevsky's mysterious, Christ-focused religion of redemption. In the final analysis it was not the redemption of the soul as much as the redemption of the social value of a life that Dickens was obsessed by. He might have benefited from the counsel Dostoevsky gave to one of his friends in a letter: "Wouldn’t it be more to the point…if you read somewhat more attentively the epistles of St. Paul?"


David Cochrane said...

Another great post and wonderful thing to bear in mind.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Thanks kindly, David.