What the Dickens?

Earlier this year, I resolved that I would not reach 25 years of age without ever having had the experience of Dickens. Despite the great author’s reputation in the literary world, his works had never been assigned to me in school at any level. As such, I was free of any bias arising from association with him on an academic plane, and I could select and read Dickens’ books at my own leisure.

Quite unwisely, I decided to start with Oliver Twist, for its relative ubiquity and earliness in Dickens’ repertoire. Quite underestimating the Victorian writer’s capacity for lengthy and high-faluting exponunciation, and more accustomed to the comparably earthier work of Thomas Hardy, I had been expecting an easy and straightforward read.

Rather, I was utterly drowned. Social commentary and even narrative continuity were difficult to pick out from the maze of complex-compound sentences and tangential prepositional phrases. I could see parts where Dickens had aimed at a kind of wordy irony, but it was, to my perception — and I hesitate in my choice of adjective — terribly pretentious more than anything else. At one point, I found it necessary to extricate myself from the tangle of words (rather easy to do, since the story had failed to inspire within me any kind of attachment to most of its characters), and return to Oliver Twist fresh from the start, a few weeks later. The second time around, I managed — rather laboriously — to reach the unsatisfactory conclusion.

Undaunted and unbroken, I resolved next, to tackle an even more esteemed Dickens work: A Tale of Two Cities — written three decades after Oliver. Armed with a basic history of the French Revolution (and a scattering of quotes from Star Trek II), I commenced to read — and was pleasantly surprised.

More than thirty years later, an older, wiser Dickens had produced an engaging work of historical fiction, with endearing characters, riveting conflicts, and a knack for satirical wit which far outshone his initial attempts in Oliver. A Tale of Two Cities was equally wordy in many places, but this time skillfully so, endowed with an almost poetic rhythm which drew me along in its color and lucidity.

The character of Sydney Carton, however, was to me, insufficiently developed as that of the despairing, unvirtuous wretch which Dickens made him out to be. Perhaps it is the discrepancy between the values of the 21st Century and those of Victorian England, yet I found myself wishing that Carton was a little less perfect, a little less ruly, despite the story’s attestations that he was mired in a sinful life.

Well, having finished A Tale of Two Cities, I suppose the next step should be Great Expectations. What do you Dickens fans out there think?