Charles Dickens

The opening sequence of David Lean’s film adaptation of Great Expectations

Today is Charles Dickens‘s birthday (1812-1870).

Frye’s plangent account of the creative absurdity of literature in “Dickens and the Comedy of Humours” — this is an extraordinary paragraph, even for him:

I used the word “absurd” earlier about Dickens’s melodramatic plots, suggesting that they were creatively and not incompetently absurd.  In our day the word “absurd” usually refers to the absence of purpose or meaning in life and experience, the so-called metaphysical absurd.  But for literary criticism the formulating of the theory of the absurd should not be left entirely to disillusioned theologians.  In literature it is design, the forming and shaping power, that is absurd.  Real life does not start nor stop; it never ties up loose ends; it never manifests meaning or purpose except by blind accident; it is never comic or tragic, ironic or romantic, or anything else that has shape.  Whatever gives form and pattern to fiction, whatever technical skill keeps us turning the pages to get to the end, is absurd, and contradicts our sense of reality.  The great Victorian realists subordinate their story-telling skill to their representative skill.  Theirs is a dignified, leisurely vehicle that gives us time to look at the scenery.  They have formed our stock responses to fiction, so that even when travelling at the much higher speed of drama, romance, or epic we still keep trying to focus our eyes on the incidental and transient.  Most of us feel that there is something else in Dickens, something elemental, yet unconnected with either realistic clarity or philosophical profundity.  What it is connected with is a kind of story that fully gratifies the hope expressed, according to Lewis Carroll, by the original Alice, that “there will be some nonsense in it.”  The silliest character in Nicholas Nickleby is the hero’s mother, a romancer who keeps dreaming of impossible happy endings for her children.  But the story itself follows her specifications and not those of the sensible people.  The obstructing humours in Dickens are absurd because they have overdesigned their lives.  But the kind of design that they parody is produced by another kind of energy, and one which insists, absurdly and irresistibly, that what is must never take precedence over what ought to be.  (CW 17, 307-8)

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