Friday, July 13, 2007

Charles Dickens: Enigma

Actually, the post title is shamelessly and unnecessarily sensational. I don't know much about Charles Dickens, but my understanding is that this is due only to my own willed ignorance, and not because history lacks information, if I were only to seek it out. I do know, for example, that he was sadly poor until he inherited some money that an unlikely distant relative had left him. Someone told me that, anyway.

But in school--twice--I was exposed to Great Expectations, and I have to say, I really didn't like it at all. Which is kind of funny, because I remember it as having a reasonably interesting plot and well-crafted characters. I think that part of the problem is that I didn't like anyone in the book--except perhaps for his elderly friend at work, the one who lived with his Aged Parent--what was his name? Anyway, everyone from Pip and Estella, through his initially upstanding roommate who becomes an indebted fool because of Pip, right down through the convict and of course Miss Whatsername in the wedding dress is, in one way or another, a bit of a creep. Oh, not Joe or their maid who (spoiler) Joe ends up marrying--Bessie, was it?--they're good folk and stay that way, which is nice. But my perception of them can't help but be tainted by Pip's disdain throughout most of the book, and I can't love them, by the end, as much as I did at the beginning, though I recognize that they haven't done anything to deserve that assessment.

All this to say that, until now, the above and The Christmas Carol were the only Dickens that I had read. And I'm not fond of him, though, as I said, he does tell a story, and his characters are well-wrought. Why? Well, they tell you he wrote by the word, and I do believe you can hear that in the slow and roundabout way in which every scene unfolds. I feel sometimes like you can see him squeezing extra words in for the money. Does the Establishment agree with me? My only evidence either way is the fact that every teacher who mentioned Dickens to me also mentioned that he was paid by the word--as though they knew that he had something to answer for, and that was the answer they were giving on his behalf.

And now (to the point), I'm listening to an excellent reading of A Tale of Two Cities. And from the beginning, I enjoyed it immensely. I'm still enjoying it, though I'm less certain of where it's going, since we seem to have taken a rather long digression into the affairs of the heart (which I have to say, I've never read convincingly in Dickens--I mean, who could love Estella?). So we have all these characters, and we've learned something about their history, and they're all in love with Miss Manette (audiobook; I don't know how to spell any of the names). But I'm less than halfway done, and I have no idea what's going to happen next. Oh, except the French Revolution. That's been pretty well telegraphed, albeit with historical accuracy. Seriously, how did the aristocracy not see that coming?

But here's my real question; the question that I came here to ask. Sydney Carton, the look-alike lawyer who's a dissolute alcoholic. What did he ever do wrong? He's kind of mopey and insolent, and, as I mentioned, a raging alcoholic. But in the scene I just heard, he proposed to Miss Manette, with no hope in his heart because he's not worthy of her. Now, all suitors in books like this proclaim themselves unworthy of their lady-loves. But both he and she really seem to believe it here. What I want to know is, what did he ever do? He clearly has a bit of a bad-boy attitude--is that enough to rule him out in that day and age? Or is there some hint of a dark secret in his past that I'm not seeing? Or is it a strength of character thing--his slacker mopeyness is enough to rule him out of the marriage pool entirely?

I guess they just had higher standards, but if there IS something he did wrong, and I'm missing it, somebody please let me know.

Seriously, though? This is the most fun I've ever had with Dickens. The reader is great, and, with audiobooks, you sort of half-ignore the slow parts. I'm really excited to be kicking it, Dickens-style, as the young folk say.

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