No two authors could be more unlike than Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. Dickens was notorious for the saccharine sentimentality that pervades his novels. His rainbow humour - smiling through tears - endeared him to many readers all over the world. But there are others who complain that his appeal is invariably to the heart, never to the head. Shaw, on the other hand, was a sworn enemy of sentimentalism; rationalism was his forte. Yet quite unabashedly Shaw declared in 1906: '... I am a supersaturated Dickensite' (Shaw on Dickens 65). Again, in June 1914 he wrote:
I am a Dickensian if by a Dickensian you mean a person who read all Dickens eagerly in his nonage. I read a good deal of him in my childhood before I dreamt of asking whom a book was by. I was a good deal influenced by him (Shaw on Dickens 74).
On yet another occasion (July 1919), readily admitting the influence of Dickens upon him, Shaw made a devastating comment: ‘Nothing but the stupendous illiteracy of modern criticism could have missed this fact’ (qtd. in Shaw on Dickens viii).
Shaw’s Foreword to a revised text of Dickens’s Great Expectations, published in 1947, contains some of his penetrating comments not only on Dickens, but also on what made Dickens so significant to him.
And yet Shaw was not uncritical in his evaluation of Dickens. In a letter to Kate Perugini, daughter of Dickens, Shaw wrote: ‘His (sc. Dickens’s) limitation was the Shakespearean limitation: the current philosophies and religions of his day (Great Portland St – Good God!) were perfectly useless to him; and he never arrived at a philosophy or religion of his own’ (Shaw on Dickens 63). Nevertheless Shaw was charitable enough to admit that even this ignorance ‘had its advantages; for although it prevented him from understanding things that are intelligible enough to a superior person like myself, it also saved him from cooking his books to fit his philosophy, instead of depending on his enormous power of observation’ (Shaw on Dickens 63).
Shaw finds fault with both Dickens and Shakespeare for the absence of any philosophy in their works. In his Epistle Dedicatory to Man and Superman (1903) Shaw said:
I read Dickens and Shakespear (sic) without shame or stint; but their pregnant observations and demonstrations of life are not co-ordinated into any philosophy or religion: on the contrary, Dickens’s sentimental assumptions are violently contradicted by his observations; and Shakespear’s pessimism is only his wounded humanity (Shaw on Dickens 108).
Shaw does not deny that
[b]oth have the specific genius of the fictionist and the common sympathies of human feeling and thought in pre-eminent degree. They are oftener saner and shrewder than the philosophers just as Sancho-Panza was often saner and shrewder than Don Quixote. They clear away vast masses of oppressive gravity by their sense of the ridiculous, which is at bottom a combination of sound moral judgment with lighthearted good humor’ (Shaw on Dickens 108).
This absence of philosophy, however, was definitely a hindrance: ‘But they are concerned with the diversities of the world instead of with its unities: they are so irreligious that they exploit popular religion for professional purposes without delicacy or scruple…’ (Shaw on Dickens 108). All this, Shaw says, led to one great fault in their creations: ‘Neither of them could do anything with a serious positive character…’ (Shaw on Dickens 109).
Shaw’s evaluation of Dickens is marked by his antipathy towards the latter’s lack of any well thought-out worldview. Shaw dismisses ‘the compact Tale of Two Cities’ as ‘pure sentimental melodrama from beginning to end, and shockingly wanting in any philosophy of history in its view of the French Revolution’ (Shaw on Dickens 46).
In a study of Ruskin vis-à-vis Dickens, Shaw asserts:
Charles Dickens was one of the greatest writers of the 19th century, and one of the greatest writers that England has ever produced. One of the greatest books in the English language is Little Dorrit, and when the English nation realises it is a great book and a true book there will be a revolution in this country. One of the reasons I am a revolutionist is that I read Little Dorrit when I was a very small boy (Shaw on Dickens 111).
In this essay Shaw points out another shortcoming of Dickens:
Yet a comparison between Charles Dickens and John Ruskin, another great writer, brings home how astonishingly Philistine Dickens was. He really knew nothing about anything except literature, and that was a very serious handicap to him. One gets a far broader wisdom very often from Ruskin than from Dickens… (Shaw on Dickens 111).
Shaw explains that he uses the word Philistine ‘in the popular sense of a man who knows nothing about art.’ Dickens in this respect, however, was not an exception, for in England the authors of the nineteenth century were ‘the most appalling Philistines – even the greatest of them’ (Shaw on Dickens 111).
Shaw is at his paradoxical best when he brings Karl Marx in contrast to Dickens:
The difference between Marx and Dickens was that Marx knew that he was a revolutionist whilst Dickens had not the faintest suspicion of that part of his calling. Compare the young Dickens looking for a job in a lawyer’s office and teaching himself shorthand to escape from his office stool to the reporters’ gallery, with a young Trotsky, the young Lenin, quite deliberately facing disreputable poverty and adopting revolution as their profession with every alternative of bourgeois security and respectability much more fully open to them than to Dickens (Shaw on Dickens 49).
This, however, is not the only reference to Marx in Shaw’s comments on Dickens. As if to compensate for this harsh judgment, Shaw declares: ‘Yet Little Dorrit is a more seditious book than Das Kapital. All over Europe men and women are in prison for pamphlets and speeches which are to Little Dorrit as red pepper to dynamite’ (Shaw on Dickens 51).1
All this comes after a scathing comment on Dickens’s limitations:
You may read the stories of Dickens from beginning to end without ever learning that he lived through a period of fierce revivals and revolutionary movements in art, in philosophy, in sociology, in religion: in short, in culture. Dean Inge’s remark that “the number of great subjects in which Dickens took no interest whatever is amazing” hits the nail exactly on the head. As to finding such a person as Karl Marx among his characters, one would as soon look for a nautilus in a nursery (Shaw on Dickens 51).
Over and over again Shaw makes a sharp distinction between Dickens the novelist and Dickens the man. It would perhaps be better to say that the distinction is between the man and his works. This no doubt would win the approval of Georg Lukács who insisted on objectivity to the last day of his life (Eörsi 32). Dickens the man was no better than ‘an English gentleman of the professional class, who would not allow his daughter to go on the stage because it was not respectable’ (Shaw and Dickens 52). Shaw again brings in Marx as a typical representative of what Dickens was not. In spite of all his seriousness, Shaw observes,
…Dickens never saw himself as a revolutionist. It never occurred to him to found a Red International, as Marx did, not even to join one out of the dozens of political reform societies that were about him. … He knew so little about revolutionists that when Mazzini called on him and sent in his card, Dickens, much puzzled, concluded that the unknown foreign gentleman wanted money, and very kindly sent him down a sovereign to get rid of him (Shaw on Dickens 52).2
Shaw brings in Marx in relation to Dickens again in a different context:
Marx and Dickens were contemporaries living in the same city and pursuing the same profession of literature; yet they seem to us like creatures of a different species living in a different world. Dickens, if he had ever become conscious of Karl Marx, would have been classed with him as a revolutionist. The difference between a revolutionist and what Marx called a bourgeois is that the bourgeois regards the existing social order as the permanent and natural order of human society, needing reforms now and then and here and there, but essentially good and sane and right and respectable and proper and everlasting. To the revolutionist, it is transitory, mistaken, objectionable, and pathological: a social disease to be cured, not to be endured (Shaw on Dickens 48).
It is quite probable that Dickens did not know anything about Marx. But Marx did know much about Dickens. A correspondent of the Chicago Tribune noticed the works of Dickens and Thackeray in Marx’s private collection (Prawer 395-96). There is, however, only one occasion in Marx’s printed works when Dickens is mentioned by name.3 It appears in an essay written in English and published in the New-York Daily Tribune (August 1, 1854). Dickens is named along with Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, and Mrs Gaskell who are said to have painted the English middle class as ‘full of presumption, affectation, petty tyranny and ignorance’ (Marx-Engels 339-40). The editors of Marx-Engels Werke have pointed out that parts of the manuscript of this article were radically revised by the editors of that journal (Prawer 237). Hence everything the essay contains should not be blindly accepted as coming from Marx’s pen. Although much has recently been made of a statement in this essay (‘The present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together…’) and the honour of being such an author attributed to Dickens alone (in Wikipedia and several printed works), the authenticity of the text of this essay, particularly this kind of hyperbole, is not beyond question.
However, there are several allusions to Dickens’s characters in Marx’s works which exhibit his close acquaintance with the works of the English novelist. They are not to be found so much in the works meant for publication but in his letters. Dickens was indeed one of Marx’s favourite authors. As S. S. Prawer observes:
There are also constant additions to Marx’s canon of literary excellence: Homer, Aeschylus, Ovid, Lucretius, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, and Heine are joined, successively, by Dante, Diderot, Cobbett, Balzac, Dickens, and many others (401).
Marx does not go into the merit of Dickens’s works, nor does he pay much attention to the contents of the novels and the message they convey. Dickens to him was basically a fashioner of typical characters, so typical as to represent any individual who belongs to the type. Dickens was memorable to him as the creator of a variety of odd and curious characters who can be recalled in relation to other people of Marx’s own times. In a letter, for example, Marx speaks of ‘the modern bourgeois Pecksniff- style…’ (qtd. in Prawer 174), alluding to the notorious self-server in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit. Pecksniff comes handy in reference to Napoleon III of France who is called ‘the imperial Pecksniff’ (Prawer 262).4 Similarly in his Ethnological Notebooks (posthumously published) both Jeremy Bentham and Henry Maine are called ‘Pecksniff’ and ‘Pecksniffian’ respectively(Prawer 361-62), apparently as terms of disapproval. There are references to Tupman, a character in Pickwick Papers (Prawer 186). Marx also speaks of the ‘Pickwickian sense’ in which politicians employ their words (Prawer 252). Richard Cobden is called ‘umble’ like Uriah Heep, a hypocrite in David Copperfield (Prawer 203). Two other characters from Dickens, Wackford Squeers (the cruel headmaster in Nicholas Nickleby ) and Artful Dodger (the nickname of a pickpocket in Oliver Twist ), are mentioned as specimens of cruelty and unscrupulousness (Prawer 252). Marx again mentions Wackford Squeers (Prawer 392) in connection with the editor of the National-Zeitung, Berlin.
Literary allusions are galore in Marx’s less known work, Herr Vogt : English authors, such as Shakespeare, Samuel Butler of Hudibras fame, Alexander Pope, Lawrence Sterne, Byron, and last but not least, Dickens. Both in Capital , vol. I and Herr Vogt, Bill Sikes, a vicious thief in Oliver Twist, is made to appear as a ‘voluble cut-throat’ (Prawer 340). Marx calls Gladstone’s style of oratory ‘Circumlocution-Office style’ (Prawer 358) and explains the term for the benefit of his German readers who had not read Little Dorrit : it is employed to describe the style of function of Government bureaucracy.
Marx once said, ‘Individuality and specificity are an integral aspect of typicality’ (qtd. in Prawer 410).5 Referring to this formulation, Prawer observes:
In this way a novel by Balzac or Dickens may become a ‘concrete universal’ – it may reveal more of the dynamic of nineteenth-century life in France and England, and of the workings of human nature in its general as well as its temporally and sociologically particular aspect, than the writings of most historians, economists, and sociologists (Prawer 410).
Marx used to collect literary nicknames from a wide number of sources; they do not show any inclination to choose only such authors who had a philosophy of their own (as Shaw demanded). Marx’s admiration for Dickens is purely literary: he never bothers to reflect on Dickens’s personal views regarding the burning issues of his times. On the contrary, Marx hugely enjoyed the peculiarity of the characters that Dickens created.
To sum up then: Shaw’s evaluation of Dickens is coloured by his own propensity towards philosophizing in his plays and the sense of purpose that must, he felt, permeate every work of art. He discovered in Dickens’s works the full potential of a ‘revolutionist’, although in his personal life and thought Dickens himself was far from being so. Marx, on the other hand, found in Dickens’s novels a delightful gallery of characters who could be picked up and projected as typical representatives of human follies, foibles and vices.
Notes and References
1 Shaw considers Little Dorrit to be ‘Dickens’s masterpiece among many masterpieces’ and Great Expectation ’his most compactly perfect book’ (46).
2 Dan H. Laurence and Martin Quinn, editors of Shaw on Dickens, inform us that Mazzini and Dickens later became friends (52 n6).
3 Engels too is known to have mentioned Dickens once by his pen name, Boz (Marx-Engels 297). He makes a distinction between the older kind of romance and the modern novel dealing with the fates and fortunes of the poor, the despised class, replacing those of kings and princes. As examples of the ‘new class of novel writers’, Engels mentions George Sand, Eugène Sue, and Boz (i.e., Dickens). This distinction between romance and the novel was later explored in more details by Arnold Kettle, a twentieth-century Marxist critic (33-37).
4 On another occasion Napoleon III is called ‘the Quasimodo of the French Revolution’ (Prawer 252), alluding to the poor hunchback in Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre-Dame de Paris (translated into English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), not, however, in the sense of a pathetic grotesque figure, but, as Marx himself explains, as a terrifying Quasimodo.
5 Engels too appreciated this quality in characterization. In a letter (November 26, 1885) he told Minna Kautsky, a German novelist, that her ‘characters exhibit the sharp individualization so customary in your work. Each of them is a type but at the same time also a definite individual, a “Dieser” [This one], as old Hegel would say, and that is how it should be’ (Marx-Engels 87). In another letter (beginning of April 1888), to Margaret Harkness, an English socialist-feminist author, Engels defined realism as ‘besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances’ (Marx-Engels 90).
Eörsi, István. György Lukács, Fanatic of Reality, The New Hungarian Quarterly, Vol.12. No.44, Winter 1971, pp.26-34.
Kettle, Arnold. An Introduction to the English Novel, vol.1. London: Arrow Books, 1962 (first published 1951).
Laurence, Dan H. and Martin Quinn (eds.). Shaw on Dickens. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1985.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. On Literature and Art. Moscow: Progress Publishers,1976.
Prawer, S.S. Karl Marx and World Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya, Siddhartha Datta and Sunish Kumar Deb. The usual disclaimers apply.