Commentary Magazine

Dickens and the Social Order, by Myron Magnet

Dickens as Conservative

Dickens and the Social Order.
by Myron Magnet.
University of Pennsylvania Press. 544 pp. $39.95.

The novels of Charles Dickens often create an initial impression of great simplicity, compensated for by extraordinary intensity—in contrast, say, to the novels of George Eliot, which are long on complexity and short on intensity. But if this impression of simplicity were entirely accurate, it should be easy to define the nature of Dickens's enterprise, his conception of society and humanity. In point of fact, this has proved to be an elusive undertaking.

Myron Magnet's study of Dickens in his crucially formative phase from 1837 to 1844 offers strong evidence for two fresh perceptions of Dickens: that he thought seriously, even systematically, about the nature of society; and that his political imagination (though not his practical politics) was essentially conservative. Of these two points, the former is actually the more heretical, because critics have automatically tended to assume that Dickens was an indiscriminate, brilliantly improvising entertainer who never devoted consistent thought to anything. But even on the issue of the novelist's conservatism, Magnet shifts the grounds of the discussion in a most instructive way, which is precisely to see Dickens's political imagination in terms of his concern with social theory.

Jack Lindsay and other Marxist critics have found in Dickens an intuition of the necessity of revolution, as is the way of Marxists with even the most reactionary writers whom they happen to like (thus Georg Lukács on Balzac), but this is hardly an argument that deserves much attention. George Orwell, and many critics after him, conceived Dickens as an exemplary 19th-century reformist liberal, a view which is certainly valid on one level and which Magnet in fact concedes. Another conventional notion about Dickens—one that has been picked up of late by neo-Marxists and post-structuralists—is that Dickens is fundamentally a nostalgic conservative, forever dreaming of the beatitudes of a lost age: stagecoach instead of steam engine, country instead of town, the ritual conviviality of blazing hearth and groaning board instead of the bleakness and grime of the industrial urban warrens.

Although there are, undeniably, memorable moments of nostalgia in Dickens, Magnet suggests that these have little to do with the writer's serious conception of society, history, and politics. On the contrary, the farther one goes back in history, as Dickens makes clear in a passage at the beginning of Martin Chuzzlewit cited by Magnet, “the greater the amount of violence and vagabondism,” of “divers slaughterous conspiracies and bloody frays.” The conservatism of Dickens's imagination, then, proves to be conceptually hard-headed rather than nostalgic, and it is inseparable from his assumption that the meliorative force of social institutions is our sole means, however imperfect and precarious, of deflecting man's great vocation for chaos.

This is, of course, a quintessentially Hobbesian idea of human nature and society; and Magnet argues persuasively that in this formative period Dickens meditated deeply on Hobbes's notion that the life of man before entering into the social compact was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The crystallization of Dickens's reflections on man and society is followed out here through a sequence of four books: Nicholas Nickleby; Barnaby Rudge; American Notes, the travel book Dickens wrote after his 1841 trip to America; and Martin Chuzzlewit, the novel that embodies the negative aspect of the novelist's American experience.

In Nicholas Nickleby, as Magnet sees it, Dickens first undertook a general imaginative investigation of the pervasive component of aggression in human nature, but he as yet had no coherent conception of society as a whole—hence the inconsistencies and the patches of pure sentimentalism in that novel. Such a conception was then powerfully articulated in Barnaby Rudge, the novel about the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 which Magnet considers to be Dickens's first masterpiece. In the writer's voyage across much of the American continent, he then fancied he was observing concrete instances of the dreaded state of nature that menaced social stability, and these perceptions were recorded differently in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit.


The centerpiece of Magnet's study, taking up more than half the book, is his discussion of Barnaby Rudge, a novel by and large slighted by previous critics. The seven chapters devoted to Barnaby Rudge nail down the main argument of the book and beautifully illustrate its strengths as well as its incidental weaknesses. Magnet convincingly shows that the novel has a coherent structure which answers to the new-found coherence of Dickens's conception of society and its relation to human nature. The first half of the novel, set in 1775 in a seemingly private sphere, is preoccupied with various pairs of fathers and sons and with the concomitant issue of coercive authority and the impulse of rebellion. These concerns then explode on a political scale in the ghastly riots instigated by the deluded demagogue, Lord George Gordon, that take up the second half of the novel.

Magnet demonstrates how the two halves of the novel lock together thematically and even imagistically, and how the destructive mob is represented as a demonic unleashing of the state of nature (Hobbesian thought crossed with Miltonic rhetoric). On the level of character, moreover, the dangers of the state of nature are dramatized in the two fatherless sons who are coupled in the riots—Barnaby Rudge, the idiot child who is swept up by the insurrection, and Maypole Hugh, the satyr-like bastard who leaps to the forefront of the violent mob.

All this is argued with incisive critical judgment in lucid, lively prose, and Magnet effectively buttresses his contention about Dickens's overriding concern with the ambiguities of authority by a tactful Freudian reading of details of the novel, particularly emphasizing images of castration that follow upon images of phallic assertion. But he makes his case so persuasively that one wishes he would have also made it more concisely: there is a redundancy in the use of overlapping prooftexts (and sometimes also overlapping secondary sources) to make more or less the same point that probably owes a good deal to the origins of this book in a doctoral program.

My second general reservation is that Magnet's evaluations of Dickens, in focusing so steadily on the aspects of his novels that have implications for social theory, tend to ignore other aspects where there may be serious weaknesses. Thus, in Barnaby Rudge the woodenness of many of the dialogues between father and son, and between suitor and eligible young woman, the mechanical quality of much of the humor, the unbelievable contrivances of the plot, are not even mentioned. Again, in the discussion of Martin Chuzzlewit, though the exploration of human nature in that novel is genuinely illuminating, nothing is said about Martin's vapidity as a protagonist or about the quality of didactic insistence in his transformation from smug self-admiration to compassionate maturity, a quality that makes this so much less satisfying a Bildungsroman than either David Copperfield or Great Expectations.

These are, in any case, relatively minor flaws in a book that should significantly alter our general understanding of Dickens. What strikes me as Magnet's central strength is that through his fine attentiveness to the fictional articulation of political issues, he never reduces Dickens's thinking about the social order to a single, programmatic position. In fact, the high tension of images and events in the fiction suggests that by the time of Barnaby Rudge, the novelist had come to a richly dialectic view of society and authority. As Magnet notes, the two chief symbols for society in that novel are keys—equally used to protect property and to lock up prisoners—and gallows. The force of coercion society exercises in order to sustain itself can exact a terrible price from its members, can easily degenerate into brutal oppression, and one of the most horrendous figures in the book is Dennis, the hangman. Yet without keys and gallows, the anarchic state of nature is always ready to reassert itself, as we see quite awesomely in the tide of fire and blood that the maddened rioters become.

From the late 1830's onward, Dickens wrote—against utilitarianism and other intellectual currents that claimed man was guided by rational self-interest—out of a profound insight into humanity's immense capacity for destruction. We are in debt to Myron Magnet for his demonstration of the centrality of this insight and how it was ramified into a systematic view of society which helped generate the imaginative power of Dickens's mature fiction.

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