The Charity of Charles Dickens

Just finished Dicken’s Great Expectations with our older girls as an evening read aloud, a project which has lasted two years for us. It is hard to have patience in our age of soundbites with an author who was paid by the word and often seemed to multiply characters needlessly. But any reader who has spent time with his tomes and become acquainted with his universe of characters knows the power they have of teaching charity and a host of other virtues to hearts grown cold with indifference and self-centeredness.

The fundamentalist tradition in which I was raised taught me to size up the people I met by a certain rigid doctrinal standard. Those who passed the test were given carte blanche for their actions more or less because they were followers of the right belief. Those who didn’t pass the test were deemed objects of evangelization and treated accordingly; one would pray for them, preach to them, maybe even potluck for them, but certainly not let one’s children play casually with theirs. For the predestination of certain elect persons in the Kingdom of Heaven made us not mere keepers of our brothers and sisters, but judge, jury and executioner of their eternal destiny.

Joe, the Village Blacksmith

The first time I met characters in Great Expectations like Mr. Jaggers, the shrewd, abrasive lawyer from London, I recognized something within me that was deficient and needed healing. The way he could size someone up whom he had just met and in seconds cut them off at the knees reminded me of my own dogmatic interrogations. It is almost comical, the extreme to which his prejudice reached, tragicomical when his assessment of Joe, the village blacksmith, failed to account for Joe’s greatest quality, his humility and profound charity.  When Jaggers offered money to Joe as compensation for the loss of his beloved nephew (really brother-in-law) Pip, Joe’s response was a complex mixture of belligerence, astonishment, and love:

Joe laid his hand upon my shoulder with the touch of a woman. I have often thought him since, like the steam hammer, that can crush a man or pat an egg-shell, with gentleness. ‘Pip is that hearty welcome, ‘ said Joe, ‘to go free with his services, to honour and fortun’, as no words can tell him. But if you think as Money can make compensation to me for the loss of the little child—what come to the forge—and ever the best of friends!—’.

O dear good Joe, whom I was so ready to leave and so ungrateful to, I see you again, With your muscular blacksmith’s arm covering your eyes, and your broad chest heaving, and your voice dying away. O dear good faithful, tender Joe, I feel the loving tremble of your hand upon my arm, as solemnly this day as if it had been the rustle of an angel’s wing!

The heartless Estella

It is this charity, gentleness and long-suffering which eventually transformed the chief protagonist Pip from a foolish, selfish young man with worldly ambitions into a patient and forgiving friend. Rather than follow in the footsteps of his calculating Guardian Jaggers, Pip achieved eventually one of the highest of the Gospel commandments, viz. love for one’s enemies. When the beautiful but heartless Estella delivered her final rejection of him, Pip returned with nothing less than a divine benediction:

Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!’

Not only did he forgive and bless his love-loss Estella, but he learned affection, respect, and eventually self sacrifice for an uncomely convict. In the 1999 BBC TV movie version, the writers actually improved on the great classic by supplying a whole scene which is not directly contained in the book: Pip reads to the wounded, dying Magwitch from a very poignant moment in Homer’s Odyssey when the returning war hero and father Odysseus reveals himself to his son Telemachus. The resonance between the presumed orphan Telemachus and the adopted orphan Pip honors the deep repentance of Magwitch whose love drove him to become a secret, second father to Pip. It equates him to one of the greatest heroes of all antiquity.

If we had nothing more than commandments from our Lord to love enemies and treat our lesser members with greater honor, we might never learn on our own how to fulfill those lofty commands. But thankfully great novelists like Dickens tell modern parables so that seeing, we may perceive and hearing, we might truly understand. The charity of Charles Dickens leaves us without excuse for our indifference towards our neighbors who are made in God’s image and likeness. For it is the gift of this great writer to take someone as abhorrent and despicable as Abel Magwitch and find some redeeming trait, some remnant of his humanity that would endear him to us. I have found this practice very helpful in my own spiritual life when I am struck with abhorrence or indifference towards anyone: to treat that person like a character in a Dicken’s novel and find one or two becoming traits which can warm my affection towards them. Then, once affection is warmed, I may actually have a chance to achieve the higher love of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. May you too learn someday the secret of this great writer and sometime spiritual father.

4 thoughts on “The Charity of Charles Dickens

  1. My goal was to finish reading David Copperfield to my daughter before the end of high school. But her high school homework load increased while my energy level for late bedtime reading decreased, and alas, we never did complete this incredible tale together….Maybe I should start with grandchildren now:o)? I did however successfully just introduce one to the Pooh series (after me maxxing out on emergency vehicle/truck books), and with only a few tweaks to Milne’s archaic writing style, he really caught the cleverness of his woodland characters’ development and the stories that were woven around their unique personalities. A real treat for me to revisit again too!

    • I don’t recommend Copperfield very much. WAY too many characters in that one and the cheesy ending is just way too convenient. It has good bits, but you have to know where they are and side track all of the fluff. EVERYONE, though should read A Christmas Carol this time of year. Not long at all and very terse in characterization.

  2. Pingback: Best of the Best 2015 | Like Mendicant Monks…

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