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December 11, 2023

When Dickens met Dostoyevsky

From Michiko Kakutani's review of two new Dickens biographies in the October 25, 2011 New York Times:

In a remarkable account of a meeting he had with Charles Dickens in 1862, Dostoyevsky recalled that the British novelist told him: "All the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity toward those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. 'Only two people?' I asked."

Dickens's fiction is filled with doubles and alternative outcomes: "Great Expectations" has two endings, one happy, one sad, while Scrooge is both given a glimpse of his lonely, miserable future and a chance to avoid this destiny by changing his miserly ways.

A clerk named Nemo in "Bleak House"... lives in a room "nearly black with soot, and grease, and dirt," eking out a meager existence copying legal documents — perhaps as Dickens would have done had he stayed in the legal profession he worked in as a teenager. David Copperfield, of course, is an alter ego — his initials are even those of the author's in reverse; and Dickens originally planned... to call the physical doubles in "A Tale of Two Cities" Charles Darney and Dick Carton.

So often, in Dickens novels, a simple twist of fate, a single impulsive choice can change the entire direction of the narrative... "Pause you," Pip says in "Great Expectations," "and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

December 11, 2023 at 12:11 PM | Permalink


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