I’m reading “Dombey and Son” right now by Charles Dickens, and one of the things that is really sticking out in my mind is how “Dickensonian” the characters are. That is, a number of them–Captain Cuttle, Louisa Chick, Miss Tox’s neighbor–are characters that today would be considered caricaturish, dry, and boring. They repeat the same things over and over, they are ignorant and incapable of legitimate thought to the point that the reader wants to slap them even when they’re well-intentioned, and they are flatter than a pancake rolled over by a steam engine and sat on by a sumo wrestler.
For me, thinking about this is a fun reminder that literature, like all art, evolves over time. Things that were typical of nineteenth century novels and that we easily accept from a novel written in that time, we would completely PAN if they came out today.
ADMIRATION VERSUS IMITATION
It goes to show the dangers a writer can fall into if they can’t separate an admiration for older fiction from a tendency (which can be innate and unintentional) to imitate that literature.
The thing about Dickens’s stony characters is that, they work. If they come across as ridiculous, it’s because he means for you to judge them such. They don’t have a grasp of what life’s really about. They are held in high contrast with a handful of good, kind, meek, and pitiable characters who are much well-rounded and come across as even more fully human in contrast with the others who inhabit their universe.
Even so, it wouldn’t be a good idea in this day and age to imitate what Dickens does to set apart the characters you’re meant to like form those you’re meant to judge. What is really blowing me away in “Dombey and Son”–particularly because this is one of my weaknesses in writing–is Dickens’s flair and gift for description of a setting and of a person. I tend to shy from going into too much detail about those things in my work because my writing turns dry when I spend too many words on that kind of thing. So that would be something I can definitely learn to imitate from Dickens and other masters of the 19th century novel. Characterization? Not so much….
Still, check out this AMAZING paragraph about little Florence, who used to sing to her brother Paul, trying to deal with the sickly boy’s death. It makes me want to weep:
“It was not very long before, in the midst of the dismal house so wide and dreary, her low voice in the twilight, slowly and stopping sometimes, touched the old air to which he had so often listened, with his drooping head upon her arm. And after that, and when it was quite dark, a little strain of music trembled in the room: so softly played and sung, that it was more like the mournful recollection of what she had done at his request on that last night [sing for a crowd at a party], than the reality repeated. But it was repeated, often–very often, in the shadowy solitude; and broken murmurs of the strain still trembled on the keys, when the sweet voice was hushed in tears.”
Oh. My. Dickens doesn’t describe grief, he SHOWS it. And it’s utterly, utterly heartbreaking! I can’t remember a passage touching me that way in a very, very long time. I think EVERY writer could learn something from studying and going through that paragraph a few times.
By all means, we writers should read all kinds of things, including the classics. The key in reading older texts is to figure out what things to imitate and what things to admire as well achieved and appropriate for their time, but not fitting for ours.