Journal Entry: Tue Feb 7, 2012, 9:06 AM
I must admit, this caught me off-guard. I was on Google and thought "Hmm, they have an unusual Doodle today", and it turns out it was for this occasion. Imagine that.
But this is a good opportunity to look upon an important middle point, some would say high point, of English literature. He wrote stories in the centre of one of the English-speaking world's biggest historical turning points, in the middle if the 19th century. Industrialization was on the upswing, the middle class was growing, and everything was moving much faster. But by the same token that industrialization helped shrink the gap between the rich and the poor (ever so slightly), the rapid urbanization brought in people from the country and the fields, hoping to find work in the cities. The workhouse was on the rise, as Dickens' own unsympathetic protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge pointed out, and the worst tasks were given to small children. Social stratification adapted to the rising middle class, as it is wont to do, and Dickens saw all of this out his front window.
He started as a journalist, which may reflect how the characters he made are often considered the standout features of his work. He would see many of these people as he reported the various aspects of life in London, compile several of them together, or turn them into ghosts and poorhouse workers. Several of his characters, including Fanny and Nell, are based off members of his family. The death of Charles' favourite young niece, Mary, in his arms, is part of what inspired him to create the character of Nell.
And as you no-doubt know, his works are celebrated. A Christmas Carol is one of the most oft-adapted stories in the world today; everyone from Reginald Owen to Mickey Mouse has taken a crack at it. Oliver Twist remains a scathing indictment of young poverty and how people adapt to it, and A Tale of Two Cities remains a powerful work.
With all this in mind, it brings me to wonder about the state of literature today? Dickens' works turned a mirror on the world, as the words and characters reflected things we may not have noticed in the world around us, and the power of his work caused us to sit up and take notice. What kind of mirrors do we have these days?
Rather discouragingly, we have Twilight, a book that argues that lustful obsession is the best love a young girl could hope for (I hesitate to think Stephenie Meyer understands the symbolism of making the main love interest a vampire, but maybe she does), and that you must remain chaste and abstinent for the first person you've been attracted to in your confused hormonal youth, because there's no way you're going to get a broken understanding of your own sexuality that way. Maybe this is just romantic fantasy and not meant to lay bare something about society, but considering the distressing number of young women that fall adamantly into "teams" about which of the book's competing love interests is best, they seem to be getting unsettlingly invested in the false relationships this book shills.
That's the first example of a current book that has permeated society at large nowadays, but admittedly, it's much more stratified into who it appeals to, and much more narrow in its focus. Who wants to read a book about society in general, when they're just one person? It may also be better to compare to a book aimed at more than just a specific audience, but Dickens' works were for all ages, and many teenagers have enjoyed reading it, so I call it fair game.
In a larger sense, the literary world is becoming equally as stratified. Stephen King is a highly popular author who purports to write about aspects of American life under the guise of various horror stories, but really, pretty much all they are are horror stories, which just happen to be set in small American towns. If you can think of a way that "IT" is supposed to make us think about the world, I'd love to hear it. Thrillers are on the rise as well, from authors like Stieg Larsson and John La Carre, which attempt to scandalize and sensationalize certain aspects of the world. As our society becomes more global, and as other cultures blur together, it becomes more difficult to commentate on society.
Even just after Dickens' death, the literary world was changing already. The world was on the cusp of a new century, and other English writers, such as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelley, drew from the advances that came in the wake of industrialization; advances in science, government, and class systems. The Time Machine is a commentary on class divisions and the rise of Marxism, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a commentary about European imperialism, and Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (as if "Prometheus" wasn't enough of a tipoff) is about the advancement of new science, and of society's trend to be fearful or rejecting of it. Sherlock Holmes, too, rose to prominence towards the end of the century, leading us into an age of greater wit and sensationalism.
So the literary world is much more varied than it was in Dickens' time, and similarly, less focused. What books are out there that could change the way we see the world? We've had some figures like that in the more recent past, like Orwell, Kerouac, Tolkien and Golding, but their influence was often down to a single work, rather than to a whole body of work, and even then, what's out there nowadays that's changing the world? The DaVinci Code? Please.
With Dickens on the mind today, where do you think literature has to go from here? Where has it come from? Where is it now?
Listening to: Gotye - Making Mirrors
Reading: The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
Watching: Terry Gilliam's Brazil
Playing: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
Eating: Spaghetti and cheese
Drinking: Chocolate milk