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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

On completing Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (Bliain Úr 2006)

On completing Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (Bliain Úr 2006)


Charles Dickens is overwhelming in so many ways. Overwhelming in the kindness of his heart. Overwhelming in his sense of justice. Overwhelming in his writing – the excoriating journalism, beautiful and atmospheric descriptions, the pin sharp caricatures of the mannerisms displayed by the characters who inhabit the world he creates.

More than anything, Dickens is an incredibly emotional writer and this emotion carries the reader bundling and bouldering along, even in the very few places where the narrative may flag. Men cry in the Dickensian world and we cry along with them; we note their bonding with other men and their often justified hatreds, their aspirations and how others scheme to bring them down. One other overarching theme in all his works is Dickens’s belief in the basic goodness of human beings. Dickens does not appear to have ever been cynical, either with regard to the value of his campaigning style of authorship, or with regard to the essential value of his fellow man. It is true that Dickens once turfed the original Ugly Duckling (Hans Christian Andersen) out of his house after the Dane had outstayed his welcome by a couple of months but we all have bad hair days.

There is one other thing about Dickens. He is great craic. Here we find the much put upon Gabriel Varden in Barnaby Rudge gagging for a pint after a hard day's graft in his trade as a locksmith. But he had sworn to his much putting upon wife Martha that he would head straight home from work.

"The Maypole--two miles to the Maypole. I came the other road from the Warren after a long day's work at locks and bells, on purpose that I should not come by the Maypole and break my promise to Martha by looking in--there's resolution! It would be dangerous to go on to London without a light; and it's four miles, and a good half mile besides, to the Halfway-House; and between this and that is the very place where one needs a light most. Two miles to the Maypole! I told Martha I wouldn't; I said I wouldn't, and I didn't--there's resolution!'
Repeating these two last words very often, as if to compensate for the little resolution he was going to show by piquing himself on the great resolution he had shown, Gabriel Varden quietly turned back, determining to get a light at the Maypole, and to take nothing but a light."

I defy any many man who has a taste for the drink ,and who has at some time broken a promise about avoiding the pub, not to laugh and nod his head in recognition of Gabriel Varden's plight. Many of us have gone out into the night just to get a light. The above quote also illustrates something else about Dickens. Like Shakespeare, with whom he is often compared, he is completely at ease with ordinary life and ordinary people. This is so untrue of writers today, where with most of them, you could never imagine striking up a conversation, never mind going on the lash with them to the Maypole. Modern writers turn their backs as quickly as is financially possible on their proletarian backgrounds. They hole themselves up in middle class ghettoes and preach to each other on lecture circuits and chirp the same mantra in the pages of the Irish Times. This mantra usually runs along the lines of how bad their childhood was and that the Catholic Church is hell on earth and Sinn Féin its modern day Inquisition.

For Dickens, normality formed the background story from which he could introduce his fantastic characters and stories which were doubly fantastic precisely because of the stark contrast with the utterly mundane. Dicken's empathy with the working and tradesmen classes rings clear as the deep tone of a bell throughout all his works. Gabriel Varden in Barnaby Rudge is a case in point. Gabriel is in fact the real hero of Barnaby Rudge and the book was initially named after him. Gabriel is as warm and as jovial as a Christmas Pudding and yet has a steely streak within him which will not accept injustice, or the tyranny of a mob. The background to Barnaby Rudge is the Gordon Uprising, or Gordon Riots, led by Lord George Gordon, which were a series of pogroms against London’s Roman Catholics in the 1780s. These sectarian agitations followed the passing of a Catholic Relief Act in 1778. As funny as Gabriel Varden is in the above scene outside the Maypole, he is by turn as rigidly defiant against the mob who demand the locks of Newgate jail from him. Though completely on his own, and completely at the mercy of a drunken mob, Gabriel refuses their repeated requests for the keys to the main gate in the jail where many of their co-conspirators are incarcerated.

"He had never loved his life so well as then, but nothing could move him. The savage faces that glared upon him, look where he would; the cries of those who thirsted, like wild animals, for his blood; the sight of men pressing forward, and trampling down their fellows, as they strove to reach him, and struck at him above the heads of other men, with axes and with iron bars; all failed to daunt him. He looked from man to man, and face to face, and still, with quickened breath and lessening colour, cried firmly, 'I will not!"


It was Dickens, who privately was no friend of Catholicism, in writing Barnaby Rudge in the 1830s who laid bare an underlying anti Catholic hatred in England. Barnaby Rudge puts modern day Irish writers to shame by exposing their abject failure to write about that same sectarianism in the Six Counties presently controlled by the Empire. Indeed this comparison can be stretched even futher to include most journalists in this country as well. Charles Dicken's not only beat all these scribes in the craft of writing, which in fairness is to be expected, but more importantly, he also slaughters them with his complete honesty. This can be seen in the way most writers and journalists portray the utterly sectarian Ian Paisley and his Free Presbyterian DUP party as an honest broker in the peace process.


In the end, good prevails over evil, truth above calumny, human decency above rapine in Barnaby Rudge, and it is true that some critics have objected to the many fairy tale contrivances which can be found in Dickens’s works. Little Bob Cratchet survives after all in A Christmas Carol; Oliver Twist gets his much deserved inheritance; Wackford Squeers gets his comeuppance from young Nicholas in Nicholas Nickelby, a scene I particularly enjoy.

Great Expectations, however, does not end with the cathartic certainties familiar to most of Dickens’s works. Dickens had two endings to Great Expectations, apparently. In the first, probably more realistic ending, Pip does not finally fulfil his adolescent dreams and marry Estella. In the second and conventional ending, Pip and Estella meet at the very end of the book and exit the scene with “no shadow of another parting” being seen. Yet Pip is never a fully sympathetic character and probably reflects some of the fear of being dragged down by poverty which had haunted Charles Dickens himself as a youth, once his family had fallen on hard times. Pip is also continually mean to the one out and out hero in Great Expectations, Joe Gargery, who had ever been a rock of good sense and font of friendship to him. Yet despite the more realistic approach in Great Expectations, the overwhelming message which rings out from this and all of Dickens’s other works is that human beings are essentially decent by nature and usually brought down by social circumstance. In most of these great books, there is also an upright, but perhaps shy or immature hero who is presented with a series of disasters before finding some more or less happy resolution. These heroes will usually, eventually, display an incredible propensity for charity and self sacrifice. Pip in Great Expectations gives much of his fortune away to a friend, Nicholas Nicholby risks his own career to rescue the oppressed children of a school for boys; even Ebenezer Scrooge dispenses munificence and dollops of Christmas Karma at the end of A Christmas Carol. It is this unshakeable belief in human decency, more than anything else, which excites our belief in the stories themselves. Because most of us believe, or want to believe, the same thing.

To finish, there is one other aspect to Dickens's work which in my view puts him on a level with Shakespeare and that is his mastery of the English language and the way he used that mastery to create unforgettable atmospheres. If we go back to Gabriel Varden in Great Expectations hovering in the vicinity of the Maypole, we find one of the finest homages to the delights of tavern life ever written in any language.


"When he got to the Maypole, however, and Joe, responding to his well-known hail, came running out to the horse's head, leaving the door open behind him, and disclosing a delicious perspective of warmth and brightness--when the ruddy gleam of the fire, streaming through the old red curtains of the common room, seemed to bring with it, as part of itself, a pleasant hum of voices, and a fragrant odour of steaming grog and rare tobacco, all steeped as
it were in the cheerful glow--when the shadows, flitting across the curtain, showed that those inside had risen from their snug seats, and were making room in the snuggest corner (how well he knew that corner!) for the honest locksmith, and a broad glare, suddenly streaming up, bespoke the goodness of the crackling log from which a brilliant train of sparks was doubtless at that moment whirling up the chimney in honour of his coming--when, superadded to these enticements, there stole upon him from the distant kitchen a gentle sound of frying, with a musical clatter of plates and dishes, and a savoury smell that made even the boisterous wind a perfume--Gabriel felt his firmness oozing rapidly away. He tried to look stoically at the tavern, but his features would relax into a look of fondness. He turned his head the other way, and the cold black country seemed to frown him off, and drive him for a refuge into its hospitable arms.

'The merciful man, Joe,' said the locksmith, 'is merciful to his beast. I'll get out for a little while."

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