Notes on Dickens 7
Tolstoy's answer to the problem of how to deal with the gross injustices of his time and place was to focus on those immediately around you and to help those you can, personally and immediately according to the demands of your conscience, eschewing systematic attempts at social and political reform, which he saw as at best useless, and at worst iniquitous.
I think Dickens's aim was similar. He wanted his readers to open their eyes and hearts to what was happening around them. I think he hoped that by moving his readers to tears or laughter or anger he would arouse their human conscience, provoking a practical personal response in them. This response, multiplied among thousands, would eventually amount to an irresistible pressure for social change.
This is why he focuses on the creation of character rather than launching a critique of systems or putting forward alternative ideas. His characters as individuals speak to his readers as individuals, and it’s this connection which spurs the reader to action. In this, Dickens is one of the supreme humanists of his age: the human individual always comes before the system, whether the system is legal, religious or moral.
However, the rage the individual feels as he suffers at the hands of the system is quite modern, and in many ways prefigures Kafka’s battles against nightmare bureaucracies: ‘The System! I am told on all hands. It’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system. I mustn’t go into court, and say, ‘My Lord. I beg to know this from you –is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice, and therefore am dismissed?’ My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there to administer the system.
In Dickens, the system dehumanizes both those who suffer under it and those who administer it, the first by removing their freedom, the second by removing their conscience.