In case you were not aware, it is Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday this week and as you no doubt know, I am celebrating. Of course, I like so many other teenagers saw Dickens as a punishment, some cruel way that the educational system was sticking it to us, forcing us to read this boring, slogging, difficult English writing that was in no way enjoyable or educational. You know that my tune has changed… and here is why.
Sure, Dickens wrote long books, books with many characters, books about times to which we in the 21st century cannot relate. But he also wrote about adolescence, which is wasted on the young. Unfortunately, so is Dickens. He MUST be read by adults, as a remider of their past…
There was a time when we didn’t know any better, when things were so much simpler. We had an innocence and a purity which we have never been able to recapture. It is a shame that youth is wasted on the young.
When we are young, we don’t know about crime or disease or war. We don’t know about things that go bump in the night or terrorism. Pirates only exist in Neverland. We have an outlook on life and the world which is nice and tidy. The princess always wakes up, the bad guys always look cartoonishly scary and obvious, and mommy and daddy always tuck you in when you go to sleep.
But real life, the life of the grown up, is nothing like that. It may be a question of what came first, the chicken or the egg, but at some point we leave childhood and the blissful naivete that lives there and enter the world of reality television, terror in the skies and tragedy. Bambi’s mother died, but far off-screen– in real life we don’t have the luxury of averting our eyes or hiding under the sheets, believing that when we look back, all will be well again.
Of course, we all know that some children don’t have the luxury of living in oblivion, they can’t simply bury their head in their mother’s shoulders until the evil sorcerer leaves the screen. They are forced to accept reality at an early age and have to decide how such reality will shape their future. Will they struggle against reality and maintain their virtuousness as long as possible, or will they prematurely jump into adulthood despite their persistent immaturity? For every story of a young girl who finds her way to success despite the turmoil and misfortune of a poor childhood, there are 10 more that result in crime or death or persistent pain.
Think about the more notable novels of Dickens. Did you think of “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations?” Maybe “David Copperfield?” Notice anything similar about those books, the most popular of Dickens’? They all depict the life experiences of the young. Child characters who view the world from a three-foot vantage point, staring up at the human race with mouths agape. Even the illustrations which accompanied the serialized novels when first published depict the “heroes” as tiny creatures in a sea of giants.
And yet, despite the tragedies and challenges they face, the evil and treachery that they experience, they find a way to maintain their innocence, to maintain a view of life as having been un-foretold. They start out in the bleakest of circumstances, but through virtue and decency, they overcome their plight. Sure they don’t do it alone; of course they have help along the way. But it is their character that attracts such wonderful people, benefactors, who help out. Neither Oliver nor Pip nor Davy ever seems to say a cross word or act out in frustration; it isn’t their nature. They are kids who don’t know better; Oliver doesn’t realize that Fagin is villainous and David doesn’t see that Steerforth is a bully.
Our kids have that same ability. You can call it gullibility or susceptibility, but I call it paradise. Wouldn’t it be nice to return to a time when the world was small, when all we knew was right outside our window? Where being good and living right meant safety and eventual happiness? Who wants to really live the life of the tragedian, where everything is gloomy and the sky is always cloudy and dark?
We can be that way again. It takes work, but if we teach our kids that they don’t have to change, that bullies get their due in the end (always!) and that the good guys always win, wouldn’t that create a society of happiness? Wouldn’t it make life more fulfilling? Reading the stories of these young heroes is a sobering but heartwarming experience. There is a certain amount of joy that one takes from living the growing up process all over again and seeing it through the eyes of the pure. However that pleasure is tempered by the 11 o’clock news.
It is incredibly easy to understand why Dickens wrote so many wonderful stories about children… It is the ultimate escape from reality– more fantastic than fantasy. It returned him and his readers to simplicity, to innocence, to pleasure. A pleasure which, sadly and “real” enough, we can never recapture.