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He has an infallible moral sense, but very little intellectual curiosity

In his essay on Charles Dickens published in A Collection of Essays and written in 1939, George Orwell points to the lack of any serious references to work in Dickens’ novels.

And here one comes upon something which really is an enormous deficiency in Dickens, something that really does make the nineteenth century seem remote from us – that he has no ideal of work

Dickens’ characters aspire to settle into a sort of radiant idleness, according to Orwell. Earlier in the essay, Orwell describes Dickens criticism of society as almost exclusively moral. Dickens abhors violence of any kind, and his books call on individual kindliness with the view that if men were to behave decently, the world would be decent. Orwell saves his most biting criticism of Dickens for what he refers to as Dickens happy Victorian endings:

The ideal to be striven after, then, appears to be something like this: a hundred thousand pounds, a quaint old house with plenty of ivy on it, a sweetly womanly wife, a horde of children, and no work. Everything is safe, soft, peaceful and, above all, domestic…The servants are comic and feudal, children prattle round your feet, the old friends sit at your fireside, talking of past days, there is the endless succession of enormous meals, the cold punch and sherry negus, the feather beds and warming-pans, the Christmas parties with charades and blindman’s buff; but nothing ever happens, except the yearly childbirth. The curious thing is that it is a genuinely happy picture, or so Dickens is able to make it appear. The thought of that kind of existence is satisfying to him. This alone would be enough to tell one that more than a hundred years have passed since Dickens’s first book was written. No modern man could combine such purposelessness with so much vitality

Later, a comparison with Tolstoy

Why is it that Tolstoy’s grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens’s – why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself? It is not that he is more gifted, or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens’s are already finished and perfect

Orwell acknowledges that Dickens was always on the side of the underdog, on the side of the weak against the strong.

He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong

You can read the complete essay here

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