Every student of the science of society, however, owes a debt to Dickens. He did what no science or knowledge or logic can do alone. He reached the heart, awoke the conscience, and pierced the obtuseness of the public. He aroused its protests because his genius painted prisons and hovels and dens of vice so vividly that his readers actually suffered from the scenes thus presented and wanted such horrors abolished.
Dickens’s infectious humor is a remarkable and an unfailing quality of his works. It pervades entire chapters, colors complete incidents, and displays the temper of the optimist through the darkest pictures of human suffering.
A hypocrite is an abomination to Dickens. Speaking of Mr. Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens says: “Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there.” His humor can be fully appreciated only by reading long passages, such as the scene of Mr. Pickwick’s trial, the descriptions of Mr. Micawber and of Miss Betsey Trotwood, or the chapter on Podsnappery in Our Mutual Friend. Dickens’s humor has an exuberant richness, which converts men and women into entertaining figures of comedy.
Closely allied to his fund of humor is his capacity for pathos, especially manifest in his treatment of childhood. Dickens has a large gallery of children’s portraits, fondly and sympathetically executed. David Copperfield, enduring Mr. Murdstone’s cruel neglect, Florence Dombey pining for her father’s love, the Marchioness starving upon cold potatoes, Tom and Louise Gradgrind, stuffed with facts and allowed no innocent amusement, and the waifs of Tom’s-All-Alone dying from abject poverty and disease, are only a few of the sad-eyed children peering from the pages of Dickens and yearning for love and understanding. He wrings the heart; but, happily, his books have improved the conditions of children, not only in public asylums, factories, and courts, but also in schools and homes.
Dickens’s chief faults arise from an excess of sensibility and humor. His soft heart and romantic spirit lead him to exaggerate. In such passages as the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop and the interviews between Dora and David in David Copperfield, Dickens becomes mawkish and sentimental. While his power of portraiture is amazing, he often overleaps the line of character drawing and makes side-splitting caricatures of his men and women. They are remembered too often by a limp or a mannerism of speech, or by some other little peculiarity, instead of by their human weaknesses and accomplishments.
Dickens is not a master in the artistic construction of his plots. The majority of his readers do not, however, notice this failing because he keeps them in such a delightful state of interest and suspense by the sprightliness with which he tells a story.
He was a very rapid writer, and his English is consequently often careless in structure and in grammar. As he was not a man of books, he never acquired that half-unconscious knowledge of fine phrasing which comes to the careful student of literature. No novelist has, however, told more graphically such appealing stories of helpless childhood and of the poor and the outcast.