The Wonderfully Eccentric Characters of Charles Dickens

Don’t know about you, but I’ve been enjoying Little Dorrit on PBS the last few weeks.

Reminded me of some lines from G.K. Chesterton (Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1874–1936, author of the Father Brown mysteries, The Man Who Was Thursday, Orthodoxy, and The Everlasting Man, which had a big influence on C.S. Lewis, among others). Among Chesterton’s many works:  Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906).

Here are a few bits by Chesterton (from Chapter 10) on the eccentric, outlandish, quirky characters of Dickens:

The humble characters of Dickens do not amuse each other with epigrams; they amuse each other with themselves. The present that each man brings in hand is his own incredible personality. In the most sacred sense, and in the most literal sense of the phrase, he “gives himself away.”

. . . Now, the man who gives himself away does the last act of generosity; he is like a martyr, a lover, or a monk. But he is also almost certainly what we commonly call a fool.

The key of the great characters of Dickens is that they are all great fools.
. . .
It is impossible to do justice to these figures because the essential of them is their multiplicity. The whole point of Dickens is that he not only made them, but made them by myriads; that he stamped his foot, and armies came out of the earth.
. . .
It may be noticed that the great artists always choose great fools rather than great intellectuals to embody humanity. Hamlet does express the æsthetic dreams and the bewilderments of the intellect; but Bottom the Weaver expresses them much better.
. . .
There is an apostolic injunction to suffer fools gladly. We always lay the stress on the word “suffer,” and interpret the passage as one urging resignation. It might be better, perhaps, to lay the stress upon the word “gladly,” and make our familiarity with fools a delight, and almost a dissipation.

[Found the entire text of Chesterton's Charles Dickens: A Critical Study on a few web pages created by Mitsuharu Matsuoka, Nagoya University, Japan.]

As you may know, I’m a proponent of the quirky character (here’s a recent article, “In Praise of Eccentricity,” from my newsletter).

Indeed, let’s “make our familiarity with fools a delight”! And who better to learn from than the great Mr. Dickens?

2 comments for “The Wonderfully Eccentric Characters of Charles Dickens

  1. April 7, 2009 at 2:15 am

    I’ve been watching the “Little Dorrit” episodes online, as the PBS station is all static (or a blank screen) on my TV, and was struck by the little ticks and traits the various characters possess. It’s been a while since I’ve read or watched anything Dickens, and it’s a blast. Makes me, as a writer, want to step up my game.

  2. April 15, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    I haven’t caught these episodes yet, thanks for the recommendation. I may have to go check them out! : )

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