Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Dickens and the Dead

I've been re-reading a lot of Charles Dickens lately, and one thing that strikes me as odd -- though it never seemed that way when I first read his novels, in high school -- is how many of his characters die of no particular cause. Today's authors, when they want to kill a character, come up with elaborate explanations for why they die, how they die, and why it is logical for them to die. Dickens hardly ever does this. Instead his characters just seem to die of a broken heart (Smike in "Nicholas Nickleby"), or die of over-exerting themselves in a fruitless cause (Richard in "Bleak House"), or just collapse and die in response to something bad happening. In "Little Dorrit," Mr. Dorrit flashes back to his prison days, makes a fool of himself in front of a group of high-society snobs, and dies almost immediately after. Then his brother Frederick collapses on top of him and dies. Neither of these characters, as I recall, were portrayed as having anything in particular wrong with them that could cause them to go at any moment; we're just supposed to accept that death is the natural and direct consequence of any traumatic experience.

Now, some of this, or even most of it, may have to do with the fact that it was not considered in good taste to go into detail about diseases in a novel, or even call diseases by name. So Esther in "Bleak House" gets smallpox without ever actually calling it that. Some of Dickens' unexplained deaths come with hints about what disease the character might be dying from. Still, the way these things play out in the novels, death comes off more as a device for getting a character off the stage than as the result of any real-world afflictions. Because, of course, for Dickens, death is largely a way to get a character off the stage. It was rare for a character to get through a novel without either dying or getting married, and death is the obvious choice for any character who, for whatever reason, can't be married off. Also, killing off a character allows that character to end his or her time in the novel on a high note, rather than ending up as a pathetic figure. If Smike were allowed to live, pining away for Nicholas's sister Kate and painfully conscious of his own mental inferiority, he'd be utterly pathetic and depressing; since he dies with Kate's name on his lips, we can cry for him instead of feeling queasy about the character.

The main exception to the rule of vaguely-explained Dickensian death is, of course, the way he disposes of his villains. They usually die in some spectacular and grisly manner like being run over by a train (Mr. Carker in "Dombey and Son") or shot through the heart (Mr. Tulkinghorn in "Bleak House") or taking poison (Jonas Chuzzlewit in "Martin Chuzzlewit") or drowning (Quilp in "The Old Curiosity Shop"). Long before today's producers of blockbusters, Dickens knew that a bad guy needs a really big death scene -- and, as in today's blockbusters, many of Dickens novels run out of steam after the villain dies.

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