Thought for the Day 3/1/2012
Looking ahead at a bad time, politicians cite the Golden Jubilee and the Olympics as sources of hope for 2012, but personally, I’m looking forward to the Dickens bicentenary. Perennially and globally popular, Dickens is celebrated as a comedian, a story teller and a creator of characters. But for me his continuing relevance is as one of our greatest moralists. Critics may think it naïve to look to literature for moral instruction, but anyone who seeks a moral compass that is guided by something other than revelation or utilitarian calculation can learn something from Dickens.
What happens to a person in a Dickens novel, usually reflects the character that governs how they see the world. Take Great Expectations, adapted so brilliantly last week on BBC1, whose central story is the moral education of Pip. He learns that his dreams of social advancement are built on illusions and finally understands that meaning and happiness grow from loyalty, affection and what we would call integrity. That’s hardly a unique insight, but the morality is fresh because its lessons are embedded in experience. Dickens’ art isn’t narrowly didactic. His intricate patterns of meaning, symbols and themes keep prompting the reader’s reflections on character and motivation and lead us to other, more elusive kinds of meaning.
The skeletal, white-clad Miss Havisham has tried to freeze time at the moment of her ruined wedding, and her despair and hatred create an icy world of death-in-life. The putrefaction that fills Satis House matches the decay of Miss Havisham’s mind, but it also tells us that no act of will can stop time’s progress. Both a frail, unhappy woman and an archetype of the evil life-destroying queen, Miss Havisham hovers on the border between psychopathology and myth. In the world of Great Expectations realism and allegory are wound together in an indivisible whole.
For Dickens, every character is a moral actor, whether they know it or now, inhabiting a fictional world that is imbued with a meaning and where every action has significance. That’s art, not argument, but it’s a compelling vision of life. As a Buddhist I connect it with karma: the teaching that every willed action is morally important and shapes our lives. But I don’t want to appropriate Dickens, whose moral vision is available to people of all religions and none. That’s important, and even 200 years on, I believe that Dickens and his peers can help our muliticultural and predominantly secular society as we seek a shared way to think about our common values.