Actions & Words

hard-timesCertain characters’ actions are hard to explain: ‘It rained now, in a sheet of water. Mrs. Sparsit’s white stockings were of many colours, green predominating; prickly things were in her shoes; caterpillars slung themselves, in hammocks of their own making, from various parts of her dress; rills ran from her bonnet, and her Roman nose.’

Why would an elderly, aristocratic urbanite endure the rain and the nightcrawlers? These actions lack a psychological dimension, they lack a motive. But then again, I don’t understand nosiness nor the attraction of paparazzi and tabloids.

More unreal words: whereas Dickens writes,

‘But, Mrs. Sparsit was wrong in her calculation. Louisa got into no coach, and was already gone. The black eyes kept upon the railroad-carriage in which she had travelled, settled upon it a moment too late. The door not being opened after several minutes, Mrs. Sparsit passed it and repassed it, saw nothing, looked in, and found it empty. Wet through and through: with her feet squelching and squashing in her shoes whenever she moved; with a rash of rain upon her classical visage; with a bonnet like an over-ripe fig; with all her clothes spoiled; with damp impressions of every button, string, and hook-and-eye she wore, printed off upon her highly connected back; with a stagnant verdure on her general exterior, such as accumulates on an old park fence in a mouldy lane; Mrs. Sparsit had no resource but to burst into tears of bitterness and say, “I have lost her!” ‘,

I would have merely written, ‘But, Mrs. Sparsit was wrong and said, “I have lost her!” ‘ I suppose that’s why Dickens is famous and I’m not.

Even Louisa’s complaint to her father–a key moment–seems verbose, overly dramatic, and unreal: ‘ “How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? What have you done, O father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here!” She struck herself with both her hands upon her bosom.’

Why use one word when you can use four? Louisa cries out, “What I have learned has left me doubting, misbelieving, despising, regretting, what I have not learned.”

Her anguish does result in her saying this rather good turn of phrase: “to direct the anatomist where to strike his knife into the secrets of my soul”, though again, it seems that Dickens’ literary flair overrules reality. Who really says that?

Sparsit is more of a caricature than a character. Dickens is less so with Louisa. Is the true conflict, the true hard time, not to be found in the coke ovens but in the heart, not with the making of steel but the making of love? Louisa says to her father of Harthouse, “Father, chance then threw into my way a new acquaintance; a man such as I had had no experience of.” Or is there strife in both ovens and heart? Is the personal political, and vice versa? Can words, few or many, convey experience, even in the hands of one so talented as Dickens?

Louisa contrasts the ovens of manufacturing to the heart of love when she says to her father that “your philosophy and your teaching will not save me. Now, father, you have brought me to this. Save me by some other means!” But speech is not enough. Gradgrind ‘saw the pride of his heart and the triumph of his system, lying, an insensible heap, at his feet.’ He is stunned and says (though in too many words), “The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet. The only support on which I leaned … has given way”.

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