Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dickens tackled epic themes -- you can, too

Too-good-to-be-true investments

Rapacious landlords

Clueless government agencies

Phrases ripped out of today's headlines?

Well, yes, but also themes in Charles Dickens' "Little Dorrit," which hits the screen on PBS Masterpiece Theatre this Sunday.

The New York Times gives it an extremely favorable review. So I may watch it, even though I haven't committed myself to a MT series since "Pride and Prejudice" in the mid-90s. That series, according to the NYT, had the same director as "Little Dorrit." So I may watch now, or save to savor later. Read the Times' review at

As an English major, I read a lot of Dickens, including "Little Dorrit." In it, Mr. Dorrit spends 20 years in Marshalsea debtor's prison. Dickens knew a bit about debtor's prison, since his family spent some time in one. Mr. Dorrit used to be rich and now is a debtor due to some debts which may or may not be his. Nobody can seem to find an answer at the government Department of Circumlocution. It's modern-day equivalents can be seen in the Bush-era "oversight" and "regulatory" agencies that were charged with keeping track of A.I.G., Citigroup, food safety, disaster relief, etc.

Anyway, Mr. Dorrit is kind of clueless and his daughter, Amy, is an innocent ripe for the plucking. Her sister, Fanny, is a bit of a schemer. There are good guys that turn out to be bad; bad guys that turn out to be good. Dickens was a great storyteller if a bit long-winded. But you would be too if you had to constantly churn out chapters for the London periodicals. Dickens was always writing on the run, which gives his books a certain breathless quality when compared with his Victorian-era counterparts. You may find that hard to believe when you pick up "Little Dorrit," all 1,024 pages and 1.5 pounds of it (Penguin Classics edition). But his humor, cliffhanger endings and odd coincidences keep the reader moving along.

This makes me think that more classics from the English major's catalogue needs dusting off. Dickens has never gone out of print, so he's been with us all along. Tolstoy was another one who tackled the big subjects -- in a spectacular way with "War and Peace," but also in his essays and short novels. Epic -- that was Tolstoy and that was his work. He might just be the thing for a country that's been in minimalist mode for the past couple decades. Or maybe that was only university English departments. The world is always in epic mode -- we writers just have to summon the imagination to deal with it.

No comments: