Ditching Dickensian


On Language

Giving the lie to a critical crutch.

Copies of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch now bear an impressive gold foil sticker declaring it the “WINNER of the PULITZER PRIZE.” Before that accolade, though, critics had already branded the novel by using and abusing the adjective that’s launched a thousand blurbs—Dickensian. Despite, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of the word in appraisals of the novel, such assessments are rarely issued without caveats. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan apologetically notes that the term “is one of those literary modifiers that’s overused”; in the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King somewhat ruefully acknowledged that he wouldn’t be the last to employ Dickensian to describe Tartt’s novel. He was right.

For all this critical concurrence, it’s less than clear what we mean by Dickensian, or, for that matter, by any adjective with a particular author at its root. Francine Prose leads her review of The Goldfinch with this very question: “What do people mean when they call a novel ‘Dickensian’?” As Prose notes, a number of answers present themselves—Dickensian can signify sentimentality, an attentiveness to the social conditions, a cast of comically hyperbolic characters, a reliance on plot contrivances, or even simply a book’s sheer length. (I suspect one rarely means the relatively slim A Tale of Two Cities or Hard Times when one labels a novel Dickensian.) In other words, the proliferation of the senses of Dickensian makes one wonder if it, or other such words, are critically useful at all. As Cynthia Ozick has recently complained with regard to Kafkaesque—another perennial—the word “has by now escaped the body of work it is meant to evoke.”

Dickensian and its variations have been with us since at least 1856, when the OED identified the Saturday Review as referring to a “Dickensian description of an execution.” Variants of the term blossomed throughout the nineteenth century: Dickenesque, Dickensy, Dickensish, Dickeny. And their uses, unsurprisingly, run the gamut. Sometimes they indicate a certain comic sensibility; sometimes they refer to sordid working conditions, or to grotesque characterizations, or to acuity of social observation. And the implications of such words were not always positive or even value-neutral: the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell laments that a story of hers is to be published in a “new Dickensy periodical.” But if these senses of the Dickensian often ran counter to one another, they came, at least, at a time before Dickens had been fully packaged into an available cultural touchstone, when his reputation had yet to be established critically and in language itself.

Of course, we confer a special kind of canonical status when we adjectivize an author’s name. It’s an acknowledgment that his or her work has broadened the collective cultural imagination to the point where a new way of seeing or describing the world needs to be monumentalized in language. But in time, these coinages inevitably obscure or diminish a writer’s achievement. Regardless of how sophisticated one’s sense of Dickens’s oeuvre might be, the popular use of Dickensian conjures, whether we like it or not, shivering orphans, cloying sentimentality, fortuitous coincidence, and virtue rewarded.

At the same time, and more interestingly, it delimits and cheapens the work of the alleged Dickensian. Donna Tartt does salt The Goldfinch with references to very specific Dickens novels, at which moments she might as well be proleptically writing the headlines of The Goldfinch’s reviews. But to lean on Dickensian is to deflect attention from, for instance, the horrific realism with which Tartt treats the central violent trauma of The Goldfinch, and the fallout of its psychic afterlife. In this specifically, she departs from Dickensian models, which more often than not promise recoveries and prosperity for his formerly unlucky protagonists. Dickensian denies, then, as it must, a certain amount of Tarttness. And isn’t it in part the critic’s job to suss out what that Tarttness might be?

This is not to say there’s no place for comparative claims in reviews. But to title a review “Donna Tartt’s twenty-first-century Dickens” runs the risk of overdetermining a reader’s expectations. When we conflate Tartt’s playful Dickens references with imitative artistic ambition, the so-called “Dickensian” aspects of the novel might command our attention, or weigh on us more heavily than the text wants.

Even if we grant that Dickensian isn’t a particularly productive word—even if we admit it be inimical at some level—what can explain the sense of joy or relief that accompanies many of these reviews, charting Tartt’s Dickensian affinities? Reading over my own cursory list of Dickensian attributes, I’m struck by how directly some of them respond to contemporary questions of both reading and culture more broadly. To those fretting over the supposedly stultifying effects of digital media, a Dickensian novel promises to repay sustained, readerly attention—promises to help us rediscover the joys inherent in narrative, the joys supposedly known to nineteenth-century readers. To those concerned with the insularity of literary culture, anything Dickensian is an invitation to a broader, more demotic readership. To those irritated by the preponderance of detached, ironic, sensibilities, Dickensian works augur the return of unabashed sentiment, or at least of sincerity. And to those alarmed at American socioeconomic conditions, so often compared to those of the Industrial Revolution, Dickensian gestures toward a more socially alert, inclusive fiction—witness The Wire, which was so often saddled with the descriptor that the show ran an episode called “The Dickensian Aspect.”

And the Dickensian has recently gained currency among New Yorkers in particular, as Mayor Bill de Blasio repurposed the notion of “a tale of two cities” to describe socioeconomic disparity. (The willful slipperiness of this appropriation speaks to the vagueness of Dickensian in and of itself—what were those “two cities” again?) De Blasio’s office doubled down on Dickens at the recent mayoral inauguration, where Harry Belafonte decried New York’s “Dickensian justice system”—and de Blasio, in keeping with his “two cities” theme, chose Lorde’s “Royals” as his campaign anthem, a song the New York Times was quick to label—guess?—a “Dickensian anthem.”

But the adjective’s life as a social lament is distinct from its ebullient employment by critics. Even if we don’t want a Dickensian New York or a Dickensian America, it seems there’s still a hunger for Dickensian fiction: an unvoiced or unrealized yearning for the literary Dickensian. We’re delighted at the opportunity to bestow the word on any fat new novel that bears even trace elements of Dickens’s heritage. Maybe Dickensian speaks more about a longing in our literary culture, in other words, than about the aesthetic qualities of a particular novel. But why do this at the expense of the very novels fulfilling that longing? The best way to liberate the Dickensian—and the truest way to see it in other works—is to disavow the word entirely.

Matthew Sherrill is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at Rutgers University, where he is completing a dissertation on British poetry and the history of evolution. He studiously avoids Byronic and Keatsian, even as he sometimes lets slip a Wordsworthian.