Comedy and the critics: A survey of the reception of Dickens's comic fiction 1836-1906
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
This study examines the critical reception of Dickens's comedy, from 1836 to 1906 and, in separate chapters, discusses four major critical concerns. The central demand of the critics is that fiction should be somehow true to human experience, and Dickens's comic scenes and characters do not always receive the critics ' approval. When the demand is rigidly enforced, Dickens's work is rejected as exaggeration and caricature, but his comedy forces many critics to relax their restrictions, and there are a number of more flexible approaches which recognise in his work some kind of comic heightening of reality. At best, his comedy is felt to be a kind of idealism which requires a high degree of imaginative involvement, and towards the end of the period there is a feeling that what he lacks in realism seems to be compensated for by the originality and vividness of his art. There is some unease among the critics that comedy may do no more than amuse readers, and early critics in particular constantly point the moral of his humour and praise the satires for their practical effectiveness. There is later some disillusionment with Dickens's role as a moral teacher and reformer, and especially after his death, his alleged over-concern for effect is felt to be clumsy and unintelligent. An increasing desire for intellectual satisfaction leads some critics to reject him as an overemotional writer who at best cheers his leaders but offers them no "philosophy," Only a few critics in the period claim for him any weightier intellectual appeal. There is much interest in the author as a person, and his moral qualities and faculties of mind are often deduced from his works. He is always popular as a genial lover of his fellowmen, but to a section of the critics he appears uncultured and lacking in the intellectual power required to be more than a mere humorist. Forster's biography reveals new personal details and helps perpetuate the kind of criticism which insists on explaining the literary in terms of the author's character and experience. Dickens's comedy is generally felt to be a highly personal art, both in its successes and in its failures. Much of the criticism is ultimately directed at an evaluation of Dickens's stature as a writer. The majority of the critics agree that he is a great comic writer, but his stature as an artist is often held in doubt. He is recognised as being excellent in his own field of comedy, but there is often a feeling that a comic artist is not, after all, a serious artist. Each chapter works towards Chesterton's Charles Dickens (1906) because he is the most important of the critics who insist on the seriousness of Dickens's art yet do not lose sight of its essential comic nature. In a sense, the study works back from 1906 to discover what previous critics had said about the comedy of Dickens, but in a sense too, it works forward from 1836 to show that what concerned early critics is still of concern in Chesterton's time.