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Charles Dickens and the Law

ISSUE:  Autumn 1983

Some of the important details of the life of Charles Dickens are as familiar to many of us as the various qualities of mind and heart which we have come to associate with such memorable characters as David Copperfield and Philip Pimp, otherwise known as Pip; or Esther Summerson and Little Dorrit; or yes, Vohles, Jaggers, and Stryver, three lawyers whose names suggest no strong authorial admiration. As a boy, Dickens knew poverty. His father was a clerk in England’s Navy Pay Office; he was, as well, all too relaxed when it came to spending the modest salary he earned. When Dickens was 12 years old (in 1824), his father was sent to prison because he had accumulated debts and lacked the means of paying them. This prison, Marshalsea, figures prominently in Little Dorrit, even as it did in the life of the young Dickens, who spent time behind bars in accordance with prevailing custom; a debtor’s family often accompanied him when be became locked up. As a child, Dickens also worked for extremely low wages in a shoe-blacking factory: he pasted labels on bottles. In his spare time he wandered the streets of London, a penniless lad curious to understand the teeming confusion of a great port city. It was only the death of his paternal grandmother that enabled his father to be released from prison. She left a small legacy to her son. The lesson would never be forgotten by a novelist who was forever reminding his readers, through the workings of one or another plot, how arbitrary fate can be and how good can come of bad—or, of course, vice versa.

At 15 Dickens was studying law as an attorney’s apprentice. He mastered shorthand. He read legal texts long and hard. He also, in a matter of months, became bored. He loved the English language, dreamed of using it in one way or another. In 1829 he became a court reporter for the Court of Chancery, whose majestic inscrutability would, decades later, dominate Bleak House. By 1832 he was bored with that job, too. He tried journalism: first the True Sun, then Mirror of Parliament, then the Morning Chronicle, His specialty was parliamentary reportage. He had a keen eye for 19th-century English politics—its moral postures, its moments and longer of theater, both high and low, its possibilities, and its sad limitations. He also had developed a compelling manner of narrative presentation—strong, suggestive prose. He worked quickly. He observed exactly. He rendered accurately. Moreover, he was astonishingly energetic—a quality he’d never stop possessing. He traveled anywhere and everywhere in search of a good political story. All London became his routine beat; all England easily tempted him, if he felt the story demanded that extra effort.

Inside him burned, even then, a writer’s desire to expand upon incidents, convey a given atmosphere, give moral shape to a particular factuality. In December 1833, the Monthly Magazine published Dickens’ first sketch of London street life. In August 1834, he began using the name Boz, and by February of 1836, at the age of 24, he had published Sketches by Boz— with the additional explanatory title, Illustrative of Everyday Life and Everyday People. Shortly thereafter he began the first of his Pickwick pieces—”The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.” By now he was ready to marry, and to shift course as a writer. He abandoned the writing of conventional journalism, though he worked for a while (two years) as an editor. At the same time he immersed himself in his own world—reported on the workings of his mind’s imagination, its exceedingly vigorous life.

Soon enough a substantial segment of the English reading public, rich and poor and many, many in between, became familiar with the antic and sometimes soberly edifying carryings-on of Samuel Pickwick and his fellow clubsmen Nathaniel Winkle, Tracy Tupman, Augustus Snodgrass—and those they met: Alfred Jingle, Dr. Slammer, Mr. Wardle, his daughters Bella and Emily, his spinster sister Rachael, Samuel Weller, Job Trotter, and the landlady Mrs. Bardell, not to mention those two shady lawyers Dodson and Fogg, and that shrewd master of realpolitik, the lawyer Perker. Samuel Pickwick, we all know, survives crooked lawyers and even, it seems, the temptations of love. He retires to the country with his servant Sam Weller for a long and restful life. Dickens, on the other hand, with the publication of Pickwick Papers in book form (1838), had ahead of him more than 30 years of demanding labor.

No matter the success those years brought, there was in this greatest of storytellers an unyielding attachment of sorts to his early social and moral experiences; he worked them over repeatedly in the later novels—Bleak House, Hard Times, Great Expectations, Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit: down-and-out English life, the exploitation, and, not least, the miscarriages of justice. No acclaim, no money, no amount of achieved influence seemed enough to stop him from looking closely at a nation he both loved and yet found urgently in need of reform. Nor did his success as a writer and an eager public speaker, if not performer, prevent him from going back, time and again, to the memories generated by an earlier life: the child in a debtor’s prison, the youth struggling with a harsh and mean life, the young man observing lawmakers at their shilly-shallying or corrupt worst, and, above all, the apprentice writer taking note of lawyers—who, of course, are right there when men and women go to prison, or lose whatever rights or privileges they may have had, or find themselves in severe straits because the laws work this way rather than that way or on behalf of these people rather than those. Charles Dickens in his fifties, the most celebrated writer in Britain, still scanned hungrily London’s lowlife, a substantial population, indeed; and, doing so, gave us not only memorable characters (Jo of Bleak House, the Dorrits of Marshalsea Prison, the prisoner Magwitch) but also terribly searching moral issues to consider and (he would surely have hoped) to connect in their continuing significance to our own considerably later lives.

Again and again lawyers figure in the penetrating enactments of ethical conflict which Dickens insisted on making a central element of his most important novels. In Bleak House, of course, the issue is not just lawyers, but the law itself—its awesome, pervasive, perplexing, unnerving presence. Even in Dickens’ lifetime, some of the tedious, if not outrageous aspects of London’s Chancery Court had succumbed to reform. And, too, Dickens knew when he wrote Little Dorrit that the very Marshalsea Prison he described (and knew as a young inmate) no longer was the giant debtors’ world of old, filled with entire families whose crime was an inability to pay their bills. For all his urgent responsiveness to Victorian dilemmas, Dickens was a moral visionary who wrote sub specie aeternitatis; hence the continuing provocation and edifying satisfaction of his novels, not to mention the still mighty power of his caricatures. The fog of Bleak House, after all, still obtains. The law still offers many of those caught in its exertions any number of frustrations, confusions, delays. Men, women, and children still find themselves irritated, then confounded, then outraged, and finally maddened by cases which affect them deeply, and seem to go on and on and on—maybe not for generations, as happened in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, but long enough for particular children to suffer in extended custodial fights, and for particular workers and families to suffer while the responsibility for, say, dangerous environmental pollution is argued in court for months which become years.

Yet Bleak House is much more than a novel that portrays the outcome of a legal impasse. Too much is made, one can argue, about the protracted nature of the celebrated Jarndyce litigation. In one enumeration, made in the well-known first chapter, Dickens does indeed mention “procrastination,” but he also mentions “trickery,” and he mentions “evasion,” and “spoliation.” He even makes reference to “botheration,” surely of interest to this proudly self-conscious age wherein the social sciences, especially psychology and psychiatry, are thought to explain so much to us. Nor is that list, certainly applicable to our contemporary scene, intended as a precis of a novelist’s coming preoccupations. Bleak House is, ultimately, about character—even as, occasionally, professions such as the law or medicine come down (or up!) to that: how so-called practitioners skirt various temptations (or fail to do so); and how a certain lawyer or doctor justifies his work, comes to terms with his perceived obligations, responds in mind and heart to the hurt, the vulnerability, the alarm if not panic of his clients, his patients. Even as in Middlemarch we see George Eliot trying to comprehend the fate of Dr. Lydgate— the transformation of an avowedly idealistic young doctor into an all too (by his own early and high standards) compromised and self-serving one—the many chapters of Bleak House offer their own chronicle of a profession variously practiced, its supposed purposes variously interpreted, and, alas, not always to the good.


Of all Dickens’ lawyers, Tulkinghorn of Bleak House is surely the highest in rank—that is, the one who has achieved the most professional success. He is a distinguished lawyer and advisor to one of England’s most powerful families. True, Dickens tips his hand (as he so often does) with the name of Dedlock: Sir Leicester is indeed a baronet who (with others in England’s 19th-century nobility) is headed nowhere. The social foolishness, the moribund paralysis, intellectual and moral, of a particular upper class is more than indicated in the early chapters of Bleak House. But Sir Leicester is, nevertheless, rich and influential, and, we eventually learn, more decent than many of his ilk; and to be his lawyer is, well, to be a notable success. Tulkinghorn is no Lawyer Tangle, arguing his way to no apparent purpose in the obscure, dreary, muddy, fog-enshrouded trenches of the law: “”Mr. Tangle,” says the Lord High Chancellor, latterly something restless under the eloquence of that learned gentleman.

“”Mlud,” says Mr. Tangle. Mr. Tangle knows more of Jarndyce and Jarndyce than anybody. He is famous for it— supposed never to have read anything else since he left school.

“”Have you concluded your argument?”

“”Mlud, no—variety of points—feel it my duty tsubmit— ludship,” is the reply that slides out of Mr. Tangle.

“”Several members of the bar are still to be heard, I believe?” says the Chancellor with a slight smile.

“Eighteen of Mr. Tangle’s friends, each armed with a little summary of eighteen hundred sheets, bob up like eighteen hammers in a pianoforte, make eighteen bows, and drop into their eighteen places of obscurity.”

For Tulkinghorn, such “duty tsubmit,” such ingratiating bowing and scraping, such “obscurity,” is hardly the point of a legal career. He holds his own with the best; he manages, even, to have the high-and-mighty watch their step with him around—indeed, cower before his acquired legal knowledge: the facts of their personal lives which, inevitably, become his property. Here is a description by no less than the wife of Sir Leicester Dedlock. She has just told her daughter that she dreads a certain person. The daughter asks: “An enemy?” The mother replies: “Not a friend. One who is too passionless to be either. He is Sir Leicester Dedlock’s lawyer; mechanically faithful without attachment, and very jealous of the profit, privilege and reputation of being master of the mysteries of great houses.” A bit further on the lady expands: “He is indifferent to everything but his calling. His calling is the acquisition of secrets, and the holding possession of such power as they give him, with no sharer or opponent in it.” Still further on her husband adds this: “He is, of course, handsomely paid, and he associates almost on a footing of equality with the highest society.”

That is about as far as Dickens really wants to go in explicit psychological analysis. He does let Lady Dedlock’s apprehensiveness, elsewhere in the novel, turn into an occasion for psychological speculation rather than diagnosis: “Whether he be cold and cruel, whether immovable in what he has made his duty, whether absorbed in love of power, whether determined to have nothing hidden from him in ground where he has burrowed among secrets all his life, whether he in his heart despises the splendour of which he is a distant beam, whether he is always treasuring up slights and offences in the affability of his gorgeous clients—whether he be any of this, or all of this, it may be that my Lady had better have five thousand pairs of fashionable eyes upon her, in distrustful vigilance, than the two eyes of this rusty lawyer, with his wisp of neck cloth and his dull black breeches tied with ribbons at the knees.”

Still, a mood of suspicion and fear and guilt is not to be confused with a clear, precise moment of apprehended truth. Tulkinghorn, we know, listens and stalks and prompts respect if not outright alarm. But his exact purposes are not evident—as if Dickens believed that we are, really, what we manage to present of ourselves to the world around us. Put differently, the depiction of a given social and professional reality is for one 19th-century novelist a sufficiently complex psychological evocation. For many of today’s readers, however, the more Tulkinghorn’s enigmatic but exceptionally significant involvement in this long and darkly suggestive story is chronicled, the more we search for motives, a ruling mode of comprehension for us of the 20th century. And the less satisfactory, I suppose, Dickens’ stubborn refusal becomes— as in this tantalizing moment, wherein a chance for “depth analysis,” as we call it, is once more forsaken: “He passes out into the streets, and walks on, with his hands behind him, under the shadow of the lofty houses, many of whose mysteries, difficulties, mortgages, delicate affairs of all kinds, are treasured up within his old black satin waistcoat. He is in the confidence of the very bricks and mortar. The high chimney-stacks telegraph family secrets to him. Yet there is not a voice in a mile of them to whisper “Don’t go home!”“

Here we are granted drama, even melodrama; certainly we note a touch of irony, even poignant irony—though, to be sure, no sympathy. Perhaps at this moment, in frustration if not annoyed condescension, we begin to remind ourselves that Dickens is not George Eliot, after all, or Tolstoy. He was, that is to say, not notably enchanted by the possibilities offered by the novel for the analysis of personality—our moral life as it is prompted by the various emotional reasons each of us finds compelling. Yet, that observation is all too categorical—and unsatisfying. In fact, Dickens was a direct predecessor of Kafka, of Flannery O’Connor. He believed in the literal truth that exaggeration aims to apprehend. He believed in the down-home, concrete reality which inspired his flights of fancy called caricatures. What were they, those caricatures, but emphatic statements with respect to especially salient personal qualities, whose moral import, often enough, the author believed to be well worth a particular literary effort?

Moreover, when Dickens wants to explore rather distinctly a certain character’s mind, he does so without hesitation or awkwardness. Here is Bucket presented to us; Bucket the first detective to enter English literature; Bucket whose activities also connected with the legal system Dickens wanted to portray; Bucket who was as much an urban walking man as Tulkinghorn: “Otherwise mildly studious in his observation of human nature, on the whole a benignant philosopher not disposed to be severe upon the follies of mankind, Mr. Bucket pervades a vast number of houses, and strolls about an infinity of streets: to outward appearances rather languishing for want of an object. He is in the friendliest condition towards his species, and will drink with most of them. He is free with his money, affable in his manners, innocent in his conversation—but, through the placid stream of his life, there glides an undercurrent of forefinger.”

That last phrase may not be the kind of abstract declaration we have, alas, found so congenial: the superego as a factor in our mental activity. But “forefinger” will do—as a means of reminding us that this fellow Bucket, like others (let us pray!) who hunt down criminals, supposed or actual, is impelled by voices which worry about what is right and what is wrong; voices which, too, urge that such worries not be altogether abstract but, rather, worked into the fabric of a given occupational life. If Bucket is a covert moralist, then what is Tulkinghorn? He is not immoral, one gathers. He seems to be without moral anguish of any kind—a lofty one who prompts alarm, even panic, in others, while he goes about his weighty business. In Tulkinghorn, Dickens may have all too uncannily anticipated our contemporary scene: as in a supposed value-free social science, or the proclaimed worth of professional neutrality, or the dispassionate claims of the adversarial system, not to mention the carefully cultivated, circumspect anonymity of our psychiatrists. Tulkinghorn is contained, cool; oh, so cool—as the saying goes: a real professional! Such a person is best probed, perhaps, by a psychological observer keenly attentive to the powerful influence social and cultural norms exert on human motivation, not to mention behavior. Dickens was such a psychological observer.

As for Bucket, it is not just a latent moralism which attracts our interest in him. He is one of those relatively “minor” characters in a Dickens novel who comes to attract our strongest scrutiny, if not perplexity, because his various activities and attitudes remind us, needless to say, of our own continuing social and ethical dilemmas. Bucket is the one who, initially, goes after such good and decent people as Gridley and George, and, lo and behold, our dear and defenseless Jo, the incarnation in Bleak House of all that is vulnerable and innocently injured in this high-powered life we call “civilized.” Why such a pursuit? Why, of all people, hound Jo? What Dickens thought about Jo is contained in one of the most memorable passages he ever wrote: “And there he sits munching, and gnawing, and looking up at the great Cross on the summit of St. Paul’s Cathedral, glittering above a red and violet-tinted cloud of smoke. From the boy’s face one might suppose that sacred emblem to be, in his eyes, the crowning confusion of the great, confused city;—so golden, so high up, so far out of his reach. There he sits, the sun going down, the river running fast, the crows flying by him in two streams—everything moving on to some purpose and to one end—until he is stirred up, and told to “move on” too.”

What kind of “inspector” hunts down such a child? Why, a man who has a job to do! Is Jo guilty of a crime, or is he not? Never mind urban problems and problems of class and caste; never mind a child’s hurt life, a city’s rampant evil as it bears down on those least able to protect themselves, assert their claim to citizenship, After a while this harsh, moralistic Bucket begins to win us over: he is decent and fair as he does his duty. We know that this is one agent of the law, who will not be gratuitously mean spirited. He has driven Jo out of the city (to his death!) because he believes him (wrongly) to have been a criminal. But Dickens is unwilling to push this matter as far as he might—the personally good worker who obeys his superiors and hurts others, no matter their decency, their merit. Rather quickly we see Bucket befriending all the people we’ve come to love: he wards off the Smallweeds from Sir Leicester, helps preserve a marriage (that of the Snagsbys), works hard (if in vain) to rescue Lady Dedlock, and discovers who it is (Hortense) who really killed Tulkinghorn. Now, we are pleased: this is a professional man who clearly acts in the service of “good.” Again one poses the issue, now in the form of a question: why didn’t Dickens push matters in quite another direction—explore the matter of the loyal, efficient, hard working professional man (avowedly well-intentioned and honorable) whose loyalty to a given job, a given social and economic system, persuades him that (for instance) the Jos of this world would have to be put in their place, made to stop loitering and begging, prevented from distracting and disturbing the rest of us?

Perhaps the answer is that Dickens (and indeed, the entire 19th century) had yet to feel as desperate as we have come to feel—hopelessly, so often, caught in the grips of one or another totalitarian system. The utter evil, the everyday evil, worked into the daily lives of millions of law-abiding citizens of this or that state, the evil of the Holocaust and the Gulag, were surely beyond his exuberantly reformist, Christian sensibility. But his moral intuition is as broad and deep as his moral yearning—and so Bucket, for more than a few pages, deeply troubles us: we who have heard one self-proclaimed totalitarian functionary after another (doctors and lawyers among them) assert their loyalty to duty as an excuse for what they ended up doing to others.

In the Victorian legal system—its workings, its possibilities for some, its constraints and worse on others—Dickens keeps managing to embody our century’s moral dilemmas; in the novelistic tradition, they have been considered by Conrad and Solzhenitsyn, and in the tradition of the political and philosophical essay, by Camus and Hannah Arendt. “The one great principle of the English law,” Dickens tells us, “is to make business for itself.” No wonder, then, that one attorney in Bleak House gets called Vohles: a “vole” in a card game is a situation in which the dealer gets all the winning cards. Over and over Dickens emphasizes the ordinary in Vohles, the regular and conventional: “Mr. Vohles is a very respectable man. He has not a very large business, but he is a very respectable man. He is allowed by the greater attorneys who have made good fortunes, or are making them, to be a most respectable man. He never misses a chance in his practice, which is a mark of respectability; he is reserved and serious, which is also a mark of respectability; his digestion is impaired, which is highly respectable; he is making hay of the grass which is flesh, for his three daughters and his father are dependent on him in the Vale of Taunton.”

Therein is, I fear, an account all too contemporary—we earnest, hard working, thoroughly loyal, occasionally (but discreetly) troubled citizens, always at a ready for Alka-Seltzers (maybe, if necessary, a visit to the psychiatrist for our psychosomatic ailments) and, as well, prepared with our psychological or moral justifications: I do it for my wife, my children; I do it for my family, my very well-deserving family; so, hands off, you with the forefinger, you preachy cultural essayists or social critics, you thinly disguised moral rhetoricians masked as lecturers who come to one or another university!


In Great Expectations Dickens continues to explore this theme—the relationship between the practice of a profession (the law) and the moral life as it (one hopes) presents its predicaments, if not outright demands, on all of us. The lawyer Jaggers is, surely, one of Dickens’ best-known characters. He is a tough, hugely successful (and just plain huge) barrister who strides the legal netherworld of London to the accompaniment of everyone’s awe. Dickens knew how hard-pressed life was for thousands of English families in mid-19th-century England, and he knew the legal side of such desperation—a jungle of suspicion and fear and hate. He was especially attentive to the meanness and spitefulness, the crazy outbursts of anger, the trickery and cunning, the resort to lies and more lies which characterize so-called “low life”: hungry, jobless men, women, children with few if any prospects become reduced to a fate not only marginal with respect to its “socioeconomic” character but also with respect to its very humanity. True, as Dickens reminded us in Bleak House with Esther Summerson and in Little Dorrit with the character whose name titles the novel, human dignity is not really ever extinguished, only put in severe jeopardy. But there was plenty of that jeopardy for the people Jaggers knew so well, and to this day the problem remains: what can an earnest, competent lawyer do, given the hard facts of a continuous and severe exploitation of men and women by their fellow creatures?

The very name Jaggers, needless to say, suggests the cut-throat quality of a particular existential situation. One is a bit indirect, uneasy, evasive here: Jaggers himself is not so easy to write off as yet another of Dickens’ villainous lawyers. He is imperious and gruff; he is as manipulative as . . . well, an attorney of his caliber and practice would naturally be. He trades in secrets, skirts the edges of the law, bullies strangers and associates, keeps all sorts of tricks up his sleeve—and yet is by no means a moral monster. He is oddly compelling, even touching, in his blunt poses of neutrality, aloofness, skepticism. The more we get to know him (and Dickens wants us to do so, thereby rescuing a character from the limitations of the caricature) the more we wonder at his purpose—and at that of Dickens as well in making him so arresting and complex. He is, after all, the instrument of the boy Pip’s moral and spiritual journey. He is, also, capable of saving a soul or two amid the hellish life he observed and, within limits, dominated. And he shows evidence of anguish—the constant handwashing which bespoke a keen recognition of just how sordid a given job was,

In a sense, then, Jaggers is the lawyer who has to work in a world exceptionally flawed by sin and suffering—and, somehow, not himself slip hopelessly into that world. No question, he profits from that world—as a person who wields his influence and receives the urgent entreaties of a bewildered and impoverished population of Londoners and as a lawyer who can pick and choose among would-be clients. His very credibility as a character attests to Dickens’ moral seriousness at this point in his literary career: we don’t laugh at Jaggers or with him either at the various people with whom he works. Nor do we simply enjoy his brusque power, his moments of mocking arrogance, his clever instincts for survival. He is, we begin to feel, a lonely and driven figure himself. He belongs with those who wait on him: Molly, for instance, his servant woman, whom he defended on a murder charge. She was a tramp, wild and crude. Upon her acquittal she went to work for him. She is, we learn, Estella’s mother, the father being the convict Magwitch, Pip’s benefactor. Dickens unashamedly wove such a tightknit plot—a reminder to all of us how intimately we are connected to one another as members of a particular society. Molly is an animal barely under control, we are persuaded; and Jaggers, her keeper, is himself a predator one minute (not hesitating to push aside the law, even violate it, while fighting as someone’s court-room advocate) and the proverbial dumb beast another minute—lost and mute and confused when not at work, hence not able to show his swagger, his cunning, his crude and relentless appetite.

His legal associate Wemmick also tells us something about ourselves, I fear. This lovely, genial, generous, thoughtful and considerate man (at home) becomes a willing agent of greed and brute force at work, Dickens once again wants to emphasize the duality of our natures, the capacity we have to split ourselves in half, live without shame our contradictory lives: acquisitive and coldly impersonal under one set of circumstances, tactful and sensitive and utterly humane in another setting. John Wemmick’s Walworth Castle is necessarily just that—a refuge, a bastion, a place which offers protection against the marauding, normally bankrupt demands of the covetous world outside. There is in him, at home, an element of the self-reliant yeoman, once England’s proudest claim. He builds. He plants. He fixes things. He dreams of yet further projects to make life in the country more relaxed and enjoyable. But even in the castle, he’s always storing things, calculating how much property he’s been able to accumulate. He’s not a lavish party-giver— someone bent on self-advertising consumption. But he knows the reassuring comfort that accumulated property can bring, and he is willing to be, day after day in a law office, the strong-faced sidekick of a big deal criminal lawyer—do his various errands, collect cash for him, and, one gathers, help work up his cases. In today’s (English) terms, Jaggers was a flamboyant, sly, if not always unkind and sometimes socially discerning and compassionate barrister; whereas Wemmick was his firm’s chief solicitor—someone who didn’t need to wash his hands after seeing each client, as was Jaggers’ wont. Rather, a trip to the outer precincts worked right well—as it does, perhaps, for some of us today.


Dickens was not, however, beyond imagining redeeming possibilities in the lives of the individuals he created—and, too, in the work they did. Sydney Carton, in A Tale of Two Cities, a well-known character, indeed, in the world Dickens created (especially to high school students!) is (we sometimes forget) a lawyer. He drinks too much. He seems aimless, sad, troubled. He helps the lawyer Stryver free Charles Darnay, who has been accused of committing treason—a spy for France. Unlike Bleak House or Great Expectations, this novel does not directly approach the law as a profession, Sydney Carton’s work as a lawyer is shown to be clever, even brilliant; but our interest in him has to do with his human qualities, per se, rather than a professional predicament which tests the moral strength of those qualities. His moral strength is, to be sure, tested—but by an international crisis, by a social revolution, and, not insignificantly, by the constraints and turmoil of love. It is as if Dickens were saying to us: I have shown you, in Bleak House, how terribly perplexing and crippling the law itself can be; and I have shown you in Great Expectations how terribly insinuating the law can be, morally and psychologically, as its practitioners struggle with the hypocrisies and worse of an industrial order (one not totally unlike our own); now let me take a lawyer and put him in the midst of a tumultuous political scene, a time of drastic upheaval, and see not what happens to his profession or what he does with his profession, but what happens to him as a human being. In Bleak House the law is fog; in Great Expectations, at times, the law is a snake—an aspect of man’s post-Eden fate; in A Tale of Two Cities the law is a given person’s trade—a footnote, as so much we do can end up being, to an ongoing spiritual struggle, one all too commonly masked, as a matter of fact, by the seeming excellence of our professional and even personal adjustment.

Not that such was the case with attorney Carton. He comes to us dissolute, if nothing else. His crony Stryver is not quite dissolute—though the difference between the two, Dickens wants us to realize right off, is more apparent than real. They drink together, offer evidence of a mutual cynicism, an essential boredom with life. Stryver is what his name suggests, still pushing for money and influence. But he is in many respects burned out—morally, for sure, and psychologically, as well. Carton is smarter by far, but also less self-protective. He is our professional man who has a good head on his shoulders and might go far but seems curiously paralyzed, hence headed for alcoholism, suicide, or (is it our fate to hope?) a psychiatrist’s office where, presumably, he will be enough helped to—what? Resume work with the Stryvers of this world? Abandon one sort of practice for another? Seek another occupation?

No, we are likely to declare: the problem is not Carton’s profession; the problem is Carton himself. He needs to see a doctor. But is that the case? Do we find ourselves wanting Stryver to have his head examined? Stryver, whom Dickens describes as “a man of little more than thirty, but looking twenty years older than he was, stout, loud, red, bluff, and free from any drawback of delicacy”; Stryver who “had a pushing way of shouldering himself (morally and physically) onto companies and conversations”? Once more Dickens is our late 20th-century social observer, quite ready to confound us with the ongoing riddle of this psychological era: why is it that some who seem quite obnoxious in every way are not usually regarded as candidates for psychiatric scrutiny, while others, in comparison exceedingly refined and decent, are quickly considered in serious difficulty, and quite in need of “help,” as we choose to call it?

For Dickens, the law and the prison which awaits those who violate the law were not only recurrent subjects to be explained in novel after novel. Nor was the interest in those subjects a mere consequence of an early personal experience. Like other 19th-century social critics and moralists who had not once been in trouble with the law or inside a prison, Dickens took close stock of an emerging industrial order and was truly aghast. In Hard Times he lets us know how much so—how vicious he deemed not only the treatment accorded the poor but also the burden put upon those who were not at all poor. Again and again we are reminded that exploitation cuts both ways—that those who coldly manipulate others, or bring up their children to do so, will pay a stiff price, indeed: the fear, the suspiciousness, the nervous, self-justifying smugness, the isolating arrogance which, in sum, amount to a vision of the blind leading the blind, the meanly powerful worrying over the sadly hurt.

In A Tale of Two Cities he dares suggest that all London is a prison of sorts, and Paris, too. The streets are narrow and confusing. Even Tellson’s bank, which has offices in both cities, and to which the affluent come to tap their resources, is dark and dingy, has its “own iron bars proper.” The Paris bank has a “high wall and a strong gate.” Mention is made of “depositors rusted in prison.” Jerry Cruncher, the bank’s odd-jobber, is an “inmate of a menagerie”; and he has rust on his fingers and is at the beck and call of anyone and everyone. As with France’s royalty, and eventually, its murderous revolutionaries, England’s rich and powerful know constant apprehension, can take little for granted, keep a wary eye on friends and all too numerous enemies. And, needless to say, in Little Dorrit, that theme of pervasive confinement, of jails as the lot of people badly isolated from one another, reaches a climax—Marshalsea Prison, the Circumlocution Office, Bleeding Heart Yard: England’s bureaucratic and legal and commercial and moral confusions, duplicities, aberrancies as, in sum, a heavy, collective constraint upon a particular nation’s people.

But Dickens not only regarded closely a nation and criticized it with earnest passion (through humor, gentle or biting; through sentiment, gentle or mawkish or extremely touching; through caricatures and heroic portraits and sustained imagery and shrewdly engaging character portrayal and plots which have a way of holding the reader, no matter their lapses into the all too expectable); he was, as mentioned, his own kind of moral visionary. In his essay on Dickens, a fine one, a trenchant one, and maybe an autobiographical one, George Orwell emphasizes this side of Dickens, his strong interest in seeing justice done. Orwell stresses the presence in Dickens of a “native generosity of mind” and reminds us how continually, in those many novels, we are reminded of the twin importance of “freedom and equality.” Dickens hated all who lord it over others, as Orwell did. Let any onetime victim rise up far enough, they both knew, and the danger of yet additional wrongdoing immediately arises. Our century, alas, has made such an observation (stressed throughout A Tale of Two Cities] a huge and awful banality’— and the result, of course, has been the untimely deaths of millions and prisons whose size and nature even a prophetic novelist with the imagination of a Dickens could never possibly foresee.

In a memorable phrase Orwell calls Dickens a Christian out of a “quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors”; and one can scarcely disagree. Dickens took careful, calculated aim at those oppressors and, like Orwell, knew that they can appear, out of nowhere it seems, in every possible location—among the poor as well as the rich, among people of all races and backgrounds, among professional men and intellectuals as well as men of commerce, and among women as well as men. Madame de Farge in A Tale of Two Cities need only be mentioned; and Skimpole, in Bleak House, whose clever, self-enhancing egoism bears an astonishing resemblance to what can be be found in various centers of literary and artistic activity. Dickens knew well what we have called “the culture of narcissism,” the seductive power of the mirror. His prisons have mirrors in them—a double jeopardy! So does the London courtroom where the prisoner Charles Darnay fights for his life with the help of the lawyers Stryver and Carton. Even the members of the crowd watching the trial become “mirrors reflecting the witness.” There is, of course, and necessarily so, a last-ditch narcissism at stake in many courtrooms; a life itself will be saved or lost—not to mention the personal reputation (and sense of self-worth) of this or that lawyer. But for Dickens any particular trial is emblematic—as in Kafka’s The Trial: our desperate situation as human beings revealed by our inability to recognize just how trapped we are within our own world of eager pretentiousness and by the endless circularities we pursue as if they were a straight road to an absolutely certain destination.


Dickens himself, despite the gloom so many of his stories contain (and the gratuitous quality to their happy endings), was not without hope. He found decency in ordinary, unassuming people, the humble of this earth who (we are promised, we were solemnly warned) would inherit the world. He saw plenty of evil—and children, always, as victims, as born prisoners who never seem to get their sentences fully commuted. Yes, Pip marries Estella, one ending of Great Expectations tells us. Yes, Esther Summerson marries Dr. Alien Woodcourt, Bleak House informs us. Yes, Arthur Clennam finds Little Dorrit, and Sydney Carton finds Lucie Manette, and through those two women each man is affirmed—all the pain and suffering of their early lives somehow caused to recede in personal significance. But in all Dickens’ novels the meanness and brutishness of this life is made abundantly clear. Pip’s famous moment of searching introspections, his trenchant statement about himself and his life, turns into an authorial comment on justice and its vicissitudes, on our fate as human beings, born into an arbitrary and imperfect world and soon enough to depart: “In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small, and its rocking-horse stands as many hands high, according to scale, as a big-boned Irish hunter. Within myself, I had sustained, from my babyhood, a perpetual conflict with injustice. I had known, from the time when I could speak, that my sister, in her capricious and violent coercion, was unjust to me. I had cherished a profound conviction that her bringing me up by hand, gave her no right to bring me up by jerks. Through all my punishments, disgraces, fasts and vigils, and other penitential performances, I had nursed this assurance; and to my communing so much with it, in a solitary and unprotected way, I in great part refer the fact that I was morally timid and very sensitive.”

But there is, the same author knew, a chance to reverse things, to render a kind of fitting if finite justice—a redemption here on earth that must precede any further redemption to be gained elsewhere in the universe. Dickens’ interest in practical, everyday charity (of the kind Jesus offered again and again as He walked Galilee nearly two thousand years ago) is well underscored in this extraordinary passage in Little Dorrit— another one of his hurt souls looking back and looking ahead. “As the fierce dark teaching of his childhood had never sunk into his heart, so that first article in his code of morals was, that he must begin, in practical humility, with looking well to his feet on Earth, and that he could never mount on wings of words to Heaven. Duty on earth, restitution on earth, action on earth; these first, as the first steep steps upward. Strait was the gate and narrow was the way; far straiter and narrower than the broad high road paved with vain professions and vain repetitions, motes from other men’s eyes and liberal delivery of others to the judgement—all cheap materials costing absolutely nothing.”

So it goes, or we hope it will go, for ourselves—a chance to do the Lord’s will in the way He showed: daily tasks, obligations, possibilities of charity. Sometimes I hear Dickens faulted—he saw wrongs, but he failed to give us an overall scheme to right them. In view of the various all-encompassing ideologies we have seen at work in this century— ones offering personal and social rehabilitation on the grandest scale—we can be grateful, maybe, for Dickens’ restrained reformism, his humane egalitarian liberalism, and, one also insists, his down-to-earth Christianity, so beholden to Jesus of Nazareth rather than the various “principalities and powers” which have come to speak so confidently, if not imperiously, in His name. In that last regard, Orwell does well to quote from a letter Dickens wrote to his youngest son in 1868: “You will remember that you have never at home been harassed about religious observances, or mere formalities. I have always been anxious not to weary my children with such things, before they are old enough to form opinions respecting them. You will therefore understand the better that I now most solemnly impress upon you the truth and beauty of the Christian Religion, as it came from Christ Himself, and the impossibility of your going far wrong if you humbly but heartily respect it. . . . Never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your own private prayers, night and morning. I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it.”

What is the law but a necessarily finite effort on our part to find some earthly vision which at least partakes in a small way of that larger Biblical vision offered us by the Hebrew prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, and by the one who followed them, Jesus Christ? A vision of what? A moral vision, surely. A vision, put negatively at first, of what must not be done—so that, over time, we will edge nearer to a more honorable and decent world, where “equal justice” will not only be a phrase cut in the marble of a particular Washington, D. C. building, but something known and felt to be a daily given the world over. Meanwhile, we all struggle with this life’s hardships, its terrible lack of justice, a curse for so many; and we struggle, also, to figure out how to change that state of affairs—through (among other ways) laws written, through laws challenged, through laws argued and argued, through interventions here and there on behalf of one person, then another.

In the midst of those struggles a moral visionary such as Charles Dickens is no small ally. He takes in his hands the abstract matters of a subject matter, legal ethics, and gives them the complex, provocative life of a story. He gives us character as fate shapes it. He gives us chance and circumstance, good luck and bad luck, humor and melancholy—an opportunity not to figure out the world theoretically, but put oneself in it correctly. As a moral visionary, he left us situations to heed, people to know, a whole range of ethical matters to attend in a very special way—the personal immersion enabled by a novel. One can, he knew (to use the phrase of our contemporary, American novelist, the Southerner Walker Percy) “get all A’s and flunk life.” One can, he knew, do well in a course called “legal ethics” or “moral reasoning” and go on to be a not so honorable and straightforward and compassionate human being. The novels of Dickens offer reminders enough of people who preach a good tune to others and fail to heed it in the everyday particulars of their lives—the Mrs. Jellybys of this world. The novels of Dickens offer us ourselves, plenty of us flawed, all too many of us thoroughly wretched, yet, more than a few of us sometimes graced by moments and longer of honor.

Recently I came across this observation, made by Viktor Frankl, a physician who only barely survived years of Hitler’s hell: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” As one goes over those words again and again, surely it is not inappropriate to think of Charles Dickens and his enormous, hard-earned moral quarry, which he dug and dug, a lifetime’s effort. He knew how constrained we all are, how hard it is for us to break free, to achieve a measure of continuing dignity. His exhortation of a particular profession, the law, was meant to honor its possible role in our lives—at its best a bulwark against anarchy and a pointer in the direction of fairness. Still, there are awful lapses, as he knew, and as we in this century have also come to know—to the point that the often isolated and lonely good folk of the world of Charles Dickens seem to reach out to join hands with those Dr. Frankl describes: orphans all amid the terrible human disasters of our history, yet also heroes whom each of us needs to remember with a certain tenacity, perhaps, as we go about our daily lives, our daily business, including that of the law.


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