Searching for the new Charles Dickens

By Tierney Smith

Now respected and seen as part of the establishment, Dickens was a radical of his generation (source: garryknight)

This week the world has celebrated the 200th birthday of British author Charles Dickens.

Few of his peers had the ability to depict society and the pressing environmental issues of the 1800s in such a devastating manner.

I’ve reviewed some of his key works, and examined whether any current authors can do the same for society today.

Known for such classics as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations, Dickens was an author renowned for exposing social inequality and poverty.

With many of his novels set in the squalid, industrialised conurbations London and Manchester, there are also undercurrents of Dickens’ work which looked at the contrast between the natural world, and the built up, polluted environment in the cities.

One of the best descriptions to summarise the way Dickens’ often reflected on town and cities is his opening description in Hard Times, describing Coke-Town:

“It was town of red brick or brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it, but as it stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the paint face of savage.

“It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever and never uncoiled.

“It had a black canal in it and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of buildings full of windows where there was a ratline and trembling all day long.”

Often in his work, this environmental degradation and polluted environment was the signal for poverty and the tough lifestyles for his characters:

“The uncontrollable and hopeless mass of decomposition so engendered, would have polluted the air, even if poverty and deprivation has not loaded it with their intangible purities; the two bad sources combined make it almost unsupportable.”

A Tale of Two Cities

“Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing and choking, inanimate London was snooting spectre.”

Our Mutual Friend

Two hundred years on and Dickens’ is still remember for his examination of the industrialised world, and the hardship and inequality this often signal.

Modern day Dickens

Two decades on, much of the world once again is facing both environmental and economic hardship.

And while Dickens’ – often writing as a journalist or serialising his work in papers – wrote for those of his time, is there now an author who does the same in 2012?

Many names could be put forward for such an author.

Take Ian McEwan for example who manages to take on history, society and in his latest novel, Solar, environmental concerns or novelist and journalist Carl Hiaasen whose novels, including Stormy Weather have been described as environmental mysteries.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What author do you think best describes modern society?

Other examples could be found in many modern novelists like Zadie Smith or Jeffrey Eugenide whose novels have a strong under current of social commentary.

But none quite fit the bill as well as American novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen.

Writing at another time, and about another continent, Franzen manages to continue to tackle Dickensian topics like society and (sometimes more noticeable than others) the environment, packaging it in a novel which also engages and relates to his readership.

Take a look at his 2001 novel the Corrections, that examines the decline of the technology-driven economic boom of the late nineties, and his 2010 release Freedom, a look at modern day families amongst an environmental backdrop of Mountain Top removal and over population:

“The human species was given dominion over the Earth and took the opportunity to exterminate other species and warm the atmosphere and generally ruin things in its own image, but it paid for its privileges: that the finite and specific animal body of this species contained a brain capable of conceiving the infinite and wishing to infinite itself.”

The Corrections

“I meant that world population and energy consumption are going to have to fall drastically at some point. We’re way past sustainable even now.

“Once the collapse comes, there’s going to be a window of opportunity for ecosystems to recover, but only if there’s any nature left. So the big question is how much of the planet gets destroyed before the collapse.

“Do we completely use it up, and cut down every tree and sterilize every ocean, and then collapse? Or are there going to be some unwrecked strongholds that survive.”


“THE CORRECTION, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle letdown, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor.”

The Corrections

200 years on from the birth of one literary genius, while often much more explicit in their approach than Dickens, many novels today still attempt to address the major issues which are facing our society and our environment.

 Contact the author on [email protected] or @rtcc_tierney.

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