Dickens wrote feverishly, though he fell into the soft-handed middle class rather than the rough-handed middle class because he never really physically labored or experimented. It worked for him because of his amazing powers of description, and his ability to convey romantic social ideals to an audience whom apparently was in want of romantic social ideals. One of the more critical points of his work continues to be his caricature-like characters, attributing to the lack of actual details of what they actually do for work.
Page 165: "In Dickens' novels anything in the nature of work happens off-stage. The only one of his heroes who has a plausible profession is David Copperfield, who is first a shorthand writer and then a novelist, like Dickens himself. With most of the others, the way they earn their living is very much in the background."
The fair question can can asked, "Should the reader care what the characters' do for work?" Or even better, "Does not knowing intimately what they do affect their characterization?" Well, with the risk of sounding superficial, yes it does affect their characterization because the characters choose to spend a large chunk of their time doing it, devoid of whether or not the audience is there to witness it. Characterization is as much about the reader having access to the characters habits and behaviors, as is their direct dialogue, so when we read characters (and people in real life, as well) and certain parts of their lives muted, ignored, or hidden, that lack of transparency creates a buffer between us and understanding. Without that link, we're deprived of a certain intimacy with the characters and again, people in real life.
Further along the same paragraph previously quoted, "In no case do their adventures spring directly out of their work." This reminds me of a piece we workshopped in my Master's program. The story was about a woman who worked a menial job getting emotionally and physically abused by a husband who worked at a candy factory. The nuances of abuse were written very well, but what did every person in the workshop get fixated on? The damn candy factory. The writer never described the husband's history, so the audience was left speculating why an aggressive, motorcycle-driving beast of a man would work at a candy factory. It didn't reconcile.
The Dickensian character insulation may work for some people, but only if the reader approaches fiction from more of an idealistic point of view than a realistic one. Orwell mocks him by saying that his characters didn't do anything. This is not an insult because it bestows upon Dickens a powerful tool.
On page 166, Orwell says that the typical Dickens novel "always exists round a framework of melodrama. The last thing anyone ever remembers about these books is their central story...Dickens sees human being with the most intense vividness, but he sees them always in private life, as 'characters' not as functional members of society; that is to say, he sees them statically." Sure, Dickens focuses on humans to the point of subjugating their ordinary vocations, but this channeling of attention allows him to see that one thing really well. Further along on 166, "Of course it would be absurd to say that Dickens is a vague or merely melodramatic writer. Much that he wrote is extremely factual, and in the power of evoking visual images he has probably never been equalled. When Dickens has once described something you see it for the rest of your life." There's plenty of jokes about Dickens' characters, however, he still serves as one of the benchmarks for well-crafted fiction. He picked his poison and did it well.
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