Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Gospel of Amy: Biblical Teaching and Learning in Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Gospel of Amy: Biblical Teaching and Learning in Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article argues for a revised view of Charles Dickens as a more mature and profound Christian thinker than his reputation has suggested. The author disputes critic Janet Larson's view that Little Dorrit increasingly reflects a "broken scripture," a Bible that has lost meaning in an industrialized world. In contrast, this article argues that the figure of Amy Dorrit is one intended to engage the reader in addressing the moral and ethical concerns of this world, not to present the ominous shadow of a failed apocalypse. Dickens' work represents not a decline in theology, but the development of a new kind of theology.

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When intellectuals consider Victorian fiction in the context of serious Christian theology, Charles Dickens may be the writer they think of the least. (1) For one thing, Dickens' fiction has strong sentimentalist tendencies, and sentimentality has often been depicted as the enemy of strict, intellectually rigorous, Christian doctrine. Ann Douglas, for example, claims in her influential 1977 book, The Feminization of American Culture, that the "debased religiosity" of popular nineteenth-century writers and their "sentimental peddling of Christian belief for its nostalgic value" at least in part caused the demise of "the intellectual rigor and imaginative precision" of American theological tradition (Douglas 6-7). To be sure, Douglas' attack is not meant to apply to Dickens, but to the popular women writers, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Susan Warner, who dominated the American literary market of the nineteenth century. Her main interest is in nineteenth-century America, of course, and she contends at the beginning of her book that British Victorian culture was more cohesive and untroubled by the cultural polarization that placed the American authors we now hold in high regard, such as Herman Melville, in opposition to the tide of "sentimental" popular culture. She maintains that the mid-nineteenth-century British authors we respect, including Dickens, were, on the other hand, also "admired by their contemporaries" (Douglas 6).

This formulation of the issue does not take into account the history of Dickens' critical reception. Dickens' fiction was deeply engaged with the very sentimentalism that Douglas deplores in the women writers she discusses. Moreover, Dickens' sentimentality did injure his literary standing, and he did have a lowbrow reputation that led intellectuals and critics to describe his religious, moral, and ethical beliefs in vague, even dismissive, terms. This dismissiveness began even during Dickens' own lifetime; for instance, Dickens' contemporary, the writer and critic George Henry Lewes, was appalled to find, when first visiting the novelist early in his career, that his bookshelves were largely empty of "serious" reading matter, such as theology, philosophy, and science. (2) This encounter formed Lewes' essential view of Dickens as an intellectually weak writer, "merely an animal intelligence, i.e., restricted to perceptions" (Lewes 105). Other contemporary critics, mainly upper-class, university-educated men, shared Lewes' conclusion. (3) The assumption soon became general that Dickens' religious thought was well-meaning but theologically weak and inconsistent. In 1903, the French critic Louis Cazamian described Dickens' beliefs as "the philosophy of Christmas," embodying "the best qualities of Dickens' heart and all the limitations of his head" (Cazamian 137), and Humphry House argued in 1941 that Dickens' use of "Christian imagery" was a weakness, a "mask to conceal some inability to control or express his emotion" (House 132). Even as recently as 2000, Robert Garnett stated that "Dickens could not interest himself in any manner of historical, dogmatic or sacramental faith, and he was not ordinarily disposed to question his ... sentimental religion of heaven, angels, and the sweet faces of the dead" (494).

On the other hand, Dickens had a powerful cultural influence on popular Christian belief and practice. …

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