Atlantic Monthly, Volume 8, No. 47, September, 1861
Author: Various
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The plot of "Great Expectations" is also noticeable as indicating, better than any of his previous stories, the individuality of Dickens's genius. Everybody must have discerned in the action of his mind two diverging tendencies, which, in this novel, are harmonized. He possesses a singularly wide, clear, and minute power of accurate observation, both of things and of persons; but his observation, keen and true to actualities as it independently is, is not a dominant faculty, and is opposed or controlled by the strong tendency of his disposition to pathetic or humorous idealization. Perhaps in "The Old Curiosity Shop" these qualities are best seen in their struggle and divergence, and the result is a magnificent juxtaposition of romantic tenderness, melodramatic improbabilities, and broad farce. The humorous characterization is joyously exaggerated into caricature,—the serious characterization into romantic unreality, Richard Swiveller and Little Nell refuse to combine. There is abundant evidence of genius both in the humorous and the pathetic parts, but the artistic impression is one of anarchy rather than unity.

In "Great Expectations," on the contrary, Dickens seems to have attained the mastery of powers which formerly more or less mastered him. He has fairly discovered that he cannot, like Thackeray, narrate a story as if he were a mere looker-on, a mere "knowing" observer of what he describes and represents; and he has therefore taken observation simply as the basis of his plot and his characterization. As we read "Vanity Fair" and "The Newcomes," we are impressed with the actuality of the persons and incidents. There is an absence both of directing ideas and disturbing idealizations. Everything drifts to its end, as in real life. In "Great Expectations" there is shown a power of external observation finer and deeper even than Thackeray's; and yet, owing to the presence of other qualities, the general impression is not one of objective reality. The author palpably uses his observations as materials for his creative faculties to work upon; he does not record, but invents; and he produces something which is natural only under conditions prescribed by his own mind. He shapes, disposes, penetrates, colors, and contrives everything, and the whole action, is a series of events which could have occurred only in his own brain, and which it is difficult to conceive of as actually "happening." And yet in none of his other works does he evince a shrewder insight into real life, and a clearer perception and knowledge of what is called "the world." The book is, indeed, an artistic creation, and not a mere succession of humorous and pathetic scenes, and demonstrates that Dickens is now in the prime, and not in the decline of his great powers.

The characters of the novel also show how deeply it has been meditated; for, though none of them may excite the personal interest which clings to Sam Weller or little Dombey, they are better fitted to each other and to the story in which they appear than is usual with Dickens. They all combine to produce that unity of impression which the work leaves on the mind. Individually they will rank among the most original of the author's creations. Magwitch and Joe Gargery, Jaggers and Wemmick, Pip and Herbert, Wopsle, Pumblechook, and "the Aged," Miss Havisham, Estella, and Biddy, are personages which the most assiduous readers of Dickens must pronounce positive additions to the characters his rich and various genius had already created.

Pip, the hero, from whose mind the whole representation takes its form and color, is admirably delineated throughout. Weak, dreamy, amiable, apprehensive, aspiring, inefficient, the subject and the victim of "Great Expectations," his individuality is, as it were, diffused through the whole narrative. Joe is a noble character, with a heart too great for his powers of expression to utter in words, but whose patience, fortitude, tenderness, and beneficence shine lucidly through his confused and mangled English. Magwitch, the "warmint" who "grew up took up," whose memory extended only to that period of his childhood when he was "a-thieving turnips for his living" down in Essex, but in whom a life of crime had only intensified the feeling of gratitude for the one kind action of which he was the object, is hardly equalled in grotesque grandeur by anything which Dickens has previously done. The character is not only powerful in itself, but it furnishes pregnant and original hints to all philosophical investigators into the phenomena of crime. In this wonderful creation Dickens follows the maxim of the great master of characterization, and seeks "the soul of goodness in things evil."

The style of the romance is rigorously close to things. The author is so engrossed with the objects before his mind, is so thoroughly in earnest, that he has fewer of those humorous caprices of expression in which formerly he was wont to wanton. Some of the old hilarity and play of fancy is gone, but we hardly miss it in our admiration of the effects produced by his almost stern devotion to the main idea of his work. There are passages of description and narrative in which we are hardly conscious of the words, in our clear apprehension of the objects and incidents they convey. The quotable epithets and phrases are less numerous than in "Dombey & Son" and "David Copperfield"; but the scenes and events impressed on the imagination are perhaps greater in number and more vivid in representation. The poetical element of the writer's genius, his modification of the forms, hues, and sounds of Nature by viewing them through the medium of an imagined mind, is especially prominent throughout the descriptions with which the work abounds. Nature is not only described, but individualized and humanized.

Altogether we take great joy in recording our conviction that "Great Expectations" is a masterpiece. We have never sympathized in the mean delight which some critics seem to experience in detecting the signs which subtly indicate the decay of power in creative intellects. We sympathize still less in the stupid and ungenerous judgments of those who find a still meaner delight in wilfully asserting that the last book of a popular writer is unworthy of the genius which produced his first. In our opinion, "Great Expectations" is a work which proves that we may expect from Dickens a series of romances far exceeding in power and artistic skill the productions which have already given him such a preeminence among the novelists of the age.

Tom Brown at Oxford: A Sequel to School-Days at Rugby. By the Author of "School-Days at Rugby," "Scouring of the White Horse," etc. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 2 vols. 16mo.

Thomas Hughes, the author of these volumes, does not, on a superficial examination, seem to deserve the wide reputation he has obtained. We hunt his books in vain for any of those obvious peculiarities of style, thought, and character which commonly distinguish a man from his fellows. He does not possess striking wit, or humor, or imagination, or power of expression. In every quality, good or bad, calculated to create "a sensation," he is remarkably deficient. Yet everybody reads him with interest, and experiences for him a feeling of personal affection and esteem. An unobtrusive, yet evident nobility of character, a sound, large, "round-about" common-sense, a warm sympathy with English and human kind, a practical grasp of human life as it is lived by ordinary people, and an unmistakable sincerity and earnestness of purpose animate everything he writes. His "School-Days at Rugby" delighted men as well as boys by the freshness, geniality, and truthfulness with which it represented boyish experiences; and the Tom Brown who, in that book, gained so many friends wherever the English tongue is spoken, parts with none of his power to interest and charm in this record of his collegiate life. Mr. Hughes has the true, wholesome English love of home, the English delight in rude physical sports, the English hatred of hypocrisy and cant, the English fidelity to facts, the English disbelief in all piety and morality which are not grounded in manliness. The present work is full of illustrations of these healthy qualities of his nature, and they are all intimately connected with an elevated, yet eminently sagacious spirit of Christian philanthropy. Tom Brown at Oxford, as well as Tom Brown at Rugby, will, so far as he exerts any influence, exert one for good. He has a plentiful lack of those impossible virtues which disgust boys and young men with the models set up as examples for them to emulate in books deliberately moral and religious; but he none the less shows how a manly and Christian character can be attained by methods which are all the more influential by departing from the common mechanical contrivances for fashioning lusty youths into consumptive saints, incompetent to do the work of the Lord in this world, however they may fare in the next. Mr. Hughes can hardly be called a disciple of "Muscular Christianity," except so far as muscle is necessary to give full efficiency to mind; but he feels all the contempt possible to such a tolerant nature for that spurious piety which kills the body in order to give a sickly appearance of life to the soul.

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