The final paragraph of this piece by Julian Barnes from a recent issue of The New York Review of Books characterizes the thinking of Charles Dickens in a way that strikes me as too simple. The characterization originates with Orwell - new editions of whose work Barnes is reviewing - and what Orwell is quoted by Barnes as saying about Dickens doesn't square with my own reading of him. So I went in search of the Orwell essay from which Barnes quotes, and this does indeed express the view that Barnes says it does. With regard to Dickens's thinking about human nature and society Orwell writes:
The truth is that Dickens's criticism of society is almost exclusively moral... There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as 'human nature'.
Orwell goes on to say more to the same effect: for Dickens, he asserts, '[i]f men would behave decently the world would be decent'; and 'he [Dickens] displays no consciousness that the structure of society can be changed'; and '[u]seless to change institutions without a "change of heart" - that, essentially, is what he is always saying'. In a passage that refers to Marx as a contrasting figure, Orwell then sums up a familiar theoretical opposition:
Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee.
Presenting Dickens thus, Orwell is not unilaterally condemning his approach. He writes of him, 'all he can finally say is, "Behave decently", which... is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds'.
My concern here is neither to challenge Orwell's characterization of Dickens as a moralist - which he obviously is - nor to question the contrast which Orwell draws between Dickens and those (like Marx) who work for a revolution in the structure of society. My interest is rather in the conceptual dichotomy Orwell sets up in delineating these two opposing viewpoints. To repeat it:
The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature?
I think this is oversimplified both with respect to Dickens and in itself.
Orwell's essay shows a thorough knowledge of Dickens's work. It makes only one passing reference, however, and that not directly touching on the theme which I've highlighted, to Dombey and Son. There is a long passage in this novel which bears on Orwell's theme. It displays a clear perception on Dickens's part that a 'change of heart' or of human nature, on the one hand, and a change in social conditions, on the other, cannot be treated in the one-sided way Orwell imputes to him, with the former entirely 'prior' and determinative with respect to the latter. I have in mind these five paragraphs:
Was Mr. Dombey's master-vice, that ruled him so inexorably, an unnatural characteristic? It might be worth while, sometimes, to inquire what Nature is, and how men work to change her, and whether, in the enforced distortions so produced, it is not natural to be unnatural. Coop any son or daughter of our mighty mother within narrow range, and bind the prisoner to one idea, and foster it by servile worship of it on the part of the few timid or designing people standing round, and what is Nature to the willing captive who has never risen up upon the wings of a free mind - drooping and useless soon - to see her in her comprehensive truth!
Alas! are there so few things in the world, about us, most unnatural, and yet most natural in being so? Hear the magistrate or judge admonish the unnatural outcasts of society; unnatural in brutal habits, unnatural in want of decency, unnatural in losing and confounding all distinctions between good and evil; unnatural in ignorance, in vice, in recklessness, in contumacy, in mind, in looks, in everything. But follow the good clergyman or doctor, who, with his life imperilled at every breath he draws, goes down into their dens, lying within the echoes of our carriage wheels and daily tread upon the pavement stones. Look round upon the world of odious sights - millions of immortal creatures have no other world on earth - at the lightest mention of which humanity revolts, and dainty delicacy living in the next street, stops her ears, and lisps 'I don't believe it!' Breathe the polluted air, foul with every impurity that is poisonous to health and life; and have every sense, conferred upon our race for its delight and happiness, offended, sickened and disgusted, and made a channel by which misery and death alone can enter. Vainly attempt to think of any simple plant, or flower, or wholesome weed, that, set in this foetid bed, could have its natural growth, or put its little leaves off to the sun as God designed it. And then, calling up some ghastly child, with stunted form and wicked face, hold forth on its unnatural sinfulness, and lament its being, so early, far away from Heaven - but think a little of its having been conceived, and born and bred, in Hell!
Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of Man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portions of a town. But if the moral pestilence that rises with them and in the eternal laws of outraged Nature, is inseparable from them, could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation! Then should we see depravity, impiety, drunkenness, theft, murder, and a long train of nameless sins against the natural affections and repulsions of mankind, overhanging the devoted spots, and creeping on, to blight the innocent and spread contagion among the pure. Then should we see how the same poisoned fountains that flow into our hospitals and lazarhouses, inundate the jails, and make the convict-ships swim deep, and roll across the seas, and over-run vast continents with crime. Then should we stand appalled to know, that where we generate disease to strike our children down and entail itself on unborn generations, there also we breed, by the same certain process, infancy that knows no innocence, youth without modesty or shame, maturity that is mature in nothing but in suffering and guilt, blasted old age that is a scandal on the form we bear. Unnatural humanity! When we shall gather grapes from thorns, and figs from thistles; when fields of grain shall spring up from the offal in the bye-ways of our wicked cities, and roses bloom in the fat churchyards that they cherish; then we may look for natural humanity and find it growing from such seed.
Oh for a good spirit who would take the house-tops off, with a more potent and benignant hand than the lame demon in the tale, and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes, to swell the retinue of the Destroying Angel as he moves forth among them! For only one night's view of the pale phantoms rising from the scenes of our too long neglect; and from the thick and sullen air where Vice and Fever propagate together, raining the tremendous social retributions which are ever pouring down, and ever coming thicker! Bright and blest the morning that should rise on such a night: for men, delayed to no more by stumbling-blocks of their own making, which are but specks of dust upon the path between them and eternity, would then apply themselves, like creatures of one common origin, owing one duty to the Father of one family, and tending to one common end, to make the world a better place!
Not the less bright and blest would that day be for rousing some who never have looked out upon the world of human life around them, to a knowledge of their own relation to it, and for making them acquainted with a perversion of nature in their own contracted sympathies and estimates; as great, and yet as natural in its development when once begun, as the lowest degradation known.
'To make the world a better place' is what Dickens says. And that he projects, in saying it, a great moral change within people is clear enough. But it seems to me just as clear from the above passage that this is not seen by Dickens as entirely free-standing, so to say, or as an independent variable, with the change in social conditions being for its part the result of the moral change foreseen by him, the result of people beginning to 'behave decently'. On the contrary, what is 'natural' to human beings Dickens portrays as being constrained, indeed corrupted, by bad social circumstances, so that changing these becomes, as well as a desired result of moral improvement, also a condition of it. It is a condition of changing the way people can be, of changing the chances they will have in life, their chances of living up to a more 'natural' humanity - if not in the sense of a rigid determinism (for this would empty Dickens's moral discourse of its meaning and purchase), at least in the sense of facilitating those better ways of life that are truly fit for human beings.
Orwell's dichotomy in this matter is overdrawn. For not only - as the passage from Dombey and Son illustrates - is a change of heart, in human nature, hardly conceivable while social conditions undermine and corrupt and poison the moral will, but the same applies, also, if we start from the opposite end and think of the change in social structure and institutions as the prior condition of a change in human beings and their moral consciousness. How can the new and better institutions be made to work if it's just the usual old kind of people, with all their shortcomings, that inhabit and operate them? This is a problem that was noted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract:
For a young people to be able to relish sound principles of political theory and follow the fundamental rules of statecraft, the effect would have to become the cause; the social spirit, which should be created by these institutions, would have to preside over their very foundation; and men would have to be before law what they should become by means of law.
In truth, there's no realistic way of conceptualizing radical change that does not start from an understanding that the first-change-social-structures/first-change-human-consciousness distinction defines a false pair of alternatives. Not only revolutionaries like Marx but also reformers like J.S. Mill have in their best moments regarded social and moral change as bound up with one another, on a level as it were, with the movement that aims to change society for the better itself serving, as a movement, to educate those participating in it, to change them and others for the better in a self-transformational process. There's no first and second; there's only people trying to change bad circumstances, changing themselves in doing that, better circumstances changing them, and so on.
One concluding observation. Not all change 'to make the world a better place' needs to be transformational in the 'utopian' way so far assumed: that is to say, trying to turn people into better people. Some meliorative change derives from recognizing what the enduring faults and weaknesses of human beings are and designing rules and institutions to cope with these, or improving rules and institutions to cope with them.