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Grand Ideas painted into a Simple Scene

I love it when authors paint a grand idea into a simple scene.  Charles Dickens is my favorite of this kind of artist.  I would like to share a few of his masterful writings with you.

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In his book Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens tells the story of the “Riots of 80,” a riot of Protestants against popery (Catholics) in England in the 1780s, that resulted in plundering, murders, and a general state of chaos and unlawfulness.  In the midst of such a volatile atmosphere, Dickens describes a simple scene, in which the tink, tink, tink of a humble locksmith working in his shop rises above the crowd and changes it, almost without notice — he calls it “the still small voice.”

“From the workshop of the Golden Key, there issued forth a tinkling sound, so merry and good-humoured, that it suggested the idea of some one working blithely, and made quite pleasant music. No man who hammered on at a dull monotonous duty, could have brought such cheerful notes from steel and iron; none but a chirping, healthy, honest-hearted fellow, who made the best of everything, and felt kindly towards everybody, could have done it for an instant. He might have been a coppersmith, and still been musical. If he had sat in a jolting waggon, full of rods of iron, it seemed as if he would have brought some harmony out of it.

Tink, tink, tink—clear as a silver bell, and audible at every pause of the streets’ harsher noises, as though it said, ‘I don’t care; nothing puts me out; I am resolved to be happy.’ Women scolded, children squalled, heavy carts went rumbling by, horrible cries proceeded from the lungs of hawkers; still it struck in again, no higher, no lower, no louder, no softer; not thrusting itself on people’s notice a bit the more for having been outdone by louder sounds—tink, tink, tink, tink, tink.

It was a perfect embodiment of the still small voice, free from all cold, hoarseness, huskiness, or unhealthiness of any kind; foot-passengers slackened their pace, and were disposed to linger near it; neighbours who had got up splenetic that morning, felt good-humour stealing on them as they heard it, and by degrees became quite sprightly; mothers danced their babies to its ringing; still the same magical tink, tink, tink, came gaily from the workshop of the Golden Key.

Who but the locksmith could have made such music! A gleam of sun shining through the unsashed window, and chequering the dark workshop with a broad patch of light, fell full upon him, as though attracted by his sunny heart. There he stood working at his anvil, his face all radiant with exercise and gladness, his sleeves turned up, his wig pushed off his shining forehead—the easiest, freest, happiest man in all the world. Beside him sat a sleek cat, purring and winking in the light, and falling every now and then into an idle doze, as from excess of comfort. Toby (the locksmith’s drinking mug carrying the image of a man with the same aspect as the locksmith’s) looked on from a tall bench hard by; one beaming smile, from his broad nut-brown face down to the slack-baked buckles in his shoes. The very locks that hung around had something jovial in their rust, and seemed like gouty gentlemen of hearty natures, disposed to joke on their infirmities. There was nothing surly or severe in the whole scene. It seemed impossible that any one of the innumerable keys could fit a churlish strong-box or a prison-door. Cellars of beer and wine, rooms where there were fires, books, gossip, and cheering laughter—these were their proper sphere of action. Places of distrust and cruelty, and restraint, they would have left quadruple-locked for ever.”

This scene portrays all the curious attributes of the “still small voice” in a way so beautiful, so impressive, so thoughtful.  Note how he positioned its humble tinkling in a busy street during a period of boiling inter-religious strife.  Note also the suggestion that it would “quadruply” lock up distrust and cruelty if it had its full effect.  Note the images and character surrounding the locksmith who exudes its clear unimposing ring above the foray.  Later in the book, the locksmith is abducted by the mob, and despite the terror of it, yet his character still rises above and transcends the vulgar and the debased mob that surrounds him, this time to put them to shame and incur their wrath by his shining example.

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The next scene I would like to share is a night scene of London’s streets, used by Dickens to explore the mystery of individuality.  The excerpt also reveals, I think, how Dickens became a great writer; namely, how he had the habit of putting himself in the shoes of others in the attempt to understand their unique thoughts and experiences.

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?”

This message is especially appropriate given that this excerpt comes from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, where the hero of the novel is, by all appearances, a dissolute and incorrigible man.  Perhaps we should try, as Dickens, to search even deeper the souls of those around us, and perhaps we too would find not a few diamonds in the rough.

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This scene is another one from Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, and it reminds me that there are greater things than a kind of bare, mercenary equality, even if some little pride and inequality results from the otherwise bright and noble efforts of an ambitious and progressive society.

“It (the room in the Inn) was spacious enough in all conscience, occupying the whole depth of the house, and having at either end a great bay window, as large as many modern rooms; in which some few panes of stained glass, emblazoned with fragments of armorial bearings, though cracked, and patched, and shattered, yet remained; attesting, by their presence, that the former owner had made the very light of the sun subservient to his state, and pressed the sun itself into his list of flatterers; bidding it, when it shone into his chamber, reflect the badges of his ancient family, and take new hues and colours from their pride.

But those were old days, and now every little ray came and went as it would; telling the plain, bare, searching truth. Although the best room of the inn, it had the melancholy aspect of grandeur in decay, and was much too vast for comfort. [Once the room enjoyed] rich rustling hangings, waving on the walls; and, better far, the rustling of youth and beauty’s dress; the light of women’s eyes, outshining the tapers and their own rich jewels; the sound of gentle tongues, and music, and the tread of maiden feet, and filled it with delight. But that was gone now, and with it all its gladness. It was no longer a home; children were never born and bred there; the fireside had become mercenary—a something to be bought and sold—a very courtezan: let who would die, or sit beside, or leave it, it was still the same—it missed nobody, cared for nobody, had equal warmth and smiles for all. God help the man whose heart ever changes with the world, as an old mansion when it becomes an inn!”

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Another thing that I love about Dickens is that his characters often have serious vices, but also have enduring and heroic strengths.  In Dickens’ David Copperfield, Mrs. Micawber is married to a debt-ridden, creditor-pursued husband, whose vices cause her and the whole family much social and financial suffering, but she chooses to see her husband as “a man of great abilities,” whom the world has not yet learned to appreciate as she does.  Her unwavering devotion is saintly.

“That,” said Mrs. Micawber, “That, at least, is my view of the obligation which I took upon myself when I repeated the irrevocable words, ‘I, Emma, take thee, Wilkins.’ I read the service over with a flat-candle on the previous night, and the conclusion I derived from it was, that I never could desert Mr. Micawber. And,” said Mrs. Micawber, “though it is possible I may be mistaken in my view of the ceremony, I never will!”

‘My dear,’ said Mr. Micawber, a little impatiently, ‘I am not conscious that you are expected to do anything of the sort.’

‘I am aware, my dear Mr. Copperfield,’ pursued Mrs. Micawber, ‘that I am now about to cast my lot among strangers; and I am also aware that the various members of my family, to whom Mr. Micawber has written in the most gentlemanly terms, announcing that fact, have not taken the least notice of Mr. Micawber’s communication. Indeed I may be superstitious,’ said Mrs. Micawber, ‘but it appears to me that Mr. Micawber is destined never to receive any answers whatever to the great majority of the communications he writes. I may augur, from the silence of my family, that they object to the resolution I have taken; but I should not allow myself to be swerved from the path of duty, Mr. Copperfield, even by my papa and mama, were they still living…It may be a sacrifice,’ said Mrs. Micawber, ‘but surely, Mr. Copperfield, if it is a sacrifice in me, it is much more a sacrifice in a man of Mr. Micawber’s abilities.’

You will be pleased to learn (even though this is only a fiction story) that Mrs. Micawber’s faith ultimately played out, and Mr. Micawber rose to become an honored and revered magistrate in Australia.  I have no doubt that he could not have done it without Mrs. Micawber’s dedication and loyalty!