Anthony Esolen had an interesting post this past week on the Mere Comments blog about Dickens and his characters. One of the points Dr. Esolen makes is that Dickens is often accused of excess sentimentality, especially in creating characters that are models of feminine virtue. The argument is that there are no such people and it is unrealistic to create them, and perhaps further, amusing to reading them because they are so unbelievable.

Dr. Esolen rightly points out that, just because we who are living in the West today know no virtue, that doesn’t mean that there have never been virtuous people living in the world. He rightly points out that virtue is an all too rare quality among people today. I think, however, that the problem is deeper. There are no characters today because there is precious little authenticity in anything people do; there are no Dickensian characters today because, well, no one thinks he can be a character.

I was just reading in a book on fiction that the emphasis in fiction today is on character and action, rather than scene. This writer thinks that one reason for this is that no one walks much any more. Great writers, such as Dostoyevsky, Balzac, and, yes, Dickens, spent hours walking the streets of the cities they wrote about. The saw the scenes, the people, drank them in, so to speak, and then could write authentically about them. But, because of this, these writers could write about great characters. The scene, and being immersed in it, was a key reason, I think.

Today, few people would even think of taking the time to spend an hour walking around some city closely observing people going about their business. It would be a waste of time, nothing would get done. What could you possibly see down there? They wouldn't have any idea how to profit from such an exercise. We are too shut in on ourselves, in our Blue Tooth enabled cars, cell phones permanently affixed to our ears, waiting for life to come to us. Therefore, we don’t create even mediocre characters of ourselves.

Go back to my post from the other day and read Fr. Boylan’s story about the two men who walked home from work together and said prayers on the way. What two men today would walk home from work together, praying no less? They’d in their cars, windows rolled up, AC on, hitting the Interstate, cursing the inane drivers tying up traffic ahead of them, radio tuned to some talk show or the traffic report. Most wouldn’t even think of praying, much less think of a question like, is it okay to pray while I’m smoking? Fr. Boylan’s story seems silly because you would never see anything like that today; no one would even think of suggesting it. Yet, I bet those two men were truly characters, because they were out in their world, a part of it, in touch with who they were and their position in creation. They were authentic, and authentically human.

Dr. Esolen writes,

This evaluation rings true to me. We could, for experiment, take the words and habits and extraordinary deeds of any number of historical figures, write them up into a narrative, change the names and places, and see if the result would strike the modern reader as utterly implausible or sentimental. For we judge by what we are. With regard to some virtues (chastity, for instance; also modesty, manliness, womanliness, loyalty, obedience) we may be able somehow or other to distinguish the virtue from its parodical vice (prudishness, timorousness, machismo, cattiness, jingoism, and capitulation), but for the most part it's all a drab gray. Some people are color blind; we are virtue-blind. So we think that because we have never seen the bright green of a field in spring, nobody has; or because we have never known a woman whose chastity could overcome more than any "empowered" harlotry can, such women do not exist. Shakespeare puts it nicely: "He that is giddy thinks the world goes round."

We can’t distinguish the authentic from the parody because we’ve never seen the real thing, not only in virtue, but in simple human nature. We are all becoming carbon copies, one of the other, because we don’t know how to be ourselves.

We just don’t know how to be characters.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on March 18, 2006 9:05 AM.

Have a Smoke was the previous entry in this blog.

Apropos of Nothing in Particular is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.