Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Childhood, the ‘Other’

Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Childhood, the ‘Other’

Norbert Blei

One of the mantras I always discuss in workshops with writers is childhood: that treasure trove of experience and memory so endless for story possibilities. It’s all there. Everything a writer will ever need to write his stories.

Another one is the writer divided in himself: you/the character; the observer/the observed; the person/the shadow, etc. However the tale is written or told, there are two (at least) levels of consciousness to contend with.

Going ‘into’ the story is going into yourself. Therein lies both the truth and the fiction. This is Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday. Whether you are a lover of Dickens or not, it is impossible to ignore him. (There would be no Christmas without him.)

Much has been written and said about the man and will continue to be written and said because his legacy to literature is enormous.

For the purposes of this “Once Upon a Time,” devoted to story, I present a couple of thoughts worthy of consideration—by two great writers

Dickens truly found himself at home, alive, duty-bound as a writer to extoll the virtues of childhood. That was a subject, a period of time in his own life that spoke to him like no other. “Whatever you do—hang on to your childhood,” the late Christopher Hitchens relates in a recent piece about Dickens (Vanity Fair, February 2012). Good advice for any writer.

Hitchens also mentions a fascinating historical anecdote concerning a possible meeting between Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Charles Dickens in London.

According to a letter Dostoyevsky wrote to a friend in 1878, the memory recalled went something like this:

“He [Dickens] told me that all the good simple people in his novels. Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge, are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelly, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters; from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.”


  1. Gretchen Maring

    Dickens has always been one of my very favorite writers. I treasure a two volume biography written by Edgar Johnson. It always amazes me that we face the same problems today as the characters in a Dickens’ story did….poverty, discrimination in the work place and social strata as well as problems in the law courts. Your description of his work is spot on!

  2. Carol Doty

    Norb, this is so true. Thanks for sharing.
    And it reminded me of a now-tattered scrap in my files: a faded piece of construction paper with a cartoon of Mr. Micawber, with these hand-written words above: “something will turn up,” and these below: Micawber, our patron saint.” This was tacked up on the basement studio wall of Mary “Marlie” Moulton, who scraped out a living doing what she loved — landscape design and contracting in St. Charles, IL
    — while raising two boys as a single mother. An amazing woman and my chief mentor, she introduced me to Jens Jensen’s work and changed my life. Nice memory.

  3. Alice D'Alessio

    Very interesting Norb. Dickens was indeed beastly to those around him who most needed him. Too bad he couldn’t stuff all his meanness into his characters. I think many of us have this feeling of being at least two people –and a host of others we wish we were. I still have trouble writing characters that think and behave other than the “me” – so familiar and predictable.
    Keep us thinking…

  4. jean

    A very insightful English professor once said that he wanted us to read the novel! “Do not read critiques or life histories or anything else…READ THE NOVEL…It should stand on its own two legs.” With Dickens, this is certainly true. Meeting him pristine in childhood was wonder-filled! I hated the later unpleasant warts and blemishes.

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