Charles Dickens: the uses of time
Charles Dickens: The Uses of Time clarifies the antinomies that appear in Dickens's attitudes toward the past, present, and future. To do this, author James E. Marlow follows Dickens's personal and literary development through all his novels and many of his letters and journalistic pieces. For example, toward the past Dickens reveals diametrically opposing attitudes. A part of his own childhood was so painful a memory to him that he could not bring himself to tell his wife about it after twenty years of marriage. In his novels he developed a number of ways of dealing with the awful pasts, both personal and national. From denial to anger to acceptance, Dickens tried one method after another. As each failed to relieve his anguish, and even failed to rescue human feelings, he formulated another. This is what Marlow calls Dickens's "dialectic of the past."
Yet Dickens was also nostalgic about much of the past. He emphasized its softening quality even while trying to disarm its dehumanizing quality. With his characters Dickens discovered the necessity of an engagement with the past that entails accepting the pain as well as the joy. This is its use. The past is abused when the pain or joy is disentangled from the whole and held up as meaning in itself. This act orphans the feelings, petrifying the soul.
What is true of the past is true of the present and future as well. Just as one chapter of the book is devoted to the abuse of the past and another to its uses, a further chapter shows the way Dickens worked through the terrors of the present, dominated by an ideology that the author calls "English cannibalism." Another chapter shows the threat of moral sclerosis through dealing with the future as merely "great expectations." These chapters are paired with chapters that show the joys of the present and future. With each time period there is a dialectical process: Dickens had to work through a stance, discover its deficiencies, and then move on to another stance that promised to provide more human gain, both social and personal, from the past, present, and future. Ultimately, the very existence of three dimensions of time is the solace of man, because while the past, for example, can be used for relief of the present, the present can modify and soften the past. All is fluid, and nothing is ever finished in the process between mind and human events.
In the last chapter Marlow established the kind of material world that Dickens's dialectic of time presupposed. It is a world with moral foundations, and Dickens, like many other Victorians, discovered a plausible, scientific explanation for such a world in Charles Babbage's Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a book that seeks to harmonize scientific knowledge with moral imperatives. This satisfies Dickens's own project perfectly, for Dickens wished to demonstrate the possibilities of engagements with each dimension of time, within the requirements of social life, that do not annihilate the moral properties necessary for the soul to harmonize with God's universe itself.