‘Dickensian’

There’s a scene in the film Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams, cast as grieving widower and psychiatrist, finally breaks through to his difficult patient, the polymathic but troubled Will Hunting. It’s a long speech and well-known but the gist of it is – how can one person understand the unique suffering of another (such as being an orphan), just because they’ve read Oliver Twist? Now Dickens is not an author I have read or read around voluminously (though I have read Oliver Twist) – he’s such a towering figure that I’m happy to leave him to the endless exegetical droves of academics who own him and those who genuinely enjoy his writing. However, I can’t stop myself viscerally cringing when someone describes something as ‘Dickensian’ – it’s the linguistic equivalent of putting a nice, perfectly serviceable car into the crusher, surely? All complexity and social critique of the artist and their work is squashed into a lazy little adjective connoting poverty and slum-like living conditions. It’s rather like presuming you know what it is to be an orphan because you’ve read Oliver Twist.

Now, I don’t think of myself as a particularly dogmatically prescriptivist linguist but the word ‘Dickensian’ annoys me. Poverty and squalor in the 21st century should not exist, and to merely compartmentalise them as ‘Dickensian’ seems to me almost wicked in its facile-ness. And of course Kafka gets bandied about too as a by-word for excessive bureaucracy, without little attention to the political conditions under which Kafka himself had to write and work. Maybe I’m an essentialist stick-in-the-mud – the misuse of the term ‘surreal’ also gets my dander up, when used in this sort of context: ‘I was in McDonalds stuffing my face when in walked Ed Sheeran, it was so surreal’. Did he happen to be dragging some priests, dead donkeys and a grand piano alongside him at the time, were there ants crawling out of a stigmata-like wound in his hand? No, didn’t think so… so it wasn’t surreal, was it? I did a blog a while back where I discussed my aversion to the misuse of the term ‘poetic’ in order to sell products. But there are so many words like it that are misappropriated and abused by marketers – ‘bohemian’, for instance, a word so misapplied and ubiquitous that it has lost all meaning. The money making machine seems to covet, above all (apart from more money), the terms of resistance to that very capitalist culture – like a ceremonial sullying and debasing of the word in marketing campaigns so it is neutralised of its threat to said culture.

Perhaps words like ‘Orwellian’ or ‘Dickensian’ are a symptom that books by these authors have reached a terminal stage, a Twitterati epoch where the synopsis needs to fit into a tiny little text box. Does it mean their works are no longer being read because some wise old soul has extracted the very essence of their message in the adjectives ‘Dickensian’ and ‘Orwellian’? Or am I committing a ‘thought-crime’ to even suggest this?

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