In Dickens’ novels the problems of suffering in the form of poverty, tragedy, and injustice receive their greatest relief from simple, humble, lowly characters with kind, compassionate, and charitable hearts—not from wealthy benefactors, social agencies, or doles from government welfare. Portraying the hardheartedness of the powerful, the avaricious, and the callous in the cold and impersonal world of the Industrial Revolution, Dickens simultaneously depicts the enormous resources of goodness in the graciousness of human hearts that practice love of neighbor and extend the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to the destitute, lonely, and downtrodden. In a competitive society ruled by the laissez faire policies of social Darwinism and the survival of the fittest where the end justifies the means and self-interest dictates the economy, Dickens finds the only sources of humanity in the unspoiled, uncorrupted hearts of the innocent and the pure of heart.
In Hard Times, for example, the educated class of utilitarians represented by Mr. Gradgrind and his pupils, the wealthy captains of industry like Mr. Bounderby, and the sophisticated aristocrats like Mr. James Harthouse take no interest in the plight of the unfortunate, the overworked, or the underpaid “hands” that suffer the dehumanizing work in the mills and factories. Contemptuous of the laboring class and indifferent to the plight of all the victims in the labor force in their desperate economic struggle to earn a meager livelihood, the worldly prosperous, aristocratic, and educated classes of Dickens’ England provide no succor or hope to the afflicted. Only in the bonds of friendship and charity and in the personal relationships that unite ordinary people in their common decency and appreciation of the human touch of kindness do the heartbroken and mistreated experience hope and joy and find deliverance from the oppression that burdens them.
Ironically, in this novel and in many of his works Dickens presents common folk who lack political power, social prominence, or educational advantages as the greatest sources of human goodness. They make a profound difference in the lives of all whom they touch. In Hard Times Mr. Sleary and Sissy Jupe, circus performers shunned for their idle lives as useless, unproductive members of a profession that contributes nothing to an industrial economy, perform works of mercy for the victims of a utilitarian education ruled by self-interest. In Great Expectations the blacksmith Joe Gargery cares for his young orphan brother-in-law Pip with more affection than Pip’s disgruntled, querulous sister complaining of her hard lot of raising her brother “by hand.” Joe blesses Pip with more charity and fatherly care than the anonymous benefactor (an escaped criminal) who selects Pip as the beneficiary of his wealth with the promise of “great expectations” for the favor of once bringing the fugitive prisoner a file.
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In David Copperfield, likewise, the characters who perform the greatest corporal and spiritual works of mercy are the humble, innocent, and unworldly who bless others with the gift of a lifetime of kindness, the loyalty of true friendship, a loving home for orphan children, the constant love that endures all the vicissitudes of time and fortune, or the light of hope and balm of comfort in life’s greatest sorrows. Mr. Peggotty, an honest fisherman who lives in a quaint boat house, cares for his orphaned niece and nephew and an elderly widow with the greatest fatherly love and hospitality. David pays him the greatest praise:”and if ever I have loved and honored any man, I loved and honored that man in my soul.” The fisherman’s sister Peggotty, a servant in David’s family, remains as devoted to David as an aunt or grandmother after David’s young mother’s death leaves him an orphan in a state of desolate loneliness subjected to a heartless step-father, a cruel schoolmaster, and the misery of child labor in a bottling factory. David says of Peggotty, “I felt the truth and constancy of my old dear nurse, with all my heart, and thanked her as well as I could.” He commends her as “The truest, the most faithful, most devoted, and most self-denying friend and servant in the world.” These generous hearts give food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and comfort to the sorrowful.
Aunt Betsey Trotwood, David’s eccentric aunt who resented the announcement of a nephew when she was expecting a niece at David’s birth, adopts David, affords him a hospitable home, and provides for his education out of the goodness of her maternal heart when he implores her to rescue him from a cruel step-father and the misery of child labor. Mr. Dick, a childlike simpleton not in his right mind whom his family attempted to confine to an asylum, lives a contented life in a loving home under the care of Aunt Betsey. David, touched by her kindness for the gentle old man, senses the tenderness of his severe aunt’s compassionate heart for the unfortunate and unwanted, thinking to himself “I must say that the generosity of her friendship of poor harmless Mr. Dick, not only inspired my young breast with some selfish hope for myself, but warmed it unselfishly towards her.” A boy adopted by an aunt rather than institutionalized and a daft old man welcomed into a home rather than sent to an asylum redeem the impersonal coldness of an uncaring world that loses its reverence for the young and the elderly.
Mr. Dick, surprisingly, also performs a work of mercy (“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God”) when he reconciles a married couple that appears estranged because of rumor, misunderstanding, and conflict of interests. The young Annie Markleham, married to Dr. Strong, an older schoolmaster and friend of her deceased father who offered his hand in marriage as an act of generous friendship to the family—a willingness to protect and provide for Annie in his role of both husband and father figure—rouses suspicion in many minds. While Annie’s mother encouraged this match with the ulterior motive of Annie inheriting the fortune of her husband upon his death and then marrying her childhood sweetheart Jack Maldon, Annie remains innocent of her mother’s mercenary intentions and devious plot. As gossip spreads about the strange relationship between the young woman and her elderly husband, Dr. Strong shows signs of regret and guilt for asking for the hand of a woman whose youthful energy and active social life do not coincide with his quiet scholarly habits. Annie too, sensing the awkwardness of the situation, feels a sense of failure in not living up to the expectations for a dutiful wife.
Mr. Dick, detecting the problem, intercedes, refusing to ignore the issue because it is “too delicate a difficult a subject” and explaining that “a simpleton, a weak-minded person—present company, you know! … may do what wonderful people may not do. I’ll bring them together, boy. I’ll try. They’ll not blame me.” With childlike innocence he asks what no one dares to ask: “Why has she done nothing to set things right?” and “Why has he done nothing to set things right?” By addressing Dr. Strong with directness—“Doctor! … What is it that’s amiss? Look here!”—Mr. Dick removes all the silence and embarrassment that complicates the situation and removes all the hesitation that prevents honest heart to heart communication between husband and wife to eliminate all the suspicions and questions that surround their marriage. “The unfortunate division” between husband and wife that everyone notices but no one addresses, Mr. Dick heals in his childlike candor and ingenuous good will. Indebted to Mr. Dick, Annie breaks the cold reserve and restores the love of husband and wife: “O my husband and father, break this long silence. Let us both know what has come between us!”
Mr. Micawber, the improvident, unemployed father of a large family who suffers temporary punishment in debtors’ prison for his negligence, risks his livelihood as a legal assistant to Uriah Heep to rescue the Wickfield family from the machinations of the cunning lawyer’s forgery of documents. When he exposes the fraud of Heep’s embezzlement of the money of clients, he saves the home and fortune of the innocent victims of his crime. Heep had assumed that the feckless Micawber would submit to Heep’s orders “on the baseness of my nature, the cupidity of my motives, the poverty of my family, the general moral (or rather immoral) resemblance between myself and—Heep.” Despite his penury Micawber’s moral integrity and human dignity resisted all the temptations of money and bribery, all “the pecuniary advances toward the support of Mrs. Micawber, and our blighted but rising family.” In Dickens’ novels the greatest acts of goodness, sacrifice, and charity come from the bountiful hearts of kind people who have not lost their humanity in the cold, impersonal world that surrounds them.
Many characters in the novel suffer desolation and despair from the betrayal of love or from the tragedy of death. Emily, Mr. Peggotty’s adopted daughter, elopes with the dashing James Steerforth, an affluent aristocrat who promises to make her a lady and rescue her from the narrow lot of a fisherman’s wife. He soon abandons Emily and loses interest in marriage after he exploits her for his pleasure. Disgraced and rejected, Emily suffers the greatest guilt in breaking the hearts of Mr. Peggotty and her fiancé Ham by surrendering to Steerforth’s temptation. Too ashamed to return home, Emily wanders through the world as a lost, helpless soul on the verge of despair. Her deliverance comes from Martha, a friend from childhood who has suffered a similar fate. Searching throughout England and abroad for Emily to offer forgiveness and mercy but fearing her death, Mr. Peggotty does not find his missing daughter until David recognizes Martha in the poorest district of London. Following Martha as she wanders to the river, Mr. Peggotty and David finally call her name when they realize she is about to commit suicide by identifying with the river. “Oh, the river!” Martha cries, “I know I belong to it. I know it’s the natural company of such as I am!”—a scene that makes Mr. Peggotty imagine the possible tragic fate of Emily and that moves David to utter, “I have never known what despair was, except in the tone of those words.” The recognition, care, and trust of old friends make the difference between despair and hope in Martha’s case. Mr. Peggotty and David perform a spiritual work of mercy in comforting the sorrowful.
The compassion of Mr. Peggotty and David that saves Martha from suicide inspires profound gratitude for their intercession and inspires her to seek and find Emily. Committed to performing her own act of mercy, Martha resolves to do all in her power to bring hope to the sorrowful father and deliver a childhood friend from the brink of abject misery and tragic death. When David offers to reward her for her efforts, Martha resists compensation because the trust confided in her is the greatest blessing she could have received: “I could not do what I have promised, for money…. I could not take it, if I was starving. To give me money would be to take away your trust … to take away the only thing that saves me from the river.” Moved by Martha’s grateful heart and loving response to serve old friends pleading for help, David sees the depths of a simple person’s capacity for great goodness and acts of mercy: “We can all do some good, if we will.”
David himself undergoes the trial of the dark night of the soul when his young wife dies early in their marriage. Traveling to the Alps to find relief from his great sorrow and broken heart, David finds that his sense of desolation only magnifies as he laments his profound loss, “all that had been shattered … the whole airy castle of my life—of all that remained—a ruined blank and waste, lying wide around me, unbroken, to the dark horizon.” Carrying the enormous weight of his sadness throughout his travels and finding no relief, David cannot imagine any form of alleviation: “and I said it my heart it could never be lightened.” David confesses that in the worst throes of grief, “I believed that I should die.” During this crisis David receives a letter from Agnes Wickfield, his beloved childhood companion and dearest friend during his school days at Dr. Strong’s academy whom he considered his “good angel.” Her letter brings balm to his soul and dispels his despair, lifting his spirits with words of hope and consolation: “She knew that in me, sorrow could not be weakness, but must be strength, As the endurance of my childish days had done its part to make me what I was, so greater calamities would nerve me on, to be yet better than I was.” Agnes’ thoughtfulness in thinking of David’s grief and writing to him in his great need and loneliness awakens in him the fond memories of his boyhood that he and Agnes enjoyed in their mutual confidence and special bond of brother and sister as they called it.
On the basis of this letter David returns home to England from wandering abroad for three years. From a state of despair and loss, David learns to rejoice in life again in the awakening of his love for Agnes and a new hope for the future: “If she had ever loved me, could I believe that she could love me now?” What the sights and scenes of the sublime mountains and beautiful lakes of the Alps could not heal in three years, the exquisitely human touch of a personal letter from a beloved friend with the kindness of a gracious heart relieves instantaneously. All the corporal and spiritual works of mercy possess this great healing power. The greatest good comes from the smallest of acts. The greatest expressions of love come from the simplicity of pure hearts. The smallest gestures of good will change a person’s life. Ordinary persons like common fishermen, eccentric aunts, kind men and women, old acquaintances, and dear friends possess boundless sources of human goodness that radiate from their humanity and godlike hearts. These human touches become the light of the world and the salt of the earth, bringing warmth and savor to the cold commercial world and healing the broken heart in the tragedies of life. As Emily writes in a letter to David and Mr. Peggotty, “When I find what you are and what uncle is, I think what God must be, and can cry out to him.”