Doing Justice to Good and Evil: Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens


May 27, 2019

There are not many things more enjoyable than opening up a book and finding a character named Simon Tappertit. One will only encounter this joy, however, if the book he picks up is Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens.

He will find there, indeed, not only joy, but sorrow. He will find gallantry, loyalty, simple goodness, and also hypocrisy, treachery, and bigotry. He will stop many times at the Maypole, the jolliest tavern with the freshest lemons, most gleaming kettles, coziest nooks, best beer, and greatest abundance of pipes to smoke away an evening amongst all these other pleasures. He will encounter characters to freeze his blood, and several to warm his heart again, including a swearing raven. This book, like the old tavern-fare we read about in it, is good, hearty, and sustaining. It is for the whole of the soul and body, and it would be wrong to reduce it to one particular theme or meaning. But if one was to try and, not reduce, but present the book according to one theme, it seems to this reviewer that the best point of reference to seek would be justice. By the end of this book, just as at the end of real life, every character receives either a justice that exactly suits his or her deserts, or a mercy, made possible by justice, that suits his or her contrition.

Take for, example, the True Lovers. (I mean, of course, the good men who are in love. In this story, the women they love are not true in the same way and to the same degree as the men who love them. This is not the place to discuss Dickens’s characterization of women, or the general potential of women for heroism in love in a different but equally beautiful way). Both work for their love in patience and fortitude and receive the just wages for this labor. However, both have to atone in various ways for real offences, one for the sin of his father and the other for a kind of violence toward his father. Dickens shows as clear a realism as any Aristotle or Aquinas: one may not be personally culpable for his offense, but his offense must be atoned for.

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Given the strict reckoning demanded of these men, it is not surprising that each of the False Lovers are confronted with miserable fates. Though each is confronted, however, not each perishes. One repents, after a fashion, and is able to pursue a somewhat happy life afterward. This mercy is only available to him, however, after three things occur. First, punishment: he is crippled. Second, he seeks forgiveness. Third, he is forgiven by the man he offended. Thus, Dickens makes it clear that mercy is only possible in the context of justice.

For Dickens, justice does not distinguish based on sex. The two women, loved by the two True Lovers, each in her own way spurns true love and then faces trials which she could have avoided by being less coquettish or more trusting in goodness and good people. Having endured the punishments which ensued from their faults, they receive mercy when they request it.

Certainly, it is only natural that if justice must be satisfied by the heroes and heroines of this drama, it will be furious and sure in its retribution to the great villains. Indeed, Barnaby Rudge features some of the most memorable villains of Dickens’s authorship, so menacing and threatening that they seem capable of filling a hundred books. One is an uncanny blind man; let the potential reader beware meeting him, for if he does, he may never again see the fingers of a blind person without shuddering. Another great villain is a kind of Cain, perhaps one of the best depictions in literature of both the malice and the impotence of evil at once. Both of these terrifying figures strangely, and very fittingly, meet their end in the mediocrity that evil ultimately deserves.

Of course, as this is a Dickens novel, we must expect that justice will come strictly though slowly to the hypocrites. Of course, it is true that every evil person, in this book as well as in life, is a kind of hypocrite, and Dickens attentively points out how the blind man and the Cain just mentioned are truly hypocrites, men who seem while not being. But there are two other villains in this drama who are not merely hypocrites, but whose characteristic sin is hypocrisy; men who rejoice in falseness like a virtuous man rejoices in the truth. The violence of the sin of hypocrisy towards justice is well-illustrated by Dickens early on. He places these men in the genus of “Despisers of mankind,” and then identifies them as the worst species: “They who believe their merit neglected, and unappreciated, make up one class; they who receive adulation and flattery, knowing their own worthlessness, compose the other. Be sure that the coldest-hearted misanthropes are ever of this last order.” Fittingly, the villains of “this last order” suffer as worthless deaths that can be imagined, a just payment for their misanthropy (despising the very image of God which one shares with other men).

There are two good characters who are particularly enjoyable as characters. As with the True Lovers, one might argue that their sufferings are not so much to be attributed to personal moral shortcomings, but rather the faults of family members. And this is justice too; evil, whether intended or not, must be remediated, and sometimes the burden, which the perpetrator refuses to shoulder, falls on the innocent of their flesh and blood. But this justice may be borne with a cheery demeanor and a sturdy soul, as these men do in Barnaby Rudge.

It is fitting to wrap up this consideration of justice in Barnaby Rudge by joining it to a closer consideration of character. On one hand, we must consider Dickens as the unparalleled genius, of all time, in the creation of characters (moral agents in a fictional work). On the other hand, Dickens is an apt perceiver of the character of these characters (their moral makeup and resilience), making sure that their actions and ends, always fit the kind of people they are. People who are vain punish themselves with their vanity. People who are selfish and bitter gnaw at their own souls even more greedily than they do the souls of others. And because of the life that Dickens breathes into even such characters as these, an additional justice is served, and that is the delight of the reader in seeing such vividly drawn grotesques serve the divine order by the contrast they lend to the good.

Feed and refresh your and your family’s souls with this tavern-quality justice. Quaff long draughts of reality from the imagination of this great author. Become acquainted with good people becoming better, bad people repenting, and how ludicrous evil people can be as they come to an evil end. Then do justice and laugh justly.


  • Paul Joseph Prezzia

    Paul Joseph Prezzia received his M.A. in History from the University of Notre Dame in 2012. He now teaches at Gregory the Great Academy and lives in Scranton with his wife and child.

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