The Pain of Childhood Suffering Never Left Charles Dickens: A Psychoanalytical Study – I

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The theme of the Autobiographical Fragment is the child’s expulsion from Eden, a fall from grace into poverty, neglect, shame, and despair. Written more than twenty years after the event, the Autobiographical Fragment poignantly captures the feelings of confusion, disbelief, and helplessness Dickens experienced as a youth. The narration is clearly from a child’s point of view. Time did not soften the impact of the experience. Dickens blamed his parents for taking him out of school and forcing him to endure degrading factory work. Here’s a psychoanalytical study of Dickens, based on his childhood experience, by Prof. Ashoka, in the first part of the eight-part study. A Different Truths exclusive.

Of all the stories Charles Dickens wrote, none is more haunting than the Autobiographical Fragment. John Forster, Dickens’ closest friend and biographer, records how he once asked the novelist a question about an acquaintance who claimed to have seen him working as a boy in a warehouse. Forster concluded, from   Dickens’ prolonged silence, that he had unintentionally touched upon a painful memory.  Weeks later, Dickens acknowledged that he could never forget the childhood experience, which continued to distress him to the present day. Shortly afterwards, in 1845 or 1846, Dickens wrote the Autobiographical Fragment, in which he poured forth the details of the infamous experience working in Warren’s Blacking Warehouse. Forster published the Autobiographical Fragment soon after Dickens’ death, in 1870. Only then did Dickens’ wife and children learn about the event.

The details of the story are by now legendary. John Dickens was a kind-hearted but irresponsible individual, who always seemed to be precipitating a financial crisis.  Priding himself on his middle-class respectability, he raised his oldest son to be a “gentleman,” but the dream cruelly shattered when the family moved to London, in 1823, forcing Charles to discontinue his schooling. Two days after his twelfth birthday, he was sent to work pasting labels on blacking pots in a warehouse owned by a distant relative.  A few days later John Dickens was arrested and sent to the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison, where his large family, except for Charles, was allowed to move in with him. The boy continued to work in the warehouse ten hours a day, from Monday morning to Saturday night. He lived apart from his family, in a dangerous and depressing lodging house. He felt utterly abandoned by them, receiving neither financial nor emotional assistance. “No advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no support, from anyone that I can call to mind, so help me God.” The six shillings he earned a week were barely enough to pay for his food, and sometimes he roamed the streets with other hungry children. He continued to toil in the warehouse even after his father was released from prison, though by this time the family’s financial situation had improved. Only when the father argued with the owner of Warren’s Blacking was the boy taken from work and allowed to return to school. Though Dickens could not remember how long he worked in the blacking warehouse, Edgar Johnson estimates that it was no more than five months, at most. “But that had nothing to do with what it seemed to the child, or with the lasting impression it made upon the man. The boy had no way of knowing when his bondage there would ever end, or if it would ever end, and he was in a state of absolute despair.”

The theme of the Autobiographical Fragment is the child’s expulsion from Eden, a fall from grace into poverty, neglect, shame, and despair. Written more than twenty years after the event, the Autobiographical Fragment poignantly captures the feelings of confusion, disbelief, and helplessness Dickens experienced as a youth. The narration is clearly from a child’s point of view. Time did not soften the impact of the experience. “It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age,” Dickens writes. “It is wonderful to me, that, even after my descent into the poor little drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion enough on me—a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally” . Dickens blamed his parents for taking him out of school and forcing him to endure degrading factory work. In his view, they seemed to be perfectly satisfied with him working night and day in the warehouse, even if that meant the end of his hope to educate himself and rise in the world. “My father and mother were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge”

Indeed, the Autobiographical Fragment dramatises the boy’s shattered pride and self-esteem, his horrified disbelief that his parents could so easily sacrifice him to shore up their own failing resources. The anguish in Dickens’ voice over the impossibility of attending university anticipates the situation of another figure I will be discussing, Jude Fawley, who is denied entrance into his beloved Christminster (Oxford). But Jude is older and more self-reliant when he realizes that he is locked out of the university system. For all his despair, Jude never experiences the brutal working conditions of the Industrial Revolution.  Dickens, on the other hand, suffered unspeakable humiliation by the contrast between his past happiness and present gloom:

No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship; compared these everyday associates with those of my happier childhood; and felt my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my breast. The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing away from me, never to be brought back any more; cannot be written. My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children;  even that  I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life.

Was Dickens exaggerating the severity of the blacking warehouse experience, blaming his parents for an economic system that oppressed countless other children and adults? He had no particular reason to distort the experience since he did not expect the Autobiographical Fragment to see the light of day. Nevertheless, we know that all narratives, including those that claim to be objective or autobiographical, contain elements of unreliability. Childhood memories, furthermore, are subject to particular distortion in later life. The recent controversy over Freud’s seduction theory, for example, has highlighted the vexing problem of separating fact from fiction, historical from psychological reality.

Two recent critical studies suggest that, whatever the historical reality might have been, Dickens indeed held his parents, particularly his mother, responsible for his humiliating childhood experience. In Dickens and Women (1983), Michael Slater points out the inconsistency between Dickens’ bitterness toward his mother in the Autobiographical Fragment and the lack of corroborating evidence found either in his letters or in reminiscences of him by others. Based on a reading of theAutobiographical Fragment, Slater concludes that an “enduring sense of horrified dismay and ultimate betrayal —such feelings as these must, at the deepest level, have been those of Dickens towards his mother for the rest of his life.” These feelings, Slater continues, surface in the long line of bad mothers who appear in Dickens’ stories. Gwen Watkins’ psychoanalytic study, Dickens in Search of Himself (1987), similarly argues that, although there is no way to discover from actual biographical evidence whether Dickens was the child of a neglectful mother, this is precisely the theme that emerges from his fictional writings.  Both critics agree that Dickens believed he was raised by a mother unable to give him the love and support he needed.

Excerpt from Self-Love in Literature, by Professor Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

(To be continued)

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.