The OF Blog: Is J.K. Rowling becoming the next Charles Dickens?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Is J.K. Rowling becoming the next Charles Dickens?

After finishing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince last night, I was struck more and more by the reactions that readers at wotmania had regarding the final chapters. There was a mixture of surprise, alarm, sadness, and anger. Almost the whole gamut of human emotions were on display in these posts relating their interactions with the story. For those readers, Rowling's book was not just a well-told story, but something more, something more important to them than the words printed on paper and bound together.

Every so often, books appear that capture national or even international attention. Although the stories and characters may be different, although the setting and style may bear scant semblence to one another, there is just something, some je ne sais quoi, that links the story, the readers, and the time the story is written. Whether we are talking about the decadence of the Jazz Age/Weimar Era and how Thomas Mann (in The Magic Mountain), Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), or especially F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby; Tender is the Night) or if we focus on the Victorians or the Beat writers or even 'children stories' such as Where the Red Fern Grows, some of the best authors have managed to create memorable and moving scenes that last beyond their immediate times to create immemorial images that have burned their way into our collective consciousness.

Judging by the way Harry Pottermania has struck the globe, from the books, the movies, the action figures, and other miscellaneous objects, one would be hard pressed to think of an author who has managed to have such a cultural impact on the world. However, there is one author from the past who comes to mind, one whose importance has only grown as we draw ever further away from his Victorian abode: one Charles Dickens.

When I thought about Rowling in conjunction with Dickens, I was not thinking about sales figures, the quaint turns of speech both employ to draw in the reader, or even the sometimes brilliantly insightful commentaries buried within large amounts of dross, but instead on how well each has managed to connect the reader to the events taking place in the book that he or she might be reading at the time. One Dickens story in particular reminds me so much of the current discussions involving the latest Harry Potter book: The Old Curiosity Shop. While this story is not as famous as Oliver Twist ("Please sir, I want more.") or A Christmas Carol, in its day, this serialized novel about a picturesque shop and the little girl Nell moved people. Whether it was due to the quaintness of the shop settings or the humaneness of Nell or something else, The Old Curiosity Shop was a runaway bestseller not just in Dickens's native Britain, but also in the fledgling United States. Every month at ports along the American Atlantic seaboard, there would be large crowds of people gathered around one reading scenes from the latest installment of Dickens's latest masterpiece. They would laugh at the oddness of some of the characters, or smile as Nell's sweetness came on display, but one day they received a shocking installment: Nell had become sick.

While they waited, there were debates as to whether or not Nell would survive and if things would continue along their merry way toward a happy ending. But Dickens surprised people by having Nell die. From London to Scotland to the American frontier, tens of thousands of people read her deathbed scene and her passing away and they just bawled. Imagine grown men today just breaking down and crying because a little girl died. Yet somehow, her fictional death, when placed amongst the greater backdrop of what was transpiring in a rapidly industrializing Britain, with its exploited boys and girls dying in great numbers from work injuries or from diseases such as cholera or smallpox, came to symbolize just how cruel and capricious this world could be.

It was this image that popped into my head as I read the final 100 pages of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. While I will not spoil what happens there, I can say that it appears that Rowling has taken quite bit of Dickens's purpose to heart: she has worked very hard over six books to create something that moves the spirit. It is as if she was holding up a mirror for us to gaze into, letting us see again, as if anew, just how unfair this world can be. The Harry Potter series is rapidly becoming much more than 'just' a series for children. There are moments in the past two books that invoke a much darker, more worried world behind the whismical fantasy backdrop. Perhaps we are reading a series worthy of the post 9/11 or post 3/11 or post 7/7 world, one in which children and adults can suffer, can grieve, and yet still can love and carry on.

Maybe it is time to just come to terms with the notion that J.K. Rowling has created something that is much more than the sum of its parts. And in that, she might truly become like Charles Dickens.


Anonymous said...

Interesting thought. I can just see school kids one hundred years from now dreading having to read Harry Potter and write reports. I must admit, I am not a huge Dickens fan, but I expect this is because I was made to read his books. I do enjoy A Christmas Carol and re-read it every year. Sound like I should check out The Old Curiosity Shop. I agree with your parallels. Rowling's books can be viewed as serial releases of one large novel. She has clearly captured our imagination. The books are touching us on many levels. They are well written, but they are not intimidating. She is writing about good and evil, and about making choices. These are important themes that decide who we are. From what I remember, Dickens touched on these themes in several of his books as well. Writing interesting characters, tapping into the current times and culture and the basic themes of who we are seems to be a good formulae for a succesful novel.
Of course it helps when you can write as well as these two, and add some humor now and then as well.

Danae said...

Well, I don't think Rowling is the only one who gets the Dickens badge, then. Loads of other writers have had their share of the you-can't-let-that-one-die reaction. Some have caved ("Nah, I killed the professor and climbed a cliff or two. You'd've figured it out if you'd applied your brain to it - it was quite elementary") and some have not (Ok, she can live now, but let her fade away later in the book where the others get married)...

I guess with JKR the surprise is that she seemed to conciously, initially, aim at children. So when she moved on, not for a new audience, but rather with her characters, it was a bit unexpected, so this whole range of people got swept along before they really saw it coming. Now they're stuck with her, and she with them.

She's writing a beautiful world - her background minor arcana are wonderfully detailed - and well-thought out humanities to work in that world. Of course we respond! But the Dickens part... she's becoming the next JKR. You've mentioned things like this yourself, Larry: Fantasy ain't mainstream, and it does things differently, even when its basic themes are the same. And to start comparisons at this point, instead of when she first began writing, is to pigeon-hole both writers (and so many of the others you mentioned) a bit too tightly for fairness. Methinks.

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Malkster said...

Feeling lonely... nice.

But Charles? No way. Rowlings doesn't have the depth of humanity that Chuck did. Love him or hate him he certainly wrote clearly regarding that sad part of humanity called despair.

Rowlings has been dealing with preteen and teen angst. I've enjoyed it but fail to see great and far reaching depths to her characters.

And you know that I'm no Lit-Snob.

Anonymous said...

Judge for yourself. Here's another great site with stories by Charles Dickens.

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