Thursday, October 23, 2014

Quote of the Day (Charles Dickens, on Equality Before the Law)

“There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.”― Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby (1839)

The first edition, first printing of Nicholas Nickleby was published by Chapman and Hall on this date 175 years ago today, only three weeks since the last of 19 monthly installments appeared. This third novel by Charles Dickens moved him even more decisively in the direction of social protest begun with Oliver Twist the year before. Again, his concern was with exploited children, this time in a school. His material was inspired by a two-day visit to a Yorkshire boarding school where, every year, at least one pupil died due to mistreatment or neglect.

In a famous essay on Dickens, George Orwell imagined a picture of this literary crusader against injustice--"one of those writers who are well worth stealing":

“He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

Already, in the quote from Nicholas Nickleby, you can see sense the same "generously angry" imagination that would lead Dickens, 14 years on, to castigate another manifestation of injustice and inequality in Victorian England: the law. Great wealth facilitated the mind-boggling delays in justice that provided the subject and central tragedy of Bleak House. But this quote also applies to America today, showing why conservatives should be careful about disclaiming any problems with inequality.

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