An entire novel built on the symbolic base of giant mounds of dust spilling onto London, at least everywhere but the corpse-filled Thames, does not sound like the production of the sentimental social reformer many readers seem to identify as Charles Dickens. Dickens was a pathos-wringing wrong-righter, yes, that is part of who he was. But he, Dickens-the-author, the only Dickens of any continuing interest, was also crazy, and wrote crazy books. By “crazy” I mean that he was prodigiously inventive, that he had a freakishly capacious and active imagination, and that he was willing to follow his fancies wherever they led him.
Thus: In Dombey and Son (1847), a child dies in a suitably pathetic scene. It really is quite sad. But: the child, by dying, becomes a sea spirit – in fact he dies because the sea has been calling him to itself. The sea spirit is later reincarnated as his own nephew. This is in the novel Dickens wrote.
The villain in Dombey and Son is a kind of human cat. The villain in The Old Curiosity Shop is a fire spirit, some kind of imp. I wrote something many years about the little monster Quilp which still seems to say what I wanted it so say, and more importantly includes the relevant illustrations. A writer always has to demonstrate the villainy of his villains, so Dickens includes a scene in which Quilp torments a chained dog, which we can all admit is terribly cruel. He torments the animal by “taunting the dog with hideous faces.” The monster!
This is the same novel that ends with the apotheosis of sickly sentimentalism, Little Nell’s ascension to heaven in the arms of three little girl angels (in an illustration, granted). Dickens is many things at once, or in succession.
The Old Curiosity Shop is almost too strong for my argument. A formless and almost entirely improvised novel, it allowed Dickens perhaps too much freedom to aimlessly indulge his imagination. In the tightly controlled Bleak House, the craziest moment starts small and builds:
"Why, there's not much air to be got here; and what there is, is not very freshening," Weevle answers, glancing up and down the court.
"Very true, sir. Don't you observe," says Mr. Snagsby, pausing to sniff and taste the air a little, "don't you observe, Mr. Weevle, that you're - not to put too fine a point upon it - that you're rather greasy here, sir?"
"Why, I have noticed myself that there is a queer kind of flavour in the place to-night," Mr. Weevle rejoins. "I suppose it's chops at the Sol's Arms." (Ch. 32)
Ha ha ha ha ick! Some pages go by, discussion and plot. Oh look, there’s the famous candle flame with “a great cabbage head and a long winding-sheet.” Great description but not crazy like:
As he is going to do so again, he happens to look at his coat-sleeve. It takes his attention. He stares at it, aghast.
"Why, Tony, what on earth is going on in this house to-night? Is there a chimney on fire?"
"Chimney on fire!"
"Ah!" returns Mr. Guppy. "See how the soot's falling. See here, on my arm! See again, on the table here! Confound the stuff, it won't blow off - smears like black fat!"
If anyone is wondering, Dickens is a master of the flip from present to past tense, with present used here for typical tension-building reasons. Everyone knows the source of the soot, yes? Or has a good guess. It ain’t the chops.
I am just emphasizing the more extreme side of the superior imagination of Dickens, the part that makes him a forefather of Thomas Pynchon and Salman Rushdie and other writers of the pack it in and see what happens variety. The part that gives characters silly names and that gleefully Goes Too Far at times; the part that is a little crazy.