I’m 337 pages into my Oxford World’s Classics edition of Dombey and Son. It ends on page 925, which means I’ve read just over a third of the novel. Not all that much has actually happened–a birth, a few trips and some time at school, a misadventure or two, a death–but all of it has has happened at great length.
When people don’t like Dickens, a common complaint, in my experience, is the length of his novels. Just a few days ago–on Dickens’s birthday, in fact–someone I follow on Twitter said decisively that he thinks they are “too long.” I took a deep breath and obeyed Internet Rule #2 (You Don’t Have to Weigh In). I really wanted to, though, because like the question “but is it any good?” the assertion “it’s too long” seems to me to need a lot of unpacking before it means much. Just as “good at what” is the essential follow-up question to the former, surely “too long for what?” is the obvious follow-up question for the latter. Too long for our dwindling attention spans, perhaps? Too long to get through in the time we are able to allot to it? Too long to leave time for all the other books we want to get to? Too long to keep our interest? Aha: now we are moving away from things that might be wrong with us to things that might be wrong with the book itself!
The best kind of explanation for judging a book “too long” is that it is longer than it needed to be to accomplish its own purposes. This doesn’t end the matter, of course, since now we have to explain what we think those purposes are in a way that somehow disentangles them from the only form in which we have ever and will ever encounter them: the novel as is. Still, I think when most of us call a book “too long” (as I’ve certainly done myself) that is what we mean, or think we mean, or want to mean. We’d like to think we would never be negative about a long book just because we aren’t up to the job of reading all of it. No: if we’re finding it too long, if it feels too long to us, it’s the author who has come up short.
I actually don’t know yet if I think Dombey and Son is too long for its purposes. I hardly know what it’s about yet! Reading it, however, especially after seeing that emphatic criticism tossed out on Twitter with such confidence, I have felt very aware of its length. I’ve been thinking about the strategies I suggest to my students when we read Bleak House, which is even longer (976 pages), many of which have to do with managing the information overload that comes with a first exposure to so many characters before you know who really matters or how they are connected, and with multiple unfolding plots that don’t yet have a known shape. My first class or two for any long novel is usually spent providing what I hope will be useful and widely applicable guidelines: look for variations on this theme, think about these kinds of contrasts between characters, pay attention to who does this and who does that. Students need what one critic calls “rules of notice.”
When I taught David Copperfield in the fall, I addressed its length explicitly (the OUP edition is 944 pages). I always talk about length when teaching Middlemarch. “I don’t see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly,” Eliot wrote: that’s a good starting point for discussion about what exactly she is doing and how those purposes make the novel’s scale an important element of its form. (Interestingly, at least in the OUP edition Middlemarch, at 904 pages, is shorter than any of these Dickens novels, though I don’t know if the font size or page layout is standard. It reads longer, I think, perhaps because it demands scrupulous attention in a way that Dickens’s exuberant excesses may not appear to.) With Bleak House, we usually tie the novel’s multiplicities to the scale of its critique: it isn’t about one house or one family or one sad crossing sweeper but about a whole society.
With David Copperfield, though, I found myself wanting to add another consideration, which is the particular ways Dickens makes his novels so long–when he does, because of course he doesn’t always, which is another reason to think about their length as meaningful rather than haphazard or (as those who object to Dickens’s novels as “too long” seem to imply) artistically lazy or inept. A lot of the length in Dickens’s fiction comes from what we might call “riffing.” (Merriam-Webster defines “riff” as “a rapid energetic often improvised verbal outpouring.”) If you’re going to get impatient with Dickens, it is likely to be when he has clearly already made his point, or described his character, or played that particular rhetorical note, but he just keeps on going. And going. And going. “He just can’t stop himself!” expostulates the irritated reader; “I wish he’d just get on with it!”
But why should he stop himself? Dickens is not my favorite novelist, but my favorite thing about him is that it is everywhere obvious in his fiction that he is in love with words: he relishes them and their effects. He has so much fun with them! Think about his description of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner.” Any one (or maybe two) of these adjectives would have done the job, but all seven of them together make such an irresistible mouthful. In my classes on David Copperfield, we considered how his verbal excesses can be seen not just as pleasurable in this way but as representing an anti-Utilitarian aesthetic that values joy and abundance and inclusion over efficiency, that refuses to travel with the ruthless efficiency of a railway straight from Point A to Point B but revels in wandering byways and seeing the sights and having as much fun as possible along the way. It is a critical truth widely (though certainly not universally) acknowledged these days that less is more–but why? “Anyone and everyone taking a writing class,” Nick Hornby wrote (reflecting on his own experience of reading David Copperfield)
knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress. What’s that chinking noise? It’s the sound of the assiduous creative-writing student hitting bone. You can’t read a review of, say, a Coetzee book without coming across the word “spare,” used invariably with approval; I just Googled “J. M. Coetzee + spare” and got 907 hits, almost all of them different.
“Where,” he demands, “would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where.” What a shame that would be! That Dickens’s novels are too long is a feature, not a bug.
I used a railway as my metaphor above because one of the most strikingly redundant but also most remarkable passages of Dombey and Son that I’ve read so far is set on a train. It is not a comic passage, and yet even here, where the subject is grief and selfishness and futility, there’s a quality of joyful exuberance in the writing that carries us–or me, at least–right along:
[Mr Dombey] found no pleasure or relief in the journey. Tortured by these thoughts he carried monotony with him, through the rushing landscape, and hurried headlong, not through a rich and varied country, but a wilderness of blighted plans and gnawing jealousies. The very speed at which the train was whirled along, mocked the swift course of the young life that had been borne away so steadily and so inexorably to its foredoomed end. The power that forced itself upon its iron way—its own—defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.
Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, from the town, burrowing among the dwellings of men and making the streets hum, flashing out into the meadows for a moment, mining in through the damp earth, booming on in darkness and heavy air, bursting out again into the sunny day so bright and wide; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, through the fields, through the woods, through the corn, through the hay, through the chalk, through the mould, through the clay, through the rock, among objects close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the traveller, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly within him: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!
Through the hollow, on the height, by the heath, by the orchard, by the park, by the garden, over the canal, across the river, where the sheep are feeding, where the mill is going, where the barge is floating, where the dead are lying, where the factory is smoking, where the stream is running, where the village clusters, where the great cathedral rises, where the bleak moor lies, and the wild breeze smooths or ruffles it at its inconstant will; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, and no trace to leave behind but dust and vapour: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!
Breasting the wind and light, the shower and sunshine, away, and still away, it rolls and roars, fierce and rapid, smooth and certain, and great works and massive bridges crossing up above, fall like a beam of shadow an inch broad, upon the eye, and then are lost. Away, and still away, onward and onward ever: glimpses of cottage-homes, of houses, mansions, rich estates, of husbandry and handicraft, of people, of old roads and paths that look deserted, small, and insignificant as they are left behind: and so they do, and what else is there but such glimpses, in the track of the indomitable monster, Death!
Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, plunging down into the earth again, and working on in such a storm of energy and perseverance, that amidst the darkness and whirlwind the motion seems reversed, and to tend furiously backward, until a ray of light upon the wet wall shows its surface flying past like a fierce stream. Away once more into the day, and through the day, with a shrill yell of exultation, roaring, rattling, tearing on, spurning everything with its dark breath, sometimes pausing for a minute where a crowd of faces are, that in a minute more are not; sometimes lapping water greedily, and before the spout at which it drinks has ceased to drip upon the ground, shrieking, roaring, rattling through the purple distance!
Louder and louder yet, it shrieks and cries as it comes tearing on resistless to the goal: and now its way, still like the way of Death, is strewn with ashes thickly. Everything around is blackened. There are dark pools of water, muddy lanes, and miserable habitations far below. There are jagged walls and falling houses close at hand, and through the battered roofs and broken windows, wretched rooms are seen, where want and fever hide themselves in many wretched shapes, while smoke and crowded gables, and distorted chimneys, and deformity of brick and mortar penning up deformity of mind and body, choke the murky distance. As Mr Dombey looks out of his carriage window, it is never in his thoughts that the monster who has brought him there has let the light of day in on these things: not made or caused them. It was the journey’s fitting end, and might have been the end of everything; it was so ruinous and dreary.
Is the passage too long? Absolutely, and it’s also extraordinary. There’s something breathtaking, audacious, exhilarating, about its resistance to any economy of words: if you removed “every superfluous word” from these pages, there would be nothing left at all.