Dickens knew hunger and it shows.

Charles Dickens knew about hunger and poverty first-hand from his childhood in the workhouse, debtors prison and boot blacking warehouse. The stark, ugly reality can be felt in his work. In this passage from a Tale of Two Cities the pervasive shadow of hunger covers all. The poor are always stalked by the spectre of hunger and Dickens allows the reader to feel it.

The mill which had worked them down, was the mill that grinds young people old; the children had ancient faces and grave voices; and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sigh, Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomics in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.

Its abiding place was in all things fitted to it. A narrow winding street, full of offence and stench, with other narrow winding streets diverging, all peopled by rags and nightcaps, and all smelling of rags and nightcaps, and all visible things with a brooding look upon them that looked ill. In the hunted air of the people there was yet some wild-beast thought of the possibility of turning at bay. Depressed and slinking though they were, eyes of fire were not wanting among them; nor compressed lips, white with what they suppressed; nor foreheads knitted into the likeness of the gallows-rope they mused about enduring, or inflicting. The trade signs (and they were almost as many as the shops) were, all, grim illustrations of Want. The butcher and the porkman painted up, only the leanest scrags of meat; the baker, the coarsest of meagre loaves. The people rudely pictured as drinking in the wine-shops, croaked over their scanty measures of thin wine and beer, and were gloweringly confidential together. Nothing was represented in a flourishing condition, save tools and weapons; but, the cutler’s knives and axes were sharp and bright, the smith’s hammers were heavy, and the gunmaker’s stock was murderous. The crippling stones of the pavement, with their many little reservoirs of mud and water, had no footways, but broke off abruptly at the doors. 

2 thoughts on “Dickens knew hunger and it shows.

  1. Ron Robertson

    What a terrifyingly vivid picture, wondering if I would ever survive in such a world, it’s enough to disturb one’s every night’s sleep, and yet almost apologetically, ever grateful for the relative comfort I am privileged to enjoy. It’s probably one of the key reasons why so many of us shy away from the harsh realities of hunger and grinding poverty.
    I hope this new season of your journey will be a time of healing and a softening of your soul after having been exposed to such harsh realities for so long. May the peace of the Lord be your
    daily bread.

  2. Ray Buchanan Post author

    I agree, Ron. The picture Dickens paints is horrifying. But, that’s the world the majority of our family lives in every day. It should be disturbing. If it isn’t that says something significant about our values, don’t you think?

    And thanks for the kind words. I am really enjoying teaching, and being back in a pastoral setting has been far more rewarding than I had imagined.

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