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In Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens takes the reader on a journey through London using language mastery and different literary stylistic devices. The reader can tell that the city’s untidiness inspired Dickens to write this work. On numerous occasions, the author sounds disoriented as he tours the city of London. The story is mostly descriptive and the speaker starts by narrating the “appearance presented by the streets of London an hour before sunrise on a summer’s morning” (Dickens 38). This paper discusses the ways in which the experience of feeling disoriented or claustrophobic in London has been depicted by considering the ways in which London’s untidiness has inspired Sketched by Boz by Charles Dickens.
In the eyes of Dickens, London is a messy place whether in the morning or at night. This disorderliness spreads from the street corners, through business establishments and transport systems to institutions, such as criminal courts. Dickens seems disoriented and lost in the murkiness of the city. During the summer, one would expect the sunrise to bring liveliness and radiate happiness as people wake up to pursue their dreams across the city unless someone is claustrophobic. However, Dickens paints a dull picture of London on a summer’s morning. He states, “There is an air of cold, solitary desolation about the noiseless streets…” (Dickens 38).
A noiseless street is supposed to be calm, but Dickens conjures an image of coldness and desolation. This contrast can only be explained by the fact that the streets are untidy and perhaps the multitudes of people who throng them during the day cover this mess. For instance, if a street is littered, one may not notice the dirt when masses of people are passing by. However, if the same street is deserted, it becomes easy to see the inherent mess and disarray.
Dickens tries to conjure the image of a disordered city throughout the story and this assertion is sufficiently supported by what the author says. He posits, “The last drunken man…has just staggered heavily along…the last houseless vagrant whom penury and police have left in the streets, has coiled up his chilly limbs in some paved comer. The drunken, the dissipated, and the wretched have disappeared…the stillness of death is over the streets” (Dickens 38).
This passage points to different aspects of an untidy city, which can easily evoke a feeling of disorientation. First, a drunkard loiters across the street and a vagrant coils at a paved corner. The vagabond represents street families, which is an indicator of untidiness and disorderliness. If the city of London were orderly, street families would have a place to sleep. The stillness of death that hangs over the streets could be interpreted in several ways.
First, the uncollected garbage may create a breeding ground for different pathogens, which would ultimately cause deadly diseases leading to the loss of life. On the other hand, Dickens could be talking of criminal elements on the streets, which could cause harm or death in a flash. The author could also be talking about poorly constructed buildings and structures that could easily crumble and bury people alive. Regardless of what Dickens sees in London, he is sure that death hangs over the streets, and this feeling evokes claustrophobia.
As the day breaks, the messiness of the city is compounded. Market carts start rolling along and “Rough, sleepy-looking animals of strange appearance, something between ostlers and hackney-coachmen, begin to take down the shutters of early public-houses” (Dickens 39). The Covent-garden market is chaotic with animals, such as donkeys and horses, competing for limited space with human beings. The pavements are strewn with waste. In order to give a clear picture of the untidiness of London, Dickens says,
Men are shouting, carts backing, horses neighing, boys fighting, basket-women talking, piemen expatiating on the excellence of their pastry, and donkeys braying. These and a hundred other sounds form a compound discordant enough to a Londoner’s ears and remarkably disagreeable to those of country gentlemen who are sleeping at the Hummums for the first time (39).
From this passage, the disorderliness of London stands out conspicuously and the reader can understand the experience of feeling disoriented in the city. Similarly, it suffices to argue that this messiness and disarray inspired Dickens to write Sketches by Boz.
Dickens also explores the untidiness caused by buildings and structures across the city of London. For instance, he discusses one building, which he says is a sample of the rest, in detail to highlight one of the many failures of the city. He notes, “The house went to ruin…the paint was all worn off; the windows were broken, the area was green with neglect and the overflowing of the water-butt; the butt itself was without a lid, and the street-door was the very picture of misery…the unfortunate house looked more wretched than ever” (Dickens 47).
This description of a city house paints a picture of an untidy city that London was at the time, which probably inspired Dickens to compile this work. If, as claimed, the house was a representative of hundreds of others, then the city was a wretched place to be, and anyone visiting it would feel disoriented or claustrophobic. The throngs of people and the sight of ruined buildings are enough reasons for any visitor to feel entrapped, hence the claustrophobia.
The public transport in London is in disarray and Dickens chooses omnibuses to discuss this point. He says, “We are not aware that it has ever been precisely ascertained, how many passengers our omnibus will contain. The impression on the cad’s mind evidently is that it is amply sufficient for the accommodation of any number of persons that can be enticed into it” (Dickens 108). In other words, there are no rules governing the number of passengers that an omnibus can carry. If the rules exist, then they are not followed. This aspect introduces another level of disorderliness as it endangers the lives of commuters because, in case of an accident, the casualties of an overloaded bus would be many.
The omnibus men simply disregard any form of moral obligation. From time to time, some passengers confront the omnibus men, and this showdown normally leaves other travelers amused, which encourages Dickens to document such encounters. He confesses, “…and to wish, as we walk away, that we could impart to others any portion of the amusement we have gained for ourselves” (Dickens 110). Well, the author went on to write about these subjects to impart to others his experiences in the city of London.
Finally, the institutionalized messiness seems to have inspired Dickens’ work. First, due to the lack of opportunities, the youth have turned to criminal activities. Dickens recounts a time when he meets a boy having been released from the courts, after spending a long time in prison, for committing some petty theft. One wonders why would a boy spend years in prison for petty theft, but it points to the institutional disorderliness of the courts. Therefore, prodded by curiosity, Dickens enters a criminal court to investigate how matters are handled. Unfortunately, “Every trial seems a mere matter of business. There is a lot of forms, but no compassion, considerable interest, but no sympathy” (Dickens 154).
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It suffices to conclude that the criminal courts are messed up, and while complainants go to the system for justice, the convicted are supposed to undergo reformation in jails. One can only imagine the inhumane nature of the prisons if they are an extension of the courtroom that the author has described in the above passage as lacking compassion and sympathy. Dickens continues, “There were other prisoners – boys often, as hardened in vice as men of fifty – a houseless vagrant going joyfully to prison as a place of food and shelter, handcuffed to a man whose prospects were ruined, character lost, and family rendered destitute by his first offense (216). These passages conjure images of a disorderly court system, and Dickens is inspired by such incidences to write his stories.
The untidiness and mess across the city of London inspired Charles Dickens’ work and especially Sketches by Boz. In this book, the author focuses mainly on the chaos and disorderliness that are characteristic of different aspects of the city. The mess of the city causes the author to lament that the stillness of death hangs on the streets. At the market, animals, people, and waste materials compete for space, thus compounding the problem of untidiness. Dickens draws heavily from the messiness of London to compose his chef-d’oeuvre works, such as Sketches by Boz.
Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz. Baudry’s European Library, 1839.