This paper considers Dicken’s as a Marxist writer by examining his interest in the stories that lie behind mass-produced objects; in particular it closely considers Dicken’s article entitled ‘Early Workers at Sorting’.
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On July 14th, 1877, Dickens published in All the Year Round an article entitled “Early Workers: At Sorting”. Under this somewhat uninspiring title, Dickens proceeds to describe what can only be identified as a nineteenth-century paper recycling plant, where: ‘(crumpled up, and otherwise deteriorated from prime value) bits of white paper, brown paper, blue paper, other coloured paper; bits of all these papers with the further subdivision of being soft, hard, ruled, written on; bits of that fine foreign “tissue,” that is mere phantom, yet tough enough, seemingly, to be bishop’s lawn etherealised… bits of cardboard, straw-board, grayish pulpy oatmeal-like board, and the thin woodboard that, when whole, is curved round into band boxes… tufts of wadding; clips of straw-plait; ends of window-rubbers; emptied cotton reels; lengths of tape, binding, gimp, ribbon’ and so forth are ‘gathered and re-gathered… used and reused’ by a collection of ragged but cheerful sorters. It is not often that we associate the idea of ecological sustainability with the Victorian period – and with good reason, as this era is more frequently remembered for the massive increases in consumption, carbon emissions, and urban development which marked the heyday of the industrial revolution; for its factories, railways, mines, and quaint Dickensian shops stuffed with the excesses of a global imperial economy. A. G. Hill condemns Dickens as the downfall of the novel from social responsibility to sensationalist entertainment (Hill, 1963 : 155); nevertheless, as this little article by Dickens demonstrates, both recycling, and the accompanying awareness of ecological loss, were recognised in the Victorian era and had a part to play in the literary works produced therein.
What is perhaps the most important aspect of “Early Workers at Sorting” is that, as well as being concerned with the re-use and appropriation of waste materials, it is also concerned with the recycling of human experience that accompanies these materials; a process which ensures that: ‘…the word “rubbish” does not exist, since every item under hand is absolutely wanted, and since there are merchants waiting to buy up all, and to pay for all, at proper market price.’ It is in this sense that Dickens can be described as a Marxist writer, in the sense suggested by Terry Eagleton in Marxism and Literature (Eagleton, 2006); concerned as he was with the human experience of production, he criticises waste of both material and human resources:
It is the science of adjustment, grown to a good height; rising far superior to that lavish waste that fancies itself so wealthy and so generous, and that is always so full of scorn for what it delights to call the meanness of taking care… this – being impossible without combination, without cheap transit and exact knowledge – is one of the results rendered possible by civilisation, is one of the results that renders rich reward to civilisation in return, since, by means of it, material is gathered and re-gathered, is used and re-used, requiring therefore much less real replenishment, and leaving no chance either for that prohibiting price that would follow upon scarcity, or for that famine otherwise inevitable.
In addition to demonstrating a clear awareness of the potential for non-sustainability in the (then) newly burgeoning consumerist culture which has become such a cliche of the Victorian era, this passage raises a number of interesting points. In the first place, the reuse of cast-off materials has a clear moral purpose here, which is at odds with consumerist ideals of consumption; Dickens is echoing the fundamentally Marxist view that that the ‘wealthy and generous’ are in fact guilty of ‘lavish waste’, of which the inevitable result will be scarcity and famine, and the alienation of skilled workers. The focus of the article on the ‘little girl[s] of twelve or thirteen years of age’, ‘stained and ragged and utterly unpolished and raw’ who are the ‘Early Workers’ of the title, links this piece to the numerous other writings, such as those found in Sketches by Boz, which question the exploitation and miserable living conditions of the poor who occupy the lowest tiers of the consumerist society. Recycling, then, offers support and sustenance to the poor, as well as a chance to sample the pickings of what they could otherwise never afford; materials filter down through the social system and have their particular value for all ranks of society.
However, this chance to recycle is also a result of, as well as a benefit to, human civilisation, and one which ‘renders rich reward’ to those who practice it. As the rest of the article makes clear, this reward is bound up with memory, and with the train of associations which each object carries with it, building up a repository of experiences with each new appropriation which binds the object firmly into human tradition. It is this human connection to the processes of production that was so highly valued by Marx, and which both he and Dickens championed in their separate ways. Scraps of wood, for example, are not just scraps of wood, but rather: ‘smashed wooden boxes that have contained toys, scent, chignons, Paris bonnets, and the like; cotton-reels; useless part of broken wooden toys’, all of which bring echoes with them of their previous human owners. Whether in his novels, such as The Old Curiosity Shop, in his journalistic Sketches by Boz, or in his ghost stories (such as The Queer Chair), Dickens combines an overarching interest in consumerist objects with a fascination for the humans whose stories are concentrated in and told by those objects, be they items of furniture, books, clothes, or buildings. By cataloguing and bringing to life the human histories of mass-produced objects, Dickens seeks – like all good Marxist writers – to fight against the anonymity and disempowerment that consumerism imposes upon workers, returning to them a sense of identity and connection, and illustrating their irreplaceability in society.
Word Count: 1,002
Dickens, C. (1877), “Early Workers: At Sorting”, All the Year Round, July 14th.
Eagleton, T. (2006), Marxism and Literaure, London: Taylor and Francis.
Hill, A. G. (1963), “Marxist Aesthetics”, Critical Survey, Vol. 1, No. 3 (AUTUMN), pp. 153-157.
 Dickens, Charles. “Early Workers: At Sorting”. All the Year Round, July 14th, 1877. pp. 463-64.
 Ibid. p. 464.
 Ibid. p. 464.
 Ibid. p. 464.
 Ibid. p. 462.
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