Tomfoolery, theme parks and Charles Dickens

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

Despite finding him to be basically unreadable, I am sickened by the news that a theme park based on the work of Charles Dickens has just been opened.

That’s right, a theme park–described by some as being like Disney only dimly lit and painted brown–opened May 25 in Chatham, England, supposedly evoking the world which Dickens lived in and wrote about. Before getting into why this is so appalling, it’s necessary to note that the individuals responsible for executing this miscarriage of an idea are doing so in a desperate attempt to invigorate the ailing economy of their town: they are aiming to attract about 300,000 visitors per year to the site. Indeed, it’s particularly disgraceful to watch the video posted on the BBC’s website of members of Dickens’ family–generations removed from the writer himself–chortling about how much Charles Dickens would have loved the park. The basis for this remark was ostensibly because the man himself was an entertainer at heart, but I would suggest that it probably has more to do with the promotion of the park than anything else. It matters little why they made the remark, what matters is it has absolutely no bearing on reality.

In 1939 George Orwell wrote an essay on Charles Dickens, which begins with the statement that Dickens is an author well worth stealing. He then goes on to address a few instances where this has happened. What he is talking about, of course, is not the theft of the man’s integrity as has been perpetrated with this theme park, but rather of his political and literary motives by various writers and philosophers who want to categorize him as their own. In a statement of immense poignancy, Orwell mentions Dickens’ unceasingly harsh criticism of societal institutions, saying “he was certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might truthfully say a rebel. Everyone who has read widely in his work has felt this.” This being the case, it is impossible to suggest such a writer could be justly rendered the basis for a theme park, clearly one of the most mainstream institutions one can find outside of chain restaurants and Coca-Cola.

The importance of Dickens is that he was able to address serious issues of tremendous consequence in his writings. A similar effect cannot be reproduced in a theme park. The very concept of a theme park implies it is an escape from reality, completely in opposition to the quintessential brilliance of Dickens’ use of fiction to illuminate the very real problems people faced at the time. Looking at it from this angle, theme parks are the absolute and irreconcilable antithesis to Dickens. By taking Dickens as mere entertainment, as this theme park does, the very soul of Dickens is ruthlessly bastardized.

It is disquieting to see a literary icon such as Dickens appropriated in order to make a quick cash grab; especially so in a case where the writer, being thus bastardized, was so unsympathetically critical of societies given to this type of unfettered capitalistic insanity.

Dickens legacy should be left to his books, and as such his own work, instead of being stolen and immeasurably degraded in the way it has been.

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