VAN GOGH’S ENDURING LEGACY
Episode Two

VINCENT’S
LITERARY INFLUENCES

The Influence of Charles Dickens

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim,
who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master,
and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough,
in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh,
and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this
globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and
knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they
should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.
His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

—From “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, 1843.

Vincent van Gogh and Charles Dickens never met. But through- out his life, Vincent held Dickens in the highest regard using him as a creative example and moral compass. This important spiritual connection with Dickens had been kindled by Vincent’s avid reading of all Dickens’s published works. And Vincent had read the reflections of many of Dickens’s close friends and colleagues concerning his philanthropy and his Christian beliefs, and how he put these beliefs not just into his writing but (and most important for Vincent) through actual deeds of benevolence.

Dickens funded homes for destitute women. He was an activist in areas of social reform and workers’ rights. He worked tirelessly at bettering the lives of orphans, the abandoned, and the destitute. Dickens’s Christmas Carol, and its transformation of the fabled “Scrooge”, addresses such themes: unreasonable working hours, poor wages, greed, appalling conditions, the horrible neglect of crippled children, all as part of the moral obligation incumbent upon those who claim to celebrate the kind- ness, generosity, and munificence of Christian ethics. Dickens’s Christmas Carol —indeed the vast majority of his works—embraced all these Christian mores in fictional accounts that continue to speak even today. Vincent’s love of this story and of the intrinsic meaning of Christmas was celebrated as an integral part of the Van Gogh family’s moral code. When Vincent’s excessive behavior caused his eviction from his parents’ home on Christmas Eve, it was a devastating experience for all concerned.

Vincent, himself the son and grandson of welfare activists, was like Dickens committed to bettering the lives of those around him, sharing his own limited food and resources with the needy. The two men shared an extraordinary parallel in their deep compassion for others and an unrelenting desire to offer money, time, talent, help, and encouragement to those less fortunate than themselves. And while the two men were from different cultures, both shared virtually identical moral and aesthetic views. And even though Dickens enjoyed a great deal of pub- lic success and notoriety, there was no envy on Vincent’s part; it went far deeper than that.

Although Vincent was born in 1853 and Dickens in 1812, it has been said that Vincent, in his general sentiments, was more a man of the earlier 19th century than of the latter part. He seemed formed by that era, and a steady diet of Dickens’s stories provided imaginative nourishment for Vincent. His absorption in the values of those earlier decades can be seen in the timeless themes he chose to depict: families at table, farmers in fields, sunrises, sunsets, fields of corn or wheat, empty chairs and objects of daily use. Like Dickens, he clung to the Golden Rule in an industrialized age rapidly becoming immune to the plight of the less fortunate. His love of physical matter, as noted, was tied to moral values in unique ways, often consistent with those of Dickens. We know for instance that Vincent was upset when renovation projects in Old London destroyed many of the quaint, tottering brick buildings, meandering streets, narrow alleyways, and colorful shop signage—the very back-drop of Dickens’s novels. Van Gogh felt that the charisma of his favorite era was being thoughtlessly swept away. He was also convinced that a major moral force in the century disappeared when Dickens died in 1870. Vincent wrote poignantly about an illustration by Fildes entitled “The Empty Chair” that appeared in an issue of The Graphic of 1870. We see Dickens’s desk and chair sitting abandoned in his study after the great writer’s death. Vincent wondered who would now fill the moral void Dickens had left behind in that room. Vincent seemed to be asking this question constantly in the course of his career. He painted empty chairs many times, and recalled weeping when he saw the empty chair his father had sat in moments after he departed from a lengthy visit.

The subject matter of Vincent’s art, especially that produced between 1878 and 1886, was drawn from his personal experiences but amplified by Dickens. When Vincent was a missionary to the miners in the bleak Borinage region of Belgium, he read and reflected on workers’ lives through the gritty depictions in Dickens’s Hard Times, a stirring novel based on the horrendous lives of men and women lost in the unregulated, dismal, and desolate industrial towns of England at that time. Dickens expressed his wrath at the moral indifference of his era, the inability of newly formed labor unions to curtail the long hours, and inequities in pay and working conditions. He wrote of maimings, ghastly diseases, and the death of children and young adults, all ground like grist in the throats of churning steel mills and quarries. Vincent witnessed such things firsthand, appreciating Dickens’s poignant portrayals, and empathizing with the moral outrage he voiced. Vincent took all of this to heart and took action on behalf of the miners, helping to save lives, nurse burn victims, and champion better conditions for victims. And he faithfully documented these unfortunate people in the dozens of charcoal and pencil drawings he created between 1878 and 1885 featuring laborers, diggers, miners, cloth-weavers, and peasants, and illustrating welfare shelters for street children, abandoned women, and the least-fortunate of society. Vincent illustrated the very people of whom Dickens wrote.

Vincent continued to dream well after the writer’s death that one day he might illustrate books like those of Dickens. In readying himself for this, he began to collect hundreds of illustrations found in the pulp-piles of discarded magazines of the era. Whenever possible, he purchased back issues at auctions, pasting the illustrations onto mat boards. He knew his collection so well he could retrieve examples of the top British and American illustrators on demand and with ease.

In a very short time he became an expert, all the while continuing to passionately read and reread all of Dickens novels, knowing the characters intimately by name. At the same time, he polished his own writing style by sending letters on an almost daily basis to whomever would take the time to read them. Literally thousands of such letters were written over his brief life; most were lost, carelessly tossed into the trash bins and stoves of the 19th century.

Correlations between painter and writer extend into many aspects of their upbringing. It is well known that Dickens experienced years of hardship in his childhood—as a child bootblack, for instance, while his father was in debtors’ prison. Vincent also suffered episodes of extreme peer abuse as a boy at boarding school which may have stimulated (as a means of escape) his own reading and writing abilities—an emotional lifeboat. Many letters from his early teens shed light, for example, on the pain of departure, so often a subject of his life, letters and art. These are all themes that are the essence, too, of Charles Dick- ens.

Vincent was able to extract a gritty realism from Dickens that he described as a form of “resurrection”, his interpretation being that Dickens did not create characters as much as he brought them to life. His was both illustrative writing and writing that transcended into illustration. The motif of resurrection that Vincent applied to Dickens’s characters connects us with something even more profound—that both Dickens and Van Gogh held to the Christian belief in the literal transformation of the body into resurrected form after death. Their conviction of this remained strong even after their involvement with the established church waned. Their belief in the renascence of the corporeal being had a profound impact on their understanding of art. Resurrection deals with the reuniting of the body and spirit; in an artistic sense, it is taking dead matter and investing it with an artist’s spirit, emotion and vision. The artist’s physical media is charged with energy and becomes a resurrection in and of itself.

Vincent hoped to use his illustrative skills to give visual support to novels such as those of Dickens. He believed that if black letters on a white page can ignite one’s imagination, so too can a black and white drawing. Echoing the German philosopher Hegel, Vincent thought that all artistic efforts—literary or otherwise—linked the unbounded, inner world of the mind and imagination with the outer world of finite reality. Effectively, the artist or novelist was a mediator between the infinite and finite realms, with the ability to illuminate life’s unseen mysteries.

Dickens’s friend and biographer, John Forster, informs us that Dickens had unusually vivid memories of his early childhood which may have included the memory of his younger brother dying at six months of age of ”water on the brain”. It is possible that Dickens, a little over two years old at the time, found some childish satisfaction in his brother’s demise since it resulted in renewed attention for himself. Strong evidence exists that Dickens later suffered from unresolved guilt associated with his brother’s death and his lack of normal feelings about it. This may explain the images of dead infants that often appear in his stories.

That irrational guilt that haunted Dickens finds its parallel in Vincent’s early childhood. In Tralbaut’s (1969) biographical study of Van Gogh, he also notes an early death; eleven months after Vincent’s parents were married, their first son, Vincent Willem, was stillborn. A year later on the exactly the same day (March 30, 1853), the Van Goghs, still in mourning for the first son, gave birth to their second who was given the same first and middle name: Vincent Willem.

The similarities between Vincent and Dickens are unmistakable, in particular the dynamics of guilt and creativity. In a sense, guilt forced them to be acutely aware of their environments and the conditions in which they found themselves. The precariousness of their existence was dependent on unseen forces—the same forces that took their deceased brothers. In Dickens, this awareness was trained on themes and images of death and desolation, dank alleyways, old and worn steps descending into darkness, funereal scenes and grave sites—the same themes and images one finds in Vincent’s letters and paintings.

As Ackroyd noted in his exhaustive biography of Dickens (1990):

“The atmosphere of the cathedral and of the ruined castle cast their own shadow; ‘frowning walls, says Alfred Jingle—tottering arches—dark nooks—crumbling staircases—old cathedral too—earthy smell—pilgrims’ feet worn away the old steps…’. Thus in his first book; and thus also in his last when, in ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, Dickens describes the ancient city in just such terms …In his beginning is his end but, in the years between, Dickens constantly sees Rochester in similar terms as reflecting ‘universal gravity, mystery, decay and silence’ and as thus reflecting upon his own precarious existence: ‘…what a brief little practical joke I seemed to be, in comparison with its solidity, stature, strength, and the length of life.’ Age; dust; mortality; time. These are the images of Rochester drawn from him again and again, and is it too much of a hyperbole to leap from the adult Dickens to the child once more and to suggest that this low, mournful note was one that sounded for him throughout his childhood?”

We recall that in Dickens’s Christmas Carol, Scrooge was confronted with an eerie scene in which he witnessed his own death and its aftermath. It featured street peddlers bickering over Scrooge’s clothes and bargaining for his bed sheets. He wrote in the following scene how a city of departed souls, secret crimes, and untold deeds are hinted at by discarded things:

“Far in this den of infamous resort, there was a low-browed, beetling shop, below a pent-house roof, where iron, old rags, bottles, bones, and greasy offal, were bought. Upon the floor within, were piled up heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds. Secrets that few would like to scrutinize were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchers of bones. Sitting in among the wares he dealt in, by a charcoal stove, made of old bricks, was a grey-haired rascal, nearly seventy years of age; who had screened himself from the cold air without, by a frousy curtaining of miscellaneous tatters, hung upon a line; and smoked his pipe in all the luxury of calm retirement.”

In the following letter, we note how similar Vincent’s words and images are to those in the Dickens story. This again amply demonstrates how alike the two men were in their outlooks—of how the sacred journey fused the extremes of life and death:

“Well, today I went to visit the place where the dustmen dump the garbage, etc. Lord, how beautiful that is…Tomorrow I shall get some interesting objects for this Refuse Dump—including some broken street lamps—rusted and twisted—on view—or to pose for me, if you like the expression better. The dustman will bring them around. That collection of discarded buckets, baskets, kettles, soldiers’ mess kettles, oil cans, iron wire, street lamps, stovepipes was something out of a fairy tale by Andersen. I shall probably dream of it tonight, but you may be sure I shall work on it this winter…How beautiful the mud is, and the withering grass! With a handshake in thought, Ever Yours, Vincent.”

Between Dickens and Van Gogh there is a profound embrace of destitution and human suffering, a theme that Dickens used so effectively in A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge confronts his own mortality as he witnesses his clothes callously bargained for. While residing in London, Vincent made some of his strongest, most sympathetic comments about Dickens; his identification with the writer and his characters strengthened by the particulars of the city itself. Yet London was not the only link between these two artists. They were both interested in populist themes which they described in startling ways. Dickens often placed his characters in earlier periods of British history dating back to his childhood. Vincent always remained interested in earlier eras while being fully engaged, at the same time, with contemporary circumstances. Dickens’s main characters are more often than not found in the lower stratus of society; Vincent similarly identified with the lower classes. Dickens described things with an uncanny perception making connections between realms of experience far from the ordinary. Vincent had this visionary quality as well, and routinely transformed the everyday into symbols of timeless meaning.

Van Gogh and Dickens have remained two of the most popular artists of all time, perhaps because they use a common language, a focus on daily existence and the whole of human experience with which we readily identify. Their timeless themes can be discovered throughout their work. Vincent wrote:

“It is a sad and very melancholy scene, which must affect everyone who knows and feels that one day we too have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death…What lies beyond is a great mystery which only God comprehends, but He has revealed absolutely through His Word that there is a resurrection of the dead”

What allowed Dickens and Vincent to look into the shadowy re- gions of death was their conviction that it was only the temporary obscuring of an eternal reality. For each of them, life and death comprised a whole, since each of them were born following the demise of another. Haunting as the circumstances of their births were, this drove their unshakable belief in Resurrection. For them, birth and death were inseparably linked. Death seen through resurrection becomes a second birth; mortality transformed into immortality.

This fusion of the corporeal world and spirituality will have a profound impact on their aesthetic outlook. Both Dickens and Vincent came to believe that aesthetic thought is the transformation of words and images into spiritualized vision.

Van Gogh and Dickens each found their own way to merge the literal and the literary. They express an overt need to paint or put into words the reality of life in order to acknowledge its fragility and, at the same time, to render it—at least temporarily—permanent through the tangible substance of art.

We see Dickens in an old photo holding an antique writing quill of the sort used centuries earlier by William Shakespeare. While fountain pens existed at the time the picture was taken, Dickens loved the feel and romance of this venerable tool when drafting his novels.

There are other details revealed in the photo that offer more insight into this remarkable man. We note his body language as he leans purposefully into his task, lost in thought; his impeccable velvet jacket, indicating the great regard shown for his vocation; the efficiency of his writing desk; the poise of his quill pen in readiness for those legendary flights of imagination.

From Ackroyd’s biography, we discover that Dickens kept long lists of odd names such as Blackpool or Copperfield, revealing his attraction for composite names that brought unlikely things together such as black and pool, copper and field. This is unitary vision, like Van Gogh’s, that fuses together the extremes of human experience.

The photograph reveals a highly organized man who understood perfectly his own creative urges and needs. Highly efficient, he had arrived at a point in his life where nothing curtailed his creative flow. We know from Ackroyd’s research how fanatically Dickens tested, pushed, and plumbed his own depths and skills in order to harness his artistic life in the same relentless manner. He was ever-searching for the kinds of tools and imaginative props he needed to keep that creative flow running at almost fever pitch—one that eventually was to destroy his health. Vincent, too, was to conduct his life at this same intensity, to the detriment of his own health. In setting the photo of Dickens alongside Vincent’s portrait of himself Self-Portrait at the Easel, we see some remarkable similarities between these two very influential men in their facial features, the cropped beards, smallish ears and noses, strong foreheads, resolute, focused eyes, strong shoulders, and an intense aura of thought and nervous energy. Like Dickens, Vincent portrayed himself in a traditional manner; he holds an equivalent to Dickens’s venerable quill with the time-honored pallet and brushes, and the stout wooden canvas stretcher seen from behind. The entire painting had a stolid, character, like a wood carving.

Van Gogh and Dickens both were known for their love of old things. While Dickens prefered his quill to fountain pen, Vincent preferred to use, rather than the more modern drawing pencils that were available to him, raw chunks of soft lead—the sort Dutch masons and carpenters had used for centuries. This love of simple elemental things was true for all his art media. He collected antique items from garbage dumps, and saved old discarded pots, lamps, torn coats, and threadbare jackets to be used as props.

Above all, he loved these things because they roused his sympathy and fired his imagination. He would often wear in public some cast-off treasure he had found, much to the discomfort of his respectable parents, And he loved common wisdom in the same way as he loved old well tempered things. He and Dickens were creative soul mates in such matters.

For Van Gogh and Dickens, old clothing seemed back-lit with light, like starlight streaming though storm-tossed skies, beckoning to eterniity. In the Gospel, Jesus likened old garments to old wine skins that can no longer stretch as new wine ferments and expands. This image is part of a larger parable or colorful story Jesus tells about redemption. The thesis, taken up later by St. Paul (in Romans), is that death and disintegration must one day be overcome. Mortality must clothe itself in immortality—the resurrection of the flesh. Both Vincent and Dickens saw the promise of immortality shadowed in old, discarded clothing and its direct bond with its one-time owner…where regeneration is most apparent, it is also most needed. This idea is perfectly expressed by Vincent in the following passage from his letters in which he begins to resurrect the meaning of the lives associated with a cast-off magazine illustration. He talks about a longtime friend of Dickens, Thomas Carlyle. In typical Van Gogh manner, he stacks meaning on top of meaning as he then speaks of Jesus, Dickens, art, redemption, resurrection, all in the space of a few lines:

“Do you have the portrait of Carlyle—that beautiful one in The Graphic? At the moment I am reading his Sartor Resartus—’the philosophy of old clothes.’ Among the ‘old clothes’ he includes all kinds…; it is beautiful—and faithful to reality—and humane. He—Carlyle—has learned much from Goethe—but still more, I believe from a certain man who did not write books, but whose words, though he did not write them down himself, have endured—namely Jesus…who, long before Carlyle, included many forms of all kinds of things among the ‘old clothes’ too…There is no writer, in my opinion, who is so much a painter and a black-and-white artist as Dickens. His figures are resurrections.”

At the end of his life, Vincent descended into the darkness of delusion and disorientation, constantly struggling toward the light which, in his own words, he saw as sanity. Long before this, while in a deep mine shaft in Belgium’s Borinage, he said he saw daylight from over a thousand feet under the earth…it seemed the size of a star. Luster and light were, to Vincent, the materials of sanity and stability. He tried to focus his mind upon sanity just as a miner, in the very bowels of the earth, was anxious to return to the light of day.

Vincent compared daylight and starlight using the phrase “like pages of the Gospel.” Here, the light of the gospel was a moral imperative—ethical light. In using these comparisons, he was referring to the New Testament and Jesus’s call to love one’s neighbor as oneself, demonstrated by his self-sacrificing love, charity and compassion for the poor and outcast. But Vincent also found his contemporary application of the timeless call of the Gospel in Dickens who expressed these same themes and admonitions in his novels.

The tenor of a Dickens novel was deeply spiritual even as secular positivism began to erode and discourage many who lived in those times. Neither Vincent nor Dickens were immune to the tensions of their times; they were objective people troubled and plagued with all of the doubts and tensions that haunted humanity. That both Dickens and Vincent each personally experienced suffering is well documented. That they were able to distill value from their suffering provides us with poignant examples by which we too can live. Even considering that Vincent did in the end despair and take his own life, in examining the circumstances and his state of mind at the time, we see that in his last hours he came back to center, sharing his final moments with his brother Theo in a last embrace. This sentiment remained even on his death bed and, like Dickens’s “Little Nel” or the laborer “Blackpool”, we are left with heroic figures who cling to their values even as they descend into dark- ness believing that there is always light somewhere above.

We can all do well to reflect on the meaning, messages and moral imperative that Dickens and Vincent left for us to ponder. Here we begin to see that their art was one facet of a larger sentiment for humanity. If these men had been unfeeling and uncommitted to the needs of others, we would doubt the truth of their art. When all of the pieces are put together, some stunning conclusions appear which shed light on why these two creative individuals continue to haunt the western mindset and to inspire us to this day. The world view of either of these artistic twins perhaps intensifies not just our understanding of them but of fundamental truths within ourselves.

A Spiritual Renaissance

“…I often read in Uncle Tom’s Cabin these days. There is so much slavery
in the world, and in this remarkably wonderful book that important question
is treated with so much wisdom, so much love, and such zeal and interest in the
true welfare of the poor oppressed that one comes back to it again and again, always
finding something new…I still can find no better definition of the word art than this,
“L’art c’est l’homme ajoute a la nature” [art is man added to nature]—nature, reality,
truth, but with a significance, a conception, a character, which the artist brings out
in it, and which he gives expression, “qu’il degage,” which he disentangles, sets
free and interprets…in Uncle Tom’s Cabin especially, the artist has put things
in a new light; in this book, though it is becoming an old book already—
that is, written years ago—all things have become new…”

—Vincent van Gogh

The abject misery of the time he spent in the Borinage had a profound impact on Vincent’s approach to his life and art. He underwent a spiritual renascence. He had been so sure of his purpose when he first had arrived in the Borinage. But reality had not lived up to his expectations which were largely constructed from the moral underpinnings of his family and their religious premises. Vincent’s state of mind at that moment in his life was described in his own words:

“Not long ago I made a very interesting expedition, spending six hours in a mine. It was Marcasse, one of the oldest and most dangerous mines in the neighborhood. It has a bad reputation because many perish in it, either going down or coming up, or through poisoned air, firedamp explosion, water seepage, cave-ins, etc. It is a gloomy spot, and at first everything around looks dreary and desolate. Most of the miners are thin and pale from fever; they look tired and emaciated, weather-beaten and aged before their time. On the whole the women are faded and worn. Around the mine are poor miners’ huts, a few dead trees black from smoke, thorn hedges, dunghills, ash dumps, heaps of useless coal, etc….

“…The mine has five levels, but the three upper ones have been exhausted and abandoned; they are no longer worked because there is no more coal. A picture of the maintenages would be something new and unheard of—or rather, never before seen. Imagine a row of cells in a rather narrow, low passage, shored up with rough timber. In each of those cells a miner in a coarse linen suit, filthy and black as a chimney sweep, is busy hewing coal by the pale light of a small lamp. The miner can stand erect in some cells; in others, he lies on the ground …The arrangement is more or less like the cells in a beehive, or like a dark, gloomy passage in an underground prison, or like a row of small weaving looms, or rather more like a row of baking ovens such as the peasants have, or like the partitions in a crypt. The tunnels themselves are like the big chimneys of the Brabant farms.

“The water leaks through in some, and the light of the miner’s lamp makes a curious effect, reflected as in a stalactite cave. Some of the miners work in the maintenages, others load the cut coal into small carts that run on rails, like a streetcar. This is mostly done by children, boys as well as girls. There is also a stable yard down there, 700 meters underground, with about seven old horses which pull a great many of those carts to the so-called accrochage, the place from which they are pulled up to the surface…The villages here look desolate and dead and forsaken; life goes on underground instead of above. One might live here for years and never know the real state of things unless one went down in the mines.

“People here are very ignorant and untaught—most of them cannot read—but at the same time they are intelligent and quick at their difficult work; brave and frank, they are short but square shouldered, with melancholy deep- set eyes. They are skillful at many things, and work terribly hard. They have a nervous temperament—I do not mean weak, but very sensitive. They have an innate, deep-rooted hatred and a strong mistrust of anyone who is domineering. With miners one must have a miner’s character and temperament, and no pretentious pride or mastery, or one will never get along with them or gain their confidence.

“Did I tell you at the time about the miner who was so badly hurt by a firedamp explosion? Thank God, he has recovered and is going out again, and is beginning to walk some distance just for exercise; his hands are still weak and it will be some time before he can use them for his work, but he is out of danger. Since that time there have been many cases of typhoid and malignant fever, of what they call la sotte fievre, which gives them bad dreams like night- mares and makes them delirious. So again there are many sickly and bedridden people—emaciated, weak, and miserable.

“In one house they are all ill with fever and little or no help, so that the patients have to nurse the patients. “Ici c’est les maladies qui soignent les mal- adies” [here the sick tend the sick], said a woman, like, “Le pauvre est l’ami du pauvre” [the poor man is the poor man’s friend]…

“…Going down into a mine is a very unpleasant sensation. One goes in a kind of basket or cage like a bucket in a well, but in a well from 500-700 meters deep, so that when looking upward from the bottom, the daylight is about the size of a star in the sky.

“It feels like being on a ship at sea for the first time, but it is worse; fortunately it does not last long. The miners get used to it, yet they keep an unconquerable feeling of horror and fear which reasonably and justifiably stays with them. But once down, the worst is over, and one is richly rewarded for the trouble by what one sees.”

Vincent noted that the miners were prematurely aged, tired and ill, and he was horrified by the plight of the children, both boys and girls, many of whom were abused in the unsupervised isolation of their dismal underground world. He experienced firsthand the very settings depicted by Dickens. The miners, child-like themselves, were victims of greed and indifference, ignored and unprotected like “Little Nell” in The Old Curiosity Shop.

Vincent’s moral emergence—his spiritual revival—fused lessons learned from literature with those gleaned from his experiences in the Borinage. He came to integrate the inspiring messages of Dickens’s writing into his thought process. And he was to draw similar meaning from the writings of many other poets and essayists.

This state of suffocating darkness and despair so prevalent in those times was captured perfectly by Dickens in the following passage from The Old Curiosity Shop:

“There’s an old well there,” said the sexton, [to Little Nell] “right underneath the belfry; a deep, dark, echoing well…if you lower the bucket till your arms are tired and let out nearly all the cord, you’ll hear it of a sudden clanking and rattling on the ground below, with a sound of being so deep and so far down, that your heart leaps into your mouth, and you start away as if you were falling in.”

“A dreadful place to come on in the dark!” exclaimed the child, who had followed the old man’s looks and words until she seemed to stand upon its brink. ”What is it but a grave!” said the sexton. “What else! And which of our old folks, knowing all this, thought, as the spring subsided, of their own failing strength, and lessening of life? Not one!”

The dry well the sexton showed Little Nell was like the mine shaft Vincent described so powerfully. Wells, graves, or mines were used by Dickens to symbolize death. Little Nell, in the above passage, and later Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times, were both innocent victims whose fate was death. Little Nell was forewarned of her imminent and untimely death by looking into a well, while Blackpool died after falling into an abandoned mine shaft. The miners with whom Vincent identified were, in his estimation, doomed in just the same way as were Nell and Blackpool.

The workers in the Borinage were constantly reassured by their overseers that the mines were safe. But this was far from the truth. Vincent told of an explosion underground where a man was badly injured, suffering terrible burns, and Vincent was compelled to nurse him back to life. The mines were in fact a living nightmare for the workers, where life was regularly snuffed out like a candle by explosions, or by the collapse of tunnels and shafts.

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