Charles Dickens and Turning Suffering into Gold

Charles Dickens and Turning Suffering into Gold


In The Abundant Bohemian, I argue that our suffering is not pointless if we use it to feed our art and to provide comfort or solace to others.  Suffering opens our heart; it teaches us compassion, empathy and humility.  Suffering feeds creativity.  And I’m not talking about the navel-gazing, whining, look-at-me-I’m-in-pain art.  I’m talking about the rawness of experience that touches the souls of those who have shared our experiences.  Charles Dickens grasped this concept beautifully.


To say that Dickens had a difficult childhood is an understatement.  His father spent much of his life locked in debtor’s prison leaving his family to fend for themselves.  Dickens’ youth was spent as a child laborer in the factories of London in the early stages of the industrial revolution, arguably in the worst working conditions of the modern age.  He had a right to be bitter, to give up, and to blame fate for a troubled life.


Instead, he took these experiences and turned them into art.  Art that supported his family, made him famous, and perhaps most importantly, enhanced the lives of millions.  Here is Nick Hornby writing on Dickens in The Believer:


With no educational provision, he was free to wander the streets, mapping out London in his head, registering how short was the walk between the splendors of Regent Street and the poverty of Camden and Covent Garden.  He went to see his father, whose chronic mismanagement of the family finances meant that he ended up in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison, where Little Dorrit’s family lived.  And Charles’s time at the blacking factory opened up a whole new world to him a world in which children worked, and suffered. 

Without these experiences, it is doubtful Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, or David Copperfield would be the masterpieces they are.  His suffering made him the man he was.  His suffering made his art accessible and meaningful for us all.  We suffer, therefore we relate.  We can feel the truth and humanity in Pip’s heartbreak and Oliver’s hunger.

Your heart has been broken.  A dream you have had has been torn apart.  And it hurts.  What can you do with that hurt?  How can you turn it into something beautiful that you can use to comfort yourself and provide solace to who-knows-how-many others, for how many generations?  Write it, paint it, sing it, build it—express it however you can.  But use it.  It is a gift that cost you much, but a gift, nonetheless.