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Charles Dickens and Authentic Happiness: Theorizing the Good Life in a Materialistic World

Julia McCord Chavez, Saint Martin's University

In his 2002 book, The High Price of Materialism, psychologist Tim Kasser seeks to understand the relationship between the good life and materialism through the following questions: “…what happens to our well-being when our desires and goals to attain wealth and accumulate possessions become prominent? What happens to our internal experience and interpersonal relationships when we adopt the messages of consumer culture as personal beliefs? What happens to the quality of our lives when we value materialism?” (4). These pressing twenty-first-century questions are not so different from the questions that Charles Dickens struggled with as he attempted to define authentic happiness—the good life—in a period dominated, according to Christopher Herbert, by a “capitalist cult of money-getting” (203).
That Dickens engages in a sharp critique of materialism in his novels is surely not news to anyone at this year’s Victorians Institute conference. Even a surface reading of his novels will reveal as much. What remains fascinating, however, is the degree to which Dickens counters the illusory appeal of material success with a theorization of the good life—what Greek philosophers called eudaimonia—that anticipates our most current philosophies of happiness (made popular by such phenomenon as Harvard’s über-successful “Happiness” course@ and best-selling author Martin Seligman’s 2004 book, Authentic Happiness@). In three of his most overtly economic novels, Dombey and Son (1846-1848), Little Dorrit (1855-1857), and Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865), Dickens flatly rejects a materialistic approach to happiness, privileging instead a life that focuses on meaningful relationships and nonalienating work. Through this vision of eudaimonia, Dickens champions a process-oriented, “internal” mode of satisfaction as a powerful antidote to the false materialism of a silver-plated age. This vision locates Dickens the social critic as a figure who looks both backward and forward, for it hearkens back to a virtue-based model of happiness that precedes the amoral conceptions of happiness that arose with the new consumerist ethos of the eighteenth century (Potkay 4) and also anticipates the positive psychology of Seligman, who establishes three possible paths to happiness: (1) the Pleasant Life; (2) the Good Life; and (3) the Meaningful Life. Like Seligman (and the Stoics of the past@), Dickens concludes that the pleasant life, fueled by materialist concerns, is the least likely to result in a continuing and sustained happiness because it is determined by external factors, whereas the good and meaningful life lies within the agency of even the most powerless characters—the Florence Dombeys, Amy Dorrits, and Jenny Wrens of the world.
In Dickens’s early novel, David Copperfield (1850), the perennial debtor Mr. Micawber defines happiness in distinctly materialistic terms: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery” (209). This definition of happiness mirrors the concept of hedonic well-being—what psychological researchers Alan S. Waterman, Seth J. Schwartz, and Regina Conti characterize as the “positive affects that accompany getting or having the material objects and action opportunities one wishes to possess or to experience” (Waterman, Schwartz, and Conti 42). In this formulation, which Adam Potkay reminds us took center stage following the materialist philosophy and new consumerist ethos of the eighteenth century (4), the key to happiness is located outside of the individual; it is bound up with one’s relationship to an external object—money. This notion reflects the dominant ethos that Frederick Engels had already noticed in 1845: “the middle classes in England have become the slaves of the money they worship…. They really believe that all human beings […] and indeed all living things and inanimate objects have a real existence only if they make money or help to make it. Their sole happiness is derived from gaining a quick profit. They feel pain only if they suffer a financial loss” (qtd. in Herbert 188). For Dickens, as Audrey Jaffe notes in The Affective Life of the Average Man, Micawber’s comment is symptomatic of a society gone astray, “a society to which money is so crucial that a confusion between money and happiness—as in the imagined substitution of one indispensable substance for another—might sometimes, understandably (but, we are always reminded, mistakenly) occur” (94).
In the fictional world of Dickens’s novels, the simple hedonic “wisdom” of the debtor, Mr. Micawber, is indeed presented as idiosyncratic and mistaken. While Dickens seems to agree with the Stoics that “external goods…[are] ‘indifferents to be preferred’” (Potkay 4), materialism is not in fact the path to happiness. Instead, Dickens promotes the eudaimonic tradition of the “good life,” especially in his economic novels. Eudaimonia, as defined by happiness researchers Jack J. Bauer, Dan P. McAdams, and Jennifer L. Pals, consists of “pleasure, a sense of meaningfulness, and a rich psychosocial integration in a person’s understanding of himself or herself” (qtd. in Deci and Ryan 6). According to psychologist Richard M. Ryan and colleagues, “[e]udaimonic conceptions of happiness focus on the content of one’s life, and the processes involved in living well, whereas hedonic conceptions of well-being focus on a specific outcome, namely the attainment of positive affect and the absence of pain” (Ryan, Huta, and Deci 140). As manifested in 21st century psychological approaches, the eudaimonic concept of happiness is not associated with the material world, but instead with virtue or one’s act of making the right choices. The key difference from hedonic well-being, according to Edward Deci and Ryan, is that “eudaimonia concerns how one lives one’s life rather than the well-being outcome, per se” (Deci and Ryan 9). Happiness in this formulation is about process, not product.
Dickens examines the relationship between happiness and materialism carefully in the economically-preoccupied Dombey and Son, and this novel reveals a rejection of the hedonic model of happiness as well as an endorsement of the eudaimonic concept. Commodity-driven happiness characterized by unrestrained consumption is shown in this novel to be illusory. When Edith tours Mr. Dombey’s home before the wedding, for example, it is clear that wealth will not provide happiness:
Slowly and thoughtfully did Edith wander alone through the mansion of which she was so soon to be the lady: and little heed took she of all the elegance and splendour it began to display. The same indomitable haughtiness of soul, the same proud scorn expressed in eye and lip, the same fierce beauty, only tamed by a sense of its own little worth, and of the little worth of everything around it, went through the grand saloons and halls, that had got loose among the shady trees, and raged and rent themselves. The mimic roses on the walls and floors were set round with sharp thorns, that tore her breast; in every scrap of gold so dazzling to the eye, she saw some hateful atom of her purchase-money; the broad high mirrors showed her, at full length, a woman with a noble quality yet dwelling in her nature, who was too false to her better self, and too debased and lost, to save herself. She believed that all this was so plain more or less, to all eyes, that she had no resource or power of self-assertion but in pride: and with this pride, which tortured her own heart night and day, she fought her fate out, braved it, and defied it. (356)
The incongruity between such a situation and happiness is emphasized by the narrator, whose voice breaks in, lamenting: “Oh, Edith! it were well to die, indeed, at such a time! Better and happier far, perhaps, to die so, Edith, than to live on to the end!” (356).
Reliance on an external source for happiness is problematic for Mr. Dombey, as well, notwithstanding his secure financial position at the beginning of the novel. After Edith elopes with Carker, Dombey feels the negative effects of relying on “the world” and its opinions for one’s happiness, for the withdrawal of approval can just as easily become a source of misery: “What the world thinks of him, how it looks at him, what it sees in him, and what it says—this is the haunting demon of his mind” (600). Happiness eludes Dombey at this point in the novel because it is dependent upon other people’s minds, which he cannot always control. At this moment of isolation, when “Mr. Dombey and the world are alone together,” he realizes that money (and the status that it brings) cannot buy happiness. In this respect, Dombey senior appears to closely anticipate the hypothesis of Richard Ryan and colleagues, who assert in a 2008 article in the Journal of Happiness Studies that “the more directly one aims to maximize pleasure and avoid pain the more likely one is to produce instead a life bereft of depth, meaning, and community. Prescriptions based on maximizing pleasure are too often associated with dead-end routes to wellness such as selfishness, materialism, objectified sexuality, and ecological destructiveness” (Ryan, Huta, and Deci 141-42). In the novel, Dickens narrates this route step by step. As David W. Toise notes in his study of domesticity in the novel, “Dombey’s prideful and obsessive devotion to his wealth only leads, in this Victorian novel, to his downfall—the destruction of his business, the collapse of his health, and the loss of everything that is meaningful to him” (326).
One of the advantages of literature as a tool for theorizing happiness is the ability to narrate such pathways so as to open them up for assessment (Potkay 1). In Dombey and Son, Dickens contrasts his patriarch’s ineffectual pathway to happiness with a second and more sustaining framework. The second model, represented by the innocent Florence Dombey and her inexhaustible “sea of love” (Bar-Yosef 222), shows a route to happiness that is achieved in part by disengaging from the material world and its frenzied consumer culture.@ In contrast to her father, who is guided by what Eitan Bar-Yosef has called the “empire without” (226), Florence is guided by the “empire within” (225). For example, it is telling that on Florence’s wedding day, she thinks only of personal relationships and not of economic factors. As she walks with Walter:
They take the streets that are the quietest, and do not go near that in which her old home stands. It is a fair, warm summer morning, and the sun shines on them, as they walk towards the darkening mist that overspreads the City. Riches are uncovering in shops; jewels, gold, and silver, flash in the goldsmith’s sunny windows; and great houses cast a stately shade upon them as they pass. But through the light, and through the shade, they go on lovingly together, lost to everything around; thinking of no other riches, and no prouder home, than they have now in one another. (675)
Florence’s mind is on solidifying a relationship—on uniting fully with another human—and not the material trappings that might accompany the marriage. As Toise has astutely noted, hers is an “economy of sentiment” (338).
Florence’s detachment from the materialism of London society is emphasized, too, by her immediate journey by sea where she is quite literally unmoored from the material world that connects her to her father’s house. In this scene after her wedding, Dickens depicts “a stately ship,” with Florence “upon the deck” (679). She is “graceful, beautiful, and harmless—something that it is good and pleasant to have there, and that should make the voyage prosperous” (679). As she sits with her new husband, Walter, she experiences an overload of emotions: “she lays her head down on his breast, and puts her arms around his neck, saying, ‘Oh Walter, dearest love, I am so happy!’” (679). This outpouring of feeling is not just for love of him, but also because of a vast connectedness with humanity, it seems. Taking up where she leaves off, the narrator clarifies for us that the sea makes Florence think of her lost brother, Paul, as well as Walter. In fact, “the voices in the waves are always whispering to Florence,” he notes, “in their ceaseless murmuring, of love—of love, eternal and illimitable, not bounded by the confines of this world, or by the end of time, but ranging still, beyond the sea, beyond the sky, to the invisible country far away!” (679). Unlike the material world, which traps Mr. Dombey in his unhappiness, the boundless sea unleashes a great wave of happiness within Dickens’s heroine. The economy of sentiment proves in this instance to be richer than the economy of money, for it involves eudaimonic well-being, a “way of living that is focused on what is intrinsically worthwhile to human beings” (Ryan, Huta, and Deci 147).
As the novel reaches its close, Dickens dramatically illustrates the permanency of this kind of happiness as opposed to the fragile pleasure built within an economy of money, which can fall victim to bankruptcy. In the nineteenth installment, this is vividly depicted through Dombey’s empty home. In the end, the house of Dombey and Son—which Raymond Williams astutely identifies as both business and family residence in his introduction to the novel—lies empty (qtd. in Elfenbein 364). At the end of the day, “Nothing is left about the house but scattered leaves of catalogues, littered scraps of straw and hay, and a battery of pewter pots behind the hall-door…. The house is a ruin, and the rats fly from it” (697). For Mr. Dombey, happiness cannot be achieved by participating in the global marketplace, but instead by finally connecting with his daughter. For Florence, unlike his worldly riches, never changes:
He thought of her as she had been, in all the home-events of the abandoned house. He thought, now, that of all around him, she alone had never changed. His boy had faded into dust, his proud wife had sunk into a polluted creature, his flatterer and friend had been transformed into the worst of villains, his riches had melted away, the very walls that sheltered him looked on him as a stranger; she alone had turned the same mild gentle look upon him always. Yes, to the latest and the last. She had never changed to him…. (702)
When Florence returns to nurse her father in his critical illness, even the previously aloof and broken Mr. Dombey experiences a kind of well-being. “Florence and he were very different now…and very happy” (720), Dickens writes.
Once the sentimentality of such a scene is put to the side, Dickens’s theorization of happiness begins to feel eerily familiar—at least to those who have been following happiness studies. Indeed, it is virtually identical to the concept of happiness found in Seligman’s book. According to Seligman, “How important money is to you, more than money itself, influences your happiness. Materialism seems to be counterproductive: at all levels of real income, people who value money more than other goals are less satisfied with their income and with their lives as a whole, although precisely why is a mystery” (55). Dickens’s fiction gives us a similar conclusion, but he takes a stab at the “why” as well. He does this by theorizing, through fictional characters, eudaimonic, as opposed to hedonic, happiness.
This is readily apparent in Dickens’s 1855-1857 novel, Little Dorrit, which has an especially familiar ring for 21st century readers. As one newspaper article announcing a 2009 televised version of the novel on PBS states, “the story is too familiar lately: crippling debt, government choked in red tape, financial insolvency, and a well-heeled scoundrel who leaves every one of his investors bankrupt” (Shaw). In this now familiar saga of investment gone awry, Dickens returns to the precarious relationship between money, happiness, and human relationships. And, once again, eudaimonia prevails as the only viable source of authentic or lasting happiness.
Throughout the novel, we see this play out as Amy Dorrit embodies the “good” and virtuous life in the face of vast external changes of circumstance. It is reinforced, moreover, in the very last paragraphs of the novel. As he winds down the novel, Dickens purposefully demotes his heroine from the pedestal of the novel – figured as a tale recorded in three volumes of the church “Registers” (birth in vol. 1, sleep in vol. 2, and marriage in vol. 3). Little Dorrit ceases to be “one of our curiosities” (365) and becomes an ordinary bride going “down” literally into the street with her groom and more figuratively into “a modest life of usefulness and happiness” (365). Dickens’s novel—consisting of Amy Dorrit’s life story—suggests that happiness is not in fact about changing the external world, but instead about looking within for satisfaction. The streets are still roaring with “the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain” (365) but Arthur and Little Dorrit walk through this unscathed. Dickens critiques capitalism and especially speculation in the novel, but he doesn't necessarily suggest that even a huge crash will change the system in significant ways. What can be changed, however, is one’s personal attitude toward debt, and one’s responsibility to others. Reciprocal human relationships (underscored by the image of Amy and Arthur hand in hand) take over and stand up against the din of the competitive, materialistic world. Like so many of Dickens’s other novels, happiness isn’t about material comforts at all (although he never lets readers forget what lack of comfort feels like), but rather about personal development and deep human connections. With this ending Dickens promises, like a Victorian version of positive psychologist Seligman, that cultivating “kindness, originality, humor, optimism, and generosity” will bring happiness (or at least a sense of well-being), despite the squalor of a harsh and even cruel, materialistic world (“Can We Cultivate Our Own Happiness?”).
Dickens again explores the idea that true happiness must originate from within, rather than without, in his last-completed novel, Our Mutual Friend. The allure of materialism immediately confronts readers of the original serialized version of the novel through the commodification of happiness in the advertisement pages. Products promise happiness to readers, in the form of “love and kisses!” (Piesse & Lubin’s New Perfume for the Festive Season), pleasant leisure time (Jaques’ Croquet Games), and personal beauty “for all who court the gay and festive scenes” (Rowlands’ Macassar Oil, Kalydor, and Odonto). They also promote materialistic fantasies for middle-class readers, who are encouraged by advertisements for Slack’s electroplated silver, H. J. & D. Nicholls tailors, and other sellers to buy cheap goods that mimic more expensive goods like silver and fine clothing. Repeated ads for electroplated silver suggest that common symbols for wealth, including a table laden with precious metal, might be within the average reader’s reach. One ad boasts: “Slack’s Electroplate is a coating of pure silver over nickel. A combination of two metals possessing such valuable properties renders it in appearance and wear equal to sterling silver.” The emphasis here is on illusion or fantasy, the appearance of wealth for a fraction of the cost.
The world of “silver-plated” happiness glibly displayed in the advertisements is almost immediately rejected in the novel, however, through Dickens’s vitriolic characterization of the nouveau riche Veneerings and their circle of acquaintances. Beneficiaries of the mid-Victorian “capitalist cult of money-getting” (Herbert 203), the Veneerings embody the values of materialism through their ridiculously conspicuous consumption, and Dickens mercilessly exposes the shallowness of this worldview. It is clear, from the moment these characters are introduced, that a single-minded quest for material possessions results in an absurdly disconnected life:
Mr. and Mrs. Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French-polished to the crown of his head. (6)
The danger of this kind of uprooting—and its accompanying reliance on money rather than personal relationships—is shown when the Veneerings’ bosom friends, the Lammles, are found out to be penniless. The materialistic set easily cuts the relationship, and “sweeps these inconveniently unexplainable wretches who have lived beyond their means and gone to total smash off the face of the universe” (627). Readers learn near the end of the novel that this will be the fate of the Veneerings, too, although “the next week’s book of the Insolvent Fates” had “not yet opened” (815). Unlike the redeemed bankrupt, Mr. Dombey, or the beloved Father of the Marshalsea prison, William Dorrit, these characters do not have the good fortune of knowing a loving Florence or Amy, whose economy of sentiment is wide enough to embrace even the wretched, thus allowing for a tempered but sustaining happiness. Nor do they have an opportunity to achieve a modicum of happiness through suitable, sustaining, and meaningful labor, as is possible for working class characters like Dickens’s extraordinarily sharp dolls dressmaker, Jenny Wren.@
Dickens’s theorization of happiness in the novels discussed anticipates the findings of Tim Kasser and a host of other 21st century psychologists who have discovered that personal relationships and meaningful work do make us happier than material goods. And this is indeed comforting in a world characterized by ambition, anxiety, and changing economic circumstances—whether that is 19th-century London or 21st century America. Perhaps part of the joy of reading Dickens’s novels today is that they do show happiness to be possible even in a materialistic society, and even for those who have not prospered in material terms. According to Dickens, happiness does not arise through the acquisition of wealth or goods; instead, it lies within an economy of sentiment, in the individual’s ability to connect emotionally with those that he or she encounters within the vast sea of humanity. Importantly, this is a happiness that is potentially available to anyone.
The Dickensian idea of living the good life may seem quaint, overly simplistic, or even nauseatingly sentimental, but the degree to which Dickens believed in the connection of interpersonal relationships and happiness can be seen time and again in his imagined relations with readers. In his Preface to Dombey and Son, written at the end of its serialization, for example, he admits:
I cannot forego my usual opportunity of saying farewell to my readers in this greeting-place, though I have only to acknowledge the unbounded warmth and earnestness of their sympathy in every stage of the journey we have just concluded.

If any of them have felt a sorrow in one of the principal incidents on which this fiction turns, I hope it may be a sorrow of that sort which endears the sharers in it, one to another. This is not unselfish in me. I may claim to have felt it, at least as much as anybody else; and I would fain be remembered kindly for my part in the experience. (n.p.)
Dickens characterizes the work of writing and the work of reading as a shared experience of “warmth and earnestness” that forges the human bonds that have the potential to lay the groundwork for eudaimonic happiness. Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend are dark novels that show the cruelty of the marketplace and the suffering that it can cause. At the same time, they show the way to survive and triumph over the dehumanization of external circumstances and place that triumph firmly within each reader’s control by connecting it to one’s internal life. Moreover, adopting this kind of moral map does not necessarily result in an impoverished material existence. Psychologist Alan S. Waterman and his colleagues suggest that if a person experiences eudaimonic living he or she will necessarily also experience hedonic enjoyment (Waterman, Schwartz, and Conti 43), and the happy endings of Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend support this conclusion. For Dickens himself, adopting a eudaimonic theory of happiness also resulted in a two-fold reward. Not only did it make him a more beloved author; it also made him rich.
Julia McCord Chavez is an Assistant Professor of English at Saint Martin's University in Lacey, Washington. Her research and teaching interests include nineteenth-century British literature, novel studies, gender studies, Victorian print culture, and the intersections of law and literature. She has published articles on the gothic aspects of serial novels by Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, the pedagogical value of Victorian periodical reading, and the transatlantic publication of Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native. Her current book project is entitled "Victorian Wanderers and the Serial Form".
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