Lyrical Analysis: “The Robber Fancy” by Charles Dickens

“When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by and by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within — or sometimes only maim him and distort him!”

-Charles Dickens, Hard Times, 1854

The key word in this poetic warning to overly-reliant intellectualism is “Fancy” — capitalized in the book presumably for emphasis.  Earlier in the chapter, a schoolgirl (Cecilia Jupe) is called out for wishing to “carpet her room with representations of flowers”, simply responding how she finds the imagery “pretty and pleasant”.  She fancies the flowers, and immediately after her admittance of this opinion, her teachers brashly lecture how all her thoughts should come from a place of fact (as opposed to “fancy”).

The quote from above comes after a lengthy paragraph describing essentially a perfectly educated teacher (M’Choakumchild) knowledgeable in just about everything one could reasonably expect to know.  “The boiling store“, then, refers to M’Choakumchild’s mind, steaming with information to a point of overload.  With this stored knowledge, he desires to “fill each jar (to the) brim full” with the same knowledge, so that the process can forever continue — a world of men and women who know fact and nothing else.  The children of the classroom, in particular Cecilia (whom is filled with “fancy” and thus resistance towards this process), are the latest empty jars to be filled with said fact.

Dickens counters the schoolteacher’s over-confidence (“dost thou think that thou wilt always“) with the realistic notion that not everyone will always take so kindly to a world of fact and nothing more.  In the chapter Cecilia is clearly discouraged by this onslaught against the fun and fanciful world she once knew, before being subjected to a realm of fact.  Dickens recognizes her individual spirit, and jests towards the schoolteacher — calling “Fancy” a “robber lurking within“, as if to suggest that Fact is un-natural and that in the end Fancy lurks within every mental jar, threatening to overthrow that which has been artificially placed (Fact).

This passage essentially states how it is improbable to expect someone to completely bend to your chosen system, in this context “fact”, and expect them to adapt without compromise.  Indeed, it ends with the ominous line, “or sometimes only to main him and distort him!” — “him” referring to “the robber” which of course refers to “Fancy”.  Subjecting your mindset to another without regard for empathy will not only fail to truly add something new, but it will also pervert what was once natural and pure.  M’Choakumchild may be very well-versed in education and overall knowledge, but in the process he has lost his ability to relate to those he wishes to teach (Cecilia).  As Dickens says in the same chapter:

“If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!”

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