“…the great paradox of morality is that the very vilest sort of fault is exactly the most easy kind. We read in books and ballads about the wild fellow who might kill a man or smoke opium, but who would never stoop to lying or cowardice or ‘anything mean’. But for actual human beings opium and slaughter have only occasional charm; the permanent human temptation is the temptation to be mean. The circle of the traitors is the lowest of the abyss, and the easiest to fall into. That is one of the ringing realities of the Bible, that it does not make its great men commit grand sins; it makes its great men (such as David and St. Peter) commit small sins and behave like sneaks.
Dickens has dealt with this easy descent of desertion, this silent treason, with remarkable accuracy in the account of the indecisions of Pip.”
From p. 28 of Critical Essays on Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, G.K. Chesterton, quoting from GKC’s Charles Dickens. Another random discovery while poking about in the library’s English literary criticism cases.
You open up an interesting perspective on reading Dickens. I like the idea. Perhaps I will reread Dickens with an eye to focusing on Chesterton's observations about temptations and being mean. Of course, Dickens — in his own youth — was quite familiar with those issues; he very much resented these qualities in his parents.
You also point to another useful POV for reading Dickens: Christianity. Too often ignored, this is a very rich perspective for Dickens' readers.
I'm not sure how exactly GKC meant “mean”, though. These days we understand it as the opposite of nice, but in an older sense it meant cheap.
Oh, I don't know. I think the definition might be more expansive that “opposite of nice,” but I will defer to you for the moment; I will, however, be on the look out for a 19th century OED analysis because I think you make a very reasonable and intriguing point. Onward!