"The Dark and Dreadful Interest": Charles Dickens, Public Death, and the Amusements of the People
A vocal opponent of public execution throughout his career, Dickens deplores the dramatization of capital punishment in numerous letters and public statements; the culture of carnival surrounding the scaffold produces a corruptive theater, he claims, in which the criminal can attain a "monstrous notoriety" at the moral expense of the crowd (Letters 224). The "dark and dreadful interest" that drew such numbers of spectators to Tyburn and Newgate, according to Dickens, reflects "a law of our moral nature, as gravitation...in the structure of the visible world"; if this propensity is natural, however, its indulgence is nonetheless morally degenerative, "odious, and painful" (Letters 220, 218). Accordingly, the state's exploitation of this morbid compulsion constitutes, for Dickens, a breach of dramatic ethics. In staging public death, the state makes a violent demonstration of power that depends upon its subjects' moral susceptibilities: the "dark and dreadful interest" ensures an audience, but it concomitantly "produces crime in the criminally disposed, and engenders a diseased sympathy - morbid and bad, but... irresistible--among the well-conducted and gentle" (Letters 212). Dickens decries the capital spectacle, ultimately, as socially irresponsible dramatic entertainment. However, Dickens's fictional representations of the condemned belie his rejection of the scaffold as a scene of dramatic entertainment and betray his own "dark and dreadful interest" in the gallows and the guillotine. Veiled in his statements against capital punishment as a political practice, then, is the assertion of a professional prerogative: as an artist, he makes an exclusive claim to the ethical representation of the scaffold scene.
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