Hypocrisy and Irony
December 29, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.
Before reading this book, I’d never thought of irony as a form of hypocrisy. But hypocrisy is one of the major themes of this book, and Dickens handles his most hypocritical characters with such a huge helping of irony that I couldn’t help but make the connection.
It’s most obvious with Seth Pecksniff, who really is eminently loathesome. Pecksniff is a hypocrite of the highest order: he pretends even to himself and his family that his motives are pure, his intentions godly, his actions just. When we first meet him, Dickens already dislikes him enough to show him in a bit of slapstick: the wind slams the door of his house in his face, pushing him down the stairs. However, he’s introduced as “a moral man: a grave man, a man of noble sentiments and speech.”
Dickens more or less sticks to his strategy of having his narrator superficially present Pecksniff as an honorable man (so far, at least, halfway through the book), although calling someone moral “especially in his conversation and correspondence” is a rather funny way of calling someone moral. He lets the man’s actions and demeanor do the dirty work for him. (Finally, 350 pages in, he resorts to a footnote to differentiate Pecksniff’s convoluted self-justification from “the Author’s” own beliefs; this is, I believe, the first time the narrator repudiates Pecksniff without using irony.)
Dickens wrote Chuzzlewit after visiting America for the first time, and his disillusionment with the New World seems to be the driving force behind the entire book. The overwhelming hypocrisy of a “free” country justifying slavery to itself appalled Dickens. (So did the lack of clean tablecloths, proper manners, and party politics, apparently, and Dickens does occasionally harp on these points in the American sections of the book. It seems rather petty of him.)
On the other hand, the book also has its anti-hypocrites: whereas Pecksniff and Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague put on airs whenever possible, Tom Pinch and Mark Tapley serve and are never satisfied with their service, never sure they’re doing enough for those they consider as doing them a good turn (who have typically wronged them). Tapley, especially, is a model anti-hypocrite: he seeks opportunities for “credit” for being “jolly.” Of course, it’s no credit to one’s character to be jolly when things are going well, so he comforts himself in the worst of situations by reminding himself that his good spirits and service to others (especially the selfish, oblivious Martin Chuzzlewit) will finally give him the opportunity to stand out in a world which seems mostly happy, to him. Both Pinch and Tapley think the best of others, or at least act as though they expect the best of others.
Dickens’s ironic descriptions of his characters and situations fascinate me in all of his books — that droll, frequently indignant, quintessentially Victorian voice, laying all that’s improper to delicate waste — but especially here, when attacking the very tactics he seems to employ. I always wonder how much Dickens really did think it best not to say the worst of what we think of others, even when dealing with his own creations, and how much he simply knew his audience well enough to know they’d eat up these tactics. Of course, Dickens is never one to play close to the vest, not really: his sympathies and antipathies are always clear, reading just below the surface, and he takes his vengeance mostly through incident, often brutal or deadly. He is somehow a remarkably subtle and remarkably broad and obvious author, simultaneously; and it seems to me that his irony, especially his ironic stance toward his characters, is one of the things that keep me reading him.