Time’s Malcontents

December 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.

Dombey and Son was Dickens’ comeback book: H.W. Garrod tells me in the introduction to my Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition that 70,000 people read the weekly serial parts of The Old Curiosity Shop, while “not a third of that number” bought the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzlewit, the book prior to this one.  The first few parts of D&S (full title Dealings with the Firm Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation, in case you were wondering) brought Dickens’s readership back in full force.

None of this really makes much sense to me.  If I had to bet, based on the first 100 or so pages, I would’ve bet that Chuzzlewit was the success and D&S the flop.  Chuzzlewit at least has some action, some forward momentum.  The first seven chapters of D&S are full of light comedy, characters intentionally defined by their lack of personality, and a central plot focused on a baby.  (Not a talking baby or a dancing baby or a baby genius, either: just a baby.  Little Paul Dombey.)  It’s not really gripping stuff.  But the Victorians did love their comedic busybodies, their precocious tiny tots, their colorful servant-folk, and their little bits of scenery and sketches of personality.  (This stuff is what Dickens cut his teeth on, after all.)  I have to admit that I, too, am loving Major Joe Bagstock, who is constantly referring to himself in the third person as “Joey B.,” “Old Joe,” “J. Bagstock,” etc. — maybe the earliest example of this now-omnipresent phenomenon.

Then comes the eighth chapter, “Paul’s further Progress, Growth, and Character,” and the book comes to life.  Dickens is never a waste of time, even when he’s merely trying to entertain or lecturing.  But he can sometimes seem much flatter, even disinterested in his own work.  That’s how the first seven chapters felt, in part because Paul Dombey Sr. is an intentionally flat, cold, mostly uninteresting character: Scrooge without Scrooge’s fire.  We hate him for ignoring little Florence, his unwanted daughter, but even there Dickens’ narration distances us from our fury.  In chapter eight, however, Dickens is fully engaged, and personally invested, and seems to know he’s working on something great.  And it is personal: this chapter is grounded in autobiography.  In a letter to his biographer, John Forster, Dickens said that “It is from the life, and I was there — I don’t suppose I was eight years old…”

The “there” there is Mrs. Pipchin’s, near the sea, where “nearly five years old” Paul is sent in hopes of improving his health in the fresher air.  Pipchin is a typical Dickens grotesque, an ancient widow known for her expertise on “infancy” who lives in a strange, dank house.  Little Paul really becomes the center of the show here, but I think I will reserve my thoughts on him for my next post.  The foreshadowing in this chapter is deep and dark.

There are any number of fascinating aspects to this chapter, but I’m interested in how it got me thinking about time, and about the arc of a life.  The first paragraph is the beginning of one of Dickens’ smart, compact, and lyrical fast-forwards:

Beneath the watching and attentive eyes of Time — so far another Major — Paul’s slumbers gradually changed.  More and more light broke in upon them; distincter and distincter dreams disturbed them; an accumulating crowd of objects and impressions swarmed about his rest; and so he passed from babyhood to childhood, and became a talking, walking, wondering Dombey.

Dickens is one of the best at this: knowing when it’s time to pull back, take out the wide view, and switch from incident to exposition.  He knows his pace; he knows how to stretch minutes (the agony of Jonas Chuzzlewit comes to mind) or speed years.  In this chapter, he manages to balance his summaries with his scenes, and somehow gives the texture of lived life and the experience of a sick young boy.

As Paul’s innocent questions about money and death endear him throughout the chapter — and really, I suppose dear little dying Paul is the reason the book was so popular — time crystallizes as a major theme.  Paul Dombey Sr. wants time to fast-forward to his son’s adulthood in a way that Dickens will not permit (at least not yet); and his dissatisfaction with day-to-day life is one of the sad subtexts which Dickens has handled beautifully, without explicit moralizing (again, at least not yet).  This is one of the best ways that Dickens uses his typically protean and ambiguous narrator: often seeming to chronicle events in a way consistent with the book’s full title, as a kind of business/family history, and therefore often facetiously arguing from Dombey’s perspective, he lets the reader’s own sense of morality and humanity work against the grain of the words.  This usually only lasts so long before Dickens can no longer resist laying into his villain.

Little Paul and Florence want their mother back; Mrs. Pipchin feels better about her age by sucking the childhood out of children; even Solomon Gills, in the primary subplot, longs for the days when his nautical instruments were in demand.  Future perfect, past perfect: who’s living today, here?  When is a life’s living overtaken by a life’s waiting?

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