The Cruelty of Comedy

January 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

Reading next: Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic.

Snowbound in Nebraska on Christmas night, we watched Funny People.  Underrated movie, great performance by Adam Sandler, a nice peek into the craft of stand-up performance and comedy writing.

It’s a dark movie, though, and not a lot of people like their dark and their light mixed.  But it is a commonplace to point out that comedy comes from dark, weird, even ugly places; that comedy is often cruel.  (One of my favorite scenes in Funny People is when Sandler’s character sings a song in a comedy club about how everyone will miss him when he’s dead and there’s no one left to make them laugh — it’s a funny song, but there are also layers of mock- and non-mock egomania, ironic posturing, Kaufmanesque comedy of the nervous audience, and genuine terror, sadness, and self-hatred involved.  It’s cruel to himself and to the audience to sing the song — and somehow, he finds this funny; and somehow, he is right.)

Here’s how this connects to Dickens: while every Dickens novel includes comic interludes and tragic (or potentially tragic) storylines, Dickens is usually careful to keep the comic and tragic scenes separate, with very different tones for each, at least until the ending, when the comic overcomes the tragic.  But there is, nevertheless, a lot of darkness and cruelty in Dickens’ comedy, however unintentional.  In Dombey, I find his treatment of Mr. Toots rather cruel.

Mr. Toots is a typical secondary comic-relief character: an older classmate to Paul Dombey Jr. at Dr. Blimber’s house, he is regarded as something of a simpleton but befriends Paul, becomes enamored of Florence, and begins to kindly and gently… well… stalk her, I suppose, once he’s come of age and received his inheritance.  His dominant trait is his cheerful self-deprecation, expressed in his constant chuckling and the catchphrase “it’s of no consequence,” with which he typically ends any statement of his desire or feeling.

Toots is incapable of wooing, too nervous to engage in any sort of direct courtship of Florence, instead hanging around to do whatever kindness he might for her and hoping to catch a glimpse of her beauty.  He’s quite funny, in his weird mannerisms and foppish love of tailored clothes and selfless devotion to whomever will befriend him.  But somewhere in the last third of the book, for some reason, I stopped thinking of Toots as merely a comic character and started rooting for him to win Florence’s heart.

But of course, that is an impossibility in Dickens.  The characters he represents as ridiculous do not marry the main characters; they marry maids, servants, other members of the comic-relief portion of the cast.  What I find cruel about the treatment of Toots is that he is handled so deterministically; that his serious devotion for Florence is dismissed so casually, so lightly, by both Dickens and by her; that he is seen, in his comic behaviors, so unworthy of the love of someone less odd, though he has the means and the passion to marry and provide for her; that he is kept in his place as firmly as any Untouchable.  Dickens’s cast, in other words, can function as a caste.

I suppose this would be the opposite of how Dickens would like to think of his characters, that they are locked into their certain roles and must perform them as required by the book’s fictional society.  Certainly Dickens saw much of the cruelty of the Victorian class system, and in Dombey there’s the obvious commentary on the evil of loveless marriage for class status and wealth.  And yet there’s “the Native,” Joe Bagstock’s dark-skinned servant, scarcely a tertiary character, rumored a Prince in his (undefined) homeland, frequently beaten and abused as nothing more than a commentary on Bagstock’s core rottenness and hypocrisy and, yes, I’m afraid, as comic relief.

And yet there’s also Mr. Toots, whose insistence on his inconsequence becomes very sad, to me at least, after many repetitions.  After he repeats his “it’s [read: I’m] of no consequence” catchphrase so many times, throughout the book, in virtually every appearance, you can come to think of it as a kind of metafictional mantra: that Toots knows his role in the novel is unimportant, in the grand scheme of the plot, like a Beckett character in a Dickens novel.  I do not know yet whether Toots gets paired off with Florence’s servant, Susan Nipper, or stays a bachelor, or what (I’d bet on marriage to Nipper, though); I just know that the experience of seeing this character, so much more vivid and alive to the reader than Florence or her long-lost beloved Walter or nearly any other character in the book, so easily dismissed is rather tragicomic.

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