Blood on the Tracks, Dickens Style
January 6, 2010 § 1 Comment
Just finished: Dombey and Son.
For all that talking I did about its comedy, Dombey is a melancholy book, as dark as Bleak House in some sections. In fact, it’s dark enough that I was actually relieved that there was some redemption at its end: Dickens was beginning to seem downright deterministic until the last few chapters when some characters actually change. There’s a lot of death in the book, and a lot of talk about capital-d Death. It looms over the book.
Also, contrary to what its title would lead you to believe, the business of this novel is almost never business, at least not on the surface. For all the talk of how rich Dombey is, and how respected his firm is, we get nary a glimpse of the work the firm actually does. It involves pursuits around the world (or at least around the British Empire, amounting to nearly the same thing at this point). At least according to the title, it sells goods “Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation.” That’s it. That’s all we know.
But death and business come together at some of the key moments in the book, in its most famous passages. The first time we hear little Paul speak, he asks his father, “Papa! what’s money?” This eventually leads to his asking the heartbreaking question, “If it’s a good thing, and can do anything… I wonder why it didn’t save me my Mama.” Then there are the passages on the 1840s boom in the railroad industry. In chapter 20, we read a sustained litany on the train as Death embodied: death for the landscape, for the village, for the traveler. In the three other sections on the train or the building of the railroads, this motif is continued, an astoundingly pessimistic view of this “progress” tempered only by the example of employment and advancement that work on the railroad provides the lower-class Toodle family. It’s interesting to me how the coldness and calculation of Dombey, the consummate businessman, can be contrasted with the hellish fire and sordid waste of the railroad as presented by Dickens. That coldness and calculation, in fact, are what support and allow the Death — the brimstone and destruction of the countryside, the inhuman pace — that the railroad brings.
But most of all, there’s chapter 55. It has one of the great Dickensian chapter-titles, a cruel, riddling little joke: “How Rob the Grinder Lost His Place.” It’s brilliant, a classic example of the vengeful Dickens savoring the murder of one of his wicked creations from inside that creation’s own skin (it’s so odd, this feeling that Dickens is both suffering along with his character and enjoying the frenzied narration of that suffering). It reminded me of his treatment of Jonas Chuzzlewit in his previous novel, though I found Jonas’s death more affecting and more successful as a work of literary art. The paragraph of the train closing in on Carker as he realizes where he stands is a great example of the proto-cinematic Dickens: all jump-cuts and close-ups, it could’ve been filmed by Eisenstein. There’s also the strange parallel to the ending of Anna Karenina, which is kind of neither here nor there; the similarity in circumstance, however, makes you somehow question whether Carker’s death is actually an accident or somehow suicidal, too. I’m glad, at any rate, that it’s Carker and not Edith that is destroyed; while I don’t think Dickens ends up making any grand feminist statement on Edith’s behalf, at least she doesn’t end up dead (and also doesn’t allow Carker to get his filthy cat-like paws all over her).
Carker’s dispersal by train into “mutilated fragments” is perfect, in that Carker represents the combination of Dombey the businessman’s calculation with the locomotive’s excessive heat and (blood)lust. Dickens is always looking for ways to direct capital in the right directions, in ways that can help common people. I can’t help but thinking that, in exploding the ambitious but overreaching businessman who makes reckless gambles for personal gain without a thought for the people he is affecting, he is allegorically commenting on the flow of money to support the building of railroads.