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.

Poor Little Nell! Poor Little Paul!

December 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

Here’s a nice 21st-century take on Dickens: Dickens the Assassin with a Heart of Gold.  In his outline for this book, in his notes for the very first part, Dickens wrote: “Boy born, to die.”  And so he is, at the book’s beginning; and so he does, not even a quarter of the way through the work.

Dickens makes sure we know he feels bad about it: in his Preface to a later edition (sorry, this crappy Oxford edition doesn’t tell me which edition this prefaces — Dickens wrote many prefaces for new editions — but I know it’s not to the first), he writes in reference to Paul’s death, “…when I am reminded by any chance of what it was that the waves were always saying, my remembrance wanders for a whole winter night about the streets of Paris — as I restlessly did with a heavy heart, on the night when I had written the chapter in which my little friend and I had parted company.”

Fiction writers write things like this fairly often, trying to convince their readers of the reality they feel in the characters they create, until it becomes inconvenient and they condescendingly remind some dolt or critic, who has made the mistake of acting as though the world they’ve created is real, that fiction is make-believe.  No one wants to believe that writers, writers of the kind of social-pseudo-realist fiction that Dickens wrote, create characters out of convenience, out of something so unseemly as a profit motive, much less kill them off for same.  And yet the fact remains: the death of little Nell in the last part of The Old Curiosity Shop had been an absolute sensation, readers in both Britain and America feeling terrible suspense about her fate, and then expressing deep emotion at her death and Dickens’s artistry in presenting it.  And Martin Chuzzlewit, after that book, had flopped.  And Dickens, needing a hit, crafted a story around a boy born to die.  It feels more than a little unseemly.  Killing, hobbling, and imperiling saintly children was good business, in Victorian England.  It sold books, and still does.

That Dickens gets away with it, for this reader at least — not only gets away with it, but actually achieves a genuine artistic breakthrough, and makes you cry in the process — is a kind of miracle of humanity.  Little Paul is so much more a character than little Nell.  Little Nell is one of those typical boring Victorian selfless females, with all the personality of a Precious Moments figurine.  Little Paul is something of a saint, too, I suppose; but he’s a weird little saint, and we get to know him from the inside out.  Shouldn’t this make it worse, Dickens killing him off?  Why should this make me believe that Dickens really did suffer, in writing his premeditated death?

But it doesn’t: Paul becomes a real little boy, like Pinocchio.  He dies because he’s young and sickly and, to speculate on Dickens’s medical beliefs, because he never had his mother’s milk and was weaned from his first nurse far too soon — not because Dickens needs him to die for the plot to work.  I am afraid that, even if Dickens came up with the idea for Paul out of a profit motive, he wrote him into existence.  And it must have pained him to see him die.

Part of the difference between Paul and Nell is surely the Victorian obsession with angelic femininity.  Another part, I’d guess, is the stronger autobiographical impulse Dickens felt towards Paul as a boy whom he’d put into a situation very similar to one he’d been put into as a boy, and the way this connection allowed him to write his way into Paul’s childish point of view.  To Paul, Doctor Blimber’s house is a strange and magical place, where the clock’s working says to him, “‘how, is, my, lit, tle, friend? how, is, my, lit, tle, friend?’ over and over again,” and the patterns in the rugs and wallpaper come to life.  These are the sorts of details we never got for little Nell, who remains boringly angelic.

Beyond that, Paul’s main eccentricity is said to be that he is “old-fashioned,” in a mysterious way that those who call him such cannot quite identify.  He is very polite, and kind, but also very honest — to the point of being rude, such as when Mrs. Pipchin wonders what he’s thinking and he answers, “I’m thinking how old you must be.” In the end, it is implied that people sense that Paul is old-fashioned as a function of his being doomed to death; and yes, child mortality was still a giant problem in the nineteenth century, and was one of the old-fashioned problems Victorian society was most concerned with eradicating.

The way he will stare at Mrs. Pipchin for hours in front of the fire, wondering how old she is, seems to me to be a key to Dickens’s creation of Paul.  Paul knows he is not well; knows he cannot be long for the world; is fascinated by age, by people who have lived ten times as long as he has and seem to get no enjoyment from it; is always asking questions about death, about the voices that seem to live in those waves of life and death.  I think Paul’s old-fashionedness is actually a matter of his being nostalgic for the present, always seeing his own life as if it is already ended; he is always rolling the few scenes and incidents of his short life over and over in his mind, savoring or longing for them, asking to hear about his mother whom he never knew.  Dickens imbues him with an implied, but never stated, self-awareness of his own condition, and he looks upon the world with a ghost’s eyes.  You could dismiss all this as corny Victorian spirituality, I suppose, but I think that reaction is basically a product of years of ham-fisted attempts to replicate the kinds of effects Dickens achieves when he expresses his mysticism.

He definitely does have this mystical streak, and when it works, it seems to produce some of the most beautiful language in literary history.  Chapter 16, the aforementioned “What the Waves were always saying,” really does seem to me to be a point at which Dickens reached a new artistic plateau.  From the beginning of D&S he feels more in control, more sure of his plot, his characters, and his language, than in previous books.  And then comes this, which I know you can read for yourself at that link above, but which I want to write in full just for the glory of it; this must be one of the most beautiful paragraphs in the English language:

When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful.  As the reflection died away, and a gloom went creeping up the wall, he watched it deepen, deepen, deepen, into night.  Then he thought how the long streets were dotted with lamps, and how the peaceful stars were shining overhead.  His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the river, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars — and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.

After the first half of this chapter, I will forgive Dickens nearly anything.   The second half of the chapter, at Paul’s deathbed, can be somewhat maudlin in the little Nell style, but even though Nell’s death came very near the end of a very long book, this scene seems to me so much more moving, simply because we’ve seen through the eyes of the sick little boy.  Even at the very end, Paul is “old-fashioned,” using his last words to his father to encourage him to “Remember Walter,” a kid that Paul barely knew but who had helped Florence once — nostalgic for things that happened once upon a time, before he escapes from time forever.

A Fop and an Androgyne

November 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.

This is the first of Wilkie Collins that I’ve read, and I must say I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy the writing itself; I expected something more sensationally and less imaginatively written, whereas it has been (at least so far) quite strong.  In the early going, I’m most intrigued by a couple of characters whose parts I’m unsure of in the overall narrative:

-Frederick Fairlie, who seems a great type of villain: the foppish, indifferent hypochondriac.  Constantly using his supposedly fragile nerves and health as an excuse to get rid of people, and to have nothing to do with things he cares nothing about, he is revealed as a monster of solipsism.  He refuses to leave his room for any reason, and takes no considerations into account other than what will mostly quickly get him rid of whoever is bothering him.  He sets guidelines for when and how his niece Laura will be allowed to visit him before and after her wedding, imploring that she visit him “without tears!” to avoid upsetting his disposition.  Fairlie reminds me very much of Des Esseintes from Against Nature, here presented from the normal societal perspective on the worthlessness of such a self-centered aesthete.  I’ll be interested to see what’s done with him.  He’s a caricature as so many characters in Victorian novels are, but he’s one that’s particularly well done and interesting, I think, and one that can also strike close to home: that consideration for one’s own comfort whatever the consequence for others is a source of constant struggle, isn’t it?

-Marian Holcombe, who seems as though she may actually be our protagonist, or at least should be.  While Fairlie is presented as effeminate and delicate, Holcombe is given a statuesque body, a homely face, and any number of masculine sympathies and markers as something of an intermediary between the sexes.  Collins seems to set her up as a kind of sexless combination of what he sees as the best of each sex: the compassion, familial concern, and lively wit of the female, and the level-headedness and responsibility of the male.  And yet she is a strong defender of her sister Laura’s right to choose her husband, and to back out of a marriage that certainly promises to be loveless; she certainly sees the woman’s point of view.  Marian seems kind of fascinating, and I’m interested to see what Collins does with her, as well: does she become the authorial surrogate, interjecting Collins’s own views into the plot?  Or is she allowed to take a more active role, perhaps in solving the mystery of Anne Catherick?

I note that we get to know Marian much better than we get to know Laura, the object of so much attention but so little substantive description.  In combination with the ominous marriage agreement allowing (the wonderfully named) Percival Glyde to take her money in the event of her death before her 21st birthday, the lack of depth to Laura’s character makes me wonder if she’s not long for the narrative.  Not that it’s all that uncommon for a Victorian novelist to keep a young woman pure by sketching her as good and pure and beautiful without an ounce of actual character.  Marian’s too interesting to be loved, it would seem.

Tales and Tellers: The Eighth Day

June 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Reading next: The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis.

Eight days in, and I’m still not sure what to think about Boccaccio’s orientation toward his work and his characters. Is he trying to create characters, in the ten patricians abandoning Florence? Or is he merely creating a pliable framework in which he can tell stories, dozens of them, of all shapes and sizes?

There have certainly been moments that indicated that Boccaccio was interested in the interaction of tale and teller, most obviously in the theme of Filostrato’s day. There’s also the songs sung at the end of each day, which are sometimes just pretty little lyrics but are sometimes self-consciously revealing of the singer’s desires or emotional state. At the end of this day Panfilo sings that “I with burning joy conceal/ A rapture I may not reveal.” Unlike Filostrato, flayed by his inability to hold his beloved, Panfilo seems to enjoy his love, even though he cannot express it in public and must keep it secret.

But on this day, at least, the stories are largely related only to one another: an incident or character in one provokes the next, with little apparent revelation of the teller’s character. Boccaccio, I suppose I’m trying to say, does not seem to care whether he’s consistent with the kinds of stories he has the ten tell, or whether the stories always seem appropriate to those telling them.

This more or less makes sense, I suppose, given Boccaccio’s times, his Humanist leanings away from the church but his still basically medieval world. There’s this strange tension between the literary world to come, of psychology and character, and that which had been before, of allegory, moral, formalism. (This is a little clearer, I think, in Chaucer, with his flesh-and-blood slices of society on a pilgrimage to Canterbury.) Interesting, then, that story about Giotto, with his move towards realistic human forms while still incorporating medieval techniques.

Fiammetta tells perhaps the most radical story yet, the eighth of the day. In it, a friendly neighbor, Spinelloccio, starts an affair with his neighbor Zeppa’s wife. Finding out about it, Zeppa takes his revenge by contriving to make love to Spinelloccio’s wife, on top of a trunk in which Spinelloccio’s hiding. And here’s how the story ends:

Spinelloccio now emerged from the chest, and without making too much fuss, he said:

‘Now we are quits, Zeppa. So let us remain friends, as you were saying just now to my wife. And since we have always shared everything in common except our wives, let us share them as well.’

Zeppa having consented to this proposal, all four breakfasted together in perfect amity. And from that day forth, each of the ladies had two husbands, and each of the men had two wives, nor did this arrangement ever give rise to any argument or dispute between them.

Before the ninth story it’s mentioned that the ladies discuss “the two Sienese and their wife-sharing.” That’s it! No mention of anyone offended, or blushing!

We also meet some recurring characters on the eighth day, the painters Calandrino, Bruno, and Buffalmacco, all real Florentines. Poor Calandrino! He’s come down through history (because of Boccaccio, or just because Boccaccio recorded his actual character?) as a naive simpleton, superstitious and capable of believing that a particular rock had made him invisible. The ten seem to love this crew, telling three stories about them on the eighth day and two more on the ninth. Boccaccio seems to use Calandrino as the fool who believes in folktales and thereby gets in trouble.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with characters at The Ambiguities.