David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 9 and 10

January 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Bringing us to the mid-point of the novel, here are my favorite lines from each chapter of the ninth and tenth parts:

Chapter 25:

“It’s a topic that I wouldn’t touch upon, to any soul but you.  Even to you I can only touch upon it, and no more.  If any one else had been in my place during the last few years, by this time he would have had Mr. Wickfield (oh, what a worthy man he is, Master Copperfield, too!) under his thumb.  Un—der — his thumb,” said Uriah, very slowly, as he stretched out his cruel-looking hand above my table, and pressed his own thumb down upon it, until it shook, and shook the room.

Another of the touches of surreality brought to the text by Uriah Heep, in that shaking of the room by a thumb.  This little passage highlights many of Uriah’s traits that get under David’s skin: that recurring dig of calling him “Master Copperfield,” as if a child, showing Uriah’s way of finding and exploiting weaknesses and vanities in his adversaries; his praise for those he seeks to control, as if he were unworthy of them; his taking liberties he has not earned and sharing confidences his companion would rather he not.

Chapter 26:

I hazarded a bold flight, and said (not without stammering) that it was very bright to me then, though it had been very dark to me a minute before.

“Do you mean a compliment?” said Dora, “or that the weather has really changed?”

A pretty funny exchange, in context, from early on in David’s wooing of Dora Spenlow, emblematic of David’s being a “lackadaisical young spooney” for her, in his own excellent words, and also of Dora’s ditziness.  At least so far, their relationship seems to be Hollywood-romantic-comedy level stuff.

Chapter 27:

The time he had mentioned was more than out, and he lived in a little street near the Veterinary College at Camden Town, which was principally tenanted, as one of our clerks who lived in that direction informed me, by gentlemen students, who bought live donkeys, and made experiments on those quadrupeds in their private apartments.

What’s the deal with the donkeys in this book?  Aunt Betsey is obsessed with them, and then this ghoulish chestnut gets tossed into a description of the neighborhood in which Tommy Traddles is living with the Micawbers.  The image of vets-in-training dissecting donkeys in their living rooms is so bizarre it must be based in reality.  And really, what an evocative way to suggest the unsavory nature of the neighborhood.

Chapter 28:

“Sir — for I dare not say, my dear Copperfield,

“It is expedient that I should inform you that the undersigned is Crushed.  Some flickering efforts to spare you the premature knowledge of his calamitous position, you may observe in him this day; but hope has sunk beneath the horizon, and the undersigned is Crushed.”

Another of the suicide notes from Mr. Micawber sprinkled throughout the text, this with a particularly effective combination of Micawber’s “legal phraseology” and his (real or feigned?) desperation.  The contrast of Micawber’s public positivity and shameless search for funds or position worthy of his “talents,” with his private letters to David admitting (and overstating) the doomed nature of his life, makes for a fascinating motif.  This chapter’s also notable for a great culinary scene of making deviled mutton on a gridiron, and the return of Steerforth, suddenly obviously a villain — Dickens rather overstates the case here, I think, in so quickly transforming his behavior.

Chapter 29:

As she still looked fixedly at me, a twitching or throbbing, from which I could not dissociate the idea of pain, came into that cruel mark; and lifted up the corner of her lip with scorn, or with a pity that despised its object.

Rosa Dartle’s cut through her lip, from when Steerforth threw a hammer at her as a child, is an odd but effective touch of the Gothic here: a sort of mark of Cain, and the first hint we’re given that Steerforth has a rotten core, it also takes on a character of its own, revealing itself whenever she grows pale, and contorting her face as if against Rosa’s will into the expressions she feels.  Rosa’s a really interesting character; I look forward to seeing what Dickens does with her.  She reminds me a bit of both Esther and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House.

Chapter 30:

I was on the point of asking him if he knew me, when he tried to stretch out his arm, and said to me, distinctly, with a pleasant smile:

“Barkis is willin’!”

And, it being low water, he went out with the tide.

It must’ve been amazing to hear Dickens read from his work.  I suspect he could’ve made me sob like a baby with a scene like this.  The cadence is just perfect, and that last line so sweet, and sad.  Dickens could come off as cloying or contrived in some of his death scenes, especially if of a main character, when the scene could become an “event” (see Nell, Little); here, he writes a perfectly balanced scene of comedy and tragedy, life and death, culminating in this quiet moment of dignity.

Chapter 31:

“Em’ly’s run away!  Oh, Mas’r Davy, think how she’s run away, when I pray my good and gracious God to kill her (her that is so dear above all things) sooner than let her come to ruin and disgrace!”

This is actually my least favorite line of the chapter, and one of my least favorite of the book, and it can stand in for more or less all of the most queasily and quintessentially Victorian lines in Dickens.  It’s just the line that provoked the strongest reaction.  It’s not even the first time that a character has suggested that Emily would be better off murdered than having run off to have sex with a man outside of her class (David mentions that maybe Emily would’ve been better off falling into the sea and drowning as a child, early on).  I don’t know what’s going to happen to Emily, yet.  But this sort of better-off-dead-than-deflowered BS… I mean… what’s the defense for it?  Why put this line into the mouth of virtuous Ham, Emily’s constantly devoted fiance?  It’s vile.  It shows all that seems most foreign to us in the society of 150 years ago.

Did Dickens himself believe this sort of thing, given his, shall we say, complicated personal life?  Or was he just obeying convention?  Surely lines like this were seen as necessary at the time, so as not to shock refined sensibilities, just like it’s impossible to show anything but negative effects of drug use on TV now.  It’s just so over the top.  Here’s my advice: Ham, you probably should not pray to almighty God to slaughter your beloved because she may be having premarital sex.  And you probably should not wish her life had ended when she was five because she may one day have sex with a man whose family has more money than she does, David.  Just my opinion, I guess.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 7 and 8

January 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Continuing my review of favorite passages from each chapter of DC:

Chapter 19:

I know that my juvenile experiences went for little or nothing then; and that life was more like a great fairy story, which I was just about to begin to read, than anything else.

A fascinating observation by David, here, as he reflects on his departure from school for what we now refer to as “real life.”  There have been many allusions to fairy tales throughout David’s telling of his childhood: ghosts, ogres, fairies, wicked stepparents, runaway children, much more.  And yet it’s now, when that childhood is over (at least in David’s own perception, at the time), that he explicitly compares his experience of life to those childhood stories.  Not to get too theoretical, but one of the recurring themes of David’s (fictional) autobiography is just this construction of identity and the narrative of life, and its pitfalls — the perception of experience as filtered through different kinds of stories when viewed at different times.

Chapter 20:

“Really!” said Miss Dartle.  “Well, I don’t know, now, when I have been better pleased than to hear that.  It’s so consoling!  It’s such a delight to know that, when they suffer, they don’t feel!  Sometimes I have been quite uneasy for that sort of people; but now I shall just dismiss the idea of them, altogether.  Live and learn.  I had my doubts, I confess, but now they’re cleared up.  I didn’t know, and now I do know; and that shows the advantage of asking — don’t it?”

Miss Dartle, “all edge” in Steerforth’s words, with her scarred lip and habit of framing everything as a question in which she can embed her own sarcastic answers, says this after Steerforth has explained his view of lower-class “common” people as less “sensitive,” and “not easily wounded.”  It’s an uncomfortable exchange for a reader now, and I’m sure it also was for Dickens’ contemporary readers, especially as Steerforth has heretofore been presented in a positive light, and Miss Dartle initially comes off as simply abrasive and unpleasant.  (I think it’s here that Dickens begins to darken Steerforth’s portrayal, and show the space between David’s infatuation with him and his actual character.)  It’s also an interesting passage in thinking about Dickens’ own portrayal of such lower-class characters, which sometimes suffers from the same sort of criticism that Miss Dartle brings up here.  I wonder if this was a self-critique of a sort, or if Dickens really did not think of himself as harboring any of this kind of condescension.

Chapter 21:

I believe there never existed in his station a more respectable-looking man.  He was taciturn, soft-footed, very quiet in his manner, deferential, observant, always at hand when wanted, and never near when not wanted; but his great claim to consideration was his respectability.  He had not a pliant face, he had rather a stiff neck, rather a tight smooth head with short hair clinging to it at the sides, a soft way of speaking, with a peculiar habit of whispering the letter S so distinctly, that he seemed to use it oftener than any other man; but every peculiarity that he had he made respectable.

Littimer, Steerforth’s “servant,” is hereby introduced (in part).  Dickens’ excessive use of the term “respectable” telegraphs (intentionally) that he means the opposite, that Littimer is not to be trusted — though I wonder how obvious this was to the Victorians, or if its obviousness is an effect of the following century’s thorough distrust of the supposedly trustworthy.  I enjoy the mention of Littimer’s use of “the letter S”; that Satanic sibilance also puts us on our guard against this respectable servant, the sort of figure that would be ignored as a matter of course in most fiction of the time.

Chapter 22:

“If either of you saw my ankles,” she said, when she was safely elevated, “say so, and I’ll go home and destroy myself.”

This from Miss Mowcher, a dwarf-hairdresser and social butterfly of sorts, who begins as an amusing grotesque and whom Dickens reveals later as an actual character.  This line just made me laugh out loud, and it’s also representative of her public face of excessive interest in social niceties and conventions.  I also enjoyed, in this chapter, David’s evocative return to his childhood home, then occupied by “a poor lunatic gentleman,” and I wonder if anything will come of that.

Chapter 23:

Littimer touched his hat in acknowledgment of my good opinion, and I felt about eight years old.  He touched it once more, wishing us a good journey; and we left him standing on the pavement, as respectable a mystery as any pyramid in Egypt.

Dickens succeeds in making David, unlike Oliver Twist or Martin Chuzzlewit or (to a lesser degree) Nicholas Nickleby, a fully formed character in his own right, rather than a virtuous cipher to whom interesting things happen.  His anxiety about his youth, for instance, which comes up in his lack of a need to shave at this time, and in his blind spot for Littimer’s respectability, which makes him feel even more like a child, and leads to his overlooking the oddity of Littimer having “business” to attend to on Steerforth’s behalf at Yarmouth — business that ends up being vague, at least as far as I’ve read so far, but definitely not respectable and seemingly akin to the activity of a pimp.

Chapter 24:

Somebody was leaning out of my bed-room window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face.  It was myself.  I was addressing myself as “Copperfield,” and saying, “Why did you try to smoke?  You might have known you couldn’t do it.”  Now, somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass.  That was I too.  I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair — only my hair, nothing else — looked drunk.

I love the drunken hair. This is a great chapter, showing David’s “First Dissipation” in having his own apartment, holding his first dinner with Steerforth and his friends, drinking and smoking too much, making an ass of himself at the theatre, sleeping a horrible drunken sleep, and ruing his activities the day after, wondering if he will go the way of the apartment’s previous tenant, a man who smoke and drunk himself to death.  Dickens at his best, the chapter’s a sensory feast both pleasurable and excessive, perfectly in tune with its content.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 5 and 6

December 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Numbers 5 and 6 are pivotal: David’s story changes dramatically, a huge number of important new characters are introduced, and Dickens pushes the action forward with the Victorian equivalent of a Hollywood movie’s music montage.  As in previous posts, here are my favorite sentences from each chapter.

Chapter 13:

Sometimes in his rage he would take me for one of them, and come at me, mouthing as if he were going to tear me to pieces; then, remembering me, just in time, would dive into the shop, and lie upon his bed, as I thought from the sound of his voice, yelling in a frantic way, to his own windy tune, the Death of Nelson, with an Oh! before every line, and innumerable Goroos interspersed.

The first half of chapter 13 is one of Dickens’ great waking nightmares of poverty, and the nightmare in this sentence is courtesy the drunken owner of a second-hand store (not the only one in the book; Dickens was warming up for the great Krook of Bleak House).  I imagine the “Goroo” sound to be a kind of throat-clearing howl, “screwed out of him” with his eyes bugging out, as Dickens says.  His earlier ranting “Oh my eyes and limbs… oh, my lungs and liver,” etc., and his cheating of David, are of a piece with the rest of the terrifying journey to Betsey Trotwood’s house.

Chapter 14:

“Mr. Murdstone,” she said, shaking her finger at him, “you were a tyrant to the simple baby, and you broke her heart.  She was a loving baby — I know that; I knew it, years before you ever saw her — and through the best part of her weakness, you gave her the wounds she died of.  There is the truth for your comfort, however you like it.  And you and our instruments may make the most of it.”

“Allow me to inquire, Miss Trotwood,” interposed Miss Murdstone, “whom you are pleased to call, in a choice of words in which I am not experienced, my brother’s instruments?”

Still stone-deaf to the voice, and utterly unmoved by it, Miss Betsey pursued her discourse.

I’m breaking my one-paragraph rule to include part of the fist-pump-worthy verbal beatdown of the Murdstones by Aunt Betsey, in which she implacably tells them the truth as she sees it of their behavior toward David and his mother and utterly ignores Miss Murdstone’s caustically sarcastic remarks.  It’s great.  Dickens gives you these moments of readerly vindication and moral satisfaction; he loves writing comeuppance; and I suppose it is one of the major points that can be held against him from a critical point of view.  Damned if it ain’t fun to read, though.

Chapter 15:

We got out; and leaving him to hold the pony, went into a long low parlor looking towards the street, from the window of which I caught a glimpse, as I went in, of Uriah Heep breathing into the pony’s nostrils, and immediately covering them with his hand, as if he were putting some spell upon him.

An approximation of my immediate reaction, upon reading this: Aaaahhh!!!  What the hell?!  Aaaahhh!!!

As the earlier second-hand shop example already showed, Dickens contains a lot of terrifying details.  He had a real gift for horror.  This is how we meet Uriah Heep: an unsettling physical description, heavy on the color red and the attributes of a corpse, followed by this stunning, unexplained weirdness.  It might as well be David Lynch, this is so creepy and nightmarish.

Chapter 16:

He had a way of writhing when he wanted to express enthusiasm, which was very ugly; and which diverted my attention from the compliment he had paid my relation, to the snaky twistings of his throat and body.

One more courtesy of Uriah Heep.  Two things especially stand out for me in the scene of which this line is representative: first, the pacing and structure, which I cannot convey through one line, but which is really fantastic.  Between the short lines of a seemingly innocuous conversation between Uriah and David, David the narrator inserts comments on the uneasiness Uriah provokes through his appearance, his movements, his clamminess, his obsequious “‘umbleness.”  Second, Dickens’ choice of the word “writhing” to describe Uriah’s movements, which recurs in the scene and then becomes a signature for the character, in Dickens’ typical style.  It’s the perfect word, with its associations with worms and snakes; its connotation of futile struggle and striving, which seems to be Uriah’s basic state; and the echo in writhe of wraith, and the touches of the supernatural, deathly, and satanic that have already been connected to Uriah.  It’s what he is and what he does.  He writhes.

Chapter 17:

“I suppose history never lies, does it?” said Mr. Dick, with a gleam of hope.

“Oh dear, no sir!” I replied, most decisively.  I was ingenuous and young, and I thought so.

Quite a cheeky epigram for the writer of a fictional “personal history” to include.

Chapter 18:

It is a summer evening, down in a green hollow, at the corner of a wall.  I meet the butcher by appointment.  I am attended by a select body of our boys; the butcher, by two other butchers, a young publican, and a sweep.  The preliminaries are adjusted, and the butcher and myself stand face to face.  In a moment the butcher lights ten thousand candles out of my left eyebrow.  In another moment, I don’t know where the wall is, or where I am, or where anybody is.  I hardly know which is myself and which the butcher, we are always in such a tangle and tussle, knocking about upon the trodden grass.

In this very short chapter, Dickens move David through puberty.  Much of it is standard stuff, and I suppose I like the passage above more for some of the music of language — the staccato rhythm, which persists through the entire chapter, and that lovely first sentence of scene-setting — than for the content of the teenage fight with the town-bully butcher.  I guess Dickens moves through it in this reportorial, perfunctory way because he knows it’s hackneyed.  And yet I like this chapter so much, because the form of the chapter somehow matches the experience of puberty and the way you recollect it.  It all means so much to you, but eventually those fierce crushes get crushed themselves, into just the kinds of paragraph-sized vignettes Dickens shapes here.  You can’t do anything but report; you’re a different person, walking through a fever dream.  Music montages became a cliche for a reason, I guess.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 3 and 4

December 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

My favorite passages from chapters 7 through 12, including David’s adventures at Salem House and Murdstone and Grinby’s:

Chapter 7:

An unhappy culprit, found guilty of imperfect exercise, approaches at his command.  The culprit falters excuses, and professes a determination to do better to-morrow.  Mr. Creakle cuts a joke before he beats him, and we laugh at it — miserable little dogs, we laugh, with our visages as white as ashes, and our hearts sinking into our boots.

This passage is the kind of thing you’d be hard-pressed to find in earlier Dickens: the virtuous protagonist taking part in cruelty, the author showing us a fault in the wronged.  Another good example is David’s pride he feels in the “dignity attached to [him]” among his schoolmates by the death of his mother. The shift to the first person is part of this — Dickens’ earlier third-person narrators have little heart for showing actual sin, rather than harmless foibles, in their favorites, whereas David himself can more easily admit to wrongdoing.  Of course, Dickens qualifies the wickedness by stating that the children laugh because they are afraid (and that David’s pride was nothing to his “sincere grief” at his mother’s death), but this scene of cruel laughter at others’ misfortune startled me.  It brings such a terrible, true image to the mind.  I suppose it is good and characteristic of David (and Dickens) to blame the laughter on fear and abuse rather than on genuine enjoyment of another’s misfortune.

Chapter 8:

What yawns and dozes I lapsed into, in spite of all my care; what starts I came out of concealed sleeps with; what answers I never got, to little observations that I rarely made; what a blank space I seemed, which everybody overlooked, and yet was in everybody’s way; what a heavy relief it was to hear Miss Murdstone hail the first stroke of nine at night, and order me to bed!

This, the culmination of a pageful of “what”s on the grinding anxiety, embarrassment, and boredom of David at home with his mother and the Murdstones, brilliantly done.  I do not know how large a part the Murdstones play in the later plot of the book; at the moment, after having read the first eighteen chapters, I feel that Dickens may have underestimated the evil that they convey, and could have used them more extensively than they did.  They are so malevolent.  In keeping with David’s earlier recollection of the acute sensitivity and perception of children to sensations and to emotional states, the bending of Clara and David Copperfield to the Murdstones’ fascistic, petty will makes his life a living hell, simply by his being made into a “blank space,” and by his being made to feel guilty for his mother’s love of him.

Chapter 9:

The work being now finished, the two girls, whose names I had not heard, brushed the shreds and threads from their dresses, and went into the shop to put that to rights, and wait for customers.  Minnie stayed behind to fold up what they had made, and pack it in two baskets.  This she did upon her knees, humming lively little tune the while.  Joram, who I had no doubt was her lover, came in and stole a kiss from her while she was busy (he didn’t appear to mind me, at all), and said her father was gone for the chaise, and he must make haste and get himself ready.  Then he went out again; and then she put her thimble and scissors in her pocket, and stuck a needle and threaded with black thread neatly in the bosom of her gown, and put on her outer clothing smartly, at a little glass behind the door, in which I saw the reflection of her pleased face.

The entire scene at Omer’s funerary shop is utterly remarkable.  The three “young women,” the Fates, at work on “black cloth”; the “RAT — tat-tat, RAT — tat-tat, RAT — tat-tat” of hammering outside, eventually revealed to be the hammer of Joram making David’s mother’s coffin; David’s observations of being among these happy, lively “creatures” at work upon death; it’s a work of genius, playing on all of the senses, resonant as mythology, and one of the most remarkable blends of memento mori and dolce vita I’ve ever read.

Chapter 10:

These offerings of affection were of a most various and eccentric description.  Among them I remember a double set of pig’s trotters, a huge pin-cushion, half a bushel or so of apples, a pair of jet earrings, some Spanish onions, a box of dominoes, a canary bird and cage, and a leg of pickled pork.

This list of gifts that Barkis gives in wooing Peggotty displays again Dickens’ gift for lists.  Part of it is a delight in everyday things from another time; part of it is the joy in his choice of objects; most of it, I think, is his utter gift for the musicality of language, the flow of vowels and words.

Chapter 11:

Mr. Micawber had a few books on a little chiffonier, which he called the library; and those went first.  I carried them, one after another, to a bookstall in the City Road — one part of which, near our house, was almost all bookstalls and bird-shops then — and sold them for whatever they would bring.  The keeper of this bookstall, who lived in a little house behind it, used to get tipsy every night, and to be violently scolded by his wife every morning.  More than once, when I went there early, I had audience of him in a turn-up bedstead, with a cut in his forehead or a black eye, bearing witness to his excesses over night (I am afraid he was quarrelsome in his drink), and he, with a shaking hand, endeavouring to find the needful shillings in one or other of the pockets of his clothes, which lay on the floor, while his wife, with a baby in her arms and her shoes down at heel, never left off rating him.

Ah, the book trade.  Really, this should probably be the passage in which David shows us one of Mr. Micawber’s creditors yelling at his window from the street, or the description of rat-infested Murdstone and Grinby’s, or the introduction of Micawber’s prison quarters, or just the simple fact of the sublime name “Mealy Potatoes” — but who can resist this scene of the debauched, disreputable bookseller?

Chapter 12:

“He is the parent of my children!  He is the father of my twins!  He is the husband of my affections,” cried Mrs. Micawber, struggling; “and I ne — ver — will — desert Mr. Micawber!”

The Micawbers are fascinating, like a trainwreck.  Their histrionics, their violent swings from threats of suicide to irresponsible overspending, their insistence of respectability in the worst state of squalor: it’s fascinating, especially when you factor in their basis in Dickens’ own parents.  Mrs. Micawber’s fanatical vows of loyalty to Micawber after listing all of the reasons she should leave him smacks of protesting too much, and perhaps of Stockholm Syndrome.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 1 and 2

December 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens.

Reading this book is a remarkable experience in a number of ways, and for a number of reasons — one of the foremost being that it’s Dickens in first person, which seems such a radical experiment for him after all of his previous books employ that roving eye and range of angles made so much easier by the third person, but also because it is such a feeling work: you can feel the emotion, Dickens’ emotion, on every page, and yet it is so masterfully controlled.

It is an exquisite book, at least so far: the prose is just astoundingly, incredibly beautiful.  And so I wanted to choose my favorite passages — from a single sentence to as long as a paragraph — from each chapter.  Herewith, my favorites from the first six chapters, comprising the first two original serial numbers.

Chapter 1:

I was a posthumous child.  My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it.  There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlor was warm and bright with fire and candle, and the doors of our house were — almost cruelly, it seemed to me sometimes — bolted and locked against it.

This, after just beginning, and learning that David was born at midnight and local superstition held that he could therefore “see ghosts and spirits.”  These touches suffuse the first chapter with a pervasive melancholy, just below the surface of the comedy of David’s birth and his aunt’s disappointment that he is a boy.

Chapter 2:

I look from Mr. Chillip, in his Sunday neckcloth, to the pulpit; and think what a good place it would be to play in, and what a castle it would make, with another boy coming up the stairs to attack it, and having the velvet cushion with the tassels thrown down on his head.

The early chapters are such amazing representations of the experience of childhood, and of the experience of remembering childhood.  The portion of this chapter just preceding this passage, when David recalls his childhood home, is also great.  But I love this passage about being in church as a child, especially because I can remember thinking just this same thing as I dozed off during many a sermon, about how fun it would be to have the pulpit to myself, to play in.

Chapter 3:

I rambled down-stairs to find anything that was like itself, so altered it all seemed; and roamed into the yard.  I very soon started back from there, for the empty dog kennel was filled up with a great dog — deep mouthed and black-haired like Him — and he was very angry at the sight of me, and sprung out to get at me.

This is the last sentence of the first number, and as such is a kind of cliffhanger.  However, with its correspondences between the dog and Mr. Murdstone, and between the earlier loving description of the yard and this new experience of home as a place to fear and watch one’s self at all time, it is also a kind of preemptive elegy, a mourning for the childhood already beginning to be lost, and it strikes such a difficult and beautiful note, so early in the work.

Chapter 4:

They had persuaded her that I was a wicked fellow, and she was more sorry for that, than for my going away.  I felt it sorely.  I tried to eat my parting breakfast, but my tears dropped upon my bread-and-butter, and trickled into my tea.  I saw my mother look at me sometimes, and then glance at the watchful Miss Murdstone, and then look down, or look away.

This chapter is full of tear-jerking moments: David’s reminiscence of the friends he found in books, the scene of the beating itself, the masterful sentence in which he remembers his imprisonment after the beating and the lengthening of those endless days.  But this passage, his recognition of his mother’s thinking him wicked, is a killer.  An absolute murderer.

Chapter 5:

“My dear Peggotty.  I have come here safe.  Barkis is willing.  My love to mama.  Yours affectionately.  P.S.  He says he particularly wants you to know — Barkis is willing.”

I love the comedic timing here, of young David throwing in “Barkis is willing” in the middle of his letter, as if Peggotty would know what he’s talking about (and perhaps she does, at that).  Barkis is one of Dickens’ more or less interchangeable, kind-hearted, working-class buffoons, but he tickles me, for some reason.  I enjoy his courtship of Peggotty. There’s more great stuff at the end of this chapter, in the empty school, but the “Barkis is willing” line is set up so well it made me laugh out loud.

Chapter 6:

We sat in the dark for some time, breathless.

This simple, gorgeous line, after David’s idol, the older schoolboy Steerforth, has explained, illuminating his face with a match, how he would beat the schoolmaster should he ever challenge him.  The depiction of their brotherly relationship is one of the best I’ve read of big brother-little brother dynamic that does sometimes flourish in schools, for reasons mysterious at the time and maybe obvious in retrospect.

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.

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.

Wicked Old Women in Parallel Plots

December 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

An interesting development as Dickens rebuilds his plot after Paul’s death: the introduction of a parallel narrative structure.

Florence is left alone in the Dombeys’ house as Dombey goes off with Bagstock to recuperate.  The opening of chapter 23 magnificently illustrates her lonely, heartbroken state with a survey of the loveless house in which she lives: the incantatory opening sentence appears with small variations three times, in this six-page tour: “Florence lived alone in the great dreary house, and day succeeded day, and still she lived alone; and the blank walls looked down upon her with a vacant stare, as if they had a Gorgon-like mind to stare her youth and beauty into stone.”  Surely I’m not the first to draw a line from this portrait of oppressive domesticity — a woman trapped in a horrible house by both society and her own (rather misguided) inclinations — to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s masterpiece, “The Yellow Wallpaper”?

Whatever the case, while Florence could be seen as another of early Dickens’ colorless, selfless heroes/heroines, I think she’s a bit more of a transitional figure: Dickens is starting to understand how to make his good people as interesting as his bad.  While her desire to win her wicked father’s love is undoubtedly annoying (and a little creepy), it’s a desire that’s made palpable enough — and that is unconventional enough — to keep the reader’s interest.  Further, Florence is good in slightly unpredictable ways: doing Paul’s homework to be able to help him at Dr. Blimber’s, promising to keep Solomon Gills company while Walter is gone.  Her constant craving for love is understandable enough, and shown in enough detail, to keep her interesting.

Most of all, though, interesting things have happened to Florence, and therein lies the key to the parallel plot.  Dombey begins courting a young widow, Edith Granger, with Bagstock’s assistance.  We might not have connected Edith to Florence, but for an incident shortly after we meet Edith: she is accosted by a “withered and very ugly old woman,” a fortune-teller who first offers to tell her fortune, and then threatens to, unless she receives payment.  Edith is rescued from this awkward scene — and perhaps from a curse that could’ve dragged her to hell — by evil Mr. Carker, Dombey’s right-hand man.

Right down to the description of a “very ugly old woman,” this scene casts our memory back to the first moment of real action in the book, young Florence being briefly kidnapped by “Good Mrs. Brown,” who steals Florence’s clothes and gives her rags to wear instead.  It’s one of Dickens’s typically memorable scenes of truly awful London street life, the old woman smoking a pipe as she takes a seat on a pile of bones and tells Florence, like any Hollywood bank-robber, “… don’t vex me.  If you don’t, I tell you I won’t hurt you.  But if you do, I’ll kill you.”

With the similarity between these incidents, we draw the parallel between Edith and Florence: good women with the misfortune to know Paul Dombey, Sr.  The fortune-teller even references Florence in the brief fortune she gives Carker: “One child dead, and one child living: one wife dead, and one wife coming.  Go and meet her!”  (At this time, Carker has never met Edith and has no idea that the woman he just helped is the one that Bagstock is arranging for Dombey to marry.)  They both lacked a proper childhood: Florence, looked over by old Mrs. Pipchin, and Edith, married off very young by her hideous mother, Mrs. Skewton, both deprived of the parents’ unconditional love that defines childhood.

Dickens takes his cue from Shakespeare, who used parallel plotting often.  The example I know best is King Lear, where he uses the parallel plots of Lear and Gloucester to heighten emotion and set his themes in high relief.  Here, he does the same, showing us the plight of these young women through a kind of echo chamber of similarities, heightening our emotions toward both of them as neglected human beings and oppressed women.  But the differences, too, allow us to connect to each of them as their own people: even early on, as we are just coming to know Edith, it’s clear that she’s much more embittered than Florence, much more cynical and knowing about the forces that are acting on her.  Edith seems to have given up hope, or very nearly so, where Florence seems to feel nothing but a constant cycle of hope, rejection, disappointment, and longing.  That these two are brought together at the end of chapter 28 — that Edith is to be Florence’s new “Mama” — promises fascinating developments.

Is it possible to imagine a feminist turn by Dickens, here?  Will Edith act as a catalyst for change in Florence, or will she confront Dombey in his coldness, refusing to give him another son?  Or will the women simply comfort each other as they are neglected and abused, and Dombey gets his comeuppance from some other (male) source?  Please don’t tell me Walter’s going to sail to the rescue, here, and make it all better.

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.

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?

Where Am I?

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