Monday, November 17, 2008
" The Pickwick Papers" Charles Dickens
Pickwick begins with a ray of light illuminating the gloom, and ends in the blaze of the sunshine of the world. Throughout, this sunniest of Dickens’s works balances light and darkness, like the dappled shade of an English wood on a summer’s day. It is a trope in Dickens criticism to see a steady darkening of his mood throughout his career, and there is no doubt that Drood for example is darker than Pickwick. However, the darkness of his later works is foreshadowed in scenes and episodes in Pickwick. The climax of the book sees Pickwick and his faithful servant Sam Weller incarcerated in the Fleet prison, giving Dickens the first of his career-long opportunities to highlight the injustices of the legal system; a system which, in Dickens’s worldview, stands in metonymic relationship to all systems which dehumanize. The first of the inset stories features alcoholism, poverty, domestic abuse, squalor and death; and the other inset narratives all focus on the dark underbelly of life.
These dark episodes notwithstanding, the book is hilariously enchanting and a source of continual delight in its depiction of innocence at large. Pickwick and his chums are in fact children lost in an adult world. The adventures they have are often the result of misreading the world, in the way that children do. They are taken in by the worldly Jingles; Pickwick is unaware of the reason why Mrs Bardell is behaving so strangely. In their relations with women, they exist in a pre-sexual innocence. Although he is retired, we never know what line of business Pickwick was in, or anything of his former life: he exists in a perpetually unfolding present, without a personal history, in the way that children do. The same is true of Snodgrass, Winkle and Tupman. The function of Sam Weller is to follow behind like a patient adult or a long suffering guardian angel, and get Mr Pickwick out of scrapes. In a key scene when Mr Pickwick has been wandering lost in the dark midnight corridors of the great White Horse Inn, he is found by Sam and taken back to bed and tucked in.
'But of this I am determined, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick; 'that if I were to stop in this house for six months, I would never trust myself about it, alone, again.'
'That's the wery prudentest resolution as you could come to, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller. 'You rayther want somebody to look arter you, Sir, when your judgment goes out a wisitin'.'
'What do you mean by that, Sam?' said Mr. Pickwick. He raised himself in bed, and extended his hand, as if he were about to say something more; but suddenly checking himself, turned round, and bade his valet 'Good-night.'
'Good-night, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller. He paused when he got outside the door--shook his head--walked on--stopped-- snuffed the candle--shook his head again--and finally proceeded slowly to his chamber, apparently buried in the profoundest meditation.
The main threats to the Pickwickians’ innocence are the loss of a childhood independence through marriage, and the guile and adult unscrupulousness of the law. It’s significant that the grounds for the action of Bardell versus Pickwick are laid in the same chapter that Sam Weller is hired as Pickwick’s servant: the main threat to Pickwick, and his chief protection against it arrive in the story at the same time. The situation of Tony Weller structurally foreshadows the threat to Pickwick: both of them under threat from a widow, a threat that has been put into motion by the machinations of the law. Notwithstanding the happy wedding celebrations, and the hilarious wooings of Winkle, Snodgrass and Tupman, the text is full of anxieties about marriage. 'Ven you’re a married man, Samivel, you’ll understand a good many things as you don’t understand now'. and most of the marriages portrayed are unhappy or unwanted. ‘Mr Vinkle stops at home now’, rejoined Sam. ‘He’s married.’ ‘Married!’ exclaimed Pott, with frightful vehemence. He stopped, smiled darkly, and added in a low, vindictive tone, “It serves him right!’ It’s all too easy to read into this Dickens’s anxieties over his own perhaps too hastily enjoined marriage to Catherine Hogarth, in the year Pickwick was started, especially in view of his later desertion of her. The law is accompanied by images of dirt and filth whenever it makes an appearance, like the mud symbolism in the famous opening paragraph of Bleak House, another sustained attack on the legal system.
The book is characterised by a kind of largesse. Images of largeness abound, with a host of fat characters: Tupman, the fat boy, Wardle, and of course Pickwick himself, who threatens often to burst from his waistcoat when he is indignant or angry. This fatness is not restricted to the characters, but also infects the language and even the structure of the book. The second chapter was overwritten and the justly famous Christmas chapters had to be renumbered for the same reason. The main plot of the novel is fattened with subsidiary narratives: inset stories and manuscripts, anecdotes told by the characters to each other. Part of this largeness resides in Dickens’ peculiar metonymic imagination, in which parts stand for the whole, in which the whole picture, the whole emotion is often unreachable, beyond language: [Mr Pickwick] smiling on his partner all the while with a blandness of demeanour that baffles all description.
This metonymic strategy is nowhere more apparent in Dickens’s creation of character, in which the line, the gesture, the external description of body, clothing, action and speech stands for psychological motivation, for descriptions of the internal working of the mind. In two characters in particular in this early novel, the metonymic use of language is especially pronounced and hilarious. Mr Jingles speaks a kind of telegraphese, in which most of the subsidiary language is stripped away leaving the key word partnerships to stand for the whole sentence in the mind of the reader, and also in the mind of Jingles’s listener: Here, No. 924, take your fare, and take yourself off—respectable gentleman—know him well—none of your nonsense—this way, sir—where’s your friends?—all a mistake, I see—never mind—accidents will happen—best regulated families—never say die—down upon your luck—Pull him up—Put that in his pipe—like the flavour—damned rascals.’
Sam Weller, on the other hand, is in the habit of facetiously adding little set-phrases: …as the X said when… to the most innocuous of replies. Severe weather, Sam,’ observed Mr. Pickwick.‘Fine time for them as is well wropped up, as the Polar bear said to himself, ven he was practising his skating,’ replied Mr. Weller.
‘What do I mean,’ retorted Sam; ‘come, Sir, this is rayther too rich, as the young lady said when she remonstrated with the pastry–cook, arter he’d sold her a pork pie as had got nothin’ but fat inside. These, rather like Feneon’s Three Line Novels, create little eddies, little vortexes of narratives, in which the set-phrase stands for a larger narrative known only to Sam. They are usually ignored by the other characters, and seem to please only Sam (and the reader) himself. A collection of these set-phrases of Sam’s would make a nice little anthology of miniatures, and would reveal Sam’s gallows sense of humour.
The pivotal trial scene prefigures the later trails of Kafka, Hitchcock and Camus. The humour aside, the situation takes on the character of a nightmare in which every insignificant detail of daily life is presented as evidence for a crime Pickwick doesn’t even know he has committed: not only is the breach of promise unproved, but the promise itself has never even been made or intended. The texture of everyday life is on trial, and the innocence of the quotidian is turned around and made sinister by the law:
…letters that must be viewed with a cautious and suspicious eye—letters that were evidently intended at the time, by Pickwick, to mislead and delude any third parties into whose hands they might fall. Let me read the first: “Garraways, twelve o’clock. Dear Mrs. B.—Chops and tomato sauce. Yours, Pickwick.”