Dickens, Our Contemporary

Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey

by Steven Marcus
Basic Books, 389 pp., $5.95

In this penetrating book on the first half of Dickens’s career, Steven Marcus has an acute summing-up of Mr. Dombey’s relationship to his son, that child whose only destiny in life was to become part of the great firm of Dombey and Son. “Dombey’s obsession with Paul’s future obliterates all regard for Paul’s present.” Exactly the same may be said of most critics of early Dickens. With the same condescending blend of solicitude and thoughtlessness, they become so obsessed with Dickens’s future (the weighty and profound works of his maturity) as to obliterate all regard for his present (the vigorous comic sanity from Pickwick Papers to Martin Chuzzlewit). One excellence of Mr. Marcus’s book lies in his avoiding this mistake. He shares the current opinion that Dickens’s late novels are indisputably his greatest, but he manages to combine an intuitive sureness about the lines of Dickens’s development with a confident sense of what each novel achieves in and for itself. As he says, it is only our knowledge of what was to come that gives us any right to use so presumptuous a term as “apprenticeship” for the novels that precede Dombey and Son. To be able to disentangle achievement and promise, and to give due and vivid praise to each, argues unusual gifts as a critic. In fact there is a sense in which the point about Dickens is true too of Mr. Marcus. His book gets better and better as it progresses—not because Dickens’s novels become more “congenial” to him (all of Dickens is congenial), but because they come closer and closer to his own central concern as a critic: that fateful and unforgettable place where three roads meet—myth, self, and society. It is only the sheer excellence of his last two chapters (on Dickens’s inner turmoil from 1844 to 1848, and on Dombey and Son) that gives one the right to think of the earlier chapters as a sort of apprenticeship. This is the first of two projected volumes, and there can be little doubt that the second will stand to this one as Little Dorrit stands to Dombey and Son.

The difficulty with the early chapters was that ultimately Mr. Marcus is as foxed by pure comedy as are all other critics. Satire, yes, and the comedy of the grotesque, or black comedy. But the exuberance of pure comedy (like the delicacy of pure lyric) seems to need no help from the critic, and instead to curse him for his pains. We know what to make of Dickens’s comedy, but not what to say of it. Mr. Marcus flirts with Plato: “Perhaps Plato was right when, at the end of the Symposium, he asserted through Socrates that the genius of comedy is the same as that of tragedy.” But Dickens’s comedy, like everything about him, was many-sided; of some of it (like that of Beckett), what Plato says is true, but …

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