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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 Plato doesn’t help much with Pickwick. Mr. Marcus is perceptibly more at his ease with the hideously uneasy comedy of the monstrous Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop.

Where Mr. marcus is at his best is in relating the psychological stresses of Dickens’s character to the achievement of the novels, and he argues very convincingly that “part of Dickens’s genius was to see that society itself suffered from similar contradictions.” The result is some very illuminating discussion on such different topics as Dickens’s sentimentality and his gift for humorous self-parody. Even on such a tired matter as serialization, Mr. Marcus is able to offer something valuable: that it curbed Dickens’s violent and recurring impulse to begin a new work before he had finished its predecessor. The formulations are crisp on matters of detail: that Pecksniff is “a totalitarian of the moral life”; that there is “a perfect balance of pathos and rigor” in the tear which Dickens sees John Willet weep, “a great, round, leadenlooking, and not at all transparent tear,” or that Joyce was making a point and not merely a joke when he coined the title “the old cupiosity shape.”

There is the same compact accuracy when Mr. Marcus focuses on larger matters: Dickens’s attitude to America in Martin Chuzzlewit; the great difficulty for him of showing a gradual change in character; the way in which his later novels evolve from a clash of two impulses, “his wish to write about his reawakening past and his need to keep it secret.” Mr. Marcus is a sophisticated critic, but it is one of his virtues that he will suddenly and simply force our attention back to matters so large and close that they are almost invisible. Such as that in Nicholas Nickleby: “Dickens bore witness, as no writer ever had before, to the murderous consequences of a childhood without adequate love and protection.” Mr. Marcus may be fascinated by Dickens’s obsessions, but he does not mistake obsessional energy for the transcendent power of great literature. The contrast of Dombey and Son with the story The Battle of Life (obsessive but inane) is particularly apt.

Among the many patterns unfolded is that of “symbiotic characters…that is to say, we cannot understand them apart from each other.” He writes extremely well on such pairing, “two sides of a single person”: Pickwick and Sam Weller: Oliver Twist and Monks; Nicholas Nickleby and Smike; Nell and Quilp; Edward and Hugh in Barnaby Rudge; Tigg and Jonas Chuzzlewit; Dombey and Carker. At one point he interjects. “one expects this from Dickens by now”—but it is a tribute to the critic’s tact that the pattern does not obliterate distinctions. The examples are not idly assimilated to each other—they remain distinct. So far, so good. And yet, rather churlishly. I should like to make two points about the book: one, a dissatisfaction; the other, a doubt.

The dissatisfaction lurks in the odd fact that although this is a good book, it is not a particularly original one—not so original as we would expect from Mr. Marcus. The reason seems to be a simple one, and we learn it from the Appendix (“Who is Fagin?”): “This essay was written after the body of this study had been completed.” But “Who is Fagin?” was in Commentary in 1962, and if most of the present book was completed before then, that would explain how it has come about that Mr. Marcus’s book is, as it were, less original than he is. There is no question of blaming him for the publication delays; it is simply that a good deal of important critical work has been done on Dickens in the last few years, and in some important ways the critical mood has changed. (There is now a more skeptical attitude to Dickens’s “symbolism,” to put it crudely.) A critic as good as Mr. Marcus is does not simply become “outdated.” But when he says of The Old Curiosity Shop that it is, of all the novels, the “least likely to be read with sympathy today,” then one remembers that quite a few of his points about Quilp’s sexuality and about Dick Swiveller were made by Gabriel Pearson in 1962. At many points the arguments would have gained from two books by Philip Collins which are not in the bibliography: Dickens and Crime (1962) and Dickens and Education (1963). The former shows that one must be very careful about such phrasing (Mr. Marcus’s) as “even the humane and liberal Dickens…”—there is not much that is humane and liberal about, for example, his attitude to the flogging of ruffians: “I would have his back scarified often and deep.” And Dickens and Education has certainly superseded Manning’s book on the subject, which Mr. Marcus cites. Mr. Marcus has been badly served by his publisher. Many, unexpectedly many, of his points have so much less novelty than they had in 1961. Oh, selfimprisonment, symbiotic characters, the relationship of fathers and sons, the imagery of labyrinths, of haze, of the railway and the sea. All true, but much more like truisms than they were only a little while ago.

A doubt about one facet of the book also involves the symbiotic characters. Such a pattern does suit Mr. Marcus’s gifts very well, partly because Dickens uses it in a way that relates society and the self, and partly because such characters have a significant modernity. Mr. Marcus is particularly good on all the ways in which Dickens anticipates the insights and judgments in modern literature. The fact that Mr. Marcus has written brilliantly of Samuel Beckett reminds one of how important such characters are to the creator of Pozzo and Lucky and of Hamm and Clov. Beckett indeed wrote about the matter with witty horror in 1938:

The Dives-Lazarus symbiosis, as intimate as that of fungoid and algoid in lichen (to adopt the Concise New Oxford Dictionary example). Here scabs, lucre, etc., there forment. bosom, etc., but both here and there gulf. The absurdity, here or there, of either without the other, the inaccessible other. In death they did not cease to be divided. Who predeceased? A painful period for both.

Now it is certainly Mr. Marcus’s great strength as a critic of Dickens that he makes one remember Beckett, and that he is so prompt to relate the literature of the past to the life and literature of the present. He is the least academically musty of critics, and his reader is always aware that Dickens’s genius has vital things to say about the way we live now.

But if this is Mr. Marcus’s strength, it is also in danger of being his limitation. We hear that Dombey and Son deals with “the death of feeling.” which is “one of the dominant themes of modern literature.” Barnaby Rudge foresees society’s self-annihilation, and “to have seen this in 1840 was to have gazed into the heart of the affliction that goes by the name of modern civilization.” Martin Chuzzlewit prefigures “that distinctively modern possibility, the loss of self, of a sense of being somebody with a separate identity.” Now it is true that one of the manifestations of Dickens’s genius is that he often voices that now-familiar indictment of modern industrial society (Blake, Lawrence, and modern literature passim) an indictment which reigns in our intellectual life and which Mr. Marcus believes is the truth. But it is a bit suspicious that Dickens never seems to voice any other truths, that Mr. Marcus never catches him saying anything that our reigning indictment has forgotten or ignored. It is not that Mr. Marcus thinks that Dickens is always right. But all Dickens’s attitudes tend to get divided up into the morally and artistically bad (“a revulsion from sexuality itself” in Dombey and Son) and the morally and artistically good—i.e., “a genuine, unremitting and impenitent critic of his society.” But did Dickens find nothing to praise effectively in his society? Did he really believe that his society had “in every way [my italics] grown more uncongenial to the life of feeling and moral decency”? (No social and moral reforms at all?) Dickens resembles Beckett, yes, but to offer too Beckettish a Dickens might suggest that in fact we can do without Dickens—we are not short of indictments of ourselves and our society already. Does Dickens never offer something—something true and vital—which is quite other than the modern nightmare? Mr. Marcus is an excellent guide when we are going to the literature of the past in order to find warrant for what we modern intellectuals most believe. But it would be reassuring if, every now and then, he found that Charles Dickens, the witness whom he has summoned, gave truthful and disturbing evidence which, reluctantly, he had to admit was at odds with what we most believe.

If we see Dickens too much as our contemporary, we tend to be soft on those weakness which we condone or don’t notice in our contemporaries. Dickens’s inexorable symbolism is often his strength, but it can be his failing. Mrs. Skewton in Dombey is superb in her wrinkled, sprightly, genteel decay. That her servant is named Withers is neat, though precarious. But a mile further and all had been marsh—and Dickens goes a mile further: her maid is named Flowers. A symbolic point is being made all right, especially when Flowers fastens onto Mrs. Skewton’s bonnet “the artificial roses…which nodded to uncommon advantage, as the palsy trifled with them, like a breeze.” Symbolic, but inordinately, naggingly, so. The name Flowers, which Mr. Marcus accepts with equanimity or even admiration, is oppressive and heavy-handed. Again in Dombey, the ship which sinks is named the “Son and Heir”—symbolic, certainly, but too squintingly staring across at Mr. Dombey and his dead son and heir.

Conversely, despite the dutiful things which Mr. Marcus says about Dickens’s “affirmations,” his joy in life, his buoyancy—despite such remarks, the weight of the book rests too much on what is tragic or morbid in Dickens, and early Dickens at that. No implications are drawn from the well-known fact that so many of the particular abuses and scandals of which Dickens wrote were even then a thing of the past. Dickens was indeed profoundly conscious of the terrors of revolution and the mob. But Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities are, after all, historical novels, and a great part of their force comes from apt feelings of over-whelming gratitude and relief. Dickens was aware of the implications of his having to go to history. Nineteenth-century England, when all was said and done, did not have a bloody revolution. Mr. Marcus makes the point that Dickens drew an analogy between the Gordon riots and Chartism. But it is an analogy, and not more. Dickens did not ignore the basic fact that the terrible dangers for his time remained dangers only. “There, but for the Grace of God…”—one agrees with Mr. Marcus about the terror, but Dickens combines terror and relief, danger and hopefulness, a sense of analogy with a sense of vital difference. If Dickens did not believe that every day and in every way things were getting better and better, he did not slump into the equally shallow opposite. “The affliction that goes by the name of modern civilization”? For Dickens it was not only an affliction. He seldom forgot that it was an opportunity and a hope.

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