The funniest joke that was ever told was not told as a joke but as a fact. Consequently, the funniest person who ever lived, and those wizards of humor who reside all around us, never laughed at his own joke because he believed it to be seriously true. The minute this person attempts to be funny, he ceases all rights he ever held to comedy. A test case can be taken with the popular sitcom The Office. The first season alone was the highest point of all its humor because nobody was laughing; the show is a dreadful bore now because everyone is begging for us to laugh at them. The first season simply documented people doing tasks that were true to life, and this was funny. This is why stand up comedians are so successful, for we often find ourselves saying “this is true” during their bits. Thus, the natural comedian could say something completely serious at a funeral and be labeled as “the funny guy” because, honestly, we have long given up on trying to figuring out if the man is serious or not. Everything he says is a joke; everything he says is drop dead serious. And this, at long last, is where, though perhaps I am miles from the shore I should be at, we arrive when we read Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge. The funniest man alive (by my own criteria above) ceased to be funny, and we’re not sure whether to laugh or not.

When Dickens first began his literary career, he set off with his everlasting joke of a novel, The Pickwick Papers. But the Papers are written in such a way that we often scratch our heads and wonder if we should be laughing because Dickens is not asking us to laugh but to accept the story as a historical moment in time, and Pickwick as immortal. This trend continues through Oliver Twist and comes out at times in Nicholas Nickleby; completely resurfaces in The Old Curiosity Shop and is almost completely lost in his fifth novel Barnaby Rudge. Despite this unfortunate trend, he still produced a fantastic novel even considering its high neglect and lack of farce.

The novel is the first of two historical novels by Dickens, the other being his ever-popular Tale of Two Cities. The first half of the story we will speak on takes place in the year 1775 before diving into the action of the plot, the notorious “No Popery” riots of the summer of 1780. To be fair to this post and myself, I knew nothing of the riots upon my entrance into the novel and now know only the fiction of them given by Dickens on my way out. At first I considered doing the much-needed research one should do in commenting on what Dickens himself was commenting on, but laziness and lack of time force me to take a different route, and I will simply talk about the novel itself.

The first notable characteristic of this novel is that it is divided into two parts without actually being divided into two parts. When Dickens decided to write A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, he decided to alert his readers to the obvious plot breaks within the novel. This doesn’t happen in Barnaby Rudge and makes for a highly awkward transition from chapter 32 to chapter 33 in which nothing is said but “And the world went on turning round, as usual, for five years, concerning which this narrative is silent” — strikingly different from A Tale of Two Cities in which the first chapter of book 2 is titled “Five Years Later.” When reading any bit of literature, one should assume for the most part that everything is intentional. In some sense, the awkward transition feels akin to the awkward transitions in The Old Curiosity Shop. Consider for instance, the following transition at the beginning of a chapter:

As the course of this tale requires that we should become acquainted, somewhere hereabouts, with a few particulars connected with the economy of Mr Sampson Brass, and as a more convenient place than the present is not likely to occur for that purpose, the historian takes the friendly reader by the hand, and springing with him into the air, and cleaving the same at a greater rate than ever Don Cleophas Leandro Perez Zambullo and his familiar traveled through that pleasant region in company, alights with him upon the pavement of Bevis Marks.

Notice, first, that the narrator describes himself as a historian. The idea that Dickens was telling a story may have never actually entered his head. He began with Pickwick as a narrator who told the events already chronicled on papers, and remained that same person throughout the rest of his novels. His jokes are facts. Nevertheless, like this transition, it is highly awkward, and keeping with that fashion, I have awkwardly rabbit-trailed onto a topic upon which I never intended to dwell. Suffice it to say, Dickens may actually be intending for less break-up of the text here in deciding to do without parts or chapter headings. The plot itself makes it painfully obvious that the novel is written in two sections, but Dickens apparently did not want those sections to be separated as one would the acts of a play. For instance, when you read A Tale of Two Cities, there is no getting around the fact that it is written in three books. Whenever an author does this, he wants the reading to be broken down and deciphered into three sections, but Barnaby Rudge should not be analysed in such a way, at least, to some degree.

Therefore, to some degree we must recognize that this first half of the novel clearly consists of that “calm before a storm” motif that finds its way in so many other novels. Much like Tolstoy’s masterpiece could probably be written in about 50 pages for all purposes of the novel, Barnaby Rudge could be written as a short story if all we were looking for were some good images and commentary on the No Popery riots. The interesting thing to me is that, though the contrast is clearly there, a lot of violence or near violence occurs in those preceding years leading up to the riots. Simon Tappertitt and Hugh dream of violent acts on their masters. The beautiful Dolly Varden is nearly raped. A man is mugged in the streets, a mysterious murdered is discussed, and a duel is prophesied.

These peaceful events, so contrasted with the events of the riots, only remind the reader that violence is all around us. The romantic hero of the novel, Joe Willet, loses his arm when he goes to “the Savannah’s” to fight the war — during the novel’s Pax Romana. Naturally a more fitting way for this to happen would be for Joe to lose his arm fighting for Dolly, but Dickens has this happen in a remote land and completely distanced from any of the large scale violence that occurs later on. The effect is that the riots and large scale violence in the world simply bring our attention to the small scale violence that happens every day — perhaps the violence that is far too easily overlooked. If a pedestrian slaps you silly on your way to work, your world is turned upside down for a moment, but nothing much may come from it. But if hundreds of pedestrians start acting in this uncouth fashion, the world quickly hears of it. London burning is far more evident violence to the world than a single maiden raped in the woods — however unjust this may be.

This naturally brings us to the mob. The two historical novels Dickens wrote were both about revolutions and both included mobs. The mob is a common object of satire in literature. Twain describes them as “The pitifulest thing out”, armies that “don’t fight with courage that’s born in them, but with courage that’s borrowed from their mass and from their officers” (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Dickens’s very first interaction with a mob occurred in The Pickwick Papers.

The Pickwickians had no sooner dismounted, than they were surrounded by a branch mob of the honest and independent, who forthwith set up three deafening cheers, which being responded to by the main body (for it’s not at all necessary for a crowd to know what they are cheering about) swelled into a tremendous roar of triumph, which stopped even the red-faced man in the balcony.
“Hurrah!” shouted the mob in conclusion.
“One cheer more,” screamed the little fugleman in the balcony, and out shouted the mob again, as if lungs were cast iron, with steel works.
“Slumkey for ever!” roared the honest and independent.
“Slumkey for ever!” echoed Mr Pickwick, taking off his hat.
“No Fizkin!” roared the crowd.
“Certainly not!” shouted Mr Pickwick.
“Hurrah!” And then there was another roaring, like that of a whole menagerie when the elephant has rung the bell for the cold meat.
“Who is slumkey?” whispered Mr Tupman.
“I don’t know,” replied Mr Pickwick in the same tone. “Hush. Don’t ask any questions. It’s always best on these occasions to do what the mob do.”
“But suppose there are two mobs?” suggested Mr Snodgrass.
“Shout with the largest,” replied Mr Pickwick.
Volumes could not have said more.

Perhaps Pickwick’s advice and those insightful words “it’s not always necessary for a crowd to know what they are cheering about” were best explained to his audience through the pages of Barnaby Rudge. The title of this novel is perplexing in the least to any first time reader because, much like this post, Barnaby rarely shows up and can almost be considered a very minor character. The 23 year-old man is the slow-witted son of a murderer who doesn’t surface himself until the final pages of the story. Barnaby’s character functions much like the entire novel: as an image. I believe it is safe to say that Dickens strayed from creating people when he began to create images, symbols and types. Pickwick and Swiveller are people, or fairies. But Nickleby is only a type of romantic hero and Barnaby is the crowd. Barnaby symbolizes every other idiot who gets caught up in a tale about which he knows nothing. Every person, deep down, wants to scream about something that has significance, and often we don’t even know what we’re yelling because it’s far easier to feel than to think.

But Barnaby wants to get caught up in something, and that something is wealth. Stagg, a blind man, can certainly be blamed for Barnaby’s inclusion in the riots because he tells Barnaby that wealth is not found in rural towns but in the crowds of the city. The slow-witted Barnaby takes this as an absolute when he joins the rioters, having absolutely no idea of what he is rioting about. The significance in Staggs being the provoker of this action is important. Blindness in literature symbolizes much more than the mere physical ailment of a character. Lear’s blindness is a moral blindness, but Gloucester’s eventual physical blindness brings our attention to any other sort of blindness. And according to Stagg there are numerous types of blindness.

There are various degrees and kinds of blindness… There is connubial blindness… There is blindness of party… and public men, which is the blindness of a mad bull in the midst of a regiment of soldiers clothed in red. There is the blind confidence of youth, which is the blindness of young kittens, whose eyes have not opened on the world; and there is that physical blindness… Added to these… is that blindness of the intellect, of which we have a specimen in your interesting son (Barnaby), and which, having sometimes glimmerings and dawnings of the light, is scarcely to be trusted as a total darkness.

The reader picks up on this immediately, and from this point on is alerted to the idea that Barnaby is intellectually blind much like his mother suffered from the connubial blindness and Pickwick from the blindness of party and public men (if we can be so irreverent to say Pickwick was blind!). Barnaby’s lack of intelligence is no fault of his own, and while I still hold to the argument that he really only functions as a symbol, he is a highly sympathized symbol at that. He blindness leads him to search for wealth to help his mother out of pure intentions, and in the end he is only saved by the true hero and perhaps only “person” in the novel, Gabriel Varden.

Barnaby Rudge is a neglected protagonist in an ironically neglected work of Dickens. I have only taken a thimble full of water out of the ocean that is this novel. It comes with high recommendations as does any work of Dickens’s. For we can all find ourselves in the novel in some fashion, and everyone sees himself in poor Barnaby. Blindness of all sorts affects every decision we make; and the consequences often feel unfair. We are bidden in Barnaby to question the mobs we inherently follow. Each of us belongs to a crowd of some sort, the call is to see where we may be blind. The blind lead the blind in many a mob. May our eyes be opened completely, so we can see in all directions — perhaps, for once, the joke will not be us.

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2 thoughts on “Idiots in Tales

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