There comes a time when one must ponder the irrelevancies of life as if they were portentously relevant. Literary criticism and high theology meet this criteria. Thus, the majority of this blog can be termed irrelevant. That is, the act of critically acclaiming or demeaning a book in terms of how it was written, why it was written, or even what was written is useless in comparison to how we act (or refuse to act) in response to it. And such is natural. For literary criticism would be quite dull if it focused on the latter aspect of mere application. It would have no basis for disagreement or even conjecture in a work. Either it would be too preachy or too repetitive of the author, and since we have preachers and authors to do the real work for us, literary critics take the more irrelevant task to which they are called. They mount their steeds (chairs) and grab their swords (pens) and attack their enemies (windmills) with unabashed vigor because, if they are honest with themselves, the battle was either won, lost or came to a draw during the reading experience. It is then, an irrelevant issue regarding Charles Dickens and his fine novel Dombey and Son that I wish to ponder in this post, and I trust you believe me when I confess that the battle was a victorious one as it had as profound an impact on me the person as it did me the literary critic.¹
Suppose we are at a fork in the road surrounded by two groups of people contemplating two scenarios before us. On the left, we can take the route that emphasizes the character. We take the route of, say, Chaucer’s General Prologue and Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. We mask our journey in a flimsy epic in which the various circumstances that occur have no bearing on each other and the pilgrims themselves are the main focus. Each individual character is such that he can function purely on his own. He does not symbolize anything, he adds nothing to the story and if he was to leave us, no one would really know (or care). In this sense any time we try to mention to these people that we are all in a rather big story, they are as unaffected as a modern looking up at the night sky. The story has no bearing on the character in this scenario. On the other hand, if we take to the right, we are taking the route that emphasizes the story. Our characters may be just as outlandish and interesting as they were if we had taken the other path, however, anything they decide to do that hinges on messing with the story must go. These characters must adapt themselves to the plot, and in doing so, they sacrifice their individuality, their right to choose. They must do nothing that does not add to the overall theme of the story. Any astute reader will notice that, whereas the path on the left had more individualistic characters (and probably a more enjoyable journey), the path on the right is a far more epic path. It is the first path in which all of Dickens previous novels leading up to Dombey and Son fall. His first true epic must be appreciated along the lines of this second path.
To be fair, I formulated that last paragraph from the Appreciations and Criticisms of Charles Dickens by GK Chesterton, an outstanding and truly witty interpretation of all of Dickens’ writings. In as much as I agree with Chesterton’s argument, I disagree on his conclusion that Dickens’ works suffered from taking the second route. Perhaps being far more theologically reformed in my own thinking than Chesterton was, I believe that as Dickens finally decided to write a novel, or a story for that matter, his characters finally took on a greater significance than previous. That is not to say the characters in The Old Curiosity Shop were less interesting or enjoyable. It is to say that when Dickens wrote his previous novels, he wrote episodes, or sketches as Chesterton calls them. Because he produced his work in monthly installments, he was continually bound by the need to draw in new readers while retaining old readers. Thus, each installment had to be enough to function on its own, and it made for terrible stories full of vast irrelevancies. His characters were immortal, but his stories lacked greatly. But it is in Dombey and Son when the great shift takes place and his writing enters an entirely new realm in which each character is less human but more symbolic, and it is only fair to judge the work along those lines first.
The first time you read any novel by Dickens, you must step back and look at the characters. They are too big and bright to ignore, and there is really no reason to dive into the deep end of the pool when the party is in the shallow end. When we first look at these splendid fairies that he created, then we can appreciate what he was doing behind the scenes. Now, the genius of Dickens is that he was still able to include an incredible amount of “irrelevant” material in his more tightly knit stories. His characters still retained an individuality peculiar to themselves. While Dickens probably did not have it in his mind, I would argue that this is true to life in the sense that as we are taken up in the Story in which we were created for, when we are drawn closer to our Author, we actually become more unique and individualistic, more human. Freedom of self is best expressed when we are given boundaries, and complete freedom is anarchy. I can appreciate Captain Cuttles’ eccentricities in a different fashion than Dick Swivellers’ because Cuttles’ oddities have a purpose and type of limit whereas Swiveller is just a an odd young man, floating around his world.
As each character functions for more purpose in this novel than the previous, they adopt a symbolic quality as well. Mr. Toots is the idiot who reminds us that it is better to be smitten, stupid and humble, than wise, apathetic and prideful. Toots shows us that wonder and reverence cannot be achieved without humility. In contrast, Barnaby Rudge is an idiot who expresses nothing so significant (at least I did not get much out of his character) and Smike in Nicholas Nickleby is merely a character to be pitied, used for the plot but adding nothing to the theme. Those characters function on their own, and we (I) have difficulty in associating myself with them as much. But I can certainly associate myself with Toots when he says “if you could see my legs when I take my boots off, you’d form some idea of what unrequited affection is.” Toots’ symbolism is far deeper here primarily because he has a goal in mind throughout the novel. He has a function in this novel, and that function is the unrequited lover of Miss Dombey. His idiocy is far more than just the humble fool who can stand in awe at everything that happens. His idiocy is what happens to every stupid, chivalrous male when in the presence of a fair maiden to whom he’s smitten. He is a type of commentary on the vast foolishness of the medieval courtly lover, the lover of the unattainable woman. Consequently, his entire ability to think may shut down for periods of time. Of course, only the humble can agree with this. Only the humble can nod with approval when Toots, despite the very immediacy of the situation, declares
I’m in the state of mind bordering on distraction!… I’m at present in that state that my brain is going, if not gone, and anything approaching to politeness in an individual so situated would be a hollow mockery… I haven’t dared to shave, I’m in that rash state. I haven’t had my clothes brushed. My hair is matted together. I told the Chicken that if he offered to clean my boots, I’d stretch him a Corpse before me!
Toots’ unrequited love for Miss Dombey is, therefore, essential to the theme, unlike Smike’s unrequited love for Kate Nickleby. Smike’s character happens to be more central to the plot, but his actions are not as necessary to the theme as Toots’. If Smike’s actions are vastly different throughout the novel, his function as a character is not hindered, but if Toots’ does anything different his character is pointless. If Toots’ does not love Miss Dombey his entire existence is meaningless, and he basically states this himself.
Numerous other characters take on similar symbolic roles, but the one that was most enjoyable to me was Captain Cuttle. Cuttle is the hero of the novel. He is the primary mover and shaker of all the good that happens. He tries numerous times to speak plainly with Carker for the good of the other characters. He functions as the unlikely hero. He sees nothing but good in everyone, and the majority of his existence in the novel is in seeking to “put things right.” Not self-conscious in the least, we see him constantly seeking his lost friends as “the neighbours noticed how the seafaring man in the glazed hat stood at the shop-door of an evening, looking up and down the street.” He wears spectacles that hinder his eye-sight only because he feels that a shop keeper would wear spectacles, and so he does. His solitary life indicates that he wishes only for the grand reunion which he finally realizes at the end of the novel. This seeking for the lost is seen also in Solomon Gills and prefigures the more dramatic Peggotty in David Copperfield. Constantly philosophic, pondering and smoking his pipe often, his nostalgia prompts him to seek the better days and put them right.
Captain Cuttle… looked up at the stars at night, through the skylight, when he was smoking his pipe in the little back parlour before going to bed… So the captain sat himself down in his altered station of life, with no company but Rob the Grinder; and losing count of time, as men do when great changes come upon them, thought musingly of Walter, and of Solomon Gills, and even of Mrs. MacStinger.
Almost childlike is Cuttle in these moments. Unable to actually do anything, his instincts as a Captain perhaps push him to do anything be they so little as smoke a pipe and wish things to be the way they were. But it is fair to comment on his whimsical longings to ponder things over. Even after many things are put right we discover him “after this… [smoking] four pipes successively in the little parlour by himself, and… chuckling at the expiration of as many hours.” While his eccentricities are channeled into the overarching context of the story, inside that context, Dickens has given them free reign.
All that happens in the novel with Cuttle is undercut by the fantastic backdrop of Walter being lost at sea. The major criticism I had with this novel in comparison with others is that Walter and Sol’s returns are not nearly as epic as many of Dickens’ other surprises. Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby (even Pickwick) have bigger surprises that take the reader unwittingly in the end. The more I ponder this, however, the more I feel that in his earlier writings, Dickens had to lean heavily on the ending surprise because of the initial poor quality of the story itself. There is really not much suspense in Dombey and Son apart from Walter and Sol. But there does not need to be as the story itself is more of a long narrative on unrequited love than a mystery novel. If, in Nicholas Nickleby, nothing really connects back to the main theme, we need suspense, but if as in David Copperfield, everything is focused back to one central idea, the need for suspense lessens. We can instead read almost knowing what is going to happen the minute we read the character’s name. We can see the patience of a master writer who dangles the predestined end in front of us ever so slowly. And that patience is what I came away with at the end of this novel much like I did with David Copperfield. One of his longest and best I have read, Dombey and Son, shows the benefits that patience gives us in good writing. The story could have been much shorter. The inn at the end of the road could have been only thirty chapters away instead of sixty-plus. But then we would not have enough time to properly enjoy all the fantastic creatures we met on the way.
¹This post is full of spoilers, both for Dombey and Son and other works of Dickens.