decorative initial 'B' ut this is not quite all there is to the pattern. If Dickens left it at this we might infer a new order, free of egoistic delusions [129/130] and of tyranny, but he adds a coda which gives just a hint of cynicism, of the beginning of a new cycle of tyranny. There is a sense here that the didacticism is, after all, useless, that the causes of oppression and the consequent riots cannot be cured with maxims, no matter how rhetorically effective.

What really succeeds the riots, Dickens intimates, is a new cowardice and a new tyranny:

In Southwark, no fewer than three thousand of the inhabitants formed themselves into a watch, and patrolled the streets every hour. Nor were the citizens slow to follow so good an example: and it being the manner of peaceful men to be very bold when the danger is over, they were abundantly fierce and daring; not scrupling to question the stoutest passenger with great severity, and carrying it with a very high hand over all errand-boys, servant-girls, and 'prentices. [LXXIII]

Everything returns to the previous insane normality; the Lord Mayor is let off with a wild reprimand and assumes his old authority. Even Dennis's mad hopes to remain a part of the social order are, in their way, justified by that terrible order: "he felt certain that the national gratitude must relieve him from the consequence of his late proceedings, and would certainly restore him to his old place in the happy social system" (LXXIV). Dickens explicitly says, in fact, that the new system is symbolized by a new repression:

It is not the least evil attendant upon the frequent exhibition of this last dread punishment [hanging], of Death, that it hardens the minds of those who deal it out, and makes them, though they be amiable men in other respects, indifferent to, or unconscious of, their great responsibility.... Just then, too, when the law had been so flagrantly outraged, its dignity must be asserted. The symbol of its dignity, — stamped upon every page of the criminal statute-book, — was the gallows. [LXXVI]

All murder, this bitter passage suggests, is the same, and the real madness exists when murderers are officialized and approved. Hysterical violence has simply given way to placid violence; nothing has really changed.

The death of Dennis completes this cycle of tyranny. Though victimized by the same system he once served, he sees that he is truly a part of that system and would continue [130/131] to serve it if he had the chance. "I an't inconsistent", he screams; "I'd talk so again, if I was hangman" (LXXVI). It is not only the grotesque or stupid who are unable to learn or to change; even Haredale admits that no lesson can really alter the deepest impulses which completely control one's existence: "I find the unwelcome assurance that I should still be the same man, though I could cancel the past, and begin anew, with its experience to guide me" (LXXIX). And Dickens begins the last chapter with the bitter assurance that there were many people "still, to whom those riots taught no lesson of reproof or moderation". In a sense the novel is as cynical as Chester and just as unpleasant.

In the last scene, then, when Joe reopens the Maypole Inn, it is just as if he were reopening the novel. He symbolically changes places with his father, routing him just exactly as he earlier had been routed, Old John dies saying, "I'm a-going, Joseph ... to the Salwanners", and Joe assumes his father's old position: "he inherited the whole" and "became a man of great consequence in these parts". He joins with Dolly, just another version of her mother (that Dolly is very much like her mother law been pointed out by Gissing, p. 189, and by Folland, p. 414) , to suggest a new tyranny, ripe for new exploits of self-delusion. The final harrowing didactic point is that didacticism may not be enough. Our laughter is not only turned back on us but is finally transformed to bitterness.


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Last Modified 10 March 2010