decorative initial 'B' ut not for long; the Murdstones move in and establish a reign not only of physical cruelty but also of the gloomiest [170/171] kind of self-mastery based on self-distrust: "Control yourself, always control yourself!" (III). The "firmness" on which they take their doctrinal stand is rooted in a vicious Calvinism, which distrusts spontaneity, natural affection, the basic goodness of undisciplined and unrestrained man, in short, the very bases of comedy; and the real conflict in the novel is between their "control" and Micawber's wild self-indulgence, between cash-boxes and steaming punch. At this point, however, Murdstone's values are in complete control, and our laughter is often used much as it was in Oliver Twist, to identify the cruelty in these values, to expose the shadow of cruelty in ourselves, and to push us closer to the alienated child. The rhetoric in this section, then, is a rhetoric of attack, tempting us to be momentarily amused at what turn out to be dangerous threats, at Miss Murdstone's being a "metallic lady altogether" who snaps, "Generally speaking ... I don't like boys. How d'ye do, boy?" (IV), or at her brother's elaborate puzzles involving double-Gloucester cheeses. We soon notice, though, that Miss Murdstone's dehumanizing, somewhat mad, treatment of David is really an accurate sampling of later confrontations, and Mr. Murdstone's puzzle, at which "Miss Murdstone [is] secretly overjoyed", is only a type of the malicious wit common to all the many sadists in the novel. The hostility latent in this wit — and in any laughter it may have aroused is unmistakably exposed in the horrible beating David receives for failing with the puzzle. Even worse than the beating, however, is the alienation of the boy from love and comfort, the door Murdstone symbolically throws up between David and his mother and nurse. The humour connected with the Murdstones, then, is meant finally to draw us closer to David and to his pain, confusion, and isolation.

It also enables us to understand better why he turns to romantic tales and eighteenth-century novels for "my only and my constant comfort". But instead of building an expansive and healthy imaginative life as it might this single comfort tends to become a narcotic, sustaining but dangerous. David still sees himself "sitting on my bed, reading as if for life" (IV). It is, literally, for life. He begins here the fantasy role which never leaves him, although it does change form: from Steerforth and the story-telling in the dark, to the vague [171/172] second childhood at Dover, to the tragically disrupted comic life with Dora, and finally to the less-than-substantial Agnes. Murdstone really gives David two choices: firmness or escape. He finally chooses to try for a combination, but now he only wants to escape. The awful fact is that these terrifying and impossible choices are being forced on a boy far too young to make them by himself. But he is completely alone; the good people are all on the other side of the locked door.

It is an interesting secondary function of the humour in this section to trivialize many of these good people or eliminate them from consideration, Mr. Barkis the carrier, for instance, is introduced as one of the most freakishly inhuman of Dickens's comic grotesques: "I offered him a cake as a mark of attention, which he ate at one gulp, exactly like an elephant, and which made no more impression on his big face than it would have done on an elephant's" (V). This impassive man is a kind of joke on the absence of response and the non-humanity of the supposedly human. His affections are somehow connected to his gastric juices, and he decides then and there to make a play for the maker of those cakes, even though he has some considerable trouble getting her name straight. His magnificent phrase, "Barkis is willin'", seems a joke on the failure of commitment, a perfect image of a kind of absorbent stomach-creature that gulps everything into itself and renders human notions of intelligence and emotion ludicrous. He appears, in other words, as an apparent "relief" figure to drain our apprehensions and to release some of the intensity created by David's plight. Barkis seems to be a comic Murdstone, no more human but not in the least threatening.

As it happens, though, Barkis truly is willin', and this curiously touching phrase begins really to separate him from Murdstone's values and to associate itself with openness and friendliness, with a limited but genuine comic expansiveness: "I'm a friend of your'n. You made it all right, first. It's all right" (X). In the midst of hostility, meanness, and cruelty, this declaration is terribly important. It belies altogether the basis of any laughter at this "great stuffed figure" (X). What happens here is that we are forced to recognize how unlikely and how rare are the manifestations of friendship in this black world, and how very precious are those who are willin'. We [172/173] are also asked to take a much closer look at Barkis, and when we do, we see that this supposed comic grotesque is a very functional character indeed. After marrying Peggotty, he becomes obsessed not so much with money as with the prudent resolve to protect that money. His crazy box stands as a parody indictment not only of Murdstone's value system, but, ironically, of David's as well. He pokes at his box and announces:

"Old clothes." "Oh!" said I. "I wish it was Money, sir," said Mr. Barkis. "I wish it was, indeed," said I. "But it AIN'T," said Mr. Barkis, opening both his eyes as wide as he possibly could. [XXI]

Significantly, however, he continues, "more gently": "She's the usefullest and best of women, C. P. Barkis. All the praise that any one can give to C. P. Barkis she deserves, and more! My dear, you'll get a dinner to-day, for company; something good to eat and drink, will you?" (XXI). He is an insanely disjointed man, a daffy mixture of the generous and the "near", and we see him, finally, as a heightened and dramatic symbol of the open and willing heart corrupted by the ossifying pressures of prudence, as a signal of the potential beauty of man but also of the great dangers of the world. His death encapsulates his functional humour. Flopped over on his box, literally protecting it with his life, he manages, just at the end, to show the inner strength of his comic and generous impulses:

"C. P. Barkis," he cried faintly. "No better woman anywhere!" "Look! Here's Master Davy!" said Peggotty. For he now opened his eyes. I was on the point of asking him if he knew me, when he tried to stretch out his arm, and said to me, distinctly, with a pleasant smile: "Barkis is willin'!" And, it being low water, he went out with the tide. [XXX]

This death is one of the most costly in the novel; it removes one of David's willing friends. The comic carrier, initially too weak and too far away really to help the boy, has become, by the time of his death, a comic indictment of the firmness David [173/174] is moving towards. Our laughter at Barkis has helped to increase our sense of the importance of joy to David and to determine later how far he is moving away from the values of the carrier. Mr. Barkis has, in his way, presented a form of hope to David, but the form has been too distorted for the boy to recognize it, and the alternate pressures have been far too strong.

The more common function of our laughter in this section, in fact, is to insist on the strength of the camp of the firm and the hostile, and the more usual jokes are of the deceptive kind exemplified by the waiter whom David meets on his way to Creakle's school. The waiter seems at first to be very much like Sam Weller, hearty, open, and witty. he "very affably" calls to David, using Sam's own terms, "Now, six-foot! come on!" Even the stories he devises to cheat David of his food are so resourceful and wild with such apparently undirected hostility that we are very likely to laugh: A gentleman "in breeches and gaiters, broad-brimmed hat, grey coat, speckled choker", he says, "came in here ... ordered a glass of this ale — would order it — I told him not — drank it, and fell dead. It was too old for him. It oughtn't to be drawn; that's the fact" (V). He does, indeed, seem not only witty but, as David says, "so very friendly and companionable" that it comes as a shock that he is only a cheat, malicious and cruel. When David tells him he is going to school "near London"', the waiter invents a story of a boy at the same school, just David's age, whose ribs were broken "with whopping". He then insists on taking one of David's shillings as a tip and joins with the crowd in laughing at the boy's huge appetite. The apparent friendliness has been a guise, and the wit has been hostile and self-serving, isolating and hurting the helpless child. Dickens then rubs our noses in the consequences of this reversal, insisting over and over in the next few pages on David's loneliness ("more solitary than Robinson Crusoe"), his feeling of abandonment (no one calls for him at the booking-office, and he thinks for a time that "Murdstone had devised this plan to get rid of me"), and his dehumanization (the clerk "presently slanted me off the scale, and pushed me over to him, as if I were weighed, bought, delivered, and paid for").

He then moves to Creakle's school, where the deceptive [174/175] humour is continued. We are invited to share in a kind of Hobbesian laughter at the man with no voice at all, but it is soon apparent that Creakle is no weakling to be dismissed. He is, rather, a continuation of Mr. Murdstone: "I am a determined character.... That's what I am. I do my duty. That's what I do" (VI). "Duty", we begin to understand, is a convenient euphemism which many characters — Murdstone, Creakle, Aunt Betsey, Mrs. Steerforth, Mr. Wickfield, Agnes, and later even David — use to cover sadism, sexual perversion, weakness, or incapacity. The world at Creakle's, then, is just as dark as the one at home, and David again turns to the only escape at hand, this time made more sinister in the figure of Steerforth, who begins by simply continuing the role of the waiter, cheating the boy of his money. He then forces David to retell his old stories in the dark, which even the young boy admits "may not have been very profitable to me" since it encouraged all "that was romantic and dreamy" (VII) in him. Steerforth does nothing to protect David from Creakle's treatment and, as a fantasy figure for the younger boy, is dangerous both to him and to others. The older boy symbolically joins hands with Creakle in expelling the one kindly figure, Mr. Mell, suggesting, in relation to David, the deadly union of determination with fantasy. More important, Steerforth does not really deflect the training in firmness away from David; he only encourages the dangerous tendencies to fantasy escape.

So David really has no choice. The forces of blackness close in around him and eventually make all happiness alien to him, isolating him from other men and implying that, in the face of his situation and the ugly world it suggests, all laughter is really self-centred and reprehensible. This attack on laughter is most pointedly illustrated by the undertaker, Mr. Omer, and his family. Mr. Omer is a character out of Martin Chuzzlewit, a relative of Mr. Mould's, who tries to build joy out of darkness, operating his business rather as if it were a confectioner's shop. In the environment of David Copperfield, however, such efforts seem callous, perhaps hideous. The ability to whistle to the happy rat-tat-tat of the hammer on the coffin is no longer applauded. David is met by Omer on his way home from school at the time of his mother's death. The [175/176] undertaker takes David to his shop to measure him for mourning clothes and to check up on the progress of Mrs. Copperfield's coffin and the love-making of his daughter and his partner Joram. For a considerable space, the narrative focus is removed from David, and we are allowed to bask in the comic glow:

"Father!" said Minnie, playfully. "What a porpoise you do grow!" "Well, I don't know how it is, my dear," he replied, considering about it. "I am rather so." "You are such a comfortable man, you see," said Minnie. "You take things so easy." "No use taking 'em otherwise, my dear," said Mr. Omer. "No, indeed," returned his daughter. "We are all pretty gay here, thank Heaven! Ain't we, father?" [IX]

It sounds for a moment very much like a voice from Mrs. Todgers's. Soon, however, ugly hints intrude. "I knew your father before you", Mr. Omer says in his continually amiable way, but then he continues, "He lays in five and twen-ty foot of ground, if he lays in a fraction ... It was either his request or her direction, I forget which." The fact that this is said "pleasantly" makes it all the more ghastly. The joy begins to be as excluding and alienating to David as Murdstone's cruelty, and Dickens begins to insist more openly on the cruelty of any laughter. The three bustle David into a chaise and boisterously roll off, with Mr. Omer chuckling while Joram steals kisses from Minnie. Joram "didn't appear to mind me at all", David says, and the humour has tempted us to be equally neglectful of the outcast and orphaned boy. He admits finally that he is "afraid of them". "I do not think I have ever experienced so strange a feeling in my life", he says, adding that he felt "as if I were cast among creatures with whom I had no community of nature". Anyone who can laugh, then, is a "creature", unfeeling and awful. The image is one of an inverted Mrs. Jarley's or Mrs. Todgers's: the joy creates discomfort and excludes those who need it most. Ultimately it reinforces the pessimistic vision at the heart of the novel that sees a world in which the comic life is open only to a very few — and not at all to the hero.

It has been closed for him by the Murdstones, who have so [176/177] mangled his youth that a part of his psychic life is now frozen. He sees all joy as past, as contained in the brief time before firmness entered his life: "From the moment of my knowing of the death of my mother, the idea of her as she had been of late had vanished from me. I remembered her, from that instant, only as the young mother of my earliest impressions, who had been used to wind her bright curls round and round her finger, and to dance with me at twilight in the parlour. . . The mother who lay in the grave, was the mother of my infancy; the little creature in her arms [David's dead brother], was myself, as I had once been, hushed for ever on her bosom" (IX). By the time the Murdstones send him out for his "fight with the world" in the warehouse, he has already lost the chance for what he most wants and needs: the sort of life presented so brilliantly and so completely by the enemies of Murdstone and Grinby, cash-boxes, and firmness — Mr. and Mrs. Micawber. This great pair function to express periodically throughout the novel the beauty and importance of comic existence; because they do this so very well, they are the major cause of the book's final sadness. They remind us of nothing so much as of the life that has been stolen from David.

A. O. J. Cockshut has made the perceptive comment that it is never possible to give proportionate space to the Micawbers, that one, very literally, cannot say nearly enough (p. 114). The tendency (as is evident here) is to talk about analysing them rather than doing it. This is partly because Mr. Micawber is perhaps the most organically complete of comic characters; even his clothes (particularly the ornamental eye-glass and the "imposing shirt-collar") are a part of his perfectly harmonizing style, suggesting the wonderful comic notion that man has the power to create himself. The difficulty, however, comes also from the enormously rich and various functional role [177/178] Mr. and Mrs. Micawber play. They climax a great line of Dickens's comic characters and carry on the role of Sam Weller as tutor and seer, Dick Swiveller as parodist, Sairey Gamp as imaginative creator. They not only combine these parts but are truly greater than their sum. And in the novel they fail. All their kindness, their creative genius, their courage, and their infinite resiliency cannot keep David from the trap of the sentimental and the firm. But they do create a system of values which, with the help of characters like Mr. Dick, Peggotty, Barkis, and Miss Mowcher, and with the great support of our laughter, maintains one-half of the conflict in the novel: the approved but impossible life of the imagination.

It is often and truly said that Micawber builds worlds of delight out of words, but he finds joy not only in words but in arranging his unnecessary quizzing-glasses, not only in writing letters but in creating a "library" out of a few books and a dressing table. Even more significant, his presence even distinguishes his house, making it "unlike all the other houses in the street — though they were all built on one monotonous pattern" (XXVII). He is, above all, ornamental, which is to say, a walking attack on prudence and practicality. He and his wife live deeply in the commercial world only to make fun of it and turn potential sources of anxiety into rituals of cheer, motives for exquisite melodrama, and, most important, into exaggerated depths from which to rebound into joyous celebrations: "I saw her lying (of course with a twin) under the grate in a swoon, with her hair all torn about her face; but I never knew her more cheerful than she was, that very same night, over a veal-cutlet before the kitchen fire, telling me stories about her papa and mama, and the company they used to keep" (XI). The principle seems totally to be one of resilience: the more the Micawbers are pushed downward the higher they spring back. In fact, much of the deepest-rooted humour of the Micawbers is based on this paradoxically mechanical elasticity, the sense that they do rebound automatically, rather like a rubber ball.

But beyond this there is the deep power of their conscious and courageous fight against an almost overwhelmingly dark and threatening social system. They act out a burlesque of [178/179] their troubles, distancing their pain, of course, but also humanizing the almost inhuman, All disasters are welcomed as proof of their own exceptional humanity, giving rise to scenes of potential grand suicide, tragic sacrifice, and magnificent decisions of alliance: "'Mr. Micawber has his faults. I do not deny that he is improvident. I do not deny that he has kept me in the dark as to his resources and his liabilities, both,' she went on, looking at the wall; 'but I will never desert Mr. Micawber!'" (XII). A tradesman's bill is a small price to pay for the chance to play Cleopatra every day or two. And behind the ring of the phrases and the echo of a million melodramas is the continual thrill of the assertive, unrestrained, and glamorized ego of comedy: "All I have to say on that score is, that the cloud has passed from the dreary scene, and the God of Day is once more high upon the mountain tops. On Monday next, on the arrival of the four o'clock afternoon coach at Canterbury, my foot will be on my native heath — my name, Micawber!" (XXXVI). By welcoming these small disasters from the commercial society and creatively transforming them, the Micawbers avoid the really greatest threats of that society: dehumanization and despair. They have found the great and complex secret of joy in a commercial world.

This secret is very difficult to decipher fully, but at least a few parts of it are clear. First, the Micawbers have absolutely renounced the system and (except for the brief lapse with Uriah Heep) make no concessions in their war against it. Dickens here separates completely the notion of the good heart from the notion of commercial success and thereby creates a greater Pickwick, incidentally solving the problem of what Mr. Pickwick did "in the city" all those years. Micawber is a coalescence of the notions embodied in Mr. Pickwick and Sam and a clear renunciation of the Brownlow-Cheeryble concept. Second, they carry on the great subversive tradition of attacking the system by parody. Mr. Micawber is active here, particularly in his recurrent burlesque of the alert and ruthless businessman waiting to spring on the first opportunity, but the major burden is carried by his wife, whose "business habits" and "prudent suggestions" (XXXVI) he has learned to depend on, "My disposition", she says, "is eminently [179/180] practical" (LVII), and she proves it over and over again with rigorous analyses which ought to make all corporate flunkies, government commissions, and faculty advisory groups blush: "'We came,' repeated Mrs. Micawber, 'and saw the Medway. My opinion of the coal trade on that river is, that it may require talent, but that it certainly requires capital. Talent, Mr. Micawber has; capital, Mr. Micawber has not. We saw, I think, the greater part of the Medway, and that is my individual conclusion'" (XVII).

But the Micawbers really spend comparatively little time on such negative parody functions. They are probably the most open and expansive of Dickens's comic characters, accepting with resounding confidence in themselves and their powers the whole range of the shabbiest existence and refusing any sort of escape or falsification. They suggest not only that life is bearable but that it can be wonderful: "Experientia does it — as papa used to say" (XI). Experientia certainly does it for the Micawbers at any rate; it provides them with a chance to dedicate their lives to joy. There is no image so firmly associated with them as that of Mr. Micawber working happily in the midst of lemon-peel and sugar, rum, and steaming water, making a punch instead of a fortune and, as David says, enjoying himself more than any man he ever saw. "'But punch, my dear Copperfield,' said Mr. Micawber, tasting it, 'like time and tide, waits for no man'" (XXVIII). The subversive substitution is clear; Micawber transforms the clichés of the Murdstone economy into justifications for parties. The Micawbers are grandly anti-Malthusian, blissfully arguing that "in our children we [live] again, and that, under the pressure of pecuniary difficulties, any accession to their number [is] doubly welcome" (XXVIII). Whatever doubts Mrs. Micawber's prudent family have on this point simply provide Mr. Micawber with an opportunity for splendid Byronic denunciations of that socially prominent group. The mean, niggardly, frightened spirit of order and balance was never more blatantly flouted than by Mrs. Micawber's always-busy "Founts" or, for that matter, by Mr. Micawber's epistolary style, which takes arms specifically against the previous century's leading proponent of the organized and the clear-headed: "I am about to establish myself in one of the provincial towns of our favoured [180/181] island (where the society may be described as a happy admixture of the agricultural and the clerical).... Our ashes, at a future period, will probably be found commingled in the cemetery attached to a venerable pile, for which the spot to which I refer has acquired a reputation, shall I say from China to Peru?" (XXXVI).

Finally, the Micawbers are powerful because they love (this point is persuasively made by Douglas Bush, p. 88). They are not only unembarrassed in their show of warmth to one another, but also to others, particularly David. This warmth is manifested most openly in the touching scene where, in leaving London, Mrs. Micawber looked down from the coach, saw how small David really was (she had been in the friendly habit of thinking of him as an equal), called him up on the coach, "and put her arm round my neck, and gave me just such a kiss as she might have given to her own boy" (XII). Every speech of Mr. Micawber's asserts, though more indirectly, the same warm response. He comes into the blacking warehouse and begins his magnificent oratory to David, interrupting it with an inevitable "in short". As inevitable as the self-parodying "in short", however, is its accompanying manner: "with a smile and in a burst of confidence", with an offer, in other words, of intimacy and connection. In the midst of the mad hostility of cheating waiters, vicious tinkers, and raving Goroo men, Micawber's undefensive warmth is strangely highlighted. Even his endless stream of letters suggests his fight against the silence and systematic alienation of Murdstone's system. The Micawbers are great, finally, because they offer, even in the face of this threat, not mutual protection but mutual fun. Their comic society is undefensive and open. "Friend of my youth, the companion of my earlier days" Micawber loves later to call David, associating himself not only with the friendly Mr. Barkis but also, and more specifically, with Falstaff's great and equally anti-prudent battle-cry, "They hate us youth". Indeed they do, and there are few like Micawber who can not only live with hatred but transform it for his family and for others, even briefly for David, into happiness.

But it is too late for David fully to accept the secret of [181/182] existence offered him by the Micawbers. All trust, openness, and hope for joy have been either extinguished or perverted in him. In addition, the Micawbers are forced to leave London, taking with them the answer both necessary and unavailable to David. Left alone and without consolation of any sort, David runs away to Dover and to his Aunt Betsey. His flight through the countryside, significantly, is like a tour through the Chamber of Horrors: the donkey-driver, the tinker, the Goroo man, all fly out and terrify him with their mad, uncaused hostility. Even in Dover, no one will tell him where his aunt lives, simply because he is asking. The shopkeepers there, with their immovable coldness, are paradigmatic of the nightmare world, alternately chasing and rejecting the boy: "not liking my appearance, [they] generally replied, without hearing what I had to say, that they had got nothing for me" (XIII). They surely do not, but David has nowhere else to go.

Aunt Betsey is a gentle and kindly person, but she does not have Mr. Micawber's secret. Instead of highly developed elasticity, she has a compensatory firmness; she lacks optimism, creative power, and imaginative hope. She and Mr. Dick are themselves partly on the run, she from her husband, Mr. Dick from the relatives who threaten to lock him up. In the artificial firmness which resolutely attacks not real enemies but donkeys, and in the mad, gentle man who holds his head like "one of Mr. Creakle's boys after a beating" (XIII), might be seen a combined image of what David finally becomes. This retreat at Dover allows David to view his life "like one in a dream" (XV), and the repeated references to new beginnings carry an ironic sense. He moves into an artificial and very fragile haven, where Aunt Betsey counsels him to be firm, where Agnes takes Steerforth's place as reading partner, and where, in "the soft light of the coloured windows in the church" (XVI), Uriah Heep and Jack Mahlon can be dismissed in fantasy.

Aunt Betsey and Mr. Dick do try very hard, but in the end this collection of outcasts is too defensive to help the boy much, and the humour connected with them is deceptive. Nowhere is this deception more crucial than in Aunt Betsey's encounter with the Murdstones. The refinement and reserve of much of this scene seem to induce, the kind of "laughter of the [182/183] mind" advocated by George Meredith (pp. 3-57). Meredith sees the true Comic Spirit as "a most subtle delicacy" (p. 8) employed in a truly cultivated way. Its function is calmly to expose Folly, to pour the light of common sense on the overblown, the disproportionate, and the self-important (p. 48). Miss Betsey's comments to the pompous Jane Murdstone provide just this kind of deflation:

"I so far agree with what Miss Trotwood has remarked," observed Miss Murdstone, bridling, "that I consider our lamented Clara to have been, in all essential respects, a mere child." "It is a comfort to you and me, ma'am," said my aunt, "who are getting on in life, and are not likely to be made unhappy by our personal attractions, that nobody can say the same of us." [XIV]

Jane Murdstone is, at the end of the interview, left sputtering and angry, and her exposure seems complete. But what of the silent Mr. Murdstone? Meredith says the Comic Spirit pursues Folly to the end, "never fretting, never tiring, sure of having her" (p. 83). But here there are strong indications that the enemy is not really overcome.

Far from being defeated, in fact, Jane Murdstone does reappear as Dora Spenlow's companion to harass David, and Mr. Murdstone is left to pursue his wicked ways, unencumbered by a child. Aunt Betsey's "victory" has thus produced a disturbingly ironic result: Murdstone is relieved of a boy whom he had already thwarted to his satisfaction and who could now be nothing but a hindrance. He is left free to extend his malevolence to other weak mothers and helpless boys (see LIX). The originally benign scene thus becomes, by the end of the novel, a very dark one. The Comic Spirit which had seemed so effective is rendered powerless, and the civilized laughter is shown to be incomplete and inadequate. The final suggestion is that this kind of Murdstonean power is not available to the good, and in this light Agnes Wickfield's simple trust is misplaced and her position very dangerous. There are, it seems, two honourable positions open: the imaginative and happy subversive warfare of the Micawbers or a retreat from the battle. One either renounces the terms of the fight or is beaten.


Victorian Overview Charles Dickens Contents Next Section

Last Modified 10 March 2010