"My dear Boffin, everything wears to rags," said Mortimer, with a light laugh. "I won't go so far as to say everything," veturned Mr. Boffin, on whom his manner seemed to grate, "because there's some things that I never found among the dust." [I. VIII]
ur Mutual Friend is very much like Little Dorrit, as everyone knows; it is also very much like The Pickwick Papers, as very few will admit. Gaffey Hexam's grisly Socratic examination of his partner, Rogue Riderhood, raises issues as dark as any suggested by Dr. Haggage: "Is it possible for a dead man to have money? What world does a dead man belong to? T'other world. What world does money belong to ? This world. How can money be a corpse's? Can a corpse own it, want it, claim it, miss it?" (I. I). This passage not only establishes the main themes of the novel but also implies that there is one gigantic illusion — money which is exposed by the one firm reality — death. But Gafter's voice is not the voice of the novel, and Our Mutual Friend finally transcends the bitterness of Little Dorrit. The first clue to the difference lies in the former novel's peculiarly ambivalent attitude towards the victims. Dickens, the great novelist of the helpless, ends his career by taking a darkly ironic view of the weak, and of the virtuous weak at that, not the selfish William Dorrit but the selfless and independent Betty Higden. Betty is very much admired, but the position she is forced into is that most dangerous to a comic society. Her understandable desire to avoid the workhouse amounts, ironically, to a repulsion to all those who would help her. But even more central, her fierce self-sufficiency, developed as a necessity, keeps the orphan Johnny from [223/224] the hospital and the medical aid that the doctor implies might have saved his life: "This should have been days ago. Too late!" (II. IX). The great, broad-shouldered English pride in self, nurtured both by a hard society and a courageous spirit, leads here to ignorance, isolation, and harm. Dickens suggests even that Betty's chief virtue has some ties to that of Mr. Boffin's slimy misers:
"Some of us will be dying in a workhouse next." "As the persons you cited," quietly remarked the secretary, "thought they would, if I remember, sir?" "And very creditable in 'em too," said Mr, Boffin. "Very independent in 'em!" [III. V]
Our Mutual Friend attacks the anti-social retirement of Little Dorrit, its completely understandable but finally disastrous plan of defensiveness, and insists on the necessity of human ties, expansiveness, and social life. Rugged independence is sacrificed for the chance of comic communion.
The novel shows a full awareness of the dangers of openness and of the extreme difficulty of finding true selfhood and love, but, for all the filth, the ordure, the slime, the metaphoric transmogrification of people into birds of prey, and the vision of established society as a dismal swamp, Our Mutual Friend comes closer to the solution of Pickwick than any other Dickens novel. It has the same dark optimism. "Our Mutual Friend makes a happy return to the earlier manner of Dickens at the end of Dickens's life", said G. K. Chesterton (p. 207), and George Orwell, agreeing, said that the return was "not an unsuccessful return either. Dickens's thoughts seem to have come full circle" (p. 8). We have been taught by more recent critics that these statements must be qualified, but they do point to one outstanding similarity: both novels establish an expansive comic society, which is clearly removed from the awful depersonalized mass which goes by that name, but which is none the less authentically comic in its values and its promise. Both novels suggest that there is an opening for those willing to submit to a proper education. While the education in the later novel is much more harsh than was Mr. Pickwick's, the goal of that education, the discovery of the nature of true reality, is seen as promising, not delusive. In this sense the novel is much [224/225] brighter than was David Copperfield; here it is the good people, not the villains, who are in close touch with the real. One of the main humorous episodes, the tussle between Boffin and Wegg, makes just this point. For much of the novel, Silas appears to be much like Uriah Heep, less smoothly but just as effectively manipulating reality so as to entangle the good but naïve Mr. Boffin. In the end, of course, it is Wegg's avarice and selfishness which are out of touch with reality, and the pleasant comic surprise is that our laughter all along has supported the true values. Finally, then, laughter is used to attack illusion, and there is not the ironic sense here, as there was in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit, that only happiness is unreal. Certainly the commercial society, of which Wegg is both an extension and a symbol, is largely based on the hallucination of money, and our clarifying laughter works to expel that society. But this expulsion does not upset the comic solution; it only suggests that here, as in Pickwick Papers, the true reality is personal and the true society very selective.
It is a true comic society, however, established with, among other things, a basic sexual humour, freer and lighter than anything since Pickwick. The Wilfer family, for instance, contains great varieties of female aggression, not only in the stony and shrewish Mrs. Wilfer but in her equally imperious daughter:
"Dearest Lavinia," urged Mr. Sampson, pathetically, "I adore you." "Then if you can't do it in a more agreeable manner," returned the young lady, "I wish you wouldn't." [IV. XVI]
The humour here, as with Pickwick's Mrs. Pott, attacks the socially dangerous demands of women. Even more interesting, however, is the almost equally strong attack on the victims of female tyranny. Mr. Sampson shares in all the attacks, and while the perpetual cherub, R. W., is pleasant enough, he has so readily given up the fight that he is easily identified as one source of his unhappily disrupted home, his daughter Bella's corruption, and, incidentally, his own wife's demands for power. The fact that he has "no egotism in his pleasant nature" would have made him something of a hero in Little Dorrit, but it makes him a comic butt here. Laughter, then, is asked to support not only the standard balance of the family [225/226] unit, which is the basis of the normal comic society, but also the importance of an assertive and confident ego.
There are other important parallels between this last novel and the first one. The very form of Our Mutual Friend, with its absence of a clear radial centre, even of clearly marked central characters (this point is made by Miller, p. 292), provides the same comic sense of spontaneity and apparent discontinuity that misled early critics into calling both novels formless. More crucial, however, is the acceptance of the things of this world, even, if seen rightly, of money itself. Though the novel is certainly concerned with aberrant attitudes toward money, the central attack is not on money but on the exaggerated importance attached to it. As in all comedies, money is seen as the great generator of illusion (Lionel Trilling, pp. 203-4), but it contains within itself very positive forces. It is an index of personality and, even more, an instrument for the testing and development of personality. The neutral quality of money itself and its potential for good are themes so explicitly stated in the novel that it is difficult to see how they ever could have been missed: John Harmon argues, "But all people are not the worse for riches" (IV. V), and Mrs. Boffin points out that old Harmon's money is at last "beginning to sparkle in the sunlight" (IV. XIII). Perhaps the definitive attitude, however, is Rumty Wilfer's. When Bella admits that she hates poverty and loves very much what money will buy, her father very simply says, "Really, I think most of us do" (II. VIII). This majority response is precisely that of the novel, and it cheerfully rewards with baskets of money the characters who have been initiated into the comic society. Without money, after all, how could Mr. Pickwick have provided himself with milk punch?
But Our Mutual Friend is, one must admit, very largely an affair of muck and corpses, not of milk punch and cricket matches, and any comparison between the two novels must carry with it severe qualifications. The need for these qualifications is most apparent in the details of the novels. The "Six Jolly Fellowship Porters", for instance, though "a bar to soften the human breast" (I. VI), is no "Leather Bottle", set in a [226/227] charming country village. The comfort is there, but it is of a very grim sort, and it is provided to the miscellaneous "waterfront characters" who, we assume, are something like the two we know best, Gaffer and Riderhood, unprincipled and violent men. There is no effort to soften the dangerousness of these men, and in the late scene where Rogue robs the dying Betty Higilen, their truly brutal unscrupulousness is made undeniable. Still, the humour associated with the inn and with its "pepperer" of a mistress, Miss Abbey Potterson, tends to repudiate the force Little Dorrit was willing to put on killing off the incorrigibles. Miss Abbey rules her burly customers with exactly "the air of a schoolmistress" (I. VI), and their complete and abject submission suggests that these thugs are really little boys at heart and that human nature, however perverted, has usually (though not always, as Riderhood himself makes clear) a sound core. Our laughter at Abbey directs our attention to the larger evil and confirms the novel's key argument that the dismal swamp is not created by these creatures but by the fastidious superficiality of Podsnap and Veneering. The point, thus, is far more complex than the similar situation in Pickwick but contains within it the impulse that had Mr. Pickwick recognize Jingle in prison and forgive him.
Similarly, the treatment of the unnamed "foreign gentleman" in Our Mutual Friend uses very different means but arrives at much the same ends as the laughter evoked by the ignorant Count Smorltork in Pickwick. While the early novel simply assumed the superiority of England and her language in order to provide rather primal Hobbesian laughter, in Our Mutual Friend the perspective is completely shifted and the reader is denied the immediate comfort of bigotry. When Mr. Podsnap explains, with grandly patronizing lessons in pronunciation thrown in, that England is specialty favoured by Providence, the foreign gentleman responds, "It was a little particular of Providence; . . . for the frontier is not large" (I. XI). The foreigner has complete common sense, indeed sanity, behind him, and the humour is made to attack England's "representative mail". But Dickens has never, even for a moment, asked us to identify with Podsnap, and so, though the laughter rejects one society, it builds, at the same time, a sense of the superiority of another kind of society, not yet fulfilled but [227/228] later to be populated by the Boffins, the Harmons, the Wrayburns, and, one suspects, the Sloppys. The humour in both novels, then, expels in order to confirm.
The means in Our Mutual Friend are, of course, different and do fit the novel's most important tenet: that the first condition of comedy is the full acknowledgement of social and individual corruption. Though something of the same claim might be made for Pickwick, it is certain that the corruption envisaged here is much deeper and much more pervasive. Just as Pickwick was a novel most closely associated with the myth of Eden, so is Our Mutual Friend preoccupied with the combined torture and hope of purgatory. The fund goals are no longer to be recaptured; they are to be arduously fought for. Even Boffin's elaborate masquerade suggests that Dickens now sees the attaining of comedy as something very difficult and rare. The full sense of Eden being the natural condition of man is certainly lost. The novel distrusts, in fact, many of the assumed virtues of Pickwick's Eden: innocence, benevolence, and passivity. Our Mutual Friend can be seen as an attempt to find the early comic solution in a world whose society is so vicious and so hardened that only a form of rebirth is promising. Seen in comparison with any other Dickens novel, however, Our Mutual Friend offers a real hope, one which is a matured and more complex version of the original vision from the wheelbarrow.
The and fact is, however, that Our Mutual Friend does not fully sustain this tougher comic vision, and I think it likely that the reader is forced to pay for the increasingly moving Wrayburn-Hexam plot with the increasingly silly and trite Wilfer-Harmon plot. Taylor Stoehr has suggested that the novel is really one-half of a great novel (pp. 206-7) and, while I think it is only at the end that the second plot goes sour, he is generally right. On the one hand we have the uncompromising artistic tact that insists that Eugene "might not be much disfigured by-and-bye" (IV. XVI); on the other hand we have baby [228/229] Harmon and his aviary. What goes wrong, perhaps, is that the spirit of the novel suddenly becomes too Pickwickian in this section of the plot. Complex and troubling matters are treated as simple and remote. The suggested union between Jenny Wren and Sloppy, for instance, weakly flashes back to Mr. Winkle and Arabella Allen. But Jenny, in particular, is no Arabella Allen, and she can never be brought into conjunction with Sloppy's world — no matter how well he "ornaments" her crutch handle. Though Dickens insists on Sloppy's delicacy in suggesting this ornamentation, such an operation is almost bound to seem callous or flippant, and the reduction of her pain and torment to a prospective family joke is indicative of the attempted oversimplification.
But the relaxation comes only late in the novel, and, despite this flaw, Our Mutual Friend is one of Dickens's most impressive novels. If not as consistent or unified either in method or in attitude as Little Dorrit, it is perhaps more courageous in what it attempts: the final destruction of the old, corrupt society and the fashioning of a new and open one. As always with Dickens, the process is supported fully by his humour, which here is used, perhaps more than in any other novel, as a structural element, binding together characters, attitudes, and different parts of the novel. Even the fine set pieces, where the narrator calls upon his most sarcastic rhetoric, are no longer allowed, as they sometimes were in Bleak House or Hard Times, to stand alone. Here they often signal the beginning of a recurrent humorous pattern, which clarifies and enforces the theme, One of the most important instances involves the brilliant satire of shares. Chapter X (Book I) opens with an extended and excited attack, in which the tempo builds with the anger:
Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners; have Shares. Have Shares enough to be on Boards of Direction in capital letters, oscillate on mysterious business between London and Paris, and be great. Where does he come from? Shares. Where is he going to? Shares. What are his tastes? Shares. Has he any principles? Shares. [229/230]
The same motif appears then in discussing the Boffins' search for an orphan:
The suddenness of an orphan's rise in the market was not to be paralleled by the maddest records of the Stock Exchange . . . The market was "rigged" in various artful ways. Counterfeit stock got into circulation. Parents boldly represented themselves as dead, and brought their orphans with them. Genuine orphan-stock was surreptitiously withdrawn from the market. [I. XVI]
Later in the chapter, the same diction describes poor Sloppy: "A considerable capital of knee and elbow and wrist and ankle had Sloppy, and he didn't know how to dispose of it to the best advantage, but was always investing it in wrong securities, and so getting himself into embarrassed circumstances." The perverse and cruel substitution of commercial for human values is forcibly demonstrated by this organic humour.
Even more striking than this repetitive technique is the violent negative tendency of much of the humour. Though the ultimate purpose of the humour here is the same as in Pickwick, it is much more deeply aggressive, seeking primarily not so much to protect our natural goodness as to extirpate our corruption. It is a violent humour of rejection, very often Swiftian in its mode. The laughter evoked by Our Mutual Friend is not, as in other novels, pushed towards compassion or terror so much as towards disgust. Nowhere else in Dickens is the macabre so nearly nauseating as, for example, in the description of Mr. Dolls's death. He wanders, like other drunks, to Covent Garden Market, largely for "the companionship of the trodden vegetable refuse, which is so like their own dress that perhaps they take the Market for a great wardrobe" (IV. IX) is seized with a fit, dies, and is carried to Jenny's home where "in the midst of the dolls with no speculation in their eyes, lay Mr. Dolls with no speculation in his".
But the humour is purgative so that, in the end, the reader may be able to reach the insight of Eugene. The novel is really an attack not on money but on egoism, and the most crucial theme is announced in the title: mutuality and its values of friendship and love. The old society has erected a system of camouflages and substitutes which makes love impossible and which turns the joy of life into a hysterical delusion, symbolized by the mad search for money. Our Mutual Friend destroys, as [230/231] comedy always has, the illusory and false in order to provide for the comfort and happiness possible in reality. Despite the fact that the illusion is monstrous and the destruction immense, then, Our Mutual Friend shares the confidence of Pickwick that the true reality is a comic one, and our laughter here points us towards Dulwich once more.
But before one can find the way to Dulwich, it is necessary to clear away all the impediments, which, in this case, amount to all existing social beliefs and pressures and almost all private inclinations. An extreme form of this humour of expulsion is displayed very clearly in the first chapter, where that creature of the slime, Gaffer, and his daughter Lizzic are conducting their gruesome fishing, an important and disgusting reversal of comic play. But Dickens does not treat this episode solely as disgusting; the characters exhibit tendencies which in other environments would certainly be funny. After Gaffer runs through his ridiculous argument with Riderhood, where he distinguishes his own honest corpse-robbing from Gaffer's "sneaking" thievery of living men, he shoves off, "composing himself into the easy attitude of one who has asserted the high moralities and taken an unassailable position". The combination of amusement and horror acts to expel not only his occupation, but his method: the creation of self-serving and meaningless distinctions, the hollow smugness, the selfishness which alienates him from his "partner" and his daughter, and from any sane conception of reality.
And his method is precisely that of society. Gaffer Rexam, is truly the double of Mr. Podsnap, and Mr. Podsnap is very clearly a pillar of the English world. He and Veneering are both, significantly, called "representative" men, and though Podsnap appears at first more substantial and though he strains mightily to maintain his superiority to Veneering, there is no difference. They are Boots, Brewer, Buffer, the Payer-off of the National Debt, the Poem on Shakespeare, the Grievance — all indistinguishable. At the same time, as representative men, they are the powerful men of the nation as it is now conceived. The humour that seeks to reduce and [231/232] destroy them, therefore, might be called anarchic, or perhaps revolutionary.
Veneering is ripped apart with a technique amazing in its economy. "What was observable in the furniture, was observable in the Veneerings — the surface smelt a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle sticky" (I. II). One observes both the furniture and the Veneerings; and since no distinction is asked for, the implied simile vanishes. The Veneerings simply are furniture. They are manufactured people, so "filmy" that they really do not exist. Dickens, interestingly, introduces the Veneerings and instantly reduces them. There is no trickery in the humour and no effort is made to identify Veneering with us. Though the final aim of the humour is to make us recognize Veneering and Podsnap as apt representatives of a good part of our own experience, Dickens makes it easy for us to use that knowledge without discomfort. However malicious his humorous attack, his rhetoric is amazingly gentle. The reader is very quietly pushed toward Eugene — by way of the Social Chorus.
The key irony of this last term lies in the fact that there is no community, no real society. The Veneerings have no friends, receive no attention, command no respect — nor does anyone else. Twemlow's continual worry about whether he is Veneering's "oldest and dearest friend" makes this point very sharply. In this society there are no friends, primarily because the society does not allow membership to human beings: "Oh! Mr. Boots! Delighted. Mr. Brewer! This is a gathering of the clans. Thus Tippins, and surveys Fledgeby and outsiders through golden glass, murmuring as she turns about and about, in her innocent giddy way. Anybody else I know? No, I think not. Nobody there. Nobody there. Nobody anywhere!" (II. XVI). This suggestion of bleak nothingness and Veneering's continual straining for social acceptance might, indeed, have been very sad. Veneering, however, is never at all touched by melancholy or any other feeling. He is the same whether deserted or accepted, very literally a man of surfaces, without depth or self-consciousness. As is very seldom the case in Dickens, the humour, though completely negative, is also completely pure. Since we can hardly feel a compulsion to pity Veneering, the hostility in our laughter is unchecked. [232/233]
Sometimes, the humour becomes so very basic that it approaches the level of the dirty joke. When Podsnap first enters Veneering's house and mistakes Twemlow for his host, his wife follows suit, "looking towards Mr. Twemlow with a plaintive countenance and remarking to Mrs. Veneering in a feeling manner, firstly, that she fears he has been rather bilious of late, and, secondly, that the baby is already very like him" (I. II). Though the appeal of the joke is a little unfocused; whether we respond to the ludicrous notion of adultery, the play on the theme of this "oldest and dearest" friendship, or the idea of two such pieces of furniture as the Veneerings having sexual impulses, our amusement is urged to belittle the Veneerings and suggest their essential nothingness.
This nothingness is, further, made explicitly representative in Mr. Venering's campaign for Parliament. His non-existent friends rally round him to do precisely nothing, and Podsnap's perfectly sound advice — "You ought to have a couple of active energetic fellows, of gentlemanly manners, to go about" (II. III) — unintentionally satirizes the entire competitive economy Veneering represents so ably. The work these people do, the energy they expend, amounts to a gigantic charade, rigged from the start to no one's advantage. It is not only a system of government that is being attacked here but a system of life as well, an organization and theory Dickens had fought against in every novel and which he here brings into compact shape as the dangerous and hilarious Podsnappery.
"'Let me ... have the pleasure of presenting Mrs. Podsnap to her host. She will be,' in his fatal freshness he seems to find perpetual verdure and eternal youth in the phrase, 'she will be so glad of the opportunity, I am sure!'" (I. II).Podsnap finds eternal (and fatal) freshness in clichés; he is a dark parody of the important rejuvenations celebrated in Eugene and Harmon. He lives off the formulated and falsifying language on which this society is built, particularly on the handy fiction of the "young person". The humorous attack latent in this phrase is only incidentally directed at prudery. [233/234]
More important is the way in which the notion reduces all questions to the simplest and most evasive terms: "It was an inconvenient and exacting institution, as requiring everything in the universe to be filed down and fitted to it" (I. XI). This sense of reduction is attacked over and over again in Podsnappery; for it does away with all comic variety and threatens to turn us all into Lady Tippinses, old, monotonous, and mean. The fact that there is "no youth (the young person always excepted) in the articles of Podsnappery" (I. XI) suggests that the "young person" is a selfish and somewhat filthy invention of the aged, without relation to the truly young.
In fact, Podsnap's whole inverted world amounts to an attempt to provide a comic existence for himself, and our laughter at Podsnappery is ultimately a rejection of inadequate or false solutions. Podsnap "was quite satisfied. He never could make out why everybody was not quite satisfied, and he felt conscious that he set a brilliant social example in being particularly well satisfied with most things, and, above all other things, with himself" (I. XI). His satisfaction is, as we see in his poor daughter, completely self-contained and non-generating. It is based on rigorously maintained ignorance: "I don't want to know about it; I don't choose to discuss it; I don't admit it!" (I. XI). His methodical world is only an imposition of his restricted ego ("getting up at eight, shaving close at a quarter-past," etc.) on externals, reducing all the world to his own being: "what Providence meant, was invariably what Mr. Podsnap meant" (I. XI). Podsnap is no less a blasphemer than Mrs. Clennam and, as a truly representative man, is much more dangerous. Laughter is made to work against his defensiveness, his stasis ("We know what France wants; we see what America is up to; but we know what England is" [IV. XVII]), his cruelty ("Then it [starvation] was their own fault" [I. XI]), and his cold and finally anti-social code, perfectly expressed as a series of exercises "on the social ice" (II. VIII). In the last chapter of the novel, the narrator assures us that, in the great comic tradition, Veneering's true [234/235] emptiness is about to be exposed and that the social chorus is, for us, an irrelevant whine. The Podsnappian (or English) society is rhetorically destroyed.
Indeed it has had more than its share of death from the beginning, in Podsnap's parties where the guests move around like a "revolving funeral" (I. XI) and in Veneering's ironic display of "the bran-new pilgrims on the wall, going to Canterbury in more gold frame than procession, and more carving than country" (I. III). Veneering's attempt to gild this great symbol of freshness and life makes the picture an appropriate, though unintentional, symbol of death. But the most prominent death's head is Lady Tippins. With her "immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon, and a dyed Long Walk up the top of her head, as a convenient public approach to the bunch of false hair behind" (I. II), Lady Tippins is subject to the most brilliant physical wit in Dickens. Her humour "is enhanced by a certain yellow play in [her] throat, like the legs of scratching poultry" (I. II). We are asked to laugh over and over again at the fact that she is old and ugly. The corpse of the drowned and mangled George Radfoot is "not much worse than Lady Tippins" (I. III), and in the end we see that this old "dyed and varnished" lady is not just artificial; she is unreal: "you might scalp her, and peel her, and scrape her, and make two Lady Tippinses out of her, and yet not penetrate to the genuine article" (I. X). She isn't there at all, and our laughter helps to get at her true nothingness and to define the way this "yellow wax candle-guttering down, and with some hints of a winding sheet in it" (II. XVI) is emblematic of moribund Podsnappery. She is like one of Poe's innumerable grinning skulls who haunt gay parties and forecast their doom. Instead of terror, Dickens uses humour to help kill not only Lady Tippins but the whole rotten society of her "lovers".
As we move away from the centre of Podsnappery to its junior officers and its less direct manifestations, the intensity of the humorous attack is still not relaxed. The most negative and hostile humour, in fact, is directed at Fascination Fledgeby, who is a Veneering on the rise and, more important, an illustration of Podsnappery in action. Fledgeby represents the application of the "getting up at eight" egoism to the young [235/236] and the stupid. He is a pure economic creation and a true nineteenth-century man, with a real genius in money matters and complete idiocy otherwise. His nickname refers sarcastically to his anti-social qualities: other people must actually talk for him, and Dickens flays this offshoot of the commercial society with deeply aggressive and emasculating wit, continually making the frightening and funny point that this impotent non-being is sure to succeed in this mad Podsnappian world. Fledgeby is always "feeling for the whisker that he anxiously expected" (II. IV) and that is certain never to come, the point being the non-procreative qualities of Podsnappery. Our laughter is urged to support the argument that only the hollowed-out, the self-contained, the moronic, and the sterile rise to the top of this economic anti-society. But Fledgeby's economic success and his exactly corresponding guilt are attacked still further in a cruel but extremely effective scene of pure vengeance. Fledgeby, appropriately attired in "a pair of Turkish trousers and a Turkish cap" (IV. VIII), is caned by Alfred Lammle, while Mrs. Lammle waits downstairs, politely holding her husband's cap. These fine details provide not so much distractions as excuses for enjoying the fierce aggression at the heart of this scene: "Oh I smart so! Do put something to my back and arms, and legs and shoulders. Ugh! It's down my throat again and can't come up. Ow! Ow! Ow! Ah-h-h-! Oh I smart so!" Jenny and the narrator then join with the Lammles to complete this primitive but probably highly satisfying physical vengeance, Jenny by putting pepper on the wounds and the narrator by so obviously relishing the spectacle of Fledgeby's pain: he is last seen "in the act of plunging and gambolling all over his bed, like a porpoise or dolphin in its native element". The brutal nature of this comedy suggests not only its very basic nature but a negative impulse so strong that it reaches back to the physical, to the desperate satisfaction of a truly frightened man. Edmund Wilson remarked that Dickens was "now afraid of Podsnap" (p. 78); the humour indicates that he is, at any rate, afraid of the more elemental Podsnappery manifested in Fledgeby. [236/237]
Like the Circumlocution Office, but even more thoroughly and dangerously, the spirit of Podsnappery radiates outward, swallowing the callous Charley Hexam and finally killing his schoolmaster-friend, Bradley Headstone. Dickens deceptively makes the whole basis of Headstone's tragedy originally the subject of a joke: "Bradley Headstone, in his decent black coat and waistcoat, and decent white shirt, and decent formal black tie, and decent pantaloons of pepper and salt, with his decent silver watch in his pocket and its decent hair-guard round his neck, looked a thoroughly decent young man of six-and-twenty" (II. I). His mind is a "wholesale warehouse" of facts, and we are encouraged to laugh at one more unself-conscious automaton. He is even supported by an equally mechanical schoolmistress, Miss Peecher, who could "write a little essay on any subject, exactly a slate long" (II. I). But even Miss Peecher, we find, is not actually this superficial: "If Mr. Bradley Headstone had addressed a written proposal of marriage to her, she would probably have replied in a complete little essay on the theme exactly a slate long, but would certainly have replied yes. For she loved him." The point is that when the varnish of Podsnappery is applied to anyone who is not, like the Veneerings, all surface, or like Fledgeby, nearly a pure void, the result is a dangerous, potentially tragic repression. For the only time in this novel, Dickens's humour is purposefully misleading. He urges us to assume that Headstone and Miss Peecher are shallow, only to insist on the real terror of Podsnappery by dramatically showing us the results of such a mistake in the extended and moving picture of Bradley Headstone's frustration, the murder he commits, and his suicide. In a novel whose central theme is the attainment of true love, the major enemy is this agency which so distorts men and values as to make love of any kind impossible.
Not satisfied with this rhetorical indictment, Dickens includes two other indications of the power of Podsnappery which, again, clarify the nature of the enemy through humour. The Lammles and Mr. Twendow represent, respectively, the possibilities within the Podsnap society of imaginative rebellion, or of virtuous and modified acquiescence. The Lammles' marriage, first of all, is another example of the commercial distortion of love. United by Podsnappery, however, [237/238] they acknowledge, in a moment of bitter clarity, their condition, and agree on a life of witty vengeance, which at first seems to be a form of Sam Weller's sustaining war of the imagination. They arrange a brilliant plan to make money, get at Podsnap through his daughter, and, at the same time, maintain a continual parody of Fledgeby. Their ability to provide conversation for both of the ludicrously shy lovers amounts to an imaginative creation of their protégés:
"But what," said Mrs. Lammle, stealing her affectionate hand toward her dear girl's, "what does Georgy say?" "She says," replied Mr. Lammle, interpreting for her, "that in her eyes you look well in any colour." [II. IV]
Despite this power, though, the Lammles haven't a chance against Podsnap. They err, first of all, in imagining that Podsnap really cares about his daughter, but the real failure comes through Mrs. Lammle's perception of Georgians's affection for her. She responds to it and is henceforth beaten; Podsnap has an easy time with anyone who can love. His defeat of them is not, of course, personal but just another cool item of business which follows "shaving at eight". The Lammles are ruined, ultimately, because they try to bring personalities, even fraudulent ones, into battle against the anti-person, Podsnap. Finally, then, even Mrs. Lammle's existential toughness — "though this celebration of to-day is all a mockery, he is my husband, and we must live" (II. XVI) — is overthrown. Despite the last courageous thrust against Fledgeby, they cannot maintain the Micawber pose of gay deception. They go off to a joyless life, only able to "bear one another, and bear the burden of scheming together for to-day's dinner and tomorrow's breakfast-till death divorces us". Podsnap has attacked the rebellious imagination and left it worn and suicidal: "haggardly weary of one another, of themselves, and of all this world" (IV. II).
It is equally hard on the man of virtue, poor frazzled Mr. Twemlow, who tries to exist on its edges. Twemlow is clearly a part of the Podsnap circle; he is one of the flies which flock to the newly rich Boffins and is introduced as just another "innocent piece of dinner-furniture" (I. II). The fact that he is innocent only makes him easy prey. Though a well-meaning [238/239] man, Twemlow suggests a rejection of the passive and sentimental innocence Dickens had once looked so favourably upon. As a "Knight of the Simple Heart" (III. XIII), he echoes a part of Mr. Pickwick quite distinctly, but here Pickwick's qualities are completely ineffectual, almost undesirable. Twemlow often becomes clearly not so much a character as a tendency — a tendency, that is, to be cast out:
For, the poor little harmless gentleman once had his fancy, like the rest of us, and she didn't answer (as she often does not), and he thinks the adorable bridesmaid is like the fancy as she was then (which she is not at all), and that if the fancy had not married some one else for money, but had married him for love, he and she would have been happy (which they wouldn't have been), and that she has a tenderness for him still (whereas her toughness is a proverb). [I. X]
He is too weak to know love at all except through the falsifications of memory. As a hanger-on, Twemlow is exactly like the impoverished-miserable and nearly undefined as a separate person: "Say likewise, my Twemlow, whether it be the happier lot to be a poor relation of the great, or to stand in the wintry slush giving the hack horse to drink out of the shallow tub at the coachstand, into which thou hast so nearly set thy uncertain foot" (II. XVI).
Twemlow, no doubt, is just what Oliver Twist would have grown up to be, and, in another novel, he might have received complete approval. But here, though victimized, his state very likely arouses little compassion and a good bit of something close to contempt: Twemlow "is shorter than the lady as well as weaker, and as she stands above him with her hardened manner, and her well-used eyes, he finds himself at such a disadvantage that he would like to be of the opposite sex" (III. XVII). In his closing defence of Lizzie, we witness not so much a revolution or even a change of heart as an ironic display of the limitations of passive goodness, His position is not only snobbish — "I think he is the greater gentleman for the action, and makes her the greater lady" — but uses the [239/240] very diction he has learned from Podsnappery: "If the gentleman's feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection, induced him (as I presume they did) to marry this lady-." Mew says the cat....
On another level this humour of expulsion collects in a massive examination of and a grand attack on mothers. Such an attack marks an interesting and significant shift in Dickens's practice; for in all past novels the indictment was laid on the fathers. The absence of fathers or the perversion of the paternal function had always symbolized the absence of authority, potency, and moral direction, but here what is missing is not moral direction but love. Our laughter is turned time and again against the inversion, distortion, or neglect of maternal affections, in order finally to provide for a proper and valid love. From Mrs. Fledgeby's pawnbroker view of motherhood, to Mrs. Podsnap, Mrs. Veneering, Mrs. Wilfer, and Jenny Wren and her poor child, we move through a gallery of perversion. Even the potentially tender women are thwarted: Betty Higden's ignorant tenderness does not help Johnny, and Mrs. Boffin's search for an orphan child is never really rewarded.
So fundamental is this attack on false mothers that Mrs. Podsnap is, in many ways, more frightening than her husband. She is not merely likened to but identified with a "rocking-horse", suggesting her ridiculous stateliness as well as her absence of direction or meaning and, perhaps more basically and ironically, her enmity to childhood and joy. Her daughter is a "young rocking-horse", who "was being trained in her mother's art of prancing in a stately manner without ever getting on" (I. XI), but again we see the dangers of applying a superficial system to a person of any complexity. Her mother may be so inhuman as to be delighted when "friends of their souls" were unable to come to Georgiana's birthday party: "Asked, at any rate, and got rid of" (I. XI). But her daughter is deeply human and is incapable of this rigid social accounting. Her bleak admission to Mrs. Larande, "Oh! Indeed, it's very kind of you, but I am afraid I don't talk" (I.XI), devastatingly indicts her mother. Largely because of her natural warmth, Georgiana is repulsed by Mrs. Podsnap's notion of society and is, paradoxically, therefore forced to spend all her energies trying to avoid human contact: "Oh, there's Ma going up to [240/241] somebody! Oh, I know she's going to bring him to me! Ob, please don't, please don't, please don't! Oh, keep away, keep away, keep away!" (I. XI). She has learned that no society at all is more amiable than Podsnappian society. When she is briefly able to "shrink out of the range of her mother's rocking, and (so to speak) rescue her poor little frosty toes from being rocked over", she creeps to Mrs. Lammle with perhaps the novel's most startling and revealing statement: "You are not ma. I wish you were" (II. IV). We see her at the end as "soft-headed and soft-hearted", loyal and generous to her "first and only friend" (IV. II) but obviously without much chance in the dismal swamp and still captivated by her dead, rocking-horse mother.
A more extensive rejection of the maternal and a somewhat milder picture of what is generally wrong is given in the Wilfer family. Runity, the head of the family or "master", as his wife so sardonically reminds him, is so shy and self-effacing that he shrinks from using an assertive first name and timidly offers only an initial, R. He has long ago resigned control to his wife. But it is not so much for an improper assertion of power that Mrs. Wilfer is attacked — in many ways she has simply moved into a power vacuum — but for her constant gloom, her selfishness, and her pomposity. She always speaks in lugubrious hyperbole and manages to make even her compliments grim: "Pardon me ... the merits of Mr. Boffin may be highly distinguished — may be more distinguished than the countenance of Mrs. Boffin would imply — but it were the insanity of humility to deem him worthy of a better assistant" (I. XVI). She is the "corrective" to merriment, aptly compared to the Dead March in Saul. Her gloomy presence can, in fact, lead her children to wish "either that Ma had married somebody else instead of much-teased Pa, or that Pa had married somebody else instead of Ma" (III. IV). Even darker, she can, when convenient, renounce her motherhood altogether: "Your daughter Bella has bestowed herself upon a Mendicant" (IV. V).
For all this, however, she is really not much more than a comic butt, contributing to but not at the centre of the attack on mothers. She is not a killer, only a mild depressant. With the exception of R. W. (who, we gather, deserves his fate), [241/242] she does very little harm, simply because she is so consistently ignored. She is forced to be so monumentally imposing because she desperately wants not so much power as attention. As we see that her own children sneer at her, our laughter likely joins their scorn in eliminating from serious consideration this potential tyrant. Her extinction is managed most effectively by her daughter Lavinia, a kind of Meredithian comic imp constantly in attendance on her:
"Papa and Mama were unquestionably tall. I have rarely seen a finer woman than my mother; never than my father." The irrepressible Lavvy remarked aloud, "Whatever grandpapa was, he wasn't a female." [III. IV]
Lavinia's sharp wit provides us with an opportunity to take revenge on all the aged and the revered, but most particularly to reject all the demands of the false mothers:
"Silence!" proclaimed Mrs. Wilfer. "I command silence!" "I have not the slightest intention of being silent, Ma," returned Lavinia, coolly, "but quite the contrary." [III. XVI]
The triumphant and liberating humour is even likely to conceal the truly dark suggestion that no mother at all is better than most of the ones we see in the novel. We are asked to extinguish Mrs. Willer in order that we may escape from all mothers.
The obsession with inadequate mothers is grotesquely manifested in the inverted relationship Jenny Wren maintains with her father (there is a good discussion of this interesting character by Richard J. Dunn, pp. 153-5, but it is difficult to see how he can find her "consistently admirable"). The little cripple sublimates some of her pain and bitterness into sharp harangues directed at her father, whom she imaginatively transforms into her child in order to provide herself with the moral authority for scolding. Though unquestionably victimized by the slimy Mr. Dolls, Jenny is no Little Nell, patient and loving, but a neurotic child, searching, even irrationally, for some outlet for her pain. Exactly reversing Nell's attraction to the small and helpless, Jenny hates children and contents herself with malicious plans for vengeance on them — "There's doors under the church in the Square — black doors, leading into black vaults. [242/243] Well! I'd open one of those doors, and I'd cram 'em all in, and then I'd lock the door and through the keyhole I'd blow in pepper" (II. I) — and on her future husband: "When he was asleep, I'd make a spoon red hot, and I'd have some boiling liquor bubbling in a saucepan, and I'd take it out hissing, and I'd open his mouth with the other hand ... and I'd pour it down his throat, and blister it and choak him" (II. II).
Her "beautiful" side is an imaginative life which, time and again, is identified with a wish for non-being. Even Riah's roof-top, where she sometimes feels light and happy, she instinctively associates with death: "Don't be gone long. Come back, and be dead!" (II. V). Her game with Riah, in which he is her "godmother", suggests exactly what is missing: kindness and unselfish love. Jenny's pathetic perversion of sexes and ages, of life and death, indicates how terribly difficult it is to find affection in this world. There is nothing in Pickwick to match the stern realism with which Jenny's search for love is handled.
But there is a movement here which is parallel to Pickwick's education, a purging of a different sort, which leads to a preparation for true comedy and true love. In Eugene and Lizzie, Bella and John, and the Boffins we are provided with u positive humour which directs us toward the comic goals. With Eugene, for example, though we are likely to approve of his brilliant attacks on mindless work and hysterical Protestant values of action — "If there is a word in the dictionary under any letter from A to Z that I abominate, it is energy. It is such a conventional superstition, such parrot gabble!" (I. III) — it becomes clear that he fails utterly to direct his wit and moral imagination to any goals. His cynicism is dangerous but curable. He is, first of all, never captured by Podsnappery, and he has an implicit sense of the important human values: "When your friends the bees worry themselves to that highly fluttered extent about their sovereign, and become perfectly distracted touching the slightest monarchial movement, are we men to learn the greatness of Tuft-hunting, or the littleness of the Court Circular? I am not clear, Mr. Boffin, but that the hive may be satirical" (I. VIII). His lively sense of the ridiculous, though somewhat reminiscent of Henry Gowan's, keeps him sane and self-critical enough to enable him at least to [243/244] find purgatory. His very imperturbability, however, indicates his moral stasis, and the partial unselfconsciousness he jokes about is pernicious. He can't tell Mortimer his motives because as yet he hasn't really troubled himself to look for them. Appropriately, it is largely his own limitations, his egoism and lack of moral direction, which goad Headstone to homicide:
"But I am more than a lad," said Bradley, with his clutching hand, "and I WILL be heard, sir." "As a schoolmaster," said Eugene, "you are always being heard. That ought to content you." [II. VI]
His wit is sharp but uncommitted: "The man seems to believe that everybody was acquainted with his mother!" (II. VI). And in treating Headstone in this way he is unintentionally moving towards Podsnappery, assuming that the absurd schoolmaster is superficial and powerless. Very simply, his comic detachment must be eliminated, and he must be made one with the river's redemptive slime before he can marry the corpse-catcher's daughter. Their marriage ceremony, conducted on the edge of death, is the perfect symbol of his comic rebirth, a rebirth which assaults the old society by the creation of a new and competing one.
Bella's case is not nearly so satisfactory. Although presumably tested by her trial with the Boffins and by her husband's gratuitous mystification, her early promise is largely thrown away. She announces at the beginning, "I hate to be poor, and we are degradingly poor, offensively poor, miserably poor, beastly poor" (I. IV), but this potentially important theme is never really developed, and Bella's understandable hatred of poverty becomes a tiresome and frivolous attraction to baubles. Dickens makes motions toward educating Bella but then tries to recapture Dora in her. The chapter describing her wedding seems to me the most mechanical writing in Dickens, ending in hilarity so forced it becomes dismal: "And oh, there are days in this life, worth life and worth death. And oh, what a bright old song it is, that oh, 'tis love, 'tis love, 'tis love, that makes the world go round!" (IV. IV). Bella's trial, finally, simply proves her constant. Her testing is far too easy, never approaching the "fire and water" that Lizzie had forecast and that the pattern had demanded for her. The comic [244/245] society is, thus, at least slightly disturbed by having to include such inadequately certified members.
Bella's teachers, the Boffins, also play important but largely unsatisfactory comic roles. Mrs. Bolfin, like Mrs. Lupin and Mrs. Todgers, does a very workmanlike job of defining the chief concerns of the open comic society. Beginning as a rather elementary parody of "Fashion", she expands to become an image of strong affection and an advocate of comfort and expansiveness: "'That's it!' said the open-hearted Mrs. Boffin. 'Lor! Let's be comfortable'" (I. IX). Most important, she asserts the key comic doctrine, the primacy of feelings: "It is ... a matter of feeling, but Lor how many matters are matters of feeling!" (II. X). Though really only at the periphery of the final comic society, Mrs. Boffin articulates most clearly its values: the old platitude that the world is best served with kindness and decency, which, as George Orwell points out, is not in Dickens such a platitude after all.
Mr. Boffin finally lends his support to this position, but only after a lengthy masquerade, the conclusion of which has pleased almost no one (Grahame Smith calls the revelation that Botha's miserliness has been a disguise "one of the bigged disappointments in literature" [p. 182] and goes an to discuss the causes and consequences of "the weakness of the Boffin strand" [pp. 182-8]). Nearly all critics have felt either that Boffin ought not to have changed or that, once changed, he should have stayed changed. Boffin is not only subject to some apparent deception on Dickens's part but seems often far too much like the Cheerybles, trotting around without a real moral concern in the world and therefore peculiarly out of place in the complex and urgent environment of the novel. There is, however, a good deal of support for Boffin that is not often noted and which certainly ought to be cited. Most generally, we ought to grant the validity of Dickens's aim: the creation of a basic comedy displaying the permanence underlying apparent change. The Boffins, we are to assume (and there is no reason we should not), have already been educated. It is also true that Dickens allows a critical attitude to play around Boffin, particularly at the beginning — he is described [245/246] as "warming (as fat usually does), with a tendency to melt" (I. VIII) — suggesting that he is not nearly so complex as Eugene or John and that moral dilemmas will therefore be easy for him. One ought also to allow for the thematic relevance of his disguise and the fine opportunities it allows for attacks on commercialism: "A sheep is worth so much in the market, and I ought to give it and no more. A secretary is worth so much in the market, and I ought to give it and no more" (III. V). Finally, Dickens does offer a very large number of clues throughout Boffin's miser period that might have (but apparently have not) signalled his intention very clearly. He makes it fairly plain that Boffin is deliberately leading Wegg and Venus on, encouraging their avarice and their fraudulent claims: he rolls his eyes greedily over a miser story and pointedly gasps to his readers, "see what men put away and forget, or mean to destroy and don't!" (III. VI). There also are several indications of Mrs. Boffin's uneasiness in her role as conspirator: Bella is "lost in speculations why Mrs. Boffin should look at her as if she had any part in" the upcoming dismissal of Rokesmith, and Dickens says the good lady later "glanced at her husband as if for orders" (III. XV). This very dismissal, furthermore, provides Boffin with a chance to make his pedagogic point with elaborate unsubtlety: "Luckily, [Bella,] he had to deal with you, and with me, and with Daniel and Miss Dancer, and with Elwes, and with Vulture Hopkins, and with Blewbury Jones and all the rest of us." But the strongest clue provided is the final breakfast with the Lammles, where Mr. Boffin acts with delicacy and generosity, not only toward Georgiana but toward the married cheats themselves. Still, Mr. Boffin is called upon to lend enormous positive support to the comic centre, and the scene that reveals his constancy should bring the comic society into focus with a snap. But the slight mystification here and the unaccountable lapse of force in the treatment of Bella considerably weakens the comic satisfaction.
Bella and Boffin aside, however, the comedy is anything but flabby. This is, in fact, Dickens's toughest novel, and he is at some pains to eliminate the sentimental, the weakly romantic, even the too-easy benevolence. There is a great distrust of charity here, as indicated by the long burlesque of [246/247] begging letters Mr. Boffin receives (I. XVII). Even quite genuine benevolence comes under attack, most pointedly in Charley Hexam's Ragged School. This "temple of good intentions" is naïve and stupid in its romantic assumptions about children:
But all the place was pervaded by a grimly ludicrous pretence that every pupil was childish and innocent. This pretence, much favoured by the lady-visitors, led to the ghastliest absurdities. Young women old in the vices of the commonest and worst life, were expected to profess themselves enthralled by the good child's book, the Adventures of Little Margery, who resided in the village cottage by the mill. [II. I]
One can't help wondering where Little Nell would stand in this cynical light. In any case, good intentions are clearly not enough; solid and realistic knowledge is needed, not good works that simply flatter one's notion of how happy things really are. All benevolence becomes secret patronizing — "I wish someone would tell me whether other countries get Patronized to anything like the extent of this one!" (II. XIV) and even the Reverend Frank Milvey and his wife are treated with more than a little suspicion: "He accepted the needless inequalities and inconsistencies of his life, with a kind of conventional submission that was almost slavish; and any daring layman who would have adjusted such burdens as his, more decently and graciously, would have had small help from him" (I. IX). This masochist is married to a limited and bigoted wife, but as do-gooders go, they are fine people.
Sentimentality is just as vigorously pursued by this hostile humour as is benevolence, particularly when the sentimentality is Mrs. Veneering's: "'Could it be, I asked myself,' says Mrs. Veneering, looking about her for her pocket-handkerchief, 'that the Fairies were telling Baby that her papa would shortly be an M.P.?'" (II. III). No flaccid emotional substitutes are allowed here, and all weak longings are treated like Twemlow's dreams or poor Miss Peecher's fantasies, where "a manly form, bent over the other, being a womanly form of short stature and some compactness, and breathed in a low voice the words, 'Emma Peecher, wilt thou be my own?' after which the womanly form's head reposed upon the manly form's shoulder, and the nightingales tuned [247/248] up" (II. XI). Contempt totally smothers any possible compassion. Even more startling is the treatment of Johnny, who is introduced as something of a brat, "'holding his breath:' a most terrific proceeding, superinducing, in the orphan, leadcolour rigidity and a deadly silence, compared with which his cries were music yielding the height of enjoyment" (I. XVI). He bears his illness not with resignation but "with a quiet air of pity for himself" (II. IX), and even the pathos of his death is qualified by the brutal reaction of Silas Wegg: "Mr. Wegg argued, if an orphan were wanted, was he not an orphan himself, and could a better be desired? ... [He] chuckled, consequently, when he heard the tidings" (II. X).
The love celebrated by this novel is made more firm because of the relentless, humorous elimination of all unauthentic and easy forms of it. The optimism of Our Mutual Friend is real, but it is based on very pessimistic premises. As the mock resurrection of Riderhood suggests, no light desires are satisfied in this world, and comic satisfaction can come only to the truly initiated. It is the function of humour both to narrow the grounds of the comedy and then to assert its importance.
Both of these functions, finally, are combined in the partnership of Venus and Wegg, who provide the most continuous humorous support for the comic pattern. Silas Wegg illustrates in harmless and dismissable ways most of the main themes of Podsnappery, and Venus is a happy reflection of the purgatorial testing and the positive new society. These roles are extremely important, but the characters are, I think, just barely adequate for them. Perhaps the main reason for this is that they hearken back to much simpler comic types; they are both completely unselfconscious and quite uncomplex. Dickens can even use them for some physical, Marx Brothers, humour, for example Wegg's slippery ascents and bouncing descents of the mounds. They are so nearly puppets that they can be played for the kind of visual humour not found in Dickens since Mr. Pickwick chased his wind-blown hat for several pages. Because they are so often simple, Venus and Wegg can lend very elemental support to the novel's most basic comic direction, but the responses they evoke cannot reach very far into the complexities of either Podsnappery or Eugene's purgatorial route. They do, however, accomplish a [248/249] great deal, and it is only in comparison with earlier humorous supporters that their function seems insufficient. It is important to assert that there is nothing tired or strained about the treatment of these two. The conception is brilliant but too simple.
Silas Wegg illustrates the corruption of the social man and burlesques nearly all the traits we are asked to dismiss: meanness, avarice, vengefulness, selfishness. He is a miniature Podsnap, and our laughing attacks on him are meant to carry over to the rejection of his entire society, even Miss Elizabeth, Master George, Aunt Jane, and Uncle Parker. Wegg is introduced, we gather, in order to be immediately used as an economic parody. He has desperately established squatter's rights to a few square inches and tries to sell there a kind of imitation, Podsnappian comedy: dry nuts, wizened fruit, and corny halfpenny ballads. It is, indeed, a "sterile" stall (I. V). The most apparent key to the humour evoked here, however, is in the treatment of Wegg's wooden leg, which is viewed as a natural extension of a man who "was so wooden a man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally, and rather suggested to the fanciful observer, that he might be expected — if his development received no untimely check — to be completely set up with a pair of wooden legs in about six months" (I. V). Wegg is the epitome of this dead society, the stuff from which rocking-horses like Mrs. Podsnap are made. Further, since he is one of those "quite as determined to keep up appearances to themselves, as to their neighbours" (I. V), the leg can be used over and over again, especially as it can be made to touch on pain, to establish a great tension (this term is borrowed from Dorothy Van Ghent's brief but excellent discussion of Wegg as "death-in-life", p. 421) and therefore excellent Freudian humour: "So gaunt and haggard had he grown at last, that his wooden leg showed disproportionate, and presented a thriving appearance in contrast with the rest of his plagued body, which might almost have been termed chubby" (IV. XIV). Venus's attempts to be delicate in reference to the antecedent of the wooden leg touch the grotesque so closely and sheer away so suddenly that they provide some of the funniest lines in the novel:
"Come! According to your own account, I'm [i.e. his bones] not worth much," Wegg reasons persuasively. [249/250] "Not for miscellaneous working in, I grant you, Mr. Wegg; but you might turn out valuable yet, as a -" here Mr. Venus takes a gulp of tea, so hot that it makes him choke, and sets his weak eyes watering: "as a Monstrosity, if you'll excuse me." [I. VII]
The fact that Wegg refers to his bones as "me" makes the joke more thematically relevant and more horrible. It is only because neither Venus nor Wegg is in the least touched by the macabre notion that the brilliant humour can be brought off. Their simplicity has its drawbacks, but also its great advantages.
Wegg has even more direct thematic functions. "Balancing himself on his wooden leg" and fluttering "over his prey with extended hand", he clearly repeats the "birds of prey" motif, his professional declining and falling evokes images of decay and corruption, and he continually alludes to the main themes of money, virtue, and selfishness: "It ain't for the sake of making money, though money is ever welcome. It ain't for myself, though I am not so haughty as to be above doing myself a good turn. It's for the cause of right" (II. VII). In all these cases our negative laughter is used to reject Wegg directly. In a few others, the humour reverses the terms, recognizing in Wegg perversions of important positive values, particularly the sense of trust (notice the image of the two partners each grasping a corner of the will) and the central issue of friendship.
The exposure of Wegg, then, is arranged as a climax because it is a final dismissal of all the dangerous values, While far less complex than the similar unmasking of Uriah Heep, the simplicity of this scene gives it a certain added strength. Unlike Uriah, Silas never really catches on and always bounces back with more outrageous cupidity. When Boffin offers to give him money enough to establish him again in his stall, Wegg begins listing what he has lost and adds a truly Podsnappian snobbery: "There was, further, Miss Elizabeth, Master George, Aunt Jane, and Uncle Parker. Ah! When a man thinks of the loss of such patronage as that; when a man finds so fair a garden rooted up by pigs; he finds it hard indeed, without going high, to work it into money" (IV. XIV). Because of this offensiveness, his final placement is particularly apt; the true wisdom now doesn't reward the clients but plops them into carts of night-soil with what is surely the most [250/251] disgustingly evocative word in the novel, a loud "splash". So much for the values of Podsnappery.
With Mr. Venus, the situation is reversed and the comedy is, in the end, much more serious. He becomes, as his name indicates, a comic symbol of love, now created out of the grave. A central figure in this society, he is a man who, like most others, makes money from death. The physical dissociation that surrounds him in his trade mirrors the emotional alienation all over the society: his stock inventory concludes with "human warious" (I. VII), a comic and terrifying comment on society's inhumanity. It is only his complete ignorance of the ghastly symbolism he lives with that can make his remarks funny.
Venus also adds further weight to Wegg's parody of Podsnappian commercialism. He is a kind of specializing Horatio Alger, who has cornered the bone and articulation market: "I'm not only first in the trade, but I'm the trade" (I. VII). He is not, however, vicious like Wegg; he simply is not yet educated. And it is in his hilarious love affair with Pleasant Riderhood that his positive function becomes clearest. His tag line is first introduced as shockingly incongruous; "She knows the profit of it, but she don't appreciate the art of it, and she objects to it. 'I do not wish,' she writes in her own handwriting, 'to regard myself, nor yet to be regarded, in that bony light'" (I. VII). As it comes up again and again, however, the direction of the humour changes and the hostility is relaxed: "'The spectacle of those orbs [i.e. the stars],' says Mr. Venus, gazing upward with his hat tumbling off, 'brings heavy on me her crushing words that she did not wish to regard herself nor yet to be regarded in that — '" (II. VII). The wonderful detail, "with his hat tumbling off", does act as an economizer of seriousness, but it becomes increasingly clear that Venus's problem is the general problem of the novel stated in humorous terms: the conflict between love, on the one hand, and, on the other, money, social being, death, and corruption. Time and again Venus's parody makes this point. Lamenting Pleasant's refusal, he declares, "my very bones is rendered flabby by brooding over it. If they could be brought to me loose, to sort, I should hardly have the face to claim 'em as mine" (III. VII). [251/252]
But it isn't until the introduction of Pleasant Riderhood that the full seriousness of this comedy can be recognized. Pleasant is the victim of a hard life and has adopted a toughly realistic view of things: "Show her a Funeral, and she saw an unremunerative ceremony in the nature of a black masquerade" (II. XII). Remarkably, though, she has managed to hold on to "a touch of romance", at least "of such romance as could creep into Limehouse Hole" (II. XII). It is the presence of this warmth in the middle of Limehouse Hole which adds a new perspective to the relationship and causes Venus's change in regard to Boffin to parallel the rebirth of Eugene. He affirms, likewise, in his happy renunciation of the articulating of lady's bones (not sacrificing those of men, children, and animals) the warm possibilities of comic society,
Though Dickens has not perhaps quite come full circle, his last completed novel does recapture the humorous directness of his first. Laughter is used to expel the villains and make the new world safe for love.
Last Modified 10 March 2010