decorative initial 'B' ut out of this death is born an adult, the regenerated and transformed Dick Swiveller. In the midst of the trapped and the frustrated there emerges the liberated comic spirit. It may be that the triumph of Dick and the Marchioness cannot eradicate the pessimism of the novel, but it does present a very movingly realized alternative. It is an alternative, moreover, supported throughout by our laughter. For the humour has had two main functions, as always: not only the aggressive function which here heightened the pathos of Nell, but a defensive protection of pleasure, a construction which serves as a refuge from darkness. Dick not only creates our laughter, then, but is in a very real sense created by it.

That Dick was Dickens's favourite character in this novel (Forster's Life, i. 119) is not surprising, for he is a dramatic artist very much like his creator, using Freudian humour to create appropriate roles for himself. Pain itself means very little if he can arrange it into a part for which he has apt quotations (J. B. Priestley interestingly and wittily discusses Dick's reliance on phrases and roles; see pp. 227-40). His hat, even, is rather an emblem of his protective and liberating humour: it is a "very limp hat, worn with the wrong side foremost, to [99/100] hide a hole in the brim" (II). He is flexible in exactly this way and has the freedom the others lack to try out different poses and directions in order to hide the holes.

But Dick is not primarily a defensive character but an open and expansive one. The pleasure that we protect through him is certainly not thin or starved. He fives over a tobacconist's shop, which provides him with a perpetual snuffbox, and he is as comfortable as Mrs. Jarley. And like Mrs. Jarley, whose comfort always included her companions, Dick's creative life of the imagination engenders by necessity a similar life in others:

By a like pleasant fiction his single chamber was always mentioned in the plural number. In its disengaged times, the tobacconist had announced it in his window as "apartments" for a single gentleman, and Mr. Swiveller, following up the hint, never failed to speak of it as his rooms, his lodgings, or his chambers: conveying to his hearers a notion of indefinite space, and leaving their imaginations to wander through long suites of lofty halls, at pleasure. [VII]

"At pleasure" indeed! As the narrator says, "to be the friend of Swiveller you must reject all circumstantial evidence" (VII). Perhaps it is more accurate to say that Dick's friendship allows one to transcend the trivially circumstantial and restrictive and live in "the rosy", here as in Pickwick a sure provider of joy and amiable conviviality — even if it is only gin.

But Dick never is as unconscious, even in the early stages of the novel, as is Mr. Pickwick. The fact is that in his humour there is a degree of self-awareness that is terribly disarming. He is often aware of exactly what he is doing and can enjoy even that awareness:

"May the present moment," said Dick, sticking his fork into a large carbuncular potato, "be the worst of our lives! I like this plan of sending 'em with the peel on; there's a charm in drawing a potato from its native element (if I may so express it) to which the rich and powerful are strangers. Ah! 'Man wants but little here below, nor wants that little long!' How true that is! — after dinner!" [VIII]

This might be called a joke on jokes. At any rate, there is an important degree of self-mockery in him that prepares us for [100/101] later changes. He is, from the first, a serious and complex character. But his seriousness is always gentle. Unlike Quilp, the novel's other important life force, Dick is never defensive or malicious. Dickens makes the contrast clear in an important scene where Quilp, rushing out of the Curiosity Shop, crashes into a mail, whom he instantly begins pummelling. He almost immediately finds himself on his back in the middle of the street, "with Mr. Richard Swiveller performing a kind of dance round him and requiring to know 'whether he wanted any more?'" (XIII). Dick's dance engenders a kind of joy, and he launches into a fine parody both of the retribution and of the commercial ethic which dominate the novel: " 'There's plenty more of it at the same shop,' said Mr. Swiveller, by turns advancing and retreating in a threatening attitude, 'a large and extensive assortment always on hand — country orders executed with promptitude and despatch will you have a little more, sir? — don't say no, if you'd rather not'" (XIII). The dance and the parody neutralize the violence, and our laughter rejects the entire basis of the main plot. We are left with gentleness and freedom, pure pleasure and pure play.

But Dick is, unfortunately, not strong enough to maintain this purity by himself. Even in this same scene we are given hints that he is somehow incomplete. Mrs. Quilp's screams and jerks resulting from her husband's pinches, for instance, do not bother him at all: "he did not remark on these appearances, and soon forgot them". There are areas of life, in other words, which he is not equipped to handle, and it is, ironically, Quilp who begins his moral education by sending him to the Brasses, who, in turn, bring him into contact with the Marchioness and to an eventual initiation into poverty, starvation, nothingness, and symbolic death — and, of course, his triumph over them.

Dick's initial comic position is, in fact, for all its freedom, too acquiescent. It smacks too much of the attitude of Nell:

"No man knocks himself down; if his destiny knocks him down, his destiny must pick him up again. Then I'm very glad that mine has brought all this upon itself, and I shall be as careless as I can, and make myself quite at home to spite it. So go on, my buck," said Mr. Swiveller, taking his leave of the ceiling with a significant nod, "and let us see which of us will be tired first!" [XXXIV]

[101/102]

There is an un-Nelly-like defiance here, certainly, and a welcome rejection of work, but it is still too passive and, more important, too callous: it ignores those who "have been at work from [their] cradle" (XXXIV), specifically the Marchioness. Carelessness, by itself, is not enough. It is not enough to sing "Begone, dull care"; one must earn the right to dismiss it. Dick's announcement, then, that the situation at the Brasses' does not concern him is ironic; his decision to "have nothing whatever to do with it" backfires — to his great advantage,

He soon begins to worry very much about the Marchioness. It bothers him that "nobody ever came to see her, nobody spoke of her, nobody cared about her" (XXXVI). He sees Sally beat her and must abandon his reliance on destiny and test himself in this lonely world of the Marchioness. His own humour begins to parallel his movement to reality:

"Why, instead of my friend's bursting into tears when he know who Fred was, embracing him kindly, and telling him that he was his grandfather, or his grandmother in disguise (which we fully expected), he flew into a tremendous passion; called him all manner of names; said it was in a great measure his fault that little Nell and the old gentleman had ever been brought to poverty; didn't hint at our taking anything to drink; and-and in short rather turned us out of the room than otherwise." [L]

His expectation of theatrical behaviour collapses just as he does in the bleak world of rejection. He must come face to face with the nothingness symbolized by the Brasses' servantgirl:

"Where do you come from?" [Quilp] said after a long pause, stroking his chin. "I don't know." "What's your name?" "Nothing." [LI]

The catechism of the Marchioness is brilliant in its suggestiveness. All she can do is repeat her pathetic plea for contact, "But please will you leave a card or message?". Dick begins by helping the small servant, of course, and the joyous cribbage games they play are the most important symbolic contrast to the sinister games for cash which alienate and kill Nell and her grandfather. Dick learns that the Marchioness is reduced [102/103] to looking through the keyhole for company, and though he is temporarily self-conscious at the thought of his own absurd pastimes she must have witnessed, he leaves self-consciousness behind and instinctively responds to her extreme loneliness. He brings food, drink, and, most helpful, his free imaginative re-creation of reality: "To make it seem more real and pleasant, I shall call you the Marchioness, do you hear?" (LVII). It is, in fact, more real. The reality of the imagination is played off against the reality of the grave, and our laughter begins to build a world of real joy.

It is a world made much more valid by the Marchioness's presence, though it still must be painfully created, Even now Dick reacts with a new sensitivity to others. When the Marchioness uses a less-than-poetic idiom, Dick thinks about correcting her but decides against it when he considers that "it was evident that her tongue was loosened by the purl, and her opportunities for conversation were not so frequent as to render a momentary check of little consequence" (LVIII). He responds to her absolute trust and to the demands she makes on him simply as a lonely and isolated human being. But his initiation demands something more extreme than sympathetic and imaginative identification with the Marchioness; it demands that he re-create her grievous experience through a symbolic death.

Though Dick does become something of a classic hero (Marcus, pp. 165-8, argues for Dick's role as a hero but sees him finally as "too light, und supple" for the "dead weight of the novel's great theme") his illness is more than an archetypal purging; it is a symbolic rehearsal of death, a real brush with non-existence. And it is the Marchioness whom he has saved who must eventually save him. He must face death and come back from it somehow made triumphant by his honesty and simple trust. When he regains consciousness after his illness and asks his nurse if he has been quite ill, the Marchioness very simply explains his situation; "Dead, all but.... I never thought you'd get better. Thank Heaven you have" (LXIV). After this Dick is "silent for a long while". His response to her presence and her love displays a new style, almost stark in its clarity and simplicity:

"This poor little Marchioness has been wearing herself to death!" cried Dick. [103/104] "No I haven't," she returned, "not a bit of it. Don't you mind about me. I like sitting up, and I've often had a sleep, bless you, in one of them chairs. But if you could have seen how you tried to jump out o' winder, and if you could have heard how you used to keep on singing and making speeches, you wouldn't have believed it — I'm so glad you're better, Mr. Liverer." "Liverer indeed!" said Dick thoughtfully. "It's well I am a liverer. I strongly suspect I should have died, Marchioness, but for you." [LXIV]

This is the heart of the rejuvenated comic centre, a "liverer" born out of nothing and fully deserving the delight given to it at the end. Out of hunger and servitude and loneliness they recapture a bit of joy. Perhaps it is not enough to counterbalance the central gloom, but there is an enormous amount of strength, supported by our laughter, invested in those "many hundred thousand games of cribbage" (LXXIII) they play together. In the midst of death there is still this small but powerful glimpse of immortality.


Victorian Overview Charles Dickens Contents Next Section

Last Modified 10 March 2010