"Better be mad than sane, here," said Hugh. "Go mad." [LXXVI]

decorative initial 'A' t the height of the great riots in Barnaby Rudge Dickens says, "Every man went about his pleasure or business as if the city were in perfect order, and there were no half-smouldering embers in its secret places, which, on the approach of night, would kindle up again and scatter ruin and dismay abroad" (LIII). Barnaby Rudge is really a novel about this sort of delusory immunity and about the "ruin and dismay" the delusion causes. The progression from snugness to chaos is very clearly indicated: extreme selfishness leads one to imagine a world of absolute ego; this, in turn, leads to a competition of tyrannies, with everyone playing on everyone else's fantasies; in the process the whole structure of society moves further from the natural and, to protect itself, becomes more and more fiercely tyrannical, finally causing just what it wanted to prevent — the eruption of the most chaotic natural forces. The search for cosiness and safety thus leads to destruction, and Dickens here undertakes his subtlest examination, to this point, of the defects of Dingley Dell. [105/106]

It is not only his most subtle treatment but also his most prophetic and most sternly confident — one could almost say his most didactic. The opening scene of the novel, in which John Willet and his friends huddle in imagined security around a fire, pleasantly titillating themselves with ghost stories and asserting their power with taunts at Joe, the perpetual boy, is a brilliantly compact paradigm of most of the novel's themes. The oppression born out of the selfishness which deals with threats by transplanting them into a new and mad world (one, for instance, in which Joe is always a boy and will never threaten his father) is seen collected in a small hovel while the elemental forces are raging outside. The scene, a symbol of the precariousness of all enforced and callously maintained security, is filled with foreboding, even warning. As Kathleen Tillotson says, the novel is "almost journalistically apt" in its relation to the situation in the late 1830s (Preface, p. vii), and despite the fact that Dickens seems somewhat equivocal in relation to his great theme of authority and in his attitude towards the rioters, he is piercingly straightforward in his warning: England must abandon delusions of safety or face destruction. In view of such an aim, in the long run it does not seem to be equivocal both to sympathize with the victimized rioters, even in their violence and love of plunder, and at the same time to react to the riots themselves with horror. In a way this reaction is the only intelligent one. When a nation is, in its maniacal desire to protect its isolated tyrannies, moving toward its own doom, what may be needed is not a quiet analysis of the proper balance of authority but a violent shock. The nation does not need gentle [106/107] remodification of its aims but a vigorous awakening from its deadly sleep; for Dickens clearly sees England's course as not only wrong but suicidal, and he evokes a vision of the riots as the final judgement on a nation which has lost touch with all sanity and decency in God and in Nature:

... the reflections in every quarter of the sky, of deep, red, soaring flames, as though the last day had come and the whole universe were burning; the dust, and smoke, and drift of fiery particles, scorching and kindling all it fell upon; the hot unwholesome vapour, the blight on everything; the stars, and moon, and very sky, obliterated; made up such a sum of dreariness and ruin, that it seemed as if the face of Heaven were blotted out, and night, in Us rest and quiet, and softened light, never could look upon the earth again. [LXVIII

Burnaby Budge is intended partly as an indication of a way to avoid this God-forsaken end. But there is a severe limit to the didacticism; the attack is purely negative and, as a result, even touched by disillusionment. The root causes of the sickness are indicated, bat not only is no programme developed to deal with them, there is even a slight sense that the illness is finally incurable, the nation really already lost. Just around the corner from the confident didacticism is always a hint of cynicism, which seems to grow more apparent as the novel nears its end.

But for the most part Burnaby Budge is one of Dickens's most firmly organized and rhetorically effective novels. His larger attacks on the tyranny rooted in enforced fantasies are focused in a symbolic attack on the very desire for snugness, The novel attacks not only the characters' sense of immunity but our own as well. For although the central image of Burnaby Budge is an invasion, a presumed sanctuary being broken into, just about one-half of the novel is spent assuring us that we are safe and, correspondingly, that our fantasies are supportable, our fears easily dismissible, and our tyranny certainly justifiable. It is a novel based on reversal; the second half reverses the tendencies of the first half and negates its assurances. Safe daylight becomes night, the fairy tale becomes a nightmare, the comic wooden inflexibility is engulfed in fire, and the assumption of immunity is cruelly exploded. It is a novel whose very heart is rhetorical and whose themes are defined [107/108] by its structure. Its structure, in turn, is made rhetorically effective by laughter.

As the themes, gently and comically presented in the first half of the novel, are placed in a wider arena and violently reconstructed and re-interpreted after the five-year lapse near the middle of the novel, our laughter tends to die as we realize, with its help, exactly what those themes are. By laughing at John Willet we have been supporting tyranny; by laughing at Sim Tappertit we have been at the same time dismissing its significance. We have, in other words, created with our laughter an assumed world of safety and comfort which is blown apart as violently as Newgate itself. England here becomes the reader and the awful warning becomes sharply personalized as Dickens seeks to make the hidden tendency of our laughter literal: the custard pie did contain sulphuric acid, and we are not only responsible for, but richly deserve, the retaliation which follows.

At the beginning of the second part of the novel Dickens discusses this very use of laughter in relation to Lord George Gordon, the central symbol of fantasy, both dangerous and funny: "Although there was something very ludicrous in his vehement manner, taken in conjunction with his meagre aspect and ungraceful presence, it would scarcely have provoked a smile in any man of kindly feeling; or even if it had, he would have felt sorry and almost angry with himself next moment, for yielding to the impulse" (XXXVI). If we yield to the impulse to smile at this terrible danger, we will feel "sorry and almost angry" indeed, for it is exactly the tendency to dismiss this threat at the core. of our amusement which is responsible for the repressive tyranny and the chaos it finally causes. Dickens points out that although Gordon "might have moved the sternest looker-on to laughter, and fully provoked the smiles and whispered jests which greeted his departure from [108/109] the Maypole inn", he was "quite unconscious . . . of the effect he produced"' (XXXVII). In a society ruled by fanaticism, laughter loses its powers of sane correction and becomes a shameful evasion. When all the world has gone mad, one can laugh only by maintaining a blindness to this fact and creating a separate sanity, so detached from what is real that it becomes equally mad and so egotistical it becomes despotic. Laughter is parallel to the central sin in the novel and follows the same regressive series: to security, fantasy, and tyranny. What makes this parallel all the more emphatic is that Dickens hides it for so long. We are, in fact, encouraged to ignore the effects of foreshadowing in the first half of the novel and assume that private lives, at least, are "immune from public events" and that whatever may happen old John Willet and Sim Tappertit are absurd figures who will always be around for one more laugh. John will always be ludicrously slow; Sim will always be admiring his skinny legs. But Willet's slowness becomes pathetic mental paralysis and death, and Sim's legs are crushed to a pulp. It is as if Mrs. Micawber actually deserted her husband and absconded with the bill collector or as if Mr. Winkle actually shot and killed Mr. Tupman. The laughter echoes the reflexive structure, and the irony is directed at us. The theme is the structure, and the structure is built by our laughter.

It is, however, a commonplace of criticism that the humour in Barnaby Budge is terribly weak, flat, or mechanical. It is true that the humour is very nasty; there is nothing to match the freedom and joy of Dick Swiveller. Here the defensive part of laughter, the protection of pleasure, is itself relentlessly attacked, and the aggressive part of laughter is exposed for just what it is. The laughter stirred by the novel is finally, therefore, the reverse of pleasant; there is no allowance for comic pleasure and no dispensation to enjoy aggression. It is understandable, then, that we accuse Dickens of being unfunny, but that accusation is no more just or accurate than the consistent under-rating of the novel's general quality. Burnaby Budge is a very un-Dickensian novel in many ways; no one could love a novel which has such insight into things so truly ugly as the pig-like, roaring brother of the Lord Mayor, the ignorant John Bull Englishman, who distrusts [109/110] even Burnaby's mother and yet is clearly a pillar of this society and a repository of its trust. For all our pride in modern existential awareness and in the disciplined and unblinking vision of contemporary literature, we are unprepared to find such qualities in Dickens. As a consequence, the reader is tempted to defend his reaction by saying that the novel is somehow unsatisfactory, its humour somehow flat. But this is surely an ironic defence; it is really the habitual stance of John Willet, and it collapses in face of the facts.

And one fact about this novel is that it is, in its way, very funny. By "in its way" I really mean "in the first half", for it is true that Dickens controls the humour so that it gradually decreases, until in the last pages of the novel there is absolutely no chance to laugh. But this decline is part of the plan. In the first half of the novel we are encouraged to laugh, and Dickens's humour here seems to me on a level with that of Pickwick. But in the second half of the novel the jokes become more and more explicit, and the disguises for the aggression become thinner and thinner as the original topics for laughter become subjects for attack. The humour is thus controlled for very serious effects and nowhere provides the sense of freedom and comfort we expected in earlier novels. But freedom and comfort, this novel says, are impossible in the world envisaged here, and any attempt to create them easily leads to madness, tyranny, and self-destruction. Barnaby Rudge, then, though very funny, is one of Dickens's least comic novels. It is a denial of the comic impulse.

But this is, of course, no reason to call its humour mechanical; it is anything but that. Better terms might be "organic", or "disciplined", or "functional". For instance, though the narrative personality in this novel is generally the flattest and least distinctive in any Dickens novel, very important effects can be produced from a contrast to this flat base. The most famous of these effects comes from the brilliant writing which describes the riots and the strongly projected feelings of both attraction and repulsion. Dickens can also produce quieter but no less important humorous effects through this process of contrast. He almost never uses the facetious tone customary to Pickwick Papers here, for example, so when that tone does appear, it is all the more striking. At the end of the [110/111] first half of the novel, the narrator begins three of the last four chapters (see Chapters XXIX, XXX, and XXXII) by discussing various adages in a highly jocular manner. Most generally, this concentrated onslaught on these proverbial phrases, representing the conventional and approved methods of dealing with life, expresses the irrelevance and, underneath that, the instability of the orderly and the accepted. Our laughter thereby is enlisted in the over-all attack on the stable and conventional, and the technique reminds us of the one used so successfully in Pickwick Papers. But in Pickwick the laughter was preparatory to a world of childhood joy; here it prepares for fire and riot, and our laughter implicitly underlines the inevitability of the downfall which waits for a world resting on mad values. More specifically, the laughter directed at this collection of adages summarizes the intended rhetorical effect of the first half of the novel: to make us side with the comforting dismissal of all threats, an evasion which characterizes all of the novel's tyrants.

At the start of Chapter XXXII, for instance, the narrator remarks:

Misfortunes, saith the adage, never come singly. There is little doubt that troubles are exceedingly gregarious in their nature, and flying in flocks, are apt to perch capriciously; crowding on the heads of some poor wights until there is not an inch of room left on their unlucky crowns, and taking no more notice of others who offer as good resting-places for the soles of their feet, than if they had no existence.

The passage most centrally mislead us by treating all the effects of oppression (here those acting on Joe Willet and Edward Chester) as harmless and even gay. Notice how effective the word "gregarious" is as camouflage; it helps allow its to agree that there really is no danger at all and no personal threat. Even a clearer humorous summary is given at the beginning of Chapter XXX:

A homely proverb recognizes the existence of a troublesome class of persons who, having an inch conceded them, will take an ell. Not to quote the illustrious examples of those heroic scourges [111/112] of mankind, whose amiable path in life has been from birth to death through blood, and fire, and ruin, and who would seem to have existed for no better purpose than to teach mankind that as the absence of pain is pleasure, so the earth, purged of their presence, may be deemed a blessed place — not to quote such mighty instances, it will be sufficient to refer to old John Willet.

Here we are encouraged to laugh at tyranny, pointedly at the "blood, and fire, and ruin" which will be spread over the second half of the novel. After the elaborate disguise of mighty warriors and despots, we are presented with the connection to John Willet and allowed to think it ludicrous. We are also allowed to develop a central, though deeply submerged, wish for old John's death. Our laughter allows us both alternatives at once: the assurance, on one level, that this sort of tyranny is not serious and, on the other, that it might be serious but that its practitioners can be eliminated.

But the second half of the novel shows us that tyranny is certainly not trivial and that laughing at it and at old John Willet expresses the same dodge which caused the "blood, and fire, and ruin". At the same time, however, when John finally does die, our laughter is not vindicated but again turned back oil us. Old John is clearly victimized by a general social evasion, and the laughers are really much more guilty than he. Perhaps, it is hinted, we want him dead because he goes too far and threatens to give the game away. At any rate, the richness of this narrative humour suggests the pervasive richness of the humour throughout the novel and the way in which it acts to support the structural principle of contrasts. Nowhere, however, is the operation of this relationship between humour and structure better illustrated than in the functional humour connected with two of Dickens's symbols for violated sanctity: the Maypole Inn and the home of Gabriel Varden.

Victorian Overview Charles Dickens Contents Next Section

Last Modified 10 March 2010