decorative initial 'T' he action at the Maypole Inn presents the whole novel in miniature, as even the "snuggest" and "cosiest" of hills (XIX) is ripped apart by the fury of the riots. Though it is introduced as the scene of light domestic comedy, Dickens gradually reveals how the Maypole is a symbol for all social wrongs, and [112/113] exhibits a tyranny based on the assumption of inviolable individual safety. Our laughter, it turns out, rests on the same delusory assumption and must share in the same guilt. Time and again throughout the first half of the novel we are invited to laugh at, and thereby dismiss, the very foundations of the terror of the second half. This dismissal is the central error and crime, in fact, of John Willet. And any desire for his death expressed in laughter insidiously doubles back as we. are asked to see him later not only as chief villain but as chief victim as well and, most important, as ourselves. Even the Maypole itself is made part of this ironic reversal. The traditional symbol of potency, youth, and gaiety has become the actual sign of sterility, old age, and repression. But the development of this reversal is gradual, and we are, in the first scene, encouraged to assume, along with the Maypole crowd, a snug immunity from the wild storm outside, a storm which suggests the raging elemental forces being artificially shut out.

The Maypole group are, in fact, enemies of all that is natural, and John Willet in particular extends his egoism to the point of twisting nature into something subordinate to or even part of himself. His first words invite our laughter at this monstrous despotism:

"It'll clear at eleven o'clock. No sooner and no later. Not before and not afterwards." "How do you make out that?" said a little man in the opposite corner. "The moon is past the full, and she rises at nine." John looked sedately and solemnly at his questioner until he had brought his mind to bear upon the whole of his observation, and then made answer, in a tone which seemed to imply that the moon was peculiarly his business and nobody else's: "Never you mind about the moon. Don't you trouble yourself about her. You let the moon alone, and I'll let you alone." "No offence I hope?" said the little man.

Again John waited leisurely until the observation had thoroughly penetrated to his brain, and then replying, "No offence as yet," applied a light to his pipe and smoked in placid silence. [I]

Willet, the antithesis of nature, sees himself as equal to the moon, indeed sees the universe as compact in his tyrannical self, and though the humour rejects this rapacious ego, it also refuses to take it seriously, even though such egoism is at the [113/114] bottom of all the violence. The humorous warning John ends with, 'No offence as yet', is brilliant in its foreshadowing of the real offence and the real violence to come, and our laughter promotes a delusion of safety similar to John's own. John continually links himself to nature, his pugnacious powers of argument, he says, are "a gift of Natur", and for a man to ignore those powers would be "a turning of his back on Natur, a flouting of her, a slighting of her precious caskets, and a proving of one's self to be a swine that isn't worth her scattering pearls before" (I). Here again the disguises are masterly. John's misuse of clichés emphasizes his stupidity and allows aggressive laughter, but our laughter not only dismisses him; it ignores the degree to which he is unconsciously prophetic. Those who are tyrants are indeed turning their backs on nature. Our laughter generally, then, tempts us to brush aside the major thematic issues reflected in John, a symptom of the general and horrid perversion of nature by a tyranny which leaves actual nature no outlet but raging storms and fire.

At this early point, John's presumptions are not connected to a larger scheme, however, and can therefore be treated humorously. Even his central combat with his son is used for functional laughter:

"Silence, sir!" returned his father, "what do you mean by talking, when you see people that are more than two or three times your age, sitting still and silent and not dreaming of saving a word?" "Why that's the proper time for me to talk, isn't it?" said Joe rebelliously. "The proper time, sir!" retorted his father, "the proper time's no time." [1]

The struggle between father and son, echoed many times throughout the novel (Marcus, pp. 169-212 has a full treatment of the parental roles in the novel) receives its funniest and, at the same time, most elemental treatment in the relationship between these two. John Willet clearly wants to annihilate his son; in his drive for absolute authority he sees Joe as the chief threat to his position and reacts by treating him as frozen, dead, and impotent. Even Joe's mild rebellion here meets with a demand that he acknowledge hip, nothingness by continual silence, and dramatically admit his subservience. Dickens is very blunt [114/115] about his father's goals: he "snipped off" Joe's liberty and kept "trimming" and "shearing away" (XXX) at him.

John's antipathy to his son really extends to all rebellious and threatening youth; even of Hugh he says, "I wish that chap was dead, I do indeed" (X). The problem with all young people, he argues, is that they lack "imagination" — clearly his euphemism for absolute submissiveness. "Imagination", he says, is created either by drawing one's faculties out or by forcibly knocking the faculties in if they aren't naturally there (XXIX). Either way it expresses a violence equivalent to silencing them for ever. When his son goes to London, escaping for the moment his father's immediate control, John still holds the reins as tight as possible: "The other sixpence is to spend in the diversions of London; and the diversion I recommend is to go to the top of the Monument, and sitting there. There's no temptation there, sir — no drink — no young women — no bad characters of any sort nothing but imagination. That's the way I enjoyed myself when I was your age, sir" (XIII).

"Nothing but imagination" is right; he wants particularly to shield his son from women, not in order to protect him but to keep him a boy, living proof of his own mastery and dominance. He is, above all, the antithesis of his Maypole and the deadly enemy of procreation, life, and sex: "I know my duty. We want no love-making here, sir, unbeknown to parents" (XXIX). Further than this, he sees all women as "a kind of nonsensical mistake on the part of Nature" (XXI). As Nature himself, he would never make the same mistake; he would have no sex, growth, development, or challenge. His uniting with Chester, then, in a league of repression composed of all the impotent tyrants is certainly not surprising. John Willet is symbolically at the heart of the problem in the novel, and our early laughter at him prepares us for the shock when his position is revealed. We have been as callous as Tom Cobb in our laughter and equally deserve the punishment he receives at the hands of Joe. Perhaps Tom Cobb gets off easily though: he is only knocked into the spittoons; but if we respond to Dickens's rhetoric, we are forced to see in ourselves the cause of the riots and the hideous death.

Willet's ego and his desire for dominance are so enormous that he is capable of transforming reality in a grotesque way. [115/116] Not only is Joe always a boy, John's fifteen-year-old, short-winded horse is a potential cup-winner: "There's a bit of horseflesh, Hugh! . . . There's a comely creature! There's high mettle! There's bone!" (XIII). We are likely to laugh at these delusions, ignoring the fact that they reveal the same egoistic imagination at work that depresses all youth and vigour. Dickens, in fact, shows that Willet's desire for dominance is, like the riots, self-destructive. He is so anxious to freeze time that he is willing to see himself as dead rather than give in to his son. "We know nothing about coaches here, sir" (XXV), he says, nor of anything else expressive of change and growth. In his desire for mastery, John has created a fantasv world which is ultimately a suicidal one. This cycle of death is Dickens's forecast and warning for England and is, in a sense, what Barnaby Rudge is. We laugh at it finally only if we are willing to be John Willets, frozen in the past and destroyed by our fantasies.

Dickens reinforces this early connection between the humour of John Willet and the later riots by the reactions of Joe to his father. Though constantly tempting us to see the boy as a figure in comic opera or light sex comedy, he later makes it clear that our laughter has been dismissing a very dangerous threat. Joe decides that "the only congenial prospect left him, was to go for a soldier or a sailor, and get some obliging enemy to knock his brains out as soon as possible" (XIII). The light language masks the dark truth: the real attraction of warfare is, in fact, the possibility of violence, of indirect retaliation on the oppressors — including those who laugh at him. The reversal is completed when Joe reappears riot with his brains knocked out, it is true, but with his arm blown off.

Joe has re-created a pattern parallel to that of the rioters, to that of Sim and Hugh and Barnaby. He says early to his father, "I say, that before long I shall be driven to break such bounds, and that when I do, it won't be me that you'll have to blame, but your own self and no other" (III). This makes clear the connection between the tyranny and the eruption of goaded youth. Also clear is the parallel between the attraction of the military and that of the riots. Both mask their real attraction and motive force behind the blatant and shallow cynicism of a "cause". The recruiting sergeant easily explains away the fear of being killed in battle: [116/117]

"Supposing you should be killed, sir?" said a timid voice in one corner. "Well, sir, supposing you should be," said the serjeant, "what then ? Your country loves you, sir; his Majesty King George the Third loves you; your memory is honoured, revered, respected; everybody's fond of you, and grateful to you; your name's wrote down at full length in a book in the War-office. Damme, gentlemen, we must all die some time, or another, eh?" [XXXI]

This is exactly the cynicism of Gashford, always just touching the edges of this novel and suggesting that, in his way, Chester is right. The "glory" of military life which Joe had been discussing with the landlord does, in fact, amount to having one's name "wrote down at full length in a book in the War-office". The sergeant later exposes briefly but significantly the truth behind the cynical rhetoric: "You'll go abroad — a country where it's all sunshine and plunder — the finest climate in the world" (XXXI). The key word, almost hidden here, is "plunder"; the attraction of lawlessness, of simply breaking out, is clearly paramount both for Joe and for the rioters, and the first half of the novel has completed, in disguise of humour, what becomes explicit in the second half: a progressive and deadly pattern of ego which leads to tyranny which leads to evasive fantasy which leads to rebellion. Dickens has made this pattern seem humorous in order to duplicate in us the illusion of safety held by John Willet.

The second half of the novel opens with John apparently triumphant, sitting at the Maypole Inn in the midst of another tumultuous storm. There are similar jokes on John's delusions -he has advertised for Joe as a "young boy" — but the jokes are now becoming more and more pointed and more foreboding:

"Do you hear it? It blows great guns, indeed. There'll be many a crash in the Forest to-night, I reckon, and many a broken branch upon the ground to-morrow." "It won't break anything in the Maypole, I take it, sir," returned old John, "Let it try. I give it leave." [XXXIII]

Our laughter prepares the way for the defeat of this ego by the real invasion of natural forces soon to come.

The figure of John Willet is now extended and his characteristics are reduplicated in other characters in order to [117/118] draw the structural connections with the first half of the novel and make it clear just what our laughter has done.

First, there is the extension of John into the "genuine John Bull", the country gentleman who is, like John, deeply attached to a frozen past for equally egotistical reasons. Like John's parental methods, his own despotism is felt by his friends to be slipping away, and because there "were not more like him ... the country was going to rack and ruin every day" (XLVII). Both are "extremely patriotic" and extremely conservative. The difference, of course, is that the country gentleman is openly vicious, advocates "flogging to cure that disorder" of Barnaby's, and later shows up to give evidence against him.

His brother, the Lord Mayor, similarly shows the nasty implications of John Willet's tyranny and also helps give force to the growing suggestion that the rioters are mainly victims. The Lord Mayor, we can easily see, is a comic opera tyrant transplanted to a violent world where his impotence can no longer be accepted as funny. He puts off Mr. Haredale's request for help by saying that "these ain't business hours" (LXI), and he suggests that the Catholic vintner get an alderman to stand in his window in order "to awe the crowd". Like his ugly brother, the Lord Mayor makes us more aware of the dark aspect of John.

But it is also curiously true that John is not only a tyrant but a victim, much more complex than the original laughter would have him. Dickens makes this complexity clear by means of another extension, Dennis the hangman. John had earlier foreshadowed Dennis by mouthing exactly the hangman's creed: "It's a blessed thing to think how many people are hung in batches every six weeks for that [passing bad notes], and such like offences, as showing how wide awake our government is" (XI). Dennis is also an egoistic supporter of repressive order, here carried to the extreme where, to preserve that order, he is willing to support even its very antithesis: "'I mustn't have no biling, no roasting, no frying — nothing but hanging. My lord may well call me an earnest fellow. In support of the great Protestant principle of having plenty of that, I'll,' and here he beat his club upon the ground, 'burn, fight, kill — do anything you bid me, so that [118/119] it's bold and devilish-though the end of it was, that I got hung myself"' (XXXVII). This rich speech invites laughter, but we I augh at our peril, for Dennis has evoked the central issues here: the self-destruction attendant on the old order's hysterical demands for power, the complete identification of self with that tyrannical order, and the absolute dedication to retributive justice. We laugh only if we can evade these issues, and they are becoming impossible to evade. Dennis makes it clear that the comic opera tyranny is prepared to do anything rather than relinquish its power; in its mad way it is willing to destroy its own self rather than capitulate and to destroy with itself everything around it: "Down with everybody, down with everything! Hurrah for the Protestant religion!" (XXXVIII).

Dennis is interested, ultimately, in protecting only death. As a member of "the good old school", he wants to uphold the one law that matters in this ultra-Protestant country: retribution. Therefore, he guards the Newgate prisoners destined for the gallows with the "air of a pastor" (LXV) and screams at Hugh for not respecting "the law-the constitootion" (LXV). He becomes, in short, the grotesque but true symbol of the old order, itself identified here with "Protestantism", the law of orderly, regularized death. "Let's have revenges and injuries, and all that, and we shall get on twice as fast" (LII), Dennis says, underlining the terrible sadism which guards the old society and which now assumes the protection, ironically, of the religion of mercy. Even Dennis, hanged by the society he so gallantly defended, is more victim than villain, and in the image of the hangman hanged we see not poetic justice but a resurgence of the old mad order.

By the time of John Willet's defeat, then, we can no longer accept him as merely a funny character, nor are we allowed to accept the possibility of retributive comedy. John too is a victim of the general delusion, and Dickens rubs our noses in the reversed comedy. He first of all sets us up for John's defeat by tempting us to laugh at his sense of safety; John [119/120] puts all his considerable argumentative force into proving that there are no riots at all: "Don't I tell you that His blessed Majesty King George the Third would no more stand a rioting and rollicking in his streets, than he'd stand being crowed over by his own Parliament?" (LIV). We are likely to laugh at this delusion of immunity and implicitly ask thereby for its puncture by reality. When the puncture comes, however, it is so graphic and so extreme that we are not allowed to enjoy our triumph; rather we are shown our own sadism and our own "Protestant" desire for retribution.

John's habitual slowness is brought into contact with a speed, not now of natural growth but of a whirlwind and chaos all the more terribly violent for having been so long repressed. Unable to deal with this nightmare, John turns it into a fantasy: "he ... found himself, without any consciousness of having moved, in the bar; sitting down in an armchair, and watching the destruction of his property, as if it were some queer play or entertainment, of an astonishing and stupefying nature, but having no reference to himself — that he could make out at all" (LIV). The fantasy this time, however, is pathetic. Even here, though, Dickens tempts us to laugh at the invasion of sanctity: the rioters are described as "smashing the glass, turning the taps, drinking liquor out of China punchbowls, sitting astride of casks, smoking private and personal pipes, cutting down the sacred grove of lemons, hacking and hewing at the celebrated cheese" (LIV). But we surely see by now just what is happening and resist the temptation. Even Hugh protects John, knowing that despite his tyranny he is not primarily the cause but only a small part of a pervasive social ugliness. But despite this protection, John is destroyed. The symbolic Maypole is cut down, and its owner goes completely mad. His slowness has simply been exaggerated into paralysis, and the image of snugness and the arrest of time is grotesquely completed: "He was perfectly contented to sit there, staring at [the ruin of the inn], and felt no more indignation or discomfort in his bonds than if they bad been robes of honour. So far as he was personally concerned, old Time lay snoring, and the world stood still" (LV).

Dickens then begins attacking us for our own aggression towards John, asking that we not externalize the villainy but [120/121] see it in ourselves. The first indication of this attack is Solomon Daisy's pathetic cry, "Oh dear old Johnny, here's a change!" (LVI), but even more emphatic is the brilliant slow focus on John and his glimpse of the truth:

John knitted his brow; looked downwards, as if he were mentally engaged in some arithmetical calculation; then upwards, as if the total would not come at his call; then at Solomon Daisy, from his eyebrow to his shoe-buckle; then very slowly round the bar. And then a great, round, leaden-looking, and not at all transparent tear, came rolling out of each eye, and he said, as he shook his head: "If they'd only had the goodness to murder me, I'd have thanked 'em kindly," [LVI]

John senses that the old order is gone and that he has, really, been virtually murdered. Dickens makes us see that the weapon of retribution is tyrannical in both Protestants and laughers. John Willet's guilt is finally identified with the reader's;

... [he] walked round to Joe, felt his empty sleeve all the way up, from the cuff, to where the stump of his arm remained; shook his head; lighted his pipe at the fire, took a long whiff, walked to the door, turned round once when he had reached it, wiped his left eye with the back of his fore-finger, and said, in a faltering voice: "My son's arm — was took off at the defence of the — Salwanners — in America — where the war is" — with which words be withdrew, and returned no more that night. [LXXII]


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Last Modified 10 March 2010