decorative initial 'T' he basic pattern of the novel, then, has been established. Only the outcasts are loyal and open to David; those in power are rigid and hostile. The boy then moves, in the rest of the novel, to look for an opening that is never there for long. Except for the comic joy of the outcasts, not available to him anyhow, he finds only the happy but dangerously flabby second childhood of the Wickfields or the hard, successful commercialism of Murdstone. The rest of his life can be seen as an attempt to combine the last two. Much of our laughter functions in this last section to remind us of the Eden David has lost, to show that the black world makes it impossible for him, and to suggest how limited his responses are.

He moves through a tragic marriage to the acceptance of simple notions of a disciplined heart, to a final union which seems to resolve none of the basic problems. He joins the firmly successful and the blurring escapists, the Agnes who is not only unable to stop Uriah Heep's subtle attacks on the Wickfield firm but who actually urges her father to enter into a partnership with Heep because she felt "it was necessary for Papa's peace" (XXV). Peace indeed! It is significant that those who are opposed to Murdstone are equally opposed to this sort of peace, and, when they are shipped off to Australia at the end, it is suggested, perhaps, that they are irrelevant to the mature David but more likely that they are incompatible with nineteenth-century England. The letters from Micawber keep coming, though, to remind its of what is missing, and the humour is used more and more to define a lost world and to point towards the ironic position David moves close to: a gentler version of Murdstone, who likewise doesn't know that the flowers will wither in a day or so. Two instances of this sad and deceptive humour are especially prominent: the marriage to Dora and Micawber's exposure of Heep.

The Micawbers have all along been conducting a kind of triumphal Progress, parodying commerce and business in all the provinces of England and promoting their own brand of comic society. They function rhetorically to redefine all the important values and to measure David's increasing distance from them, as he stuffily warns Traddles against his friends (XXVIII) and finally calls Micawber "slippery" (XXXVI). These [184/185] judgements, echoed, incidentally, in George Orwell's perverse conclusion that Micawber is nothing but a "cadging scoundrel" (p. 67; Douglas Bush, p. 90, rightly remarks that "one might as well call Jack the Gian Killer a homicidal maniac"), simply indicate two increasingly incompatible systems. Micawber's borrowing, as W. H. Auden points out in reference to another great borrower, Falstaff, is an important sign of community (p. 70), establishing a necessary interdependence. In return for money, Micawber gives language, punch, and happiness; these seem insufficient returns only to a perspective which takes money seriously, as David certainly does and as Micawber certainly does not. But Micawber does take joy seriously, and his positive function becomes more emphatic, moving to a, climax in the wonderful denunciation and exposure of Uriah Heep (LII).

That Micawber ever gets into the clutches of Uriah suggests, I suppose, the extreme power of commercial forces which can enmesh, even briefly, such a clear-sighted enemy. There is even the darker suggestion that Micawber must engage himself for a time in their camp in order to acquire weapons, that only those who are in some way corrupted can fight at all. But there is, concurrently, the sense that Mr. Micawber is arranging for himself a new part to play, with new lines, new poses, new outfits, and new opportunities for exercising his wild imagination in mock forecasts of doom: "For anything that I can perceive to the contrary, it is still probable that my children may be reduced to seek a livelihood by personal contortion, while Mrs. Micawber abets their unnatural feats by playing the barrel-organ" (XLIX). Notice no factories or warehouses appear here: even his misery is fun. Finally, the general situation simply allows an extremely apt and aesthetically satisfying movement from the mysterious, secretive, and reserved back to the open, confident, and trusting. Mr. Micawber's organic unity is disrupted — "his very eye-glass seemed to hang less easily, and his shirt-collar ... rather drooped" (XLIX) — and must be put right.

Equally significant is the nature of the villain. Uriah Heep is really a kind of Alfred Jingle, resilient, courageous, witty, and very bitter. He is the product of a hypocritical [185/186] benevolence which produced charity schools that taught both humility and firm assertiveness, and his response to David's simple reflections is both cutting and valid:

"It may be [David said] profitable to you to reflect, in future, that there never were greed and cunning in the world yet, that did not do too much, and over-reach themselves. It is as certain as death." "Or as certain as they used to teach at school (the same school where I picked up so much umbleness), from nine o'clock to eleven, that labour was a curse; and from eleven o'clock to one, that it was a blessing and a cheerfulness, and a dignity, and I don't know what all, eh?" said he with a sneer. "You preach, about as consistent as they did."

He is right in attacking the soft-headed, the sentimental, and the insensitive realism that measures things against death and smugly assumes that anyone will choose the most profitable course. To this rightness he adds a surprising wit, suggesting both intelligence and, since he is so clearly cornered, real courage:

"You know what I want?" said my aunt. "A strait-waistcoat," said he.

But Uriah is vindictive. He is the apotheosis of the hurt and vengeful figure, part victim and part villain, who had appeared earlier as Jingle, Fagin, Sim, and Quilp. Micawber's victory is not over evil — only David views the fight in such narrow terms — but over the sensitivity that is pushed into violence and bitterness. Micawber affirms not goodness but comic optimism.

And he does so with the richness and rounded, complete perfection that characterizes all his actions. The exposure is, first of all, wonderfully arranged by Micawber, who uses his considerable talents as a stage-director to get every effect right. He uses, of course, a letter as the means of the exposure, not because it is in any sense necessary (Micawber is always an enemy of the necessary) but because it is a fitting medium of the dramatic and the openly and articulately communicative. He provides himself with a simple but brilliantly appropriate prop, a ruler. He transforms this instrument of precision and order first to a kind of wand used to point the grandest phrases and provide the most emphatic flourishes [186/187] and then to a mock duelling weapon to keep Uriah at bay. It is all very much like an extremely imaginative child playing in an office, and it carries, on a much higher level, the same implicit criticism of the office. Micawber also masquerades as a firm and aggressively insistent champion of the right — he is called "immovable" — and functions thereby as an indirect lesson to all the truly firm that it is comic flexibility that really is profitable.

The unique greatness of his triumph lies in its absolute lack of real personal vengeance. All his energy is directed toward gaiety, toward the relish that he has and that he gives to others in the endless fun available in words: "In an accumulation of Ignominy, Want, Despair, and Madness, I entered the office — or, as our lively neighbour the Gaul would term it, the Bureau — of the Firm, nominally conducted under the appellation of Wickfield and — HEEP, but, in reality, wielded — by HEEP alone". He is obviously spurred on not so much by the desire to set things right as by the exquisite possibilities in the name Heep. His letter is really a collection of "triumphant flourishes", and the real victory is one of language. As he reaches the end of his charges, he is unable to hold on to the logical and orderly listing he had been straining to follow and he breaks out, just at the end, in a final phrase that destroys the logic but gives a mad and wonderful hint of the joy beyond logic: "All this I undertake to show. Probably much more!" He completes the act decorously by folding up his letter and handing it "with a bow to my aunt, as something she might like to keep". The letter, we see, is what counts — not Heep. The scene ends with Micawber back in the arms of his wife, re-forming the comic unit and, like the Phoenix he is always invoking, starting off again on a life of improvidence, refreshed and confident: "'Now, welcome poverty!' cried Mr. Micawber, shedding tears. 'Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary! Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!'"

Ultimately, though, the full context of the novel does not absorb the comic triumph. Even in the midst of the exposure scene, it is suggested that the narrator misunderstands the important nature of the conflict. He can even make fun of Micawber: "And as individuals get into trouble by making too [187/188] great a show of liveries, or as slaves when they are too numerous rise against their masters, so I think I could mention a nation that has got into many great difficulties, and will get into many greater, from maintaining too large a retinue of word". This comes at the end of a paragraph wherein David parades his fagged-out worldly knowledge, tiredly minimizing the power of Micawber and missing the real point completely. Micawber has really just separated the two worlds in the novel, his world of comedy from the world of commercial reality. He cannot, it seems, establish his as victorious for the representative David. Even his own restoration is really a restoration to a position from which he can make no more exposures, and the atypicality and limitations of his triumph become more emphatically insisted on as its inability to influence David is added to its apparent inability really to affect Uriah. We see Uriah, in the end, joined with Littimer in an institution run by Creakle, surrounded by an approving and admiring society. He is obviously poised for a leap back into the commercial fray, no doubt made more cagey by his last experience. The sad conclusion is that neither victory nor happiness is available to David, maybe not to his world, and the triumphant joy is finally cancelled.

Even more deceptive is the humour attending the idyllic courtship and the later marriage of David and Dora. The tone throughout these chapters is tender, protective, and very sad, in consonance with the saddest and most significant of the hero's actions. He says he "was wandering in a garden of Eden all the while, with Dora" (XXVI), but the truth is that he cannot stay there, nor can he allow her to. The garden and the lovely child are destroyed, and with them the possibility of comic life.

Dora's position is at the heart of a kind of fragile and tender comedy: "I heard the empress of my heart sing enchanted ballads in the French language, generally to the effect that, whatever was the matter, we ought always to dance, Ta ra la, Ta ra la! accompanying herself on a glorified instrument, resembling a guitar" (XXVI). But even before the marriage there are shadows on her dedication to dancing; the ominous Miss Murdstone turns up as a "protector" ("Who wants a protector?" Dora significantly asks, in her comic openness) [188/189] and Julia Mills is around to play vampire to their joys and miseries: "though she mingled her tears with mine ... she bad a dreadful luxury in our afflictions. She petted them, as I may say, and made the most of them". David admits, "she made me much more wretched than I was before" (XXXVIII). She is a deceptively funny symbol of the secret desire of the world to destroy the happiness of the young and the beautiful: "Ye May-flies, enjoy your brief existence in the bright morning of life!" (XXXIII). Though she often sounds very much like Micawber and, like him, loves nothing so much as a well-mixed metaphor — "the oasis in the desert of Sahara must not be plucked up idly" — she is actually mean and twisted, and any laughter at her is turned back on us. But surviving and nearly obliterating these shadows is this valid image of Dora as innocence, purity, and love: "sitting on a garden seat tinder a lilac tree, what a spectacle she was, upon that beautiful morning, among the butterflies, in a white chip bonnet and a dress of celestial blue" (XXXIII). The butterflies recall the "preserve of butterflies" in David's own childhood garden, and Dora certainly recalls the boy's equally lovely and fragile mother. David is reaching for an Eden that was once there but can be no longer, not so much because he senses any pattern of incest but because he is not allowed to accept the Micawber values which Dora holds. She does, however, impress them on him for a time; the engagement flies, as it should, directly in the face of prudence. But David, with awful irony, thinks his judgement superior to hers, and even the adult narrator seems to have no real notion of what he has lost: "What an unsubstantial, happy, foolish time it was!" (XXXIII). Such language simply indicates the extreme distance between the comic reality of the engagement and the narrator's businesslike version of reality. The clash of these two worlds is made clear throughout, as Dora confronts him with the irrefutable logic of comedy:

"My love," said I, "I have work to do." "But don't do it!" returned Dora. "Why should you?" It was impossible to say to that sweet little surprised face, otherwise than lightly and playfully, that we must work to live. "Oh! How ridiculous!" cried Dora. "How shall we live without, Dora?" said I. "How? Any how!" said Dora. [XXXVII]

[189/190]

But David is unhappily caught by alternate values, which, ironically, he calls "the source of my success": "habits of punctuality, order, and diligence", "thorough-going, ardent, and sincere earnestness" (XLII), and other such labels of the commercial ant-hill. And he moves to a marriage in which, again and again, he finds that he "had wounded Dora's soft little heart, and she was not to be comforted" (XLIV). The gentle humour is, thus, deceptive; the clash of the two worlds causes real misery.

It is true that the marriage begins in laughter — the dinner-party at which Traddles is served the unopened oysters, for instance — but as it goes on Dickens insists more and more on the pain. Dora is pushed to acknowledge her limitations in David's world and to plead with him pathetically to relegate her to a low position in it: "When I am very disappointing, say, 'I knew, a long time ago, that she would make but a child-wife!' When you miss what I should like to be, and I think can never be, say, 'still my foolish child-wife loves me!' For indeed I do" (XLIV). Still David shoves account books at her until "she would look so seared and disconsolate, as she became more and more bewildered, that the remembrance of her natural gaiety when I first strayed into her path, and of her being my child-wife, would come reproachfully upon me" (XLIV). But the proper reproaches never really help; David is sensitive, but he is unable to escape his sense of unhappiness and his own limited scale of values. He actually tries to accept Annie Strong's stiff and unimaginative formula as adequate for his own situation: "There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose", and he adopts her phrase, "the first mistaken impulses of my undisciplined heart" (XLV), as an important explanation of his existence. As a result, he tries to discipline his wife's wonderful spontaneity and to "form her mind", accepting the false assumption that life needs moulding to laws, rules, and patterns.

In doing so, David turns his back on comedy and on his wife. She finally admits, "I was not fit to be a wife" and argues that "I know I was too young and foolish. It is much better as it is" (LIII). The Edenic Dora is made to wish for death, certainly the final rebuke to those firm "habits of punctuality". David has stepped briefly into the role of Murdstone. Beginning [190/191] in full accord with comic values, he has become their enemy. The novel suggests no criticism of David, no moral judgement against him, only that the society of rich comedy is now far away on the other side of the world, ringing in the last echoes of Micawber's speech but about to disappear completely as a true social possibility from Dickens's novels.


Victorian Overview Charles Dickens Contents Next Section

Last Modified 10 March 2010