In the following passages from Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens uses his narrator to do more than narrate — that is, to do more than simply tell a story. Instead, these passages show the novelist using his narrator to make generalized statements about the human nature, the human condition, and so on. In doing so, Dickens, like so many other Victorian novelists, produces prose that sounds much like the writings of Samuel Johnson, whose Adventurer No. 84 — "Folly of false pretences to importance. A journey in a stage coach " — may in fact be the direct source the following passage:
The tendency of mankind when it falls asleep in coaches, is to wake up cross; to find its legs in its way; and its corns an aggravation. Mr Pecksniff not being exempt from the common lot of humanity found himself, at the end of his nap, so decidedly the victim of these infirmities, that he had an irresistible inclination to visit them upon his daughters; which he had already begun to do in the shape of divers random kicks, and other unexpected motions of his shoes, when the coach stopped, and after a short delay the door was opened. [ch 7]
Authors of both fiction and nonfiction employ this literary mode, which I think best described as Wisdom Writing — a mode that states what both author and audience take to be widely accepted truths about people and life in general. Wisdom Writing has a long history, in fact going back to the days before writing when it was Wisdom Speaking. For authors of both fiction and nonfiction, such a mode creates credibility for the authorial voice in a text, and some Victorian authors — George Eliot comes to mind — make great use of it. One effect of such Wisdom Writing (or Speaking) is to convince readers that the author knows a great deal and can be trusted, even when incidents or interpretation might seem outlandish. Another obvious effect of including such passages is to pad the text, something often necessary when fiction appeared in either parts or the triple decker format, either of which required authors to produce a certain set number of words.
As you read the following example from Chapter 12, see if you can discern how many different effects Dickens wished to produce with what is essentially a little interspersed Johnsonian essay:
The two young men agreed to walk to Salisbury; and so, when the time came, they set off on foot; which was, after all, a better mode of travelling than in the gig, as the weather was very cold and very dry.
Better! A rare strong, hearty, healthy walk — four statute miles an hour�preferable to that rumbling, tumbling, jolting, shaking, scraping, creaking, villainous old gig? Why, the two things will not admit of comparison. It is an insult to the walk, to set them side by side. Where is an instance of a gig having ever circulated a man's blood, unless when, putting him in danger of his neck, it awakened in his veins and in his ears, and all along his spine, a tingling heat, much more peculiar than agreeable? When did a gig ever sharpen anybody's wits and energies, unless it was when the horse bolted, and, crashing madly down a steep hill with a stone wall at the bottom, his desperate circumstances suggested to the only gentleman left inside, some novel and unheard-of mode of dropping out behind? Better than the gig!
The air was cold, Tom; so it was, there was no denying it; but would it have been more genial in the gig? The blacksmith's fire burned very bright, and leaped up high, as though it wanted men to warm; but would it have been less tempting, looked at from the clammy cushions of a gig? The wind blew keenly, nipping the features of the hardy wight who fought his way along; blinding him with his own hair if he had enough to it, and wintry dust if he hadn't; stopping his breath as though he had been soused in a cold bath; tearing aside his wrappings-up, and whistling in the very marrow of his bones; but it would have done all this a hundred times more fiercely to a man in a gig, wouldn't it? A fig for gigs!
Better than the gig! When were travellers by wheels and hoofs seen with such red-hot cheeks as those? when were they so good-humouredly and merrily bloused? when did their laughter ring upon the air, as they turned them round, what time the stronger gusts came sweeping up; and, facing round again as they passed by, dashed on, in such a glow of ruddy health as nothing could keep pace with, but the high spirits it engendered? Better than the gig! Why, here is a man in a gig coming the same way now. Look at him as he passes his whip into his left hand, chafes his numbed right fingers on his granite leg, and beats those marble toes of his upon the foot-board. Ha, ha, ha! Who would exchange this rapid hurry of the blood for yonder stagnant misery, though its pace were twenty miles for one?
Better than the gig! No man in a gig could have such interest in the milestones. No man in a gig could see, or feel, or think, like merry users of their legs. How, as the wind sweeps on, upon these breezy downs, it tracks its flight in darkening ripples on the grass, and smoothest shadows on the hills! Look round and round upon this bare bleak plain, and see even here, upon a winter's day, how beautiful the shadows are! Alas! it is the nature of their kind to be so. The loveliest things in life, Tom, are but shadows; and they come and go, and change and fade away, as rapidly as these!
Another mile, and then begins a fall of snow, making the crow, who skims away so close above the ground to shirk the wind, a blot of ink upon the landscape. But though it drives and drifts against them as they walk, stiffening on their skirts, and freezing in the lashes of their eyes, they wouldn't have it fall more sparingly, no, not so much as by a single flake, although they had to go a score of miles. And, lo! the towers of the Old Cathedral rise before them, even now! and by-and-bye they come into the sheltered streets, made strangely silent by their white carpet; and so to the Inn for which they are bound; where they present such flushed and burning faces to the cold waiter, and are so brimful of vigour, that he almost feels assaulted by their presence; and, having nothing to oppose to the attack (being fresh, or rather stale, from the blazing fire in the coffee-room), is quite put out of his pale countenance. [ch, 12]
In the following example the novelist, or rather his voice within the text, directly addresses a character (here Tom Crick), and we seem to overhear what he says, though of course he doesn't actually contact this fictional personage for that would violate the rules of his fictional world. So why does he pretend to do so? What are we expected to overhear? What does Dickens expect us to conclude?
There are some falsehoods, Tom, on which men mount, as on bright wings, towards Heaven. There are some truths, cold bitter taunting truths, wherein your worldly scholars are very apt and punctual, which bind men down to earth with leaden chains. Who would not rather have to fan him, in his dying hour, the lightest feather of a falsehood such as thine, than all the quills that have been plucked from the sharp porcupine, reproachful truth, since time began! [ch 13]
In the next passage, Dickens writes explicitly as a moralist, challenging and correcting his predecessors.
Oh, moralists, who treat of happiness and self-respect, innate in every sphere of life, and shedding light on every grain of dust in God's highway, so smooth below your carriage-wheels, so rough beneath the tread of naked feet, bethink yourselves in looking on the swift descent of men who HAVE lived in their own esteem, that there are scores of thousands breathing now, and breathing thick with painful toil, who in that high respect have never lived at all, nor had a chance of life! Go ye, who rest so placidly upon the sacred Bard who had been young, and when he strung his harp was old, and had never seen the righteous forsaken, or his seed begging their bread; go, Teachers of content and honest pride, into the mine, the mill, the forge, the squalid depths of deepest ignorance, and uttermost abyss of man's neglect, and say can any hopeful plant spring up in air so foul that it extinguishes the soul's bright torch as fast as it is kindled! And, oh! ye Pharisees of the nineteen hundredth year of Christian Knowledge, who soundingly appeal to human nature, see that it be human first. Take heed it has not been transformed, during your slumber and the sleep of generations, into the nature of the Beasts! [ch 13]
Dickens's narrator here obviously builds himself up in the eyes of the reader with this highly rhetorical, sermonlike passage. He knows more than others who set themselves up as Wisdom Speakers. But other than creating credibility, Dickens has an important point to make, and in doing so he earned the respect — and attention — of his readers, who will take his points seriously. What larger goal does the novelist have here?
This last passage, which begins with a general statement much in the manner of eighteenth-century nonfiction, serves in part to justify some change in the actions or experiences of a single character. What effect does Dickens hope to produce by making it a matter of general, even universal, truth?
Change begets change. Nothing propagates so fast. If a man habituated to a narrow circle of cares and pleasures, out of which he seldom travels, step beyond it, though for never so brief a space, his departure from the monotonous scene on which he has been an actor of importance, would seem to be the signal for instant confusion. As if, in the gap he had left, the wedge of change were driven to the head, rending what was a solid mass to fragments, things cemented and held together by the usages of years, burst asunder in as many weeks. The mine which Time has slowly dug beneath familiar objects is sprung in an instant; and what was rock before, becomes but sand and dust.
Most men, at one time or other, have proved this in some degree. The extent to which the natural laws of change asserted their supremacy in that limited sphere of action which Martin had deserted, shall be faithfully set down in these pages.[ch 28]
As all these examples show, fiction combines multiple modes, so it's rarely possible to state accurately that an author does only one thing or has only one purpose in a passage.
Last modified 17 May 2007