Thursday, October 20, 2005
The Cruelty of Dickens?
I finally read Dombey and Son, and as I read I found it disappointing. The novel is populated with the usual Dickensian grotesques, the figures who have been distilled down to a single habit or physical feature: Carker’s cat-like grin, Mr. Chick’s compulsive and inappropriate singing, and Major Bagstock’s choking and gasping, the result of his gluttony. These satirical reductions can, of course, produce vivid results. Here is the apoplectic Major Bagstock getting on a train:
The Major being by this time in a state of repletion, with essence of savoury pie oozing out at the corners of his eyes, and devilled grill and kidneys tightening his cravat: and the time moreover approaching for the departure of the railway train to Birmingham, by which they were to leave town: the Native [the Major refers to his servant only as “the Native”] got him into his great-coat with immense difficulty, and buttoned him up until his face looked staring and gasping, over the top of that garment, as if he were in a barrel. The Native then handed him separately, and with a decent interval between each supply, his washleather gloves, his thick stick, and his hat; which latter article the Major wore with a rakish air on one side of his head, by way of toning down his remarkable visage. The Native had previously packed, in all possible and impossible parts of Mr Dombey’s chariot, which was in waiting, an unusual quantity of carpet-bags and small portmanteaus, no less apoplectic in appearance than the Major himself: and having filled his own pockets with Seltzer water, East India sherry, sandwiches, shawls, telescopes, maps, and newspapers, any or all of which light baggage the Major might require at any instant of the journey, he announced that everything was ready. To complete the equipment of this unfortunate foreigner (currently believed to be a prince in his own country), when he took his seat in the rumble by the side of Mr Towlinson, a pile of the Major’s cloaks and great-coats was hurled upon him by the landlord, who aimed at him from the pavement with those great missiles like a Titan, and so covered him up, that he proceeded, in a living tomb, to the railroad station.
In a recent book, The One and the Many: The Space of Character in the Realist Novel, Alex Woloch (full disclosure: I went to graduate school with him) argues that Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Balzac, and other novelists, despite their commitment to representing things as they are, have to compress most of their characters into caricatures of this kind, because even a three-volume novel is not big enough to confer a rich, deep interiority on more than one or two characters. David Copperfield and Daniel Deronda ramify through their narratives like kudzu, sucking all the nutrients out of the soil and displacing all other vegetation. Or, to use another metaphor, the protagonist is a kind of narrative vampire who sucks the complexity out of all of the other characters. Alex argues that novelists feel guilty about privileging a few characters and depriving the others. Some novelists even wonder if marginalizing some of their characters involves a kind of violence. This is a question that my friend Dennis Kezar has explored in relation to Renaissance poetry and drama. In Guilty Creatures: Renaissance Poetry and the Ethics of Authorship, Dennis suggests that authors like Shakespeare and Milton raise the possibility that killing a fictional character might be a criminal act, particularly if the success of the poem depends on the sacrifice of the character, or if the reader is asked to enjoy the spectacle of suffering. I would be curious to know what you, fellow valvites, think of this intriguing proposition. Think, for example, about the passage I cite above. Dickens stuffs Bagstock like a human sausage, puts him in a metaphorical barrel, displaces his inner life onto a heap of objects, and punishes him remorselessly with physical pain. And Dickens does all of these things with a conspicuous satisfaction in his own virtuosity.
My problem with Dombey and Son is that all of the characters, good and evil, have had one or two epithets pinned to them and are condemned to repeating the same gesture over and over. There is no one for the reader to identify with, no central consciousness other than that of the narrator. There is no Pip, no David Copperfield. To return to my earlier botanical metaphor, it is as if dozens of small parasitic plants have flourished, preventing each other from growing larger. The novel does build momentum toward the end, and the character of Carker acquires some depth as he travels toward his fatal encounter with a train. His sleepless final night has a hallucinatory intensity, and the faint allusions to Milton’s Satan seem wholly justified. But these few chapters emphasize the poverty of the rest.
I have read some of Dickens’s novels many times, and always with great pleasure. Now I am afraid that if I go back to Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend I will find my pleasure diminished. My personal canon is threatened with diminishment.
This is why the canon wars always struck me as silly. If I can’t maintain a stable personal canon, how can I prescribe what others should read?
I am always amazed by how many people seem so unable to make the basic distinction between literature and life: they’re not the same. No cruelty or killing is inflicted on characters in novels except in a displaced and metaphorical sense. Works of literature don’t contain “people.” They’re made up of words, verbal compositions and creations. Dickens is the author of the most vigorous verbal creations in all of fiction. This is why he should be admired.
No reader is “asked to enjoy the spectacle of suffering” in works of literature because no suffering occurs. If a writer is able to evoke the feeling of suffering, or any other emotion or state of mind, well and good. It’s a considerable accomplishment. I see no reason to feel morally queasy about it.
There was a little bit of discussion of this in the comments to the John Crowley post. When an author starts to think that they’ve created their characters as almost-people, they necessarily place themselves in the position of the Demiurge. That’s always a rather guilt-ridden and angry religious stance.
Well put, Rich. What percentage of authors do you think suffers from the demiurge complex?
Dan, you seem very sure that there is nothing wrong with being interested in or even enjoying the suffering of fictional characters. You don’t think that our responses to fictional characters have any real moral weight.
But ask yourself how you feel about someone enjoying computer-generated sadistic child pornography. Tell me whether you think that if those children are fictional it is ok to take pleasure in the spectacle of their pain. Then ask yourself if there is a bright-line distinction between those pornographic images and the suffering of, say, Little Dorrit. Are our fantasy lives and our responses to literature not intertwined with our relations to actual people? Don’t we absorb narrative materials from literature into our self-narratives? You are amazed by my inability to make “the basic distinction between literature and life” because literary characters are “made up of words.” But we too are made up at least partially of words.
Matt: Are you seriously comparing reading Dickens with “someone enjoying computer-generated sadistic child pornography.”? Because if you’re not, I don’t really understand your point. I think there’s way more than a “bright-line distinction” between the two and don’t really see why one would yoke them together.
A standard element of the boring author interview is the question about whether a novel’s characters “took on lives of their own” during the writing process.
The author often says that, yes, her characters quickly became independent, and began to be self-directed. She tells of waking up mornings and being surprised at what a character had decided to do.
I couldn’t think of specific authors who had said this, so I Googled “characters ‘lives of their own’” and, sure enough, up pops, among others, the following from Stephen Carter, about his much-hyped The Emperor of Ocean Park (http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375413636&view=qa):
“Even in this era when so much fiction tends to be plot-driven, I think believable characters must come first. But they tend to take on lives of their own. I was occasionally surprised by the messes my characters got themselves into, and the indignant, presumptuous way that they demanded that I write a way for them to escape!”
Do these authors really experience this phenomenon, or is it just a fanciful (more like smarmy) way of saying that character can precede and even determine plot? Or is it more likely a way of saying “I write brilliantly realistic characters”?
Of these two extremes - limiting one’s characters to a strictly representative set of gestures, a la Matt’s description of Dickens, versus suffering this kind of delusion/conceit - I think I prefer the former.
Dan, I don’t know how I can make my point much clearer.
1. Reading a narrative and thinking about it have moral consequences for us and have an impact on our behavior.
2. If you are not troubled by the moral ambiguities of satire, Dickensian or otherwise, you are simply not paying attention. I personally find those moral ambiguities extremely interesting and in fact have a book manuscript on Elizabethan satire under consideration at a university press. But I am not prepared to dismiss out of hand the visceral aversion to satire which so many readers experience.
I am not trying to suggest that Dickens is not a great author. I am trying to suggest that we take him seriously.
What percentage of authors? I really don’t know how I’d even guess. Authors often seem to go to a good deal of effort to convince themselves that their characters are real in some way (presumably so that they can write better) and I seem to remember that Crowley mentioned something about this being difficult. But once you’ve done it, the demiurge complex seems like a natural reaction.
In keeping with my apparently continuous habit of recommending James Branch Cabell, if you’re interested in this I’d try the “Above Paradise” chapter of his book _The Silver Stallion_. If you like that, it’s a common image in his rather rambling and disjointed critical works.
The question of whether the author is at fault for causing the reader to enjoy disapprobated reactions is a different one. The concept that literature should be morally improving, or at least not harmful, is long out of fashion. Even the aesthetic concept that literature should not coarsen the reader’s sensiblities is generally not considered in a contemporary context, outside of conservative screeds that disqualify themselves by suffering from the same problem that they condemn. I’m not trying to write a crypto-conservative “isn’t that too bad” kind of piece, I just think that we no longer really have the terminology needed to write about this.
Rich, I am very grateful for your last comment. I think you have put your finger on the problem: we have at best a diminished terminology for talking about the ethics of literature.
We do have plenty of critics who feel comfortable indicting authors for, say, ethnocentricity. But often those same critics offer a covert appeal to the reader’s cruelty or at least curiosity about pain. The lengthy account of an execution that opens Surveillir et Punir is one example, and Stephen Greenblatt emulates it in the opening of some of his essays.
. . . Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Balzac, and other novelists, despite their commitment to representing things as they are, have to compress most of their characters into caricatures of this kind, because even a three-volume novel is not big enough to confer a rich, deep interiority on more than one or two characters.
That’s a fascinating idea, but it does sound as if it takes for granted the truly amazing thing, which is that a book can confer a rich, deep interiority on even one or two characters at all. I can see why it’s troubling that such wealth should be so unevenly distributed, Matt, and, differently, why satire excites ambivalent reactions. (Isn’t it worth making a distinction between not indulging a figure with sympathy and actively and with satisfaction reducing or dehumanizing one?) But, and maybe this is just echoing your point, I’m guessing that the limitation has nothing to do with books per se and more to do with basic psychology. It seems fundamentally challenging to extend to others the same kind of consideration we habitually give ourselves and really, really hard to do it in more than spotty ways. It’s a humanist cliche, I know, but the fact that some books remind us that we might be missing something important is still pretty impressive. (In fact, is there any necessary relation between a book’s length and its ability to represent the fact that people are conscious and emotionally and intellectually complicated? Can’t drama or film show that in incredibly economical ways?)
A different question: satire aside, is it really so certain that epithet and repetition works against identification? I feel a much deeper sympathy with Gromit than with many characters in Henry James. Maybe this isn’t such a good thing, but I’ll bet it’s pretty typical.
Btw, I haven’t read her much, but isn’t the issue you’re discussing a central question for Iris Murdoch?
". . . Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Balzac, and other novelists, despite their commitment to representing things as they are, have to compress most of their characters into caricatures of this kind, because even a three-volume novel is not big enough to confer a rich, deep interiority on more than one or two characters.“
I like Sean’s point here ("amazing that a book can confer a rich, deep interiority on even one or two characters at all"), but at the same time I think that, floating around several posts in this thread, is a misunderstanding of the way Dickens characterises. I have this argument with my students quite a lot; they’re comfortable with the ‘Dickens caricatures’ thesis. I’ve always felt that it in his characterisation alone (certainly not in his social or reformist content) that Dickens can usefully be called a realist. Think of your own life; maybe it contains dozens, or even hundreds of people. But I’ll bet you a pound to a pre-decimalisation penny that you don’t populate your mental map with figures who have “rich, deep interiority”. You couldn’t do it and retain your sanity; you’d be a sort of ‘characterisation’ Funes the memorialist. Sure, there are going to be one or two people you know well, about whom you care --partner, lover, family member whatever. They’ll probably occupy the focalised ‘David Copperfield’ place in your mental map; you’ll think of them as complex, 3D, richly interiorised, whichever metaphor you prefer. But everybody else, to one degree or another, is represented by mental pigeonholing ‘oh yes, Chris likes drinking milk instead of alcohol’, ‘yeah, that’s the bloke who always comes to work in a Man United top’ and so on. There seems to me nothing wrong with this; this is how life is, and its very precisely and vividly captured by Dickens’s textual strategies.
Well put, Sean and Adam. I think Shakespeare does have an incredible gift for giving characters a claim on our sympathy with just a few lines. Francisco, who appears only in the first scene of Hamlet and speaks only nine lines or so, says things like, “For this relief much thanks. Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart.” Even a dolt like Sir Andrew Aguecheek will occasionally say something like, “I was beloved once.” I think that Shakespeare, Marlowe, and some of their contemporaries think about these issues in an incredibly careful way, and delicately balance, modulate, and reallocate the sympathies of the audience.
I agree, Sean, that there are many different strategies for compressing minor characters, and satire is only one of them, but I think that all compression strategies tend, willy-nilly, in a satirical direction.
And I agree, Adam, that we use similar shorthand notations in our own lives. But I do think that our particular shorthand techniques, our allocation of sympathies, can take many forms and have large consequences. Ethnic prejudice is an obvious mechanism for conserving our sympathies, but there are many subtler ones.
Matt: I guess I’m not paying attention. Or, rather, “moral ambiguity” is something literature exists to expose and portray. That it exists doesn’t trouble me at all.
“Moral consequences” and “impact on my behavior” are awfully vague. What do you have in mind?
Matt: “I think you have put your finger on the problem: we have at best a diminished terminology for talking about the ethics of literature.”
I think that this was apparent in the recent extremely lengthy discussion of Gene Wolfe over on Acephalous. I criticized Wolfe for what I perhap incorrectly described as “torture fetishism”: the use of a protagonist who is a torturer, who has a dressy and often commented on torturing costume, and whose costume is linked to sex/power fantasy in many different segments of the text, in order to utilize this kind of “covert appeal to the reader’s cruelty or at least curiosity about pain.”
There were objections that since Wolfe didn’t depict this character as overtly enjoying torture in a typical S&M fashion, I must be wrong. These I thought were missing the point, perhaps due to my own failures in communication, but perhaps due to terminological problems. There were also objections that said that since Wolfe overtly rather than covertly considered this issue, that I was missing the point and being too unsubtle. These I thought failed because they seemed to assume that an author could not do two things at the same time. It’s rather a bromide at this point that any work that makes an overt appeal to sexism/racism/whatever is OK if it includes a supposedly ironic comment about how both the author and the reader know what’s going on. Wolfe’s series uses the varient of this that actively tries to suppress serious reader consideration by bringing up the issue and then inviting the reader to scorn characters in the book who are attracted to cruelty in an uncomplicated fashion, as if they are Others that the reader can safely condemn.
Hurrah, the Acephalous/Gene Wolfe thread resurrects!
... if I remember, my problem with your ethical reading of Wolfe, Rich, (I may not have put it precisely in these terms) was that I thought you were using a secular-ethical discourse to discuss a very specifically religious-ethical text; and these strike me as two frames which, although obviously sharing certain similarities, do not superpose particularly well. Dickens’s name came up in that thread, I seem to recall, although he does seem to me a rather different writer to Wolfe.
Matt: I’m a miserable pedant and you’ve every hate to hate me, but the Andrew Aguecheek line is: “I was adored once, too”.
"and you’ve every hate to hate me” ... um, garbly-garbly. “You’ve every reason to hate me.”
To think that this occurred in a sentence in which I’m needling you for mild inaccuracy ... there’s a word for that ... what is it now ...
That’s right, Dickens did come up in that thread. Not in the current context, though, but in the context of how an author could still be great even if they did something that was stereotypically “wrong”, such as use flat characters.
Adam: “if I remember, my problem with your ethical reading of Wolfe, Rich, (I may not have put it precisely in these terms) was that I thought you were using a secular-ethical discourse to discuss a very specifically religious-ethical text; and these strike me as two frames which, although obviously sharing certain similarities, do not superpose particularly well.”
Well, I wasn’t trying to say “torture is wrong” (which everyone agrees with) or “Wolfe supports torture” (which no one believes), but rather “Wolfe is using a cheap authorial trick”. I don’t see the secular-ethical vs religious-ethical distinction; I thought that it was really more of an aesthetic point.
I see what you mean. But I wonder what ‘cheap’ means in this context. What’s an expensive authorial trick, I wonder? Is authorial trickery always a bad thing? Isn’t the whole of written literature a series of ‘tricks’?
You were arguing, or so I took it, that Wolfe brought in all the torture bag-and-baggage only to titilate the sadistic-erotic sensibilities of his (often adolescent male) readership. I was arguing that he brought it in—as he undeniably does bring it in—to dramatise a theological paradox that absorbs him, about a loving Christ who nevertheless insists his followers mutilate themselves (if your hand offend you cut it off, and so on), condemns many to hell and so on.
But I’m conscious now that we’re rehearsing stuff that has already been gone over in another place, and that’s not strictly relevant to Matt’s original post.
I see what you mean more clearly now, thank you. I would find the dramatization of theology aspect a bit more convincing if Wolfe hadn’t done something similar (though with a different underlying issue) with _The Wizard Knight_. And, as I wrote above, an author can do more than one thing at once; I don’t think that the *costume* and focus on it was necessary for Wolfe to dramatise this paradox, despite the whole Jesus-using-a-whip image.
But you’re right, we shouldn’t restart this.
Adam, as a fellow miserable pedant, I should have checked my quotes, but since I didn’t, I appreciate the correction.
I think the Wolfe discussion is relevant to the questions I was asking (and they ARE questions). Does this fetishization of the torturer go along with a narrative marginalization of the consciousness of his victims? Or a connoisseur’s descent into the peculiarities of their individual experiences?
I brought Wolfe up because I had encountered the lack of terminology problem in connection with discussing his work, but he’s probably not really a good case for ilustrations of this particular point because there is too much else going on.
How about Mervyn Peake? He writes more like Dickens than any other major writer I can think of offhand. Flat characters named after their single caricature, grotesques, narrative divided among many viewpoints ... yet many of his characters do appear to have some kind of interiority. Chapter 57 of _Titus Groan_ is completely taken up with the reveries of eight characters sitting around a table. (I wholeheartedly recommend reading this book if you haven’t already, by the way.)
One reason that Peake’s subsidiary characters might appear to have more depth than similar ones in Dickens is the genre. Peake writes fantasy within the setting of an ancient, isolated, and ritual-bound castle that almost might convincingly produce such people. When the narrative leaves this setting in the third book in the trilogy, its quality drops off considerably, in part because the flatness of the characters appears much less explicable (though the fact that Peake was suffering from severe Parkinson’s Disease at the time may have also contributed.)
Perhaps Dickens was a bit of an illustrator, but what marvelous illustrations: the quote provides an apt example of a type of English prose that is quite rare and rich; lacking perhaps the stoic order of a Swift or Carlyle, Dickens manga remains something quite enviable, and the manner of description superbly detailed and unique, baroque in some sense, without lapsing into the excessive verbal painting that Conrad seems to do occasionally. “A state of repletion,” indeed. Politics aside that type of careful narrative--perhaps a product of East End journalism, rather than from a university education-- seems to have been lost. Dombey and Sons I haven’t read as of yet, yet Great Expectations--featuring precisely delineated characters such as Pip, Magwich, Joe Gargery, Miss Havisham--is as entertaining and profound a read as Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, and quite superior to the likes of the Brontes or Wilde, both in terms of psychological depth and prose style. And Englsihman such as Conan-Doyle’s best writing--Baskervilles--flowed like this as well, though of course he’s been relegated to pulp hack, when in reality he also was capable of a sumptuous sort of English prose.
Paris Review: E.M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?
Vladimir Nabokov: My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or whereever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.
Shem: “lacking perhaps the stoic order of a Swift or Carlyle, Dickens manga remains something quite enviable”
Dickens manga? I want to see that! (Not as ludicrous as it sounds: there’s a manga based on Gone with the Wind).
Matt: “Does this fetishization of the torturer go along with a narrative marginalization of the consciousness of his victims?”
Well, The Book of the New Sun is a first-person narrative by the torturer-protagonist, so the concept of “narrative marginalization” is harder to apply. But I would say that Severian is, on some level, not really aware of the consciousness of other people, though I’m not sure what I mean by this (not just his victims; there are in fact few actual scenes of torture). And this is true of most of Wolfe’s protagonists, which may be one source of the sameness of the voices of Wolfe’s books which Scott complained of in the first Acephalous Wolfe post. Whether you find this morally problematic depends, I guess, on whether you think Wolfe intended readers to see this as a flaw in the protagonists or not.
“Or a connoisseur’s descent into the peculiarities of their individual experiences?”
I opposed Rich’s torture-fetishism thesis (but I don’t want to revive that argument here either), but I’ll concede that there are a couple of scenes which an unsympathetic critic could read that way. But as I said, there are few scenes of actual torture.
I think Bleak House is a fantastic book, and, having read it twice so far, two years apart, I find I only plumb its depths better and better. There are so many gems there for second and third readings!