Monday, 2 February 2009

Questions, questions


When I said I was looking forward to reading really long books in my post-PhD life, I didn't imagine it would take me two weeks to read an example thereof. I used to be able to read a 900-page novel in 3-4 days...I must be getting slow in my old age.

It's true that there were times that I stopped reading Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend in order to make it last longer, and it's also true that there were points at which I took breaks because the promise of bad things to come was stressing me out too much. Still, I feel as though I've been neglecting my poor blog a little.

In any case, it doesn't get much longer than Our Mutual Friend unless it's another Dickens novel, such as Nicholas Nickleby, or Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (the latter of which I have coming in the mail. Woot!). But what I love about Dickens is that no matter how long his books are, they never feel too long when I'm reading them; no matter how verbose he is, I never feel like anything he writes is unnecessary.

There are some spoilers from here on in
Clearly, Dickens is still my boyfriend. But I have to say that at times, Our Mutual Friend disturbed me enough to actually get me thinking critically about him and that's about as difficult to imagine as Bella having doubts about John once they've married and built their love nest. Yes, dear readers, the impossible has happened: reading a Dickens novel, instead of simply putting me into ecstasies of admiration, has forced my sleepy critical mind to grouchily open one eyelid and look around a little.

I don't think my thoughts will get much further than questions but before now I've been pretty much incapable of questioning Dickens (although, of course, his character Fagin made me squirm. A lot. But see below.)

First of all, I'm somewhat confused by Mr. Riah. I feel as though Dickens may have been simply trying to counter the intensely negative portrayal of Judaism he presented to the world through the character of the evil Fagin in Oliver Twist.

As well, Mr. Riah's meditation on how bad individual Jews are seen as representative of the best of their race made me wonder if Dickens was trying simply to explain why Fledgeby is so easily able to use Mr. Riah as his mask, but also perhaps asking readers to consider what it means to use literature to understand reality. For the generalizations many of the other characters in the book so un-self consciously make about Mr. Riah were, I suspect, mirrored in the everyday world about which Dickens wrote. (Admittedly, I know very little about Victorian England, what with my education therein in being thus far limited to novels and a few poems here and there.)

My question, however, isn't so much what Dickens was doing in regards to gently nudging readers and characters to consider their assumptions about Mr. Riah, but about why Mr. Riah was so servile to Fledgeby when his own moral code had continuously to be compromised in order to carry out the latter's orders. I found his subservience especially baffling once it was revealed he could join the Jewish community on the river where Lizzie took refuge in the second half of the book. I found it baffling that in the face of losing his friendship with Jenny, Mr. Riah didn't try to explain to her why he continued to work for the parasitic Fledgeby.

I found Mr. Riah's servility and long suffering especially confusing given that no characters except Fledgeby expressed any real scorn for him as a Jew. Was Dickens trying to consider what the consequences might be of, to use a completely anachronistic phrase, internalized racism both for individuals and for society? If that's so, then why have every character save those clearly degenerate or malicious or dangerously self-absorbed treat his faith as unimportant in the face of his kindness and gentleness?

I don't know how to answer my questions about Mr. Riah and to add to my discomfort with this book is the way that Bella is set up and taught a lesson to in a way disturbingly similar to how Silas Wegg is set up and taught a lesson to. The moral unease both cases caused in me was similar to what I've always felt reading Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, in which all apparent expressions of free will are both under surveillance by the Duke and, in fact, ultimately used to contribute to the fulfillment of his plans.

The way in which individual autonomy is abused and disposed of in that play is not reimagined in nearly such an extreme fashion in Our Mutual Friend. Yet, I nonetheless found one aspect of the novel more disturbing than the play: that is, how neither Bella nor Wegg questioned the propriety of their lessons. Certainly, Wegg was put out and demoralized, but he didn't express a sense of the unfairness of it all - which may be accounted for in his awareness of having tried to accomplish something equally underhanded.

Bella's completely happy acceptance of having been elaborately duped by both her husband and her friends strikes me as discordant, however. True, she has promised to trust her husband completely but he and the Boffins caused her a lot of pain in their machinations to turn her into a more heart-driven rather than money-driven woman. I wonder if her easy acceptance of John Rokesmith as the resurrected John Harmon is meant to make us question, maybe just a little, her complete conversion into a woman who cares nothing about money, given how she was initially presented to us.

Questions and discomfort aside, I still adored this book the way I tend to adore Dickens novels and I WILL read them all before I shuffle off this mortal coil. But reading Our Mutual Friend was not, if I'm honest, the complete love fest that reading A Tale of Two Cities was. But then again, what could be?

4 comments:

verbivore said...

I'm slowly coming to an appreciation of Dickens, having previously thought that he would bore me to tears. In fact, I laughed through Bleak House, because he's really funny.

I may not try Our Mutual Friend anytime soon but I've got Nicholas Nickleby started already, but am taking it slow.

Amateur Reader said...

My wife says this is Dickens's best book. She has read them all, and is a better reader than I am, more knowledgeable and sophisticated. As a result, I have not read this one. Avoids trouble.

To be sure that my intent is clear, I'm joking about the last bit. Partly. To some degree.

DreamQueen said...

Verbivore: Dickens IS really funny, isn't he? Even A Tale of Two Cities which made me cry a lot, was also hilarious at points. Our Mutual Friend made me chuckle a few times but there was no guffawing.

Amateur Reader: A Tale of Two Cities is still my favourite but I'm just getting started with Dickens so that could well change.

mel ulm said...

I have read all of Dicken's novels and some of his shorter works. There is not a one I did not love. Common Opinion is that Bleak House was his masterpiece. I am fond of "the Old Curiosity Shop" and see parts of "Hard Times" as his most beautifully written work.