Sunday 9 August 2009

Not that I could have written this in my 20s - or ever, for that matter

Reading Dickens always, at some point in whatever novel I'm focused on, provokes a visceral response in me, usually a painful one. With A Tale of Two Cities, I thought I might go mad with grief and anxiety as Sydney was being carted off to the gallows. It felt so real as to be almost unbearable, but in that pleasurable way that really good novels can be.


In Nicholas Nickleby, I had some visceral responses as well but they were less enjoyable for me because they were tempered by some un-ignorable critical dis-satisfaction.

First, Smike's decline and death. I know that Smike's death is a necessary step in Ralph Nickleby's downfall; I also know that it's integral to readerly comprehension of just how corrupt and poisoned our usurer is. In the face of discovering that Smike is his son and has died in part because of his treatment of him, Ralph remains unrepentant about his hatred for and persecution of Nicholas - this is the ultimate proof that he can't be saved, an interpretation of Ralph's life which is given ultimate sanction in Dickens' decision to have him take his own life.

But Smike didn't die only to facilitate the downfall of the novel's villain. No, he would have had to die anyway, because his love for Kate was so impossible and not, I think, primarily because he turns out to be her cousin. Rather, it's impossible because he's so broken by his life under the loving tutelage of Wackford Squeers that he can't possibly recover enough humanity to be a proper man, and in this surprisingly Comic (in the Shakespearean sense) novel, there is only room in the end for an even number of young lovers who are equally matched both emotionally and socially.

What I'm trying to get at with how Dickens treated Smike is that his function in the text - to show what good eggs Nicholas and Kate are, especially to the Brothers Cheeryble, and to represent both the extent of Ralph's evil and the retributive justice he must therefore suffer for it - were too clearly defining Smike's role in the narrative.

Dickens' purpose for him was just too obvious and therefore the significance and resonance of Smike's life were, for me, too often reduced to that of literary devices. This is a real shame, because initially, Smike seems to represent something quite beautiful in the face of the horrible situation he experiences at Squeers' Yorkshire school: a real ability to love when love has never been afforded to him.

My critical dissatisfaction with this novel was not, unfortunately, confined to Smike. While reading Nicholas Nickleby I frequently felt the urge to punch Ralph Nickleby in the face. You would think that this would reflect favourably on Dickens for having created a character so convincing that I frequently found myself imagining treating him as though he were real (a real asshole that is). But that's not really it. You see, I also wanted VERY (indeed, much more) frequently to punch Mrs. Nickleby (Nicholas and Kate's mother) dead in the face (to borrow Raych's phrase re: Philip Pullman).

Mrs. Nickleby was, to me, if it's possible, even more annoying than either Austen's Mrs. Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) or Emma herself. She was such a horrible cliche of the idiotic mother reflecting badly on her perfect children that I felt like throttling her; but really, I felt like throttling Dickens for having created such a one-dimensional harpy that annoyed me so much I wanted to stop reading at points.

All this said, you may be surprised to learn that I still really enjoyed this novel. Dickens' writing, for me, is always a joy to immerse myself in; as well, I liked many of the characters and wasn't always irritated by how un-subtly Dickens employed them. It's just that Nicholas Nickleby is so obviously the work of a writer much younger and perhaps less thoughtful than the writer who, 20-25 years later, produced A Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend. But it's still brilliant because it's still Dickens. That isn't really a tautology; I'm willing to read something by Dickens and discover I think it's terrible and not feel the need to justify it in any way; it just hasn't happened yet.

I don't think I'm being very articulate here, and I often feel as though when I try to discuss why I like Dickens, language begins to fail me. Instead of worrying about it, I'll just conclude that perhaps it's best that I didn't try to focus on Victorian literature in graduate school as I seriously considered doing; my thesis would have ended up being just one big, lame love-fest, e.g., "Chapter One: Why Dickens is totally awesome," "Chapter Two: More on how Dickens is so kick-ass," and "Chapter Three: Why Dickens would be my boyfriend if he were alive today."


Unknown said...

Hmmm. While I love some Dickens, I'm not always convinced. Of the two I've read this year, I loved 'Bleak House' and was surprised to find that I wasn't as convinced by 'A Tale of Two Cities' (surprised as I loved it when I was younger). Reviews, as ever, on the site ;)

Just got myself a copy of 'David Copperfield', so I'm hoping the magic will return...

Heidenkind said...

I wish someone would do a thesis like that! I would totally read it. :D

I have to admit, I've never been a big fan of Dickens. *ducks* I understand exactly what you mean about the visceral response to his writing--I usually have the same, but I can't handle it. He's too much for me.

verbivore said...

I started this and then stopped, not for any real reason, but I'd like to finish it up this summer and will come back to your review then...didn't wantto see the spoilers!

Bookphilia said...

Tony: Someone else recently told me that Bleak House was amazing. Once I read David Copperfield (also my next Dickens), that's the one I'll pick it up.

heidenkind: No need to duck! I didn't enjoy Dickens for a long time either (mostly, I think, because I had a horrible high school English teacher ruin him for me), and I get why he wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea.

verbivore: Good luck finishing it! I'll be interested to see what you think.

Carl V. Anderson said...

A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite of the Dicken's tales that I have read, which have been admittedly few. However my love for A Tale of Two Cities certainly makes me feel qualified to say that I am a fan. I was introduced to it in high school and have been enamored of the book ever since.

Bookphilia said...

Carl: A Tale of Two Cities is my favourite thus far as well. I am so impressed that you got Dickens in high school and didn't come out of it allergic to him, as so many do!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Agree, agree, agree. You're completely right about Smike, especially, the central flaw that runs through the entire book.

Hey, David Copperfield is my next Dickens, too.

Bookphilia said...

Amateur Reader: Cool! I'd suggest we have a David Copperfield read-off but I know you'd win. Do you think you'll get to it soon?

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I don't know about that winning. It took me 5 months to read Dombey and Son, which is the exact same length.

I can read David Copperfield anytime. Let me know when you're starting - or I can keep an eye on your "Currently Reading" and just join in. After the density of Dombey, I'm not in a hurry to start another Dickens novel, but I know that after reading a page or two my enthusiasm will return.

Bookphilia said...

Amateur Reader: I think that I too need a little breathing room between Dickens novels so maybe October? for David Copperfield. If I start it, I'll drop you a line; if you start it, you drop me a line.