Sunday, 12 June 2011

Old fantastical men lurking in dark corners

When I was first confronted with the strange double ending of Martin Chuzzlewit, I thought it perhaps reflected Dickens being doubly influenced by Dostoevsky and Shakespeare. I thought of Dostoevsky for the protracted scene in which the elder Martin semi-publicly (and with the constabulary very close at hand) calls out young Jonas for conspiring to murder his father. This scene, with its meticulous laying out of all the evidence against Jonas so that he could have no doubt of how fully his crime has been apprehended, reminded me of the prolonged revelations of Crime and Punishment (although, to be entirely honest, I haven't read that novel in over 10 years; I might well be misremembering). As it turns out, Crime and Punishment wasn’t published until approximately 20 years after Martin Chuzzlewit, and so that theory went out the window without my memory for beloved novels of the past being tested at all.

The Shakespeare connection remained in my mind for the second conclusion of Martin Chuzzlewit, however, and applies in a general way to the first novelistic conclusion, for one of the duties the Duke executes upon his return to Vienna is to publicly reveal Angelo’s guilt. The guilty parties in both novel and play having been publicly shamed, the revelation of the disguised old man - and the rewards he may dole out as such - must happen next. Old Martin, having feigned being in his dotage to accurately sound the depths of Pecksniff’s corruption, reveals himself, I think not surprisingly, first to Tom Pinch, our tale’s moral centre:
The door stood open. As the tread advanced, Tom looked impatiently and eagerly towards it. When a figure came upon the landing, and arriving in the doorway, stopped and gazed at him, he rose up from his chair, and half believed he saw a spirit.

Old Martin Chuzzlewit! The same whom he had left at Mr Pecksniff's, weak and sinking!

The same? No, not the same, for this old man, though old, was strong, and leaned upon his stick with a vigorous hand, while with the other he signed to Tom to make no noise. One glance at the resolute face, the watchful eye, the vigorous hand upon the staff, the triumphant purpose in the figure, and such a light broke in on Tom as blinded him.

'You have expected me,' said Martin, 'a long time.'

'I was told that my employer would arrive soon,' said Tom; 'but--'

'I know. You were ignorant who he was. It was my desire. I am glad it has been so well observed. I intended to have been with you much sooner. I thought the time had come. I thought I could know no more, and no worse, of him, than I did on that day when I saw you last. But I was wrong.'

He had by this time come up to Tom, and now he grasped his hand.

'I have lived in his house, Pinch, and had him fawning on me days and weeks and months. You know it. I have suffered him to treat me like his tool and instrument. You know it; you have seen me there. I have undergone ten thousand times as much as I could have endured if I had been the miserable weak old man he took me for. You know it. I have seen him offer love to Mary. You know it; who better--who better, my true heart! I have had his base soul bare before me, day by day, and have not betrayed myself once. I never could have undergone such torture but for looking forward to this time.' (p. 704)
Old Martin, like Shakespeare's "old fantastical duke of dark corners" (IV.iii.156-57), ascertains the level of his "subjects'" goodness by disguising himself as something less than he is (in Martin's case, a doddering old fool; in the Duke's, a friar), but a something less that inspires others, for good or ill, to drop their defenses and reveal themselves, totally. They walk disguised among those they would control, giving their hapless subjects/relations the illusion of controlling their own lives.

But, Dickens, what are you doing!? You set Tom up as the novel’s moral centre and align him as closely as possible with a literary mode of living and literary typology, but then destabilize such associations via Tom’s declaration that "There is a higher justice than poetical justice" (see previous post). But then, Chaz, you make the novel's conclusion as literary and meta-literary as can be, not only by revealing old Martin to have been actively attempting to author the paths and outcomes of almost every other character’s actions, but also by making it very difficult for readers familiar with Measure for Measure to not make comparisons between the novel and the play. Given how frequently, in every novel of his I’ve read, Dickens references Shakespeare either directly or obliquely, I can’t believe that 1) Dickens didn’t know precisely what he was doing with Martin Chuzzlewit, and 2) that he trusted his contemporary audience to be as familiar with the Bard as he was. (I had considered offering to write a book on Shakespeare and Dickens but, alas, it's already been done. Of course it has.)

Yet, in spite of the similarities between novel and play (and there are many more I could discuss, such as the similarities between old Martin's relationship to Mary and Martin alongside the Duke's to Claudio and Juliet; or, old Martin's apparent trust of Pecksniff and the Duke's analogous seeming faith in Angelo), there is one crucial difference: the mechanism by which old Martin’s plans eventually come to fruition remains entirely mysterious. It’s clear at the end of Shakespeare's play that the Duke is running the show, and has been doing so all along; conversely, the resolution of Martin Chuzzlewit's conflicts and disparate plot threads depends on old Martin admitting where he’s been wrong, both in behaviour and perception. All (almost – poor Tom’s love for Mary is, of course, never reciprocated) is well that ends well here, but how it ends well seems to refer back constantly to Tom’s higher than poetical justice – even if the poetical and literary can never be extracted from Dickens’s characters’ day-to-day lives. The poetical, and what transcends it, seem inseparable even if the latter will always eventually take precedence.

Martin Chuzzlewit seems to be a novel about the fiction we all indulge in about being able to completely control our own lives, as well as the lives of others when we see fit – when, in the long run, it’s in the hands of something higher that necessarily remains mysterious. That Dickens is careful not to spend much time implying that this higher thing is God (for godliness in his novels seems always to manifest only through one’s actions on earth, especially in The Old Curiosity Shop, but here as well) suggests to me a strangely quiet and gently resigned existential angst. Having read a number of Dickens novels in the past couple of years, and having noticed how much Shakespearean Comedy seems to influence him, I'm pleased to note that overall, even as he pays homage to the Bard, Dickens never completely succumbs to the very tidy conclusions the form allows. The discomfort Shakespeare reveals in the Duke's surveillance and absolute control is redistributed into something more human and humane in Dickens - the discomfort that comes with acknowledging the essential incompleteness of all happy endings.

6 comments:

Tony said...

This is one of the few Dickens novels I've never read, and it sounds as if it's one to try, very different from the 'Oliver Twist', 'Great Expectations' and 'A Christmas Carol' that people often judge Dickens by.

Or maybe you're just making it sound that good ;)

Amateur Reader said...

The funny thing is that in another way it is exactly like A Christmas Carol, which was written and published in the middle of the serialization of Martin Chuzzlewit. The big link is the exploration of selfishness - MC has a Scrooge who is not saved or redeemed or whatever you want to call it.

Colleen said...

Tony: I think it is that good. I think it might be one of my favourite Dickens! But then, I haven't yet read Bleak House or Dombey and Son.

Amateur Reader: At the moment, you know, I can't think of a Dickens novel that *isn't* an exploration of selfishness. Am I being reductive?

Amateur Reader said...

A fair point, not reductive, but isn't Martin Chuzzlewit especially bald? We have Selfish but Redeemable Martin, and his best friend Selfless. Then there's the other Chuzzlewit, Jonas, aka Selfish and Bad, aka Unredeemable Scrooge.

A Christmas Carol is an exploration of a redeemable Jonas.

Jonas is the villainish villain, right? I am perhaps misremembering people's names. The novel has two Martin Chuzzlewit's, yes?

Why do you think this one is your favorite?

Colleen said...

I'm disappointed that I never answered your question about why MC was my favourite, Tom. I don't think it is anymore. Sober reflection leads me to a tie between David Copperfield and Bleak House (although I still have The Pickwick Papers and Barnaby Rudge to read). But I admire MC for what you call its baldness, I guess--and Dickens' playfulness about its baldness with his Shakespearian joking.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

State the theme clearly then move on to the variations. A perfectly reasonable preference.