Thursday, July 16, 2009

Poor Wal'r! Drownded, an't he? - more complaints about boring Dickens characters, and a hypothesized solution

The continuing Dickens problem, for the first decade of his career as a novelist: the young, pure heroes and heroines are boring. In Dombey and Son, Dickens made a good attempt at a fix, but couldn't quite make it stick.

Florence Dombey, Mr. Dombey's neglected daughter, and plucky Walter, one of Dombey's office boys, are perfectly serviceable characters when introduced, as children, more or less. An improvement, I thought. But as time passes and the plot moves along, Florence fades a bit and poor Walter is sent on a sea voyage and actually vanishes for 400 pages. That's one solution, I guess. It works! But when he returns, the book is firmly in plot wrap up mode, and Walter seems to have lost his personality somewhere in the South Pacific. Or maybe Captain Cuttle (see title) was right after all, and Wal'r really was drownded, and the fellow who returned was a cardboard cutout.

The rest of the book, meanwhile, presents a dozen top drawer Dickens characters: Captain Cuttle, the fertile Toodles family and their underachieving son Rob, sadsack Mr. Toots and his pal the Game Chicken (a boxer, not a bird), Dombey's prissy sister, Mrs. Chick and her perpetually humming husband.

The great puzzler is how characters as unimportant as Mrs. Miff, "a wheezy little pew-opener," who is really not much more than part of the decor at a church that is a setting for a few scenes, has so much more life than some of the central characters. "A vinegary face has Mrs Miff, and a mortified bonnet, and eke a thirsty soul for sixpences and shillings." A mortified bonnet! And there's plenty more.

A friendly commenter (this commenter) argues that Edith Dombey, Florence's stepmother, is Dickens' best realized female character. She is good, although I'll have to vote for Bleak House's Esther Summerson.

Which leads me to my hypothesis. Dombey and Son is novel number seven. David Copperfield, which I have not read, is next. That's the first Dickens novel in the first person (Chapter I: I Am Born). My theory is that Dickens finally attempted a first person novel as a way to ensure that his central character really exists, to give him some interior life, to force him to be interesting.

New problems arise - how can the narrator be everywhere the writer wants him to be, for example? Bleak House solves that problem brilliantly, with its split structure, half omniscient and half Esther telling her own story. I'm very fond of Esther, but if we only got the external view, she would likely be as colorless as Florence at her worst.

Then it's back to third person, right, in Hard Times (1854), with Great Expectations (1860) as the only other first person novel? Anyway, it's a theory. I'll read David Copperfield and see what I think.

Tomorrow, another problem, a new one.


  1. I'm very fond of Esther, but if we only got the external view, she would likely be as colorless as Florence at her worst.

    I think you're right on here. Oh how I should get back and finish this...I'm so sad (tho' not spoiled, of course) to hear that Walter loses his color. I quite liked him.

  2. In today's post, I give you, and anyone, a good excuse for not finishing the book.

    The thing with Walter is that by the time he returns to the novel, there's almost no room for him. All of the various plot strands have to be tied up. Two hundred pages is barely enough room for everything that needs to be done.