Friday, July 17, 2009

A type of the triumphant monster, Death - too much starch in Dombey's pudding

Dickens was a master of the rhetoric of fiction. His range of modes and methods rivaled that of any writer who ever lived. I would guess that this was related to his gift for speech - that he was a great mimic, and could imitate anything. Speeches, sermons, advertising, journalism, the novels of everyone else. His range and control improved with experience.

Dombey and Son is full of magnificent passages that demonstrate his mastery. But something has gone wrong. The writing can be too thick, too worked up. Dickens has added too much starch to his pudding. He has whipped his cream to butter. He has whipped his egg whites to - what happens when one overwhips egg whites? Meine Frau tells me that they become lumpy. Yes, parts of Dombey and Son are lumpy. Dickens's Christmas story from the same year, The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848), has the exact same problem. I found a few passages in that story almost incomprehensible. They were so very thick.

Should I quote extended rhetorically heated, dullish paragraphs to make my point? That'd be fun. Instead, I'll point to one odd feature of Dombey and Son that I don't remember seeing anywhere else in Dickens: his use of a refrain.

He does this three times, I think. I'll just stick with the first example, Chapter XX, "Mr. Dombey goes upon a Journey." Great chapter. It's full of excellent railroad detail. Once Mr. Dombey is actually on the train, we enter into his troubled thoughts (he has just suffered a great loss). The speed of the train somehow reminds him of his loss. The paragraph ends:

"The power that forced itself upon its iron way--its own--defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death."

There's some social criticism here (the railroad as an agent of destruction) aside from gloomy Dombey's thoughts. Comes back at the end of the novel, too. The personification of the railroad as Death is rhetorically extreme, but so far so good, although that's clearly not Mr. Dombey any more.

The next paragraph ends "like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!" The one after that ends with the exact same phrase. The next, with "and what else is there but such glimpses, in the track of the indomitable monster, Death!"

So four paragraphs in a row end almost identically, a poetic effect, as if the passage is a ballad. Or perhaps the proper comparison is with a sermon, the preacher hitting his point again and again.

I'm not so sure that this section, or the other two places in the novel that use the same device, all moments of keen mental stress for someone, are novelistically effective. They seem to end up a great distance away from the characters. They draw attention to their rhetorical effect, their artificiality. Did Dickens ever repeat this experiment?

I wonder if the move to the first person in David Copperfield was also a way to push back against the thickening of his style, a way to limit or control some of the rhetorical flights. We'll see. By Bleak House, if I remember correctly, he had the problem completely under control. That foggy opening passage, for example. Just the right amount of starch.


  1. What a great and insightful comment. I think that Dickens must have spent a fair amount of time thinking about just how to do his narration and how much of a narrative voice he wanted. He came up with a solution in Bleak House that works out very well---the voice of a narrator (presumably Dickens himself--perhaps the megalosaurus mentioned in the famous first paragraph) and then Esther...

  2. This is my first entry into the blogosphere, the cyber-dance. I don't know the steps yet, though.

    I haven't read Dicken's DOMBEY AND SONS but find interesting your thesis about D's developing greater character depth though the switch to a first person narrator in DAVID COPPERFIELD. Still, complexity of character would not seem to be D's great strength--even later characters seem pretty two-dimensional. It's the amazing variety of odd and particular types--with memorable names, quirky notions, defining dress and mannerisms-- that makes D's characters so unforgettable. We don't forget imperious Miss Havisham or the gentle clerk Wemmick and his sweet, doddering "Aged Parent," for example, in GREAT EXPECTATIONS. They're not really rounded or complex characters, though. Many types repeat: the naive child; the decent worker; the corrupt lawyer or official; the upperclass snob; the crusading reformer. Not much change or learning seems to take place, though. Perhaps Dickens is essentially an exceptionally deft sketch artist--not a Rembrant.

  3. Welcome to the LitBlogLand. Many friendly places to visit in the column to the right.

    A remarkable thing about Dickens is that he could write successful novels with virtually no multi-dimensional, well-rounded characters (e.g., Oliver Twist). His imagination was so rich that it barely mattered.

    Sometimes. I'm not so sure about Great Expectations, though. Would that novel work with a flavorless, unchanging Pip? Well, maybe Miss Havisham, the Aged P, and so on are sufficient.

    Maybe it's also worth mentioning that Dickens never repeated the Bleak House first/third experiment. Almost no one did. I wonder why that is.

    One objection - Rembrandt was one of the world's greatest sketch artists!

  4. Ah, you're no doubt right about Rembrant just being good at it all. If HE were a writer,I guess he would have been Dickens AND Dostoyevsky. Humbling . . .

  5. Now that I have been reading your blog for awhile and have read your three entries on Dombey and Son, I regret that I have not been following you for years and years, but mere months.

    Much of what you say re: Dombey is both fair and insightful. With respect to Dickens "thickening" style, I think as you progress through the later works you will either: regret the loss of the free-and-easy humor of the first loose baggy monsters and dislike the increasing complexity and thickness of Dickens's control over his themes and symbols, or you will have just the opposite reaction, or perhaps like me, you will find something in every novel to love and something to criticize. Dombey is the starting point of the mature Dickens; with Chuzzlewit he had decided to use a theme (selfishness), and in Dombey he adds to his theme (pride and the consequences of its loss) his first great controlling metaphor--the train. In almost every novel afterwards (maybe Tale of Two Cities is an exception) the critical reader can find that both plots and characters' actions are subordinated and aligned either with the theme, the metaphor, or both. Great Expectations is possibly his finest artistic achievement in that regard, but I still like Our Mutual Friend the most (and even Edwin Drood for that matter) because, to the very end--his last day alive on earth--he was trying new ground, pushing his art, deepening (or "thickening") his style, not always sucessfully, but with masterly purpose and frequent elegance almost never found in the early works (unless the very exuberance of his youth in Nicholas Nickleby and Pickwick Papers can pass for a form of elegance and seeming effortlessness).

    I must find and read all of your Dickens comments. You get him in a way I admire.

  6. Well, thanks. Dickens is a touchstone, certainly. I'm in the group that enjoys - can sometimes barely believe - the increase in complexity and his creative restlessness.