Friday, April 27, 2012

All the sad young Victorian men

One of the ways in which Our Mutual Friend represents growth or innovation for Dickens is that for the first time--if my memories of the other novels, some of them admittedly fifteen years old now, are accurate--that he allows any character to exist in ironic relation to the world. Dickens of course deployed irony in his narrative voice regularly (and often heavy-handedly): it's the basic mode of his social satire. But in general Dickens's characters, the heroes aside, are either blandly good (nearly all the heroines and love interests), bad (Sikes, Squeers), damaged and callous (Estella, Mr. Dombey), or monomoniacally certain of the world and their place in it (a host of secondary characters, such as Sairey Gamp). They're all fundamentally earnest.

In Our Mutual Friend, however, we are introduced to two dissatisfied young lawyers, Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn, who sound a note of ennui and detachment that is wholly new to Dickens--and that feels remarkably modern for 1865. Here's Lightwood telling Wrayburn about his Most Respected Father and his plans for his children:
"You know M. R. F., but not as well as I do. If you knew him as well as I do, he would amuse you."

"Filially spoken, Eugene!"

"Perfectly so, believe me; and with every sentiment of affectionate deference towards M. R. F. But if he amuses me, I can't help it. When my eldest brother was born, of course the rest of us knew (I mean the rest of us would have known, if we had been in existence) that he was heir to the Family Embarrassments--we call it before the company the Family Estate. But when my second brother was going to be born by-and-by, 'this,' says M. R. F., 'is a little pillar of the church.' Was born, and became a pillar of the church; a very shaky one. My third brother appeared, considerably in advance of his engagement to my mother; but M. R. F., not at all put out by surprise, instantly declared him a Circumnavigator. Was pitch-forked into the Navy, but has not circumnavigated. I announced myself, and was disposed of with the highly satisfactory results embodied before you. When my younger brother was half an hour old, it was settled by M. R. F. that he should have a mechanical genius. And so on. Therefore I say that M. R. F. amuses me."
More telling is this exchange between the two on that same night:
"The wind sounds up here," quoth Eugene, stirring the fire, "as if we were keeping a lighthouse. I wish we were."

"Don't you think it would bore us?" Lightwood asked.

"Not more than any other place. And there would be no Circuit to go. But that's a selfish consideration, personal to me."

"If we were on an isolated rock in a stormy sea," said Eugene, smoking with his eyes on the fire, "Lady Tippins couldn't put off to visit us, or, better still, might put off and get swamped. People couldn't ask one to wedding breakfasts. There would be no Precedents to hammer at, except the plain-sailing Precedent of keeping the light up. It would be exciting to look out for wrecks."

"But otherwise," suggested Lightwood, "there might be a degree of sameness in the life."

"I have thought of that also," said Eugene, as if he really had been considering the subject in its various bearings with an eye to the business, "but it would be a defined and limited monotony. It would not extend beyond two people. Now, it's a question with me, Mortimer, whether a monotony defined with that precision and limited to that extent, might not be more endurable than the unlimited monotony of one's fellow-creatures."
Where else in Dickens do we find thoughts and conversation let run in idle play like this? The novels are full of passing nonsense, but it tends to take the form of the verbal tics of secondary characters--and for those characters, those tics nearly always represent some deep-seated fixation or self-definition. Here, instead, we have two young men simply enjoying the play of words as a way to stave off larger questions about the world in which they must make their way. They are bored with the society in which they're expected to play a part, and feel detached from it--but it's a detachment born not from feeling superior to the world, like, for example, Steerforth's amorality, but from being disappointed in it. Lightwood and Wrayburn are the youthful embodiment of the bitter tone that runs through Our Mutual Friend, of Dickens's disappointment with the middle class's failure of promise, its grasping and grubbing and pretension. They're the coming generation having the good sense to look askance at what their parents have wrought.

Ironic detachment can curdle, or, through engagement, it can be cured. By introducing these characters, and giving them the freedom--a dangerous freedom for an author whose own narrative voice and point of view are so strong and so important to his books--to see the world and analyze their own relation to it, Dickens introduces the possibility of both choice and change, of characters who really might, by the end be something more than what they are when we first encounter them.

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