Monday, April 30, 2012

Who's the hero here?

The most arresting scene in Our Mutual Friend comes just after the 1/3 mark, when schoolmaster Bradley Headstone and his pupil, Charley Hexam, confront the idle, casually ironic young lawyer Eugene Wrayburn about the attention he's been paying Charley's sister, Lizzie.

I wrote on Friday about Wrayburn's detachment, which at times verges on accidie; it is, from what I remember, something new in Dickens--a dissatisfaction with the world that results neither in action to change society nor in amoral abuse of it. In this scene, however, we see more clearly both the class basis of Wrayburn's cool and the real risks it represents to his character and the lives of those around him. With his friend Mortimer Lightwood at his side, he faces his two angry visitors:
"In some respect, Mr Eugene Wrayburn," said Bradley, answering him with pale and quivering lips, "the natural feelings of my pupils are stronger than my teaching."

"In most respects, I dare say," replied Eugeene, enjoying his cigar, "thought whether high or low is of no importance. You have my name very correctly. Pray what is yours?"

"It cannot concern you much to know, but--"

"True," interposed Eugene, striking sharply and cutting him short at his mistake, "it does not concern me at all to know. I can say Schoolmaster, which is a most respectable title. You are right, Schoholmaster."

It was not the dullest part of this goad in its galling of Bradley Headstone, that he had made it himeslf in a moment of incautious anger. He tried to set his lips so as to prevent their quivering, but they quivered fast.

"Mr Eugene Wrayburn," said the boy, "I want a word with you. I have wanted it so much, that we have looked out your address in the book, and we have been to your office, and we have come from your office here."

"You have given yourself much trouble, Schoolmaster," observed Eugene, blowing the feathery ash from his cigar. "I hope it may prove remunerative."

"And I am glad to speak," pursued the boy, "in presence of Mr Lightwood, because it was through Mr Lightwood that you ever saw my sister."

For a mere moment, Wrayburn turned his eyes aside from the schoolmaster to note the effect of the last word on Mortimer, who, standing on the opposite side of the fire, as soon as the word was spoken, turned his face towards the fire and looked down into it.

"Simlarly, it was through Mr Lightwood that you ever saw her again, for you were with him on the night when my father was found, and so I found you with her on the next day. Since then, you have seen my sister often. You have seen my sister oftener and oftener. And I want to know why?"

"Was this worth while, Schoolmaster," murmured Eugene, with the air of a disinterested adviser. "So much trouble for nothing? You should know best, but I think not."

"I don't know, Mr Wrayburn," answered Bradley, with his passion rising, "why you address me--"

"Don't you?" said Eugene. "Then I won't."

He said it so tauntingly in his perfect placidity, that the respectable right-hand clutching the respectable hair-guard of the respectable watch could have wound it round his throat and strangled him with it. Not another word did Eugene deem it worth while to utter, but stood leaning his head upon his hand, smoking, and looking imperturbably at the chafing Bradley Headstone with his clutching right-hand, until Braldey was wellnigh mad.
When Charley has said his piece, throughout which Wrayburn affects complete boredom, Headstone sends him out and addresses Wrayburn himself:
"You think me of no more value than the dirt under your feet," said Bradley to Eugene, speaking in a carefully weighed and measured tone, or he could not have spoken at all.

"I assure you, Schoolmaster," replied Eugene, "I don't think about you."

"That's not true," returned the other; "you know better."

"That's coarse," Eugene retorted; "but you don't know better."
Leaving aside the equivocal position of Headstone, who is in love with the girl he's claiming to try to protect, and Charley Hexam, whose sole interest in his sister is that she not impede his class-climbing, the cruelty displayed by Wrayburn is breathtaking. I can't think of another scene in all of Dickens--except, perhaps, a few between Pip and Estella--that carries this kind of power. In Dickens: The Major Novels, John Lucas writes that
The sheer malignity of the gentleman's assumption of inherent superiority is never more convincingly demonstrated than in Dickens's handling of Eugene.
Moreover, Lucas finds in this scene a key to the low critical opinion of this novel:
Most of the critics, whether working within the academy or as men of letters, who claimed to find Dickens vulgar were from class circumstances close to Eugene's. Many of them, I can report from my own experience, behaved and sounded like Eugene. No wonder they didn't--and don't--like what Dickens shows them.
That's twisting the knife a bit.

What's more interesting about the scene is the difficulty we have, reading it, in finding a place for our sympathies. Wrayburn up to this point has been silly rather than cruel, disaffected rather than superior, but in this scene, confronted with hot emotion, he steps instantly in the shelter offered by his class privilege, and he uses the weapons he finds there without a hint of compunction. He is bloodless and cruel to an excruciating degree. Yet at the same time, his antagonists offer us little to like. Charley Hexam, it is clear, will sacrifice anything to his desire to escape his roots; though he tells his sister earlier, "I don't want, as I raise myself, to shake you off, Liz. I want to carry you up with me," neither we nor his sister believe him. Headstone, meanwhile, ought to have our sympathy: he is a self-made man up against a thoughtless child of privilege. There are hints of Dickens the poor boy shuddering at the memory of the blacking factory in the curses he spits at Wrayburn at the close of the scene:
I scorn your shifty evasions, and I scorn you. . . . In the meanness of your nature you revile me with the meanness of my birth. I hold you in contempt for it.
A reasonable reader, knowing nothing of the arc of the story to come, would likely come out of this scene feeling that Headstone, though defeated, had been in the right--and just might be beginning to emerge as the hero of this strangely uncentered novel. But even they, I think, would maintain some reservations, for there is that in Headstone's barely repressed passion that hints of unhealthiness.

This is the sort of complexity that makes Our Mutual Friend stand out in Dickens's corpus, and that makes up for the relatively static, even forced quality of some of its other scenes. In Dickens, surprise usually comes from plotting, disguise, or simple misapprehension--not from actual ambiguities of character--but in this scene he draws two fully realized characters who have multiple, widely differing paths to choose among.

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