Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.

Dickens is so good at first lines.

There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be percipitate, or he runs over it: he must not rush into the opposite extreme or he loses it altogether. The best way is, to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head: smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.

Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

Walworth and Newgate, Offline and Online

Great Expectations dwells obsessively on questions of identity and authenticity. This probably doesn’t say all that much (and nothing I’m going to say here has not been said before). All novels explore this territory to some extent: the question of who we really are when we are ourselves is one of central concerns of the form. But, Dickens’ tale of ultimately disappointed expectations (spoiler alert?) explores the question of what makes up the authentic self with unusual focus. Great Expectations is filled with con-artists, actors, frauds, and circumstances where appearances do not match up with reality. Even outside the central plot twist that most dramatically announces this central theme (hint: Pip’s benefactor is not who Pip thinks it is), Dickens slyly lets the narration by an older, wiser Pip looking back on his life raise questions concerning subjectivity and the self. As Pip tells his story (and it is his story in his telling) the reader is left to ask: who is the real Pip? The poorly educated apprentice? The naive innocent manipulated by others? The hopeless romantic? The ungrateful son? The wasteful snob? The loyal friend? The “true” gentleman? (etc.)

But, even if there are many different Pips, they are all rather self-involved bores and Great Expectations is much more fun exploring identity and authenticity through the character of John Wemmick, a clerk for Mr. Jaggers (a lawyer, and Pip’s guardian once he moves to London). Wemmick is described as a man with two separate lives split between his work in the shadow of Newgate prison with the intimidating Mr. Jaggers, and his cottage (which is made to look like a castle) in Walworth, where he cares for his elderly father, the “Aged P.” Wemmick is described as attentive, kind, and caring when in Walworth, but becomes “dryer and harder” as he nears the office until “at last, when we got to his place of business and he pulled out his key from his coat-collar, he looked as unconscious of his Walworth property as if the Castle and the drawbridge and the arbor and the lake and the fountain and the Aged, had all been blown into space together by the last discharge of the Stinger [the “castle’s” canon].” When Pip first visits Wemmick in his home Wemmick explains that Mr. Jaggers has “Never seen [the house] … Never heard of it. Never seen the Aged. Never heard of him. No; the office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me. If it’s not in any way disagreeable to you, you’ll oblige me by doing the same. I don’t wish it professionally spoken about.” The divide is so severe that Pip comes to think of Wemmick as two people, referring to him as twins: a good, warm (Walworth) twin and an stern, calculating (Newgate) twin.

The stark private/public divide in Wemmick’s life seems like a caricature, but in that peculiar way Dickens has (especially with his minor characters), the very extremity of the characterization gives the portrayal a sense of reality (one of Dickens’ great powers is to remind the reader that reality is more extreme than we sometimes care to admit). Modern cubicle dwellers (like myself) can likely recognize something of themselves in Wemmick. We are different people in the office than we are at home: we dress differently (my toddler recognizes my “dada wook shoes”), we speak differently (I do not “touch base” at home), and my family has a limited understanding of what exactly it is I do all day (I’m not totally sure myself, but it involves spreadsheets, emails, and phone calls). The self can be divided in other ways as well – the sort of professional/personal split Wemmick tries to maintain is probably only possible in modern, urban environments where work happens away from home (and Dickens makes this explicit in his portrayal of Joe, the village blacksmith, whose house and forge are the same building). In our current “social media” moment, it is interesting to think about the self we present in public and the lives we live in private: the online twin and the offline twin. For Wemmick, “Walworth is one place, and this office is another … My Walworth sentiments must be taken at Walworth; none but my official sentiments can be taken in this office”; for us, “Instagram is one place and our actual day-to-day life another … only (shiny) Instragram-worthy moments will be posted to Instagram and the rest of the day-to-day will remain unremarked.” The oddity of this particular split is that so much of our private life gets broadcast in public.

In thinking about the divided self and the way we portray our lives in different contexts, it is worth recognizing the difficulty Wemmick has in maintaining a separation between his two selves. As mentioned, Wemmick’s cottage is a “castle,” complete with ramparts, a canon, moat and drawbridge. This is primarily played for humorous effect by Dickens (the moat is just a shallow ditch a person could easily step across, the castle is a tiny cottage etc.), but it is clear that Wemmick at some level sees his Walworth life as something in need of defense and protection. But, defense against what or against whom? Jaggers, maybe (although Jaggers has his own difficulties with his professional persona creeping into his personal life, despite his constant hand washing with scented soaps). But, it seems much more that Walworth Wemmick is trying to protect himself against Newgate Wemmick. Eating toast with the Aged P. or working in the garden is precious to Wemmick but this life is something that his office persona cannot participate in or even understand. Yet, Newgate creeps in everywhere. Wemmick has a hard time shaking off his Newgate self, noting that even when “we are strictly in our private and personal capacity, still it may be mentioned that there are Newgate cobwebs about.” Newgate has even broached the walls of the castle as Wemmick keeps a “collection of curiosities” on display in his house that are “mostly of a felonious character; comprising the pen with which a celebrated forgery had been committed, a distinguished razor or two, some locks of hair, and several manuscript confessions written under condemnation,—upon which Mr. Wemmick set particular value as being, to use his own words, ‘every one of ’em Lies, sir.’”

It is important that in terms of influence the pressure is always applied by the public, professional Wemmick on the personal, private Wemmick. There never seems to be much risk that Newgate Wemmick will go soft; the concern is that the Walworth Wemmick will lose his gentleness and kindness. The one time Walworth Wemmick makes an appearance in the context of the law office it leads to awkwardness between Jaggers and Wemmick until a client arrives whom Wemmick can attack and reduce to tears before throwing him out, thus restoring his professional identity. It is a comic scene, but like all good comedy it has a hint of the tragic mixed in. The reader feels as though the Walworth Wemmick is the “real” Wemmick (perhaps because Pip seems to think so), or perhaps better, that Walworth Wemmick ought to be the real Wemmick. But, Walworth Wemmick (and the Aged P.) depend on Newgate Wemmick to pay for the nightly toast, and as long as this is the case the divide will remain, as will the need for defense against the “Newgate cobwebs.”

The “real” Wemmick is some mix of both Newgate and Walworth, and while I find Wemmick to be one Dickens’ funnier creations I do feel some anxiety that Walworth Wemmick will eventually lose his battle and succumb to the shadow of Newgate. How will Walworth survive the loss of the Aged P., I wonder? Perhaps Miss Skiffins can man the ramparts. I suppose some of my anxiety is connected to the feeling that just like Walworth needs defense against the encroachment of Newgate, it does feel like the offline twin needs protection from the online twin when thinking through the divide between the self we project on social media and the self we are in everyday life. How much of contemporary life is evaluated by whether it is Instagram worthy (or not)? I’m not sure Wemmick’s policy of strict separation is one that should be emulated, but any attempt to combine the private and the projected seems doomed to failure: the projection would consume the reality – it’s engineered into the architecture of the medium. Maybe it would just be better to leave Newgate behind altogether and join Joe the blacksmith in the country, leaving the doubleness and falsity of London behind.

Fools, domestic life, and Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is one of the most discussed, most referenced, most imitated novels in the history of the form and anything I write about it here is, by definition, superfluous. But this blog as a whole is, by definition, superfluous and I read Tolstoy’s famous novel for the first time this year and had a couple quick notes I wanted to get down.

I also read (the great, astounding) Bleak House for the first time earlier this year and when reading Anna Karenina the parallels between Stiva Oblonsky and Dickens’ Harold Skimpole stood out. Skimpole is a self-described “mere child in the world” who has no understanding of money (except, it seems, in how to lavishly spend it); he neglects his wife and children and relies on the charity of others to survive (even when they can ill-afford to provide it). Stiva Oblonsky in a similar way spends beyond his means, neglects his family, and ends the novel living off the charity provided by Levin. As the narrator notes after a domestic failure on Oblonsky’s part: “Try as he would to be a considerate husband and father, Oblonsky never could remember that he had a wife and children. He had the tastes of a bachelor and understood no others.” Oblonsky charms the reader more than Skimpole (Dickens highlights the destructive consequences of Skimpole’s childish “simplicity” more) but is just as much of a villain – at least as much as any of the characters in either of these nuanced and vibrant novels can be divided into stark categories like heroes and villains. Oblonsky and Skimpole are charming, silly, really entertaining dinner party guests, but destructive all the same. They are both examples of the idea of the “fool” found in the biblical book of Proverbs: they live in worlds of their own making and refuse to recognize or live according to the contours of reality – with harmful consequences for those who rely on them. The Karenin/Vronksy/Anna plotline gets top billing in terms of relational dysfunction, but the portrayal of Stiva and Dolly’s terrible marriage is its own kind of quiet tragedy.

Related to this is just how good Tolstoy is in his description and treatment of domestic life. Adjectives like “epic” and “sweeping” tend to fill out the blurbs on the back covers of his novels, and these are not inaccurate, but the vastness of Tolstoy’s imagination includes excellent, detailed depictions of the intimate and ordinary. Since I recently became a father I was especially struck by the description of Levin’s panic and fear when his wife goes into labor, his astonishment at the doctor and midwife’s calmness and seeming indifference, the way “the ordinary conditions of life … no longer existed” during the long day and night, and finally when the baby is born: the strange unexpected feelings, the sense of the baby creating a “new and distressing sense of fear. It was the consciousness of another vulnerable region. And this consciousness was at first so painful, the fear lest the helpless being should suffer was so strong, that it quite hid the strange feeling of unreasoning joy and even pride which he experienced when the baby sneezed.” (I know I posted this quote a few weeks ago, but it is a great passage). This is only one example: Tolstoy spends time describing nursing mothers, children bathing and playing, the squabbles of a young marriage, and the final scene of the book is a family walk on Levin and Kitty’s country estate. The detail and care with which Tolstoy describes the domestic only serves to make Stiva’s (and Anna’s?) carelessness and indifference appear that much more callous.

A couple more random notes:

  • Tolstoy writes such memorable scenes: Levin mowing with the peasants, Vronsky’s race, hunting in the marshes, Levin and Kitty ice-skating, Anna’s humiliation at the theater – his books are huge, but they’re made up of these almost self-contained building blocks of scenes that each have their own sense of living reality
  • Karenin and Anna’s reconciliation when she is ill that later just seems to dissolve as if it never happened is incoherent, contradictory, strange … and the story and the characters feel that much more real as a result. Reality is contradictory and strange, it is more uneven than the smoothness of narrative – part of what makes Tolstoy great is his willingness to take this sort of risk
  • I think it is a pretty significant misreading to read the book as some sort of hymn to romantic passion in the face of repressive societal pressures – but that such a reading exists speaks to the way Anna charms and seduces everyone – including the reader
  • Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Still Dostoevsky … the reasons why will have to wait for another post …