Dickens: Greatest Animal Novelist of All Time?

Dombey and Son, the Toodles, Bonnets, Sycophancy in Ruins, Nineteenth-Century Book Tours, Robert Altman, Capital-P Pride, Theatricality, Rob the Grinder.

Dickens: Greatest Animal Novelist of All Time?

Jonathan Lethem
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I have a suggestion: Forget London. Forget, for now, the nineteenth century, forget the whole assertion that the value of the “late” or “mature,” Dickens—a construction whose first evidence is usually located by commentators here, in Dombey and Son—rests on his placement of his sentimental melodramas and grotesques in an increasingly deliberate and nuanced social portrait of his times, of his city. Forget institutions, forget reform. Please indulge me, and forget for the moment any questions of psycho-biographical excavation, of self-portraiture, despite Dombey’s being the book which preceded that great dam-bursting of the autobiographical impulse, David Copperfield (and, in fact, Dombey contains a tiny leak in that dam in the form of Mrs. Pipchin, the first character avowed by Dickens to have been drawn from a figure from his life). Forget Where’s Charles Dickens in all this fabulous contradictory stew of story and rhetoric? What does the guy want from us? What does he really think and believe? Forget it all, and then forgive what will surely seem a diminishing suggestion from me, which is that you abandon all context, ye who enter here, and read Dombey and Son as though it were a book about animals.

Yes, animals. Read it as though the characters are all covered in fur, beginning with Dombey and his little newborn heir on the glorious first page: Read this book as if it were The Wind in the Willows, or Watership Down (oh, I’m going to be strung up for this), one of those wonderful droll stories about anthropomorphized creatures, clever eccentric badgers and rabbits and crows, as well as feral predators, foxes and cats, tucked into Victorian suits and dresses—read it as if Dickens were the greatest animal novelist of all time. If this seems impossible, note the head start Dickens has given you in naming Dombey’s characters: Cuttle, Chick, Nipper, Gills, MacStinger and, of course, the Game Chicken. Note the descriptions: “Mrs. Pipchin hovered behind the victim, with her sable plumage and her hooked beak, like a bird of ill-omen.” There’s Mrs. Skewton, “whose vigilance… no lynx could have surpassed.” Doctor Blimber “looked at Paul as if he were a little mouse”—then, a page later, “seemed to survey Paul with the sort of interest that might attach to some choice little animal he was going to stuff.” Mrs. Brown is shown “hovering about” Florence Dombey “like some new kind of butterfly.” Or consider the description of Mr. Toodle feeding his brood of children, which omits any overt animal reference yet nonetheless evokes a Nature Channel clip:

In satisfying himself, however, Mr Toodle was not regardless of the younger branches about him, who, although they had made their own evening repast, were on the look-out for irregular morsels…. These he distributed now and then to the expectant circle, by holding out great wedges of bread and butter, to be bitten at by the family in lawful succession, and by serving out small doses of tea in a like manner with a spoon; which snacks had such relish in the mouths of these young Toodles, that, after partaking of the same, they performed private dances of ecstasy among themselves, and stood on one leg apiece, and hopped… they gradually closed around Mr Toodle again, and eyed him hard as he got through more bread and butter and tea….

Then there is of course our skulking white-collar criminal, Carker:

…feline from sole to crown was Mr Carker the Manager, as he basked in the strip of summerlight and warmth that shone upon his table and the ground…. with hair and whiskers deficient in colour at all times, but feebler than common in the rich sunshine, and more like the coat of a sandy tortoise-shell cat; with long nails, nicely pared and sharpened…Mr Carker the Manager, sly of manner, sharp of tooth, soft of foot, watchful of eye, oily of tongue, cruel of heart, nice of habit, sat with a dainty steadfastness and patience at his work, as if he were waiting at a mouse’s hole.


Mary Gaitskill, in her superb introduction to Bleak House, testifies to the irrational force such protean imagery roils up from underneath the surface of Dickens’s ostensibly lucid plots: “With all the roaring energy he summons … and all the ranting little heads popping out of his fantastic landscape, Dickens is excessive by modern standards. But modern standards have become excessive, and Dickens is excessive like Nature; like living things his creatures must twist and turn, expand out or tunnel in until they have utterly fulfilled what they are.” Susan Horton, in The Reader in the Dickens World, presses the observation further: “Although these images are called up in metaphors which presumably are meant to carry forward the plot action, they often seem to accumulate in such a way that they create an entirely separate and separable world.… This beastlike world is a world of real mystery rather than contrived plot mystery … and it is in this figurative rendering of the experience of living … that Dickens’s power and his vision lie.”

Mark Spilka, in his Dickens and Kafka (what a relief to take shelter in the modernist Castle, far from intimations of Disney’s Aristocats—this postmodernism is dangerous work!), offers a comparison to Dombey and Son’s comic-grotesque leading-man, Captain Cuttle, with the obsessive digging creature who narrates Kafka’s long tale “The Burrow.” Cuttle, through the middle of the novel, has taken flight from Mrs. MacStinger, and from his fears of marriage and children, to barricade himself inside Sol Gills’ anachronistic sea-instrument shop. As Spilka points out, “the enemy in each case is the prospect of adult involvement, and the defensive preparations are equally elaborate”:

What the Captain suffered … whenever a bonnet passed, or how often he darted out of the shop to elude imaginary MacStingers, and sought safety in the attic, cannot be told. But to avoid the fatigues attendant on this means of self-preservation, the Captain curtained the glass door of communication between the shop and parlour … and cut a small hole of espial in the wall.” Cuttle then lives “a very close and retired life; seldom stirring abroad until after dark; venturing even then only into the obscurest streets … and both within and without the walls of his retreat, avoiding bonnets, as if they were worn by raging lions.

So, see the proud and alienated Dombey as a kind of arctic falcon—I know there’s no such thing, but Dombey is throughout this book relentlessly characterized as frozen, frigid and remote, and yet he’s too high-strung and, ultimately, vulnerable, to be a polar bear, and far too preening and fierce to be a penguin. The great ice-creature’s chill and hauteur are the fundamental problem to be solved in this book, and around him, seeking or awaiting a solution, a host of other beasts gibber and beseech and pine and scheme, all of them in their ways more accepting of their animal natures, and animal destinies, than Dombey himself. Dombey’s error is precisely in denying natural familial order, in attempting to see the world in mercantile terms, his mates and offspring principally as methods of extending his Dealings and his Firm. He’s wearing the wrong spectacles, finally. They filter out the natural truths all around him. They filter out his daughter. Dickens wants us to feel this as a blindness, one as poignant as it is infuriating. When Dombey orders a tombstone prepared for his deceased son and heir, he asks that it read “beloved and only child.” It takes the stonecarver to point out the mistake:

“‘It should be ‘son’, I think, Sir?’”

“You are right. Of course. Make the correction.”


But every approach to Dickens, apart from “Read him, damn it!” seems patronizing and reductive, doesn’t it? Fur-covering his characters is only an absurd example. How can it be that this most generous and diverse and intricate and inventive and (whatever! You name it!) of novelists, in whose pages nearly every subsequent narrative mode seems—whether as a result of conscious experiment or exuberant, instinctive doodling—to have been anticipated, is nearly always introduced by critics or followers (and any writer of fiction is a follower of Dickens, I insist on this, whether like Gissing and Kafka and Dostoevsky and Christina Stead and Peter Carey a conscious follower, or like me, until my shameful awakening five years ago, a blind and unconscious one) who say, one after the other, in so many words: “Dickens only half-knew what he was doing” or “Dickens was often great despite himself”?

The trick of Dickens is that it is only easy to say what he wasn’t. Basically, he wasn’t George Eliot. He wasn’t the master of the interior, psychological mode in English fiction, the mode which can be legibly traced from Richardson and Austen through Modernism to the preponderance of contemporary fictional styles. Having excluded this, and having muttered a few apologies for his broad or theatrical or popular or sentimental tendencies, commentators are often at a loss to say what Dickens was. This is because he was everything, and to be everything is to be paradoxical and overwhelming, and leave your reader grappling for a handhold. It’s not that Dickens isn’t what he’s said to be, and what a thousand paraphrases into movies and Classic Comics and all sorts of other mediums have suggested: theatrical and sentimental, absolutely. The man’s the all-time beguiler, flatterer, and manipulator of readers, to great comic and bathetic effect in virtually every chapter. The trick is that he deals in ambiguity and disjunction just as readily. For everything Dickens is plainly wishing you to understand and feel, he also provides a fistful of arrows pointing elsewhere, to uneasy, vagrant thoughts and feelings, “signifiers” which a reader tends to feel Dickens is ignorant of, or resistant to, himself, but which he endlessly shares anyway.

His genius, then, is at one with the genius of the form of the novel itself: Dickens willed into existence the most capacious and elastic and versatile kind of novel that could be, one big enough for his vast sentimental yearnings and for every impulse and fear and hesitation in him which countervailed those yearnings too. Never parsimonious and frequently contradictory, he always gives us everything he can, everything he’s planned to give, and then more. This from one of the most energetic souls to ever walk the planet, or specifically the streets of London, which he famously did, in daily marathons of ten miles or more, where one presumes he generated material in the collision of his fevered imagination with the varieties of life he encountered in the streets, and with the life of the streets themselves, the buildings and railroads of an increasingly industrial century.

Take for instance the famous “theatricality,” seemingly one of the least arguable assertions about Dickens. He adored the theater, yes. And his characters do present themselves to the reader and to one another in declamatory, presentational modes which seem specifically derived from Victorian melodrama. Yet it’s worth pointing out that Dickens shows an aggressive impatience with the most basic and inherent limitation of theatrical presentation: the stage. He’s forever sliding from the main action to focus on peculiar side-issues, on reaction shots of minor characters, or simply to vent the camera-eye of his prose to the rooftops, to the sky. He’s constantly panning the crowd, in what can begin to seem a kind of claustrophobic avoidance of whatever main stage he’s set. Take for instance Dombey’s wedding. It begins with a wide shot: “Dawn with its passionless blank face, steals shivering to the church.…” We’re given pages of steeple-clock, spire, a super-anthropomorphized “dawn,” the church’s mice, the beadle, and Mrs. Miff, the pew-opener, none of them previously introduced, nor relevant to the book’s design. The chapter ranges over the reactions of the pastry-cook and others on the serving-staff, winding up with nameless partygoing throngs and with those mice again. Or, consider Little Paul’s death, which is presented as a recurring shot of waves ceaselessly pounding the shore, as if to reinforce the fateful universality of the event and distract us from its meaning in terms of the central theatrical unit—the Dombey family.

Dickens works to keep us aware of the variety he’s met in the street, and of the possibility that, if his eye happened to settle elsewhere, in place of the story underway we’d find another story going on. These methods unavoidably anticipate those of film: the distended ensembles of Robert Altman’s Nashville or A Wedding, the rhythmic cityscapes Yasujiro Ozu employs to widen the context of his meticulous family dramas in Late Autumn or Tokyo Story. This isn’t to say Dickens would have hightailed it to Hollywood if he’d lived in our century. One only has to encounter the torrential, visceral thrill of his engagement with language to know this is as silly as speculating that Beethoven could have been tempted from music, or de Kooning from paint. Still, the most famous page in Dombey is a fantastic wish for the ultimate wide shot, and it echoes the utopian intent of a filmmaker like Godard, who used a cut away set to anatomize social reality in Tout Va Bien:

Oh, for a good spirit who would take the house-tops off, with a more potent and benignant hand than the lame demons in the tale, and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes.… For only one night’s view of the pale phantoms rising from the scenes of our too-long neglect; and from the thick and sullen air where Vice and Fever propagate together.… Not the less bright and blest would that day be for rousing some who never have looked out upon the world of human life around them, to a knowledge of their own relation to it.

In Dombey, Dickens’s crucial evocation of the outside world is in his portraits of the new-grown suburbs, and of the railway as it crushes its way through the heart of London. These are usually taken as proof that Dickens was beginning to anchor his dramas in the larger socio-economic world, and rightly so. Dombey and Son (its full title: Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation) is the first book in which he places an institution at the center of his story, a motif he’d obviously expand and deepen in Bleak House and Hard Times.

That’s just one of the ways in which Dombey is a watershed for Dickens. If four or five of his novels are better cherished by contemporary readers (a perusal of the world of Dickensiana, though, only leads to bewilderment at the divergence in favorites over the years), all roads somehow lead to Dombey—welcome, here, to the heart of the heart of Dickens. As mentioned, this book contains his first acknowledged use of autobiographical sources. It’s also the first in which Dickens draws a clear blueprint beforehand, rather than relying on improvisation to get him through his plot—and because he was impressed by his own new capacity to make plans, he documented them carefully in his letters to his friend (and eventual biographer) John Forster. So we know, for instance, of Dicken’s enthusiastic effort to shift sympathy quickly from Paul to Florence, after the boy’s death, and of his vetoed scheme to have Carker and Edith Dombey consummate their self-loathing tryst.

What’s more, it was after the occasion of a reading of the second installment of Dombey to a group of close friends that Dickens wrote to Forster:

I was thinking the other day that … a great deal of money might possibly be made … by one’s having Readings of one’s own books. It would be an odd thing. I think it would take immensely. What do you say?

This is not only to blame Dombey for the whole modern-day rigmarole of book touring, or to say that it was here Dickens learned the trick which, taken to grueling extremes on American and British stages, likely killed him. Mark Lambert, in Dickens and the Suspended Quotation, argues that the public readings siphoned off a significant portion of Dickens’s craving for the flattering approval of a human audience. By venting the grossly comedic and sentimental aspects of his temperament live on stage, Dickens may have freed himself to be the more remote, obscure and generally less people-pleasing author of subsequent books. Perhaps it is no single element, but this confluence—autobiography, social criticism, increased planning, and the readings, all stemming through Dombey—which permitted and created the “late” style.

Dombey and Son makes the impression of a leafless tree illuminated fitfully by twinkling lights … [which] reveal to us the whole person and house of Dombey in all their aridity and arrogance.” That description comes from Una Pope-Hennessy’s (largely supplanted) 1945 biography. Another way of putting it is that the character at the center of this book is a cold fish, who Dickens exposes by the warmth of the menagerie around him and by the steady loving gaze of his daughter, Florence. Critics have often taken Dickens to task for his “perfect girls”, of which Florence is a classic example. Gaitskill defends the function of Esther in Bleak House, another of those angels, this way: “When Dickens looks at certain wicked or complex characters through her ingenuous eyes, he can perceive their gross faults with naïve clarity while pretending … not to know what’s wrong with them.” Florence, similarly, serves as a simple but powerful lens roaming through these pages, amplifying, by her proximity, any tender emotion. Her patience, at her father’s chilly threshold, stands for Dickens’s ultimate faith that in a world of rigid grotesques we are nevertheless required, in the sphere of our intimate experience, to embrace the possibility of growth and change. Dickens’s innocent girls aren’t more persuasive as characters because he doesn’t need them to be. What he needs them for is to cut against the grain of his “beastly” world. Far from being relics of the earlier, more sentimental style, it is with Dombey that he begins to need those girls even more urgently, to contradict the monolithic, even punishing design of the later books.

Dombey’s house, and his novel, becomes a kind of deprivation chamber: how much warmth and charm can Dickens banish from this space and still have a tale to tell? One after another, Toodles, Walter, Paul, Edith, Florence, Susan Nipper, all the abiding hearts, are pushed away to heighten the eerieness of Dombey’s stand in his room, alone. This is a book partly about solitude, and Dombey is mirrored and mocked not only by Cuttle in his shop-burrow but by Carker smugly plotting in his living room, and by Toots spacing out in his attic—all, perhaps, oblique self-portraits of a writer alone in his workshop, images which range from the self-lampooning to the self-outraged.

Dickens declared this book an indictment of the excesses of capital-p Pride. It’s only to expand on this claim to assert that what he achieved was an Anatomy of Sycophancy. The book’s as much a catalogue of differing postures in respect to Dombey’s power and fame as it is a portrait of Dombey’s own attitudes. Dickens, deep in the flushes of his own fame, and fresh from a buffeting by extremes of adulation and rejection by American crowds, had a lot to tell us on this subject. Major Bagstock is, of course, the most delirious flatterer, always ready to cover himself in any butter he’s spreading:

“Dombey,” said the Major, “I’m glad to see you. I’m proud to see you. There are not many men in Europe to whom J. Bagstock would say that—for Josh is blunt. Sir: it’s his nature—But Joey B. is proud to see you, Dombey.”

“Major,” returned Mr Dombey, “you are very obliging.”

“No, sir,” said the Major, “Devil a bit! That’s not my character. If that had been Joe’s character, Joe might have been, by this time, Lieutenant-General Sir Joseph Bagstock, K.C.B., and might have received you in very different quarters. You don’t know old Joe yet, I find. But this occasion, being special, is a source of pride to me. By the Lord, Sir,” said the Major resolutely, “it’s an honour to me!”

Bagstock’s sycophancy, and Mrs. Skewton’s, provide the book an engine of misunderstanding, whisking Dombey into his disastrous marriage. Dickens shows how other misguided postures of homage have their own grievous results: it is Captain Cuttle’s pretense of cultivating Dombey and Carker that dooms Walter Gay to his exile on the high seas. Elsewhere, Rob the Grinder’s wheedling at the feet of Carker and Mrs. Brown is portrayed with outright disgust.

Sycophancy in ruins is also one of the novel’s chief satisfactions, most prominently in Susan Nipper’s confrontation with Dombey: it’s silly but quite wonderful that we can still have our breath taken away to see deference overthrown by a maidservant. Similarly, one of the book’s great comic set-pieces is Cuttle’s buddy and confidant Bunsby unexpectedly switching allegiance to the husband-hunting MacStinger. Cuttle’s astonishment is at the breakdown of lines of deference between friends, where a woman is concerned. Bunsby-Cuttle-MacStinger, though, are only a comic echo of the book’s key triangle: Carker-Dombey-Edith. In each case the ultimate insult in an affair of the heart is in learning that someone else, someone unexpectedly near by, may want what one has cast off.

The relationship between Carker the Manager and Edith Dombey is Dickens’s darkest and shrewdest presentation of the evils of sycophancy. In an analysis of “slave mentality” worthy of Nietszche, Dickens details the baroque self-loathing of proud souls brought to heel by Dombey’s wealth, and by his oblivious arrogance. Carker and Edith, in their hypocrisy and nihilism, are unmistakable to one another, though Carker fatally mistakes the compulsion between them for a sexual To Do list. That Dickens censored his original plan to give the pair a night or two to exorcise their lust, and to make Dombey an official cuckold, is hardly important—Edith’s hatred would surely have outstripped her carnality before long. In fact, this revision probably enabled a sex-averse writer to keep his eye on the ball (note how Dickens has to banish Florence and Walter to a remote off-stage land to consummate even the happiest union!). We may owe to this self-censorship one of the most modern and psychologically scrupulous sequences in all of Dickens. In the words of David Gates, “the man knew a thing or two about sadism and shame.”

For all this, Dombey’s pride is the novel’s ultimate subject—and because Dickens felt a paradoxical identification with Dombey, it remains the novel’s ultimate mystery. Old Dombey’s humbling last-minute capitulation at the novel’s end only comes, after all, due to his infirmity and bankruptcy. Dickens himself couldn’t afford to wait that long to confront his own severity, and snobbery, or his resistance to the images of home and hearth he’d become a celebrity for endorsing. The novel’s most tormenting moment, for me, comes after Little Paul’s death, as Dombey boards the train on his way to the resort where he will meet Edith. On the platform he runs into the stoker, Toodle, whose wife had been Paul’s wet-nurse. Dombey, characteristically, offers charity—munificence being one of the simplest ways to inscribe the distance between classes. But Toodle doesn’t want money. He wants to discuss their two sons, Rob the Grinder and Little Paul. Dombey can’t handle this. Turning away, he notices a bit of crape on the stoker’s cap: Toodle is publicly mourning Paul. At this, Dombey becomes enraged:

To think of this presumptuous raker among coals and ashes going on before there, with his sign of mourning! To think that he dared to enter, even by a common show like that, into the trial and disappointment of a proud gentleman’s secret heart! To think that this lost child, who was to have divided with him his riches, and his projects, and his power, and allied with whom he was to have shut out all the world as with a double door of gold, should have let in such a herd to insult him with their knowledge of his defeated hopes, and their boasts of claiming continuity of feeling with himself, so far removed: if not of having crept into the place wherein he would have lorded it, alone!

This reminds me of nothing so much as Alfred Lambert, the St. Louis paterfamilias in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Franzen’s is the definitive contemporary portrayal of this typically middle-class rage for quarantines—quarantines not only between classes, but between realms of life. Dombey is the definitive nineteenth century antecedent. Each man believes the beastly, shitty, unworthy, overwhelming world can be held at bay, be banished from his house. Each writers sympathizes with, and puzzles over, this adamant, hopeless belief. In Dombey, Dickens was in part asking himself: How, if I am the great hero of domesticity, can I want to spend so much time alone in my room, or racing through the London streets? Why do I act as if my children have disappointed me? What was their crime? And: I’m the great lover and champion of the poor, sure, but do I hold them at arm’s length with my charity? It is Dickens’s genius that even while he impersonates Dombey, he is also with us in the form of Florence, waiting at Dombey’s door, wondering how to get inside, and framing for us in her despair the unanswerable question: What would happen if he came out?

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