Up unreasonably late, making the BLEAK HOUSE donuts. The question on my mind in the small hours of the night: Was Dickens a misanthrope? Did he believe most people were morally ugly, selfish, vain, driven by greed?
Ridiculous! the reader cries. Dickens cared about the poor, the orphans, the ragged and rough. His writing is full of impossibly sweet children, hard hearts that melt, loyal cousins, etc.
And that's all true. But in the later Dickens (I'm including BLEAK HOUSE in that category), I've often detected a strain of disgust with much of humanity. Dickens was fixated in his later work, above all else, with the themes of avarice and greed; he fills his works with characters who are irredeemable, in thrall to wealth, made inhuman by their cupidity. For these people, Dickens has nothing but hate.
Two passages from this week's reading seemed to fall within this misanthropic streak. First, the passage describing Tulkinghorn's lodgings:
Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now; and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts. But its roomy staircases, passages, and antechambers, still remain; and even its painted ceilings, where Allegory, in Roman helmet and celestial linen, sprawls among balustrades and pillars, flowers, clouds, and big-legged boys, and makes the head ache—as would seem to be Allegory's object always, more or less. Here, among his many boxes labelled with transcendent names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn, when not speechlessly at home in country-houses where the great ones of the earth are bored to death. Here he is to-day, quiet at his table. An Oyster of the old school, whom nobody can open.(Ch. IX.)
The second passage describes the "vermin" that live in Tom-all-Alone's
Jo lives—that is to say, Jo has not yet died—in a ruinous place, known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone's. It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their own possession, took to letting them out in lodgings. Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As, on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so, these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever, and sowing more evil in its every footprint than Lord Coodle, and Sir Thomas Doodle, and the Duke of Foodle, and all the fine gentlemen in office, down to Zoodle, shall set right in five hundred years—though born expressly to do it.(Ch. XVI.)
Maggots in a walnut.
The word that jumps out from both passages, linking them, is "maggots." In these passages, Dickens compares the lawyers in Tulkinghorn's large house and the wretched inhabitants in Tom-all-Alone's to maggots -- perhaps the most disgusting and repulsive imagery Dickens could summon. It's true that Dickens will bring us into Jo's mind, have us view the world from his sad vantage point; and it's true that the maggot imagery in the Tom-all-Alone's passage appears to be more focused on conveying the misery of the conditions there than the nature of the inhabitants; but it's hard to salvage the brutal characterization of the lawyers lying "like maggots in nuts" in the passage describing Tulkinghorn's chambers. Dickens clearly had a wealth of compassion for the most unfortunate; he also clearly had a healthy amount of disgust and hatred for those he viewed as society's rich and comfortable parasites. In BLEAK HOUSE, the main villains are the lawyers and judges of the Court of Chancery; they wreak untold pain and suffering on the other characters, and Dickens has nothing but contempt for them. In other works, we have villains like Uriah Heep, who are consumed by greed -- the most common motivation for Dickens's villains.
Uriah Heep from DAVID COPPERFIELD
My suggestion here is that Dickens's famed compassion for the poor and downtrodden had a powerful counterpart -- his contempt and disgust for the privileged and comfortable. While that contempt served to highlight the plight of the poor, etc., at times, that contempt boiled over, revealing the anger and disgust roiling within Dickens. Sometimes, the sweet and pure characters in Dickens seem to me the most artificial and unbelievable. They feel transparently fictional, and don't appear to represent Dickens's true view of the world. His darker characters, driven by greed and avarice, sometimes feel truer, more complicated, and more fleshed out. The more despicable characters may have been the ones Dickens found easier to believe in himself, perhaps because he saw them all around him.