Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Saluting Captain Cuttle

I place one of the brightest highlights of each year's list in the early, winter months: a Dickens novel.  Although I know it might be wise to delay gratification and save Dickens for dessert, as a reward for getting through tough philosophy and bleak twentieth-century works, I use him as a palate cleanser instead.  The searching, numbing cold of his fogs and the restorative, glowing warmth of his hearths, the deep, rich colors of his prose, and the full, romantic symphony orchestra of his casts of characters bring me comfort and joy like no other novels do.

Like LOST's Desmond Hume, I love every word the Great Man ever wrote.  Unlike Desmond, I didn't save one novel to be the last book I ever read.  I started rereading all the Dickens novels a few years ago, starting with Pickwick, and in 2010, I made it to Dombey and Son, an unjustly forgotten classic.  I could write a year's worth of posts on the glories of this book, but for now, let me just sing in praise of one of the Great Man's greatest comic inventions: Captain Edward Cuttle.

First of all, how perfect is the name "Cuttle" for a good-hearted, bulbous-nosed mariner who has left the sea but not its ways and its cant?  "Stand by!" he says, and "Fetch up with a wet sail!"  The not-quite-omniscient narrator does not know what Cuttle was captain of: we're told that he "had been a pilot, or a skipper, or a privateersman, or all three perhaps."  On his head, he sports a "glazed" hat -- glazed, the reader is left to suppose, with the sweat, dirt, grease, tar, and salt water of decades.  In the place of his right hand is a hook, and with this hook Ned Cuttle unselfconsciously salutes his social superiors, combs his hair, touches his lips to signal silence, and lifts ladies' hands to kiss (it is uncertain whether the shock that generally ensues comes more from the hook or from the impertinence).

Besides the hat and the hook, Captain Cuttle's possessions consist of a watch, two teaspoons, and a set of sugar-tongs.  All sailors depend on reliable timepieces; "Put it back half an hour every morning," the Captain says, "and about another quarter towards the arternoon, and it's a watch that'll do you credit."  The teaspoons and sugar-tongs he is ready to pawn in order to save his friend Sol Gills from ruin; surely his precious treasures will bring in enough to keep Gills's shop in business!

But what Captain Cuttle does not realize is that his courageous, generous heart is his most precious asset.  He is afraid of no man (although the appearance -- or even potential appearance -- of Mrs MacStinger, his former landlady at Number nine Brig Place, sends him cowering in the shadows).  And he will do anything to help and protect young Florence Dombey, whom he calls "my beauty" and "Heart's Delight"; he even cheerfully assists the much younger men whose hearts also take delight in Florence.

Captain Cuttle's most endearing habit involves prodigious demonstrations of his mastery of civilization's foundational literature.  "Wal'r," he says to Sol Gills's nephew, "Look at him!  Love!  Honour!  And Obey!  Overhaul your catechism till you find that passage, and when found turn the leaf down."  Captain Cuttle himself has not read (or heard) the catechism (or the wedding service from the Prayer Book) in many a turn of the glass, but he quotes from memory as a model and counsels his young friends to laborious lives of moral scholarship.  "In the Proverbs of Solomon," he promises, "you will find the following words, 'May we never want a friend in need, nor a bottle to give him!'  When found, make a note of."  Captain Cuttle urges his friends to overhaul Doctor Watts, Rule Britannia, and Stanfell's Budget: any work which shines light on the path of youth.  And speaking of teaching the young, the good Captain quotes, "Train up a fig tree in the way it should go, and when you are old sit under the shade on it.  Overhaul the -- Well, I ain't quite certain where that's to be found, but when found, make a note of."

Captain Ned Cuttle, I do not have a hook, but I have a crooked hand, and I raise it to salute you!

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