Tuesday, February 14, 2012

There's Nobody You Can Shoot

Near the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad returns home from prison only to find a bulldozer about to knock his family homestead down. When Tom asks the driver what he’s doing and why, he hears something about banks and foreclosures. Not caring about such things as much as he does his house, Tom threatens to shoot the bulldozer driver. Doesn’t matter, the driver replies, the bank’ll just send someone else tomorrow. Then I’ll shoot him, too. No, they’ll send another the day after that. Then tell me who’s sending you, and I’ll go to the bank and shoot HIM. Finally the bulldozer driver makes Steinbeck’s sociological point. Don’t you get it? he asks. Your house is coming down, and there’s nobody you can shoot.

I couldn’t help thinking of that scene when I read these words in Bleak House, spoken by Mr. Gridley, a victim of the interminable procedures of Chancery Court:
The system! I am told on all hands, it's the system. I mustn't look to individuals. It's the system. I mustn't go into court and say, 'My Lord, I beg to know this from you – is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice and therefore am dismissed?' My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there to administer the system. I mustn't go to Mr. Tulkinghorn, the solicitor in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and say to him when he makes me furious by being so cool and satisfied – as they all do, for I know they gain by it while I lose, don't I? – I mustn't say to him, 'I will have something out of some one for my ruin, by fair means or foul!' HE is not responsible. It's the system. But, if I do no violence to any of them, here, . . . I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!
I’ve drawn comfort from Tom Joad’s lesson on occasion. When my employer, for instance, tells me I will earn so much money over the next fiscal year, and then explains that I will actually only begin earning at that rate in October, I tell my self: there’s nobody you can shoot. When I add up the paychecks from October to the next September and find that they still don’t add up to the amount I am promised, I console myself: there’s nobody you can shoot.

But as much as it helps in many frustrating situations to think that no one person can make everything better by pressing a button or filling in the right form or dying by GSW, I believe Dickens’s view excels Steinbeck’s in a few ways. First, Dickens’s Mr. Gridley recognizes that the system is the creation of individual human beings. Second, he implies that a person’s denial of responsibility is no sure sign of actual absence of responsibility. And third, he acknowledges a court higher than that of Chancery at which the great Judge will render judgment without appeal.

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