Friday, February 8, 2019

Dombey Redux

Well, it’s happened. I’ve kept up this blog long enough that I’ve reread a book I already blogged about. So this return to Dombey and Son creates a problem for me. (Admittedly, this is a first-world geek’s problem!) My first post about this forgotten jewel is one of my very favorites on this site: a tribute to Captain Cuttle, one of Dickens’s greatest comedic creations. So what else am I to say this time?

One option is to praise Captain Cuttle even more – especially easy to do when seen next to characters from some other recent reading. In a double dose of Dickens this year, I’ve also made my third visit to Barnaby Rudge, surely my least favorite novel by the Inimitable. I remembered thinking that the part of BR that isn’t dreadful was as good as anything else by Dickens, and innkeeper John Willet a very funny fellow. But this time through, John, although funny as far as being dull-witted in a Dickensian way goes, just struck me as self-centered and cruel. Captain Cuttle, by contrast, compounds his hilariously challenged intellect with kindness and heroism, even risking exposure to the frightening Mrs. MacStinger in order to protect young Florence. On top of that, he prays perhaps more than any character in the Dickens world other than Mrs. Jerry Cruncher in A Tale of Two Cities, even if he does have a very difficult time understanding the words of the Prayer Book.

Or perhaps I could mention some of the other fabulously funny characters in Captain Cuttle’s circle. There’s Susan Nipper, caustic yet nurturing, and ever ready with twisted aphorisms such as “Though I may not gather moss I'm not a rolling stone.” Then there’s the man the Nipper calls “that innocentest creetur,” Mr. Toots. Toots is hopelessly in love with Florence, but interrupts every rebuff before it can be completed with the assurance that “it’s of no consequence.” While on a mission to identify sources of laughter, we cannot omit those two wise counselors, Jack Bunsby and the Game Chicken. The Chicken, a boxer by trade, can’t give Mr. Toots advice that doesn’t involve punching, and Bunsby, with a voice that appears out of a head that seems to have no moving parts, delivers guidance as cryptically ambivalent as anything from any ancient oracle, always to the appreciative amazement of the good Captain Cuttle.

Considering the direction this post has taken, I think my best conclusion is to pay tribute to my favorite funny characters throughout the Dickens world. I don’t know how to order them by level of humor, so I’ll just mention them as they come to me.

• Wilkins Micawber, David Copperfield. In any method of ordering, this author of overeloquent epistles has to come at or near the top.
• Fanny Squeers, Nicholas Nickleby. Douglas McGrath, writer and director of the 2002 film adaptation, calls her letter one of the funniest pages in all of literature. Amen.
• The Crummles, Nicholas Nickleby. Their pony is in the theatrical profession!
• Prince Turveydrop, Bleak House. He has that name and runs a dancing school. ‘Nuff said.
• Dick Swiveller, The Old Curiosity Shop. Dick finds his routes through London getting longer and longer along with his list of streets he must avoid because of unpaid shopkeepers.
• Mr. Wemmick, Great Expectations. How can you top either the humor or the human kindness of a man who sets off a cannon every evening because his Aged Parent looks forward daily to the only sound he can hear?
• John Chivery, Little Dorrit. John’s unrequited love for Amy Dorrit results mostly in daydreams about how his tombstone will describe his tragically lonely life.
• Matthew Bagnet, Bleak House. Friends seek Bagnet’s wisdom, which he dispenses by asking his wife to “Tell them what I think.”
• Tony Weller, Pickwick Papers. How to explain in twenty words or fewer his eccentric view of the spelling of his own name?
• Mr. Twemlow, Our Mutual Friend. Mr. Twemlow holds his palm on his forehead most of the time, unsure whether the Veneerings consider him their best friend or don’t know him at all.
• Ebeneezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol. Tight-fisted, hard-hearted, and hilarious.
• Sarah Gamp, Martin Chuzzlewit. Some critics put this drunken nurse with the possibly imaginary friend at the top of the list.
• Mr. Mantalini, Nicholas Nickleby. The ludicrous Mantalini tries to manipulate his “heart’s joy,” Mrs. Mantalini, into loving him by threatening suicide with butter knives. “Oh, demmit!”
• Mrs. Plornish, Little Dorrit. The good woman repeatedly offers to translate her Italian friend’s utterances to neighbors into loudly spoken pidgin – even though he speaks in perfectly understandable English.

I know I’m forgetting someone obvious and important. But whatcha gonna do? I’ll have to amend the list the next time I read Dombey and Son.

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