Sunday, August 29, 2010

elevated into the marvellous

After my last post I was still thinking about the way Dickens notices people's particularities when I came across this sentence in one of his Reprinted Pieces: "In the Courts of Justice, the materials of thousands of such stories as we have narrated - often elevated into the marvellous and romantic, by the circumstances of the case - are dryly compressed into the set phrase, 'in consequence of information I received, I did so and so.'"

With that it occurred to me that he was also alert to the habits people use to mask or reduce complication (particularity being one of those habits, a way of turning the large grey world into black and white, a purpose that religion or politics serves for some people, so that a particularity such as that of Miss Monflathers becomes a little secular religion of her own. Hence her bravery when she sees it questioned), and that this pinpoint-reduction, this moment of focus (everything "dryly compressed into the set phrase"), becomes another kind of advertisement, by which we may know them. And then I remembered that E.M. Foster had called Dickens' characters one-dimensional, and I wondered at the way we (this is a general we and may not mean you) think of fictional characters as autonomous beings -- imaginary autonomous beings, of course, and artificially created by authors, but still realistic imitations of people, with life histories and internal motivations -- thinking of them as realistic imaginary extrusions of their realistic imaginary pasts, whereas a character like Mr Micawber or Mrs Gamp is perhaps an extrusion of the world itself, as if this fictional environment is a kind of deep-sea fish, putting out a light at the end of its forehead-prong, and that light is a character. The light is the spectacle, but the mass propelling that light is the fish.

Which reminds me in turn of an idea I'm probably remembering wrongly from Plato; that there is a pure essence, and that the things around us remind us of that essence. A tree is a reminder of the perfect essence of trees. And so Mrs Gamp is not a person, even an imaginary person, but a reminder of the perfect essence of Gampness, which we must have intuited, once upon a time.


  1. Oh you do take us on a journey DKS...but sometimes you leave me behind. Was it EM Forster who talked about flat and round characters? I must get my Aspects of a novel out again. Anyhow, was the implication that "one-dimensional" was bad or just different?

  2. He's the one. From memory (my Aspects is in another room) he said Dickens' characters were as thin as records. From one angle they look large, but turn them sideways and oh no. I think his point was that thinness is a flaw, but that Dickens is such an extraordinary writer that his books are great in spite of it. There's a line in there, something like, "Instead he is one of our great writers." Something like that.

    All right, now my memory is annoying me. I'm going to look this up.

    She does.

    OK. He writes: "Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognize the instant they re-enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow ... He ought to be bad. He is actually one of our big writers, and his immense success with types suggests that there may be more in flatness than the severer critics admit."