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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Thu Sep 13, 2012 10:15 pm    Post subject:  Reply with quote

Hello Caro,

Yes, I did abridge my post, as the middle part of it did develop into something of a rant, and I'd promised myself to cut down on my rants here. But yes, one of my points concerned the criticisms made about Dickens being "long-winded", with no examination of the implicit assumption that concision is necessarily superior to expansion.

As to the point you raise, it's an interesting one, and something I have often pondered: given that people often feel very powerful emotions in real life, is it objectionable to depict such emotions in fiction? The obvious answer is that it all depends on how it's depicted; but that leads us into deeper waters. I do get the feeling that depiction of powerful emotions, especially those emotions that are of a lachrymose nature, is frequently looked down upon and considered to be in bad taste, and often dismissed by that catch-all pejorative "sentimental".



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Evie
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PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2012 6:24 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I am just realising it is September, and I still haven't read any Dickens this year - must do so.  I have Dombey on the TBR shelves - I know it's not his best, but I very much enjoyed the radio adaptation on R4Extra a while back.


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Caro



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Fri Sep 14, 2012 7:26 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

There seem to be quite a few of us reading it - we should have had a group read.  (Mind you I read so slowly everyone else finishes a year before I do!)


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Sun Sep 16, 2012 3:49 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

A few mangled thoughts about Dombey and Son, which I have been reading for what seems like years but in fact took somewhat less than a month, records show. It was a struggle to begin with, primarily because the arrival of a new member of staff at work has eaten into my reading time. As has been observed, everyone seems to be reading Dombey at the moment - both me and Marita, Caro's just started, and in fact the new man at work is currently on a project not unlike Marita's, to read chronologically all of the Dickenses he hadn't read before. He's just finished Dombey himself, and has lent me the DVD of the BBC adaptation from the 1983 (the year of my birth - surely it's time for a new version instead of bloody Great Expectations which is being wheeled out AGAIN in a couple of months), which I am looking forward to watching (mostly unfamiliar names, but James Cossins as Major Bagstock and Barbara Hicks as Mrs Pipchin - good auspices). Anyway, all of this Dombey - there must be something in the air.

Even by Dickens' normal standards, this is a pretty long book, and with more longueurs than there are in similarly weighty tomes. Bleak House springs to mind - you could summarise the plot of Dombey in many fewer words, and there are fewer balls Dickens is juggling in the air at once. It hints at the greater books that were still to come. Dickens has not perfected the formula yet, but there are signs of a great ambition. It doesn't drag (quite) as much as it might, and there is, as usual, an enormous amount to love about it.

James Carker is an interesting villain. The frequent references to his constantly flashing teeth get a bit wearisome, like Skimpole's eternal protestations of his childishness, but of course the teeth themselves are not the point. His permanent display of them encapsulates his character. Captain Bunsby is another case. Reference is made to his never looking into someone's eyes, but always several miles into the distance, the result of his seafaring life. At the moment where Captain Cuttle talks of the West Indies, Bunsby is focusing on Greenland. This occasionally expressed quirk is a beautiful distillation of his being. Re Carker's teeth, I thought of Vronsky and wondered if perhaps Carker's teeth might be rendered less effective as Carker's inevitable comeuppance neared; sadly he never gets his Martin Amis moment. Carker's a bit like a prototype for Tulkinghorn a few years later: he is an insidious presence with his fingers in many pies, makes it his business to know secrets, winnows his ways into people's beings; but other than that he appears somewhat impotent. So much is suggested, but we rarely see him exercising any of his undoubted (albeit insinuated) malevolence until the book's later stages, his part in Walter Gay's exile notwithstanding. Occasionally I found him rather lacklustre.

The book has another villain, of course, and that's Dombey himself. It's a bold move by Dickens to make his protagonist such an utter dick, and I found it problematic. It's not a spoiler to say that a lot of the book focuses on Dombey's neglect of his saintly daughter Florence (a Dickensian saintliness that sometimes strays into goody-goody Esther Summerson territory, though I can't pretend I didn't fall in love with her) and her attempts to win his love. Dombey is proud and pompous, and very rarely checked. The one occasion where another character is bold enough to tell him to his face what a disgrace he is, is a cause for celebration. Florence puts up with a tremendous amount for the sake of her father, without much respite. She's like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, but Dickens being Dickens one senses that the good will end happily and the bad unhappily. At least she has her acolytes in the likes of Susan Nipper and Polly Toodle, Captain Cuttle and Solomon Gills and Walter Gay, her brother Paul and his friend Toots, who are all devoted to her, and some of whom are in a position to assuage her suffering.

I always protest when I haven't got the measure of a book that my reading of anything tends to be superficial. It's not false modesty; I don't read Dickens because I expect to understand great truths about the world from him, or about the structure of the book and his manipulation of themes or anything like that, I read him because like almost no other author he makes me fall in love with the people he creates, and that is the case with a number of the aforementioned characters, but none more than Captain Cuttle or Toots. They are so utterly good-natured and devoted that to fail to love them is surely an impossibility, even for those to whom Dickens is anathema. In Captain Cuttle there is a profoundly touching innocence and wrong-headedness and self-doubt and utter fidelity that recall Joe Gargery (yet to be written). He also likes to shout 'Hooroar!' which I always appreciate. Not a word I ever encounter outside Dickens, sadly.

The title's an interesting one. An event that occurs about a quarter of the way in perhaps leads the reader to question its validity. Dombey and Son is the name of the family firm, initially referring (before the book) to Dombey (decd.) and Old Paul Dombey, later (during the book) to Old Dombey and his son, also Paul, and of course the title refers not only to the firm but to the people themselves. At the end of the book, though the firm's fortunes vary, there is a hint that Dombey and Son will prosper, though perhaps more as Dombey and Daughter. It's a book in which relationships between daughters and their parents (particularly their mothers) are at the foreground - most notably Edith and Mrs Skewton, but also Alice and Good Mrs Brown, and Florence and her various surrogate mothers. I ought to write about Edith, as she is one of the more fascinating characters in Dickens, but I'm out of steam. She might be a good example to wheel out when challenged by people with the tired old chestnut that Dickens can't do women.


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TheRejectAmidHair



Joined: 19 Nov 2008
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PostPosted: Sun Sep 16, 2012 4:57 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for that, Gareth. That brought back a lot of memories about this novel.

I think the portrait of Edith Dombey, fine though it is, could have been even finer if Dickens had had the freedom to explore his characters' sexual lives. (The characterisation of Rosa Dartle in David Copperfield also remains a bit incomplete thanks, I think, to this restriction.)



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Mikeharvey



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Lancashire

PostPosted: Mon Sep 17, 2012 10:40 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hello Gareth, I enjoyed your comments about Dombey and Son which I read years ago but not recently. My first acquaintance with the book came via Emlyn Williams. He used to do a one-man show in which he reproduced CD's famous readings/performances. I saw him do it at the Guild Hall, Preston, in the 1960s. I can still remember it well.  He made a recording of the show which I used to have on vinyl. His interpretation of extracts from D&S is wonderful. I can still hear him as Paul Dombey listening to the waves and saying 'Where is India....? Recommended if you can track it down.
Michael.


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Caro



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Mon Sep 17, 2012 11:56 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I haven't read your analysis of D and Son too thoroughly, Gareth, not wanting to read too much of the story (though I don't think you have done that).  I am making my way slowly and fairly happily through this.  One of your statements did resonate well with me though and would be my main cricitism of the Dickens I have read in recent years.  
Quote:
The frequent references to his constantly flashing teeth get a bit wearisome, like Skimpole's eternal protestations of his childishness, but of course the teeth themselves are not the point. His permanent display of them encapsulates his character.


I don't mind the caricatures, I don't mind the sentimentality (not that I have read Little Nell's death, that might change my mind!  But why do people object to having their emotions manipulated by Dickens in a sentimental style when they don't by Cormac McCarthy or Thomas Hardy, or even Tolstoy with Anna?), I don't (much) mind the length - certainly would rather read 700 pages of this than 700 pages of chick lit saying next to nothing.  But I do object to being hammered over the head in this way, and made to feel that Dickens thinks I am too dumb to realise what the point of these caricatured features are.  Earlier I have been reading about Mrs Pipchin and the mention of her husband 'breaking his heart in the Peruvian mines' which is used constantly by people to praise her loving and hard-working character and constantly by Dickens to show her lack of heart.  I just don't need to have it repeated SO often.  

I know one of the main themes is love and how it is portrayed, and all this fits, but I wish Dickens would credit his readers with some intelligence and ability to carry information in their minds for more than a page.  

On a plot line, I do wonder why My Dombey, with plenty of money to spare, I think, should have chosen a school for Paul where most of the pupils are close to moribund or intellectually slow.  (On the other hand the thought that a six-year-old would be expected to learn all this English sytax, and Greek and Latin seems unbelievable.)  I wonder how much our view of Victorian life has been unfairly influenced by Dickens' experiences.  Surely there were plenty of well-run schools where the pupils' were treated fairly and well.  And did everyone live in dark rabiit holes of houses? (must admit that is my memory of old people's houses when I was a child).


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Caro



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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PostPosted: Tue Sep 18, 2012 12:24 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I did mean to mention a quote that I really liked.  Dickens is describing how the boys in Dr Blimber's educational establishment have their spirits crushed and says, " [i]and at the end of the first twelvemonth had arrived at the conclusion, from which he never afterwards departed, that all the fancies of the poets, and lessons of the sages, were a mere collection of words and grammar, and no had other meaning in the world."  [/i]  This is still a hazard for teachers - how to show students the skills of a writer without making it merely a mechanical exercise to read them.

And this part made me laugh, though ruefully, also describing the school's teachings:  "Doctor Blimber's establishment was a great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work.  All the boys blew before their time.  Mental green peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round.  Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were comon at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber's cultivation.  Nature was of no consequence at all.  No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other."  He continues the metaphor saying the boys didn't taste well or keep well, and one "remained a mere stalk".


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Chibiabos83
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PostPosted: Tue Sep 18, 2012 8:11 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Well, I can only speak for myself, but although I sometimes find the restatement of characteristics like Carker's teeth tiresome, I never remotely felt that Dickens was patronising me. He must surely have another motive for doing it. Comedy, I assumed - and we all know how individual senses of humour can be. Perhaps Himadri has a theory.


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TheRejectAmidHair



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PostPosted: Tue Sep 18, 2012 9:20 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Repetition has always been – and continues to be – an important element of comedy. Much of comedy, then as now, depends upon this repetition – whether it’s of certain expressions (“Ooh, you are awful, but I like you!”, “This is another fine mess you’ve got me into”, “And now for something completely different!”, “Girls! Feck! Arse!” etc.), or of certain situations – e.g. we know Manuel is not going to understand what’s being said, or that Humphrey Appleby will be manipulative and underhand, or that Captain Mainwaring will be pompous,etc., but our expectations don’t stop us finding these things funny. We laugh not because certain things are unexpected, but because, quite the contrary, they are exactly as we’d expect. Repetition is inbuilt into comedy.

In long novels with many characters, it can serve as a sort of leitmotif – i.e. a label whereby to distinguish the character from others. Dickens soon saw the benefits of this, and, arguably, while he was still perfecting his craft, he may have overused it. But, as ever with Dickens, he re-thought his craft, and found greater potential in what he had previously used. The leitmotifs soon become not merely labels to distinguish characters, and not merely stock catchphrases or stock situations: he discovered that if these leitmotifs were associated with certain things – certain themes, certain states of mind, etc. – and take on a symbolic resonance; and if they are allowed to interact with and to counterpoint each other; then they could be used both for structural purposes (i.e. to hold together strands that could otherwise appear divergent); and also to develop the novel in terms of themes and of symbols. In Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend (though possibly not in Dombey and Son, in which he was still developing his craft in this respect) he used this technique in an extremely subtle and sophisticated manner. Thus, the motif of Skimpole claiming only to be a child is part of a larger pattern: complementing Skimpole, the adult-as-child, Dickens introduces children-as-adults - children who have to take on adult responsibilities; and every time the Skimpole motif of adult-as-child recurs, Dickens places it in a different dramatic context, or juxtaposes it with other motifs, so it acquires various types of resonance that go far beyond the characterisation of a single character. The network of motifs and symbolism in Bleak House seems to me among the great triumphs of fiction.




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Last edited by TheRejectAmidHair on Tue Sep 18, 2012 9:45 am; edited 1 time in total
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