Sunday, November 17, 2013

Portraiture and Point-of-view

Dickens deftly sketches eye-service, and two-facedness of character, via subtle shifts in the narrative point of view, particularly in the depiction of physical gestures.   By leaving the interpretation to the reader, he skewers his character with a very thin blade.

Thus, in Martin Chuzzlewit, the chapter where we make the acquaintance of Mr. Pecksniff, surrounded by his adoring daughters,  we read:

‘But what of that!’ said Mr Pecksniff, still smiling at the fire. ‘There is disinterestedness in the world, I hope?’

We have not yet sufficiently made the acquaintance of this gentleman, to assess that latter apophthegm as hypocritical;  but the physical detail of “still smiling at the fire”, is very telling.   It is small, but every particle counts.    Someone gazing, into a fire, is alone with his thoughts;  someone smiling, at a fire, has conjured up an imaginary (and admiring) companion.   The “still” adds a further twist to the image, almost too subtle to assess.  Roughly, it gives us a glimpse into his habit and character, no mere passing mood; his complacency, and inaptitude to change.

This surmise on our part is ratified a page later:

… Mr Pecksniff, smiling more and more, and looking at the fire as a man might, who was cracking a joke with it.

Here it is clear, that he is simply quite pleased with himself.   Or rather, not simply;  for there is a layer of pathos here, that will become clearer as the novel goes on.  His doting daughters are without wit, he cannot share a joke with them.  And his only other constant companions are the young prentices he condescends to.


Let us compare another case of a character communing with an inanimate object (though not quite inanimate, perhaps;  both mirrors and fires have their own liveliness).  In William Dean Howells’ A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), the Boston-based (and Boston-centered) protagonist, whose career has never flourished, has just received an exciting job-offer, but which would require moving to New York.   That prospect dismays his wife (among other things, “I shouldn’t know how to shop”), who initially nixes the idea.  But then:

“I can’t help feeling,” she grieved into the mirror, “that it’s I who keep you from accepting that offer.”

This is less subtle, less artful than Dickens, since it tells you, omnisciently, exactly what she is feeling.   She is not simply staring or frowning into the mirror, nor looking at it with a sad expression (which is what the author would need to have said, were he to attempt the Dickensian indirection), but, explicitly, “grieving”.   Nonetheless, it is a vigorous phrase, much better than (say) “gazing into the mirror with an expression of grief”.  It is, so to say, transitive;  we see her projecting her words (and with them, her thoughts) towards the mirror.
Now, if this were all we had to go on, we might picture an actor mouthing lines, and mimicking emotions, with the mirror as audience:  then we would be back in Pecksniff territory.  But all the rest of the context makes it plain that she is a good person and a caring wife, who is simply troubled at the prospect of so great a change (for well-brought-up Bostonians of that era, all that was outside Boston  was off the cliff of the world).   And now the point -- and the pulse, and the thrust of that transitive preposition into, reveals its full force.  She was not grieving at the mirror, nor before the mirror, but right… into it.  And, mirrors being what they are, the force of her projected feeling returns on her -- only, mirror-reversed.  Some interior soul-work is here happening;  and by the next morning she has come round, announcing at breakfast to her husband (“silent over his fish-balls and baked beans”):  “We will go to New York.  I’ve decided it.”


But back to our fireside philosopher.  His reveries are interrupted by a knock at the door.

‘Come in!’ cried Mr Pecksniff -- not severely;  only virtuously.  ‘Come in!’

This is delicious, and deftly done.  A great lot of thought  is packed into those few and unassuming syllables.
For: when you are comfortably “at home” to visitors, and somebody knocks at your door, you say “Come in.”   That is what one says;  it is the done thing, and scarcely requires comment.  Yet here the reader is solicitously assured that the command -- excuse us, the invitation -- was not issued “severely”.   From the unspoken presuppositions that would necessitate such assurance, we can surmise that Mr Pecksniff is often quite “at home” issuing imperatives;  and that, at times, on a peremptory tone.

Now, severely is an external word, refering to the observable manner of utterance.  An actor could speak severely, or sweetly, without entertaining any correspondingly severe or sweet frame of mind.  Well and good.  But now our author slyly slips in another adverb, virtuously, in conjunction, as though it too were an observational detail.  Yet its ostensible externality is, so to say, endogenous:  it is Mr Pecksniff imagining how he will appear to the visitor, when speaking in that wise.  Further:  whether a thing is virtuous or not, is a matter, not of any particular lilt of delivery, but of the speaker’s frame of mind or morals, together with an ethical judgment (societal or transcendental) about intent. By yoking this more complex word with the simple severely, Dickens has afforded us a deep-drilling and twisting glimpse into the recesses of Pecksniff’s character.    That gentleman is here pleased to pose as the prosperous man of the house -- a good host --  door open to anyone at any time -- nothing to hide here;  Come in, come in, by all means!;  ‘tis I myself who invite thee.

Caveat:  Dickens is no minimalist;  in subsequent pages -- dozens of them -- he works variations on the theme of Pecksniff’s duplicity, many of which would be plain to any schoolchild.   What I mean to show above is that he can, when he wishes, convey much with small means.

[Flash update]  Mister Pecksniff  and Ted Cruz -- separated at birth?


The standard thumbnail of Mr. Pecksniff is as simply a hypocrite (“a canting hypocrite”, is the summary of The Reader’s Encyclopedia). Chesterton, with more insight, calls him not so much a hypocrite  as a rhetorician.   We can see the peculiar flavor of his hypocrisy, in the following passage.  Upon being denounced as a “hypocrite” by a relative, he makes no reply, but only remarks to his daughter, in this edifying scene:

‘Charity, my dear,’ said Mr Pecksniff, ‘when I take my chamber candlestick tonight, remind me to be more than usually particular in praying for Mr Anthony Chuzzlewit, who has done me an injustice.’
This was said in a very bland voice, and aside, as being addresssed to his daughter’s private ear.

Having laid the groundwork for the character of Pecksniff, in passages like those quoted above (and if the reader’s mind closes at that moment, he is left with a serviceable shorthand “canting hypocrite”), Dickens then gives us glimpses like this:

‘Who is with him now,’ ruminated Mr Pecksniff, warming his back (as he had warmed his hands) as it it were a widow’s back or an orphan’s back, or an enemy's back, or a back that any less excellent man  would have suffered to be cold.

What is Dickens up to with this?  It expresses a thought, of some sort;  but it seems to be the sort of thought one meets in dreams, and which are difficult to explain, even to oneself, as one awakes and the day wears on.
Dickens is telling a story -- that’s his job, after all -- but there are other things in his head as he explores along, which he isn’t necessarily sharing with us.  

(Starkest example of that: the Analytical Chemist in Our Mutual Friend.  --- Flash update!   A manuscript recently unearthed reveals more about that setting:


The understanding gained from these early passages, fine-tunes our interpretation of later ones.
Thus, consider a sentence,

He meekly signed to her to lead the way.

(Nice dignified pentameter, that.) 
The natural interpretation of that is, of course, that his physical signaling was undemonstrative, and that his internal state of mind  was meek.  We might further suspect or surmise, that the fellow is given to meekness.  These assumptions fit well  with the adverb’s modificand:  namely, being led.

But now consider the actual passage, shortly after the one quoted immediately before:

With that, he took off his great-coat,  and having run his fingers through his hair, thrust one hand gently in the bosom of his waistcoat, and meekly signed to her to lead the way.

Ah-ha!  By now, we are old hands at this.

(1) The reference to “great-coat”, unobtrusive in itself, is by no means accidental.

(2) “having run his fingers through his hair”
This is a bit of dreamy autoerotic narcissism, which will be familiar to those of my antiquated generation from the 1950’s hit song, “Kookie, Kookie, Lend me Your Comb” (concerning a very self-involved and vain young male), or even that classic ad,

     Bryl - Cream!  a little dab’ll do ya!
     Use -- more -- only if you dare.
     But watch -- out -- the gals’ll all pursue yaaaaaaa…..
     They love to run their fingers through your hair.

(3) That bit about gently placing his hand in the “bosom” of his waistcoat, is a continuation of the idea in the passage about so-carefully warming his back.

The fact is, Pecksniff is always onstage to himself, playing out a private drama  for his own self-reassurance.  This is not the same thing as hypocrisy (Chesterton’s point), nor even of rhetoric, since both of those are directed outwards, to fool one’s fellows:  whereas Pecksniff’s histrionics are intended (or at least, fated) principally to fool himself -- nay, to create himself in the image he desires.   That currently key notion of  “narcissism” certainly applies, but is not, perhaps, the whole story;  at least, there exist simpler, garden-variety narcissisms, that do no require such sedulous cultivation (Flibbertigibbets at the Mall).

No mere feuilletoniste

Characteristic of Dickens is his use of gestures to delineate character.  At its simplest, as with the urchin boy in Hard Times with little depth to him  but fixed in memory by his habit of knuckling his forehead, it functions simply like the motif that introduces this or that character in opera: it shows us, not character necessarily, but a character.  More tellingly, it can reveal character, and not just label it.

Here is an example rather more layered than usual.  Pecksniff is attempting to toady up to a wealthy old invalid, hoping for a bequest, but that curmudgeon admits none into his confidence but a certain girl who attends on him.  The elderly gentleman fixes Pecksniff with a penetrating gaze:

“The young girl whom you just now saw -- what!  your eye lightens when I talk of her!  You hate her already, do you?”
“Upon my word, sir!” said Mr Pecksniff, laying his hand upon his breast, and dropping his eyelids.

For the moment, let us focus only on the gesture, and not on the details of what provoked it, apart from the fact that his disinterestedness had been called into question.
Even at that level, there are two layers, which by now we are in a position to parse.  Overtly, the eyelid-dropping is of a piece with the breast-touching, as pantomiming his pretense of innocent humility.  At a layer beneath that, it is a fluttery, feminine gesture, consonant with Pecksniff’s peculiarly unmanly style of self-pleasing. 
In context, there is yet a third.   The wealthy gentleman, with uncanny insight, has seen the greed and hatred suddenly flash in Pecksniff’s eyes upon hearing mention of the girl who stands between him and his hoped-for fortune.  Oddly, the eye is described as “lightening”; the only similar image I can evoke, is that of the eyes of the demon children in the movie “Village of the Damned”.   And at this quite literal (if almost supernatural) level, his lowering his eyelids is not connotative of anything, but is a purely practical matter of lowering the blinds to shield his evil inner truth from the inspection of his inquisitor.


It is interesting to observe other authors exploiting this unconsciously semiotic nature of gesture.
Now, Agatha Christie  is not a patch on any part of Dickens;  but give credit where credit is due.  Here we see a Dickensian (even a Pecksniffian) touch, parodying a rich worldly couple:

“What is money, after all?” murmured Mrs Widburn.
“Ah!” said Mr. Widburn thoughtfully, and rattled some coins absentmindedly in his trouser pocket.
“Charles,” said Mrs Widburn reproachfully.
“Sorry,” said Mr. Widburn, and stopped.
-- Agatha Christie, Thirteen at Dinner [a.k.a. Lord Edgware Dies], 1933

In this matter of “fiddling”:  cf. Pecksniff fiddling with his spectacles; ctr. Chuzzlewit père  fiddling with the ash of his burnt will (a memento mori twice over).

[Note:  This is the first of my thoughts about Dickens  to have been worked up into  presentable form.   To see a mass of raw notes (which, if I am spared, may someday be worked up into essays), click: ]

[Update:  For a more concentrated essay-on-progress on the subject of two other characters in Martin Chuzzlewit, try this:   Semantics, local and global. ]

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