At the start of this year I began, as a sort of unofficial reading project, to read through the Dickens catalog. This opposed to what I’d been doing the past several years, which was mooning over the same old favorites (Bleak House, Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield). I was inspired by the excellent Jane Smiley biography of Dickens I mentioned the other week, which (among other critical points) makes a case for Our Mutual Friend as an underrated novel in the Dickens oeuvre. I had read Our Mutual Friend in college, retained few fond memories of it, but decided to re-read it on the strength of Smiley’s passion for it–and while not as convinced as she is of its overall dark genius, was glad I did. It was a far greater novel than I remembered, and so now I’m shuffling through the rest of them to see what else I’ve missed.
Right now I’m midway through Great Expectations, and it’s the minor characters and bit players who are interesting me. At the close of a lecture on Bleak House, Nabokov talks about the qualities that make Dickens “a great writer” and he points as an example to one of the novel’s walk-on characters, one who is never named and whose only function in the plot is to act (briefly) as a bearer for Grandfather Smallweed’s chair. Dickens describes the man this way: “The person, who is one of those extraordinary specimens of human fungus that spring up spontaneously in the western streets of London, ready dressed in an old red jacket, with a ‘Mission’ for holding horses and calling coaches, receives his twopence with anything but transport, tosses the money into the air, catches it over-handed, and retires.”
This gesture, this one gesture with its epithet “over-handed”–a trifle–but the man is alive forever in a good reader’s mind.
A great writer’s world is indeed a magic democracy where even some very minor character, even the most incidental character like the person who tosses the twopence has the right to live and breed.
Of course, Great Expectations isn’t a democracy–it’s a monarchy ruled over by Miss Havisham. But still the minor characters manage to live and breed. When Pip comes into his expectations he goes to see a tailor about a new set of clothes. The tailor, Mr. Trabb, is having breakfast in a room behind his shop:
Mr. Trabb had sliced his hot roll into three feather-beds, and was slipping butter in between the blankets, and covering it up. He was a prosperous old bachelor, and his open window looked into a prosperous little garden and orchard, and there was a prosperous iron safe let into the wall at the side of his fireplace, and I did not doubt that heaps of his prosperity were put away in it in bags.
“Mr. Trabb,” said I, “it’s an unpleasant thing to have to mention, because it looks like boasting, but I have come into a handsome property.”
A change passed over Mr. Trabb. He forgot the butter in bed, got up from the bedside, and wiped his fingers on the table-cloth, exclaiming, “Lord bless my soul!”
It’s the wiping the fingers on the table-cloth I love. (Also, that’s how I used to eat biscuits when I was a kid. It’s so gluttonous & satisfying.)
Contrast this to how, some fifty pages later, the law clerk Mr. Wemmick disposes of a similar meal:
Wemmick, was at his desk, lunching–and crunching–on a dry hard biscuit, pieces of which he threw from time to time into his slit of a mouth, as if he were posting them.
Everything is dryer, not just the biscuit.