Dickens Expectations

My school stories mention a class in graduate school in which the class was complaining about Dickens: attributing to him an overuse of “coincidence” in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. I’d thought so too, until I actually finished the novel (after actually reading all of it, and at a human, not a speed-reader’s pace). Then I saw that the “coincidences were apparent not real, based on ignorance of relationships among characters not yet revealed by the author. An observer seeing cars pass on I 95 may assume that the passengers are going every which way: all south perhaps, but this one car may be going to Florida, that one to Maryland, that other clutch of passengers to North Carolina … Actually they may all be going to Washington DC: to protest something; or to celebrate something. Once the observer knows that the coming weekend is to be say Earth Day, then a common goal will make sense. New information changes everything.

I told the class, by addressing great Victorian scholar Gordon Ray, professor for the class, that only at the end is it revealed that the character who see Martin Chuzzlewit walk into the bank had actually been following him. It’s no coincidence at all that he’s on the street as Martin passes. All the characters have been, as Ray then expressed it back to me, “following each other around.” When we don’t know that, it seems like coincidence. Once we’re better informed, by the author, controlling the information he doles out, the coincidences all evaporate, are revealed as illusion, ignorance-dependent.

Last evening I showed my beloved David Lean movie of Dickens’ Great Expectations to my beloved Jan. I’d seen that film in the 1940s, screened in the basement of my church. Last night I noticed the “same” pattern: a number of things seem to be coincidence: until we know more. Then we may see that there has been no coincidence: characters we had thought unrelated to each other turn out to be intimately mutually involved.

Miss Havesham, Estella
Miss Havesham, Estella
thanx telegraph

Jaggers is attorney to Miss Havesham, but Jaggers is also attorney to Magwich: and Magwich is related to Miss Havesham even though Miss Havesham had been ignorant of the relationship: Magwich has a relationship to Miss Havesham’s missing bride groom: and so does Estella have a relation to Magwich, and to Jaggers, and to Jaggers’ mysterious serving woman, the murderess!
As Jaggers says, it’s not his fault if everyone makes false assumptions.

Ah, but it is Dickens’ fault! He’s the one doling the dope.


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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