Friday, February 1, 2008

"Our Mutual Friend" by Charles Dickens

This past Christmas I finished "Our Mutual Friend" by Charles Dickens. I began reading it last February. Please don't get the impression that I am a slow reader or that I found the book to be a hard or boring read. The fact is that Dicken's style prevents the serious reader from speed reading through it. The time spent in Dicken's world is well worth it and when I finally finished the book, I was a little sorry I had left that world. Dickens paints a vast portrait of all classes of Victorian English society and how money can corrupt all those who seek it and all those who possess it. His satirical portrayal of the nouveau riche ( The Veneerings and the Podsnaps) and its merciless judgement towards those who fall from "respectability" is at once hilarious and condemning. The greed and shallowness of those gaining and flaunting their wealth reminds me of the Yuppies. Yet Dickens condemnation of this particular class does not prevent him from creating characters of wealth who readers can sympathize with. Nor does he exempt the poor from its examples of villains. Especially rememberable is Silas Wegg, the wicked one legged employee seeking a way to gain control of his masters fortune. Then there is Mr. and Mrs. Lammle, two con artists who trick each other into thinking the other was marrying into money. Once they realize their mutual deception, they employ their shared deviousness to bleed their rich acquaintances of their wealth. Their schemes bring them into the orbit of the money lender "Fascination Fledgeby" who becomes both their partner and secret foe. All these villains are portrayed with a mixture of cunning and potential murderous intent while at the same time exposing a bit of their common humanity. The only villain devoid of humor or sympathy is the psychopathic school teacher Bradley Headstone who shares his destiny with yet another villain, Rouge Riderhood. Throughout most of the book, these villains are scheming and maneuvering, waiting to make their move against their intended victims. That Dickens can keep the reader in suspense for such a length of time is one of the attributes of his greatness as a novelist. There are some critics of Dickens who dislike the way he plots the activities of his various villains. For much of the time, his wicked protagonists will be shown to plot with great humor, and then when their masks come off, then they can be quite violent and malevolent. But is this not the way it is in real life? Is not evil often cloaked in the garb of charm and good humor? This illustrates to me one of the benefits of using great literature to train the character of the young. If one is creative, one can use the examples of splendid but evil fictional villains to assist the young in seeing evil approaching them with a smile on its face. Of course not all of Dicken's characters are completely realistic. Yet Dickens was interested in creating portraits that conveyed a message that not only would readers never forget but whose portrayal would transform his readers for the better. The example of Scrooge comes to mind. Not all the characters in "Our Mutual Friend" remain constant throughout. The portrayal of Bella Wilfer, who begins as a self centered girl who seeks to marry money and then changes into someone better is masterfully done. The portrayal of her family contains much unforgettable humor concerning her affable father, her imperial-like mother and her hugely annoying sister. This book does contain one major disappointment, but I will not reveal the ending. But I will say it undermines the impact of Dicken's warning against the acquisition of great wealth. Also, there is much Victorian sentimentality that does not travel well into the twenty-first century. It is especially on display in the character of the Boffins, who figure significantly in the story. I could not wait till Dickens changed the focus from them to other characters, especially in the story's beginning. Yet once the focus did change, my interest was captivated again. Despite it faults, the reading experience is worth it. Dickens gave the impression that his characters were on a voyage and that I was on the ride with them, not knowing where I was being taken, and when the voyage was over, I was surprised where I had been. Most writers reach a peak of artistic creativity and then begin to decline. But not Dickens. In writing "Our Mutual Friend", his last completed novel, he showed himself to be a writer who continued to get better without any evidence of decline in his talents on the horizon. One caution. Instead of reading the book, you may be tempted to see the PBS version of the story. I advise you not to see it. All the humor was removed (Dickens without humor is dreary indeed) and many of the actors were not suited to their roles. Seeing this production before reading the story may discourage one from ever wanting to read any Dickens.

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