he situation and the process of reversal are similar with the Varden household. Dickens, as he often does, doubles the effect, thereby insuring the force of his rhetoric. In the comedy attendant on this shrew-ridden home the same points in relation to egoism, tyranny, fantasy, and retribution are employed, and we are made to run a similar rhetorical gauntlet: our own egoism, evasive fantasy, tyranny, and desire for retribution are first reinforced and then exposed. But there is one basic difference here; in the Varden circle oppressions are multiplied and stacked on one another, Mrs. Varden. tyrannizes over Miggs and together they tyrannize over Gabriel, who, in turn, tyrannizes over Sim. [121/122]
Even the basically good-hearted Gabriel is turned into something of a hypocrite in this subjugation mill, and lie involves himself in complicated fantasies in order to rationalize stoping at the Maypole Inn for a drink: "The merciful man, Joe ... is merciful to his beast. I'll get out for a little while" (II). Though mildly humorous, this fantasy ties him to the tyrants arid suggests the extent of the general disease: it infects even the good. Gabriel's advice to the frustrated Joe Willet further underscores his corruption: "Roving stones gather no moss, Joe" (II). This comment deserves Joe's contempt. The locksmith's proverbial wisdom, like all stale adages in this novel, is not only irrelevant but actually callous, and Gabriel unintentionally links himself to old Willet in his insensitivity to youth, his implicit opposition to "all love-making". He is further like Willet in living in a house symbolically "detached from the world" in a particularly "shady street" (IV). The suggestion of smug detachment here allies Gabriel with the easy immunity and easy tyranny of all the novel's fathers.
This alliance is most clearly suggested, however, in his relation to his daughter, Dolly. He is so blind to the possibility that anyone could be interested in her that we begin to see the blindness as a form of the general egoistic fantasy, with the same resultant cruelty. When Sim casts what he imagines to be seductive looks at Dolly, for instance, Gabriel spots him and reacts fiercely:
"Why, what the devil's the matter with the lad?" cried the locksmith. "Is he choking?" "Who?" demanded Sim, with some disdain. "Who? why you," returned his master. "What do you mean by making those horrible faces over your breakfast?" "Faces are a matter of taste, sir," said Mr. Tappertit, rather discomfited; not the less so because he saw the locksmith's daughter smiling. "Sim," rejoined Gabriel, laughing heartily. "Don't be a fool, for I'd rather see you in your senses. These young fellows," he added, turning to his daughter, "are always committing some folly or another. There was a quarrel between Joe Willet and old John last night — though I can't say Joe was much in fault either." [IV]
Gabriel's "amazement" clearly masks a basic jealousy, and he reacts to Sim as a rival, refusing to let him off easily and taking [122/123] full advantage of the opportunity to humiliate him in front of Dolly. His desire to see Sim in his "senses" is like old John's desire for "imagination" in the young. Both are euphemisms for subservience. Even his after-thought, conceding that Joe is not much at fault, does not erase his secret alliance with age and with tyranny. And the second half of the novel makes these connections so unmistakable that evasive and blind laughter is turned back on the reader. Gabriel's good-heartedness is deceptive, as is his amiable blindness to his daughter's suitors. He obviously wants Dolly for himself; he is well-intentioned but, for all that, a tyrant.
His dominance is further obscured by his co-ordinate role as a victim. He is controlled almost completely by his wife, perhaps the chief shrew in Dickens's extensive gallery of female despots and the absolute opposite of Mrs. Jarley; "Mrs. Varden was a lady of what is commonly called an uncertain temper — a phrase which being interpreted signifies a temper tolerably certain to make everybody more or less uncomfortable" (VII). Mrs. Varden is an antidote for comedy; she literally spreads discomfort. The humour she evokes does more, however, than tempt us to laugh at another form of tyranny and thereby anticipate the reversal of that laughter when the seriousness of tyranny is exposed; it also introduces the complicating factor that the individual villains are also victims. The real trouble between Mrs. Varden and her husband, pretty clearly, is the Protestant Manual, and "whenever [they] were at unusual variance, then the Protestant Manual was in high feather" (IV). This suggests that she is the victim of a more general malady, termed "Protestantism", or more exactly a perversion of religion to fantastic egotistical ends. The Manual provides Mrs. Varden with a variety of religious poses, appropriate for all occasions. Here, for instance, is the pose for submission: "And so, with a mighty show of humility and forgiveness, she folded her hands, and looked round again, with a smile which plainly said 'If you desire to see the first and foremost among female martyrs, here she is, on view!'" (XIX). It is no accident that this versatile domestic [123/124] tyrant is one of the chief contributors to Lord George Gordon's fund, for that fund and that campaign are simply expressions for her of the more general egoistic fantasy. She sympathizes with and easily understands the desire to rule a nation with the same religious terror she has used so successfully to rule a home. Her desire to put herself on display as a female martyr suggests waxworks again, and our laughter no doubt expresses, under everything, a wish for her death. But again this sort of retributive comedy backfires, and Mrs. Varden is seen finally as a victim of a widespread delusion. Notice that she changes quite readily when she is able to see the real danger, and Gabriel is able to assert his power rather easily.
Curiously enough, it is the servant Miggs who continues to resist Gabriel, even when her mistress has capitulated. Miggs's unrealistically prolonged deflance suggests, I think, an even more subtle form of subjugation. Having served so long in the tricky role of deputy shrew, she and her fantasies seem to have solidified completely, and she is unable to regain touch with reality, even when it is thrust upon her. The first thing Dickens says about Miggs is that she is forced as a part of her duties to second her mistress; she is her "chief aider and abettor, and at the same time her principal victim and object of wrath" (VII). Because of this demanding situation, Miggs is left with nowhere to turn when her mistress abandons her customary behaviour. Dickens's use of our laughter in this case is perhaps most deceptive of all, for Miggs's fantasy life is the most insidious and the most dangerous.
The humour generated by Miggs is most dangerous perhaps because it is most elemental and least rational. Miggs is funny simply because she is, on the one hand, both ugly and impotent and, on the other hand, very interested in sex. Her fantasies of sexual power are treated as hilarious. She seems at first to be just one more old maid to be subject to Dickens's often cruel comedy, but she is more functional than that and is much more complex, finally, than Rachael Wardle, whom she seems at first to resemble. To take just one example of her complexity, after Mrs. Varden finishes extolling the virtues of Lord George Gordon and of The Thunderer, his No-Popery publication, she turns to Miggs to receive her servant's expected confirmatory echo: [124/125]
She appealed in support of this proposition to Miss Miggs, then in waiting, who said that indeed the peace of mind she derived from the perusal of that paper generally, but especially of one article of the very last week as ever was, entitled "Great Britain drenched in gore," exceeded all belief; the same composition, she added, had also wrought such a comforting effect on the mind of a married sister of hers, then resident at Golden Lion Court, number twenty-sivin, second bell-handle on the right-hand door-post, that, being in a delicate state of health, and in fact expecting an addition to her family, she had been seized with fits directly after its perusal, and had raved of the Inquisition ever since; to the great improvement of her husband and friends. Miss Miggs went on to say that she would recommend all those whose hearts were hardened to hear Lord George themselves, whom she commended first, in respect of his steady Protestantism, then of his oratory, then of his eyes, then of his nose, then of his legs, and lastly of his figure generally. [XLI]
It is astonishing how many relevant issues Dickens packs into this speech and how cleverly they are disguised. The "peace of mind" Miggs parodies is equivalent to the delusory search for immunity so important to this novel's theme and to the reader as well; her jokes on "gore" are intended to put us off our guard, to disarm us for the shock of the real gore; the connection of retribution with "steady Protestantism" is a central one, which we must not ignore; finally, the grotesque suggestion of Miggs lusting after Gordon tempts us to laugh at her, thereby not only expressing a secret hostility but dismissing her very relevant comments as well.
We are also tempted to ignore the facts that a fantasy life is a necessity to her and that her parody of a "sense of duty" is a very dark one. Dickens depends a great deal on dialect humour with her — "Ally Looyer, mini! there's Simmuns's knock!" (LI) — and urges us to Link her ignorant and socially inferior as well as hilariously ugly. The real temptation, though, is to ignore the meanness growing beneath the surface and the fact that the meanness is at least partly caused by the tyranny Miggs is forced to live under, the same tyranny which encourages her to manufacture a fantasy life. Even when she is captured by the rioters, her actions suggest the desperate battle for survival and contact she is waging. She clearly is anxious, literally, for any man: [125/126]
"You know he meant all along to carry off that one!" said Dennis, indicating Dolly by the slightest possible jerk of his head: — "And to hand you over to somebody else." Miss Miggs, who had fallen into a terrible state of grief when the first part of this sentence was spoken, recovered a little at the second, and seemed by the sudden check she put upon her tears, to intimate that possibly this arrangement might meet her views; and that it might, perhaps, remain an open question. [LXX]
It is this same desperation which makes her so vicious to Dolly, and Dickens finally uses this conventional and easy humour allied with the sex-starved spinster to indicate the great reach of the tyranny. The Vardens are not responsible for Miggs's unhappy sexual state, of course, but they provide a rigid pattern of power and fantasy in which she has been securely caught. In the end, she is anything but funny.
Miggs is completely trapped by her fantasy life. Though she has already exposed her deadly jealousy of Dolly, she automatically bounces back to the Vardens' late in the novel for another try at shrewdom, the only thing, we realize, she has been trained for and the only occupation this society has allowed her. When she senses that things have turned against her, she responds with an acid retaliation which is brilliantly apt and perfectly justified: "Times is changed, is they, mim!" cried Miggs, bridling; 'you can spare me now, can you? You can keep 'em down without me? You're not in wants of any one to scold, or throw the blame upon, no longer, an't you, mim ? I'm glad to find you've grown so independent. I wish you joy, I'm sure!'" (LXXX). Her bitterness finally explodes in hysterical, uncontrolled hatred, doubly repulsive because it reveals so much of the causes of that hatred: the callousness, egoism, and smug detachment, which have likely been behind our earlier laughter: "He he! I wouldn't have a husband with one arm, anyways. I would have two arms. I would have two arms, if it was me, though instead of hands they'd only got hooks at the ends, like our dustman!" (LXXX). This is exactly the same desperation we had earlier been allowed to laugh at so easily. The laughter has been turned back on us and finally is exposed and utterly extinguished by the "honest locksmith", who says of the sobbing Miggs, "It's a thing to laugh at, Martha, not to care for" (LXXX). Gabriel asks her — and us — [126/127] to ignore the whole lesson of the riots. To cap this callousness he adds, "we'll be all the merrier for this interruption". Back to the Maypole! Gabriel makes the ultimate evasion terribly pointed: Miggs's storm is to be welcomed, like the storm which opened both halves of the novel, not for what it teaches or portends, but for the sense of safety which it provides in its lulls. We might well have been "merrier" along with Gabriel if he hadn't expressed the point so blatantly and exposed our own potential cruelty so openly.
But probably not even then, for there is still in the Varden subplot, to remind us of the danger of such evasion, the most fundamental example of this reversal, Sim Tappertit. More than any other character, Sim lives in complete delusion; not only his language but also his mannerisms are drawn from another, more acceptable age. He deals with his unbearable servitude by transforming it into the glamorous role of a squire: " 'Sir,' said Sim, looking up with amazing politeness, and a peculiar little bow cut short off at the neck. 'I shall attend you immediately'" (IV). Though we laugh at this habit, it later becomes obvious, first, that Sim is only mirroring the general social madness in a small and pathetic way and, second, that he has much more excuse for evading the present than most. He does so less from a desire for personal gain than from an instinctive retreat from an impossible repression. The fact that he serves the gentlest of masters shows us finally how insidious the repression is.
Sim, in fact, goes through something like a parody of the entire main plot, tempting us to the functional evasive laughter so important here. When sufficiently goaded, he turns to his ludicrous substitute for violence, the sharpening of weapons:
Whirr-r-r-r-r-r-r. "Something will come of this!" said Mr. Tappertit, pausing as if in triumph, and wiping his heated face upon his sleeve. "Something will come of this. I hope it mayn't be human gore!" Whirr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r. [IV]
No matter how much we may be amused, his suggestion is, of course, accurate. Dickens makes it completely clear that Sim's pose of fierceness is the result of domestic tyranny. When he leaves Varden's house, for instance, the narrator says he lays [127/128] aside "his cautionary manner" necessary there and adopts the compensatory manner of a "ruffling, swaggering, roving blade, who would rather kill a man than otherwise, and cat him too if needful" (VIII). Sim reflects the same reactionary violence and the same madness that controls the novel, but he is at the same time differentiated from it by being essentially harmless, almost innocent. He desires "black crosses" (VIII) against a person's name, not real vengeance, and his later appeal to Chester (XXXIV) is only a parody of retribution, comic in its limitations. After a series of preparations so elaborate as to make even Chester joke about the "cloak and dagger" silliness, Sim comes to "THE point". He wants Chester to deal with Joe, the "villain"', that "monster in human shape, a vagabond of the deepest dye", not by killing him but by having him "kidnapped and carried off at the very least". The reason he gives Chester for engaging in this intrigue is that "the pleasure of doing a bad action ... to [Joe] is its own reward" (XXIV). The comparison of Sim's vision of Arabian Nights' kidnappings with Chester's real and ugly evil is, of course, funny, but it also reveals Sim's childlike and potentially pathetic innocence. There is, at least, clearly no danger to be feared from one who lives so completely in the world of melodrama. Sim is obviously most comfortable in his false world, the unconscious parody of the real madness. The blind and evil Stagg makes this point unmistakable in terming Sim's legs "these twin invaders of domestic peace!" (VIII), We realize that an invasion is the last thing Sim could accomplish, and we realize too that Sim's fantasies, focused symbolically on his legs, are ludicrous. But by laughing we identify with Stagg's cynicism and overlook completely the degree to which Sim is finally a figure of horror and pity, not of fun.
He is really a small and potentially funny man who has been deeply corrupted and thereby victimized by his "Protestant" society: "My life's a burden to me. If it wasn't for wengeance, I'd play at pitch and toss with it on the losing hazard" (XXVII). His desire for vengeance, of course, backfires on him — but much more fully on us; for by laughing at him we are again localizing what is, in fact, general and ignoring what has very personal relevance.
Sim's central comments on illusion and reality are equally [128/129] pointed and relevant. When he hears Joe take leave of Dolly before going away with the army, he comments:
"Have my ears deceived me ... or do I dream! am I to thank thee, Fortun', or cuss thee — which?" He gravely descended from his elevation, took down his piece of looking-glass, planted it against the wall upon the usual bench, twisted his head round, and looked closely at his legs, "If they're a dream," said Sim, "let sculptures have such wisions, and chisel 'em out when they wake. This is reality. Sleep has no such limbs as them. Tremble, Willet, and despair. She's mine! She's mine!" [XXXI]
"This is reality" indeed to all who are captured by the tyranny Sim lives under. And it becomes more and more clear that Sim is completely victimized. He can't understand the riots, is much more interested in appearance than in action, and is always asking for "order". At the height of his defiance of Varden's tyranny, he produces a tooth, of all things, and screams, "this was a bishop's. Beware, G. Varden!" (LI), and when cornered by Miggs he threatens to "pinch" her. We have, it turns out, been laughing at the little boy playing grown-up, overlooking both the pathos and the danger.
Dickens then proceeds to expose the results of this evasion, of our own fantasy of immunity.- Sim is pictured at the end of the riots "with a gun-shot wound in his body; and his legs, his perfect legs, the pride and glory of his life, the comfort of his existence — crushed into shapeless ugliness" (LXXI). At the end of the novel, Dickens completes this reversal with the most truly obscene image anywhere in his novels, the view of the retaliation of Sim's wife by '"taking off his [wooden] legs, and leaving him exposed to the derision of those urchins who delight in mischief" (LXXXII). The structural pattern of contrasts has thus been completed and the didactic point made resoundingly: the dangers of egoistic evasion and tyranny have been made applicable to the reader by the transformation of the originally amusing into the grotesque.
Last Modified 10 March 2010