he contrast with England is the contrast between the natural and the refined, between crudity and art, between the Bowie knife and the soft word, between the death of the Valley of Eden and the teeming life of Mrs. Todgers's boarding house. Mrs. Todgers's is the centre of the comic principle of accommodation and is the most important agent in stiffing our more positive laughter. Just as America tells us what to reject in our laughter, so we are able to learn what to accept through this Commercial Boarding House and through those who come in contact with it: Mr. Pecksniff, Mrs. Gamp and Mr. Mould, Young Bailey and Poll Sweedlepipe. [149/150]
"The parlour was wainscoted, and communicated to strangers a magnetic and instinctive consciousness of rats and mice.... It had not been papered or painted, hadn't Todgers's, within the memory of man. It was very black, begrimed, and mouldy" (VIII). And it is from this sordid place that the principle of the comic society springs. Mrs. Todgers's primary ability is a fully developed and versatile art of accommodation; "I think I know how to arrange it" (VIII), she says when Mr. Pecksniff presents her with an un-looked-for problem, and indeed she does. She is not only versatile in this manner, however, but also kindly: though '"calculation" shines out of one eye, "affection" beams in the other. She shows how one can face a black reality and live with it without the necessity of violence or madness.
She not only lives with it, of course; she triumphs over it. Her comments on gravy actually parody age and prudence, and display a kind of comic luxuriance:
"Presiding over an establishment like this makes sad havoc with the features, my dear Miss Pecksniffs," said Mrs. Todgers. "The gravy alone, is enough to add twenty years to one's age, I do assure you." "Lor!" cried the two Miss Pecksniff s. "The anxiety of that one item, my dears," said Mrs. Todgers, "keeps the mind continually upon the stretch." [IX]
Her mind is on the stretch, notice, not to survive but to provide a comfortable superfluity, a luxury for all. Her dinners are, in fact, exercises in comic gluttony reminiscent of those in Pickwick, and she manages an image of abundance from the most meagre pickings. She is an artist of comfort and luxury, and her house is the reverse of Commercial. Her lodgers, even, express their real "turns" in her presence: a sporting turn, a theatrical turn, a speech-making turn, a literary turn, a vocal turn, a whist turn-in short, inclinations toward art, pleasure, and fun. This Commercial Boarding House is the antithesis of the commercial ethic and in its airy, joyful life stands as an indictment of American solemnity and death.
Mrs. Todgers's art is admittedly rather hard to distinguish sometimes from hypocrisy, but it is an indication of the comic norms of this novel that it is the arch-hypocrite, Mr. Pecksniff, who makes the charge of hypocrisy. The irony here does [150/151] not, certainly, rebound on Mr. Pecksniff but on the whole rigid moral standard which is anxious to judge hypocrisy as evil. Mrs. Todgers's defence further helps dissolve the foolish conventional morality by economizing contempt through laughter and transforming it into approval: "I am forced to keep things on the square if I can, sir. . . I must preserve peace among them and keep my connection together, if possible, Mr. Pecksniff. The profit is very small" (X). She turns the search for profits not only into peacemaking but also into joy, In the end, Mrs. Todgers is presented as a kind and lovely person, to us as to Tom Pinch: "She was growing beautiful so rapidly in Tom's eyes; for he saw that she was poor, and that this good had sprung up in her from among the sordid strivings of her life" (XXXVII). Her "well-conditioned soul" (LIV) shows us the directions for a comic society: realism, kindness, restraint, and creative accommodation. Her house is not a boarding house at all, in these terms, but a sacred and mystic training centre for the education and protection of "liverers". It "was in a labyrinth, whereof the mystery was known but to a chosen few" (IX).
One of those chosen few is the accomplished "architect, artist, and man" (IX), Seth Pecksniff. While it is true that the plot of the novel casts Pecksniff as a villain, the comic pattern knows better and places him at the centre of our instructional experience. Though old Martin, in one of the few truly bungled scenes in Dickens, actually clubs Pecksniff, the real verdict on him is quietly suggested by a person much closer to the moral norm, Mrs. Lapin, who remains loyal to this "noble-spoken gentleman" (XLIII) (even Dickens confessed of Pecksniff and his daughters, "I have a kind of liking for them myself", to C. C. Felton, Letters, i. 647, 31 Dec. 1842). In responding to Pecksniff's mastery of speech, Mrs. Lupin is, in fact, displaying the true sensitivity; for in this novel Mr. Pecksniff's hypocrisy is ultimately judged to be almost trifling; his style is his salvation. Pecksniff is an important contrast to America, and matters are arranged so that the first thing Martin and Mark see when they return is a result of one bit of Mr. Pecksniff's artful cunning: the ceremony attending his (actually Martin's) successful design for a grammar school. This scene presents some parallels, certainly, with American "smartness", but any resemblance is [151/152] nearly obliterated by Mr Pecksniff's great speech: "My friends! ... My duty is to build, not speak; to act, not talk; to deal with marble, stone, and brick; not language. I am very much affected. God bless you!" (XXXV). No gore, no eagle's talons, no Bowie knives, no gougings, just restrained and consummately synthetic style.
Mr. Pecksniff suggests the great flowering of civilization, over-ripe it is true, but still presenting a glorious blossom. Even his horse creates the illusion of speed and grandeur from, we gather, very unpromising raw materials. It is this ability to manufacture joy and comfort from shabbiness and violence that the comedy continually approves of, and no one is more of a virtuoso in this regard than Mr. Pecksniff. He is property much more concerned with beauty than with morality, more with sound than with sense. He chooses his words on this principle (II) and models his action on the grand single point of style. Dickens brilliantly indicates his remarkable abilities in an early conversation he has with Mrs. Lupin:
"A gentleman taken ill upon the road, has been so very bad upstairs, sir," said the tearful hostess. "A gentleman taken ill upon the road, has been so very bad upstairs, has he?" repeated Mr. Pecksniff. "Well, well!" [III]
"Anybody", Dickens continues, "would have been, as Mrs. Lupin was, comforted by the mere voice and presence of such a man; and, though he had merely said, 'a verb must agree with its nominative case in number and person, my good friend', or 'eight times eight are sixty-four, my worthy soul', must have felt deeply grateful to him for his humanity and wisdom." Mr. Pecksniff's genius transforms dullness and dreariness into comfort. He later explains his comic triumph over circumstances to Martin in relation to his delicate architectural skills: "For it really is, my dear Martin, it really is in the finishing touches alone, that great experience, and long study in these matters tell" (VI). This statement touches the heart of this novel and suggests exactly what the Americans lack: the finishing touches of restraint, gentility, courtesy, and tradition, which allow for beauty, harmonious social existence, and true identity. Mr. Pecksniff, just slightly overplaying his artistic role, anticipates another decadent, not only in his [152/153] fatness and oiliness, but in his creed. It is the mighty voice of Pecksniff, surely, that we recognize in Wilde's play: "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing" (The Importance of Being Earnest, III, i). It is hypocritical, of course, but it does away with Bowie knives and allows for cucumber sandwiches. Mr. Pecksniff is, through it all, outrageously mendacious and self-serving, but the point is that we are not really asked to search for these labels. In the face of the kind of life he promises, "liar" or "thief" seem like vulgar and shrill headlines from the New York Stabber.
But Pecksniff does more than allow for a delicate and refined existence; he adds his immense weight to the rejection of nature. As Steven Marcus says, he is "a monumental parody of the ideal of pastoral innocence" (p. 253) and he does reinforce our negative and hostile laughter in this regard. Much more important, however, is his ability to provoke laughter which protects a pleasure in self-created joy: "In a word, even his plain black suit, and state of widower, and dangling double eyeglass, all tended to the same purpose, and cried aloud, 'Behold the moral Pecksniff!'" (II). Nature is defeated, it is true, but art is more impressively triumphant. He arranges not only his double eyeglass but also his daughters and furniture to create an effect, and he continually constructs brilliant stage-props from the commonest materials. Mr. Pecksniff is the stage-manager of hypocrisy, artful and joyous. After a particularly dazzling renunciation of the principle of personal gain, he and his daughters join in hilarious laughter and kiss each other affectionately in "a kind of saintly waggishness" (II), If there were anything remotely like this enjoyment surrounding old Martin, perhaps Pecksniff would not steal the show and come so near the novel's normative position, but there is not and so he does.
He continually fights against restrictive morality, and harsh and masochistic inhibitions, protecting the possibility of lively and free pleasure:
"And eggs," said Mr. Pecksniff, "even they have their moral. See how they come and go! Every pleasure is transitory. We can't even eat, tong. If we indulge in harmless fluids, we get the dropsy; [152/153] if in exciting liquids, we get drunk. What a soothing reflection is that!" "Don't say we get drunk, pa," urged the eldest Miss Pecksniff. "When I say we, my dear," returned her father, "I mean mankind in general; the human race, considered as a body, and not as individuals. There is nothing personal in morality, my love." [II]
Our laughter, though probably mainly aggressive at this early point, becomes more and more protective as we sense the importance and profundity of his last statement. As well as giving himself a licence to practise hypocrisy, Mr. Pecksniff is offering us an alternative to the cold, death-like morality of old Martin or the profit-loss morality of Mark Tapley. Pecksniff's later attack, "if every one were warm and welf-fed, we should lose the satisfaction of admiring the fortitude with which certain conditions of men bear cold and hunger" (VIII), is a parody of a morality based on egoistic comparisons and rejects exactly what Mark Tapley will later reject in America. Ironically, Mark is initiated into the wisdom of Pecksniff and is allowed to come back and experience what the old hypocrite has known all along; the supreme importance of comfort. The "Jolly Tapley" owes a great deal to Pecksniff and his values.
For it is Pecksniff's positive values and not his moral failings that are important. Pecksniff is very much like Falstaff in allowing us to economize contempt, not so much by showing his own awareness of it or by staring us out of countenance as by simply rendering contempt a trivial or irrelevant response to his dazzling display of artistic resiliency. Time and again he is confronted with impossible situations, and time and again he creates not only workable but triumphant responses, Even in his opening interview with old Martin, Pecksniff takes away the old misanthrope's weapons by arguing from the startling assumption of his own selfishness. Given that calculating selfishness, he argues, if he bad wanted something from his kinsman he would never have addressed him warmly, knowing that Martin lives in such constant suspicion. All Martin's vicious pessimism, he says, is "natural, very natural" (III), which is to say it is American and terrible. The old man is left speechless by this amazing artistry, and Pecksniff's victory is complete.
Even more classic is his handling of the wonderful [154/155] comedy-of-manners situation in which Charity is "in loud hysterics, Mercy in the utmost disorder, Jonas in the parlour, and Martin Chuzzlewit and his young charge upon the very door-steps" (X). Though the situation is one of "total hopelessness", Dickens says, Pecksniff manages another triumph. Popping Jonas and his daughters out of the way and appropriating from his wardrobe department a spade and garden hat, he begins "warbling a rustic stave" and calmly opens the door:
"Mr. Chuzzlewit! Can I believe my eyes! My dear air; my good sir! A joyful hour, a happy hour indeed. Pray, my dear sir, walk in. You find me in my garden-dress. You will excuse it, I know. It is an ancient pursuit, gardening. Primitive, my dear sir; for, if I am not mistaken, Adam was the first of our calling. My Eve, I grieve to say, is no more, sir; but:" here he pointed to his spade, and shook his head, as if he were not cheerful without an effort: "but I do a little bit of Adam still." [XXIV]
So much for the primitive, for old Martin, for grief, and for harsh morality. Mr. Pecksniff cannot be defeated. He even neutralizes the final renunciation by bouncing off the floor for one more witty rejoinder, piously forgiving old Martin and accusing him of mistreating his own gracious hospitality: "Do I not know that in the silence and the solitude of night, a little voice will whisper in your ear, Mr. Chuzzlewit, 'This was not well. This was not well, sir!'" (LII). Mr. Pecksniff has the last word here; he is infinitely resilient and creative, thereby assuring us of the final triumph of the life force. He is, finally, a liverer: "Mr. Pecksniff, being a father of a more sage and practical class [than stage fathers who die immediately after their daughters' marriages], appeared to think that his immediate business was to live" (XXX), Like Lummy Ned, he knows better than to die; better than that, even, he shares his secret with us.
Pecksniff's contagious life force is also supported by a double, Mr. Montague Tigg, a man so versatile that even his name can go either way. Tigg is an artist nearly as talented as Pecksniff, turning his unspeakable role of financial pimp for [155/156] Chevy Slyme into a display of verbal genius: "You will understand me when I say that I am accredited agent of Chevy Slyme; that 1 am the ambassador from the court of Chiv?" (VII). At one point Dickens even brings these decadent doubles head-to-head for a brilliant example of an ornate discourse competition:
"And pray," asked Mr. Pecksniff, obviously not quite at his ease, "what may be Mr. Slyme's business here, if I may he permitted to inquire, who am compelled by a regard for my own character to disavow all interest in his proceedings?" "In the first place," returned the gentleman, 'you will permit me to say, that I object to that remark, and that I strongly and indignantly protest against it on behalf of my friend Slyme. In the next place, you will give me leave to introduce myself. My name, sir, is Tigg. The name of Montague Tigg will perhaps be familiar to you, in connection with the most remarkable events of the Peninsular War?" [IV]
Dickens passes up the rich comic possibilities of such battles of the word artists, however, and generally keeps the two separated so that the Pecksniff image may be more widely spread, and the comedy of restraint and accommodation more continuously supported. The refined comedy is everywhere.
It at first seems odd that the high priestess of this refined comedy is the most elemental figure in Dickens's works, Sairey Gamp. Mrs. Gamp exists in the midst of birth and death and is mistress of the secrets of both. In fact, she is so little ruffled by these startling events that they are alike pleasant to her; "she went to a lying-in or a laying-out with equal zest and relish" (XIX). The key words are "zest and relish"; she clearly creates a world of joy out of pain and death and thereby establishes the most elemental comedy and the most wonderful reassurance. She shows us that no evasion is necessary; for she is surely one of the greatest realists in literature, insisting always on the immediate and the concrete: "Ah, dear! When Gamp was summoned to his long home, and I see him a-lying in Guy's Hospital with a penny-piece on each eye, and his wooden leg under his left arm, I thought I should have fainted away. But I bore up" (XIX).
By providing a constant parody of moralistic depression, she is a walking rebuke to those who do not bear tip: "One's [156/157] first ways is to find sich things a trial to the feelings, and so is one's lasting custom. If it wasn't for the nerve a little sip of liquor give me (I never was able to do more than taste it), I never could go through with what I sometimes has to do. . .'Mrs. Harris,' I says, 'leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and don't ask me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged'" (XIX). This comment might easily stand as an epigraph for the entire novel. Mrs. Gamp is really a more primal version of Mrs. Todgers, simply a deeper extension of the comic centre of the novel, She wrests out of death a life of tolerance and humour: "And as to husbands, there's a wooden leg gone likewise home to its account, which in its constancy of walkin' into wine vaults, and never comin' out again 'till fetched by force, was quite as weak as flesh, if not weaker" (XL). Colourful as this sort of autobiographical and moralistic humour is, though, she really prefers to exercise her artistry by moulding her speech into a cleverly contrived self-advertisement and an assertion of a fully realized self. Though purely selfish, she is never mean and, more important, directs our attention and our values far away from such narrow moral verdicts. Mrs. Gamp is selfish only from the perspective of a fool like old Martin; Dickens and his readers saw her as a triumphant expression of selfhood.
But she does more than economize contempt and transform laughter to joy; she is used to support most of the issues in the novel and is amazingly functional, particularly when she is supported by her extension, Mr. Mould the undertaker, who is to Mrs. Gamp what Mr. Tigg is to Pecksniff. At one point they discuss the interesting issue of why death attracts more money than birth. After Mrs. Gamp makes the professional joke that undertakers simply charge more than nurses, Mould suggests the real issue: "Hearts want binding, and spirits want balming, when people die; not when people are born" (XIX). He sees that binding and balming are necessary to cover over our guilt and fear. Here the reference is specifically to Jonas, and it unintentionally connects to the archetypal guilts and fears he raises. Mr. Mould and Mrs. Gamp give "relief" and spread "consolation" by healing these deep wounds, and by laughing at these two sordid and grand comic agents we are led to accept their own brand of honesty and accommodation. [157/158]
Mrs. Gamp has, however, nothing to do with the sort of relief which might come through evasive comfort, and she continually satirizes the barbaric consolation offered to the poor by religion and its basic appeals to envy and vindictiveness: "Rich folks may ride on camels, but it ain't so easy for 'em. to see out of a needle's eye. That is my comfort, and I hope 1 knows it" (XXV). Mrs. Gamp's comfort, we already know, has nothing to do with such American savagery as this; it is found in cowcumbers, the omnipresent bottle, and, perhaps most of all, in words. There is a real sense in which Mrs. Gamp, in her happy economic flattery, actually defeats time with words, creating a world far beyond the mortal wale she is so cheerfully obsessed with:
"There are some happy creeturs," Mrs. Gamp observed, "as time runs back'ards with, and you are one, Mrs. Mould; not that he need do nothing except use you in his most owldacious way for years to come, I'm sure; for young you are and will be. I says to Mrs. Harris," Mrs. Camp continued, "only t'other day; the last Monday evening fortnight as ever dawned upon this Piliian's Projiss of a mortal wale; I says to Mrs. Harris when she says to me, 'Years and our trials, Ms. Gamp, sets marks upon us all.' — 'Say not the words, Mrs. Harris, if you and me is to be continual friends, for sech is not the case. Mrs. Mould,' I says, making so free, I will confess, as use the name," (she curtseyed here,) "'is one of them that goes agen the obserwation straight.'" [XXV]
The reference to Bunyan is exceptionally apt here in expressing what Sairey is not; she is the archetypal anti-Puritan, who would drink and laugh even in the Slough of Despond. She hates the prudential life which does nothing more than prepare for death, and she is dedicated to the happiness to be found in society and in the time-defeating perfection of compliments such as "Young you are and will be." Like Pecksniff, then, she functions to provide a way out of despair, through imagination, versatile artistry, and resiliency.
Resiliency comes a little more easily to Pecksniff, however. Mrs. Gamp shows several times that she really does have to worry about survival: "My half a pint of porter fully satisfies; perwisin', Mrs. Harris, that it is brought reg'lar, and draw'd mild. Whether I sicks or monthlies, ma'am, I hope I does my duty, but I am but a poor woman, and I earns my living hard; [158/159] therefore I do require it, which I makes confession, to be brought reg'lar and draw'd mild" (XXV). This is not only an artful parody of puritanical restrictions in order to justify pure self-indulgence; there is, underneath, something darker, a momentary glimpse of something that goes much deeper than Pecksniffian experience. As she says, "My earnins is not great, sir, but I will not be impoged upon. Bless the babe, and save the mother, is my mortar, sir; but I makes so free as add to that, Don't try no impogician with the Noss, for she will not abear it" (XL). This indicates her real battle and her real appeal. She is not only continually advertising herself but, more subtly, exposing her loneliness and weakness in order to ask for tolerance,
In the end, Mrs. Gamp is a lonely and courageous woman; she touches our deepest fears and anxieties and still wins. It is for this reason that she is such a magnificent Freudian humour character. The parallels to Chaucer's Wife of Bath are surely not accidental; both she and Saircy are completely honest with themselves, audacious, outrageous, and, for the briefest moments, pathetic: "Likeways, a few rounds o' buttered toast, first cuttin' off the crust, in consequence of tender teeth, and not too many of 'em; which Gamp himself, Mrs. Chuzzlewit, at one blow, being in liquor, struck out four, two single and two double, as was took by Mrs. Harris for a keepsake, and is carried in her pocket at this present hour" (XLVI). Mrs. Gamp deserves to have her crusts carefully trimmed; in return, she is willing to give us all the gossip of her personal life, exposing both her weakness and her strength. Like her gat-toothed sister, she has managed the strength and courage to triumph over a harsh life without, somehow, even becoming hardened. They are both, primarily, social creatures, radiating "extreme good humour and affability" (XLVI).
That she needs a prop for this courage is not surprising, nor is it surprising that such an artistic woman would require more than liquor for support. Mrs. Gamp's defence against loneliness, her "talisman against all earthly sorrows" (XLIX) is, of course, Mrs. Harris, who completes and supports her creator, Therefore, when Betsey Prig utters those vicious words, "I don't believe there's no sich a person!" (XLIX), the entire comic world shudders; for she is threatening Mrs. Gamp with [159/160] a kind of annihilation. Even John Westlock senses the terrible danger and gives Sairey support more sensitive and kind than anything we would have thought he could manage: "Never mind. . . . You know it is not true" (XLIX). Mrs. Gamp is, we see, horribly vulnerable. Because she goes so deep into human reality, a great deal more is at stake with her than with Pecksniff, and her triumph is therefore a great deal more expressive. She manages her victory, as we might expect, through words, finally even luxuriating in the possibilities of the role of martyr: "'But the words she spoke of Mrs. Harris, lambs could not forgive. No, Betsey!' said Mrs. Gamp, in a violent burst of feeling, 'nor worms forget!'" (XLIX). We all sense by now that she can be shaken, perhaps, but never toppled.
Mrs. Gamp, then, gives the most basic support to the reality of the joyful human spirit and its ability to survive. When old Martin denounces her at the end and tells her to take less liquor, our one consolation is the assurance that she will surely ignore this stupidity. She does, in fact, transform his moral rigidity into something so plastic and artful as to repudiate immediately old Martin's code:
Mrs. Gamp clasped her hands, turned up her eyes until they were quite invisible, threw back her bonnet for the admission of fresh air to her heated brow; and in the act of saying faintly — "Less liquor! — Sairey Gamp-Bottle on the chimney-piece, and let me put my lips to it, when I am so dispoged!" — fell into one of the walking swoons; in which pitiable state she was conducted forth by Mr. Sweedlepipe, who, between his two patients, the swooning Mrs. Camp and the revolving Bailey, had enough to do, poor fellow. [LII]
These three go off, we are sure, supporting one another in a real comic world.
And it is appropriate to end with these two fine supporters and companions, Young Bailey and Poll Sweedlepipe, who complete the comic pattern and add to it the necessary frills, the pure exuberance and soaring joy it must have. Young Bailey, first of all, has a gift of parody which is reminiscent of Sam Weller's but is without Sam's cynicism. He is, perhaps, a slightly freer, lighter version of the Artful Dodger, borrowing his predecessor's use of endlessly happy irony: "I say. . . [160/161] young ladies, there's soup to-morrow. She's a-making it now. Ain't she a-putting in the water! Oh! not at all neither!" (IX).
Bailey is a "remarkable boy, whom nothing disconcerted or put out of his way" (IX), because he has absolute self-confidence and with this sureness adds solidity to the final society. He is extremely anti-American (in the best sense), acting "in defiance of all natural laws" (XXVI) and is so assured in his actions that he is even able to convince Poll Sweedlepipe that he does indeed need a shave, putting entirely to rout the limiting "evidence of sight and touch" (XXVI). But the most important testimonial to his greatness comes straight from the comic seer; Mrs. Gamp immediately connects him with the principle of worldly accommodation and affectionately recognizes him as a partner in the artist's war; "There's nothin' he don't know; that's my opinion.... All the wickedness of the world is Print to him" (XXVI). Together, he and Poll form a comic union of youth and age, combating the real mischief of moral rigidity, despair, and circumstance.
When Bailey is presumed dead, Poll senses that the most beautiful life-principle has been lost from the comic society, and his lament is the most poignant and perhaps most central comment in the novel: "Their office is a smash; a swindle altogether. But what's a Life Assurance Office to a Life! And what a Life Young Bailey's was!" (XLIX). It turns out, however, that Bailey is not dead; the tension is relieved as he comes in at the end "all alive and hearty", resurrected to join with his "lovely Sairey" and the "tender-licarted Poll" (LII). And what a life that will be!
Last Modified 10 March 2010