Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bleak House

I have been reading again lately. Well, re-reading books, to be precise. The book I am currently reading is Bleak House, which is my favourite of the few Dickens novels that I've read.

In Bleak House, Grandfather Smallweed (a villainous moneylender) is the subject of some well-crafted passages (and the source of the delightful phrase: "you brimstone chatterer!"). He is, as is customary with Dickens, described in detail, the following being a particularly poetic excerpt:

Everything that Mr. Smallweed's grandfather ever put away in his mind was a grub at first, and is a grub at last. In all his life he has never bred a single butterfly.

Grandfather Smallweed is by no means the only villain in Bleak House (or indeed the main villain); in fact, there are several others, each with his own distinctive brand of villainy. I have found it interesting to compare these characters and to consider how and why I feel a strong aversion to some, indifference to others, and what might almost be called fondness for still others.

Grandfather Smallweed falls into the third category, which goes to show that my reaction to the various villains doesn't necessarily have to do with the magnitude of their sins. What I find endearing in Grandfather Smallweed is the fact that he is (at least relative to his comrades in villainy) unabashedly nasty and, more importantly, because he is not nearly as intimidating as the others. His physical infirmity (helplessness, in fact) is made clear from the start, and his easily angered, easily threatened disposition only reinforces the impression of weakness.

"My dear Mr. George," says Grandfather Smallweed, "would you be so kind as help to carry me to the fire? I am accustomed to a fire, and I am an old man, and I soon chill. O dear me!"

His closing exclamation is jerked out of the venerable gentleman by the suddenness with which Mr. Squod, like a genie, catches him up, chair and all, and deposits him on the hearthstone.

"O Lord!" says Mr. Smallweed, panting. "O dear me! O my stars! My dear friend, your workman is very strong--and very prompt. O Lord, he is very prompt!"

Mr. Tulkinghorn, a rusty lawyer, whose calling is "the acquisition of secrets, and the holding possession of such power as they give him", gives a very different impression; physically, he is not much more threatening than Grandfather Smallweed (none of the villains are, really), but he is undoubtedly threatening in other ways, due to the aforementioned propensity for finding out secrets and due to his passionless, inexorable nature. He cannot be said to openly hate anyone, but he is immune to appeals and devoid of sympathy and mercy. Despite -- or rather, because of -- this lack of humanity, I dread Mr. Tulkinghorn more than I dislike him.

Strangely, the character that I dislike most so far is Mr. Skimpole, who might not even count as a villain in other readers' eyes. Mr. Skimpole is, to put it simply, characterized by his utter lack of a sense of responsibility. In his own words, he is "a child", who knows nothing of money or business or practical matters in general. Throughout the book, however, the reader is given the sense that Mr. Skimpole is not as thoughtless as he seems; that he, in fact, cultivates a childlike manner, so that he may more effectively live at the expense of others (without being blamed for it).

Whatever Mr. Skimpole's true thoughts may be, the effect is that he has no more sympathy or consideration for others than Mr. Tulkinghorn. He is the sort of person who, when asked to spare a poor friend's pocket, replies: "What am I to do? If he takes me anywhere, I must go. And how can I pay? I never have any money." He is the sort of person who would turn a destitute feverish boy out on the street for fear of contagion:

"You'll say it's childish," observed Mr. Skimpole, looking gaily at us. "Well, I dare say it may be; but I am a child, and I never pretend to be anything else. If you put him out in the road, you only put him where he was before. He will be no worse off than he was, you know. Even make him better off, if you like. Give him sixpence, or five shillings, or five pound ten—you are a mathematician, and I am not—and get rid of him!"

Well, I suppose it is not very reasonable to blame Mr. Skimpole, even if he is selfish and artful. To begin with, Mr. Skimpole would not be able to cause any harm if people didn't persist in indulging him and introducing him to new victims. Excessive indulgence of others at one's own expense is, after all, just as harmful to all parties concerned and (in its own way) selfish.

Anyway, in all honesty, my dislike of Mr. Skimpole probably has less to do with the harm he causes and more to do with his (presumed) disingenuousness and with my own unworthy resentment at the ease with which he abandons responsibility and coasts through life.


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