Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Bailing Out Dombey

I’ve been thinking lately about the last Dickens book I read—Dombey and Son. The news brought it to mind.

Dombey is the head honcho of Dombey and Son. He thinks this makes him a Great Man, and just to make damn sure he’s out to suppress all threats to his Greatness. This can get time consuming. See, all you actually have to do to threaten Dombey’s Greatness is contradict him. So Dombey spends half the 900 page epic picking up sycophants so oily you could run a Hummer off their bodily secretions, and the other half methodically alienating anybody who cares enough about him to tell him the truth.

The truth is: Dombey is a moron.

That name, “Dombey and Son?” Our Dombey’s the son. He’s like the third or fourth generation of son. He didn’t build the business. His dad didn’t build the business. Everything he has, he inherited from somebody else who also inherited it. Dombey and Son started without him and continues through inertia while he warms the chair in the big office. And he has no idea how to run it. He has no idea, for example, that sycophant numero uno Carker has for years been using shady accounting to siphon off gobs of funds. And when Carker runs off with the cash, Dombey has no idea it might be time to do something differently. He has no idea he could do anything differently. He’s Dombey, dude! The top of the heap is Dombey’s natural place. That’s how the world rolls. So he coasts placidly along as he always has, and bankrupts the firm.

This is where the news comes in. And as our fearless leaders discuss handing a $700 billion blank check of taxpayer money over to the guys who created this interesting situation, I can’t help but remember what happened to Dombey.

He, himself, personally, went bankrupt.

This was not an oddity in Dickens’s time. It was standard operating procedure. Business owners in 19th century England were personally liable for business debts. (It was a better deal than ordinary debtors got. They ended up in prison. See Little Dorrit.) But Dombey’s attitude is striking:

‘The extent of Mr Dombey’s resources [says Mr. Morfin, one of his middle managers] is not accurately within my knowledge; but though they are doubtless very large, his obligations are enormous. He is a gentleman of high honour and integrity. Any man in his position could, and many a man in his position would, have saved himself, by making terms which would have very slightly, almost insensibly, increased the losses of those who had had dealings with him, and left him a remnant to live upon. But he is resolved on payment to the last farthing of his means. His own words are, that they will clear, or nearly clear, the House, and that no one can lose much. Ah, Miss Harriet, it would do us no harm to remember oftener than we do, that vices are sometimes only virtues carried to excess! His pride shows well in this.’

The vices of our current class of economic honchos are probably not virtues carried to excess.

I don’t mind bailing out the little guys. If this $700 billion were going to rescue struggling people who got suckered into crazy mortgages, I’d consider it money well spent. But before we hand our tax money over to these companies? I’d like to see their CEOs and boards of directors sell off a few private planes and summer homes. Then we’ll talk.

Dombey and Son: Caricatures

There are three kinds of characters in a Dickens novel: Caricatures, Dull Paragons, and Other.

We might as well get the Caricatures out of the way first, because the things I have to say about them are the things least likely to be original observations. The Caricatures are what Dickens is remembered for. Dickens came up with the damnedest names for his people. Mention a “Dickensian name” and anybody will know what you mean, whether they’ve read him or not. The Caricatures’ names are the most Dickensian of all: Blimber, Pipchin, Bagstock, MacStinger, Cuttle.

Caricatures have handles: single traits that define their entire being. Usually the handle is a verbal tic, like Captain Cuttle’s “overhaul the book it’s in, and thereof make a note,” but it might also be a visual aid, like Mr. Carker’s artificially white teeth. Either way, the thing will come up pretty much every time these guys come on stage. Sometimes you get a bit sick of their handles, to the point where you almost sympathize with Carker when he tells Captain Cuttle “To have the goodness to walk off, if you please… and to carry your jargon somewhere else.” But they’re there for a reason.

The Caricatures aren’t the central characters. Almost all of them spend chapters at a time offstage. Which is not a problem if you’ve got a whole thousand-page brick of Dombey and Son sitting in your lap. It’s a problem when you’re getting three or four chapters a month, and trying to keep track of three dozen minor characters, and, owing to the fact that you’re a nineteenth century fishmonger or something, you haven’t got a Dombeypedia website on which to look up the references, the way you do with Battlestar Galactica. Actually, as a nineteenth-century fishmonger you probably haven’t got Battlestar Galactica either. But you see the point. Dickens’s grotesques aren’t just an authorial tic. They’re mnemonics; a solution to the problem of tracking a big cast over the course of a year. When a guy you haven’t seen in months shows up, you’re more likely to remember “the amateur cello player” than “Mr. Morfin, who has the office next to Carker’s.”

The Dull Paragons are the Caricatures’ exact opposite. I’ll cover them in another post. (As I said, I’m hoping it will be easier to dash off a lot of little mediocre posts than one big one.)

Dombey and Son: Some Initial Mumbling

I’ve been reading an annual Dickens book for the last few years. In 2007 it was Dombey and Son, which among other things reminded me why I need to keep this blog:

Unless young Toots had some idea on the subject, to the expression of which he was wholly unequal. Ideas, like ghosts (according to the common notion of ghosts), must be spoken to a little before they will explain themselves; and Toots had long left off asking any questions of his own mind. Some mist there may have been, issuing from that leaden casket, his cranium, which, if it could have taken shape and form, would have become a genie; but it could not; and it only so far followed the example of the smoke in the Arabian story, as to roll out in a thick cloud, and there hang and hover.

(“Genie” is a brilliant word choice: an implicit pun on “genius.” No other fabulous mythological creature would do.)

One reason I haven’t written much–apart from general intellectual fogginess–is that constructing a decent essay from scattered ideas, arranging them into a coherent argument, daunts the hell out of me. Then I remembered: it’s a blog. There’s no reason I can’t post a series of short, disparate ramblings; if I find I’ve come up with something interesting, I can jury-rig them into an essay later. So expect several short, disparate ramblings.

Also, expect spoilers. Some people hate spoiler warnings. “Plot isn’t important,” they cry. Caring about spoilers is infantile. These people are, of course, pricks. It’s true that a good book is worth reading many times, even after you know the plot by heart. But reading a book for the first time is a different experience, and surprise and suspense are among its chief pleasures. Anyone who doesn’t understand this on a gut level doesn’t understand reading.

Mr. Dickens Goes to Washington

Charles Dickens visited Washington, D.C. in 1842.

I was sometimes asked, in my progress through other places, whether I had not been very much impressed by the HEADS of the lawmakers at Washington; meaning not their chiefs and leaders, but literally their individual and personal heads, whereon their hair grew, and whereby the phrenological character of each legislator was expressed: and I almost as often struck my questioner dumb with indignant consternation by answering ‘No, that I didn’t remember being at all overcome.’ As I must, at whatever hazard, repeat the avowal here, I will follow it up by relating my impressions on this subject in as few words as possible.


I saw in them, the wheels that move the meanest perversion of virtuous Political Machinery that the worst tools ever wrought. Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers; shameful trucklings to mercenary knaves, whose claim to be considered, is, that every day and week they sow new crops of ruin with their venal types, which are the dragon’s teeth of yore, in everything but sharpness; aidings and abettings of every bad inclination in the popular mind, and artful suppressions of all its good influences: such things as these, and in a word, Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and most unblushing form, stared out from every corner of the crowded hall.

— Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation.

I think Charles would be pleased to learn that, one hundred and sixty-five years later, there has been an important change: members of our nation’s legislative body can now be trusted not to spit on the floor.

The Senate is a dignified and decorous body, and its proceedings are conducted with much gravity and order. Both houses are handsomely carpeted; but the state to which these carpets are reduced by the universal disregard of the spittoon with which every honourable member is accommodated, and the extraordinary improvements on the pattern which are squirted and dabbled upon it in every direction, do not admit of being described. I will merely observe, that I strongly recommend all strangers not to look at the floor; and if they happen to drop anything, though it be their purse, not to pick it up with an ungloved hand on any account.

American Notes (four paragraphs later).