Tag Archives: Satire

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens (1865)

12 Mar

Crime thriller, love story, comedy, social analysis; Charles Dickens’s final completed novel crosses all these different genres. A colourful, multi-character-ed story in which various story-lines inter-weave and the characters’ paths cross in a variety of situations that induce a variety of emotions in the reader.  In a way, the structure is like that of a soap opera.  I realise that some Dickens aficionados may baulk at making such a comparison, but hear me out.  Soap operas often endure for years, captivating the viewers’ interest with their inter-woven plots and characters’ lives.  A particular plot can resurface after lying dormant for a while, with the viewer excited to know how it’s going to turn out.  Dickens’s style is similar in this respect, and indeed the book was published in serial form initially, released over the course of 19 months.

(SPOILER ALERT: this post contains some details of the story, though there are still many more details left unsaid.)
(And on the subject of spoiler alerts, some editions have a list of characters at the beginning, before the text of the story. This can give away some details of a significant part of the plot so I would recommend not reading the character list until you’re about half-way through the book.)
(OK, that’s sorted; now on with the post.)

The central event, to which nearly all the other story-lines are in some way related, is news of the untimely death of John Harmon. This event is the basis for the crime thriller genre: the mystery of who murdered him. This event also brings together various characters, creating the love stories of John Rokesmith and Bella, Eugene and Lizzie.  In turn, the examination of how this universal human emotional need – the reciprocated love for another – plays out in the paradigm of a society in which money and social class are highly visible and important, creates a fascinating social analysis.  A social analysis made more memorable by Charles Dickens’s biting satirical wit.

In general, fiction is often about conflict and quest, anything that leads the reader to wonder “Will they or won’t they?”; or “How will it be resolved?”  In “Our Mutual Friend”, a central form of conflict and quest is this analysis of relationships within and against the social constraints of 1860s England.  Dickens uses vivid scenes, emotive characters and satire to draw the reader’s attention to the shallow superficiality of a society in which retaining full membership of a particular social class is perceived as more important than loving someone for whom they really are.
Bella’s brave rejection of the wealth and potential social status of the newly rich, social-climbing Boffins in favour of the (relatively) poor John Rokesmith; Eugene’s marriage to the poor and working class Lizzie, ignoring the criticism by society of such a marriage.  Dickens shows these to be sincere, worthy relationships, based on real love and sacrifice (particularly in the case of Bella).  Bella is delighted by her own ability to overcome her former mercenary nature. Eugene and Lizzie’s marriage is praised by Mr Twemlow as a marriage of “the greater gentleman” and “the greater lady” on account of the marriage being based on feelings of gratitude, respect, admiration and affection.  Similarly, many of the less rich characters are shown to be wholesome and decent people in general, e.g. proud Betty Higden, Jenny Wren, Lizzie and the Boffins when they forgo their newly-found fortune.

By contrast, the Veneerings and their dinner party guests (except Mortimer and Mr Twemlow) are shown to be callous and superficial, a feature further highlighted by the very name of Veneering.  This is particularly the case in the final dinner party at which Twemlow makes his above remark in praise of Eugene and Lizzie.  In some ways, it feels as though the story was building up to this: the veneer of respectability (in the form of ‘excellent dinners’ in the opulent home) now fully stripped away, to reveal the callous, pompous attitudes beneath.

It is true that some of the poorer characters are portrayed negatively too, e.g. Rogue Riderhood and Silas Wegg; but the unpleasantness of the rich characters is hidden under a veneer which Dickens removes to expose them.  Yes, we know Rogue Riderhood is a scheming villain and so would anyone; but the Veneerings and their dinner party guests hide their callousness under a veneer of respectability.  Dickens’s biting satire strips this away and Twemlow is shown to be the better person.
In reality, the need for belonging to a group is an important need for anyone; but Dickens shows that the belonging to such a shallow society as that of the Veneerings is rather vacuous.  However, that sense of fully belonging may be difficult to forgo, in a time when social class played such a greater part in people’s lives and in society, however vacuous that may be.  Also the need for financial security is entirely understandable, particularly in the times of far less (if any) social security.  Therefore, it is perhaps excessively romantic to consider someone choosing their love over financial security.
But then this was perhaps Dickens’s aspiration: a change in society to one in which relationships based on feelings of gratitude, respect, admiration and affection COULD thrive above those based on desire for money and/or class.

“A Voyage to Lilliput”, from “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift

6 Nov

This is Part One of “Gulliver’s Travels” and it works as a stand-alone novella/short story without the rest of the book. From what I can remember, I think the children’s book version of “Gulliver’s Travels” covered only this part, which is about the kingdom inhabited by people about one twelfth the size of normal, i.e. around 6 inches tall rather than 6 feet.

As I mention, there’s a children’s version of this story, but the original is very far from a childish story: it’s a satire of the government, royal family and political events of 18th Century Britain. This means some readers – like me – may need a version of the book with detailed notes at the back, to explain the historical events that are the target of Swift’s humour. Unless you’re an expert on 18th Century British history.

As one example, Swift satirises the religious discrimination of that period against Catholics (in favour of Anglicans) by likening it to a dispute over how to eat a boiled egg, thus demonstrating the pettiness of minor doctrinal differences.  This particular piece of satire also includes the War of Spanish Succession (which I therefore assume was at least partly a Protestant-Catholic war).

There are various other targets for Swift’s satire too but I won’t list them all here.

I wonder also if the story’s setting in a land of tiny people was intended to belittle even further the people who are satirised in this story.

There may have been another reason for the setting in a land of tiny people: could it have been intended to highlight how good organisation can enable people to overpower someone physically far bigger and stronger? Brute strength is no match for clever organisation – was it Swift’s intention to show this? Although Gulliver is outnumbered by the Lilliputians, it is still hard to imagine that a full-sized, able-bodied human would be unable to escape easily from large numbers of rats, for example (although he’d probably receive several bites, but like the Lilliputians’ arrows, they’d probably not be fatal). Therefore, Gulliver’s need to use elaborate means to escape – rather than simply walking away – could have been intended to show how the cerebral power of the Lilliputians is more than a match for his physical power.

Finally, another thing that really strikes me about this is the risk that Jonathan Swift took in writing such a subversive story.  He wrote it around 10 years after the events it satirises, so presumably many of the targets of his lampooning would have still been alive.  I had thought that 18th Century Britain was still the type of controlled society in which insulting the government or royals could lead to execution or at least a lengthy prison stay (in conditions no doubt worse than today’s prisons), but maybe Britain had progressed already…. Answers on a postcard please…..