Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What paintings influenced Dickens?

I remember reading Great Expectations for the first time in my second week at college. (The first week was darkened by reading Bleak House, and dashing out an essay on it.) I can't remember what I wrote on Pip or Miss Havisham or Magwitch; the name I remember spelling over and over again in my best handwriting is Wemmick's. He is a man split between work and home, the public and the private, and I knew how such a split could tear up a man from inside out.

That knowledge was kept from my paper. Though my tutor's comment was appropriately kind to an undergraduate, it pointed out that I kept a polite distance from Dickens' language. I did not understand his point then. Did I not pay careful attention to what I read? Did I not cite incidents to bolster my argument? Did I not quote the speeches that damn the speakers?

Re-reading the novel makes me realize what before I overlooked, or looked right through. Dickens is a great prose stylist. Sure, the characterization, despite its inventiveness, is flat, and the plot aims for the greatest happiness, and unhappiness, of the greatest number, but the style is wonderfully alive to social nuances and linguistic niceties. And the passages that stay with me this time are his vivid evocations of landscape.

After Pip's first encounter with his convict, he describes the marshes into which the fugitive disappears:

The marshes were just a long black horizontal line then, as I stopped to look after him; and the river was just another horizontal line, not nearly so broad nor yet so black; and the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed. On the edge of the river, I could faintly make out the only two black things in all the prospect that seemed to be standing upright; one of these was the beacon by which the sailors steered—like an unhooped cask upon a pole—an ugly thing when you were near it; the other a gibbet, with some chains hanging to it which had once held a pirate.

The description, with its references to lines (horizontal and upright), color and prospect, is painterly. In the first sentence, clauses of almost equal lengths are joined "flatly" by semi-colons and coordinating conjunctions, grammatical devices that imply parity and parallelism between what they join. Delayed to the end of the sentence is the painterly word, "intermixed." The vertical beacon and gibbet, representing the alternatives of hope and death, cross the horizontals of marsh, river and sky. Since this is prose, and not paint, the passage does something more than what a realist painting can do: it makes visible what is hidden by space and time. The ugliness of the beacon close-up. The pirate no longer there.

Like a painter who paints in series, Dickens refers back to this passage in a later description of the Thames when Pip and friends are trying to row Magwitch to safety.

We got ashore among some slippery stones while we ate and drank what we had with us, and looked about. It was like my own marsh country, flat and monotonous, and with a dim horizon; while the winding river turned and turned, and the great floating buoys upon it turned and turned, and everything else seemed stranded and still. For now the last of the fleet of ships was round the last low point we had headed; and the last green barge, straw-laden, with a brown sail, had followed; and some ballast-lighters, shaped like a child's first rude imitation of a boat, lay low in the mud; and a little squat shoal-lighthouse on open piles, stood crippled in the mud on stilts and crutches; and slimy stakes stuck out of the mud, and slimy stones stuck out of the mud, and red landmarks and tidemarks stuck out of the mud, and an old landing-stage and an old roofless building slipped into the mud, and all about us was stagnation and mud.

The second sentence is a marvel. After the semi-colon, the subordinate clauses do not go anywhere but, ending in a stasis stapled by alliteration, turn out to modify the independent clause before the semi-colon. The energy of the turning river and buoys is subordinated to a "flat and monotonous" landscape.

Vessels, made for movement, are considered, only to be dismissed. The last ship disappeared round the low point. The last green barge "had followed" after, the past perfect tense reinforcing the passage of time since there was movement last. The ballast-lighters lay low. Each kind of vessel is simpler than the one before, the ballast-lighters "like a child's first rude imitation of a boat."

This reduction is not innocent. It is a kind of de-creation in which landing-stage and building, products of human civilization, "slipped" back into a primordial soup. It suggests Dicken's horrified fascination with stagnation, the formless mud from which his sentences, his bildungsroman, and his own life emerge, and into which they sink and see.

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