After reading three selections from Boz, I was struck by a sense of deja vu. But in reverse. Instead of deja vu making me recall a place or time already experienced in the past, I was actually reading Boz and experiencing Dickens in the future. Weird, huh? Makes my head hurt if I think about the existential ramifications of all that — you know, that time travel and space-time continuum paradox of many a Star Trek episode that says if you go back in time, you change the future. (One of the best being the most recent iteration of the Star Trek movie history.)
Think about it. We’ve spent the semester going backwards in time with Dickens, so Boz, as early Dickens, should certainly give us a sense of where it all began. While reading “Thoughts About People,” I noticed that Dickens comments on friends, in the context of the way city life (specifically London) isolates a man. He observes a “class of people…who seem not to possess a single friend, and who nobody appears to care for.” I immediately thought of OMF and the Veneerings’ version of friendship — society / social climbers dependent on others for their own elevation (“old friends”) but who are never humanly connected emotionally. While the Veneerings are certainly the least sympathetic, there’s the more sympathetic character of Twemlow, whom I thought I saw in the character described by Dickens in this episode of Boz as the man dining alone. Could this have been Twemlow’s great-great-grandfather in fiction?
Life in London — Dickens’ later works seem to suggest he doesn’t think much of it, painting it in such dark, deadly tones of poverty, grime, and human suffering. The stories we’ve read early in the semester include all of the grim, depressing elements of urban life. City life, it seems in Boz as elsewhere in Dickens pseudo-fictional world, devours a man who comes to it for economic survival. How odd a twist is that? Country residents, needing a means of eating, migrate to the city for work, only to be devoured in the process. Dickens’ portraits of city life seem to follow a strict circumscribed progress — much like the rhythm of city streets and structures. It’s as if the city “takes over,” like some sort of parasite:
This sense of deja vu continues when I read Chapter 23, “Pawnbroker’s Shop.” This “receptacle for misery” where “distinctions must be observed even in poverty” reminds me of Fledgeby’s moneylending business Pubsy & Co. This chapter in Boz clearly intimates that those who enter to pawn their worldly goods do so to survive, and enter with a sense of shame, looking around to be sure “no one watches him, hastily slink[ing] in.” Dickens’ long list of stuff found in this shop speaks of people’s daily lives, from the insignificant to the treasured. How striking that the pawn shop of Dickens’ world takes on such a different light when we look at our “reality” shows like Pawn Stars (oddly enough on the History Channel) or Hardcore Pawn. Unlike the modern glitter and glam of what our modern fiction offers us as the pawn store, Dickens’ version really reflects the underbelly of city life, what happens when the city digests its inhabitants. It’s a microcosm of misery: abused and abandoned wives, mothers, lovers, children. Men who’ve succumbed to drink or gambling, or simply the economic machinery of London. Reading about the women in Dickens’ shop made me think of Samantha’s presentation on prostitutes, how this pawn shop seemed to be the final stop before the descent into that next realm of city-spawned hell. It made me think of how limited are the choices of Victorian women in terms of their economic coinage. Truly, their lives are the coins — not just the belongings that they pawn, which seem by their descriptions to be extensions of their roles in society, trinkets of birth, children, beauty, marriage. What a revealing keyhole to peer through.
Then there’s Chapter 10: The River. I have to say, I was surprised by this Sketch. After my research on the Thames, this story of frolicking and joy on the Thames really caught me off guard. Gone were the images of death and mire, muck and smell of Tale of Two Cities, Edwin Drood, and Our Mutual Friend. They have been replaced (preceeded?) by a vision much more rosy – poking fun of youth, those “amateurs of boating” enjoying rowing on the Thames as a Sunday water party. I couldn’t believe my eyes! What happened? Ah, deja vu again. This is Dickens before the city devoured him, broke him, darkened him. This is the Dickens’ eye when young and unjaundiced.
Yes, a timeline paradox. Deja vu.