Love and hate in the classics
Technically I missed the deadline for the January topic for Classics Club participants. But I can’t imagine they will expel me for such a minor transgression. Anyway it’s their fault for thinking of such dastardly difficult questions that it takes me all month to think of an answer.
The question on the table is: which character from classic literature do you most despise and why?
Despise is rather a strong word to apply to someone who doesn’t exist in reality. Even though I find Jude Fawley or his cousin Sue Bridehead from Jude the Obscure, two of the most irritating characters I’ve encountered in reading the classics of English literature, I can’t say I loathe them or hate them. They are just deeply irritating to the point where, of all the Thomas Hardy novels, this is the one that I cannot bear to re-read.
My tolerance threshold does get tested to the limit however when I encounter Mr Paul Dombey in the pages Dombey and Son. Dickens presents us with an emotionally bankrupt figure: a man who is rich in worldly possessions but completely deficient in emotions. He Dombey puts commerce and trade on so high a pedestal that he believes money can do anything and all human relationships can be rendered in terms of monetary value and exchange. He desperately wants a son to complete his vision of a mercantile firm bearing the legend Dombey and Son and to reflect his own greatness, caring little that his wife dies in the process. She’s simply done her duty.
But his son doesn’t share his father’s way of looking at the world. Paul junior startles his father on one occasion by asking ‘What is money?’
Mr Dombey was in a difficulty. He would have liked to give him some explanation involving the terms circulating-medium, currency, depreciation of currency’, paper, bullion, rates of exchange, value of precious metals in the market, and so forth;Money, Paul, can do anything.’ He took hold of the little hand, and beat it softly against one of his own, as he said so.
Yes. Anything – almost,’ said Mr Dombey.
Why didn’t money save me my Mama,? returned the child. It isn’t cruel is it.?
Dombey’s preoccupation with his son and with the commercial utopia ahead of them that he is indifferent to his other child, Florence, simply because she is a girl. Indifference turns to neglect when Paul junior dies, throwing the dynastic ambitions into chaos. Worse follows when Mr Dombey’s second wife (a relationship more akin to a commercial exchange than a courtship) abandons him and Florence is blamed. Her father’s neglect turns to hatred and then to violence, leaving the young girl alone in the world.
I still can’t bring myself to detest Dombey however and that’s because Dickens cleverly tempers his satire of this wooden man by a degree of compassion in the final stages of the novel. It would be spoiling the ending for me to reveal that — suffice it to say that by the final pages I was even beginning to like him.