Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

The Uses and Usages of Muddle (Part Two)

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

The Uses and Usages of Muddle (Part Two)

Article excerpt

Confusion figures to serve less often as a rhetorical strategy than other forms of muddle. Indeed misspeaking, the most common form of confused speech, is an accident--without purpose even if not without cause. When Susan Nipper transposes names to create "Mrs. Staggs, of Polly Toodle's Gardens" (DS 217; ch. 15), it would be ungenerous to impute to her a confusion extending beyond speech to the mind, particularly since her previous speech referred correctly to Staggs's Gardens. On the other hand, Mr. Toots's assigning Ned Cuttle's title to Sol Gills to create "Captain Gills" (DS 454; ch. 32) shows indirectly what he elsewhere reveals directly: "I think there's something rather weak in my--in my head, in short" (675; ch. 48).

As these instances suggest, much of the confusion Dickens introduces into speech concerns mistaken identities. When Sairey Gamp refers to "Jonadge's belly," he notes her "appearing to confound the prophet with the whale" (MC 624; ch. 40). In Our Mutual Friend, which mounts a sustained attack on depersonalization, the party-host Veneering introduces Twemlow to Boots and Brewer, but doesn't know which is which. Podsnap wants to meet his host but mistakes Twemlow for Veneering. He declares himself "so glad of this opportunity," but on learning that he has introduced himself to the wrong person, he falls into the further confusion of "Ridiculous opportunity--but so glad of it, I am sure!" (8-9; bk. 1, ch. 2).

Like many other writers Dickens liked malapropism. When Mrs. Todgers observes of a young girl, "She wanted but a pair of wings ... to be a young syrup," he suggests, "meaning possibly, young sylph, or seraph" (MC 137; ch. 9). Sam Weller may not have originated "have-hiscarcase" (PP 609; ch. 43), but he certainly preceded Dorothy Sayers.

As this specimen suggests, Dickens also resembles many writers in liking malapropisms which have some appropriateness, such as Noddy Boffin's "diseased" for "deceased" (OMF 50; bk. 1, ch. 5) and Plornish's "manufacturers" for "malefactors" (LD 143; bk. 1, ch. 12). When Bumble maintains that "all public characters, as I may say, must suffer prosecution" (OT 119; ch. 17), his observation probably appealed to the author.

Dickens goes beyond most other writers to explore syntactical as well as semantic confusion. He shows speakers falling into mixed constructions, then stumbling out of them or giving up altogether. With Pip, Joe Gargery has trouble finding a way to conclude:

   "May you and me do our duty, both on us by one and another, and by
   them which your liberal present--have--conweyed--to be--for the
   satisfaction of mind--of--them as never"--here Joe showed that he
   felt he had fallen into frightful difficulties, until he
   triumphantly rescued himself with the words, "and from myself far
   be it!" These words had such a round and convincing sound for him
   that he said them twice. (GE 95; ch. 13)

Similarly, Veneering speaks to Podsnap as one "who stands in the proud position--I mean who proudly stands in the position--or I ought rather to say, who places Anastasia and myself in the proud position of himself standing in the simple position--of baby's godfather" (OMF 117; bk. 1, ch. 10). When running for Parliament, Veneering

   loses his way in the usual No Thoroughfares of speech, and Podsnap
   and Twemlow say Hear Hear! And sometimes, when he can't by any
   means back himself out of some very unlucky No Thoroughfare,
   "He-a-a-r He-a-a-r!" with an air of facetious conviction, as if the
   ingenuity of the thing gave them a sensation of exquisite pleasure.
   (252; bk. 2, ch. 3)

In Nicholas Nickleby Dickens refers to Parliament as a "no thoroughfare" (191; ch. 16), and the figure has an importance for his work going well beyond syntactical confusion (Lukacher).

Some confusion extends further than semantics or syntax to the status of speech itself. …

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