Charles Dickens has always been a progressive hero of mine. Through his books and his many newspaper articles and serials, Dickens was able to exert social pressure that was unheard of before that time. I have spent many an hour looking from the outside into Debtor's Prison, and I've spent as many from inside Debtor's Prison looking out. Was he the dominant force that finally struck down that scurrilous institution?
He was also something of a writer. From his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, I would like to share with you the two finest paragraphs in literature. By coincidence, one deals with comedy, while the other's target is drama. Without further ado about nothing, I bring you comedy (which was easy for Dickens, as all he needed was a hat and a puff of wind):
There are very few moments in a man's existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be precipitate, or he runs over it; he must not rush into the opposite extreme, or he loses it altogether. The best way is, to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head: smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.
That is first-rate observational humor, advice column, and a wink rolled into one. The words here apply to almost everything in life and should be a Commandment. I won't dissect the humor, as that topic is flammable and subjective. The paragraph can stand alone as priceless, but Dickens, in the preceding stanza, whetted our appetite with this:
... running after his own hat, which was gamboling playfully away in perspective.
And in the subsequent paragraph, this:
There was a fine gentle wind, and Mr. Pickwick's hat rolled sportively before it. The wind puffed, and Mr. Pickwick puffed, and the hat rolled over and over as merrily as a lively porpoise in a strong tide....
All of our dignity, which we've spent decades building up, is subject to a mere puff of wind. How true. Funny too.
The second paragraph needs more of an introduction. Our hero Pickwick, and his friend Wardle, are in hot pursuit of a grifter who has eloped with Wardle's spinster sister in order to marry her and gain her money. Pickwick and Wardle have discovered the elopers at a secluded carriage inn and have brought an attorney (the "little man" in the paragraph below) with them to negotiate this delicate situation with the con artist. Here, then, is drama:
"Now, sir," said the little man, as he carefully closed the door, "is there no way of accommodating this matter--step this way, sir, for a moment--into this window, sir, where we can be alone--there, sir, there, pray sit down, sir. Now, my dear sir, between you and I, we know very well, my dear sir, that you have run off with this lady for the sake of her money. Don't frown, sir, don't frown; I say, between you and I, we know it. We are both men of the world, and we know very well that our friends here, are not--eh?
The way Dickens moved the action through dialogue was stunning. Nothing like you might see in a lot of modern novels, "The little man moved the rogue into a private room and said, 'Is there no way of accommodating this
'...." The technique is especially evident when the little man says, "Don't frown, sir, don't frown." We see all of the action through the words of the little man.
Moreover, life is a negotiation. From the time you first learn to shake your head "No!," to the last time you shake your fist at "those young fellers," you are negotiating. Most of the time, we don't even realize it, as we spend hours and hours negotiating with ourselves each day. Additionally, the tones, inflections and carefully chosen words we use for others are for the purpose of negotiation. Dickens showed how a master negotiator solves the problems of life.
In that short paragraph, you'll find eight uses of the word "sir," two of the phrase "you and I," three "we's," which eventually and naturally and strategically become an "our." The little lawyer is buttering up the scoundrel, but not letting him play his scoundrel games. By the end of the short paragraph, he had secluded him, flattered him, dressed him down and was appealing to the charlatan about "our" common interest. It wraps up with what lawyers call a leading question. A question that presupposes an answer.
Especially enthralling about the paragraph is how the little man had to be careful in a delicate situation. (He even "carefully closed the door.") The spinster sister wanted to believe that the rogue loved her and not her money, and even after the confrontation, she wanted to press on with the marriage. She was in her forties or fifties, so she could legally make up her own mind. If the little lawyer came in with an offer of money and a "take it or leave it" threat, that left the possibility of "leaving it," which was an unacceptable outcome. So, he was forced to use all his wiles to solve the problem. Also, by speaking in private, the negotiators were able to discuss money without doing further harm to the pride of the spinster sister.
[SPOILER ALERT: The grifter, Alfred Jingle, was bought off for 120 pounds, the spinster sister returned home and eventually lived somethingily ever after. Jingle quickly blew threw the money and ended up, where else? Debtor's prison.] Here's a picture of that dread scoundrel, Mr. Jingle: