The Pickwick Papers Continued: The Madman's Tale

I am starting to get a better feel for Mr. Pickwick and his band of followers, and especially found it interesting when Mr. Pickwick went to speak to his widowed landlady only to have her mistake his words for a marriage proposal. But again, I can only get so deep with the world that Dickens paints where every man seems like a stout, jolly fellow. But, the tales they discover along the way are such a stark counterpoint, I can’t help to be instantly drawn in.

In Chapter 11, we hear of the madman’s tale.

Quote:  “‘Yes!–a madman’s! How that word would have struck to my heart, many years ago! How it would have roused the terror that used to come upon me sometimes, sending the blood hissing and tingling through my veins, till the cold dew of fear stood in large drops upon my skin, and my knees knocked together with fright! I like it now though. It’s a fine name. Show me the monarch whose angry frown was ever feared like the glare of a madman’s eye–whose cord and axe were ever half so sure as a madman’s gripe. Ho! ho! It’s a grand thing to be mad! to be peeped at like a wild lion through the iron bars–to gnash one’s teeth and howl, through the long still night, to the merry ring of a heavy chain and to roll and twine among the straw, transported with such brave music. Hurrah for the madhouse! Oh, it’s a rare place!”

The opening above grabbed me, and I couldn’t stop until I got to the end. This is a story about a young woman who is given up to a madman to marry by her father and three brothers in order to “cash in” on the madman’s wealth, told from the point of view of the madman himself.  It becomes clear from the beginning that perhaps the madman was only mad because he believed it was something he was predestined to.

“I remember days when I was afraid of being mad; when I used to start from my sleep, and fall upon my knees, and pray to be spared from the curse of my race; when I rushed from the sight of merriment or happiness, to hide myself in some lonely place, and spend the weary hours in watching the progress of the fever that was to consume my brain. I knew that madness was mixed up with my very blood, and the marrow of my bones! that one generation had passed away without the pestilence appearing among them, and that I was the first in whom it would revive. I knew it must be so: that so it always had been, and so it ever would be: and when I cowered in some obscure corner of a crowded room, and saw men whisper, and point, and turn their eyes towards me, I knew they were telling each other of the doomed madman; and I slunk away again to mope in solitude.”

He spends his days, convincing himself he is mad, although to the reader, he does not seem so. His wife spends her days wrapped in melancoly. The madman eventually finds out that his wife can never be happy with him, not because he is mad, but because when her family married her off for money, she was in love with another. The man, in his madness, or perhaps his broken heart, plans ways to kill his wife, but before he can do so, she collapses. After a bedside vigil and many doctors, the madman is told to prepare for the worst, since his wife is mad! His wife dies on her own, the very next day. The father, who so heartlessly forced his daughter to marry, followed her to the grave. In the end the madman is confronted by one of the brothers, and he tries to kill the brother in a fit of rage at what they’d done to him and the sister they claimed to have loved. Before he is successful, he is stopped, and he runs for his life realizing that they have discovered the secret of his madness.

‘My secret was out; and my only struggle now was for liberty and freedom. I gained my feet before a hand was on me, threw myself among my assailants, and cleared my way with my strong arm, as if I bore a hatchet in my hand, and hewed them down before me. I gained the door, dropped over the banisters, and in an instant was in the street.

“Straight and swift I ran, and no one dared to stop me. I heard the noise of the feet behind, and redoubled my speed. It grew fainter and fainter in the distance, and at length died away altogether; but on I bounded, through marsh and rivulet, over fence and wall, with a wild shout which was taken up by the strange beings that flocked around me on every side, and swelled the sound, till it pierced the air. I was borne upon the arms of demons who swept along upon the wind, and bore down bank and hedge before them, and spun me round and round with a rustle and a speed that made my head swim, until at last they threw me from them with a violent shock, and I fell heavily upon the earth. When I woke I found myself here–here in this gray cell, where the sunlight seldom comes, and the moon steals in, in rays which only serve to show the dark shadows about me, and that silent figure in its old corner. When I lie awake, I can sometimes hear strange shrieks and cries from distant parts of this large place. What they are, I know not; but they neither come from that pale form, nor does it regard them. For from the first shades of dusk till the earliest light of morning, it still stands motionless in the same place, listening to the music of my iron chain, and watching my gambols on my straw bed.”

It’s a sad tale, of a sad man, who was given the belief from young on that he was destined to be mad. In the end, that belief lead him to his demise. The power of the mind overrode reality.

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