"Partings Welded Together"

June 15, 2020

Dickens Project Director, John O. Jordan, reflects on partings welded together in the first installment of Dickens-to-Go.



Hi, I'm John Jordan from the Dickens Project and I'm speaking between you from home during the coronavirus pandemic. This year, because of the pandemic, we've been forced to cancel our annual summer conference, which means that for the first time in 40 years, there will be no Dickens Universe on the UC Santa Cruz campus. 

In the meantime, during this year without a Universe, we've decided to produce a series of short video talks where members of our community present a favorite passage of theirs from Dickens and say a few words about why they selected it. These talks are a way of staying connected with our community of loyal Dickens readers and at the same time of continuing to carry out our mission of research, teaching, and public outreach. 

We call this program of videos, Dickens to Go. I think of them as a version of serial publication. We plan to recruit presenters from across the full range of the Dickens Universe: participants, scholars, students, members of the general public, and I want to invite you to be one of them. If you would like to join us and present one of your favorite Dickens passages, or one that you find interesting for any reason, please get in touch with Courtney at the Dickens Project office and she can help show you how to record yourself on your computer and make a video. 

The passage I want to share with you today is from chapter 27 of Great Expectations. It's in a scene near the middle of the book. At this point in the story, Pip has learned that he has a secret benefactor and that he has great expectations. He's living in London with Herbert Pocket and learning, or trying to learn, to act like a gentleman. He has also become a snob, ashamed of anything that calls attention to his working-class origins. 

In this scene, Joe Gargery, the blacksmith, comes up from the village to deliver a message from Miss Havisham and pay a visit to his dear friend, Pip. It's an awkward meeting for both of them. Pip is eager to have the message from Miss Havisham, whom he mistakenly believes to be his mysterious benefactor, but he's not entirely pleased to see Joe, who is a reminder of the working class past, that he wants to forget. Joe is happy to see Pip, but he feels out of place in the city. He senses that he's wearing the wrong clothes and he has a hat that he doesn't quite know how to keep under control, and that keeps falling on the floor. He calls Pip, "Sir," in recognition of the gap in social class that he feels opening up between them. 

As the scene moves toward an end and Joe gets ready to leave, he suddenly realizes that this may be the last time he will ever see Pip, and it may be the last chance he has to say goodbye to his friend. All his awkwardness and formality melt away, and he addresses Pip in the voice of their earlier friendship. 

In his own way, he turns philosophical about the act of saying goodbye, and his language becomes almost lyrical. So, he speaks to Pip and says, "Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man's a blacksmith, and one's a whitesmith, and one's a goldsmith, and one's a coppersmith. Diwisions among such must come and must be met as they come." 

It's a lovely passage, homely, but at the same time, poetic. I think of it as this small piece of blacksmith poetry. It's also an important passage for Dickens, more generally. The keyword here, of course, is partings, which Joe uses both literally and as a metaphor. 

Joe is a craftsman who knows the materials of his trade. For him, partings are literally small pieces of metal that a blacksmith cuts and shapes and welds together to form a chain. Metaphorically, partings are separations, or goodbyes, or "Diwisions" as Joe calls them in his working-class accent. And his point in speaking to Pip is to remind him that partings are an inescapable fact of human existence. Life is made of ever so many of them. "They must come," he says, "and must be met as they come." Joe also knows, and this is his larger point, that each parting, each goodbye is a small foretaste of what Dickens elsewhere calls the final parting, that is of death. Joe is older and wiser than his young friend, and he speaks here with the knowledge and wisdom of accumulated life experience. 

But along with its meditation on the inevitability of separation and loss, Joe's lovely phrase about partings welded together, carries a more positive and life-affirming message, one that resonates across all of Dickens's writing. Like Joe, Dickens is a craftsman, knows the materials of his trade, and those materials also include partings of different kinds. For one thing, partings or small pieces of writing, chapters, or serial installments. And partings welded together is a pretty good metaphor for the process of serial publication. The way that weekly or monthly parts are joined together to make a novel. 

Partings for Dickens, are also passages or scenes of separation and loss. The sentimental farewells and death bed scenes for which his novels are famous. Think of the death of Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop, or a little Paul Dombey, or Joe, the crossing sweeper in Bleak House. Partings are also the moments at the end of the novel and the writer bids farewell to the characters he has created, and to the readers who have been following his story over many weeks and months. 

For Dickens, these are moments of mixed emotion, sadness, and pleasure. And he often describes them in this way in his author's prefaces which although they appear at the front of the book, when it comes out in volume form, were always written after the conclusion to his novels. 

The 1848 preface to Dombey and Son is a good example. And this is Dickens in that preface. "I cannot forgo my usual opportunity of saying farewell to my readers in this greeting place, though I have only to acknowledge the unbounded warmth and earnestness of their sympathy in every stage of the journey we have just concluded. If any of them have felt a sorrow in one of the principal incidents on which this fiction turns, I hope it may be a sorrow of that sort which endears the sharers of it one to another. This is not unselfish of me. I may claim to have felt it at least as much as anybody else; and I would fain be remembered kindly for my part experience." And the reference in the second paragraph is to the death of little Paul in that novel. 

The importance of partings as Dickens's preface makes clear, lies in the shared experience of loss that they represent. Partings are a reminder of our common mortality. And that recognition, in turn, unites the sharers in it, as a community. It endears them one to another. It strengthens the bonds of sympathy and affection that hold them together. Partings in this way become new links, and through the power of art, which welds them together, separations become a means of connection and the experience of loss becomes a positive force for life. 

In this year of enforced separation and social distancing, of canceled conferences and other partings both great and small, I thought it would be useful to look at this passage with fresh eyes and reflect on what it is that holds us together as a community during this time of loss. 

Many things might serve that purpose. One of them, I think is Dickens. So, I hope you've enjoyed these thoughts about the passage on partings welded together. I'll say goodbye for now, but I hope to see you next year in Santa Cruz at the Dickens Universe. And I hope you'll check back with us again soon for another installment of Dickens to Go.


Photo portrait of John O. JordanJohn O. Jordan is Research Professor of Literature at UC Santa Cruz and Director of the Dickens Project. He is the author of Supposing Bleak House (2010) and co-editor, with Robert Patten and Catherine Waters, of the Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens (2018).


Dickens-to-Go is a weekly program of short videos designed to whet the viewers' appetite for "more" of their favorite author. You can join Dickens Project faculty, friends, and students as they share a favorite passage from Dickens and say a few words about why they selected it.

What are your favorite passages? We hope you will make a video too! Email Courtney Mahaney for video submission guidelines.