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the Emperor IV John Dickens

Roman à Clef:

John Dickens


Wilkins Micawber


David Copperfield

         The Emperor symbolizes the creative strength of will-power; a charm and aptitude for the four-square world of mankind on earth. He is impulsive in the moment, uniting at once the ethereal aspects of language with the real and tangible. He is adept and lithe of mind, untiring and tenacious, the focus of admiration. He can be trusted to do the right thing at the right time. Trusting his senses and relying on his wits, he can triumph in the end over physical restrictions and attain a degree of genuine freedom.


 John Dickens was, in the words of his son Charles, a “jovial opportunist with no money sense.” As a clerk for the Royal Navy Pay Office, he found it difficult on the meagre salary he earned there to maintain his growing family. He was transferred to Chatham and later to London where, for a £40 debt to a baker, he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea jail. Three months later his mother Elizabeth died, bequeathing him a small inheritance which enabled his release. He was imprisoned again some years later for debt, his son Charles borrowing the money needed from friends to secure his release. When Charles became a famous writer, John Dickens was known to frequently embarrass his son by writing begging letters and securing loans from Charles' friends and associates. To his further dismay, Mr. Dickens made money selling pages from his son's early manuscripts. Eventually, Dickens ran an ad in the paper stating he would not underwrite or reimburse any loans made to his father – but of course he did. John Dickens died in 1851, the year following David Copperfield's publication.


 In the Dickens pantheon, Wilkins Micawber is one of its seminal stars. He is a light-touch and seemingly indestructible. He is Charles Dickens' Falstaff - hilarious, touching, and unforgettable. He finds the ridiculousness in grandeur and the grandeur in ridiculousness. In his daily battles with the razor, he is grave in vicissitude - the low comedy of high tragedy. How he looks and how he acts and how he speaks are all of a piece. The most inarguable thing about him is that he exists – when he's there he's unmistakably there until he deigns to take his leave. Quickly followed, as often as not, by a baroque and apologetic telegram.


 Micawber shows an indomitable superiority to the indecent incidents of life. His logic makes its own sense: Judges are men who wear wigs, therefore only those men capable of wearing wigs are qualified to be Judges, therefore no one is more qualified to be a Judge than a bald man, therefore: “I do not,” as he tells his wife, “regret my hair, and I may have been deprived of it for a specific purpose. I cannot say.” In his way, Micawber keeps the unknown unknown, meeting the absurdity of life every step of the way with the equally absurd – and this game volley to whatever challenges life throws at him may be, in the end, not so folly after all.


 David Copperfield is a novel about learning - “Experiencia does it!” in the mis-transliteration of Mrs. Micawber - and it was an especially instructional one for Charles Dickens. In it, he grows up right alongside David. The father he admired and laughed along with had been immortalized, but he - as a man, in its residue - was left disquieted and disabused. Not until years later, in Little Dorrit's Father of the Marshalsea William Dorrit, was Dickens able to tackle a more mature and less idealistic characterization of his child-like father.


 Sadly, before that could happen, Dickens felt compelled to inveigle Micawber into David Copperfield's late and rather leaden plot-line. In an attempt to vindicate or otherwise make respectable his wayward father-figure – and, in so doing, himself – Dickens turns Wilkins Micawber into a financially successful and self-sufficient public official in Australia. Alas, even a continent as far away as Australia cannot make this plausible or - more importantly – aesthetically palatable. David Copperfield's authentic and wide-eyed portrait of the paternal cadger Micawber comes dangerously close to being usurped by the adult Dickens' revisionist gentrification. This in turn is representative of a fault which rounds off the ending of David Copperfield, wherein every “good” person in the novel is made to join the cult of success. Even the unsuccessful Dora must die to make room for it. In this way, both of David Copperfield's authors undermine the memoir's emotional truth, making it not a child-like evasion such as Micawber was made famous making, but rather a childish evasion made by a successful and unhappy adult.


 In the end, it's as if the air of respectability and financial insecurity which surrounded Wilkins Micawber and John Dickens taught David and Charles two similar but conflicting lessons, namely: that there are obstacles in one's life so unspeakable that a man may reasonably spend his life in the attempt to eradicate these obstacles, and that it is precisely these obstacles he rails against which give his life meaning and make him who he is. Or - in short - while a boy must grow up and stand to face the world as a man, yet he must remain a child - for the kingdom of Heaven belongs to ones like these.


 The black and white sketch seen on The Emperor card behind Wilkins Micawber is of the London slums by Paul-Gustave Doré. It represents the actual world a perennially impoverished man like Micawber would have lived in - and that John and the young Charles Dickens did live in. It hints at the severe hardships facing those marginalized and underclass men, women, and children imprisoned by poverty - whether within the Marshalsea prison's walls or without, and regardless of what endowment of aplomb they may have had. 


Notes for General Circulation


  • The Emperor is counterpart to The Empress, and represents man as he might be. He signifies an ascendancy or immunity over base material concerns.

  • The walking stick he holds cuts the box circumscribing him in half, suggesting his refusal to allow his thoughts to be dragged down by the limitations of the physical world. That said, the walking stick may also suggest The Emperor's reliance on the ground and his need of it to help keep him upright.

  • The square which boxes Micawber in suggests the four elements which frame man's existence. Their inadequate and unequal distribution are indicated by the hardship and deprivation of the Victorian commonwealth lurking in the card's background. In this way, the incredible affluence of the British Commonwealth itself is given a frame of reference. Micawber's back to this dark reality and his glib expression belie civilization's neglect and rejection of the ramifications of its own physical construct. Consider the care he takes with his gloves, so as not to soil his hands. 

  • In a formal pattern, The Emperor may indicate an authority of sorts might like a windfall appear to assist you, must be contended with, or may become an unavoidable irritation.

  • The Emperor and Empress look in the same direction, towards Britain's Great Exhibition and accepted super-ego authority of The Hierophant/Public Mores

  • Traditional divinatory interpretations of The Emperor card include willpower, mind over matter, material wealth and/or abject poverty, an authoritative manner, litigiousness, perseverance, indefatigability, grave misrepresentation, unsinkable aplomb, hot air, dignity, and undue poise. He is sometimes known as The Gypsy King.

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