If Tom Pinch were here today we'd hold a case conference on him

Is he trying to win the love of his lost parents? Is he atoning for a wish to abuse his sister?
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The Independent Online
CAN Tom Pinch exist, in the Britain of 1994? Wringing out their handkerchiefs, as the last episode of BBC television's Martin Chuzzlewit faded from the screen, some of my friends have asked whether an entirely good human being like Tom Pinch is st ill possible.

To answer this desperate question needs some preliminary ground-clearing. Is poor, bald Mr Pinch a unicorn or a dodo - in other words, is he a mythical being who never existed anyway, or a species which did once inhabit the earth and has been exterminated by human callousness? This is really for Charles Dickens to answer. And a literary critic might unkindly say about his Tom Pinch that he is not really a personage at all, but just a blank space: everything which all the other monstrous and imperfect characters in the novel are not (simple, transparent, consistent) rather than somebody in his own right.

But that is wrong. At the outset of the novel, Mr Pecksniff observes of him: "Poor fellow, he is always disposed to do his best, but he is not gifted . . . If Thomas has a fault, it is that he is sometimes a little apt to forget his position. But that issoon checked. Worthy soul! You will find him easy to manage. Good night!" With that, the wily Dickens is planting the seed of a suspicion that managing Mr Pinch will not be so easy, that those who use him as a doormat will eventually trip over him, and that being disposed to do one's best may turn out to be a very precious and unusual gift. He is somebody after all, and by the end of the novel a reader feels that he knows Tom Pinch very well indeed.

So if entirely good people were once both possible and plausible, there remains the question whether they are now an extinct or endangered species. Having known some, it seems to me that only a thoroughly bilious and melancholy society like ours could doubt their existence. But endangered they certainly are. Their natural habitats are being slowly but surely cut down or drained.

One of these habitats is Russia. A condition for good people to shine is the combination of public injustice and a tradition of private morality. Russia has been like that for a very long time. To know Russia even a little is to find oneself in a nature reserve - of human nature. Types which have become very rare in the West wander the streets there, people who seem to come from plays by Shakespeare or, indeed, novels by Dickens. Their very names are obsolete. There are blackguards, lickspit tles, scoundrels and rapscallions. But there are also seraphs, hedge-prophets, children of light, saints and angels.

When the scoundrels drove their victims in chains towards Siberia, there were always anonymous people - usually women - who smiled at the prisoners, reached out to touch or to pray for them, or slipped them a piece of bread. In the Soviet years, I have from time to time sat in the homes of people so selfless, so absolutely untouched by the fear and corruption around them and so certain about the difference between good and evil that they seemed to give off light. As Tim Garton-Ash once wrote about Czech dissidents in the 1970s, they were like "candles under the ice".

Russia - that old Russia - has been the kind of place where goodness stood out. But it would be wrong to imply that virtue requires oppression in order to flourish, an idea as daft and sentimental as the Cold War theory (in the West only, of course) thatthere could be no really great writing without the challenge of censorship. The Victorian England of Tom Pinch was a harsh place, but it was not a dictatorship. It was a primitive free-market economy, a bewildering scramble to get on or just to survive in which antique principles were perverted into hypocrisy and deformed - as Mr Pecksniff deformed the endless "morals" he drew - to justify greed and deceit.

The great thing about Mr Pinch was precisely that his goodness did not stand out. He regarded himself as a person of no consequence, in his own words, whose father and mother had been of no consequence either. He would have identified with English working-class parents in this century who used to warn their children: "People like us are just here to make the numbers up, and don't you forget it." No revolutionary, Tom Pinch thought it wrong to harbour vain regrets, or to resent his lowly station. He tried to accept the world as it was, and to see the best in others, and the final scene of the television Martin Chuzzlewit left him telling his sister: "There is a higher justice than the poetical, my dear. I don't grieve for the impossible."

But Tom Pinch, however resigned he was about himself, flew into generous rage when his sister was bullied and humiliated by her employer. For Dickens, a really good person could not be a wimp (unless she was female, like so many of the simpering plaster angels in his books), but had to take a stand about injustice to others. It is this aspect of goodness which does badly in the acid soil of 1990s Britain. Good people are supposed to be feisty (that look-at-me American word) about themselves as well as about those whom they protect or nourish. The idea of somebody who has no ambition except for other people has become irritating and unwelcome. Good people are expected to be "difficult", to be brusque icons like Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer.

We live in a society in which everyone is meant to "grieve for the impossible" and struggle for success. The only acceptable hero is a flawed hero. Celebrities who decide to live in a mud hut and eat home-grown millet porridge are frantically admired because their decision to renounce comfort must have cost them such a struggle.

In contrast, the idea of natural goodness and humility which do not need conscious effort is faintly offensive. The thought of a human being who is at home with the idea of being of "no consequence" and lacks all ambition except to see others happy is positively frightening.

There must, in short, be something wrong with Tom Pinch. There has to be something he is suppressing, some grim urge which he has not worked through, recognised or come to terms with. Many years ago, I picked up an American psychology paperback which began with the words: "The lack of competitive instinct must be considered the primary neurosis." I laughed loudly then. The words are not so funny today.

One of the most odious things about Mr Pecksniff was his habit of goading people into behaving badly and then forgiving them. But the real message of Martin Chuzzlewit is that we are all Mr Pecksniff now. Let us hold a case conference on Tom Pinch, and share all our worries about him. Lack of self-esteem, constant attempts to fulfil himself by making others happy . . . how can we get this poor guy to open up and address his emotional difficulties, before he explodes and lands before a court? Is he trying to win the love of his lost parents by miming their lack of consequence? Is he atoning for a secret wish to abuse his sister? Let him only confess the badness at the root of this terrible goodness. And then we can forgive him. And forget him.