Bulldog: The Characters
In reading fiction, especially fiction of the lighter sorts, readers are tempted to see the characters in abstract terms as straw men or lay figures invented to play a part or represent an idea, a virtue, or a vice.
While it is true that such a view is all too often justified by untalented writers and that even Dickens was plausibly accused by Trollope of having a simplistic black-and-white view of his characters, there are almost always--and virtually always in Dickens--ticks and foibles that challenge our hasty judgment and force us to reevaluate a fictional character.
The Sapper is hardly a great, perhaps not even a good novelist, and, though some of his characters--Algy Longworth in this novel, for example--are mere caricatures, his principal characters (with the obvious exception of Phyllis) are distinctive.
What sort of a man is the Bulldog? As the name suggests, he is big, strong, ugly, and violent, but he is also possessed of an irrepressible sense of mirth that is almost American.
Toward decent people, he is unfailingly kind, and he even has some sympathetic admiration for the great rogue Carl Peterson but not for Lakington. Why? Because Peterson is only as ruthless as he needs to be. He is bold in conception, ruthlessly efficient in carrying out his plans, almost unflappable and not without a sense of humor. Bulldog clearly sees Peterson as a sort of evil alter ego to himself, and Peterson, who is initially mistaken about his enemy, comes to admire Drummond.
Lakington by contrast is petty--a miniaturist in crime, as he brags--and enjoys preying upon Phyllis and her weak-willed father. Even if he were only passively evil, Lakington would be an expendable rat.
Some readers are shocked--or wish to be shocked--by the bath that Bulldog gives the villain. This is straight out of heroic traditions such as that of Theseus who subjects villains to the tortures they have inflicted upon others. Lakington is not only the enemy of all of England, but a man who tortures the weak.
But, some will complain, Drummond's bestial violence, when it is unleashed, is unworthy of a true hero. My first answer is to read Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Song of Roland. My second is to observe that Bulldog had been trained up not in a genteel preparatory school but in the trenches of WW I, an unforgiving preceptor that rewarded a moment of kindness or indecision with instant death. As Drummond himself observes in his planning, if he can cause a moment's hesitation in an enemy, it means victory for himself.
The more obvious truth is that the Sapper knows such men and may have been one himself. He, as much as Wilfred Owen and Hemingway, is describing what happened to his contemporaries caught up in the maelstrom of industrialized warfare. In the idealization of Bulldog as a patriotic survivor, relentlessly cheerful and as ebulliently confident as he is ruthlessly tenacious, he has given us--and this is truly surprising--an original character who is true to the time and circumstances that produced him.