Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 29 (2000)

Dickens, Washington Irving, and English National Identity

It has long been recognized that Dickens drew on Washington Irving's Sketch-Book and Bracebridge Hall for scenes and characters in Pickwick Papersespecially for the Christmas sequence. This paper explores Dickens's debt to Irving in more depth and suggests that the influence is both more widespread in early Dickens and more radical than might hitherto have been recognized. Irving's England, as it is portrayed in his two texts, is predominantly a traditional, conservative nation, functioning within a residually feudal political and economic dispensation. Irving, the tourist from the New World, has come to see old-world Europe still flourishing in romantic and eccentric ways, and to fabricate it imaginatively where he could not see it in actuality. The young Dickens's sense of English national identity is a mix of often unsteadily focussed radicalism and affectionate traditionalism (the latter typified in the quasi-feudal structure of the Dingley Dell community, where Wardle is modelled on Squire Bracebridge). This ideological mix is matched in Irving's mix of republican loyalty with a comic-sentimental attachment to the world of Bracebridge Hall. The two writers thus seem to have a great deal in common: in combination, their writings strongly colored the nation's sense of its own identity in the early nineteenth century.

Pickwick, the Past, and the Prison

Critics have typically regarded the Fleet prison chapters of Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers as merely a plot device, a site of resolution for the novel's difficulties, and an episode in which the prison has only historical relevance, part of Dickens's early social reformism. One may argue, however, that Pickwick's Fleet is rather a site of significant psychological transformation, in which the mishaping of the mind is legible in the marks left upon the body. By focusing upon the Fleet's psychological consequences, one may view Pickwick as a novel that, despite its carefree present, constantly investigates the past, and particularly the psychological past of the prisoner. Pickwick's prisoners all bear the marks of their confinement, and the novel encourages its readers to interpret those marks as part of the psychological legacy of confinement. More, by suggesting Pickwick's concern with memory, transformation, and psychological wounding, one is able to show too the significance of the novel to Dickens's greater career, which included countless narrative returns to the prison. Pickwick Papers does not prefigure later Dickens works in its delightful characters and social reformism only; rather, it also foreshadows Dickens's incessant return to the prison as a site for investigating the darkest horrors of the psychological self.

Oliver Twist and the Fugitive Family

There is a systematic dissonance between developments in Dickens's life when he was writing it, and what we find in Oliver TwistHe was starting a family. Very few characters in the novel get married, have a child or children, and bring them up with the help of a spouse in the usual way. Dickens was experimenting in Oliver Twistan essay in Grand Guignol, but he was also restimulating feelings from his past. Private memories can be detected in it, which underpin Dickens's public indignation at the new Poor Law. Oliver Twist abandons the normal and the normative for the marginal and the transgressive. The novel is pervaded by irony against the family, and parody of it. Consanguinity is marginalized. The arbiters of decency and solvers of problems are old bachelors. In Oliver TwistDickens met a need to write something different from Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby by revisiting emotions inimical to family life. Recognizing this helps explain Dickens's rejection of Cruikshank's original final illustration for Oliver Twisttoo cosy for Dickens's sombre vision.

Down Ditches, On Doorsteps, In Rivers: Oliver Twist's Journey to Respectability

To resolve the moral ambiguities created by the hero's birth to an unmarried woman in the workhouse, Oliver Twist makes canny use of three archetypal locations: the ditch, the doorstep, and the river. In the first place, the novel exploits the long-lived cultural icon of the illegitimate baby, abandoned at the side of the road. Saved from early death by official intervention, Oliver Twist nevertheless plays the role of the murdered baby in the ditch at a later stage in the text, and, indeed, thanks to serial publication, remains in this invidious position for a disproportionately lengthy time. When he manages to move himself to the doorstep of a well-to-do house, however, he takes up residence in a far more acceptable story: Oliver dies the death of the least-wanted baby, in order that he may begin the life of a very different kind of baby, the fortunate foundling. From this point on Oliver is placed on a clear route to a happy conclusion, but just as importantly, the novel begins to work towards the regeneration of his mother's reputation. When Monks consigns Agnes' jewels to the turbid waters of the river, the last remaining traces of any possible kinship between Oliver's mother and the prostitute are removed from the book, and she is finally able to rejoin the family, and allowed to "hovers round the solemn nook" of an old country church.

The Long and Short of Oliver and Alice: The Changing Size of the Victorian Child

This essay seeks to relate the changing sizes of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Alice in Wonderland and the small stature of Oliver in the Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist to biological theories of development and growth, especially as these pertain to children. The essay explores how the Victorians understood size and how that understanding was reflected in their fictional presentation of children. For instance, was the small stature of the child perceived as a sign of its weakness and vulnerability, thereby defining childhood as a state distinct from and alternative to adulthood, or were children regarded as adults in miniature, as essentially mature in everything except size? By relating the two historically significant theories of growth--preformation and epigenesis--to Alice in Worderland and Oliver Twist, the essay explores the literary ramifications of size and suggests that while these two appear to reflect diametrically opposite theories of growth, they are in fact.not as contradictory as they may at first appear

Raising the House Tops: Sexual Surveillance in Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son (1846-8)

Drawing on Laura Mulvey's theory of the gaze, Michel Foucault's notion of the panopticon, and recent criticism on nineteenth-century detective fiction, this essay examines surveillance in Charles Dickens's Dombey and SonSurveillance in this novel is concerned with detecting sexual guilt. At first, the novel's panopticon is directed at Florence and Edith to imply their sexual fallenness; however, halfway through, it shifts onto Dombey. What becomes clear is that the sexual guilt that the novel anxiously seeks to uncover by raising the house tops off lies less within the female characters than it does within the male--Dombey in particular. In other words, it is anxiety about the male characters that ultimately drives the novel's surveillance. The questions this essay addresses, then, are as follows: Why does the novel displace its true surveillance of Dombey onto the female characters? Why does the surveillance shift halfway through the novel? and, most saliently, What are Dombey' s sexual secrets?

Dickens and Disgust

Despite his moral intentions, low comedy, or social satire, Dickens apparently possessed a genius for generating images which many of his contemporaries found disgusting. His unrestrained descriptions of slime and blood, rottenness and smells, bodily excretions and fleshy explosions frequently offended Victorian sensibilities. Unspecified moral distaste for Dickens's "vulgarity" is commonplace in Victorian reviews of the novels. "His choice of odious characters offers too frequently a disgusting picture of life," said one reviewer in 1848. Another complained that unnatural characters "painted with a sickening minuteness" are "simply revolting," and even Walter Bagehot admitted that Dickens's range is so varied that the reader passes from "extreme admiration" to "something like disgust" in a matter of moments. Dickens's novels invite a vivid appraisal of the nature of disgust for the Victorian imagination--an important subject according to William Ian Miller's The Anatomy of Disgust because disgust implicates a culture's moral sensibility, its politics, and its social institutions. Charles Darwin was the first to theorize disgust in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1871); his acceptance of all emotions as subjects for analysis is similar to Dickens's virtual celebration of the even most loathsome aspects of physical life. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, this essay argues that in his graphic evocations of human viscosity, of slime and scum, Dickens is an agent for change, a celebrator of disproportion and anomalousness in a culture that cherishes order and symmetry.

Authority and the Bildungsroman: the Double Narrative of Bleak House

Bleak House is divided into two narratives of about equal length: Esther's narrative and an omniscient present tense narrative. Esther Summerson's autobiographical narrative is an effort of self-fashioning. In responding to the narrative pattern for Esther's life proposed by her aunt, Miss Barbery, in.whicn Esther is predetermined by the sin of her mother to a life of "submission, sef-denial, diligent work," Esther attempts to construct the story of her life as a narrative of industry, contentedness, and kind-heartedness, with the winning of love for herself as its goal. She thus inscribes a narrative that strives to follow the pattern of secular romance over Miss Barbery's Old Testament narrative of wrath. Esther succeeds in establishing herself as a woman whose worth must be measured by her individuality rather than one whose identity is established by the conditions of her birth. The second part of the essay treats the relationshio between Esther's narratIve and the omnisicent narrative as an effect of historical conditioning. The present-tense narratIve, possibly derived from Carlyle's The French Revolution, is a presentation of the modern that sees the past as deracination and decay and the future as intrinsically uncertain. Its version of the quest, driven by anxiety as a primary condition of the modern, is the detective story, exemplified by Inspector Bucket and a range of amateur detectives. Unlike the classic detective story, however, its realist impulse denies any closure that would stabilize its world and alleviate anxiety. Its claim for authority comes from its creation of an anthropology of the modern city as a human creation that is paradoxically alien to its inhabitants who must, like Esther, fashion identities for themselves if they are to survive as something more than statistics.

Distorted Religion: Dickens, Dissent, and Bleak House

Nothing fired Dickens's imagination, Humphry House once suggested, like "the muddle he hated," and no work better demonstrates the muddled ways of Victorian England than Bleak House. Critics have long recognized the special status of this novel among Dickens's works: it is the most comprehensive in its representation of British culture, the most complex in its analysis, and the most conflicted in its evaluation of the workings of power. What has not gained sufficient attention, however, is the religious dimension of the text, specifically, the extraordinary extent to which contemporary religious controversies inform Bleak House and its socio-political outlook. The role of religion in the novel goes far beyond the author's well-known antipathy to spiritual gloominess and hypocrisy. Dickens's supposed distaste for theological debate nothwithstanding, he is at pains throughout the work to demonstrate the manifest inferiority of a particular segment of the country's Christian population--namely, religious Dissenters--and to represent the serious threat they posed to the moral and spiritual health of the nation. The novel imposes the practice of seeing Dissent as aberrant and corrupt, a deviation from a normative Anglican--and more fully English--identity. Dickens's anti-Dissenting discourse in Bleak House is central to his criticism of mid-Victorian culture.

Speculative Plagues and the Ghosts of Little Dorrit

Dickens's extended description in Little Dorrit of the desire to speculate with capital as an unwitting bodily infection touches on a central Victorian concern, one with links to political economy, medical theories of contagion, and evangelical spirituality: the causal connection between liability and subsequent suffering. In the novel, originally titled Nobody's FaultDickens presents an addition to the catalogue of so-called "social diseases" to compel the reader to reexamine the laissez-faire conception of financial reversal as necessarily rooted in personal shortcomings, such as avarice, laziness, and luxuriousness. More specifically, by offering the detailed history behind Arthur Clennam's fall, Dickens constructs a complex pathology of monetary failure, suggesting that there may be mitigating factors that corrupt the individual's relationship to (and perception of) an economy. Furthermore, the novel's presentation of Gothic themes (including imprisonment, domestic tyranny, and the supernatural) is based in a series of mis-speculations regarding the self's role in institutional failure. Dickens extends a long Gothic tradition by having his misguided but true-hearted protagonist carry his sense of personal loss out of a haunted house to the arena of market speculation, to an institution in which the possibility of debt and "relational identity" are approached as an acceptable investment. In the end, the Clennam haunted home is connected, via this idea of plague-ridden speculation, to the Marshalsea debtor's prison; or, put another way, that prime speculator Mr. Merdle and the extremely evangelical Mrs. Clennam are joined in one villainous, corrupted order.

Desire and Deconstruction: Reclaiming Centers

This essay argues against constructs of lack as they inform desire, subjectivity, and meaning in two sections: one on theory, and one on Dickens's Our Mutual FriendThe first section locates positive models of desire based on energy in works by Coleridge, Shelley, Pater, and Foucault, as well as in the discourses of biology and physics, arguing especially against Lacan and Derrida. The second half of the essay shows that Dickens responded to Darwin's Origin of Species in imagining his novel. Darwin's model of beings shaped by interaction with other beings and the environment situates the energy of desire to reproduce and compete within beings themselves. Dickens also used Mesmer's concept of "animal magnetism." Bradley Headstone, Eugene Wrayburn, and Lizzie Hexam provide three models of desire based respectively on lack, the exercise of power, and a more socially responsible and imaginative relationality. Lizzie's desire, the best form according to Dickens, shows that her "nature" is its origin, that she responds morally and imaginatively to other people in her environment, and that she wants to read in order to connect herself to her world.

Doing the Police in Different Voices: The Search for Identity in Dust Heaps and Waste Land

Even before the recovery of T. S. Eliot's "lost" manuscripts identified his working title for sections of The Waste Land as "He Do the Police in Different Voices, Parts I and II" (a reference to Sloppy found in Our Mutual Friend), two critics had noted similarities between the works. Edgar Johnson referred to Our Mutual Friend as "The Waste Land of Dickens's work, and Lionel Trilling wrote of similarities he and his students discovered. The most extensive comparison was undertaken in 1977 by Peter Lewis in the Durham University JournalLewis found a number of interesting parallels, but the most notable similarity of all--how the manner in which Dickens and Eliot address the question of identity makesOur Mutual Friend Dickens's most "modern" novel and The Waste Land Eliot's quintessential "modern" poem--went undiscussed. Our Mutual Friend is a modern text in both its central theme of maintaining one's identity amid modern disintegration and its focus on the narrative as a means of telling one's own story and thereby escaping the fate of having one's story told by others. The characters in Our Mutual Friend are forever asking, "Who am I?"--often not liking the reflected answers. Their lost identities, false identities, and mistaken identities form the crux of the novel.

Beauty is as Beauty Does: Action and Appearance in Bronte and Eliot

In Jane Eyre and Villeteand Middlemarch and Daniel DerondaCharlotte Bronte and George Eliot chart the personal and moral development of several women characters. Both writers explore the effects of social context on the course of this development, as the heroines either learn and grow within, or without, the boundaries of what is approved and expected within their social milieu. Bronte's heroines tend to follow an unconventional course: they start out as outcasts, which then allows, or requires, them to live unconventional lives. By contrast, Eliot's heroines frequently find themselves to be living conventional lives, which nevertheless fail to satisfy them; custom and complacency are the major threats to their development as fulfilled human beings. In both cases, appearance plays a central role in determining the degree to which these characters rebel, conform, or compromise, as social expectations about what constitutes acceptable behaviour are revealed to be quite different for the poor, plain woman and the woman of status and beauty. Moreover, for both Bronte and Eliot, appearance serves as a marker of moral potential: either characters grow into beauty as they become more beautiful morally (Bronte), or they justify the privilege of beauty by going beyond an admirable appearance to act admirably as well (Eliot).

"Three Leahs to Get One Rachel": Redundant Women in Tess of the d'Urbervilles

After carrying three other dairymaids across a flooded lane, Angel Clare finally gets his chance with Tess Durbeyfield. "Three Leahs to Get One Rachel," he whispers. This essay argues that the unwanted dairymaids, the duped husband on his honeymoon, and the younger sister who replaces the elder, find their origins in the story of Jacob and his wives. This Biblical tale of sexual selection works in dialogue with Darwin's theory in Hardy's novel. The essay seeks to show that Hardy's concern is not only for the beautiful and beloved Tess, but for Marian, Izz, and Retty, redundant women who would have fared better in biblical times than in late Victorian england. One of the last great Victorian novels destroys the nineteenth-century marriage plot by exposing it as a statistical lie.

Near Confinement: Pregnant Women in the Nineteenth-Century Novel

While eighteenth-century British novels are peppered with women "big with child"--Moll Flanders, Molly Seagrim, Mrs. Pickle--nineteenth-century novels typically veil their pregnant characters. Even in nineteenth-century advice books by medical men, circumlocution and euphemism obscure discussions of pregnancy. This essay explores the changing cultural significance of the female body from the mid-eighteenth century to the early Victorian period, giving particular attention to the grotesque figure of Mrs. Gamp in Martin ChuzzlewitThrough ostentatious circumlocution and through the hilariously grotesque doubleness of Mrs. Gamp, Dickens both observes and ridicules the Victorian middle-class decorum that enveloped pregnancy in silence.

Recent Dickens Studies: 1998

This review covers reference works, editions of Dickens's work, monographs, collections of essays, journal articles, and a few paperback editions: 140 items in all. It does not include studies in languages other than English, novel reprints, videocassettes, or study guides. Various modes of criticism are represented: traditional explication of the text, psychoanalytic criticism, postcolonial, Marxist: the gamut. Bakhtin, Benjamin, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan--these and other current critical authorities occur regularly, sometimes usefully, sometimes touch-and-go. The essays in the collection on Bleak House date from 1971 to 1993, those in the collection on A Tale of Two Cities from 1970 to 1992. Standing out in the year's production: Volume 10 of the Pilgrim LettersPaul Davis's Charles Dickens from A to ZDeborah Vlock's concept of the imaginary text; and Suzanne Keen's of the narrative annex.

Recent Studies in Thomas Hardy's Fiction: 1987-99

This survey assesses the current state of critical scholarship dealing with Hardy's novels, offering synopses and commentary on the profusion of book-length studies that have surfaced during the period 1987-99. The variety of critical postures discernable among recent Hardy studies is suggested by the diversity of classifcatory divisions presented in the essay, including feminist readings, multivalent analyses of individual novels, collections of essays, "poststructuralist" readings, biographical studies, and "critically eclectic" readings that often eschew tidy categorization. This overview focuses on the full gamut of often-contradictory interpretative strategies proffered by leading Hardy scholars of our time. In addition, this essay underscores the impact of the relatively recent appearance of previously unpublished personal correspondence and related Hardyan arcana upon Hardy scholars, especially those concerned with biographical and historical contextualization of the novels. In this review attention is also focused upon recent publications offering guided excursions through and around the contemporary labyrinth of theory-based criticism. Overall, this collection of capsule-sized reviews aspires to provide an informed awareness of the breadth and robust vitality of the thriving "Hardy industry."