Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 30 (2001)

Styles of Stillness and Motion: Market Culture and Narrative Form in Sketches By Boz

Dickens began his literary career by writing short tales before finding greater success with the primarily descriptive, plotless sketches that comprise much of Sketches by Boz. His move from narrative tale to nonnarrative sketch corresponds to a change in focus: he shifts his attention from the suburbs to the city and from the relatively comfortable middle ranks of society to the struggling lower class. Owing to its participation in the restless, dynamic culture of the market, the middle class is easily narrated: it is intensely interested in time and always orients itself toward the future. The capitalist culture the middle class inhabits imagines the urban poor, on the other hand, as locked in a static, unchanging existence that can only be described, not plotted. The dynamism of the market is not absent from Dickens's descriptive sketches, though; rather, it is manifested in Dickens's restless, often violently energetic style, which serves as a counterpoint to the abject stasis of the lower-class characters he describes. This descriptive style becomes the most important factor in the success of his early novels, which are distinguished more by their stylistic force than by the coherence of their plots.

Clock Work: The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge

Like The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge originally appeared within the framing narrative of Master Humphrey's Clock, in which Master Humphrey reads aloud stories written by his listeners. Dickens soon found the Clock device inhibiting, and later published both novels without it. But elements from the Clock survive in The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. Humphrey's quaint rambling old house reappears as the Curiosity Shop, the Maypole Inn, and the Warren. These antique settings invoke the atmosphere of Gothic fiction as Dickens knew it, with threatened maidens (Nell, Dolly Varden, Emma Haredale). As in Gothic fiction, they are threatened sexually and often financially, by sinister predators, in labyrinthine or half-ruined structures. The Catholic theme in Barnaby Rudge adds another traditional Gothic element. Gothic fiction frequently depends on the villain's manipulation of the victim, either by guile or by terror. Dickens's chief villains in Barnaby Rudge, Sir John Chester and Gashford, also manipulate, controlling Lord George and Hugh, and through Hugh the actions of Barnaby and the mob. Their control of characters and plot allows Dickens to query a novelist's manipulation of characters and plot.

Executing Beauty: Dickens and the Aesthetics of Death

Dickens was notoriously reticent on the subject of aesthetics. There is, in the whole of his work, very little philosophizing about the nature of art or beauty. This reticence means that what Dickens understood by art must be inferred from his fiction and this inference leads directly to the startling observation that the few times when Dickens does raise issues of aesthetics in his fiction occur within the context of violent death. In fact, virtually the only characters in the Dickensian canon who are self-proclaimed as artists are those who make a profession of death--Mr. Venus in Our Mutual Friend and Dennis the Hangman in Barnaby Rudge. This essay explores the paradoxical association of art, extinction, and execution in Dickens's fiction. It suggests that by yoking the three, Dickens was speaking indirectly of his own novelistic enterprise and that Dickens's fascination with such gruesome topics as dismemberment, dissection, and decapitation had implications for his literary style, so that a study of these matters may contribute to our understanding of his aesthetic beliefs.

Did Dickens Have a Philosophy of History? The Case of Barnaby Rudge

Despite its flaws, Barnaby Rudge is a remarkable attempt and achievement for Dickens at the very outset of his career. In it, Dickens not only attempts to write a historical novel on the model of Scott and the spate of Scott imitators in the 1830s, but he seems also to be struggling to articulate a philosophy of history. The oxymoron "grotesque populism" is perhaps as accurate a designation as any for this philosophy of history. 
Populism refers to the belief that all moral virtue and political legitimacy resides in the common people, not in their rulers. But populism turns grotesque when misrule through the centuries has so deluded and deformed the common people that they themselves emerge, as in the foolish rituals and plotting of Simon Tappertit's `Prentice Knights and the mob violence of the Gordon rioters, as a grotesque, nightmarish caricature of what the common people might have been if wisely ruled. In short, in political terms, all of the nightmarish aspects of Barnaby, including its often slapstick violence, add up to the grotesque results of a balked or thwarted populism. And grotesque populism is registered, too, in Dickens's treatment of time in the novel. As in the narrative frame of Master Humphrey's Clock, Dickens in Barnaby is fascinated by grotesque distortions of time, which in turn point to the grotesque distortion of history represented by the Gordon Riots. Even though Dickens never attempted to give a philosophical explanation of grotesque populism, from Barnaby Rudge onward all of his novels express that near-philosophy of history with a visionary intensity that give them a depth and seriousness very different from the view of those critics who have seen him as a shallow, inconsistent thinker, a mere "sentimental radical."

Masques of the English in Barnaby Rudge

Understanding the interaction of "Catholic" and "Protestant" in the novel means thinking not only about the events of 1780 dramatized there for also the Elizabethan/Jacobean witches' cauldron in which its primary images were formed, images which install an insistent dualism between (Roman) Catholic "duplicity" and (English) Protestant "authenticity" crucial to the formation of a new "national character." At the same time, as the novels of Scott show, the continuing return of the repressed Catholic plays out an English anxiety that the "Catholic" is in fact the authentic, and the "Protestant" a masquerade. A central figure for this anxiety in the English imagination is the conspiring Jesuit, who exists both as a political figure going ack to the Gunpowder Plot's myth of the "miner" beneath parliament, and as a hypermasculinist threat to the new erotic faith that enlisted the nineteenth-century novel to help create a new "national character" based in "the home." John Chester, plotting to explode the faith of the novel's erotic couples as well as of his Catholic schoolfellow, is this novel's conspiring Jesuit.

Politics and Barnaby Rudge: Surrogation, Restoration, and Revival

Can Barnaby Rudge be read as a political novel? Despite its historical subject, the answer would seem to be no. The novel does graphically portray the domestic and public tyrannies that drove the Gordon Riots. Here, as later in his career, Dickens is unrivaled in his portrayal of the marginated and the powerless. But at the same time the novel confirms in a particularly clear way Dickens's deep and characteristic aversion to any structure or system which claims, for whatever cause, to impinge on or constrain the self. And it highlights his profound pessimism regarding any form of ameliorative, let alone revolutionary, development in British social life. In fact, Rudge reveals itself as so deeply anti-political that it can be read as an invaluable and illuminating proto-text in the development of European fascism, its rioters the sympathetically drawn precursors of all the ardent, rootless young men at the core of the full-fledged fascisms that followed.

Demons on the Rooftops, Gypsies in the Street: The "Secret Intelligence" of Dombey and Son

An unusual perspective on Dickens's attitudes towards omniscience results from tracing through the "secret intelligence" that drives the plot of Dombey and Son. On the surface, the novel links intelligence to new technologies: the entrepreneurial speculations of the villainous Carker and the rapidly expanding network of London's new railways. However, another circuit for information gathering and purveying is created through the wanderings of a very different character: the grotesque beggar and rag-and-bone seller Good Mrs. Brown, whose characterization both hearkens back to fairy-tale conventions of the wicked witch and anticipates an increasing interest in documenting the lives of London's street people. Her inexplicable speed and mobility, along with her keen vision, make her a figure of narratorial omniscience, but one whose greed and disfigurement trouble the Dickensian narrator's expressed hopes that greater knowledge may lead to increased Christian charity. Dickens's concern with demonic observers and canny wanderers surfaces again in an 1854 article inHousehold Words, "A Tour in Bohemia." Together with Dombey and Son, this essay hints at a conjunction of artistic and sociological anxieties, as society's almost invisible aliens come to seem both the model for Dickens's vision and the one object capable of eluding it.

"More Like Than Life": Painting, Photography, and Dickens's Bleak House

In a recent article, Ronald R. Thomas writes that in Bleak House "photographic images are contrasted...with a set of painted portraits which do not tell the truth." If we consider the novel in the context of contemporary writings on photography, however, this claim becomes problematic. The ubiquity of portraits among the novel's middle-class characters raises questions about representation that resonate not just through the 1830s (the era of the novel's setting), but also through Dickens's own era of the 1850s, a time in which the photograph had largely replaced the painted portrait as a means of memorializing the middle classes. Advertisements for John E. Mayall's photographic studio appearing in serialized issues of Bleak House, Dickens's letter to Angela Burdett Coutts describing his first sitting for Mayall in December of 1852, and articles published in Household Words in the early 1850s all attest to the popular fascination with photography, but also suggest the writers' ambivalence toward the new technology, ambivalence born of the rigidity, artificiality, and potential distortion of early photographic images. These same qualities are attributed to painted portraits in Bleak House. In subtly equating photography (the new technology of the middle classes) with painting (traditionally the means of preserving the images of the elite), the novel cautions readers against naive celebration of the documentary accuracy of any type of representation while also suggesting the susceptibility of the rising middle classes to the foibles of the erstwhile ruling classes.

Wax-Work, Clock-Work, and Puppet-Shews: Bleak House and the Uncanny

While Esther has been discussed as a character who both experiences uncanny feelings herself and generates uncanniness in others, critical commentary has yet to pay attention to Esther's doll as an uncanny figure or to examine the uncanny relationship Esther has with her doll. Through close reading of those passages in which Dolly appears in Bleak House, this essay reconsiders the Freudian uncanny and its presence in this novel by looking at the uncanniness of things, specifically Esther's doll. Additionally, analysis of the two key moments in the novel when Dolly reappears (during Esther's search for love and for her mother) illustrates how the uncanny is solidly rooted in the unconscious mind of the child and is brought about by the sexual life of the adult.

Towards a Dickens Poetics: Indexical and Iconic Language in Bleak House

Readers have long felt that relying on the traditional means of criticizing narratives and realism were inadequate to appreciate the novels of Charles Dickens. By using the semiotic terms of Charles Peirce, Ferdinand Saussure, and Roman Jakobson, it may be possible to isolate some of his techniques and so to understand better the quality of Dickens's writing. This approach enables us to discover the effects both of Dickens's word-play and his elaborate structuring of sentences. In Bleak House there is ample evidence of both. Words and names seem to be imposed on the text by the character of the object or person. In addition, he sculpts the sentences so that their arrangements reinforce, as icons, the symbolic meanings. This crafting of the sentences not only foregrounds the material, the language, of the novels, but it also seems to add a magic, a necessary, an essential character to what is supposed to be a conventional and arbitrary sign system. Dickens often deploys sentences to provide an iconic or indexical supplement to the conventional meanings of the words. If poetry is an art which is more opaque than prose, featuring the material of language-that is, signifiers-as part of its expression, and often requiring the reader to revisit the text a moment or two before deciding how best to decode the words, then Dickens's novels may be better appreciated for their poetic qualities.

Hard Times: The Disciplinary City

As Dickens's "industrial novel," Hard Times confronts the complexities of the Victorian class structure. However, the novel also elaborates a critique of institutional mechanisms, in particular the disciplinary operations of Utilitarianism and coordinate industrial structures. As D.A. Miller, Jeremy Tambling and Cynthia Northcutt Malone (among others) have well established, Dickens prefigures, if not precedes, Michel Foucault in recognizing the disciplinary machinery that insinuated itself into Western culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hard Times is one of the more extensive considerations of that recognition in the Dickens world; the novel dramatically diagnoses apparatuses of Foucauldian "discipline" in Victorian culture and problematizes the nature of the "self" in that paradigm.

"Like or No Like": Figuring the Scapegoat in A Tale of Two Cities

The "sacrifices and self-immolations on the people's altar" in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) significantly restage many of the scapegoat paradoxes biblically represented in Leviticus' pronouncement of scapegoat ritual, pictorially dramatized in Holman Hunt's Victorian canvas The Scapegoat (1854), and recently clarified by René Girard's account in The Scapegoat. An interdisciplinary reading of the novel, which involves both deconstruction and myth criticism, seems best equipped to honor these paradoxes. Leviticus relevantly emphasizes motifs of substitution and sacrifice, besides various Oedipal crimes, while Hunt's controversial painting graphically illustrates and illuminates a series of scapegoat ambiguities, especially those dealing with the problems of supplementarity and Sonnenuntergang or final setting of the Sun and Son. Girard's leads help enlighten what he terms the four "stereotypes of persecution," which also occur in the novel: a culture polluted by "loss of differences"; specific crimes like "parricide and incest"; the stigmatizing "signs of a victim"; and purifying punishment through "collective murder." Such insights coordinate and clarify the novel's general concern with wasteland sameness and difference as personified in Carton and Darnay, located culturally in England and France, and represented semiotically and rhetorically by the "sign of the cross." They also again help coordinate both Oedipal motifs and scenes of writing in the text, Finally, they point to Carton's related roles as the medieval "Knight of the Cart" and the biblical Paraclete who supplements "the Resurrection and the Life." In this context scapegoat paradoxes can ultimately shed their shadowy light on the paradox of Carton himself.

Montrous Displacements: Anxieties of Exchange in Great Expectations

Contrary to traditional critical views which characterize it as a return to his earlier, comic style, Great Expectations represents a development in Dickens's thinking about social issues and an emergent culture of modernity in the 1860s. Using Dickens's interest in contemporary research into disturbances of mind, this essay shows how descriptions of Pip's mental state are used to register anxieties about exchange and displacement, reflecting the larger themes of the novel, and emphasizing Pip's passivity. It is suggested that Dickens represents Pip's education as a modern subject as dependent upon his surrender to an alienated and fragmented sense of selfhood. A detailed examination of the closing chapters of the first volume reveals Dickens's deliberate opposition of oral culture to written culture and a broader discussion follows of the anxieties which Dickens associates with a civilization dependent upon writing and paper exchange. This leads to a brief discussion of J.S. Mill's "On Liberty," which compares the ways in which both Mill and Dickens struggle to balance their support for liberalism and Free Trade with a belief in the sovereignty of the individual. A final discussion of Dickens's appropriation of elements of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein shows how Dickens chooses to attribute monstrosity to a culture which privileges consumption over production, and which depends entirely on exchange to create value.

"Servants' Logic" and Analytical Chemistry: George Eliot, Dickens, and Servants

This essay sets out to investigate the discourse attributed to servants in Eliot's essay "Servants Logic" and to compare this discourse with the meanings encrypted in the butler -- the "Analytical Chemist" -- in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend. Eliot accuses servants of failing to comprehend anything which has reference to the world outside their domestic and private contexts. This "servants' logic," however, can be seen as a form of empirical knowledge. Indeed, the servants' questioning of the masters' "universal" propositions, such as that of causality, seems to prefigure twentieth-century physics. Ironically, it is the servants and not the masters who, to use Eliot's own words, can "look to the next century for the triumph of . . . [their] ideas."

The empirical facts of science act as a kind of poison to the mastery of "geniuses" such as Eliot's Mr. Queasy. Thus, the Analytical Chemist seems to poison his masters both figuratively and literally. The Veneerings' laissez-faire mastery seems to depend on a separation of contexts and discourses between the classes -- but upper-servants such as the butler come to deconstruct this opposition. Indeed, the Analytical Chemist encodes an awareness that his masters will be dislodged philosophically by the same empirical sciences with which they themselves undermined the idea of feudalism. Eliot and G.H. Lewes attempt to use empirical science as a tool of bourgeois mastery; but, it seems, empirical science has no master.

Hetty and History: The Political Consciousness of Adam Bede

Adam Bede may be regarded as Eliot's response to Macaulay's immensely popular History of England. Eliot's novel does history by deploying irony to fracture and trouble the unitary voice of the narrative of progress characteristic of Macaulay's Whig history and to pit competing historical explanations against each other. Differences of class and gender generate contradiction in the novel despite the characters' consent to a national historical narrative. In an attempt to define Eliot's realist project against Macaulay's novelistic history, I turn to Fredric Jameson's analytical term "strategies of containment" and mount a critique of Jameson's analysis of realism. If we read Eliot as a critic of her times, it becomes difficult to follow Jameson's assumption that the novelist undertakes strategies of containment to achieve ideological closure in the novel. The story that Eliot tells is one in which she comments on her contemporaries' ways of constructing their historical narratives and the closure they enact through such narratives to guarantee social stability. Eliot's treatment of Hetty brings to light the narratives that her contemporaries try to silence and hence the tragic outcome of her plot disrupts the vision of social order restored at the end of the novel

"The Good Angel of Our Lives": Subversive Religion in The Woman in White

The Woman In White is largely concerned with the issue of religious experience. Specifically, it questions manly Christianity as a viable ethos, insofar as it seeks to locate separate and distinct virtues in each gender. The novel systematically subverts the idealization of feminine weakness, which exposes the female protagonists to manipulation by unscrupulous authority figures. Furthermore, in embracing the tenets of manly religion the central male protagonist, Walter Hartright, is seen to assume an inappropriate degree of moral authority at the expense of his female counterparts. Hartright repeatedly defines virtue in terms of his own active resolution, recognizing Laura's influence in purely symbolic terms. But in transcending such simplistic precepts, it is she who is seen to undergo the most meaningful religious development in the novel.

A Forgotten Collaboration of the Late 1860s: Charles Reade, Robert Barnes, and the Illustrations for Put Yourself in His Place

Charles Reade enjoyed manipulating his illustrators. Believing that artists should be subservient, he routinely imposed authorial control over his collaborators. Expecting to be obeyed, he bullied his illustrators into giving him precisely the effects he demanded. More challenging, however, is the partnership between Reade and Robert Barnes, the artist employed to illustrate the serialized version of Reade's lurid attack on trades-unionism, Put Yourself in His Place. Barnes's illustrations are important, for they combine a careful adherence to Reade's directions with a more personal and imaginative response. Highlighting Reade's emphasis on melodrama and realism, and always insisting on the fiction's curious combination of theatricality and journalism, the artist further develops his own, more sensitive interpretations of character, the class conflict, and emotional relationships. Infusing a note of psychological complexity, he visualizes the characters not only as melodramatic types, but as individuals of sensibility. Barnes's illustrations are thus presented as complex mediations in which the text is both respected and extended, confirmed and enhanced. Largely overlooked, the illustrations strongly suggest that the best response is produced not when the artist is controlled, but when he is free to interpret. At once faithful and imaginative, Barnes's designs are models of sixties illustration, and bear comparison with the best of Millais.