Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 31 (2002)

The Negative's Capability: Real Images and the Allegory of the Unseen in Dickens's Christmas Books

In recent years, a wealth of attention has been paid to Victorian visual culture, particularly to the ties between novelistic realism and photography. Published just a few years after the photograph was introduced to England, Dickens's Christmas books complicate this pairing by showing that the nineteenth-century novel is already deeply imbricated in a whole culture of visual discourses, many of which highlight just how easy it is to fool the eye. Using A Christmas Caroland The Haunted Man as case studies, I argue that Dickens's layering of mutually deconstructive, realist and anti-realist, photographic and phantasmagoric imagery systematically undercuts the power of the image-any image-to make a straightforward truth claim. However, given the allegorical nature of Dickens's stories, it would be misplaced to say that his skeptical spectacles drain his visual effects of meaning; quite on the contrary, these books insist that we need such images-albeit deceptive ones-to structure our vision of the world. We must learn to see past things in order to see into them; we must, Dickens shows, accept our inability to see truth in images not as a limitation but rather as an invitation to interpret.

Labors of Love: The Sympathetic Subjects of David Copperfield

This essay argues that in David Copperfield (1850), the identificatory model of sympathy often associated with Charles Dickens is characterized as an almost inevitably inaccurate act of projection: as David's misunderstandings of James Steerforth and Dora Spenlow suggest, whatever such a form of sympathy might reveal about one's own feelings, it says little about other people's. In place of identification, therefore, Dickens' novel reproduces a model of sympathy organized around the ethically valuable desire for another person's love and approval ­ a model often associated in the nineteenth century with relationships between husbands and wives. Within the novel the object of this desire for sympathy is "Agnes," the woman so impossibly good that she makes real an ideal of femininity. In relation to the reader, its name is David Copperfield, the fiction that overcomes the opposition between the real and the ideal by constituting a new kind of reality in and of itself.

The Subject of David Copperfield's Renaming and the Limits of Fiction

David Copperfield is notable for the range of names used for the titular hero, a fact remarked on by a series of critics. What has not generally been noticed is the narrator's decision to record those renamings, yet neither to consider directly the reasons young David is so willing to be renamed nor to editorialize those renamings. This essay considers those topics by examining both the narrative and Dickens's more directly autobiographical writings. In the narrative's logic, I argue, the pliability in David's name is symbolic of his unstable identity and his search for surrogate parents from whom he might draw a more stable personhood. Dickens's other writings, notably his autobiographical fragment on the blacking factory period and "Gone Astray," moreover, suggest that Dickens used the renaming of David as a way of keeping himself removed from the autobiographical implications of his narrative, which the initials of the hero otherwise would suggest.

The Names of David Copperfield

Dickens's concern for names may be seen in those chosen for the protagonist of his eighth novel, both by him and by most of the characters in the work itself. In selecting David Copperfield, from a long list of possibilities, Dickens invited comparison and contrast with the biblical king, and may have linked his hero to several negative connotations; he also associated his character with several qualities of the metal. More importantly, he revealed, through the names his characters substitute for David Copperfield, the various qualities they saw or pretended to see in him, in some cases using their nickname to achieve selfish ends. These namings may be arranged in a moral order, from the loving nickname given by the nurse Peggotty to the cold appelation of the deadly stepfather, Murdstone. In some degree, it is in dealing with these names lovingly bestowed or malignly forced upon him, that David comes to realize his own identity.

Dickens's Favorite Child: Malthusian Sexual Economy and the Anxiety over Reproduction in David Copperfield

Numerous Copperfield critics have observed how David's sexual desires are directed inappropriately (in Victorian terms) towards incestuous/sisterly, homosexual, and other somehow inappropriate targets. Simon Edwards further shows how these dangerous sexual desires are "repressed," "disciplined," and twisted into a viable, acceptable, middle-class, heterosexual relationship with Agnes. This assessment of the novel as a reflection of the Victorian need to repress "deviant" sexuality and replace it with a normative heterosexual reproductive substitute is common in Dickens criticism, but it is one which underplays contemporary discourses that worked not only to repress "deviant" sexuality, but also reproductive sexuality. While eighteenth-century sexual discourses often did repress any mode of sexuality that did not lead to reproduction, by 1850 the concurrent discourses of Malthusianism were simultaneously working to discourage the practice of reproductive sexuality as well. While David Copperfield may then discipline or "repress" deviant sexual practices, it also encodes fears of reproductivity and reflects Malthusian concerns about the dangers of reproductive sexuality itself. This paper explores how the discourse of Malthusianism contributes to the highly disciplined and socially constructed sexuality displayed particularly in David Copperfield, and more generally in Victorian sexuality, and Victorian sexual discourse.

Which Hand? Reading Great Expectations as a Guessing Game

The frequency of references to hands in Great Expectations (1860-61) has been recognised by a number of commentators, who have tended to take these references, reasonably enough, as working both mimetically and symbolically -- grounded in realism but significant besides. But these references may have an additional diversionary function, by entering cumulatively into a covert textually-established scheme whereby, in apparently off-hand references, Dickens continually teases the reader as to which hand ­ left or right? ­ any particular character employs. Quite natural patterns of just sufficiently egregious wording and idiom reveal a possible cryptic scheme when attended to closely: certain linguistic features seem to show that Joe Gargery is right-handed, Mrs. Joe left-handed, that the ambiguous Pip is left-handed but pretending to be right-handed, and that the text is always teasingly inexplicit about the handedness of Estella. Furthermore, a character's dominant handedness interacts with that character's manual habits when accompanying speech and other behaviour, so that characters like Joe and Mrs. Joe, respectively seen at first as straightforwardly 'good' and 'bad', come to be distinguished (and related) in a more complex scheme that perhaps reflects a deeper understanding of them as characters.

Dickens and the Identical Man: Our Mutual Friend Doubled

This essay examines the obsessional nature of Dickens's attention to characters who are or who might be "somebody else," as well as the pattern of betrayed partnerships that runs through Our Mutual Friend. Dickens's letters during the years between the staging of The Frozen Deep and the composition of Our Mutual Friend suggest the preoccupations with false identities, broken partnerships and money-making that the shaped the novel in ways that distinguish it from his earlier work. Whereas doubled characters had previously split up aspects of a single syndrome, the male doubles in Our Mutual Friend are fused with one another in displays of intimate otherness that create, in this novel, the very condition of identity.

Swarmery and Bloodbaths: A Reconsideration of Dickens on Class and Race in the 1860s

This essay offers a reappraisal of Dickens's stances on class and race in the 1860s and examines his reactions to the Jamaican rebellion of 1865, the American Civil War, and growing working-class agitation for suffrage; it also touches briefly upon his engagement with the Irish Question. The article argues that rather far from being a vehement supporter of Governor Edward Eyre's draconian attempts to quell the uprising in Morant Bay, Dickens was in fact ambivalent to events in the West Indies. Far from displaying the type of vitriolic and public fury that characterized his reaction to the Indian "Mutiny" of 1857, Dickens's involvement with the Eyre Defence League was nominal and resulted largely from loyalty to Thomas Carlyle. By juxtaposing Dickens's responses to events in the public sphere with Carlyle's more polemical outbursts, the piece attempts to extricate Dickens's perspective on events at home and abroad from that of his mentor.

Dickens and the Transformation of Nineteenth-Century Narratives of "Legitimacy"

One paradoxically secures some interior legitimacy only by denying another assumed patriarchal legitimacy that, through three-quarters of Bleak House, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend, successfully mimes the real thing. Yet, one becomes authentically legitimate only by renouncing the pretense of legitimacy, thereby preserving the right to self-determination. The denial of any foundational idea of legitimacy alone can make the law, the criminal, or the orphan-similar discontinuities-narratively, but not necessarily "legally" legitimate. The conversion from narratives of judgment to narratives of detection in Dickens's last novels enables legitimacy to be self-generated, whereby "internal consistency" (of the plot) and authenticity (of character) become synonymous. Only then, can justice become more than an institutionally-mandated procedure for the recovery of precedent, and come to be intricated, as with the plots of novels, in the distribution of belief-formation, both among the characters and between those characters and the reader.

The D. Case Reopened

This paper employs Kleinian theory to suggest that what Felix Aylmer dismissed as the "ostensible plot" of The Mystery of Edwin Drood­John Jasper murders his nephew--is the plan most likely to have met Dickens's psychological needs of the various theses in The D. Case (Dickens, Fruttero, and Lucentini), only this one would have enabled him both to enjoy the murderous impulses of Jasper, a character closely identified with himself, and to escape the onus of them. Jasper is a split personality, not guilty by reason of insanity. According to the aesthetic theory of Klein's colleague Hanna Segal, such defensive splitting is bad art or no art at all. Nevertheless, readers have continued readinq Drood. Kleinian theory can readily explain their persistence: Jasper's split offers them as vicarious murderers the same gratifications it afforded Dickens.

The Unexpected Forms of Nemesis: George Eliot's "Brother Jacob," Victorian Narrative, and the Morality of Imperialism

This essay uses George Eliot's "Brother Jacob" (1864) to suggest that a central preoccupation of Victorian narrative, the figure of the nemesis, is sometimes raised by nineteenth-century writers in relation to the psychology of British colonialism. The sudden appearance of a character from the past who forces a moral reckoning, and who reveals that past wrongs always resurface in the present, has a particular cultural resonance when it comes to imperial ideology. Eliot's story, which features a racialized nemesis figure, can be interpreted as illuminating the moral evasions that sustain imperialism. Indeed, in mid-century Victorian narrative, the figure of the nemesis often poses (if only indirectly) profoundly troubling questions about the moral integrity of imperial authority.

Recent Dickens Studies: 2000

This survey focuses on major critical studies related to Dickens's life and work that surfaced during the year 2000. The monographs and essays reviewed are grouped under familiar classificatory headings: namely, biographical studies, reference works, cultural studies, postcolonial readings, textual explication and, finally, a separate category reserved for one essay that seemed to merit its own rubric. Each capsule-sized review is intended to summarize the essential thrust of each contribution to scholarship considered. The survey also attempts to cluster these miniaturized assessments in meaningful ways, reflecting current trends that persistently destabilize, mold, re-shape, and/or calcify contemporary perceptions of text and author. The unmistakably clear image that emerges from a cacophony of critical postures and styles is of a writer and visionary whose legacy continues to fire our imaginations.

Review of Brontë Studies: The Millennial Decade, 1990-2000

The final decade of the 20th-century saw the publication of several important biographies on the Brontës and scholarly editions of their work, most notably Juliet Barker's The Brontës (1994), a comprehensive account of the family's life and work; Sue Lonoff's translation and critical edition of The Belgian Essays (1996); Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars's The Art of the Brontës (1995), a collection, with commentary, of the siblings' visual work; and The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, with a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends, edited by Margaret Smith. In critical studies, Anne Brontë emerged as an artist in her own right, differentiated from her sisters by an allegiance to Enlightenment feminism rather than Romantic ideology; Emily Brontë became a resister, opposer, and questioner of Victorian patriarchy and its manifestations in literature and culture, rather than an isolated figure of Romantic genius; and Charlotte Brontë's fiction was increasingly read within the contexts of 19th-century debates over slavery, racism, colonialism, and the politics of class and gender.

Thackeray Studies, 1993-2001

This retrospective survey of Thackeray scholarship covers the period from 1993 through 2001, taking up the record from the last survey by Peter Shillingsburg in DSA 23 (1994), which ended with 1992. A few earlier items omitted by Shillingsburg are added. The essay is divided into bibliography, textual editing and reprints, publishing history of Thackeray's works, biography and letters, criticism and interpretation of the novels, studies of the travel writings, Thackeray as an artist, Thackeray as editor, adaptations on film and television, and foreign scholarship and translation. The essay concludes with forthcoming publications and future prospects.

Ten Years of Gaskell Criticism

This essay offers an extended look at the new materials for Gaskell scholarship, paying particular attention to Gaskell's emergence as the newest "celebrity author" in Britain's ever-expanding heritage industry. It examines relations between the celebrity author and the object of literary-critical analysis, with a look at the critical work shaping Gaskell criticism over the past ten years, particularly the impact of such feminist engagements with Gaskell as those offered by Hilary Schor and Deirdre D'Albertis. It also calls for a move away from the preoccupation with Gaskell's canonical status, arguing for the need to reconceptualize such key paths through her work as feminist and material scholarship if they are to remain productive.