Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 34 (2004)

Faces in the Window, Stains on the Rose: Grimaces of the Real in Oliver Twist

Founded on an irresolvable tension between its pastoral and urban landscapes, Oliver Twist promises to find a cure for the "stains" that mark the sexuality, violence, illegitimacy, and betrayal which haunt and disrupt middle-class conceptions of the family. Drawing on Slavoj Zizek's reading of Lacan, this essay attempts to demonstrate how eruptions of the Dickensian real point to the failure of the novels' interrelated and interdependent modes of symbolization of the pastoral and the domestic to naturalize or gentrify the threatening aspects of an increasingly urbanized world.

Clockwork and Grinding in Master Humphrey's Clock and Dombey and Son

Timepieces in Master Humphrey's Clock and Dombey and Son serve several different roles. As a classic image of well-arranged parts, clockwork is a model for Dickens's new arrangement of serially published parts in Humphrey. A more successful Dickensian use of clockwork is to evoke saleable nostalgia; by the Victorian period, the "clockmaker God" argument (exemplified in William Paley's 1802 Natural Theology) was becoming quaint. Dickens also, in fact, suggests that the novelwriter has superseded the natural theologian as an explainer of social (and even physical) universe. Chronometers also, ironically, reflect Dickens's investment in the consumerist appeal to bodily want –hence, watches become incongruously massive objects to be felt, pounded, and stuffed into tight pockets. In Dombey and Son, Dickens uses the Wooden Midshipman group to suggest that pleasure in commodities is just as quixotic –and just as separate from Carker-like economic selfishness– as belief in clockwork. To this end, Dickens writes the "Charitable Grinder" –at the time, a topical reference to underfed paupers forced to grind bones in workhouses– as a youth who leaves a well-fed family because of bad education and character, rather than threatening consumerist rapaciousness.

Tiny Tim, Blind Bertha, and the Resistance of Miss Mowcher: Charles Dickens and the Uses of Disability

While Dickens is often criticized for his sentimental and apparently objectifying representations of people (or characters) with disabilities, seeming to render disabled figures as helpless and pathetic victims, as villains, or as objects of fun, his relationship with disabled identity and his representations of disabled bodies (and minds) appear to be more complex than some would believe. This essay, part of a larger work on representations of disability in Victorian literature and culture, looks closely at four figures–Laura Bridgman in American Notes, Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, Blind Bertha in Cricket on the Hearth, and Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield–in an effort to understand Dickens's ambivalence about disability. Specifically, the essay proposes a new theory–a study of the "satellite" –which helps us to read the relationships of power and identity that surround the presence of disability. The essay employs this theory to argue that the disabled body becomes a locus around which Dickens forms and centers his identity, his sense of himself as a writer and narrator.

Dickens's Dombey and Son and the Anatomy of Coldness

In his comical coldness, Dickens's Dombey resembles Ebenezer Scrooge, yet Dombey is a darker, more enigmatic figure, as mysterious and grotesque as the allegorical representations described by Walter Benjamin. Dombey's emotional frigidity, unlike Scrooge's, has no apparent etiology in childhood: rather, his unnatural coldness comes naturally. Reanimating the dead metaphors of humoral psychology to evoke the dynamic interaction of body and mind that Dickens believed in, the narrator suggests that it is his cold, dry humor–his melancholy–that makes Dombey cruel, stubborn, solitary, and implacable. Enslaved to a humor that he feeds with his own pride, Dombey reigns over an England afflicted with an analogous societal coldness, an almost universal failure of compassion. Thus despite his central role in a Victorian novel, Dombey is essentially a "prebourgeois" emblematic character, a synecdoche for the desolate world he inhabits. In the end, in a suicidal vision of his own reflection, Dombey bleeds away, out of the narrative, because Dickens uses him not to enact a conventional change of heart, but to unmask the Firm–and the nation–of Dombey and Son.

Little Dorrit's "speck" and Florence's "daily blight": Urban Contamination and the Dickensian Heroine

In the discourse of Victorian sanitary reformers, London's dirt eroded distinctions between people that marked their correct place in the system of human relationships that they called society. With this discourse in mind, Dickens used a panorama of the slums in Dombey and Son (chapter 47) to illustrate how one individual's attempts to abstract himself from the network of love relationships between human beings is symptomatic of a whole city whose squalor threatens the regressive extinction of humanity. By the time Dickens wrote Bleak House and Little Dorrit, the filthy city of this chapter has become the atmosphere of the whole novel. In all three cases, Dickens presents tidy young women as the local manifestation of a regenerative force that is able to restore order to the dirty, disordered world of London. He–and some of the classic Dickens critics–register unease as to whether these heroines may be polluted by the city or whether they are inherently able to overcome it. This article seeks reasons for this anxiety in the daughter's social role as the channel by which property was transferred from father to son-in-law through marriage, maintaining ways for individuals to unite into a society without losing their distinct identities.

"Obligations of Home": Colonialism, Contamination, and Revolt in Bleak House

Critics have long recognized, although they have rarely agreed upon, Dickens's treatment of Victorian colonialism in Bleak House. Scholars have also identified the multiple variations of disease and filth in the novel. This essay explores the crucial connection between colonialism and contamination in the novel, and the ways in which the infection in Bleak House signifies political revolt. Furthermore, the dis-ease of revolution in the text leads to the ultimate contamination of the text itself, as the infection of revolt spreads through the narrative like a pestilence. By examining how these three focal points in the novel coalesce, the essay presents a more comprehensive view of Dickens's social criticism of the early 1850s and specifically situates Bleak House as his most sustained polemic against colonialism. Subsequently, the essay offers an important intervention into a recent editorial error, in a number of editions of the novel, which elides one of Dickens's most consummate novelistic inside jokes, and minimizes his plea about how comprehensively the neglect of obligations of home can infect the furthest reaches of domestic English life from the inside.

Dickens and Bakhtin: Authoring in Bleak House

This essay considers Bleak House (1851-53) in the light of Mikhail Bakhtin's early "Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity" (c. 1924-27). Bakhtin argues that readers participate with the writer in the "authoring" of heroes. The giving of form through aesthetic love–in its fullest sense, "consummation"–attempts to create and find a value in the hero distinct from but interlocking with his or her cognitive/ethical search for values based on knowledge. Historically, the development of the novel brings authoring into Western cultural consciousness while extending the reader's exercise of aesthetic power. As "character" becomes even more important, and as characters' own authoring activities are foregrounded, one main area of conflict in Victorian novels is between pluralistic consummation of another person and individualistic self-consummation. In Dickens's work the conflict results in the kind of characterization we typically associate with his name. It also leads the author into helping his heroine to realize her freedom. She gains self-possession and in the process transforms our relationship with her.

Hard Times: Fancy as Practice

The ethos of fact that dominates Hard Times is a disciplinary force within the novel, representing those subject to its domination in ways that encourage conformity and enforce hegemony. In the novel, subaltern characters determinedly, yet indirectly, fight to modify the representations of themselves assumed and imposed by the hegemonic force, whether that force is the middle class, one's teacher, one's father, one's husband, one's employer, or one's trade union. The novel critiques hegemonic systems as forms of power because they are inherently partial and reductive. Sissy, Blackpool, and the circus take positions others interpret to be stubbornly naive, but these positions also serve as specific criticisms of the systems that they confront. Dickens labels this subtle form of resistance fancy. For the destructive paternalism that characterizes industrialism and utilitarianism, Dickens substitutes a positive mutualism based on the fluidity of evolving relationships.

Ideology, Pedagogy, Demonology: The Case Against Industrialized Education in Dickens's Fiction

This essay offers a contextual discussion of the schoolmasters in Hard Times and Our Mutual Friend and links their classroom practices with educational theories popularized by mid-century educational reformers such as Kay-Shuttleworth, Richard Dawes, and William Ellis. Their writings, in turn, derive in part from the work of the influential Swiss educator, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who devised a system of "object lessons" designed to help children learn to observe and analyze the world around them. Popularized by Richard Moyo and subsequently embedded in the curriculum of the Battersea Training College founded by Kay-Shuttleworth in 1840, Pestalozzi's ideas paved the way for a training program sponsored by the government that stressed "practical" learning. Secular rather than religious, these new educational orthodoxies challenged the power of the Anglican Church to provide primary schooling for children of the poor. The efforts of the newly trained professionals, however, reflected an underlying attempt to indoctrinate docility and the acceptance of prevailing economic doctrines of work and thrift. Hostility to pedagogical discourse indebted to such Utilitarian-inspired thinking informs Dickens's spirited response apparent in the classroom scenes from Hard Times and Our Mutual Friend.

The Self-Sacrificing Professional: Charles Dickens's "Hunted Down" and A Tale of Two Cities

Since the publication of Mary Poovey's essay "The Man-of-Letters Hero: David Copperfield and the Professional Writer," it has become a critical commonplace in Victorian studies that one of the key ways the modern professional differentiated himself from his entrepreneurial counterpart was by rhetorically aligning himself with the unwaged work of the home. What has received less attention, however, is the fact that at the very moment of professional expansion–indeed, as a step enabling expansion–the home was itself being recast as a site requiring professional intervention. This essay focuses primarily on "Hunted Down," a critically overlooked short story by Dickens, that exemplifies mid-Victorian fiction's role in depicting homes in need of professional help and, thereby, its role in the expansion of the professional class's authority over the private sphere. It concludes by comparing "Hunted Down" to A Tale of Two Cities. Interrupting the composition of the novel to write the short story, Dickens embedded the same logic of professionalization in both.

Genltemanly Guilt and Masochistic Fantasy in Great Expectations

This essay examines the intense guilt felt by Dickens's representative gentleman, Pip. Many analyses of Pip's guilt have been insufficiently historical. By contrast, I read Pip's guilt in context of mid-nineteenth century ideals of the gentleman. Traditionally based mainly on social status, gentlemanliness by midcentury had become associated with morality. It offered development of a moral sensibility that would result in benevolent treatment of others, bonding the self with the social world. Yet, as I show in works by Ruskin, Arnold, Newman and Smiles, the gentlemanly ideal never disentangled itself from elitism. This contradiction structures Pip's aspirations to gentility. His moral sensibility generates guilt over his snobbery, guilt that confirms his gentlemanly morality. However, Pip's self-blame also energizes a masochistic fantasy world that threatens the social goals of gentlemanliness. Dickens does allow Pip to escape his world of guilt, but only by means of artificial closural devices. In the end, Great Expectations shows that the gentlemanly sensibility generates paralyzing guilt over social divisions in a way that enables them to stand. This late work therefore represents a pessimistic shift in Dickens's thought on the moral sympathy that underwrote gentlemanliness and many other period responses to social inequality.

"My word is error": Jane Eyre and Colonial Exculpation

This paper draws on contemporary colonial discourse–travel books, fiction, colonial office policy, and parliamentary debate–to revise recent readings of the colonial episodes in Jane Eyre–Rochester's Jamaican marriage to Bertha Mason and St. John River's missionary work in India. I argue that the novel mirrors the pervasive concern of abolitionists with distancing mid-century Britain from its baneful inheritance–the crime of slavery. Rochester's marriage to Bertha is palliated as "error" rather than "crime" because he was young, impressionable, and deceived by his father and Bertha's. Bertha, whose behavior conforms in almost all ways to the contemporary stereotype of white Creole women, is nonetheless blameless because her madness, like the burden of slavery, is inherited. Jane, "the antipodes of the Creole," and thus the agent of Rochester's redemption, is distanced from the taint of colonial slavery (rather than implicated in it, as recent critics claim) by her Madeiran inheritance. Rochester's reformation and the novel's culminating eulogy of St. John celebrate, respectively, the Victorian disciplinary purging of past error and the good work in the colonies that would redeem Britain from its legacy of slavery.

Post-Millennial Dickens: A Review Essay 2002

The work on Dickens this year is timely and often retrospective. From the vantage point of the new millennium, scholars and critics are clearly looking back at twentieth-century Dickens studies and finding that the author who spawned a thousand books, countless articles, museums, theater productions and myriad of other forms of expression figures largely in our own contemporary culture and our understanding of "then and now." While biographers continue to take on Dickens's life, critics from entirely new areas of specialization, such as queer theory, find Dickens studies from the last century to be integrally involved in the making of culture. All these scholars, artists, eccentrics–and even rogues–of many generations and critical persuasions train their eyes on Dickens with a shared intensity that assures that writing about Dickens is a way to write about ourselves, our systems of knowledge, our ways of reading, and our ways of life.

Lewis Carroll Studies, 1983-2003

This essay offers an examination of published research on Lewis Carroll from 1983 through 2003, picking up from the least extended review-essay on Carroll scholarship by Edward Guiliano in DSA 10 (1982). It highlights several, recent lines of development in Carroll studies. The centenary in 1998 of Carroll's death, for instance, occasioned a renaissance in Carroll biographies, which both perpetuated and problematized the old notion of a Dodgson/Carroll "split personality." In the past twenty years, editions of previously unpublished or uncollected writings, documents, and journals have made available to present-day readers and scholars the scope and complexity of Carroll's life and work, demonstrating his political, social, professional, and aesthetic commitments, and calling into question the popular but reductive myth of Carroll as, simultaneously, a reclusive, childlike innocent and a repressed sexual deviant. The years since 1983 have also seen new work on Carroll's career and iconography as a photographer–including publication of images never seen in print–which helps contextualize the figure of the "girl-child" into the spectrum of his wide-ranging and, in many ways, conventional Victorian tastes. Finally, recent criticism has examined Carroll's work, especially the Alice books, from political, material, cultural, psychological, historical, and rhetorical perspectives, demonstrating not only Carroll's engagement with nineteenth-century debates about class, gender, and national identity, but his continuing relevance to our own critical questions and theoretical controversies.