Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 35 (2005)

Performance and Control: The Carnivalesque City and its People in Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz

This essay uses a Bakhtinian approach to examine a text that has often been praised for its fidelity in reporting the streets of London in the 1830s, but has seldom been appraised as a celebration of the people of the city. The essay argues that Dickens uses his sketches to show Londoners at play, when the streets take on a carnivalesque atmosphere and the street characters emerge as strongly delineated types who counter the adversity found in their lives with a resilience that generates comedy and the spirit of the carnival. Through an exploration of Dickens's portrayal of the popular entertainment offered by the city, the essay shows that the street characters' nearest neighbors, the lower middle classes, display an anxiety described by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in terms of bourgeios hysteria, that leads to their self-exclusion from this carnivalesque world. The argument contests the view that Dickens's sketches display a bourgeois fear of the proliferation of the masses, by examining the attitude they display to the policing of the streets and locating Boz's sympathies with those who feel the force of increasing regulation in their lives.

Nickleby, Flanerie, Reverie: The View from Cheerybles'

This article argues that in one respect, at least, Dickens is a sharper urban psychologist than George Eliot gave him credit for in his own time–an observer and analyst of the habit of fantasy of city-dwellers as they walk along the street, particulary in the classic aimless mode of "flânerie." It examines this proposition in relation to an early novel, Nicholas Nickleby, not usually noted for its psychological depth.Here it shows how Nicholas himself is a recognizable flâneur, optimistically pacing the streets in the hope that "something will turn up," revolving current ideas over and over in his mind, and meanwhile walking allegorically in circles. But it also uncovers more unlikely cases–Smike the "badaud' or shop-window gazer, and, paradoxically, the apparently highly motivated and purposeful villian Ralph. It argues, moreover, that the novel presents cases of female flâneurs, if we extend the concept to include walking with a purpose that nonetheless involves high levels of fantasizing. Miss La Creevy is the chief example, a splendidly observed case of talking to oneself in an interior monologue style that to a certain extent anticipates Joyce's Ulysses.

"Implicit Faith in the Deception": Misanthropy, Natural History, and The Old Curosity Shop

This essay examines the cultural context of puppeteering in Dickens’s 1841 The Old Curiosity Shop in order to argue that the itinerant showmen Codlin and Short introduce the reader to a set of thematics that are central to broader questions about intellectualism in Western society past and present. Codlin’s misanthropy, in what is probably Dickens’s most misanthropic novel, results from a declining faith in the positivist illusions of anthropocentricism and, as I will argue here, its fondest values. Codlin’s position in the novel is in fact the closest one to Dickens’s own; as the money-taker of a flexibly scripted Punch and Judy Show, Codlin’s job is ‘‘protracting or expediting the time for the hero’s final triumph over the enemy of mankind,’’ based on the economic responsiveness of the audience, which makes his task not unlike that of the writer of serial fiction. Both Codlin and Dickens determine the economic value of human sentiment in advance, a misanthropic enterprise certainly, one that reveals artistic freedom and individuality to be an illusion of modern capitalism rather than an expression of the human spirit.

Dangerous Exchange: Victorian Fairies, Goblin Economics, and The Old Curiosity Shop

In reading The Old Curiosity Shop, we can see elements of the fairy legends so popular in Victorian England; but far from preserving the oral tradition intact, when Dickens draws fairies into the urban center, he transforms them into a usurer, a scullery maid, and a dying child. To understand Dickens’s particular construction (or reconstruction) of fairy figures in this novel is to understand something of the profound hold the fairy had upon the reading public. ‘‘Dangerous Exchange’’ illustrates how fairies, with their ties to commerce and transaction, in part informed the language of Victorian commerce; more particularly, the essay explores the ways in which Dickens’s ‘‘fairy plots’’ guide a powerful critique of England’s economic identity.

Dickens's Dombey and the Storied Sea

The maritime chapters of Dombey and Son constitute a quarter of the novel, playfully exploiting many kinds of sea stories known in Victorian Britain in order to generate the serious metafictional concerns addressed in the following article. The excess of maritime tales is a celebration of the plenitude of the storied sea; it also celebrates a communal culture that extends the generic range of the novel beyond the confines of realist fiction. This article accords with the renewed interest in Dickens and popular culture evidenced in such work as Juliet John’s Dickens’s Villains (2001). The first part of the essay, taking a narratological line, focuses on Walter Gay, less important as an individualized character than as a site of multiple sea stories. Nautical tropes familiar to Victorian readers, notably the Midshipman’s Progress and the Sailor’s Farewell, keep open alternative ‘‘shadow’’ plots, while at the same time highlighting the necessity for authorial choice and intervention. The second part examines the role of Captain Cuttle—showman, magus, and proxy for Dickens himself—who can make stories materialize out of shadows, but at the cost of bearing the storyteller’s heavy responsibilities for the ethics and aesthetics of his craft.

Fictional License: The Case of (and in) Great Expectations

Suppositional narrative in legal contexts (license of council) becomes an issue in Great Expectations on two separate occasions involving Mr. Jaggers: Molly’s trial for murder and his puzzling decision to ‘‘put the case’’ to Pip concerning Estella’s parentage. These incidents are thematically linked and historically connected to several disputes between Dickens and lawyers. Two of these debates involve the general issue of who possesses the authority to tell imaginative narratives, in what circumstances, and with what responsibilities—interconnected questions discussed here under the heading of ‘‘fictional license.’’ The first exchange, with an anonymous ‘‘Templar,’’ concerns Charles Phillips’s use of license of council during the Courvoisier murder trial in 1840. The second, with James Fitzjames Stephen, involves this noted jurist and literary critic’s sustained attack in the late 1850s upon the ‘‘license of modern novelists’’ generally and on Dickens specifically. Underlying these controversies, however, and also central to Great Expectations is the concept of gentlemanly behavior. This shared preoccupation demonstrates that antagonists on the issue of the rights and responsibilities associated with telling tales have more in common than their mutual accusations of licentiousness suggest. All agree that fictional license, whether placed in service of law or literature, must be exercised in accordance with the standard of gentlemanly behavior and in strict adherence to ‘‘the rule of truth.’’

Chronometrics of Love and Money in Great Expectations

Literary criticism of Great Expectations has paid much attention to the subject of time in the novel, but often takes a psychological approach that disregards material and economic factors. In contrast, this essay tries to demonstrate that nineteenth-century economic theories and technological developments are crucial to the narrative’s treatment of time. I argue that Great Expectations responds to economic and technological influences on time-consciousness with a figuring of time that is not only exceptional for Dickens’s corpus but also an exception to a prevailing undercurrent in much classic theorizing on time in the novel genre. Whereas modern criticism tends to emphasize the capacities of the socalled epiphanic or frozen moment in literature to provide liberation from the regimented consciousness of clock time, the epiphanic moments of Great Expectations instead convey a sense of entrapment within a poignantly disturbed state of desire. Insofar as the epiphanic moments of Pip’s narrative are a revelatory shattering of time, the revelation is that they are animated by fetishization, by a desire for human connection which is distorted by fascinating appearances. For in Great Expectations, time itself is subject to the psychic structure of commodity culture.

Great Expectations, Romance, and Capital

This essay examines the social function and significance of romance in Great Expectations. Dickens’s parodic use of romantic modes and conventions in the novel furnishes a radical reappraisal of Victorian class relations and the dynamics of nineteenth-century capitalism. Notwithstanding Dickens’s own middle-class perspective, the ironic inversion of romantic codes in the novel calls into question the very ideology of social distinction that attends upon romance and so thoroughly interpellates characters like Pip and Estella. What is more, it exposes the extent to which social ‘‘excellence’’ is indebted to—is in fact the product of—laboring, lower-class characters like Magwitch and Molly. Not only does the novel employ the scope and intricacy of romance in order to advance a vision of society as an integral whole, but it ultimately posits labor and even, to a significant degree, the exploitation of labor as fundamental social factors.

Mightier Than the Sword: Aggression of the Written Word in Great Expectations

Pip’s authorship of Great Expectations has received little critical attention, but it has important implications for our understanding of his development and maturation. A close examination of the novel, in fact, raises the possibility that the text serves not as an act of penance or of public forgiveness for those who have harmed its author, but rather as the last in a series of strategies of vengeance for Pip. In this essay, I first chart the various means of aggression Pip employs before Magwitch’s return to England, paying close attention to Pip’s violent fantasies and the social aggression that his expectations make possible; but I then consider the various ways in which Pip appears to use his writing to strike back at those who have wronged him. This essay thus calls into question the common critical position that Great Expectations is a Bildungsroman that charts its hero’s growth into a contrite, forgiving, and selfless maturity.

Margaret Oliphant and John Stuart Mill: Disinterested Politicians and the 1865 General Election

Margaret Oliphant’s novel Miss Marjoribanks was published serially in Blackwood’s Literary Magazine from June 1865 to June 1866, and alludes to both the July 1865 General Election and the 1866 Parliamentary Reform Bill. The novel privileges women’s domestic, social, and cultural ‘‘politics’’ over legislative politics. While recent readings of the novel have been sensitive to the complexities of Oliphant’s position with regard to women’s power, they neglect the fact thatMiss Marjoribanks was written and published as England was heatedly debating the extension of the franchise to working-class men, and Oliphant’s brand of feminism and class prejudices were mutually constitutive. This essay puts Oliphant’s novel into dialogue with John Stuart Mill on contested issues central to the Reform Bills of 1865 and 1866: proportional representation, women’s suffrage, electoral corruption, and disinterestedness. Once Miss Marjoribanks is recontextualized, it becomes clear that the novel’s belittling of suffrage and Parliament—its privileging of cultural contestations for power over legislative politics—does not simply reflect an astute skepticism on Oliphant’s part about the power of politics to effect meaningful changes for women, as some critics have claimed. More covertly, it reflects her sympathies with those who would block working-class male suffrage. In dismissing the importance of legislative politics to effect change, the novel suggests that legislative reform, based on gender or class, is unwarranted. This essay, then, points to some of the ways that setting cultural against legislative reform, as some recent literary and cultural criticism has done, can bolster conservative legislative movements.

Revisions of Scott, Austen, and Dickens in Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda appears to move away in significant respects from the realism with which Eliot had previously been associated towards the romance tradition. This is a misreading: Eliot remains a realist but in Deronda creates a synthesizing novel in which she engages intertextually in a quite radical manner with the work of earlier novelists, central to her own development, who in different ways combine romance and realism. She extends and deepens their realism and attempts both to exploit the literary power of romance and to subject it to critique from her realist perspective,thus subsuming romance within realism. This is illustrated by discussing the relation between Deronda and novels by Scott, Austen, and Dickens.

"Lost in the vast worlds of wonder": Dickens and Science

This essay surveys the work done on Dickens and science, especially the cross-fertilization between Dickens and Darwin. It also lays out the terrain of Dickens’s direct, oblique, and metaphoric engagement with nineteenth-century science, and pursues the scientific trace in his letters and speeches. The novels reveal the ways Dickens’s scientific curiosity informs his fiction, from his concern with origins in David Copperfield, his parody of science in Hard Times and The Pickwick Papers, his interest in waste and recovery in Our Mutual Friend, and his playfulness with entropy in Bleak House. But Dickens’s profound attention to science is most evident in the journals he edited, Household Words and All the Year Round, which regularly engage such topics as botany, the microscope, chemistry, light, the ether, photography, circulation, and exploration. While generally enthusiastic about change and the new, celebrative of emerging technology, receptive to metaphors science avails literature, and curious, overall, about scientific developments, Dickens was nonetheless guarded. He believed that science and the imagination, troped as fact and fancy, head and heart, should operate dialectically. Though not possessing an acute scientific sensibility, Dickens, the essay shows, engaged science often and in more meaningful ways than it generally appears.

Recent Dickens Studies: 2003

This essay surveys Dickens scholarship published in 2003, with summaries of and comments on individual items. A brief introduction provides an overview of the project. Books dedicated largely or entirely to Dickens are first reviewed, in two categories: first, reference and biographical works; next, critical monographs. The following section turns to books which, though not dedicated to Dickens, devote a substantial portion of their discussion—a chapter or more—to him or his works. The third section reviews two collections of essays and articles about Dickens, one of them Dickens Studies Annual. In the final section, essays and articles appearing in journals are reviewed, again in two categories: the two journals dedicated to Dickens—Dickens Quarterly and The Dickensian—followed by a sampling of essays published in other journals.

Oliver Twist: An Annotated Bibliography — Supplement I

Works annotated in this Supplement include editions of Oliver Twist and other materials directly related to the novel published between 1986 and the present. The Supplement aims at a reasonably complete listing from a variety of sources but excludes dissertations and works in foreign languages. The arrangement of entries follows the divisions originally employed in the Oliver Twist: An Annotated Bibliography published in 1986, adjusted to present needs. Where appropriate, I have provided cross-references to entries in the Supplement and to entries in the 1986 bibliography. Throughout, I have followed the numbering employed within the divisions of the original work. Used in conjunction with the 1986 survey, this Supplement provides an extensive overview of past and current scholarship and criticism on Oliver Twist.