Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 36 (2005)

The Gin Epidemic: Gin Distribution as a Means of Control and Profit in Dickens's Early Non-Fiction and Oliver Twist

Although a complex variety of factors promoted a culture of alcohol consumption in pre-industrial England, the dramatic increase in gin consumption among England’s poor during the Industrial Age was strongly associated with industrial class conflicts. Middle-class attempts to regulate working-class gin consumption suggested that control of gin consumption correlated with control of a vastly productive proletariat. Charles Dickens portrayed the “gin epidemic” as resulting from a consumerist ideology of class exploitation that perpetuated working-class poverty, ignorance, and crime. Beginning with Dickens’s assessment of works by William Hogarth and George Cruikshank, this essay explores references to the gin epidemic in Dickens’s personal correspondence, early journalism, and Oliver Twist, a novel in which characters consume gin to deaden poverty’s horrors, distribute gin to manipulate others for personal profit, and rely on gin to facilitate business transactions in human commodities. Dickens uses gin distribution throughout the novel to unite criminal enterprise with commercial exploitation of individuals, thereby implying the inherently criminal nature of early capitalism’s materialistic ethic. Gin abuse in Dickens’s early works thus emblemizes a phenomenon central to Dickens’s critique of Victorian bourgeois ideology—the individual’s commodification and control by a consumer culture that valued human life primarily in materialistic and utilitarian terms.

Nell and Sophronia – Catherine, Mary, and Georgina: Solving the Female Puzzle and the Gender Conundrum in The Old Curiosity Shop

In exploring early Victorian constructions of masculinity, Herbert Sussman has observed that the regulation of male aggression and sexual energy was the central problem in the Victorian practice of masculinity. The same observation can be applied to the central problem of The Old Curiosity Shop, as the text enacts physical punishments on its males’ bodies, and performs radical, reconstructive surgeries on the bodies of its two principal female characters. The surgical transformations of the two young women are presented as socially and morally proper responses to a gender conundrum compounded of male needs, female threats, and Dickens’s own need for compartmentalization among the spiritual, domestic, and sexual qualities in his women. In defining female bodies as mutable, malleable, and tractable, and then pointing to them as responsible for the control of male transgressions, the Shop simultaneously reflects and shapes the convictions of the larger culture. The metaphoric surgeries performed on Nell and the Marchioness create a peculiar configuration of female types, a pattern of women, which in turn gestures toward the arrangement of females with which Dickens would surround himself in the early years of his marriage. That is, he serially acquired the three Hogarth sisters, thus creating a web of women who would provide the domestic solution to his female puzzle.

House and Home in Dombey and Son

In Dombey and Son the narrator debunks Dombey’s view of the home as but a material sign of his name and firm. In so doing, the narrator shows the house/home as subject to time and suggests that it needs repeated acts of care to be maintained and reproduced. Thus the house/home gradually becomes incompatible with the notion of family love portrayed as spontaneous and independent of particular acts and circumstances for its reproduction. This notion of love, which allows the novel to reach closure, resembles Dombey’s old view of his name/firm as reproducing themselves without labor. The narrator who started by critiquing Dombey ends up being like Dombey (who himself does not really change).

The Illustrations in Dickens's The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain: Public and Private Spheres and Spaces

Before Charles Dickens initiated his experiment in collaborative journalism as the editor-in-chief of Household Words (March, 1850-May, 1859), he engaged in a very different type of multipart collaboration with some of the leading illustrators of the 1840s to produce the four Christmas Books that followed A Christmas Carol (1843). His rôle as both writer and artistic advisor for these seasonal offerings is especially evident in the last of this series of novellas (and, in terms of the pictorial element, the most ambitious). The Haunted Man (1848) features seventeen plates by four artists: John Leech and John Tenniel in the lead, with Clarkson Stanfield and Frank Stone supporting. Although Dickens’s text explores the theme of the beneficial effect of memory to one’s emotional existence, through repeated references which culminate in the book’s closing words, an abstract process (as opposed to scenes from memory, such as occur in A Christmas Carol) does not lend itself to illustration per se. Instead, the artists draw the reader’s attention to the value of domestic and personal space in a society more and more obsessed with commercial, professional, and other specifically “masculine” pursuits outside the female-dominated sphere of home. In the life of an intellectual preoccupied with professional concerns and an unresolved past, the civilizing and harmonizing effects of memory are evident in his isolation, in contrast to the domestic felicity of the two family groups, the Swidgers and Tetterbys. Orchestrated by the novelist himself, the plates become not mere visual translations of specific textual moments but interpolated elaborations of such interrelated social issues as the necessity for a happy childhood in laying the basis for a well-rounded, emotionally stable adult psyche, for giving free play to the imaginative faculty that Dickens termed “Fancy,” and for valorizing private and familial places and activities in our lives. The household is not positioned in this text as a separate but equal sphere; rather, Dickens and his illustrators imply that rest, refreshment, and solace within the private sphere are necessary to the successful discharge of responsibilities in the public.

The Life of Our Lord Revisited

When Dickens composed The Life of Our Lord, he did so as a novice theologian and Christian thinker intent on teaching his children “something about the history of Jesus Christ.” This essay not only considers The Life of Our Lord a serious and deliberate attempt by Dickens to craft a harmony of the Gospels for his children, but also suggests that, as such, it plays a central role as a definitive source for our understanding of his basic religious orientation and worldview. SituatingThe Life of Our Lord in the context of the theological literature and biblical commentary of the day, the essay first examines Dickens’s composition of The Life of Our Lord and its affinity with theological works of similar interests in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Attention turns in the second part of the essay to a discussion of selected theological themes that emerge from The Life of Our Lord and their significance for our understanding of Dickens’s religious thought.

"This Most Protean Sitter": The Factory Worker and Triangular Desire in Hard Times

René Girard’s model for triangular desire provides the framework for understanding the “muddle” that plagues Hard Times. To date, the critical tendency towards reductionism has distorted Stephen Blackpool’s relationship with both Rachael and the Coketown union. Girard’s relational geometry diagrams the complexities and ambivalences of working-class life by examining the interplay among the subject, the mediator, and the object. What is more, Dickens anticipates this psychosocial indexing when he casts Rachael as the mediating angel in the factory, Stephen as the discipulus (subject), Mrs. Blackpool as the drunkard (object, in the first triangulation), and Slackbridge as the rebel (object, in the second triangulation)—all stylized depictions of the factory worker that later appear in John Tenniel’s Punch illustration titled The Working-Man from the Westminster Exhibition.

Dickens and Naming

Charles Dickens was perfectly aware of the power of names and naming. Within his fiction, some characters have the power of naming others, something that Dickens calls attention to as potentially dangerous. Characteristic of Dickens's narratives is his alluding to this power and to the act of naming itself. Through this artistic pointing to one of his most distinctive traits, Dickens also reveals the ultimate power he retains over his text and indicates his distance from the realist approach to storytelling.

Novels by Literary Snobs: The Complex Class Coding of Thackerayan Parody

In 1847 Thackeray and Dickens had the first of the quarrels which would periodically punctuate their relationship. John Forster had taken offense at Thackeray’s series of parodies Novels by Eminent Hands; Dickens acted as his second, and performed his part so zealously that he was still lecturing Thackeray about the series seven months after the quarrel had formally ended. What makes the episode puzzling is that neither Forster nor Dickens was among the authors Thackeray parodied. Why, then, their reaction? Joss Marsh’s work on blasphemy has illustrated the fact that certain literary forms carried class connotations for Victorian readers. A look at “George de Barnwell,” Thackeray’s parody of Eugene Aram, will show that the quarrel arose because in 1847 parody carried two conflicting sets of such connotations. Thackeray was writing in a genteel tradition, in which parody was the pastime of university men; Dickens was reading in a very different tradition, in which it was the province of Grub Street hacks. It was a setback to Dickens’s cherished hopes for the professionalization of literature to see the author of Vanity Fair behaving like such a hack, so he came down hard on Thackeray—and in so doing, cast a long shadow over their future relationship.

Wilkie Collins, Narrativity, and Epitaph

This essay closely examines the complicity between writing and mortality, especially the epitaphic function of writing, in Collins’s fiction. These novels constantly warn us that texts, including epitaphs, may be subjectively interpreted, have multiple interpretations and referents, and in addition, are often susceptible to rhetorical slippage. False and premature pronouncements of death¬—as well as the writing and rewriting of death—are rhetorical situations in which Collins exposes his own participation in the expansion of narrative boundaries and the exploration of the subversive nature of language. Collins’s attention to typographical detail furthers the argument that the gravesite is a locus for the workings of language and truth in his fiction. The insistence that epitaphs be graphically reproduced in his work reminds us visually of the paradox and ensuing problem of writing the dead.


Special Section:
This section consists of the introduction and nine papers from the conference “Dickens in Latin America,” held June 23 to 25, 2003, at the University of the Republic, Montevideo, Uruguay. Since this introduction offers brief comments on each of the essays, abstracts are not provided for the individual articles. Two papers explore how critical views expressed by Jorge Luis Borges may be applied to Dickens’s fiction; two articles discuss the implications of the Uruguayan artist Rafael Barradas’s innovative cubist illustrations (1921) for Hard Times; two essays examine the influence of Oliver Twist on a book by Armonía Somers, a well-known Uruguayan novelist; two pieces consider Dickens and the theater or theatrical effects; and the closing essay comments on how the social problems prevalent today in Latin America affect responses to Dickens. From these papers, we can derive an awareness of the broad range of responses to Dickens in a culture very different from those in North America and Europe.


A Borgesian Clue to Dickens's Characterization in Pickwick Papers

Borges as a Reader of Dickens

A Cubo-Futurist Reading of Dickens: Rafael Barradas's 1921 Illustrations for Hard Times

Dickens and Barradas in Madrid, 1921: A Hospitable Meeting

The Reversal of Innocence: Somers, Dickens, and a "Shared Oliver"

Dickens's Oliver and Somers's Orphan: A Traffic in Identities

The Strange Gentleman: Dickens on the Uruguyan Stage

Spectacle and Estrangement in Dickens

Dickens in Latin America: Borrioboola-Gha Revisited