Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 38 (2007)

Notes on Contributors

‘‘Subject to the sceptre of imagination’’: Sleep, Dreams, and Unconsciousness in Oliver Twist 

This essay explores Dickens’s recourse to sleep as a narrative event in Oliver Twist. It does so by considering the importance of sleep and unconsciousness throughout the novel, identifying and examining a source for the two most significant descriptions of Oliver asleep, and considering the possibility that the novel’s engagement with the subject is linked to Mary Hogarth’s death. Dickens was fascinated by the workings of the sleeping mind throughout his career, but it is only in Oliver Twist that this interest plays a significant role in his fiction. Oliver’s frequent lapses into unconsciousness function in different ways—to protect him from the taint of criminal guilt, for example, and as a means of escape in which the hardships of Oliver’s life can be assuaged. Dickens draws several of his descriptions of different states of sleep from Robert Macnish’s popular study of the subject The Philosophy of Sleep. I suggest that Dickens turned to Macnish’s book in an attempt to understand his own nightly dreams of Mary Hogarth, which began immediately after her death in 1837, and that the nature of his engagement with Macnish is reflected in the types of sleep experienced by Oliver.

Nicholas Nickleby and the Discourse of Lent

This essay discusses Nicholas Nickleby in terms of the discourse of Lent, which is regarded not as the opposite of the discourse carnival but as its second self: both stage the blurring of borderlines between the individual and his or her environment—carnival on the basis of excess and Lent on the basis of lack. The body language of Lent is that of hunger and fasting. Literary works tend to deal with corruptions of Lent, such as the enforced starvation in Squeers’s school inNicholas Nickleby. The novel reveals Dickens’s intuitive insight into the structures of meaning around the corruption of Lent. This emerges from a number of parallels between Nicholas Nickleby and concentration camp memoirs, a corpus of work in which the corruptions of Lent are dealt with massively. As in these works, in Dickens’s novel a partial answer to hunger is fasting, literal (the novel abounds in motifs of hunger, deferral of its satisfaction, loss of hunger, and the breaking of the fast), or figurative—a young protagonist endorses trials and privation for the sake of making it in the world. Though in the latter case the goal of the fast is pragmatic rather than spiritual, it also involves rejection of whatever interferes with one’s moral integrity. The breaking of the fast (the meal that is most frequently mentioned in this novel, by contrast to Dickens’s later fiction, is breakfast) is usually a convivial occasion associated with personal benevolence which is, in its limited way, responsible for the poetic justice in the novel.

Degrees of Secrecy in Dickens’s Historical Fiction

This essay traces Dickens’s evolving fictional strategies for distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable forms of secrecy. Using extended close readings of Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities, supplemented by shorter readings of Martin Chuzzlewit and Great Expectations, it shows that Dickens consistently framed the issue of secrecy using binary oppositions. In Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit, the opposition between licit and illicit secrecy turns on intentionality, a protolegal standard of judgment connected with early Victorian debates over criminal responsibility. By contrast, in A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, readers are encouraged by the forms of the novels themselves to approve of secrecy-as-privacy while condemning secrecy-as-conspiracy. In both the earlier and the later fictions, however, these oppositions begin to break down: characters like Grip and Nadgett expose the narrator’s limited ability to reveal intent; or the interpenetrations of the Manette family and the Jacquerie, and of the Castle and Little Britain, render the boundary between privacy and conspiracy indistinct. Ultimately, the essay argues that Dickens may have been incapable of defining the limits of acceptable secrecy, since his own authorial technique centrally invested him in the production, transmission, and revelation of secrets.

Matters of Class and the Middle-Class Artist in David Copperfield

David Copperfield presents the recollections of a young man who survived his loss of family, initial schooling and work, and frustrations in love and marriage to mature into a successful artist. Accompanying this engaging journey (Dickens’s ‘‘favorite child’’) is a sustained critique of the mid-nineteenth-century social structure. David’s encounters with the diverse British classes and his need, eventually, to locate himself among them, involves a substantial criticism of the recognized middleclass virtues of marriage and family, the ethic of work and financial success, and the comfort and even sanctity of the home. The distaste for commercialism and getting ahead, the dysfunctional families and their precarious habitats, a skewed and brutal educational system, and a questioning of what real gentility is all leave David as recognized artist and we as his readers anything but enthusiastic about the much lauded world of middle-class values and accomplishments. Dickens’s social criticism, so prominent in such fictions as Bleak HouseHard Times, and Our Mutual Friend, similarly, if more quietly, colors our response to Copperfield.

Dickens from a Postmodern Perspective: Alfonso Cuaron’s Great Expectations for Generation X

This essay examines director Alfonso Cuaron’s 1998 film Great Expectations as a cinematic ‘‘reading’’ that dramatizes previously unrecognized interpretive potentials of its literary source. Radically re-envisioning Charles Dickens’s novel for a late-twentieth-century American audience, Cuaron’s adaptation demonstrates the particular relevance of Dickens’s Victorian narrative for postmodern generations. I introduce the film’s postmodern aesthetics by discussing the movie’s startling contemporary transformations of Dickens’s plot and characters, as well as the film’s bizarre pastiche of production projects (including the creation of two stylistically eclectic soundtrack CDs based on both the movie and Dickens’s novel). The essay then illuminates the postmodern potential of Dickens’s text that makes such a cinematic interpretation viable by detailing the similarities between Pip’s narrative of disillusionment and the cultural experience of the first truly postmodern generation, ‘‘Generation X,’’ the audience at which Cuaron targeted his film. The film’s transformation of Dickens’s protagonist into the aspiring Gen X artist Finnegan Bell astutely reconfigures the novel’s theme of the quest for identity in terms of the postmodern crisis of representation and transmutes Dickens’s critique of the Victorian gentleman into a comment on the postmodern cult of celebrity. The essay concludes that the parallels Cuaron’s film evokes between Pip and Generation X allow us to reinterpret Dickens’s narrative from a new and uniquely contemporary perspective.

Jane Eyre’s Paradise Lost 

Rochester and Jane’s love affair is a comprehensive rewriting of the love of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. Rochester (as Adam) has been ruined by an errant love for a fallen mate, the congenitally mad Bertha (earth-birth/Eve). Jane (a new Eve) then arrives in the blighted Eden. These identifications become more explicitly Miltonic when Jane discovers Rochester’s fall. As she strives to emulate the Son of God, Jane takes over the role of unfallen Adam in Paradise Lost, confronted with a fallen mate. However, Jane remains faithful to divine law. This will enable her to return as a Christian (and Miltonic) heroine—free from the Calvinist, misogynistic limitations that infuriated Bronte¨—to redeem Rochester. These limitations are embodied in St. John Rivers, who also offers marriage. But, given a choice between obedient but loveless rectitude and erring but profoundly Christian love, Jane with divine guidance chooses love. Jane’s feminist myth locates the primary model of Christian love in a marriage that is based on the notion of a redemptive woman. Yet Bronte¨ subtly suggests the limitations of that myth.

Toward a Theory of Narrative Sympathy: Character, Story, and the Body in The Mill on the Floss 

This essay explores the narrative function of a pattern of negation associated with Maggie Tulliver that produces a tension on three levels: formally, in Maggie’s opposition to various narratives within which other characters attempt to constrain her; psychologically, in the repeated frustration of Maggie’s efforts to develop a life that remains consonant with what we might call her bodily attunement to the material world; and socially, between Maggie’s personal desires and the social roles available to her for their realization. Readers’ experience of these tensions and their lack of resolution produce a reader-based narrative sympathy. Drawing on George Poulet’s discussion of the double-consciousness that characterizes the interiority of reading, and weaving together literary, Bakhtinian, and anthropological theories of sympathy that all, in one way or another, exphasize the simultaneous separation and tension between character (or individual) and story (narrative or social script) that is most visible in forms of resistance associated with the materiality of the body, the essay argues that sympathy is a form of frustration that results from a collision between individual desire (in novelistic character and in actual reader) and a limited set of available social narratives that are incommensurate with that desire. The author develops the argument by offering a Kristevan reading that emphasizes the semiotic function of Maggie Tulliver as character.

Recent Dickens Studies—2005

This review essay examines over 100 books and articles published in 2005, offering an overview of their ideas, arguments, and topics; summarizing findings; and providing direct quotations when possible. Almost thirty books are discussed, and articles from the three major outlets for Dickens scholarship—The DickensianDickens Studies Annual, and Dickens Quarterly—are all included, as well as many essays from other publications. The materials are arranged according to topic, including the following: Latin America, Gender, Urban Life and Literature, Health, Education, Science, Interdisciplinary Approaches in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Visual and Print Culture, Style, Sketches by BozPickwick PapersOliver TwistNicholas NicklebyThe Old Curiosity ShopChristmas Books and Christmas StoriesDombey and SonDavid CopperfieldHard TimesLittle DorritGreat ExpectationsOur Mutual Friend, and Influence and Afterlife.

Recent Studies in Robert Louis Stevenson: Survey of Biographical Works and Checklist of Criticism—1970–2005

This essay completes my survey of publications since 1970 on the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894). The first three parts were published in Volume 37 of Dickens Studies Annual (2006) and covered Letters, Reference Works, and Texts. The present essay covers Biography, in detail, and includes a list of Works Cited. After this, I provide a checklist of criticism that I have tried to make as complete as possible. Unfortunately, the large number of such works does not allow room for descriptive and evaluative commentary. My goal has been the same as in the previous sections: to create a reliable and inclusive guide that will be useful to scholars and to ordinary readers alike. Almost all of the publications surveyed are in English, however, and much good work has been published in other languages. And, since there are valuable works in English that I have not been able to consider or may have overlooked, there is plenty of room for a sequel. The work of the many scholars and other writers whose efforts have come under review in the present undertaking makes it likely that we will not have to wait another 35years for the next review of research on Stevenson. Serious work has begun and will continue.

Dickens’s Christmas Books, Christmas Stories, and Other Short Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography, Supplement I: 1985–2006

Works annotated in this supplement include the Christmas Books (A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man), the Christmas numbers of Household Words and All the Year Roundand Dickens’s portions of them (described by Dickens as Christmas Stories), and four stories that were originally published separately:‘‘To Be Read at Dusk,’’ ‘‘Hunted Down,’’ Holiday Romance, and ‘‘George Silverman’s Explanation.’’ Included are editions that contain new introductory or explanatory material, abridgments, and children’s versions. Stage, film, reading, and sound adaptations are included only if a print or audiovisual (CD, DVD, VHS) version has been produced, or if there have been very few adaptations of a particular work; thus some of the many stage and television adaptations of A Christmas Carol are not included. This supplement offers a reasonably complete survey of criticism and studies published between 1985 and 2006, but foreign language studies, translations of stories, and dissertations are excluded. The arrangement of entries follows the 1985 bibliography, with some smaller sections amalgamated. Items are numbered consecutively, taking up where the 1985 volume, Dickens’s Christmas Books, Christmas Stories, and Other Short Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography, left off. Cross-reference numbers appear in bold print in parentheses, and numbers between 1 and 2001 refer to the 1985 bibliography. This supplement includes its own index.