Essays on Victorian Fiction


Volume 39 (2008)

Notes on Contributors

The Gamut of Emotions from A to B: Nickleby’s ‘‘Histrionic Expedition’’

In Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens develops a new technique for his representation of complex, conflicted, deeply interior human emotions. By means of the novel’s hyperbolic, melodramatic approach to emotions, Dickens constructs a universe of affective polarization that enables him to explore the complexities and subtleties of feelings that are not polarized but mixed. Melodrama is the means by which Dickens signifies ambivalence, the simultaneous experience of powerful, oppositional emotions, and the normative emotional state of family life for the Nicklebys and other characters. For Dickens as for Freud in the theory of ambivalence he articulates later in Totem and Taboo, fathers and father-figures catalyze uniquely charged, uniquely ambivalent emotions for their sons and daughters, and children reflect heavily ambivalent feelings for their parents.

Enumeration and Exhaustion: Taking Inventory in The Old Curiosity Shop

The Old Curiosity Shop marks a crisis in Dickens’s early career. Overcommitted to projects, a victim of his own success, Dickens soon found his episodic model of fiction, first practiced in Pickwick and devoted to furnishing ‘‘a constant succession of characters and incidents,’’ pushed to its limit. Of his new periodical Master Humphrey’s Clock he complained, ‘‘wind, wind, wind, always winding I am.’’ His fourth novel became a metafictional reflection on the conditions of his own creativity, a work seemingly intent on thwarting the very delineating power—the power of invention, and of inventory—that multiplies fresh characters and incidents in the Dickensian episodic narrative.

Little Nell’s Nightmare: Sexual Awakening and Insomnia in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop 

Although The Old Curiosity Shop often seems to be a gentle pastoral picaresque, there is something far more sinister going on—Little Nell is driven to wander, in part, by her budding sexuality. Nell’s immaturity and inexperience lead to a repetition of erotically-charged scenarios that is part of the cycle of ‘‘compulsive recurrence’’ that happens when someone is trying to achieve mastery over behavioral patterns. While Nell sees herself as a little girl, others obviously see her as a nubile young woman. Her situation is aggravated by the cycle of insomnia, which lends itself to weakening her already delicate system. Nell’s sense of self-consciousness is heightened by puberty, and her increased self-awareness lends itself to a decrease in self-worth since she senses that she attracts unwanted attention wherever she goes. The cyclical nature of insomnia plays directly into Nell’s need to repeat experience. Her ‘‘dreams are endeavouring to master the stimulus retrospectively, by developing the anxiety whose omission was the cause of the traumatic neurosis’’ (Freud 37). Nell’s nightmares and sleeplessness are exacerbated by her feelings of depression and helplessness in a vicious cycle that ultimately forms the gestalt of the novel.

Charles Dickens in America: The Writer and Reality

Dickens’s disenchanted first visit to the United States in 1842 occasioned a new departure in his writing. The visit cast in a garish light the role of the writer in the new mass market for fiction, a role Dickens seemed to have mastered back home, as well as highlighting the problem of form in relation to the unprecedented social realities of nineteenth century life. Addressing the latter, Dickens now sought methodically for a form of narration that might successfully depict the ‘‘naked and aggressive existence,’’ to use Dorothy Van Ghent’s words about the view from Todgers’ s, that his American visit brought to the fore. After reassessing his campaign for international copyright and his role in the U.S. as celebrity, this study rereads American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit. In the latter, a novel with multiple centers of authority and as many narrative modes, Dickens seems especially to identify with Nadgett’s form of narrative as surveillance, an amoral but comprehensively informed method that makes sense of dizzying realities without losing either control or spontaneity, a literature that, Dickens suggests hopefully, can counteract the malign energies of Pecksniff, Jason, and Tigg.

Dickens’s Daniel-Plato Complex: Dombey and Bleak House

Throughout his canon, Dickens significantly adapts the writing on the wall from Daniel 5, often haunted by Plato’s ‘‘Allegory of the Cave’’ wall in The Republic, to illustrate spectral ‘‘truths’’ requiring the reader’s comparable intertextual interpretation. The shared components of what we might call Dickens’s Daniel-Plato complex include ghostly script, shadowy walls, delusive lighting, critical interpretations, rewards and punishments, judgments, prophecies, and apocalyptic cataclysms. From Sartor Resartus to Dracula, Victorian fiction is riddled with hybrid Danielic-Platonic metaphors, but Dickens’s novels most consistently appropriate the trope to figure cryptic foreshadowings, enigmatic hermeneutics, and often blurred and ironic interfacings between illusions and realities. The comparative character clusters and plots in Dombey and Son and Bleak House invoke Dickens’s Daniel-Plato complex more creatively than those in any of his other novels. Dickens employs the complex in Dombey chiefly to help dramatize and evaluate major characters from Captain Cuttle to Carker, Florence, and Dombey himself, while in Bleak House the complex more subtly suggests transpersonal (and overlapping) religious, sociological, political, psychological, and aesthetic possibilities. Ultimately, then, Dickens’s Daniel-Plato complex challenges his readers to discover the mysteriously hidden ‘‘interpretation thereof’’ in his fiction.

‘‘What would you like for dinner?’’: Dining and Narration in David Copperfield 

By focusing upon the many moments when David confronts the conventions of ritualized dining in David Copperfield, this article argues that the novel raises questions regarding the adoption and implementation of shared paradigms for social behavior. As it repeatedly draws attention to a conflict between two different ways of learning proper dining etiquette—a process that is associated with book learning and a method that is represented as either intuitive or beyond the narrative—the novel provides a commentary on the very concept of learning social norms. Even as the novel progresses, certain conventions remain outside of David’s comprehension, and the kind of knowledge associated with domestic handbooks fails David. Dickens thus calls into question the assumption that social conventions can be learned and that routines can be formed through mimicry and repetition. Since David does not learn the proper routines but instead ends up relying on another person’s intuition, the novel idealizes a kind of social knowledge that is not, and perhaps cannot, be narrated.

‘‘When I Kissed Her Cheek’’: Theatrics of Sexuality and the Framed Gaze in Esther’s Narration of Bleak House

In Bleak House, Charles Dickens’s theatrical ventriloquism of Esther Summerson’s voice, shaped by conventions of the theater and combined with a special framed gaze technique, expresses the simultaneous possibilities of innocent intense friendship and lesbian encounter. The blushing, crying, kissing, and hyperbolic use of pet names in Esther’s dramatic vignettes, combined with rhythmic delays, repetitions, and exclamatory punctuation, embody and articulate a sensibility that channels characters to act toward social good. Concurrently, as synesthesia blends the visual and aural, Dickens invites a gendered role-reversal for female and male characters and readers to assume power and envision empathetic action.

Self-Possession in Great Expectations

Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on the authoring of heroes offers ways of reading Great Expectations (1860–61) that do justice to Dickens’s sense of the dynamic relationship between author/reader and characters. Readers, like authors, would give characters aesthetic form and make those they care for into heroes. However, the wish to lovingly consummate another as another is contested in the nineteenth-century novel by the growing social power of the Romantic will to consummate oneself. Pervading our own culture, that power inflects our very critiques of Victorian individualism. In the society of Great Expectations, Pip’s knowledge of himself is blocked by others’ performances of self and by his own complicity in self consummation. Those who would love their hero therefore have the task of providing that knowledge and of giving him ‘‘self-possession.’’ Instead of trying to make himself into a hero, Pip will then be freed to take responsibility for his authoring of others. Pip as authorial narrator helps his younger self to become a true hero through a process of objectification that allows him to see his shaping relationships with those around him. Realizing his authorial power, he will offer Estella both hope for herself and an understanding of her own authorial role. She may have a future because he has given her his past in the form of the novel she is reading. Self-possession, bestowed on Pip by others and passed in turn to another, defines the individual as social at a particular moment in history.

Death as Spectacle: The Paris Morgue in Dickens and Browning

As an object of macabre fascination, the Paris morgue is without parallel in the Victorian imagination. This article explores the representation of visits to the morgue in Dickens’s Uncommercial Traveller and in Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘‘Apparent Failure.’’ In both cases, this gruesome display of French sensational culture is used to explore a very British middle-class dilemma in the 1860s: how to reconcile the attraction to new forms of sensational entertainment (notably through journalism and fiction) with the fear of succumbing to a ‘‘vulgar’’ sensationalism that had hitherto been the preserve of the working class. Dickens’s traveler experiences the voyeuristic crowd as an extreme version of the mass readership, echoing the idiom of reviewers of sensation novels; yet despite distancing himself from these working-class foreigners, he inescapably shares their fascination with the sensational. Similarly, Browning’s poem exposes the tourist’s (ultimately vain) effort to deny his fascination with the sensational and to claim the moral high ground over French mores. This article thus combines instructive cross-national comparisons with reflections on a specifically British middleclass anxiety over the growth of sensational culture.

Mortimer Lightwood

Dickens regularly asks us to put things together, to make sense. How things fit together—or don’t—is always part of his theme. The first part of this essay analyzes several examples of how Dickens weaves Our Mutual Friend into a meaningful whole. The novel is full of little societies, each of the first six chapters introducing one of them. The second part of the essay looks at some of the various characters in the novel who put things together or try to do so, ranging from Mr. Inspector, who fails miserably, to the Analytical Chemist who knows what things are made of and Mr. Venus who ‘‘articulates’’ skeletons, from Mr. Inspector who tries ‘‘putting things together’’ but fails miserably, to Mr. Dolls who once makes ‘‘a dignified attempt to gather himself together.’’ As readers, we put things together to make sense of them. The best example Dickens gives us of a good reader is Mortimer Lightwood. Were it not for his story of ‘‘the Man from Somewhere’’—which becomes the story of ‘‘our mutual friend,’’ this novel might not exist. Certainly Mortimer would not be an important character in it.

Reading and Repeating Our Mutual Friend

For many readers, the pleasures and frustrations of Dickens’s last completed novel come into focus when they are deluded into believing that the kindly Mr. Boffin has become a miser and are then informed that he has only been acting the part—a deception that has spurred critical controversy for well over one hundred years. Rather than engage in another sally for or against this ‘‘pious fraud,’’ I explore how the historical drama of the Boffin plot’s critical reception repeats the representations of its development and interpretation within the novel. Linking the treatment of reading in the novel to its scholarly responses, I show how Dickens inscribes the conceptions that his critics enact, for readings of Dickens’s plot fit into plots themselves—the very plots, in fact, that they seek to analyze. This critical reenactment arises from the narrative texture of Our Mutual Friend, which forces us into belatedness by reading itself before we can, leading us on to repeat its scripted turns, and casting reading itself as an act of imitation.

War of the Roses: Hybridity in The Moonstone

Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone examines and enacts hybridity—an idea influentially theorized by a number of critics—through the many references to roses and their cultivation that appear throughout the novel. This preoccupation is focused by the disagreement between Inspector Cuff, the famed London detective, and the head gardener of Lady Verinder, who has called in Cuff to investigate the disappearance of the great Indian diamond, the Moonstone, a spoil of imperialism. Cuff claims that the non-native moss rose can be bred on its own, while the gardener contends that it requires being budded onto the indigenous dog rose for its cultivation. This controversy begins the novel’s investigation of various forms of hybridity—the potentially propagative mingling of distinct human groups or their attributes, and especially of combinations in which conventional equations of power and value are destabilized. Through its many direct references to roses and through the subtextual presence of historical events current to the time in which it is set, the novel imagines hybridity in regard not only to imperialist subjection but also to more specific cultural arenas—constructions of race, ethnicity, gender, and class—where imbalances of power create confusion about the combination of things generally believed fundamentally distinct and naturally incompatible. Particularly important are two of the novel’s main characters, the multiculturalist Franklin Blake and his eventual friend, the racial hybrid Ezra Jennings. Associated with roses, these two characters hint at the notion, radical for its time, that various forms of mixing might ultimately prove more a boon to Britain than a threat. This is the chief implication of what the novel characterizes as ‘‘the battle of the roses.’’

Dickens and Gender: Recent Studies, 1992–2007

This review essay of gender in Dickens studies, 1992–2007, surveys ten books and over 100 book chapters and journal essays, aiming to give the reader a sense of the range, richness, and complexity of work done by scholars on this subject. Defining gender as ‘‘the social process of dividing people and social practices along sexed identities. . . . creating hierarchies between the divisions it enacts’’ (Beasley 11), the essay is divided into eight sections: Review Essays; Monographs; Biography; Sexualities; Masculinities; Femininities; Cultural Studies; and Gender and Narrative. The essay begins with a brief consideration of how Dickens began to imagine classes and genders different from his own early in his career in Sketches by Boz and links this to recent historical novelists’ reconstructions of gender and how such reconstructions may play a part in shaping the literary criticism of contemporary scholars.

Recent Dickens Studies, 2006

This essay reviews books, articles, and essays published on Dickens in 2006. The year was a good one, featuring publications from established scholars along with the work of many rising stars. Sharply different images of Dickens emerged from these publications, with some essays describing him as a confident and capable writer and others painting him in less flattering tones. In future years, Dickensians might more directly address the question of why their author continues to provoke such widely varying responses. For now, it may be enough to note that 2006 seemed to mark a renewed engagement with Dickensian strangeness and a growing frustration with the new historicist approaches of the 1980s and 1990s. This essay groups its materials thematically or topically, ranging from ‘‘America and Britain’’ to ‘‘Theory’’ and ‘‘Vision.’’ The largest single category was ‘‘Politics,’’ which takes in everything from class conflict to mob violence. Most of the works in that category begin with questions about Dickens’s reputation as a reformer, and many share an interest in his representation of social forces and social bodies.