Essays on Victorian Fiction

Volume 45 (2014)

Pickwick and Reform: Origins
David Parker

While writing The Pickwick Papers, Dickens seemed to be striving to compose just a captivating narrative, and in his 1837 preface to the first edition he refers to the book as “a mere series of adventures.” In 1847, however, when Pickwick was included in a Cheap Edition of Dickens’s works, he provided a new preface that considered the need for reform and proposed that fiction is vindicated by its promotion of “important social improvements.” This change in attitude should not surprise us, since the period between the 1780s and the middle of Victoria’s reign has been and still is regarded as an era in which reform of institutions, laws, customs, and morals was a primary issue. Moreover, despite the earlier preface’s disavowal of serious intent, giving keen attention to “social improvements” was instinctive to Dickens, and Pickwick reveals not just denunciation of legal chicanery and abuses like those in parliamentary elections, but a central concern with reform. Although the supposedly contingent origins of Pickwick may distract readers from recognizing Dickens’s interest in reform issues, the idea of jokes about the attempts of Cockneys—town-bred members of the middle class—to be sportsmen was historically related to challenges to privileges enjoyed by the landowning classes. The Pickwickians, in their adventures, are middle-class townspeople questioning these privileges.

Boz and Beyond: Oliver Twist and the Dickens Legacy 
Dianne F. Sadoff 

This essay argues that Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist amalgamates popular narrative forms into a proto-Victorian fiction. Yet to invent that new fictional form, Dickens appropriated a melodramatic aesthetic and deployed the scenic imagination he had discovered while writing Sketches by Boz, his early descriptive newspaper and periodical pieces. Genre or mode mixing is crucial to the sketches’ aesthetic, moreover, since the melodramatic mode in fiction promiscuously borrowed from the storytelling conventions of Gothic, farce, Newgate tale, and romance to create a historically situated, hybrid form. This essay argues that Boz generated the fame that enabled Dickens to create himself as novelist in Oliver, beyond Pickwick’s picaresque; that celebrity then mobilized his later legacy, his afterlife in various literary modes and visual cultural genres.

“Notoriety is the Thing”: Modern Celebrity and Early Dickens
Timothy Spurgin

Dickens has often been identified as one of the first modern celebrities, but little attention has been paid to his own understanding of celebrity culture. Dickens was in fact a close and intelligent observer of that culture, and his fascination with celebrity marks much of his early work. In his treatment of characters like Mrs. Leo Hunter, Dickens locates the origins of celebrity culture in experiences of worthlessness and shame. Extending this analysis, he uses other characters, including the members of the Crummles troupe, to show how easily the pursuit of celebrity can become an end in itself. As he explores these issues, the young Dickens also reveals his own discomfort with the experience of celebrity and an increasingly powerful, perhaps understandable, wish to exchange it for a more respectable position and a more lasting sort of fame.

Fatal Extraction: Dickensian Bildungsroman and the Logic of Dependency
Aleksandar Stević

Focusing on Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations, this study explores the intersections of the Dickensian bildungsroman and the early and mid-Victorian debates about the sources of poverty and the legitimacy of charitable intervention in alleviating its effects. These debates, which culminated around the time of the New Poor Law, were the main venue in which political economists, social reformers, proponents of self-help, and advocates of organized charity exchanged arguments about the role of personal responsibility and environmental pressures in determining the individual’s standing in the world. Their arguments were invariably driven by conflicting notions of individual agency: are the poor victims and in need of assistance, or vicious and in need of discipline? Even when not directly addressing the provisions of the New Poor Law and the effects of organized charity, Dickens’s novels seek to negotiate some of the central tensions of these contemporary ideological conflicts: invariably focusing on orphans and the external factors that shape their fate, including both benevolent and tyrannical caregivers, Dickens’s novels obsessively examine the meaning of dependency and guardianship. By organizing his plots around the moral and practical implications of social ascent by means of outside benevolent intervention, Dickens used the form of the bildungsroman to explore an alternative to the dominant ethics of self-sufficiency.

“Feeble Pictures of an Existing Reality”: The Factual Fiction of Nicholas Nickleby
Galia Benziman

The attitude to children was a hotly-debated issue in late-1830s Britain, following the publication of parliamentary reports on child labor. Besides further investigations and debates, the shocked response also inspired various fictional descriptions. This essay examines the treatment of child abuse in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, in which the brutal school scenes provide us with an opportunity to explore the interplay of fact and fiction in Dickens’s early work. As Dickens declares in his 1848 preface, although the novel had presented but “faint and feeble pictures of an existing reality,” a significant improvement in the Yorkshire schools followed its first publication. Were Dickens’s pictures of reality indeed “feeble,” and in what sense? In his representation of Dotheboys School, Dickens performs two contradictory missions: he aims to shock his readers and affect public opinion, while being intent on making his readers laugh even when describing brutal scenes involving victimized children. In order to find how these two paradoxical targets work together, I compare Dickens’s narrative strategy—his humor, his avoidance of the theme of child labor, and his depiction of evil as individual aberration—with contemporary social-problem novels. Despite what we may construe as the other texts’ greater political commitment, the essay discusses the way in which the seemingly apolitical aspects of Nickleby are strategically designed to affect a change. 

Dickens and Tocqueville: Chapter 7 of American Notes 
Jerome Meckler

Abundant evidence has been presented elsewhere to show that Dickens took exception to Democracy in America in both American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit. Rather than recapitulate, I wish to suggest that the most famous early Victorian travel writer, who had a life-long interest in prison reform, also disagreed thoroughly with Tocqueville’s earlier treatise On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France, which had been translated in 1833. Throughout chapter 7 of American Notes, Dickens repudiated the French aristocrat’s theories about incarceration and his notion of Philadelphia’s Eastern Penitentiary as the ideal prison. Dickens rewrote the prison interviews in Appendix No. 10 of Tocqueville’s opus, rejecting the Frenchman’s positive findings and parodying his methodology. Thus may have been conceived the rationale behind the American chapters in Martin Chuzzlewit: en route to Eden and back, the hero in effect interviews a dozen or more American scalawags. The impressions they make upon him register opposite to their intentions, just as Dickens’s disheartening interviews with Eastern Penitentiary inmates contradicted Tocqueville’s upbeat testimonials. Dickens denounced the Philadelphia system as vigorously as Tocqueville had praised it. This mistaken judgment in Tocqueville’s field of expertise, Dickens implied, not only discredited the so-called Separate System of solitary confinement but also compromised the aristocrat’s entire critique of America’s socio-political experiment.

How Dombey and Son Thinks About Masculinities
Rosemary Coleman 

Fifty years ago Julian Moynahan observed that “Dombey and Son is a very disturbing book.” It is no less disturbing today, as it lays bare Dickens’s struggles with the vexed subject of bourgeois masculinity. The text becomes a kind of laboratory in which male bodies are anatomized and marked for punishment, or sanitized and marked for reward. It embodies a series of unsuccessful experiments in the theorization of an ideal masculinity—that is, a masculinity capable of both effective moneymaking and affective caretaking. The text’s masculine constructions are, in fact, so serially ineffectual—the infantilized Dombey, the mutilated Carker, the castrated Bunsby, the androgynous and delusory men of the Midshipman—as to leave Dickens no alternative except desperately to provide, at the last textual minute, two simulacra of ideal male figures for this fictional world. In his final chapter, then, Dickens hastily and unconvincingly reconstructs two minor characters, Walter Gay as successful capitalist, and Mr. Morfin as domestic paragon, on whose frail shoulders the narrative will rest its unfulfilled needs for one whole man. Unable to fill its empty spaces, rejecting what it understands to be aggressive and dangerous masculinity, the novel leaves us in a zero sum world of waves and tears, stasis and replication, aberrant domestic arrangements, and androgynous males.

Floating Fragments: Some Uses of Nautical Cliché in Dombey and Son
Matthew P. M. Kerr 

In Dombey and Son, the sea is often present as a source both of metaphor and of experience. The shuttling between literal and symbolic registers which characterizes Dickens’s use of the sea produces a kind of vagueness that has often been problematic for his critics, who complain that solid features of his nautical scenes continually risk dissolving into literary commonplace or cliché. This essay reconsiders some of Dickens’s nautical clichés, refocusing attention on their constitutive vagueness. I argue that the slippery doubleness of the literary sea is what Dickens finds so appealing, and organize my discussion around two categories of nautical cliché: those related to water, and those related to solidity (especially wood). I challenge influential accounts of the novel, which praise solid aspects of the marine in Dombey and Son: “the real sea of ships and tar and tackling” (Carey 106). I go on to show that Walter Gay’s association with woodenness alludes to nautical clichés and turns of phrase: a set of narrative possibilities Dickens hoped to keep in fluid contact with each other. In this way, I argue that if Dickens’s nautical clichés were a problem, they were also a linguistic and imaginative resource.

Dickens Goes to War: David Copperfield at His Majesty’s Theatre, 1914
Andrew Maunder 

As a powerful symbol of education, culture, and “Englishness,” Dickens had a busy time during the First World War. He was available as a cultural icon whose spirit and authority could be invoked for uses beyond the literary. In Britain, very few questioned the mobilization of Dickens in this way; the novelist’s worth was self-evident. This was also the view of theater managers up and down the country who, worried about the slump in attendances, rediscovered Dickens’s cultural (and commercial) value. This article focuses on a specific instance of how Dickens was put to work in the theatre during the War. In 1914, at His Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree produced a lavish version of David Copperfield, adapted by Louis Napoleon Parker. The production was a hit, running for four months. Herbert Tree’s star status was part of its appeal, but this version of David Copperfield can also be seen as an important piece of wartime propaganda. Dickens’s work could be extended to a specific cultural and historical moment and reach out beyond its original boundaries. Thinking about this particular adaptation thus invites us perhaps to consider some of the strategies involved in dealing with the literary legacy of an author and his work.

“Whether we like it or not”: Bleak House and the Limits of Liberalism
Jennifer Conary 

This essay reads Bleak House as a critique of liberal individualism, especially the individual’s role in affecting social change. I argue that Dickens accomplishes this critique through his use of the split narrative and multiple genres—primarily the bildungsroman and the social problem novel. In Bleak House, Dickens not only revises and expands the genre of the social problem novel, but he simultaneously deconstructs the popular Victorian narrative of individual progress presented by the first-person bildungsroman. Dickens’s combination of the two genres through the use of the double narrative is what creates the potent pessimism of Bleak House’s social vision. By revealing the failure of the liberal paradigm on which both genres were founded, Bleak House hints at the terrifying idea that individuals have no power to change things for the better.

Dickens, Disinterestedness, and the Poetics of Clouded Judgment
Zachary Samalin

This article argues that, throughout his middle and late novels, Charles Dickens developed an explicit critique of the ideals of disinterestedness which continue to dominate discussion of the Victorian discourse of judgment. I make three specific claims about Dickens’s development of a critical attitude towards the various kinds of objectivity and detachment that comprise disinterested judgments. First, through a careful reading of the motif of fog in Bleak House, I argue that while Dickens initially relied on a visual rhetoric of obscurity and clear-sightedness to call for a disinterested critique of Victorian society, this rhetoric is both complicated and compromised by the novel’s introduction of a poetics of smell; this alternative sensory modality for critical judgment registered a far more destabilizing and visceral sense of human implication in the physical and moral corruption of the world. Second, Dickens’s ambivalent experiments with disinterestedness in Bleak House pave the way for a discussion of Little Dorrit, in which Dickens explicitly criticizes the visual rhetoric of disinterested and objective clear-sightedness he had earlier entertained. Little Dorrit’s polemic alleges that Arnoldian endeavors to see the object as in itself it really is are in fact attempts to remain willfully blind to extant social relations among people. Finally, in addition to collapsing clear vision and disinterest into self-interest and obfuscation, Little Dorrit also offers readers ample room for speculation about alternative forms of judgment available to the Victorian critical imagination.

Math and the Mechanical Mind: Charles Babbage, Charles Dickens, and Mental Labor in Little Dorrit
Jessica Kuskey

While critics have remarked on Charles Dickens’s decades-long association and friendship with Charles Babbage, we still lack close examination of the influence Babbage’s wide-ranging work in political economy, mathematics, and mechanical inventions had on Dickens’s literary production. Through analysis of Babbage’s mathematical theory, his invention of the Difference Engine (the first programmable mechanical calculator), and Dickens’s representation of Babbage in Little Dorrit, I argue that our current conception of intellectual property derives from Victorian efforts to establish the mental labor of the “professional” as unalienated and self-directed through its opposition to the monotonous, repetitive labor imposed upon factory workers and on mechanized mental laborers. While critical attention to the novel generally focuses on its representation of speculative finance, the crucial role of math in this central plot element has yet to be taken seriously, as has the related mechanization of the characters most closely involved in the mental labors of mathematics and finance. The novel’s representations of mechanized mathematical labor thus illuminate the ways Dickens as a novelist and Babbage as an inventor were similarly engaged with contemporary debates about mental labor, intellectual property, and the social utility of the professional.

“A Long and Constant Fusion of the Two Great Nations”: Dickens, the Crossing, and A Tale of Two Cities
Matthew Heitzman  

This essay explores Dickens’s treatments of the Channel Crossing in his journalism and considers them in relation to his drastically different representation of it in A Tale of Two Cities. The Crossing was a richly cognitive experience for Dickens in which he could reconcile a sense of dual fidelity to England and France, and cultivate a sense of simultaneous connection to both countries. A Tale of Two Cities departs radically from this paradigm, depicting the Channel Crossing as a dark and sinister event, and Charles Darnay is arrested in both England and France for the crime of crossing the Channel. This essay argues that the novel responds to contemporary Anglo-French political tensions in the wake of an assassination attempt on French Emperor Napoleon III in 1858, and that its pessimistic depiction of the Crossing and the public denunciations of Darnay reflect Dickens’s despair over the nationalist rhetoric that followed the attack and the popular will in both countries to secure a clean divide between them.

Servants’ Bright Reflections: Advertising the Body in Victorian Literature and Culture
Erin D. Chamberlain 

This essay examines the literary and cultural representations of Victorian servants and how their bodies and beauty are tied to the spaces in which they live and work. In particular, I argue that the idealized functional nature of the servant’s body (as demonstrated through advertisements from the period) became the perceived way for the public to determine the effectiveness of management skills employers exerted over their domestic workers. These representations also illustrate the complicated tensions confronting employers wanting to establish a social superiority over their servants by noting differences in individual appearance, health, and cleanliness while at the same time needing these same servants to stand as representatives of the high quality of their households through those very same means. Whether servants perform their duties well or poorly, their bodies are presented by authors and advertisers as a reflection and ultimate success or failure of the productive and beautiful Victorian home.

Entropy and the Marriage Plot in The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret
Elizabeth Meadows 

The sensation novel’s exciting effects on its readers have been the topic of critical concern since the inception of this novelistic subgenre in the 1860s. Yet the repetition of sensational thrills that characterizes Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and M. E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret has paradoxically entropic effects: a state of reduced energy, agency, and volition for characters and readers alike. The depletion of agency within sensation novels constitutes a genre-defining strategy that calls attention to the determining power of formal conventions of nineteenth-century novelistic closure and social conventions of normative sexuality, which are deeply intertwined in the marriage plot that dominates Victorian fiction. Braddon and Collins make the binding power of conventional plot structures into the subject matter of plot as their sensation novels portray and enact the loss of energy that defines entropy. This essay examines how the entropic plots of The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret theorize the formal requirements of sensation to interrogate the relations among literary and social conventions and human bodies.

Recent Dickens Studies: 2012
Caroline Reitz

This essay surveys Dickens scholarship in the year 2012, summarizing and commenting on nearly 150 critical articles, books, and worldwide celebrations of the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth. While the broad and often overlapping categories below indicate the difficulty of grasping such a rich and diverse body of scholarship, there are some areas of particular interest this year, such as a new understanding of the global nature of Dickens Studies and a new access to Dickens’s journalism, which has begun to revise significantly our understanding not only of writing outside the novels but of novelistic mode, as well. The scholarship surveyed is organized into the following categories: the Bicentenary, Global Dickens, Victorian Print Cultures, Sexuality and Gender, The City and Modernity, Dickens Adapted, Childhood, Disability, Things, Sentiment and Affect, Dickens and/as the Public, and Biographies and Biographical Criticism.