Essays on Victorian Fiction

Volume 50, No. 2 (2019)
Published by Pennsylvania State University Press



dsa.jpgCounter-Didactic Pickwickians
Amir Tevel, David Yelin College

Dickens has often been praised by modern readers for his keen awareness of Victorian injustices and his ability to expose them in his fiction. Victorianists, though, also know that Dickens was anxious about appearing “preachy” in his fiction, and was often criticized by contemporary readers for sacrificing the interests of the story to those of his social criticism. This article shows how, in the Pickwick Papers, Dickens develops a “counter-didactic” discourse, one that allows him to criticize Victorian institutions and make general moral points without appearing to do so. Often he will advance a social argument, only to (apparently) undermine it the next moment with a joke. In other cases, the literary form in which he embeds the social argument (a comical proverb, a tale told by a grubby stroller) defuses the sense of moral urgency that would otherwise attach to it. Dickens’s counter-didactic discourse thus allows him to advance social arguments under the cover of a style that ostentatiously mocks and dismisses them. Many of the defining stylistic features of the novel—the “Wellerisms,” the interpolated tales, the good-natured ignorance of Pickwick himself—gain a new coherence when seen as features of this larger, counter-didactic discourse.

Dickens, Victorian, Pickwick Papers, Didacticism


Dickens's Anonymous Margins: Names, Network Theory, and the Serial Novel
Adam Grener and Isabel Parker, Victoria University of Wellington

This article argues that anonymous characters serve as an important role within Dickens's effort to render the networked nature of Victorian society. Building on recent scholarship that has turned to "networks" to examine Dickens's complex and evolving character systems, this article details the insights gleaned from an interdisciplinary research program that uses computational methods to map Dickens's character networks as they develop during a novel's serial production. In particular, it highlights the problems presented by characters who remain nameless: while these characters may seem insignificant or mere background to the action of a novel, they frequently inhabit functionally and structurally significant positions within character networks that aim to capture complex social relationships. Through detailed analysis of anonymous characters in Martin Chuzzlewit and Bleak House, this article argues that anonymity becomes one way in which Dickens's novels aim to reconcile particularized and structural perspectives on the social body. Although it is easy to fixate on Dickens's idiosyncratic practices of naming characters, though who remain nameless actually provide important insights into Dickens's navigation of serial form and the development of his representational practices from his earliest sketches through to his final novels.

Charles Dickens, anonymity, serial novel, social networks, digital humanities


Ghosts of Abolition in Oliver Twist
Anthony Teets, Farmingdale State College

Oliver Twist the hero and the myth, the serialized fiction and the novel, were all born at the crux of British emancipation, and though numerous critics have noted that Dickens’s novel is built around social historical realities of the early 1830s, it remains to tell that story from a viewpoint that includes the abolition of slavery in the West Indies, the period of slave-apprenticeship, and the compensation to former slave owners. Though often considered separately, this article argues that Dickens considered the effects of abolition to intertwine discursively with the New Poor Law, Vagrancy Acts, and legislative reforms concerning animal cruelty. The article emphasizes the West Indian plot involving Oliver’s half-brother Monks as crucial in unifying the novel’s concern with social justice. In arguing that the various reforms participated in the creation of new categories for defining populations, Ian Hacking’s concept of “historical ontology” is used to consider the ways institutions and legislative bodies create new kinds of persons over time. Dickens’s use of metaphor and metonymy translate social realities into fictional characters. Though Oliver is financially rewarded with an inheritance from the West Indian estate, it is Dickens’s novel that relieved his readers’ social anxieties with a literary compensation.

Oliver Twist, slavery, compensation, abolition, historical ontology


Queer Circuits: Dynamic Forms, Description, and Teleoskepticism in Dickens's Great Expectations
Virginia M. Leclercq

This article draws on the concepts of “chrononormativity” and “teleoskepticism” from current debates in queer theory to explore the formal work of description in Dickens’s novel (1861–1862). Where formalism and narrative theory have traditionally assumed that narrative action lends dynamism to the novel form, this article draws on Dickens’s descriptions of Miss Havisham to propose the concept of dynamic stasis, a form that occurs not in the plotted activity of the text but in its descriptions. Rather than interrupting the narrative action, these descriptions are themselves dynamic forms that force us to reconsider the formal dynamics of the novel and the stability of the closure derived from heteronormative sociotemporal forms, like the marriage plot or the bildungsroman.

form, description, narrative, queer theory, Great Expectations


Alternative Literacies and Language in Bleak House and Great Expectations
Tatiana Nunez, The Graduate Center, CUNY

The role of literacy in nineteenth-century culture is essential to understanding the conflicts in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) and Great Expectations (1860). In these novels, the material objects of literacy, such as papers and documents, often function as plot devices while simultaneously highlighting the divide between literate and illiterate characters. This article defines literacy not only as the ability to read but also as induction and investment into the social order; its argument is that these novels undermine the assumption that literacy is intrinsically linked to discourses of truth and authority. It also examines how characters in both novels continually confront the limits of literacy and find themselves relying on alternate systems of knowledge, which this article terms alternative literacies, to resist the ruling class. In doing so, it does not intend to fetishize illiteracy but instead to examine how literacy must intersect with other qualities in order to improve a character’s life.

Bleak House, Great Expectations, literacy, language, Krook


Caught in Time: Performance and Spectatorship in Our Mutual Friend
Keith Easley, Independent scholar, Canterbury, UK

The audience for the performances by Dickens’s characters in Our Mutual Friend is usually taken to be the reader. This article argues that this relationship is inscribed in the novel by the character-audience relationship within the fiction, which draws us into reconsidering the nature of spectatorship in our reading and in our lives. Those who enable the rule of money would appropriate the power of the audience for themselves and make others helpless spectators of their own lives. Society seems caught in an eternal present that deprives characters of choice and change. Dickens unlocks time through his use of wonder, which encompasses both realism and fantasy, and which shapes the two central romance narratives. In each of them, a triangular relationship between the lovers and a character acting as a catalyst (one benign, the other malign) affords a new temporal perspective that makes change possible, along with a new sense of individual and social identity. For the reader, the two perspectives are incompatible, and since each involves and questions our own spectatorship in the very act of reading, we are driven to choose for ourselves. We must make a decision about time and performance that will have real consequences in our lives.

time, performance, spectatorship, wonder, reciprocity


Dickens Matters? A Collaborative Story About Our Spring 2019 Dickens Seminar Told in Six Parts
Caroline Reitz, John Jay College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
Beth Sherman, CUNY Graduate Center
Sean Nortz, CUNY Graduate Center
Emily Foster, Columbia University
Stephanie Montalti, CUNY Graduate Center
Christian Lewis, CUNY Graduate Center

This collaborative article takes six different looks at what it means to read and study Dickens today in both the graduate and undergraduate classrooms, as well as in the culture at large. The responses examine Dickens and Dickens studies from viewpoints including feminist studies, transmediality, adaptation, childhood and youth studies, as well as raise questions about the viability of single-author studies. Equal parts supportive defense and tough cross-examination, young scholars explore whether and how Dickens matters in both literature and culture today.

Dickens, Dickens studies, Dickensian, feminism, transmediality


New George Eliot Studies: From Time's Up to the Anthropocene
Alicia Carroll, Auburn University

It is wonderfully clear from recent work that as George Eliot rapidly approaches her bicentenary, she matters more than ever. In reading her, many of the scholars reviewed here are inclined to point out the gender inequities she experienced in life (pay inequity, for example) or the inaccuracy of gendered assumptions about her life and work which have gone unchallenged. From the ecology of Middlemarch to the character of Eliot as “Editress” of The Westminster Review, recent scholars have brought a new George Eliot into the twenty-first century, challenging old dogma (even the once sacred “death of the author”) along the way. While new attention has been paid to George Eliot’s individual work as an editor, new approaches also tend to place her in the field of cultural production, often among other women, stressing the collective, social nature of women’s professional experiences in, for example, the British Library’s Round Reading Room, or on staff at periodicals. The now venerable field of periodical studies as well as the recent digitization of materials has facilitated a new feminist scholarship that digs deep into the collective experiences of being a professional woman writer in the Victorian period.

George Eliot, Victorian studies, feminist criticism, eco-criticism, #MeToo