Essays on Victorian Fiction

Volume 52, No. 1 (2021)
Published by Pennsylvania State University Press



Talking Birds and Talking to Birds: Transcending the Child in Barnaby Rudge
Galia Benziman, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Dickens was one of the first writers to present a central character with an intellectual disability—the eponymous hero of Barnaby Rudge, who bears several symptoms of autism, a syndrome not yet diagnosed in the nineteenth century. This article examines the influence of the Romantic cult of the child on Dickens’s articulation of disability as associated with early stages of development. The placing of the linguistically-disabled person on the human continuum is related to the concept of logocentrism, or supremacy of language, as the defining presumption that separates human from animal. This humanist premise was maintained, in the words of Jacques Derrida, “from Aristotle to Heidegger, from Descartes to Kant, Levinas and Lacan” (2008). Exploring the representation of animal-child communication, this article regards the depiction of the talking raven in Barnaby Rudge as a revision of the Wordsworthian idyllic representation of the child and animal in nature. It argues that alongside the historical theme of the novel, and the Rioters’ “beastly” violence, there are also the alternative linguistic codes of animal speech and intellectual disability that combine to raise the question of language as a defining property of the human, and its possibly changing qualities in nineteenth-century England.

Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, disability, animals in literature, children in literature


Queer Families, Queer Futures in Dombey and Son
Joe McLaughlin, New York University

What did Dickens know about queer theory before it was written? While the debate between the antisocial thesis and queer utopianism continues to yield productive fruit in the realm of critical theory, this article argues for a formal analysis of queerness in Dickens, reading Dombey and Son as a novel about various kinds of queer families in a time of distress and dysfunction. Following Caroline Levine’s notion of social forms, this article examines the formal collisions between various kinds of queer families, which both articulate and open up new ways to define “the queer” and what place or function queerness can have within the larger construction of the social. Through primary engagement with Lee Edelman and José Esteban Muñoz, it finds that Dickens saw deeply into the possibilities for queer studies, articulating not one, but many affordances that queerness could provide. By reintegrating Dickens into queer theory, this article also reexamine Dickens’s reputation as the novelist of family values, arguing at once that Dickens’s domestic ideal works to underscore the irony of its unattainability, while also pushing him towards queer constructions more capable of maintaining such an ideal.

form, reparative, queer, Edelman, Muńoz


A Novel of Displacement: Seeking Spatial Justice in Bleak House's Consequential Ground
Michael P. Hatch, Arizona State University

Taking the microspatial fog in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House as a top-down perspective and the London streets as a bottom-up perspective creates compelling arguments for seeing this novel spatially. Drawing on principles from Edward W. Soja’s Seeking Spatial Justice, this article contends that Bleak House uses numerous telescoping perspectives alongside these two narrators to explore the impacts of spatial injustice and critique social institutions that displace and threaten the lives of those they should be benefiting and assisting. Soja’s proposition of exogenous (top-down), endogenous (bottom-up) and mesogeographical (middle or regional) geographical distributions helps show how Bleak House represents London to show disparity across social spaces and the lives of those who inhabit them through the unequal distribution of material and abstract resources. In doing so, Bleak House challenges its readers to look beyond one’s own space and consider the social, political, and economic factors that contribute to our spaces and how these spaces extend outwards, thereby displacing its reader from an isolated perspective to one attentive to their situatedness in a broad, complex social space, and the implications of social space and geography.

Bleak House, social justice, spatial justice, displacement, narration


What's in a "Timber Fiction"? The Significance of Wood in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend
Saber Hamdi, ISLA-Moknine, University of Monastir

In a novel where wood and human life are closely bound, woodenness is Dickens’s metaphor for a perversely narcissistic self that spreads pygmalionist petrification to ever larger levels of interpersonal relations, thus giving rise to cultural atavism at a time when progress is heralded as the epoch’s credo. The taking over of bodies and spaces by wood points to the propagation of an unnatural mentality nourished by a pathological clinging to a fetishized past as a compensation for the present feeling of lack and amputation. But far from being blocked, the possibility of regeneration requires a protean subject that undergoes castration in the form of an empathetic opening unto the other, one that carries the reader outside the double logic of narcissistic projection and introjection.

wood, metaphor, pygmalionism, narcissism, empathy


Eco-criticism(s) and Victorian Fiction: A Review Essay
Adrian Tait, Independent Scholar

This article offers an overview of the now burgeoning field of Victorian ecocriticism. Ecocriticism (or environmental criticism) emerged as a distinct field of study in the 1990s, focused on reevaluating Romantic and nonfictional representations of nature as part of a green tradition of deep ecological thinking. As ecocriticism diversified, it took a more sociocentric (or social ecological) turn, and in so doing, it also took a more active interest in the Victorian period. As a new generation of ecocritics have emphasized, the Victorian period marked an epochal shift in the nature of lived existence, as a rural society was transformed into an industrialized, urbanized, and recognizably modern society, with recognizably modern environmental problems. In reacting to those problems, Victorian writers anticipated many of our own concerns, as recent ecocritical reconsiderations of Dickens’s work underline. As the variety of those responses to Dickens’s oeuvre also suggest, ecocriticism today encompasses a range of sometimes markedly different theoretical approaches and concerns. Those approaches are nevertheless united by a shared sense that a Victorian ecocriticism constitutes a distinct and worthwhile field of study, with the very real potential to illuminate the origins of the environmental crises bequeathed by the world’s first industrial nation.

Victorian ecocriticism, Dickens, new materialism, deep/social ecological, Anthropocene, sustainability


Teaching Nineteenth-Century Novels to Today's Teens
Vincent A. Lankewish, Professional Performing Arts High School, Manhattan, NY
Jacqueline Jean Barrios, James A. Foshay Learning Center, Los Angeles, CA / UC Los Angeles
Michael Boswell, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, Alexandria, VA
Geoffrey Schramm, National Cathedral School, Washington, D.C.
Ben Wiebracht, Stanford University Online High School, Redwood City, CA
Lissette Lopez Szwydky, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, AR

A survey of AP English Literature and AP English Language exams administered over the past two decades reveals that nineteenth-century British literature—especially novels of this era—is underrepresented compared to texts from other literary historical periods. At the same time, a range of recent or relatively recent fiction, television shows, and film depicts teenagers embracing Victorian texts, particularly the novels of George Eliot. This unexpected enthusiasm for literature published two centuries ago, however, is even more evident in high school English classes today. This article includes six accounts of the successes that secondary school English teachers have had in motivating their students to read nineteenth-century fiction that seemed destined to gather dust on the shelves of their schools’ bookrooms.

AP English exams, high school English curricula, teenagers, nineteenth-century novels, The Goldfinch, Room 222


Recent Dickens Studies 2019: A Journal of the Plague Year
Sean Grass, Iowa State University

This article surveys Dickens scholarship published during 2019. The first major section addresses books, edited collections, and special issues devoted entirely to sustained, focused study of Dickens. Subsequent sections describe chapters, articles, and emerging or expanding online resources, arranged into these topical clusters: biographical and reference works and source studies; material and commodity culture, including studies of the body, economics, and textual production; narrative form, system, and genre; visual culture, including studies of illustration, adaptation, and performance; equity and social justice, including considerations of gender, race, the law, policing, prisons, and animal studies; religion, spirituality, and psychology; intermediality, including translation studies and matters of cultural and artistic exchange; and retrospectives that consider Dickens’s continued significance.

Dickens, scholarship, criticism, resources, Victorian