Essays on Victorian Fiction

Volume 52, No. 2 (2021)
Published by Pennsylvania State University Press



Barnaby Rudge, Libreral History, and the Narrative Function of the Crowd
Sophia Hsu, Lehman College, CUNY

This article examines the crowd as a narrative technology in literature and liberal historiography. Taking Dickens's Barnaby Rudge as my example, I show how the figure of the crowd not only consolidates liberal values, as previous scholars have argued, but also disrupts them by posing a challenge to the narrative tendency to simplify and villainize the crowd. Dickens's novel depicts the crowd in contradictory ways—as aggressive and friendly, moral and immoral, tense and serene—thus evading the easy equation of the crowd with the mob that liberal narratives usually offer. By portraying the crowd unevenly, the text unsettles English historical progressivism, which depends on depicting the crowd as an unruly horde to justify the nation's violent exclusions. The crowd, I argue, both reinforces and confounds the needs of narrative and liberal history for linear momentum and moral satisfaction.

Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, the crowd, liberalism, Whig history


Necessary Compromises: A Defense of Sympathetic Readings and Progressive Potential in Oliver Twist
Alexander Long, Purdue University

The field of literary study is perceived by some to be disproportionately represented by negative or critical analysis of canonical literature on the grounds that it has significant flaws when judged by today's standards. Though such criticism is necessary and important, this article reengages the progressive potential, that is to say the lessons of the text that offer hope for positive social change, in Dickens's Oliver Twist. Slavoj Žižek's theorization of violence is deployed as a method of engaging Oliver Twist with an eye toward systemic (i.e., objective) violence, and this focus is then leveraged to analyze the progressive elements of the novel more broadly, emphasizing how the minor characters, double-speak, and capitalistic language are all highly constructive in unpacking the complex social relations and progressive message that underlies the text's seemingly bourgeois façade. Ultimately, this close reading serves as a larger call to action that champions optimistic and sympathetic readings of popular texts in order to situate literary studies more generally as a force for social improvement in society.

Dickens, capitalism, criminality, progressive, Žižek


Little Dorrit's "Wildernesses of Secrets"
Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., California State University, Sacramento

This article initially documents the variety of critical opinions on secrets in Dickens's novels and more specifically the multitude and diversity of secrets in Little Dorrit. It then generally discusses the nature and functions of secrets and their relevance to the novel before its major task: exploring the text's (often erotic) narrative, plot, family, and intimately personal secrets, especially those of Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit. And it finds that Amy alone practices the necessary discretion to know both when to keep and when to reveal and share secrets. In a concluding Epilogue, the article discusses Dickens's own secrets and the impact of both his fictional and biographical secrets on his readers.

Little Dorrit, secrets, erotic, family


Joe as the Wise Fool in Great Expectations: Dickens's Criticism of the Mid-Victorian Literature of Success and Upward Social Mobility
Masayo Hasegawa, Kochi University

Criticism of Great Expectations often portrays Joe, a gentle blacksmith, as important to the novel's definition of a true gentleman. While this is understandable, Joe plays a more important role in the novel's discussion of the contemporary literature of success to propagate the ideal of the self-made man. This role is as a wise fool and truth-teller, through whom Dickens highlights a contradiction in the literature's messages about the social mobility of working-class people. This contradiction arises as a result of the self-interested desire of the middle classes to bolster their advantageous position in the hierarchical Victorian society, and Dickens censures this self-interestedness. However, Dickens is also aligned with contemporary success stories in their denial of social climbing of the working classes because he believed that working-class social ambitions had the potential to disturb Victorian class society and his own gentlemanly identity. While he advocates a static stratified society, at the same time he wishes to ameliorate the status quo of Victorian class society and address the way it disadvantages the working classes. The means for social betterment proposed in Great Expectations involve the moral betterment of gentlemanly middle-class people.

Great Expectations, the Self-Made Man, the Literature of Success, Social Mobility


Indecent Proposals: Plotting Marriage in Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Elizabeth Bridgham, Providence College

The abundance of problematic proposals in nineteenth-century British fiction suggests a breakdown in the already inequitable gendered social ritual of proposing and accepting marriage. Coercive proposals, in particular, disrupt the element of a woman's free choice that Victorians assumed to be critical to successfully performing this ritual. Using speech act theory as its analytical framework, this article examines how Charles Dickens, in Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, presents two case studies of marriage proposals that are not merely coercive but are explicitly threatening. The threats that Bradley Headstone and John Jasper embed in their proposals can be read as invalidating the performative promises of the proposals themselves, as the act of promising suggests an effort to fulfill the wishes of the promisee, while the act of threatening suggests an effort to violate those wishes deliberately. This is more than a semantic distinction: because marriage proposals were and are such a significant part of Victorian life and the Victorian novel, their proper performance is a requirement of stability in the social order and the literary form. When the ritual of the proposal breaks down into threats, so too does the obligation of its recipient to respond according to conventional scripts, and the words and actions of Lizzie Hexam and Rosa Bud suggest that Dickens saw in such proposals opportunities for the expansion of women's agency at the extreme margins of the marriage plot.

Our Mutual Friend, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, proposals, threats, speech act theory


Through the Looking-Glass at 150: Eight Retakes
Edward Guiliano, New York Institute of Technology
Angelika Zirker, Tübingen University
James R. Kincaid, University of Southern California
Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., California State University, Sacramento
Zongxin Feng, Tsinghua University
Jan Susina, Illinois State University
Colette Ramuz, Royal Holloway, University of London
Francesca Orestano, Milan University 

This collection of eight different essays describes the thoughts and impressions from rereading Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There on the sesquicentennial of its publication. The responses offer new impressions and explore the novel from various perspectives, including language, ambiguities, chess, intertexuality, and humor. The consensus is that nothing in this tale is simple.

Lewis Carroll, Looking-Glass, Alice, ambiguity, time, Queens Gambit, Kew Gardens, "Jabberwocky", identity