Dickens, Charles (1812 - 1870)
(1812 - 1870)
(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Boz) English novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, and essayist.
Since the publication of his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837; better known as The Pickwick Papers), Dickens has achieved popular and critical recognition of a level rarely equaled in English letters. Almost all of his novels display, to varying degrees, his comic gift, his deep social concerns, and his extraordinary talent for creating unforgettable characters. Many of his creations, most notably Scrooge from the ghost story A Christmas Carol (1843), have become familiar English literary stereotypes. Some of his characters are grotesques; Dickens loved the style of eighteenth-century Gothic romance, even though the popularity of those novels was on the wane, and his fiction features many elements of that genre. Dickens was thus a late contributor to the development of Gothic English literature. However, he played a major role in establishing the "Christmas ghost story" as an institution, and many eminent Victorian writers dabbled in the production of ghost stories only because he championed the form. Novels by Dickens that owe a debt to the Gothic tradition include The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), Bleak House (1853), Little Dorrit (1857), Great Expectations (1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1865). In these works Dickens combines social realism with exaggeration, surrealism, fantasy, and the picaresque to tackle important questions about the poor and disadvantaged in English society and to dramatize the consequences of rapid industrialization on its victims. He used the devices of literary horror to arouse public consciousness about terrible social conditions and to explore themes of greed, corruption, individual and institutional evil, reality versus unreality, imprisonment, and death. Although Dickens's Gothic-inspired fiction is highly entertaining, he also used it as a vehicle to express his moral outrage at the state of the social order and as a platform to reform what he saw as the worst excesses and injustices in English society.
Dickens was the son of John Dickens, a minor government official who constantly lived beyond his means and was eventually sent to debtor's prison. This humiliation deeply troubled young Dickens, and even as an adult he was rarely able to speak of it. As a boy, he was forced to work in a factory for meager wages until his father was released from prison. Although he was an excellent student, he left school at fifteen, as was the norm, and did not attend university. What he lacked in formal education, however, he made up for by spending long hours at the British Museum Library, reading works of English history and literature, especially Shakespeare. Late in his teens, Dickens learned shorthand and became a court reporter, which introduced him to journalism and aroused his contempt for politics. His early short stories and sketches, first published in newspapers and magazines, were later collected as Sketches by Boz (1836). The book sold well and received generally favorable notices. That year he married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of his friend George Hogarth, who edited the newly established Evening Chronicle; Dickens was to have ten children with her. His next literary venture was The Pickwick Papers. By the time the fourth monthly installment was published, Dickens was the most popular author in England. His fame soon spread throughout the rest of the English-speaking world, and eventually to the Continent.
Success followed upon success for Dickens, and the number of his readers continued to grow. In 1842 he traveled to the United States, hoping to find an embodiment of his liberal political ideals. He returned to England deeply disappointed, dismayed by America's lack of support for an international copyright law, acceptance of the inhumane practice of slavery, and what he judged as the vulgarity of the American people. He then spent much time traveling and campaigning against social evils with his pamphlets and other writings. He also founded and edited several periodicals and wrote scores of essays. From 1844 to 1845 Dickens lived in Italy, Switzerland, and Paris. He continued to publish prolifically and became an extremely wealthy man. In 1858 Dickens separated from his wife and formed a close relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan. He also gave a great number of public readings from his works in both England and America, which left him exhausted. Many believe that increasing physical and mental strain led to the stroke Dickens suffered while working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), left unfinished at his death. When he died in 1870, England mourned the death of one of its favorite authors. His tombstone reads: "He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world."
Many of Dickens's novels are clearly inspired by the Gothic tradition: Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist (1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), Hard Times (1854), The Old Curiosity Shop, Great Expectations, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dombey and Son (1848), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood all contain Gothic elements within their humorous, picaresque structure, employing melodrama, hyperbole, and horror to drive home their themes. Of the novels, only Edwin Drood—a whodunit in which the prime suspect is John Jasper, uncle of the missing Edwin, who frequents opium dens and conceals a secret passion beneath his seeming respectability—has a plot that one traditionally associates with Gothic literature. The rest, from Oliver Twist, about the life of an orphan who escapes from a workhouse only to endure the horrors of life on the London streets, to A Tale of Two Cities, which chronicles the lives of the aristocracy and lower classes through the times leading up to and during the French Revolution, use Gothic-inspired characters, atmosphere, melodramatic moments, and sensational situations within a more conventional frame to underscore the horrors of modern industrial life as the author saw them.
Dickens's ghost stories are mostly light comedies sharpened with a spice of terror. A Christmas Carol is the most famous of all nineteenth-century ghost stories. It is about the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from a miser to a generous being, and is a moral allegory as well, but one that makes judicious use of horror. Dickens's other Christmas ghost tales include The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1846), and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848). His two best non-Christmas ghost stories are considered "The Trial for Murder," in which the ghost of a murdered man becomes a thirteenth juror in order to make certain that justice is done, and "The Signalman," a tale of premonitory apparitions in which a luckless signalman fails to make advantageous use of his warnings and their ultimate betrayal of his confidence.
Few authors have achieved the critical and popular success Dickens enjoyed both during his lifetime and after. Before he was thirty he had become one of the most successful writers England had known, and by the time he was forty he was an international celebrity. Dickens's critical and popular appeal continues unabated to this day; his works have been made into motion pictures and have generated more critical commentary than any other English author save Shakespeare. Scholarship on Dickens's writing is extensive, but those interested in the Gothic elements of his fiction have concentrated on several areas. They have noted how Dickens modifies the devices found in Gothic romance for his own purposes, using elements of surrealism and humor to paint portraits of darkly comic characters who become representatives of moral decay, corruption, greed, and evil in the modern world. Critics have also discussed Dickens's Gothic settings, attempted to trace the Gothic influences on his work, explored the use of Gothic touches in various works, and admired his skillful use of horror to offer sharp social critiques. They acknowledge, though, that Dickens's ultimate interest was not in the supernatural and thus he was not a pioneer or key figure in Gothic fiction. Rather, the general consensus is that Dickens used the Gothic in his own work as a genre that he enjoyed in order to entertain as well as edify, modifying and reworking the Gothic mode to make it his own and to create a fictional universe that would highlight for his readers what Dickens viewed as many of the most pressing social issues of his time.
Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People [as Boz] (sketches and short stories) 1836
∗Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [as Boz] (novel) 1837
Oliver Twist (novel) 1838
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (novel) 1839
Barnaby Rudge (novel) 1841
The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841
American Notes for General Circulation (travel essay) 1842
A Christmas Carol in Prose (short story) 1843
The Chimes (short story) 1844
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (novel) 1844
The Cricket on the Hearth (short story) 1846
Pictures from Italy (travel essay) 1846
Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son (novel) 1848
The Haunted Man, and The Ghost's Bargain (short stories) 1848
The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1850
Bleak House (novel) 1853
Hard Times for These Times (novel) 1854
Little Dorrit (novel) 1857
A Tale of Two Cities (novel) 1859
Great Expectations (novel) 1861
The Uncommercial Traveller (sketches and short stories) 1861
Our Mutual Friend (novel) 1865
No Thoroughfare [with Wilkie Collins] (play) 1867
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished novel) 1870
∗ All of Dickens's novels were originally published serially in magazines, usually over periods of one to two years.
CHARLES DICKENS (STORY DATE 1836–1837)
SOURCE: Dickens, Charles. "The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton." In Great Ghost Stories: 34 Classic Tales of the Supernatural, compiled by Robin Brockman, pp. 251-61. New York: Gramercy Books, 2002.
The following excerpt is from a short story originally published in The Pickwick Papers, 1836–1837.
Gabriel started up, and stood rooted to the spot with astonishment and terror; for his eyes rested on a form that made his blood run cold.
Seated on an upright tombstone, close to him, was a strange unearthly figure, whom Gabriel felt at once, was no being of this world. His long fantastic legs which might have reached the ground, were cocked up, and crossed after a quaint, fantastic fashion; his sinewy arms were bare; and his hands rested on his knees. On his short round body, he wore a close covering, ornamented with small slashes; a short cloak dangled at his back; the collar was cut into curious peaks, which served the goblin in lieu of ruff or neckerchief; and his shoes curled at his toes into long points. On his head, he wore a broad-rimmed sugar-loaf hat, garnished with a single feather. The hat was covered with the white frost; and the goblin looked as if he had sat on the same tombstone very comfortably, for two or three hundred years. He was sitting perfectly still; his tongue was put out, as if in derision; and he was grinning at Gabriel Grub with such a grin as only a goblin could call up.
'It was not the echoes,' said the goblin.
Gabriel Grub was paralysed, and could make no reply.
'What do you do here on Christmas Eve?' said the goblin sternly.
'I came to dig a grave, sir,' stammered Gabriel Grub.
'What man wanders among graves and churchyards on such a night as this?' cried the goblin.
'Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!' screamed a wild chorus of voices that seemed to fill the churchyard. Gabriel looked fearfully round—nothing was to be seen.
'What have you got in that bottle?' said the goblin.
'Hollands, sir,' replied the sexton, trembling more than ever; for he had bought it of the smugglers, and he thought that perhaps his questioner might be in the excise department of the goblins.
'Who drinks Hollands alone, and in a churchyard, on such a night as this?' said the goblin.
'Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!' exclaimed the wild voices again.
The goblin leered maliciously at the terrified sexton, and then raising his voice, exclaimed: 'And who, then, is our fair and lawful prize?'
To this inquiry the invisible chorus replied, in a strain that sounded like the voices of many choristers singing to the mighty swell of the old church organ—a strain that seemed borne to the sexton's ears upon a wild wind, and to die away as it passed onward; but the burden of the reply was still the same, 'Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!'
The goblin grinned a broader grin than before, as he said, 'Well Gabriel, what do you say to this?'
The sexton gasped for breath.
'What do you think of this, Gabriel?' said the goblin, kicking up his feet in the air on either side of the tombstone, and looking at the turned-up points with as much complacency as if he had been contemplating the most fashionable pair of Wellingtons in all Bond Street.
'It's—it's—very curious sir,' replied the sexton, half dead with fright; 'very curious, and very pretty, but I think I'll go back and finish my work, sir, if you please.'
'Work!' said the goblin, 'what work?'
'The grave, sir; making the grave,' stammered the sexton.
'Oh, the grave, eh?' said the goblin. 'Who makes graves at a time when all other men are merry, and takes a pleasure in it?' Again the mysterious voices replied, 'Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!'
'I'm afraid my friends want you Gabriel,' said the goblin, thrusting his tongue further into his cheek than ever—and a most astonishing tongue it was—'I'm afraid my friends want you, Gabriel,' said the goblin.
'Under favour, sir,' replied the horror-stricken sexton, 'I don't think they can, sir; they don't know me, sir; I don't think the gentlemen have ever seen me, sir.'
'Oh yes they have,' replied the goblin; 'we know the man with the sulky face and grim scowl, that came down the street tonight, throwing his evil looks at the children, and grasping his burying spade the tighter. We know the man who struck the boy in the envious malice of his heart, because the boy could be merry, and he could not. We know him, we know him.'
Here, the goblin gave a loud shrill laugh, which the echoes returned twenty-fold: and throwing his legs up in the air, stood upon his head, or rather upon the very point of his sugarloaf hat, on the narrow edge of the tombstone: whence he threw a somerset with extraordinary agility, right to the sexton's feet, at which he planted himself in the attitude in which tailors generally sit upon the shop-board.
'I—I—am afraid I must leave you, sir,' said the sexton, making an effort to move.
'Leave us!' said the goblin, 'Gabriel Grub going to leave us. Ho! ho! ho!'
As the goblin laughed, the sexton observed, for one instant, a brilliant illumination within the windows of the church, as if the whole building were lighted up; it disappeared, the organ pealed forth a lively air, and whole troops of goblins, the very counterpart of the first one, poured into the churchyard, and began playing at leap-frog with the tombstones: never stopping for an instant to take break, but 'overing' the highest among them, one after the other, with the most marvellous dexterity. The first goblin was a most astonishing leaper, and none of the others could come near him; even in the extremity of his terror the sexton could not help observing, that while his friends were content to leap over the common-sized gravestones, the first one took the family vaults, iron railing and all, with as much ease as if they had been so many street-posts.
At last the game reached to a most exciting pitch; the organ played quicker and quicker; and the goblins leaped faster and faster: coiling themselves up, rolling head over heels upon the ground, and bounding over the tombstones like footballs. The sexton's brain whirled round with the rapidity of the motion he beheld, and his legs reeled beneath him, as the spirits flew before his eyes: when the goblin king, suddenly darting towards him, laid his hand upon his collar, and sank with him through the earth.
When Gabriel Grub had had time to fetch his breath, which the rapidity of his descent had for the moment taken away, he found himself in what appeared to be a large cavern, surrounded on all sides by crowds of goblins, ugly and grim; in the centre of the room, on an elevated seat, was stationed his friend of the churchyard; and close beside him stood Gabriel Grub himself, without power of motion.
'Cold tonight,' said the king of the goblins, 'very cold. A glass of something warm, here!'
At this command, half a dozen officious goblins, with a perpetual smile upon their faces, whom Gabriel Grub imagined to be courtiers, on that account, hastily disappeared, and presently returned with a goblet of liquid fire, which they presented to the king.
'Ah!' cried the goblin, whose cheeks and throat were transparent, as he tossed down the flame, 'This warms one, indeed! Bring a bumper of the same, for Mr Grub.'
It was in vain for the unfortunate sexton to protest that he was not in the habit of taking anything warm at night; one of the goblins held him while another poured the blazing liquid down his throat; the whole assembled screeched with laughter as he coughed and choked, and wiped away the tears which gushed plentifully from his eyes, after swallowing the burning draught.
'And now,' said the king, fantastically poking the taper corner of his sugar-loaf hat into the sexton's eye, and thereby occasioning him the most exquisite pain: 'And now, show the man of misery and gloom, a few of the pictures from our own great storehouse!'
As the goblin said this, a thick cloud which obscured the remoter end of the cavern, rolled gradually away, and disclosed, apparently at a great distance, a small and scantily furnished, but neat and clean apartment. A crowd of little children were gathered round a bright fire, clinging to their mother's gown, and gambolling around her chair. The mother occasionally rose, and drew aside the window-curtain, as if to look for some expected object: a frugal meal was placed near the fire. A knock was heard at the door: the mother opened it, and the children crowded round her, and clapped their hands for joy, as their father entered. He was wet and weary, and shook the snow from his garments, as the children crowded round him, and seizing his cloak, hat, stick and gloves, with busy zeal, ran with them from the room. Then, as he sat down to his meal before the fire, the children climbed about his knee, and the mother sat by his side, and all seemed happiness and comfort.
But a change came upon the view, almost imperceptibly. The scene was altered to a small bedroom, where the fairest and youngest child lay dying; the roses had fled from his cheek, and the light from his eye; and even as the sexton looked upon him with an interest he had never felt or known before, he died. His young brothers and sisters crowded round his little bed, and seized his tiny hand, so cold and heavy; but they shrunk back from its touch, and looked with awe on his infant face; for calm and tranquil as it was, and sleeping in rest and peace as the beautiful child seemed to be, they saw that he was dead, and they knew that he was an Angel looking down upon, and blessing them, from a bright and happy Heaven.
Again the light cloud passed across the picture, and again the subject changed. The father and mother were old and helpless now, and the number of those about them was diminished more than half; but content and cheerfulness sat on every face, and beamed in every eye, as they crowded round the fireside, and told and listened to old stories of earlier and bygone days. Slowly and peacefully, the father sank into the grave, and soon after, the sharer of all his cares and troubles followed him to a place of rest. The few, who yet survived them, knelt by their tomb, and watered the green turf which covered it, with their tears; then rose, and turned away; sadly and mournfully, but not with bitter cries, or despairing lamentations, for they knew that they should one day meet again; and once more they mixed with the busy world, and their content and cheerfulness was restored. The cloud settled upon the picture and concealed it from the sexton's view.
'What do you think of that?' said the goblin, turning his large face towards Gabriel Grub.
Gabriel murmured out something about its being very pretty, and looked somewhat ashamed, as the goblin bent his fiery eyes upon him.
'You a miserable man!' said the goblin, in a tone of excessive contempt. 'You!' He appeared disposed to add more, but indignation choked his utterance, so he lifted up one of his very pliable legs, and flourishing it above his head a little, to insure his aim, administered a good sound kick to Gabriel Grub; immediately after which, all the goblins in waiting crowded round the wretched sexton, and kicked him without mercy: according to the established and invariable custom of courtiers upon earth, who kick whom royalty kicks, and hug whom royalty hugs.
JULIAN WOLFREYS (ESSAY DATE 2000)
SOURCE: Wolfreys, Julian. "'I Wants to Make Your Flesh Creep': Notes toward a Reading of the ComicGothic in Dickens." In Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Ruth Robbins and Julian Wolfreys, pp. 31-59. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
In the following excerpt, Wolfreys examines the complementary use of comedy and the Gothic in Dickens's works.
It is the fear one needs: the price one pays for coming contentedly to terms with a social body based on irrationality and menace.
Gothic novels are technologies that produce the monster as a remarkably mobile, permeable, and infinitely interpretable body.
A baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of a man, but who, within, would live and perish a mere beast.
Charles Dickens, The Haunted Man
Love your other
The gothic is always with us. Certainly, it was always with the Victorians. All that black, all that crêpe. All that jet. All that swirling fog. If there is a transition in the nature of the gothic from the end of the eighteenth century to the middle years of the nineteenth century, it is marked by an inward turn perhaps. There is an internalization to be considered not so much as a denial of the gothic as it is a form of intimacy. In writing of the nineteenth century which manifests a gothic turn, there is an embrace of the uncanny within ourselves rather than a displacement or projection on to some foreign or distant other. In part, the turn inward and the interest in the otherness within is signalled in part during what is termed the high Victorian period by the intense fascination, obsession even, with English manners, with Englishness and all that is the most alien to the definition of Englishness, not in some foreign field, but in England, the heart of darkness itself. It is through what James Twitchell describes as the sober English concern with darkness, mesmerism and Satanism (1981, 33), that the gothic aspect of Englishness is revealed. Far from disappearing, it may be argued, the gothic, ingested and consumed, becomes appropriate, 'a legitimate subject of literature', to employ Twitchell's phrase (1981, 33). It is not so much that the vampire is sought out. Rather, vampiric feeding on otherness constitutes a significant aspect of English letters. In particular, that which is fed on are images of children and the idea(l) of the feminine.
The mid-nineteenth century interest in children, adolescents and women represents a transitional moment in the gothic, for, as is well known, the gothic of the latter years of the eighteenth century focused its terror of the other on foreigners, on Catholics, on distant lands and long-ago days, on creepy castles and even creepier foreigners, most of whom were explicitly Mediterranean 'of a certain sort', if not out-and-out 'Oriental', in the well-known sense given that word by Edward Said. After the moment to which I refer—a moment admittedly forty years or so in length—the Victorian gothic turned once again to the foreigner, to the outsider, to the otherness of colonized lands and imperial subjectivities, as essays at the close of this volume discuss.1 But for that double moment traced, as it were, parabolically, from the moment at which Victoria came to the throne to that other moment when many of the Victorian writers thought of specifically as Victorian were either dead, dying, or consigned to writing mostly poor poetry on the Isle of Wight, the gothic mode of representation was turned on the British by the British. If there is, as James Kincaid says in Chapter 1 of [Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century], a turn from the castle to the nursery, there is also a turn from some foreign field that is most decidedly not forever England, to the playing fields and private gardens of the English, to domestic interiors and to the streets of England's capital.
The gothic is thus found among the hedgerows, in the rosebushes, along country lanes. It is to be found on the Yorkshire moors and through-out the exotic Babylon of the Empire's capital, London, particularly in the back passages of the metropolis. It is to be found equally in boarding houses and amongst the houses of quiet squares. This is true at least of the literary, between the years 1840 and 1870. Most especially and insistently, the gothic is always to be found in the texts of Charles Dickens, from The Pickwick Papers in 1836–37, to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in 1870. That escape from the uncanny is impossible, we acknowledge, at least since Freud. That the return of the repressed is inescapable and inevitable, we acknowledge equally. These qualities are our own, they inhabit our being in its most intimate recesses, even, and especially, when we project them as though they were being projected from elsewhere, from some other place, other than the other within. But what if we seek to embrace this alterity? What if we revel in its haunting quality, as, I argue, did the Victorians? What if we play Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jesse Raphael, Montel Williams or even—nightmare of nightmares—Jerry Springer, to that gothic aspect of ourselves, always already lurking in the moments of anxiety and the fearful perception of imminent terror which our daytime selves simultaneously deny, yet secretly anticipate? As all good, or even mediocre therapists will tell you, you'll never get rid of the uncanny, the other. So give it a good hug, love your other as you loathe yourself. Perhaps even tickle it, solicit a little laughter. Like a visitor who has overstayed their welcome, the uncanny may not take the hint when you begin to clear the coffee table, but at least you can amuse yourself at its expense.
"The Fat Boy"
The title of this essay is well known. It comes from that most famous of narcoleptics (literary or otherwise), the 'Fat Boy', AKA 'young opium eater' (1988, 345)—no doubt in deference to Thomas De Quincey—from The Pickwick Papers. The scene is equally well-known, but no less comical and worth repeating for all that.
It was the old lady's habit on the fine summer mornings to repair to the arbour in which Mr. Tupman had already signalised himself, in form and manner following:—first, the fat boy fetched from a peg behind the old lady's bed-room door, a close black satin bonnet, a warm cotton shawl, and a thick stick with a capacious handle; and the old lady having put on the bonnet and shawl at her leisure, would lean one hand on the stick and the other on the fat boy's shoulder, and walk leisurely to the arbour, where the fat boy would leave her to enjoy the fresh air for the space of half an hour; at the expiration of which time he would return and reconduct her back to the house.
The old lady was very precise and very particular; and as this ceremony had been observed for three successive summers without the slightest deviation from the accustomed form, she was not a little surprised on this particular morning, to see the fat boy, instead of leaving the arbour, walk a few paces out of it, look carefully around him in every direction, and return towards her with great stealth and an air of the most profound mystery.
The old lady was timorous—most old ladies are—and her first impression was that the bloated lad was about to do her some grievous bodily harm with the view of possessing himself of her loose coin. She would have cried for assistance, but age and infirmity had long ago deprived her of the power of screaming; she, therefore, watched his motions with feelings of intense terror, which were in no degree diminished by his coming up close to her, and shouting in her ear in an agitated, and as it seemed to her, a threatening tone,—
Now it so happened that Mr. Jingle was walking in the garden close to the arbour at this moment. He too heard the shout of 'Missus,' and stopped to hear more. There were three reasons for his doing so. In the first place, he was idle and curious; secondly, he was by no means scrupulous, thirdly, and lastly, he was concealed from view by some flowering shrubs. So there he stood, and there he listened.
'Missus', shouted the fat boy.
'Well Joe', said the trembling old lady. 'I'm sure I have been a very good mistress to you Joe. You have invariably been treated very kindly. You have never had too much to do; and you have always had enough to eat.'
This last was an appeal to the fat boy's most sensitive feelings. He seemed touched as he replied, emphatically,—
'I knows I has.'
'Then what do you want now?' said the old lady, gaining courage.
'I wants to make your flesh creep', replied the boy.
This sounded like a very blood-thirsty mode of showing one's gratitude; and as the old lady did not precisely understand the process by which such a result was to be attained, all her former horrors returned.
(Dickens 1988, 92-3)
The scene is stage-comic, and, in its stage management, provides the would-be gothic writer—or scourge of timid old ladies everywhere—with a textbook example of how to bring a scene off that is at once both gothic, potentially terrifying in its eventual outcome, as all good scenes of gothic tension should be, and, simultaneously, unremittingly comic. Although all is soon revealed after the last moment described above, as is usually the case in the novels of, for example, Anne Radcliffe, when the rational explanation arrives to calm down the unbearable agitation of being (for both the reader and the principal subject), nonetheless, Dickens works the scene in at least two different directions at once. The scene relies for both its gothic tension and its knowing comic solicitation of that tension on producing the simultaneity of feeling, while, also, providing the reader with a Hitchcock-like view from above down onto the terror-stricken old lady, rather similar to the elevation permitted the reader over Catherine Morland by Jane Austen, in Northanger Abbey. We know, because we have been told repeatedly, that the old lady is deaf. This is why the Fat Boy bellows. Nonetheless, this does nothing to allay the old lady's fears. If anything, they are increased. Furthermore, his bellowing in anticipation of the revelation of a secret goes directly contrary to the laws of gothic. He shouts when he should be whispering, and it is a summer's day at a country cottage, and not the dead of night or dead of winter in some far-off chateau, castle or monastery. We might even suggest that the scene is knowingly anti-gothic, that Dickens is just having a laugh at the expense of tired form, a form he loved as a child and continues to embrace throughout his career, were it not for the fact that the deaf old lady is genuinely terrified. She is made even more an abject figure by her being unable to scream. The comedy of the scene only works because there is such a departure from routine, as Dickens makes quite clear, and because the force of the old lady's emotions is not to be denied. It is in part the cruelty of this scene which makes us laugh, whether or not we choose to admit it.
The moment in the garden is, then, exemplary of the comic-gothic. The reader works—and is expected to work—in a number of ways at once here, not least in accommodating the ludic oscillation between comedy and cruelty, the latter as the necessity for the former, the former the outcome of what happens when you get close enough to the gothic to see how the special effects work (which is precisely what Dickens does). At the same time, the scene sets for us all sorts of normal patterns of behaviour, which we are asked to take for granted, solely for the purpose of departing from them so excessively. Yet something remains unsettling in this scene, two things to be precise, moments when the gothic never quite resolves itself away. The first is the Fat Boy's own agitation, that nervousness of demeanour as he prepares himself for his greatest performance (walking in and out of the arbour is merely for the purposes of warming up). The second is the Fat Boy's outburst, which serves as the title for this essay: 'I wants to make your flesh creep'. Why the Fat Boy should wish to do this is a mystery, unless he is merely relishing the effect, like all good stage villains. Also, the news he has to impart is hardly the sort to make the flesh creep. The gothic is quite exploded, though the uncanny remains, thereby intimating the return, if not of the repressed, then, at least, of that which cannot be described. Quite.
To make someone's flesh creep is, we might say, Young Opium Eater's desire. Anyone less like Thomas De Quincey, the man who made even Wordsworth gothic, is hard to imagine. But the desire of the Fat Boy's finds its target in the terrified old lady. The Fat Boy understands that creeping flesh is a necessity if the narrative he wishes to unfold is to be deemed successful. He relishes his role, his performative status in the whole event. It is participation that is important. The Fat Boy is thus exemplary of the domestic gothic. He no longer is content, like so many good British subjects, with sitting back and enjoying being scared. He wants to take part. The English, no longer afraid—temporarily—of Catholics and foreigners (the Irish of course are always an exception, but that has to with proximity to home, as all good cultural historians will acknowledge) need to scare themselves, to cut a caper at home, put on a sheet and run around going 'hoo, hoo', for their own delight and terror. There are no bogeymen abroad, so why not pretend to be a little spooky in one's own back yard? As Sam Weller's knowing sobriquet for the Fat Boy attests, the other is within us, in this case in the form of the drug possible addict. And of course, it doesn't really matter if the Fat Boy is addicted, what matters is that he might be. The perceived drug addict as the most gothic of figures, then, haunted from within, tremulous without. Right in our own gardens. This is what we are witness to, and the Fat Boy plays it up unmercifully. As James Kincaid notes in his essay in [Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century], the Fat Boy is double, both 'harmless toy and raging demon'. Doubleness is, of course, a feature of the uncanny, as Freud acknowledged (1953–1974 v.17, 233). It is this doubleness which Dickens remarks through the ambivalence of the comic-gothic.
Kincaid also raises the issue of the boy's appetite, his constant desire to consume flesh, and to turn whatever he consumes into flesh. It is interesting to speculate, in the light of Kincaid's remarks, on a possible connection between the Fat Boy and the contemporary concern with cannibalism, in relation to the distrust of medical science's advocacy of anatomy, as H.L. Malchow discusses (1996, 110ff).2 As Malchow suggests, there were growing worries about 'domestic, if metaphoric, cannibalism' as a manifestation of the gothic in the form of anatomical dissections in the 1830s, given voice in places both high and low, in The Lancet and in popular songs of the day (Malchow 1996, 110). Perhaps from a fear of the anatomist's knife and its implied relation to 'barbaric' practices, a grim humour, a '[d]issectionroom humor' arose during the period, and 'Dickens made much use of this kind of humor' from Pickwick to Our Mutual Friend, as Malchow acknowledges (114-15). Malchow cites the dinner scene between the medical students Bob Sawyer and Ben Allen, who joke about the 'source' of their meat (a child's leg), terrifying Mr Pickwick. He also recalls the meal consumed by Wegg and Mr Venus in Our Mutual Friend, in the taxidermist's shop, where the two men are surrounded by jars containing the pickled remains of 'Indian and African infants', along with scenes from Bleak House (1996, 115). Harry Stone also notes the frequency of the 'comic mode' in relation to the theme of cannibalism, citing the example of the Fat Boy (1994, 77-9). As Stone makes clear, Young Opium Eater makes little if any distinction between animal and human flesh (78). Such comedic business succeeds, argues Stone, in banishing the gothic quality of such moments. However, I would argue that the gothic element remains potent precisely because it is never banished absolutely. Instead, it operates as gothic because of its immanence and its promise, laying below the surface and getting under our skins, waiting suggestively to make our flesh creep. As with many instances of alterity, the comic-gothic operates through proximity and intimacy.
The scenes with the Fat Boy and other scenes in Dickens' writing clearly revel in the comicgothic as it pertains particularly to children, where the young become the source of sustenance and comedy. There is the grimly comic moment in Great Expectations when Magwitch begins to eye hungrily Pip's fat cheeks, saying 'Darn Me if I couldn't eat 'em … and if I han't half a mind to't!' (1994, 5). Eating young boys is much on Magwitch's mind, for he conjures the spectral young man who, Pip is promised, will find a way to Pip's heart and liver, in order that they may be torn out and roasted (1994, 6). As fascinating as such moments of potential cannibalism are, and departing from Malchow's study, Dickens is, we would suggest, not so much interested in bringing the foreign, gothic other home, as finding it already at home, at the dinner table, locating the gothic within English humour. The grotesque is a necessary component of such comedy. In turn, comedy devours, it feeds off the other, often to hilariously ghoulish effect. The Fat Boy is, in a figurative, if not literal sense, the embodiment of comic cannibalism (again, see Stone's argument). Consuming flesh and fowl, he also has digested the gothic sensibility, to regurgitate it in a particularly stagey and English manner.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ARCHIBALD C. COOLIDGE JR. ON DICKENS'S CHILDHOOD MEMORIES AND THE GOTHIC
Dickens had loved Gothic stories from Childhood. The inserted stories in Pickwick Papers and the terrifying passages of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby show that the taste was strong even at the start of his career. The Gothic elements in Dickens's first few books may have been influenced by childhood memories, by the continued, though lessening public interest in Gothic stories, and by contemporary crime novels which used some Gothic elements. Doubtless also they were much influenced by the melodrama of the time.
SOURCE: Coolidge, Archibald C., Jr. "Charles Dickens and Mrs. Radcliffe: A Farewell to Wilkie Collins." The Dickensian 58 (1962): 112-16.
Written on the Body
The Fat Boy impresses us, of course, because, not to put it too coyly, he is fat.3 His excessive, grotesque, quivering corporeality names him. This mountain of flesh, who consumes more flesh and sleeps, is known by his body, by the excessiveness he embodies. Were he not fat, could we laugh at him, could he provide us with comic and gothic moments? Probably not. The flesh is everything, it makes the act believable, and it is his size, as well as his creepy proximity, which terrifies the old lady. Dickens knows this, no doubt, and relishes the blubbery monstrousness of the boy, seeing in it not only a good turn but also a sure-fire commercial winner, guaranteed to keep us coming back for more. It is almost as if one can imagine Dickens advertising the Fat Boy in the words reserved for Mr Whackford Squeers, speaking of his son: '"Here's flesh!" cried Squeers, turning the boy about, and indenting the plumpest parts of his figure with divers pokes and punches…. "Here's firmness, here's solidness"' (1986, 517). There is a slight difference between the boys however, it should be noted. While the Fat Boy provides comedy by inflicting (metaphorical and psychological) pain, here it is the almost equally rotund Master Squeers who feels the pain while being part of the comedy. Fatness is not the bodily articulation of comic pain and gothic, grotesque excess so much as it is the medium through which such discourses may be expressed, and onto which they may be inscribed. What we as readers comprehend from one fat boy to another is the use to which the child's corpulence may be put, the abuse which it endures for the sake of the joke, at a moment where pain and pleasure are inextricably linked. The experience of both and their simultaneity is, for the reader, of the flesh made word and the word fleshed out, embodied. It is, as with so many gothic narratives, an 'experience rooted in the body', as Steven Bruhm puts it (1994, xv). And for all the comedy, both the Fat Boy and young Whackford perform for us as gothic bodies, in Bruhm's definition of this corporeal and textual phenomenon, for it is principally their bodies which are 'put on display' in all their 'violent, vulnerable immediacy' (1994, xvii).
It is through the figure of the figure that Dickens, by such examples, draws upon the discourse of the gothic, a form of writing which 'needs to be regarded', as Robert Miles argues, 'as a series of contemporaneously understood forms, devices, codes, figurations, for the expression of the "fragmented subject"' (1993, 3). Young Opium Eater and Young Whackford overflow their limits, their identities breaking down to become excessive and grotesque articulations. They are exploited and made to work. Dickens understands therefore, in the words of José Gil, that the body 'carries the symbolic exchanges and correspondences between the different codes that are in play'. He continues: '[t]he body is the exchanger of codes … on its own the body signifies nothing, says nothing. It always speaks only the language of the other (codes) that comes and inscribe themselves on it' (1998, 99). This seems particularly true of the Fat Boy, who, despite his corpulence, his idleness and gluttony, is, as James Kincaid puts it, hollow, this hollowness in all its gothic splendour being 'the mysterious hollowness of fascinating caverns' (1992, 95). Dickens writes the boy as hollow in order to fill him from other places; he writes him as fat in order to write large the conjunction of the comic and gothic discourses which find their meeting place in the particular scene already considered. It is not that the Fat Boy is always in gothic mode, although, arguably, his constant state of being-narcoleptic is suggestive of zombies or the undead, albeit of a carnivalesque order. We might even suggest, given his often death-like state—extending the performative aspect further—that the Fat Boy's performance is analogous to an act of mesmerism on Dickens' part,4 as well as an act of ventriloquism through the mesmerized boy by the author. Dickens puts on a theatrical turn by having the Fat Boy adopt a gothic mode of discourse, arriving with the promise of a tale to harrow the old woman, in a low, comic parody of Hamlet's father (both, after all, involve gardens in one way or another).
But is it possible to find the conjunction of the comic and the gothic in bodies which are decidedly not obese? One possible example of this is worked through in the scene leading up to Oliver asking for more food, as Harry Stone discusses (1994, 81; for more concerning Stone's discussion, see below). Another example comes from The Uncommercial Traveller. In the article entitled 'Wapping Workhouse', the narrator, on his way to that institution, encounters a rather strange boy who is referred to four times in two pages as an apparition (1987, 19-20). The ghastly and grotesquely comic come together in the bodily form and voice, whose most noticeable features are 'a ghastly grin and a [voice] like gurgling water' (1987, 19). The unnerved narrator remarks of the locks by which they are standing '"A common place for suicide"', to which the uncanny figure, returns in a possible jest (which may just be a misheard response), '"Sue?" returned the ghost with a stare' (19). With music-hall timing, not missing a beat, the proper name of one of the dead comes back, with that gallows humour to be found everywhere in Dickens' writing. Yet it is not merely the pun which is important, the joke at the expense of self-slaughter. Importantly, the scene is set up through the body of this ghostly creature, especially in that humorous rictus and in the voice of the drowned. The body of the apparition is, once more, expressly written as an empty figure on which are traced the comic and the uncanny. Everything about the young man is uncanny, uncomfortable, especially his wit, which insists on disrupting the meaning of words.
Thus Dickens, again, abusing identity in order to entertain, raising a laugh as well as raising the dead...…
Scaring children is fun
If children are, from certain perspectives, constructed socially and through various cultural narratives as different from adult, rational human beings, this is no doubt a self-sustaining process which, in fearing the otherness of the child, the adolescent, the teenager, rewrites the narrative of childhood being in order to maintain its alterity, precisely for the purpose of punishment. The child's world is, as James Kincaid says, 'unnecessary, useless'; strictly speaking, it is a made-up world, creative rather than mimetic (Kincaid 1992, 221). In recognizing this, the adult may recognize a certain lost world, and seek to punish its other for the loss of that which we failed to keep within our grasp. So, we might say, what we want is facts, not fantasy. And what better way at getting back at the childlike delight in the gothic—that which scares us because we have grown ever so sensible, rational—than to punish it with that mode of representation by which the child can create laughter? Even while children may triumph occasionally in the text of Dickens, it remains a fact nonetheless that, at some point, they are punished in some fashion for their difference. All too frequently, the writing of punishment in Dickens' novels takes a gothic turn (which is never comical), as in the process of 'education' at Dotheboys Hall, in the death of Paul Dombey, or in the manifestation of a school master named Bradley Headstone.
There are, however, other ways of punishing the child whereby the gothic mode may be maintained and in which Dickens indulges, while comedy is reintroduced for the amusement of the (no doubt) adult reader, who may, like any number of Dickens' adult characters, tend to understand children as 'naturally wicious'. Because at some level the child, adolescent or teenager is perceived in all his or her (frequently gothic) otherness, so fun may be made through the gothic mode. Not all children get to have the last laugh, as does Bailey Jr.5
Oliver Twist provides one example of comedy—albeit of a very dark variety—at the expense of the child, as Oliver progresses from the work-house, to the undertaker's, to Fagin's den (all gothic structures), where other children enjoy themselves but not Oliver. (No doubt there is something of the morality tale here; all children, being naturally wicious, have criminal propensities, Oliver's plight is a warning to us all, my dears, concerning the inevitable recidivism of childhood.) Harry Stone offers a fascinating discussion of the well-known moment when Oliver asks for more (Stone 1994, 79-81). This moment, argues Stone, is equally laughable and fearful:
the scene in which Oliver asks for more … is generated by a bizarre and laughable fear. Everyone is familiar with the scene itself, but how many remember the fear that generates the scene? That fear flows directly from a terrifying cannibalistic threat, but this threat—a threat made by one workhouse boy that he will devour another—is cauterized by its outlandishness and its humour: we chuckle rather than shudder, and we dismiss the threat as a bit of humorous Dickensian grotesquerie; the threat, we feel, has no abiding importance. But Dickens does not dismiss the threat, nor does he discount it or forget it.
This is an admirable reading of the comicgothic event, though I would argue that it is not a question of dismissing the threat so much as seeking to domesticate it, making it manageable through emphasizing the comic register. This is a precarious moment for, in the potential effect of making manageable, the economy of the work-house—that which seeks to make children manageable—may become reproduced in and by the textual satire. Dickens will not let us do this, however, for his text maintains the fearful and the comic, the gothic and the humorous, in a precarious balance where the seemingly opposing discursive and psychic poles in question here open between them an uncanny aporia into which either mode threatens constantly to overflow and commingle.
The other well-known Dickensian scared child is Pip who, like Oliver, spends much of his early life in gothic surroundings—whether the marshes, his parents' gravestones, or Miss Havisham's—or in proximity to gothic moments, such as that of the soldiers' arrival at Joe's door, in search of Magwitch, described as an 'apparition' (1994, 30). Of such moments, the most comical for the reader, though not for Pip, is the following:
It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders' webs…. The marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post … was invisible to me until I was quite close under it. Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks.
The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me. This was very disagreeable to a guilty mind. The gates and dykes and banks came bursting at me through the mist, as if they cried as plainly as could be, 'A boy with Somebody-else's pork pie! Stop him!' The cattle came upon me with a suddenness, staring out of their eyes, and steaming out of their nostrils, 'Holloa, young thief!' One black ox, with a white cravat on—who had to my awakened conscience something of a clerical air—fixed me so obstinately with his eyes, and moved his blunt head round in such an accusatory manner that I blubbered out to him, 'I couldn't help it sir! It wasn't for myself I took it!' Upon which he put down his head, blew a cloud of smoke out of his nose, and vanished with a kick-up of his hind legs and a flourish of his tail.
Between the pie and the cattle, there is more of gravy than of grave about this scene,6 even if, despite its clerical air, the black ox bears more than a passing resemblance to the devil rather than any clergyman, while Pip's behaviour recalls in parodic fashion Hamlet's words concerning the reaction of guilty creatures, given certain stimuli. There is a subtle distance between Pip's older, narrating self, and his younger, other identity. While the elder Pip may well be able to construct the narrative comically at his other's expense, his younger self clearly is not in on the joke, and is terrified by the spectral cattle and the animated features of the landscape. The goblins, spiders' webs and the dripping phantom finger-post operate within a gothic mode, as the supernatural scene displaces the real world in leading to the comedy of frightened childhood.
That there is a discernible gap between the older and the younger Pip suggests to what extent the child as other has to be punished by its older manifestation. There is a double movement here, in imagination and memory, for while the elder Pip remembers the scene, he is also shaping its narration in a particular gothic fashion. His younger self's terror is transformed into a medium for entertainment. And this is not the only example of Pip's comic-gothic abilities at the expense of the young. His manipulation of gothic discourse is presented when, in London, he hires a 'boy in boots' (1994, 216). Invoking Frankenstein, Pip remarks that he makes a 'monster' of the boy, who has 'little to do and a great deal to eat' (notice once more the obsession with children eating), these being the 'horrible requirements' with which 'he haunted my existence' (1994, 216; emphases added). Furthermore, Pip refers to the boy as an 'avenging phantom'. Whether or not Pip intends to be humorous, his description of the boy in boots is comical even while it is indebted to gothic discourse; more to the point, we can read that the gothic child is inescapable. It is always present, and always hungry—for something...…
Gothic narrative at the end of the eighteenth and, again, at the end of the nineteenth century sought to assert a sense of national identity in response to fears of the foreign. Such irrational fears sought to identify and marginalize the other and all that was not-English, as is well known. Perhaps closest to home in the nineteenth century is the equally well-known representation of the Irish as monstrous.7 What we may come to understand from Dickens, however, is that the gothic, the monstrous, the other, is a lot closer than we are comfortable in acknowledging. Taking the gothic and exploring it comically is one method of assuming proximity, if not intimacy, with the subject. Comic discourse and performance brings down the defences of the psyche. It allows the connection to be made between high and low, self and other. In so doing, it seeks to make us face the 'monstrous' within ourselves, so to make our flesh creep, making us tremble, simultaneously with laughter and fear, just enough so as to allow us a view of ourselves we had always striven to deny and to project onto others.
1. On gothic images of race, see H.L. Malchow (1996), who discusses the literary representation of the foreign as gothic other from the Napoleonic period to the finde-siècle, addressing usefully questions of monstrosity, cannibalism, vampirism and homoeroticism to the figure of 'half-breed' as a gothic form.
2. See also Chris Baldick (1987, 106-20), on the monstrous and Dickens' gallows humour. Baldick discusses the comic references to galvanism, from Sawyer and Allen forward, and to the 'animation of the apparently inanimate' (107). He also considers how the comedic effect is achieved through a dark exuberance on the author's part, discussing as well the question of dismemberment and dissection. Baldick argues that there is 'more to all this ghoulishness than a gratuitous frisson; it is of a piece with Dickens' synecdochal, Carlylean representation of character and of the fragmented body' (110). Furthermore, for Baldick, Dickens maps monstrosity onto the body as a product of 'crushing social pressures' (112). This may be true in part, but there is a certain distortion in Baldick's argument inasmuch as he takes the issue of fragmentation as directly Carlylean—Dickens' productions being a manifestation akin to the anxiety of influence per-haps—rather than seeing Carlyle's writing as similarly produced, and not the original source as Baldick seems to assume implicitly. Arguably, the 'contamination' of fictive discourse with traces of scientific, anatomical and gothic textuality, speaks of the general historicity and materiality of Dickens' text, in which materiality Carlyle is also enfolded. The gothic as genre provides Dickens with a recognizable form of bourgeois entertainment which misshapes and in turn is distorted by contemporaneous discourses of the period.
3. On flesh, fatness, and their carnivalesque relation to the erotic in Pickwick, with particular attention to the Fat Boy, see James R. Kincaid's essay 'Fattening up on Pickwick' (1995, 21-35). Elsewhere, Kincaid argues that the stories we tell today concerning child abuse are, in their structures and circuitry, essentially gothic narratives, filled with so much terror that we become paralysed by them, unable to act (1998, 10-13). From this perspective, what is perhaps particularly terrifying in Dickens' gothic reinventions is that he is able to invest the gothic with humour. Of course, there are many children in Dickens who are neither fat nor funny, who inhabit the realm of the gothic and who are systematically abused, as is the case of the children of the workhouse in Oliver Twist or the boys of that other gothic pile, Dotheboys Hall, in Nicholas Nickleby as mentioned in the essay. Dickens' sense of the gothic in his depiction of such institutions works on the reader to appal at the recurring institutional abuse which occurs through the lack of nourishment, whether literal or metaphorical. Where children are comical in Dickens, and not merely the subjects of humour (and this is the distinction between the Fat Boy and Whackford, between Bailey Jr. and Oliver Twist; see the section 'Scaring children is fun', above) the gothic mode can be read as being put to use as a revenge, rather than a return of the repressed. Precariously enough, the comic-gothic, coming from some other place within, promises to effect destabilization of normative social relations and the circuitry of power which such relations maintain.
4. On questions of mesmeric agency, see Chapter 6 by Alison Chapman and Chapter 8 by Roger Luckhurst [, both in Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century]. For a full-length study of mesmerism and its popularity as a form of entertainment, see Alison Winter's excellent study, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (1998).
5. If the difference between the child who causes laughter and who is laughed at in Dickens can be described briefly, perhaps the question is one of class, and of the child's class position. Both Bailey and the Fat Boy are working class, their 'low' position indicated through their speech, through non-standard spelling and the emphasis by Dickens on idiomatic expression. Neither boy speaks the standard English of the middle-classes or of the narrator. Oliver Twist and Pip on the other hand, always speak standard English, without the trace of idiom or accent peculiar to the working class. They are thus implicitly given 'universal' voices. Within the narrative logic of Great Expectations Pip's 'voice' may of course be explained away: he is the adult narrator, recalling his own boyhood, and he has undergone education which has erased any signs of local accent which he may have had as a child. Oliver, on the other hand, always speaks English 'correctly', thereby signalling that, even as a child, in the work-house or in Fagin's hideout, he has always already transcended both class and locale. It would seem then, as a provisional thesis by which to explain the difference between those who generate humour and those who are its objects, that the comic-gothic is, for Dickens, a working class mode of articulation, which shares certain proletarian affinities with the grotesque, the carnivalesque, the melodramatic, and the music hall; in short, with all forms of popular entertainment.
6. The words are of course those of Ebenezer Scrooge in response to Marley's ghost (1988, 19). Although not a child, Dickens has Scrooge respond in a manner which is instructive with regard to the comic-gothic. Following the well-known retort, Dickens remarks, 'Scrooge was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did he feel, in his heart, by any means waggish then. The truth is, that he tried to be smart, as a means of distracting his own attention, and keeping down his terror; for the spectre's voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones' (19). Despite Dickens' protestations, the line is, of course, funny, whether it was intended or not. However, the inadvertent recourse to humour in opposition to terror provides the reader with one more comic-gothic moment, which is, again, connected to consumption, to what is inside us. This is expressed both in Scrooge's remark, and those preceding the gravy pun, but also, importantly in Dickens' own expression of spectral disturbance in 'the very marrow in [Scrooge's] bones'. The ghost makes Scrooge's flesh creep, while the text moves spectrally across the boundary of the character's remarks to those of the narrator.
7. See, for example, the well-known cartoon by John Tenniel, 'The Irish Frankenstein', published in Punch (20 May 1882), where in a typical conflation between the name of the creator and his creature, the Irish are represented as a monstrous, bloodthirsty, masked creature. H.L. Malchow's Gothic Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain (1996), provides what is to date the most sustained consideration of the relation between the aesthetics and politics of representation, from Frankenstein to the fin-de-siècle. On related matters of race and the connections made between 'foreigners' and women, see Meyer (1996); also on the issue of race and degeneration, see Greenslade (1994).
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Twitchell, James B. The Living Dead: a Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature. Durham: Duke University Press, 1981.
Winter, Alison. Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Wolfreys, Julian. Writing London: the Trace of the Urban Text from Blake to Dickens. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998.
ANN RONALD (ESSAY DATE SEPTEMBER 1975)
SOURCE: Ronald, Ann. "Dickens' Gloomiest Gothic Castle." Dickens Studies Newsletter 6, no. 3 (September 1975): 71-5.
In the following essay, Ronald traces Dickens's use of the Gothic in Bleak House.
In most eighteenth-century Gothic novels the physical setting was key. The enormous, often ruined medieval castle, filled with gloomy, mysterious interiors, internally connected by labyrinthine passageways and externally obscured by mists and fog, fascinated readers of Mrs. Radcliffe's age. When following generations lost interest in the Gothic novel, the Gothic castle per se began disappearing, but the imagery used to describe such buildings remained useful. Nineteenth-century novelists often borrowed the ruined building, the twisting passages, the darkened interiors, the obscuring powers of fog, and transformed them to suit their own purposes. In Bleak House particularly, Charles Dickens incorporated the structural imagery of the Gothic castle in important and original ways.
He hardly intended us to picture Bleak House itself as a Gothic castle. Yet before John Jarndyce took possession it looked ruined—"dilapidated, the wind whistled through the cracked walls, the rain fell through the broken roof, the weeds choked the passage to the rotting door" (viii)—almost Gothic. In her descriptions of Bleak House refurbished, Esther communicates little sense of ruin but conveys an impression of Gothic intricacy by noting the "bountiful provision of halls and passages" and "cottage-rooms in unexpected places, with lattice windows and green growth pressing through them" (vi). Surely, though, Dickens envisioned the building more complexly than the slightly-Gothic piece of eccentric stage setting seen by Esther.
Alice van Buren Kelly, in her essay in NCF [Nineteenth-Century Fiction] (December 1970), "The Bleak Houses of Bleak House, " correctly calls the Jarndyce residence a metaphor for the entire novel. Bleak House possesses a labyrinthine structure that echoes the twisting complexity of the plot and innumerable rooms that suggest the multiplicity of settings found throughout the book, while the fog "everywhere" swirls around both. Bleak House is Bleak House. But Kelley does not see Bleak House as a pseudo-semi-Gothic castle, and as a result she interprets the Jarndyce home as a somewhat positive symbol—and the final Woodcourt residence, similarly named, as even sunnier. If we accept the fact that Dickens is working from the Gothic mode, we cannot agree with her conclusions. Certain negative psychological states—fear, terror, horror—traditionally arise from Gothicism, and Gothic castles appear in novels to help evoke those moods. I view Bleak House, then, as but an emblem for the kind of transformation Dickens makes throughout the book. If it is an emblem rather than a symbol, it serves principally to intimate the richer atmospheric and deeper psychological constructs communicated by his more vivid transformations. For example, his technique in presenting Bleak House simply foreshadows the more powerfully-Gothic drawing of Chesney Wold.
The Dedlock mansion in Lincolnshire more closely resembles the conventional castle, although Esther sees it first as only "a picturesque old house." She naively tells the reader that "on everything, house, garden, terrace, green slopes, water, old oaks, fern, moss, woods again, and far away across the openings in the prospect, to the distance lying wide before us with a purple bloom upon it, there seemed to be such undisturbed repose" (xviii). But after she learns the identity of her mother, Esther's perceptions change. Then Chesney Wold becomes "the obdurate and unpitying watcher" of Lady Dedlock's misery, and, terrified, Esther rushes past "long lines of dark windows, diversified by turreted towers, and porches, of eccentric shapes, where old stone lions and grotesque monsters bristled outside dens of shadow, and snarled at the evening gloom over the escutcheons they helt in their grip" (xxxvi). Dickens heightens her imagination momentarily to perceive Chesney Wold in terms of evil, but has her, quite characteristically, drop the subject before it becomes to intense. The omniscient narrator, the voice speaking in the historical present with a sense of continuing and relentless action, conveys more of the real Gothic horror of Chesney Wold. He describes the decayed country estate, surrounded by "a general smell and taste of the ancient Dedlocks in their graves" (ii), like a ruin. And sometimes, in true Gothic fashion, that ruin is haunted: "Mists hide in the avenues, veil the points of view, and move in funeral-wise across the rising grounds. On all the house there is a cold, blank smell, like the smell of a little church, though something dryer: suggesting that the dead and buried Dedlocks walk there, in the long nights, and leave the flavour of their graves behind them" (xxxix).
It seems to me that with these two views of Chesney Wold—Esther's and the omniscient narrator's—Dickens echoes the two points of view conventionally found in Gothic novels.1 TerrorGothic—Esther's brand—titillates and then closes the reader's mind to further perceptions while horror-Gothic—the omniscient narrator's—opens and expands it toward new horizons. Of course the reader responds more intensely and more intelligently to the latter. But Dickens is not through with the Dedlock estate yet; he has only been preparing us for an even more complex reaction. He wants to terrify us not with grotesque statues, not with aristocratic ghosts, not with Gothic trappings, but with reality.
His ultimate presentation of Chesney Wold occurs in the turret-room during the moonlit conversation between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn. There the setting, an almost-Gothic tower with mysterious footsteps sounding on the nearby Ghost's Walk, recedes into the background while the characters talk. Since the reader already has assimilated a total awareness of Chesney Wold from Esther and the omniscient narrator, Dickens need not describe the turret-room in more detail. For background he can expect the previous Gothic connotations of fear and horror to merge with the present, very real, horror and fear. Together, the psychological and the real fuse into an intellectual environment for the terrible conversation. We cannot help but shift uncomfortably in our chairs while we read more quickly to reach the climax of the scene because Mr. Tulkinghorn, in that place, terrifies us just as much as he terrifies Lady Dedlock. And our response to what we are reading, far more intense than we would ever have to something by Mrs. Radcliffe of Monk Lewis, has been triggered by fairly conventional Gothic imagery.
But there is an even more important way that Dickens uses those conventions, a way that is at once more creative and more terrifying. He borrows the elements of a Gothic castle to describe not a single building but an entire city, London itself. Of course the fog is "everywhere," obscuring the city both literally and figuratively from the very beginning, and those mists intertwine among an extraordinary number of buildings and streets that the author has chosen to picture in terms of their Gothic components. The result is a Gothic-inspired but Dickens-created terror even more gripping than that imposed by Chesney Wold. Before we examine that final result, however, we need to look specifically at certain descriptions of Dickens' London, for he achieves a subsidiary end along the way.
Many of Dickens' London-dwellers live in gloomy, mysterious buildings or rooms. Mr. Tulkinghorn's permanent residence sets the tone, for he lives in a large house, once a house of state, with a variety of "roomy staircases, passages, and ante-chambers," in whose "shrunken fragments" of greatness "lawyers lie like maggots in nuts" (x). Guarded by the pointing figure of Allegory on his ceiling—suggesting the terror of mute pursuit—Mr. Tulkinghorn lives in a place that intimates ruin, just as he himself embodies ruin wherever he goes. Mr. Vholes, another creature of prey, also frightens the reader with his continual blackness and his powerful hold over Richard Carstone, and Mr. Vholes operates from an office that is almost a replica of himself. The omiscient narrator explains that "three feet of knotty floored dark passage brings the client to [his] jet black door, in an angle profoundly dark on the brightest midsummer morning, and encumbered by a black bulk-head of cellarage staircase," and then shows us the interior, with its "smell of must and dust" blended with that "of unwholesome sheep" and its greasy and gloomy corners, "last painted or whitewashed beyond the memory of man" (xxxix). Richard, Mr. Vholes's victim, lives in "a dull room, fadedly furnished" (li). Their abodes, described in terms of Gothic imagery, reflect and reinforce our perceptions of the characters, just as they do when Dickens shows us the residence of Mrs. Jellyby, or of Harold Skimpole, or even the country estate of Lady Dedlock. Thus we see that Dickens uses his images in still another specialized way—to aid characterization.
Several times throughout the novel he overtly states that this is his intention. As Mr. Tulkinghorn "is to look at, so is his apartment" (x) in the afternoon dusk. The inhabitants of the Smallweed apartment dwell "in a little narrow street, always solitary, shady, and sad, closely bricked in on all sides like a tomb" (xxi). The dark little parlour itself stands "certain feet below the level of the street—a grim, hard, uncouth parlour, only ornamented with the coarsest of baize table-covers, and the hardest of sheet-iron tea-trays, and offering in its decorative character no bad allegorical representation of Grandfather Smallweed's mind" (xxi). Such an apartment reminds us of a dungeon in the depths of an abandoned castle, and the Gothic mysteriousness of the interior reinforces the puzzling uneasiness we feel whenever Grandfather Smallweed is present. Many of the characters in Bleak House —Grandfather Smallweed, Mr. Tulkinghorn, Mr. Vholes, for example—substantiate the reader's sense of terror at unknown pursuit, and their complementary residences emphasize that feeling.
Our overwhelming sense of London, though, is one of ruin, particularly when we react to the slum of Tom-all-Alone's, with its "crazy houses" and tumbling tenements" and "ruined shelters" on "a black, dilapidated street" (xvi), or when we look into "the room with the dark door" at Mr. Krook's: "a sad and desolate place it was; a gloomy, sorrowful place, that gave … a strange sensation of mournfulness and even dread" (xiv). Dickens underscores that sense of ruin by describing the streets on which these shells sit. Tom-all-Alone's "is a street of perishing blind houses, with their eyes stoned out; without a pane of glass, without so much as a window-frame, with the bare blank shutters tumbling from their hinges and falling asunder; the iron rails peeling away in flakes of rust; the chimneys sinking in; the stone steps to every door (and every door might be Death's Door) turning stagnant green; the very crutches on which the ruins are propped, decaying" (viii). And such a description is only one of many.
Sometimes the author chooses to emphasize the labyrinthine windings of the streets connecting those grim, stark ruins. When Esther first arrives in the city, she comments on "the dirtiest and darkest streets that ever were seen in the world" (iii), and at one point she comes to "a narrow street of high houses, like an oblong cistern to hold the fog" (vi). The omniscient narrator also remarks "the great wilderness of London" (xlviii). In particular, when Esther joins Inspector Bucket in the search for Lady Dedlock, our sense of the mysterious complexity of the city is reinforced. Esther tells us: "We rattled with great rapidity through such a labyrinth of streets, that I soon lost all idea where we were; except that we had crossed and re-crossed the river, and still seemed to be traversing a low-lying, water-side, dense neighbourhood of narrow throughfares, chequered by docks and basins, high piles of warehouses, swing-bridges, and masts of ships" (lvii). Dickens further emphasizes the impression of a maze after the two searchers turn to descend "into a deeper complication of such Streets" (lix). Finally, Esther describes the last few blocks of her journey to the gloomy burial ground; her impressions are confused, a haze of street-lamps, of dark, of dawn, of driving sleet. She recollects "the wet house-tops, the clogged and bursting gutters and water-spouts, the mounds of blackened ice and snow over which we passed, the narrowness of the courts by which we went" (lix). And then she stands "under a dark and miserable covered way, where one lamp was burning over an iron gate, and where the morning faintly struggled in. The gate was closed. Beyond it, was a burial ground—a dreadful spot in which the night was very slowly stirring; but where I could dimly see heaps of dishonoured graves and stones, hemmed in by filthy houses, with a few dull lights in their windows, and on whose walls a thick humidity broke out like a disease" (lix). What eighteenth-century Gothic novel possesses a more chilling pursuit through its castle?
However, the real intellectual terror of Dickens' London again comes through the words of the omniscient narrator. He expresses, not the superficial terror of the malleable Esther, but the terror of an expanding mind, one who sees the reality of a nineteenth-century English city with its murky industrialization and grim complexity leading into a maze of anonymity. Pherhaps the reader's emotions extend even beyond the range of terror; perhaps he begins to feel a sense of horror at modernity, as Dickens indeed did. This is not a horror caused by supernatural devices, a horror that circumscribes the souls of fictional heroines and closes their minds, but a horror caused by an expansion of man's view of reality. And even Esther can learn to see, as we do, the awesome horror of the modern city:
It was a cold, wild night, and the trees shuddered in the wind. The rain had been thick and heavy all day, and with little intermission for many days. None was falling just then, however. The sky had partly cleared, but was very gloomy—even above us, where a few stars were shining. In the north and north-west, where the sun had set three hours before, there was a pale dead light both beautiful and awful; and into it long sullen lines of cloud waved up, like a sea stricken immovable as it was heaving. Towards London, a lurid glare overhung the whole dark waste: and the contrast between these two lights, and the fancy which the redder light engendered of an unearthly fire, gleaming on all the unseen buildings of the city, and on all the faces of its many thousands of wondering inhabitants, was as solemn as might be.
London, an environment of horror burning in the fires of Hell, stands as the central structure in Bleak House. Its multitude of streets, winding between shadowy dwelling places, parallel the passageways of an old abandoned ruin, while its great number of murky, dingy, darkened interiors suggest the multiple suites and chambers of a Gothic castle, each with its own mysterious and shadowy corners. Ultimately, then, obscured by fog and portrayed in terms of ruin, London becomes Dickens' Gothic castle. As such it conveys a total sense of mystery, terror, and even horror, not found in previous novels of Gothic heritage, and as such it opens the mind of the reader to a new perception of reality. The ruined eyeless buildings of Tom-allAlone's, the dirty dark interiors of Mr. Vholes and Grandfather Smallweed, the twisting maze of London streets, and the grim fog of Chancery all combine into a single Gothic image to promote the reader's involvement with the horror of an urban environment. It is this involvement that is new; no longer can the reader sit back and enjoy the flighty fancies of a mechanical heroine. Instead, he himself must participate in the emotions suggested by otherwise rather conventional Gothic imagery. Dickens' London in Bleak House is indeed a Gothic ruin, but it is a Gothic ruin of a new generation, and as such it functions to open the mind of perceptions never imagined by novelists of the previous century.
1. See Robert D. Hume, "Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel," PMLA 84 (March 1969) 292-90, for a full discussion of the distinctions between terror-Gothic and horror-Gothic.
THOMAS LOE (ESSAY DATE SEPTEMBER 1989)
SOURCE: Loe, Thomas. "Gothic Plot in Great Expectations." Dickens Quarterly 6, no. 3 (September 1989): 102-10.
In the following essay, Loe explores the origins of the Gothic plot devices used in Great Expectations.
In spite of the enormous amount of critical attention the plot of Great Expectations has received in the last two decades, there has been a reluctance on the part of critics to identify its structure in terms of traditional genres. The novel's length, number of characters, and elaborate texture make plot identification a subtle issue, especially since the sense of progression of the story is skillfully interwoven with the development of Pip's character. With few exceptions, critics looking at structure tend to synthesize all these elements into one main plot. Such syntheses demonstrate that Great Expectations is probably the most unified of Dickens's novels, but in unraveling the elaborate tissue of its unifying elements they invariably fail to account for its diversity of action.
My thesis is that there are three main lines to the concrete experiences and literal actions of Great Expectations, and that these can be described by using traditional genre designations: the Bildungsroman, the novel of manners, and the Gothic novel. My primary concern is with the Gothic plot because its particular structural significance has been virtually ignored. One could argue that this is only because Great Expectations is such a successful work: its generally acknowledged superior plot construction conceals the overlapping patterns of its different genres in a way that one would expect in a work of deeply resonant unity. K. J. Fielding, for example, claims that in Great Expectations Dickens "completely mastered the skill of construction" (221), and Lionel Stevenson says that it "was his masterpiece of form and structure" (351). Yet Dickens's own ambivalence about the conclusion and the ongoing critical debate about the meaning and appropriateness of the two endings suggest that the various plots do not coalesce as neatly at the end of the novel as they are synthesized during its development. Examining the plot lines through the terms afforded by genre may not resolve interpretive debate, but it will allow insight into the structures that knit the book together, help reveal what the interpretive issues are, and establish parallels for comparing novels.
Viewing Great Expectations as Bildungsroman is the most popular approach through genre. George Worth's invaluable Great Expectations: An Annotated Bibliography published in 1986 reveals about two dozen studies that employ the concept as a significant way of reading the novel. G. B. Tennyson, for example, writes "To my mind the most complete expression of the Bildungsroman is Great Expectations " (143). Critics who view the novel as a Bildungsroman tend to find the same patterns and reveal that there is nothing particularly sequential to those patterns because they consist more of thematic elements than structural ones. G. Robert Strange's remark, "Great Expectations is not more profound than other development-novels, but it is more mysterious" (111) locates its chief distinction. The reason it is more mysterious is that the Bildungsroman plot in Great Expectations, unlike most other novels of the genre, is given a sense of sequential progression and heightened action through a combination with other plots. My contention is that the story of Pip's story of psychological and moral formation and his social progress is supported and directed by the simpler and more tightly knit plot derived from the Gothic novel.
The fictional biographical or autobiographical impulses of the nineteenth-century novel could easily become the "large loose and baggy monsters" Henry James describes without a more definite shaping force (84). Students of the Bildungsroman generally agree that it was left to Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf to perfect the techniques of point of view and patterned motifs necessary to structure that complex genre. In terms of his Bildungsroman plot, Pip's journey is the metaphor of his development, and Joe is emblematic of the standard which Pip has left and to which he must eventually return in order to make accurate judgments about himself. Joe does not change, although he progresses in time, and the Bildungsroman plot he represents is not so much static as circular for Pip, which Meyer Abrams suggests is typical of the genre which has a "dialectical organization—it must have reached the Wissenschaft at the end of its journey before it can set out upon that journey from its beginning" (235). Any remaining questions about the suitability of the term as applied to Great Expectations are answered by Marianne Hirsch's conclusive "The Novel of Formation as Genre: Between Great Expectations and Lost Illusions." Pip's maturation progress, which includes his mistakes, may be judged against that standard to which he repeatedly returns from London, a circling progress of the coming together of younger and older self (Halperin 110): "ostensibly to make reparation to the neglected Joe, an intention never realized" (Brooks 125).
Most critics are naturally interested in describing the development of Pip's character, for it is in Pip's personality and the evolution of that personality that the salient literary merit of the book resides. The movement is a process in which Pip's ability to perceive his fall becomes an essential part of the discovery of self, as well as providing a venue for him to discover what he must do to redeem himself. In this way Great Expectations can move from rudimentary meanings to more complex ones in its powerfully harmonious fashion. But these are not systematic or casual movements, and they reflect meaning, not action; theme, not structure. Even with modern techniques for interior dramatization, the shape of the Bildungsroman plot generally described by critics remains a loosely chronological one, a fluid movement of gradually increasing self-consciousness punctuated by epiphanies.
A sharper sense of progression is provided for Great Expectations by its novel of manners plot. An enormously popular genre in the latter part of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth century, the novel of manners had expended much of its raison d'être by midcentury. Although it had provided a guide for the newly emerging middle class into the mysteries of an increasingly complex bourgeois society, it was soon too limited by its subject to meet the demands of a better educated and more sophisticated audience. Distinguished by its focus on piloting an individual through the nuances of society's rituals, the novel of manner plot does have a more orderly structure than the Bildungsroman, but because its concern is primarily with social practice rather than with growth of an individual, it generally lacks any substantial development in depicting its protagonists. In fact, the novel of manners could be regarded as the obverse of the Bildungsroman: instead of offering the teasing subtleties of growing self-knowledge, it offers situations where an individual must compromise or give up claims to individuality in order to succeed. Although many important Bildungsromane stop short of the protagonist's "accommodation to the modern world" (Buckley 18), this same "accommodation" is one of the distinguishing features of the novel of manners.
The plot of this genre is best exemplified by the basic situation of Jane Austen's novels: a female protected by her unmarried domestic situation becomes involved in a romance which leads her away from her family and toward an integration with society. Part of the appeal of these actions has been that they are unremittingly realistic; its courtships were treated in the mimetic manner of the novel rather than that of the romance. Marriage, as a confirmation of society's values, usually takes place, but whether it does or not, marriage provides closure. The mainspring for the pacing of the events in the story, however, is the love story itself, a major difference between the novel of manners and the Bildungsroman. If Pip were female, the importance of the romance to his story and the effect it has on the development of his character would be much more evident since his situation is a typical one for many eighteenth and nineteenth-century novelof-manners heroines. The romance provides a reasonably casual sequence with a logical progressive series of developing successes and failures and separations and reunions. It has, then, a greater fixed pattern to its actions than the Bildungsroman.
The waning interest in the novel of manners had much to do with the evolution of a confidence by middle-class Victorians in their social practices. Yet the novel of manners still proved to be a powerful source for satire: by exposing the hypocrisy and self-interest of upwardly mobile aspirations, the novel of manners could offer an amusing corrective. This latent power is a potent force in all established genres. The generally acknowledged expectations of Pip consist of his aspirations to fulfill a superficial and limited no-tion of what it meant to become a "gentleman"; the novel of manners plot which structures these expectations inverts the progress of events and the obligatory romance included with them, so that they become a parody for revealing humbler expectations characterized by the work ethic so central to the Victorian middle class. Dickens thereby afforded his readers some luxury of seeing Pip's middle-class aspirations distinct from their own and disarmed much of the threat of an uncomfortable identification with Pip's aspirations. Yet, the plot of social progress orders events as it deconstructs and mocks them; like most parodies it depends upon the original plot of a work while mocking its theme.
Much of the vitality provided by the novel of manners plot derives from its familiar situations and simple casual progress; it is easy to trace the distinct logic of Pip's social movements even though they coalesce with formation of his character: Pip is motivated to leave his apprenticeship to Joe because of his infatuation with Estella. He accepts the opportunity to go to London in order to become a gentleman so that he might win her favor. In London he accepts the unsavory lodgings, friendships, and cultural opportunities as those appropriate to the style of a gentleman when they are, in fact, parodies of real culture. His comic experiences with fashionable education at the hands of the Pockets or his travails with the Finches of the Grove provide only caricatures of what should be available to him, yet Pip feels these experiences promote his desirability. His feeling for Estella is ridiculed by her and by her eventual acceptance of his rival, Bentley Drummle, who possesses the veneer of social accomplishment Pip is striving to attain for himself. His increasing talent for wasting time and money, going "from bad to worse" (309; ch. 36) is documented by the cycle of his visits to Jaggers and his returns to his marsh village. His lack of industry is countered by Herbert's energy when the latter eventually begins to plan for his own life. While we are shown that Pip is not "naterally vicious" (33; ch. 4) by the parallel with Orlick who seems to be, we also know his accomplishments are limited to those superficial attainments that define a gentleman for Magwitch and Jaggers. We know that Pip reads, attends plays, and can speak foreign languages, but these never become dramatized as an integral part of his personality. His social attainments are, apparently, only for show. Eventually Pip's fashionable accomplishments are revealed to him in all their essential hollowness, and his actions turn to rebuilding his values on a secure personal basis. He realizes he is as much a monster as Frankenstein's (363; ch. 40). "Pip's acquired 'culture' was an entirely bourgeois thing;" writes Humphry House, "it came to little more than accent, table manners, and clothes" (159).
If Joe can be regarded as the emblem of the Bildungsroman plot, Estella can be regarded as the emblem of the novel of manners plot and marriage or the possibility of marriage as its metaphor. The romance involving Estella also gives an initial motivation and a continuing rationale for Pip's actions in the social world, even though the scenes from that social world often resemble parodies or exposés. Significant changes in Pip's social behavior are demarcated by his reaction to Estella, like his decision to ask Biddy, who is in many ways Estella's counter, to marry him. At least partially because the novel of manners plot in Great Expectations is essentially a satiric inversion of the genre, Dickens is prevented from concluding the novel with Pip's unequivocal union with Estella, which would thereby appear to embrace the very mode of plot he has been caricaturing. Nevertheless, this frequently interrupted but uncomplicated plot provides a solid medium for carrying the novel's convincing social texture. Even so, compared to the plots of other popular mid-nineteenth century novels that could be regarded as candidates for the novel of manners genre, Great Expectations' structural rhythms are much more logically tightened than simple romance and social situation allow, especially in its final stage. The plot that combines with the novel of manners plot and the Bildungsroman plot to accomplish this tightness derives from the Gothic novel.
The resurgence of critical interest in the Gothic novel and its influence on the English novel from the 1970s onward parallels the interest in the Bildungsroman. A connection between the two genres in Great Expectations has been observed by several literary historians such as Walter Reed who sees them as "counterfictions": "a novel of Bildung unable to free itself from Gothic schauer" (171-2). Even though the presence of the general effect of the Gothic novel has been observed in Dickens's novel, little has been written about the Gothic plot of Great Expectations, perhaps because the greatest obvious effect of the Gothic novel is its affective atmosphere. Extended studies of such Gothic qualities range from Walter Phillips's early Dickens, Reade, and Collins: Sensation Novelists of 1917 to ones like A. C. Coolidge Jr.'s which have shown how Dickens utilized Gothic techniques to establish pacing and arouse heightened responses. Above all else, it is a genre dominated by its setting. The major effect of this setting is to establish a sense of isolation for its protagonists and create situations beyond the social norms of generally accepted practices and behavior. Since the Gothic novel offers experiences that call ordinary modes of perception into question, it seems ideal as a medium for developing the Bildungsroman's emerging self-consciousness. Yet the Gothic novel also possesses an equally distinct plot. In Great Expectations this plot has usually been identified as its "mystery" plot, and its presence has been decribed or praised by critics from the time of its publication to the present. The Gothic plot is the highest energy plot of all three plots. Its deliberate causal progress, excitement, and suspense are so evident, in fact, that it is usually seen only as another element of sensationalism. In the hands of a skilled novelist like Dickens, however, the clear-cut pacing and causality become a vehicle for structuring the much less energetic plots of character development and social progress in Great Expectations. Barbara Hardy writes that "Pip's progress in Great Expectations is probably the only instance of a moral action where the events precipitate change and growth as they do in George Eliot or Henry James" (51). Great Expectations need only be compared to the very similar "biographical" story of David Copperfield, or to the dominance of melodrama and sensationalism in Oliver Twist, in order to recognize the thoroughly synergetic relationship of the plots that involve Pip.
What distinguishes the Gothic novel plot from a simple mystery plot and what are the dynamics of such a plot? The "suspense" plots or plot sequences identified by Phillip Marcus appear to have strong Gothic plot characteristics. Peter Wolfe also is surely writing about Gothic plot as well when he asserts that the "… melodrama ignores complexity and subtlety. It simplifies reality into ready categories of good and evil, and it aims at evoking a simple response—like horror, sympathy, or loathing" (337). Yet the actual terms of the Gothic plot could be defined more specifically, and its relationship with the other plots clarified. It is perhaps best seen in terms of the structure perfected by Ann Radcliffe and still a puissant force for structuring types of popular narrative today. The essential ingredient of this plot derives from an element defined by Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful published about 1757. Burke's Enquiry became a virtual handbook of narrative principles for novelists and painters trying to achieve the sublime effect. The preeminent quality Burke locates that can be successfully applied to plot is that of obscurity. In Anne Radcliffe's most accomplished novel, The Italian, and in many of the novels that follow it, this principle takes the form of "layering" mystery upon mystery within a powerfully affective atmosphere so that the original motivation for the novel's action is greatly obscured. The original motivation is most often a crime, frequently involving an inheritance and heir, and its effects are visited upon a subsequent generation—usually represented by the character of an innocent and passive young female—who must seek assistance from a more powerful and experienced donor in order to resolve the mysteries of her origin and thereby reestablish a sense of order. In this type of natural or "explained" Gothic novel, what seems to be supernatural forces acting for a pervasive threatening evil always have some eventual rational explanation. A romance is present in such novels as well, but its story is made up of a series of separations and reunions which are distinctly secondary to the action precipitated by the persecutions of an unidentified villain, just as the romance plot is secondary in the Bildungsroman. Above all else, the Gothic plot provides a logic for the actions of the story which seem to have no apparent connections, and they need to be followed backwards in order to recreate the primal crime. In this regard the Gothic novel is the forerunner of the detective story; it is no accident that Dickens introduced the first detective, Inspector Bucket of Bleak House, to the English novel and that Dickens himself was a friend, colleague, and sometime collaborator of Wilkie Collins, who wrote the first English detective novel, The Moonstone.
The Gothic novel plot of The Italian fits the literal circumstances of the action of Great Expectations very closely, and, even though subdued by the Bildungsroman and novel of manners plots that dominate the first two stages of Pip's story, this plot initiates the action of the novel and emerges in the final stage to unify and conclude the novel. Some specific parallels could even be argued to exist between the two novels if not pressed too far: Pip resembles both the persecuted Ellena and Vivaldi in his passivity and innocence; Miss Havisham, in her dedication to revenge, resembles the plotting Marchesa; Magwitch and Schedoni have similar roles as accomplices to Compeyson and Nicola, and their ultimate exposures of one another and their deaths are also similar; both books have henchmen like Orlick and Spalatro, who figure in the final explanations about the suspicions of persecution that permeate the novels; and Estella's relationship as daughter to Magwitch is very much like the father-daughter relationship thought to exist between Ellena and Schedoni. The most important structural similarity, though, is the way crime and two shadowy criminals, Nicola and Compeyson, lurk in the backgrounds of the plots in both novels. In Great Expectations these archvillains function as they do for the Gothic novel in general: they provide memorable, smoothly coherent actions by allowing the malignant effect of an original evil to be traced through cliff-hanging interruptions. Crime, the manifestation of this evil, is the major metaphor of this plot for all Gothic novels. "That evil genius" (437; ch. 50) Compeyson, despite his only occasional, furtive presence, is the emblematic character for crime and the prime mover of the Gothic plot which eventually ties together all the major lines of action in Great Expectations.
So, although Compeyson and his crimes have been taken to task by critics because they are obscure in the first two thirds of the novel and then blatant and melodramatic, it is from their very obscurity that they derive their forcefulness and eventual dominance in the structure of the novel. Dickens begins the action with the intrusion of Magwitch and Compeyson into the formative starting point of Pip's life, his "first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things" (9; ch. 1), which becomes interwoven with the images of crime, convicts, guilt, and terror which characterize his narrative. Magwitch and Miss Havisham, as well as Estella, Pip, and Jaggers, are important participants in this hidden Gothic plot, and even Orlick's mysterious behind-the-scenes actions are enveloped in his associations of Compeyson. The effect of Pip's imagination working on the associations he has with Orlick, for example, heighten his reaction to the glimpses and reports of a "lurker" he gets (352; ch. 40; 384; ch. 43) prowling around his lodgings. This response parallels and presages the move awful "terror" generated later by the presence of Compeyson, who is revealed by Mr. Wopsle to have sat behind Pip in the theater: "I cannot exaggerate the enhanced disquiet into which this conversation threw me, or the special and peculiar terror I felt as Compeyson's having been behind me 'like a ghost'" (414; ch. 47). The "special and peculiar" effect is created largely because it is a secret and internalized one. It is an interior effect, a psychological one, created by an imaginative reaction to events, rather than the actual events themselves. Robert Heilman has shown how the similar Gothic accountrements of Jane Eyre create an internalized heightened response in that novel. This same principle of obscurity, so skillfully utilized by Ann Radcliffe, employs Pip's internatlized fears to create links between the various plots in Great Expectations. Compeyson's crimes against Miss Havisham and Magwich are created before the time that the novel opens (Notes 321), and the consequences that are visited upon Pip and Estella by their distorted donors are greatly removed from the times and scenes of the crime itself. It is these removed actions that have to be sorted out retrospectively, making the gothic plot resemble a detective plot.
From a retrospective perspective the Gothic plot appears straight-forward, like the evil behind it. It consists of Pip's initial help to Magwitch and Magwitch's subsequent attempt to play patron to Pip. Magwitch tries to revenge himself against the society he feels is responsible for his criminal fall and subsequent prosecution, linked in his mind with Compeyson. The parallel plot for Estella is created by Miss Havisham in revenge against men for being deserted by Compeyson. Both plot motivations are bound tightly with Compeyson's evil. Although overlaid in the first two thirds of the novel by the Bildungsroman plot and the novel of manners plot, the Gothic plot is kept active by interspersed, brief, but important, reminders of its presence, such as the man stirring his rum-and-water with a file (89; ch. 10) or the later indirect encounter with this same emissary on a stage coach (246; ch. 28). Fear-inspiring Gothic imagery connected with death, decay, violence, and mental distortions support such actions, and foreshadow the eruption of the Gothic plot with Magwitch's appearance in Chapter Thirty-nine, in what Pip calls "the turning point of my life" (324; ch. 37). Locating the stories and motivations and sorting out the connections between Compeyson, Magwitch, Miss Havisham, Arthur Havisham, and Jaggers make up the rest of the Gothic plot. These correspond generally with the separate plot lines that are played off against one another by creating expectations for the reader, and then interrupted with another story. Even though the plotting and actions leading up to the final river flight and its aftermath are often regarded as "one of the highest achievements of the sensation novel" (Stevenson 352), they are integrally bound with the deliberate obscurity of the main Gothic plot that flows, subdued or dominant, throughout the novel. What has been deliberately concealed is finally revealed for maximum effect. This third type of plot is also bound closely with the change of heart that Pip has towards Magwitch, the last important development of his Bildungsroman plot, and with the concurrent collapse of his social aspirations inspired by his idealization of Estella, the motivation behind the novel of manners plot.
Seeing the variety of plots that makes up the actions and series of intricate connections between characters in Great Expectations leads one to conclude with Peter Brooks that the novel's "central meanings depend on the workingsout of its plot" (114). With the revelations that come about through the manipulation his life and the deliberate withholding of information that has let him misconstrue events so that he fails to plot his own life knowingly, Pip does indeed seem "cured" (138) of plot, or very nearly so, as Brooks asserts. The subdued Pip at the end of the novel accepts a plot option he unwittingly created for himself earlier in the action when he generously bought Herbert a partnership in Clarriker & Co., and he joins Herbert and Clara where, by dint of hard work over a long period, he moves from clerk to partner. Pip's secretly playing patron to Herbert was, as Dickens himself wrote, "The one good thing he did in his prosperity; the only thing that endures and bears good fruit" (Notes 323). Pip's eleven years' work in Cairo is recounted in two short paragraphs and seems far removed from his earlier energetic plots. The confirmation of the work ethic in this final plot would be endorsed by Victorians, but it does not make a story worth telling.
Yet the continuing appeal of the plots we do get in Great Expectations is in understanding the general truth of all their selfishness, guilt, misinterpretations, extravagent feelings, egotism, and violent actions. Sorting out the three main plots that carry these truths helps to do this, even though the net result of the mixture of plots in Great Expectations is clearly greater than the mere sum of its separate parts, and such sorting must necessarily ignore other essential ingredients. What the identification of various plots reveals especially well, however, is the authentic drama of nightmarish quality of an individual's life when others have manipulated it, and the consequent need for moral self-determination. The amalgam of plots in Great Expectations created by Dickens's mature, resourceful, and highly imaginative understanding of reality resembles the mixed texture of life itself, and the reader of Great Expectations must understand and actively reconstruct its plots and their relative importance, just as life's patterns must be understood and evaluated in the constant process of reappraising our own versions of reality.
Abrams, M. H. Natural Supernaturalism. London: Oxford UP, 1971.
Buckley, Jerome H. Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1974.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Vintage-Random, 1985.
Coolidge, A. C. Charles Dickens as Serial Novelist. Ames, IA: Iowa State UP, 1967.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. New York: Signet-NAL, 1963.
――――――. Dickens' Working Notes for His Novels. Ed. Harry Stone. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
Fielding, K. J. Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction. 2nd Ed. Enlarged. London: Longmans, 1965.
Hardy, Barbara. "The Change of Heart in Dickens' Novels." Victorian Studies 5 (1961–2), 49-67. Rpt. in Dickens: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Martin Price. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1967. 39-57.
Halperin, John. Egoism and Self-Discovery in the Victorian Novel: Studies in the Ordeal of Knowledge in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Burt Franklin, 1974.
Heilman, Robert B. "Charlotte Brontë's 'New' Gothic." From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad. Ed. Robert C. Rathburn and Martin Steinmann, Jr. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1958. 71-85. Rpt. in The Victorian Novel: Modern Essays in Criticism. Ed. Ian Watt. London: Oxford UP, 1971. 165-80.
Hirsch, Marianne. "The Novel of Formation as Genre: Between Great Expectations and Lost Illusions." Genre 12 (1979): 293-311.
House, Humphry. The Dickens World. 2nd. Ed. 1942. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.
James, Henry. "Preface to the Tragic Muse." The Art of the Novel. Ed. R. P. Blackmur. New York: Scribners, 1934. 79-97.
Marcus, Phillip. "Theme and Suspense in the Plot of Great Expectations." Dickens Studies 2 (1966): 57-73.
Phillips, Walter C. Dickens, Reade, and Collins: Sensation Novelists. New York: Columbia UP, 1917.
Radcliffe, Ann. The Italian, or The Confessional of the Black Penitents: a Romance. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1968.
Reed, Walter. An Exemplary History of the Novel: The Quixotic Versus the Picaresque. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.
Stange, G. Robert. "Expectations Well Lost: Dickens' Fable for His Time." College English 16 (1954–5): 9-17. Rpt in The Victorian Novel: Modern Essays in Criticism. Ed. Ian Watt. London: Oxford UP, 1971. 110-22.
Stevenson, Lionel. The English Novel: A Panorama. Boston: Houghton, 1960.
Tennyson, G. B. "The Bildungsroman in Nineteenth-Century English Literature." Medieval Epic to the 'Epic Theatre' of Brecht: Essays in Comparative Literature. Ed. Rosario P. Armato and John M. Spalek. Los Angeles: U of Southern California Press, 1968. 135-46.
Wolfe, Peter. "The Fictional Crux and the Double Structure of Great Expectations." South Atlantic Quarterly 73 (Summer 1974): 335-47.
DAVID JARRETT (ESSAY DATE SEPTEMBER 1977)
SOURCE: Jarrett, David. "The Fall of the House of Clennam: Gothic Conventions in Little Dorrit." Dickensian 73, no. 383 (September 1977): 155-61.
In the following essay, Jarrett analyzes Dickens's use of the Gothic in Little Dorrit.
Charles Dickens had no time for the kind of romance of history celebrated by the garish Mrs Skewton in Dombey and Son (1847–8). 'Those darling bygone times,' she exclaims to Mr Carker in Warwick Castle, 'with their delicious fortresses, and their dear old dungeons, and their delightful places of torture, and their romantic vengeances, and their picturesque assaults and sieges, and everything that makes life truly charming! How dreadfully we have degenerated!'1
To write a Gothic romance would be as foreign to Dickens as to idealise the Middle Ages, and Mrs Skewton herself supplies a suitable image to represent his attitude towards some aspects of the Gothic mode. He was certainly familiar with the Gothic conventions, not least from his experience of the theatre, where Gothic melodrama, deriving directly from Gothic romance, 'flowered on the English stage in the 1790's, [and] bloomed luxuriantly for fifty years or so'.2 And the Gothic has made a positive contribution to Dickens's novels, so that it is commonplace to talk of the Gothicism of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), Barnaby Rudge (1841), and Great Expectations (1860–1).3 The use of Gothic elements in Little Dorrit (1855–7), however, has not been treated, and it is to this novel that I shall turn after brief reference to the relevant Gothic conventions.
In Gothic fiction the central element is always the gloomy Gothic building which is inextricably associated with the villain, usually a persecuting and usurping parent-figure. The symbolic significance of the building can vary as much as the visible shape of its various transformations which we encounter in Gothic Otranto, in Miss Havisham's decayed Satis House, and in Randolph's uncanny house in Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). It generally appears endued with a sinister life of its own, is in a ruinous state, and is often destroyed at the climax. There are many stock devices in Gothic fiction, including the animated portrait of The Castle of Otranto (1764), but perhaps the most important after the castle are the dream and the old manuscript. They are as versatile as the archetype of the Gothic castle, though they can be best observed in their most straightforward form in Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron (1778) and Ann Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest (1791). The hero or heroine in Gothic fiction confronts the Gothic castle and descends into it as into a dream; in this deathly enclosure comes a revelation, which may be accomplished through an old manuscript, a prophetic dream, or some equivalent, and which probably concerns the hero's search for the secret of his birth and the necessity of setting right the wrongs passed from one generation to another.
In chapter three of Little Dorrit Arthur Clennam, returning to London on a Sunday evening, sees the city in the grip of an archaic oppressive religious tyranny which centres, for him, on his mother and her house. The Clennam house is the grim architectural core of the novel, containing a guilty secret and offering a vague parental threat. Arthur
… came at last to the house he sought. An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square court-yard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots. It was a double house, with long, narrow, heavily-framed windows. Many years ago, it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.4
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MICHAEL HOLLINGTON ON "DICKENSIAN GOTHIC"
Judging by some of the allusions to Gothic writing in Sketches by Boz and other early works, readers can readily conclude that Dickens carved out for himself at an early stage a clear program for its transformation and modernization. Dickensian Gothic, his early writings seem to announce, will be contemporary and urban rather than medieval and exotic, its wonders and horrors presented through paradoxical, plural combinations and juxtapositions of tragedy and comedy rather than through conventional melodramatic formulae aimed at achieving single, concentrated terror effects. The apparent common purpose, for instance, of three references to Mrs. Radcliffe and one to Sir Walter Scott, authors whom Dickens as a young man clearly sought to emulate, seems to be to suggest that such 'real' horrors may rank with or indeed surpass the imaginary horrors for which his predecessors had become famous. Their related rhetorical strategies, in fact, can be seen as a sequence of progressive humorous 'turns of the screw,' a ratcheting up of more and more hyperbolic claims on behalf of a 'new Gothic' against an old.
SOURCE: Hollington, Michael. "Boz's Gothic Gargoyles." Dickens Quarterly 16, no. 3 (September 1999): 160-77.
Though reduced in scale and not literally Gothic in architectural style. Mrs Clennam's house is the equivalent of the castle of Gothic romance, for it has an antique gloomy life of its own ('it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways'), and in its decay and mystery it matches its inhabitants. And, of course, as Arthur suspects, it contains the secret of a guilty deed which the heir must identify and expose before he can be given his true heritage. Dickens himself likens the house ironically to 'a castle of romance', wretched and hopeless (I, iii, 40).
In the chapter which follows our introduction to the Clennam house there is a frightening variation of the prophetic or revelatory dream of Gothic fiction:
When Mrs Flintwinch dreamed, she usually dreamed, unlike the son of her old mistress, with her eyes shut. She had a curiously vivid dream that night, and before she had left the son of her old mistress many hours. In fact it was not at all like a dream, it was so real in every respect.
(I, iv, 41)
Indeed, what is so horrible about Affery's dream is that it is no dream at all. Affery in her 'dream' sees the unaccountable multiplication of her husband, 'Mr Flintwinch awake … watching Mr Flintwinch asleep' (I, ii, 42), and she almost witnesses a murder too. It is a dangerous knowledge that she is beginning to acquire, in best Gothic fashion, through 'dream'. By bringing the Gothic archetype of the ruin, inhabited by a threatening parental or ancestral power, from the forest of romance and into the world of the novel and nineteenth century London, Dickens brings the horror of what was to him an unreal romantic world into the real, and thus makes it more affecting. Similarly, by removing from the dream device of Gothic romance the actual dream, and yet still describing the events witnessed by the befuddled Affery in terms of dream, he renders the device more truly haunting and powerful than it had been in, say, The Old English Baron.
When Affery determines at length to tell her dreams (II, xxx, 763-786) her contribution to revealing the guilt concealed in the Clennam house works in conjunction with Dickens's equivalent to the Gothic old manuscript device. For it is here that Blandois recounts his ugly 'history of this house', a 'history of strange marriage, and a strange mother, and a revenge, and a suppression' (II, xxx, 771). His story is drawn from old papers—a codicil to Gilbert Clennam's will and the letters of Arthur's barbarously treated real mother—which Flintwinch had double-locked in an iron box and given to his twin brother, witnessed by Affery in her 'dream'. These papers, of course, reveal the secret of the hero's birth and show what restitution must be made in this generation.
Mrs Clennam's religion is characterised through an architectural metaphor when Dickens attributes to her the following religious sentiments:
Smite Thou my debtors, Lord, wither them, crush them; do Thou as I would do, and Thou shalt have my worship: this was the impious tower of stone she built up to scale Heaven.
(I, iv, 47)
And though the image primarily suggests the tower of Babel, yet, because of the way in which Dickens has been using the conventions of Gothic romance in Little Dorrit, it merges with that of the central archetype of Gothic fiction. For there is no doubt that in some ways Mrs Clennam belongs to the grisly romance of history represented by Mrs Skewton's sentiments in Warwick Castle quoted above. When Flintwinch leads Arthur to his mother it is a progress as to the ancestral tomb that belongs to 'those darling bygone times' of torture and tyranny:
Arthur followed him up the staircase, which was panelled off into spaces, like so many mourning tablets, into a dim bed-chamber, the floor of which had gradually so sunk and settled, that the fireplace was in a dell. On a black bier-like sofa in this hollow, propped up behind with one great angular black bolster, like the block at a state execution in the good old times [italics mine], sat his mother in a widow's dress.
(I, iii, 33)
At the core of the decaying family house is the heavy atmosphere of mortality, guilt, and threat. As Arthur quickly perceives, it is Little Dorrit who is obscurely threatened, and she, in her modesty, her vulnerability, her quiet generosity, and, of course, in her littleness, is clearly a reworking of the 'orphan-of-the-castle' Gothic heroine. She even has a choice of castles to contain her quietness in their gloom—Mrs Clennam's house and the Marshalsea.
Dickens, even if somewhat ironically, early suggests the violent possibilities implied in the Clennam household's menacing of the orphan Little Dorrit. For what he could learn about Little Dorrit in the first instance
… Arthur was indebted in the course of the day to his own eyes and to Mrs Affery's tongue. If Mrs Affery had had any will or way of her own, it would probably have been unfavourable to Little Dorrit. But as 'them two clever ones'—Mrs Affery's perpetual reference, in whom her personality was swallowed up—were agreed to accept Little Dorrit as a matter of course, she had nothing for it but to follow suit. Similarly, if the two cleaver ones had agreed to murder Little Dorrit by candle-light, Mrs Affery, being required to hold the candle, would no doubt have done it.
(I, v, 53)
An edge of ironic humour there might be to this, but we have already seen Flintwinch on the brink of murdering his own brother by candlelight, and the sinister power of the 'two clever ones' over Affery is made clear by the enormity of the crime in which she would 'no doubt' have participated.
When Arthur Clennam talks to his mother of 'our House' he means neither the building in which the mother has shut herself away, nor a line of titled ancestors in a family vault. But we have seen Dickens suggesting such a vault when describing Mrs Clennam in her room. In the awkward interview with his mother in which he refuses to take over the family business Arthur is leading up to the enquiry about the possibility of his dead father's secret guilt: 'If reparation can be made to any one, if restitution can be made to any one, let us know it and make it' (I, v, 49), he says. A little before, he has said:
'Mother, our House has done less and less for some years past, and our dealings have been progressively on the decline. We have never shown much confidence, or invited much; we have attached no people to us; the track we have kept is not the track of time; and we have been left far behind.'
(I, v, 46)
Although it is a House of Business that is the subject of this speech the emotional atmosphere would equally suit an old, run-down aristocratic line retreating into Gothic obscurity. And it is plain, when a little later Arthur visits his father's room of business, that we are meant to see this suggestion in the above passage.
The room Arthur Clennam's deceased father had occupied for business purposes … was so unaltered that he might have been imagined still to keep it invisibly, as his visible relict kept her room up-stairs…. His picture, dark and gloomy, earnestly speechless on the wall, with the eyes intently looking at his son as they had looked when life departed from them, seemed to urge him awfully to the task he had attempted….
(I, v, 54)
The portrait does not quite step out of its frame, like that in The Castle of Otranto, or as Charles Maturin seems to make the seventeenth century depiction of Melmoth in Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).5 But Dickens does animate the portrait for Arthur and it does seem to be having a significant effect in prompting him to do something about the mysterious wrong that its subject perpetrated or knew. If one were to say that the father's portrait 'speaks' to Arthur in the 'haunted' house, this would not misrepresent Dickens's meaning. For Arthur it is a house haunted by memories and guilty secrets, and, right up until its destruction, there is the possibility that it is more literally haunted by ghostly persons unseen. Affery, driven to the fringes of insanity, is conscious of noises that are not 'rats, cats, water, drains', of 'a rustle and a sort of trembling touch behind' her (I, xiv, 185). It is only the prediction of her becoming otherwise 'sensible of a rustle and touch that'll send [her] … flying to the other end of the kitchen' that stops Affery pursuing the matter. But for the reader there remains the possibility that a mysterious Flintwinch twin is secreted somewhere about the house.
If he had imitated Mrs Radcliffe's A Sicilian Romance (1790) Dickens would have immured the true mother of Arthur for years in the seemingly haunted Clennam house. He avoids this romantic cliché, but develops a nonetheless sensational situation. The guilty secret of the Clennam household turns out to be the suppression of the circumstances of his birth, and its unfolding reveals to him his true parentage. And such a revelation forms part of much Gothic fiction, where the search for the parent or the secret of birth amounts to an obsession. It is not simply that the true identity of Arthur's mother has been kept from him; she had been put in the nightmare situation of being given to the charge of a lunatic-keeper—a situation such as Maturin frenziedly portrays in Melmoth the Wanderer.6 The horror of her plight is grotesquely understated and implied by Flintwinch's remark: 'My brother, Ephraim, the lunatic-keeper … speculated unsuccessfully in lunatics, he got into difficulty about over-roasting a patient to bring him to reason' (II, xx, 783).
The pretended translator of the first edition of The Castle of Otranto apologises in his preface for what becomes an obsessive fear in Gothic fiction, the passing on of the family curse, usually bound up with the passing on of the ancestral castle. In his translator persona Walpole says:
… I am not blind to my author's defects. I could wish he had grounded his plan on a more useful moral than this; that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation.7
Mrs Clennam belongs to the world of Gothic horror in this matter of inherited punishment. When she finally unbends before Little Dorrit and offers some justification of her past life Mrs Clennam says of her behavior toward Arthur:
'I kept over him in the days of his first remembrance, my restraining and correcting hand. I was stern with him, knowing that the transgressions of the parents are visited on their offspring, and that there was an angry mark upon him at his birth.'
(II, xxix, 754)
It is no accident that Dickens uses in Little Dorrit the climactic destruction of the building that Otranto had established as the Gothic convention.8 When Mrs Clennam is returning to her house with Little Dorrit, after her all-important experience of being 'broken by emotion', they hear 'a sudden noise like thunder':
In one swift instant, the old house was before them, with the man [Blandois] lying smoking in the window; another thundering sound, and it heaved, surged outward, opened asunder in fifty places, collapsed, and fell. Deafened by the noise, stifled, choked, and blinded by the dust, they hid their faces and stood rooted to the spot. The dust storm, driving between them and the placid sky, parted for a moment and showed them the stars. As they looked up, wildly crying for help, the great pile of chimneys which was then alone left standing, like a tower in a whirlwind, rocked, broke, and hailed itself down upon the heap of ruin, as if every tumbling fragment were intent on burying the crushed wretch deeper.
(II, xxxi, 793-4)
Again the house is endued with life: it seems to will the extermination of Blandois. And again we see how close is the connection between house and owner. The house completes a victory over Blandois which Mrs Clennam had begun, and, after she has been 'broken by emotion as unfamiliar to her eyes as action to her frozen limbs' (II, xxxi, 790), then the house itself is broken. Further, with the destruction of the house Mrs Clennam's life is effectively over, for afterwards, 'except that she could move her eyes and faintly express a negative and affirmative with her head, she lived and died a statue' (II, xxi, 794).
After the fall of the house of Dorrit the 'mystery of the noises' is explained; they were the groans of a failing structure. 'Affrey, like greater people, had always been right in her facts, and always wrong in the theories she deduced from them' (II, xxxi, 794). So we have a rational explanation of the apparently ghostly noises, and its ingenuity rivals that of Ann Radcliffe, a past master at such eventual explanations of seemingly supernatural terrors.
In relation to his presentation of the Clennam household Dickens, then, appears to adapt the following Gothic conventions: the sinister old castle that harbours mystery, gloom and guilty secrets; the hero's search for the secret of his birth; the setting right of wrongs passed from one generation to another; the use of dreams; the ancestral portrait motif; the old manuscript; and the climactic destruction of the castle. Of course, not all these features would seem Gothic-inspired if they occurred in isolation, and there are further possibilities. For example, Blandois has many of the features of the Gothic villain, and the view of Little Dorrit as an 'orphan-of-the-castle' Gothic heroine might bear development. But enough has been said to indicate that Dickens was able to adapt Gothic conventions not to undermine, but to intensify his portrayal of reality.
1. Dickens, Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation, New Oxford Illustrated Dickens, 1950, p. 387.
2. Michael Booth, English Melodrama, 1965, p. 67.
3. See e.g. the reference to Great Expectations under 'Gothic Novel' in S. Barnet et al., A Dictionary of Literary Terms (1964), p. 78; also Anthony O'Brien, 'Benevolence and Insurrection: The Conflicts of Form and Purpose in Barnaby Rudge', Dickens Studies, v (May 1969), 29.
4. Dickens, Little Dorrit, New Oxford Illustrated Dickens, 1953, Bk.I, ch.iii, 31.
5. Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer, ed. Douglas Grant, 1953, I,i,20.
6. Melmoth I, iii, 28-60.
7. Walpole, Preface to the First Edition, The Castle of Otranto, ed. W. S. Lewis, 1964, p. 5.
8. For confirmation that 'the catastrophe of [Little Dorrit] … formed part of his original plan, and was not suggested by a contemporary occurrence', see the Introduction of Charles Dickens the Younger to Little Dorrit (Macmillan, 1953), pp. xxvii-xx; it is not included in the Oxford Illustrated edition.
Cordery, Gareth. "The Cathedral as Setting and Symbol in The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Dickens Studies Newsletter 10, no. 4 (December 1979): 97-103.
Explores the symbolic function of the cathedral in Edwin Drood as it functions as a backdrop to the story.
Duncan, Ian. Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 295 p.
Examines the relationship between the revival of the romance form and the ascendancy of the novel in British literary culture, from 1760 to 1850; begins with the first identification of modern prose fiction in the lateeighteenth-century Gothic novel before discussing the work of Sir Walter Scott and Dickens.
Frank, Lawrence. "News From the Dead: Archaeology, Detection, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Dickens Studies Annual 28 (1999): 65-102.
Argues that The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a meditation on the nature of historical knowledge as well as the act of knowing or detection.
Harris, Jean. "'But He Was His Father': The Gothic and the Impostorious in Dickens's The Pickwick Papers." In Psychoanalytic Approaches to Literature and Film, edited by Maurice Charney and Joseph Reppen, pp. 69-79. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987.
Shows how Dickens modifies the Gothic convention in The Pickwick Papers.
Hodgell, Pat. "Charles Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop: The Gothic Novel in Transition." Riverside Quarterly 8, no. 3 (July 1990): 152-69.
Contends that Dickens's use of Gothic elements even after the genre's heyday freed gothicism from its stereotypes, enabled it to be adapted to address new social pressures, and affirmed the potential of its motifs in psychological terms.
Jackson, Rosemary. "The Silenced Text: Shades of Gothic in Victorian Fiction." Minnesota Review 13 (1979): 98-112.
Includes a detailed analysis of Dickens's appropriation of the Gothic for his own thematic purposes.
Kirkpatrick, Larry. "The Gothic Flame of Charles Dickens." Victorian Newsletter 31 (1967): 20-4.
Illustrates how The Old Curiosity Shop, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend are related to the Gothic literary tradition.
Kostelnick, Charles. "Dickens's Quarrel with the Gothic: Ruskin, Durdles and Edwin Drood." Dickens Studies Newsletter 8 (1977): 104-9.
Claims that the character of Durdles in The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a caricature of John Ruskin's Gothic workman.
McMaster, R. D. "Dickens and the Horrific." Dalhousie Review 38 (1958): 18-28.
Discusses Dickens's reading of pulp horror fiction and its influence on his work.
Pritchard, Allan. "The Urban Gothic of Bleak House." Nineteenth-Century Literature 45, no. 4 (March 1991): 432-52.
Maintains that Bleak House is Dickens's supreme achievement in the Gothic mode and a crucially important novel for the nineteenth-century transformation of Gothic fiction.
Ragussis, Michael. "The Ghostly Signs of Bleak House." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 34, no. 3 (December 1979): 253-80.
Examines the motif of nomenclature and the mystery of language in Bleak House.
Robson, John M. "Crime in Our Mutual Friend." In Rough Justice: Essays on Crime in Literature, pp. 114-40. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Studies the many and various instances of criminal activity and violent acts in Our Mutual Friend.
Showalter, Elaine. "Guilt, Authority, and the Shadows of Little Dorrit." In Rough Justice: Essays on Crime in Literature, pp. 114-40. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Characterizes the shadow motif in Little Dorrit as emblematic of the spiritual darkness of Victorian society.
Sucksmith, Harvey P. "The Secret of Immediacy: Dickens's Debt to the Tale of Terror in Blackwood's." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 26, no. 2 (September 1971): 145-57.
Analyzes the influence of the realistic tales of terror that Dickens read in Blackwood's magazine on his development as a writer.
Thiele, David. "The 'Transcendent and Immortal … HEEP!': Class Consciousness, Narrative Authority and the Gothic in David Copperfield." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 42, no. 3 (fall 2000): 201-22.
Discusses the characterization of the dastardly Uriah Heep in David Copperfield and explores the significance of the Gothic on the novel's narrative mode.
Tracy, Robert. "Clock Work: The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge." Dickens Studies Annual 30 (2001): 23-43.
Examines the antique settings and other elements that invoke the atmosphere of Gothic fiction in The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of Dickens's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 23; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 13, 14; British Writers, Vol. 5; British Writers: The Classics, Vols. 1, 2; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 95; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832–1890; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 21, 55, 70, 159, 166; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 1, 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 3, 8, 18, 26, 37, 50, 86, 105, 113; Novels for Students, Vols. 4, 5, 10, 14, 20; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 17, 49; Something about the Author, Vol. 15; Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 1; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; World Literature Criticism; Writers for Children; and Writers for Young Adults.