Dickens, Charles 1812-1870

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Charles Dickens 1812-1870


(Also wrote under the pseudonym Boz) English novelist, essayist, and short story writer.


Dickens is one of the best-known and most popular writers in the English language. The day after his death, the London Daily Times eulogized him as "emphatically the novelist of his age. In his pictures of contemporary life posterity will read, more clearly than in contemporary records, the character of nineteenth century life." He left a legacy of fourteen novels, as well as short stories, editorials, and sketches, creating over 2000 characters, some of whom, such as Ebenezer Scrooge, have entered the common vernacular. His novels were not formulaic and scholars often divide them into early, middle, and late works, reflecting his personal growth, maturity, and outlook. His works address social issues such as poverty, injustice, and the dangers of industrial progress, espousing themes of childhood and familial relationships reflective of the greater society, and calling attention to the need for progressive education and to the victimization of women and the poor. His depiction of Victorian London has become part of the historical record, and his skill in narration, description, multilevel plotting, colorful characterizations, and imagery are regarded by most critics as superior. David Lodge wrote, "[Dickens] stands symbolically on the threshold of the modern literary era, and [his] career embodies the difference between being famous and being a celebrity.… Dickens not only wrote novels which became classics of English literature in his own lifetime; he transformed the methods of publishing fiction and thus changed the possibilities of authorship for his contemporaries and their successors."


Dickens was born February 7, 1812, near the coastal town of Port-Sea (now part of Portsmouth), England, the second of eight children. His father, John Dickens, lived above his social station and beyond his financial means, so his family was constantly short of money and moved often. At the age of six Dickens was sent to school, where he discovered classical authors and developed a love of reading. He also enjoyed the ghost stories told to children at bedtime by their nurses. Christmas was an especially happy time for him and was a setting he recreated in many of his stories. At age nine Dickens discovered the theater and developed a passion for the stage. He became a respectable amateur actor and was often lauded for dramatic public readings of his own works. When the Dickens family moved to London, their economic condition worsened because of their father's recklessness. When his debts became insupportable, John was sent to Marshalsea, the London debtors' prison. At age twelve, Dickens had to leave school and was sent to work at a blacking warehouse gluing labels on bottles of shoe polish. At the time, Dickens lived in cheap lodgings and often went hungry. He visited his family, who had joined his father in prison, but felt abandoned by them. Although this situation lasted less than a year, it left a lasting impression of humiliation, rejection, and misery on young Charles.

When his father was released from prison, Dickens returned to school, although his mother wanted him to continue working to support the family. Though he excelled in his studies, at age fifteen Dickens left school, and at eighteen he obtained a reading card for the library at the British Museum, where he continued to educate himself. After leaving school, Dickens worked for two years as a law clerk, then for four years preparing shorthand court reports for the lawyers. As a result of his quickness and accuracy he was offered a job as a newspaper reporter for the Morning Chronicle. From 1834 to 1836 he was a political reporter in Parliament and was soon writing feature articles and sketches about members of Parliament, politics, the London scene, and a variety of characters. His reading audiences enjoyed the absurdities he noted—even in serious situations. Around 1830, Dickens fell in love with Mary Beadnell, a girl several years older than himself. When she broke off the relationship, Dickens resolved to work hard and become successful, and in 1834 his first writings were published. In 1836 he published his first book, Sketches by "Boz", a collection of his periodical contributions, which was well received by critics. George Hogarth, reviewing the book, commented that Dickens was a "close and acute observer of character and manners, with a strong sense of the ridiculous."

Also in 1836, Dickens married Hogarth's daughter Kate. One year later, Dickens welcomed his first child and his first literary success, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), vignettes about a group of characters who go out hunting and fishing in the country. Illustrations were done by Hablot Knight Browne under the pseudonym "Phiz." The characters Sam Weller and Sam's father Tony were hugely popular with reading audiences, and this book cemented Dickens's stature in the literary world. The story appealed to all classes, without offensive language or compromising incidents, and signaled the beginning of a long and auspicious writing career.

Within the next four years Dickens published Oliver Twist, or the Parish Boy's Progress (1838), The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), and Barnaby Rudge (1841); all but Barnaby Rudge were popular successes. In 1842 Dickens visited America with his wife but was disappointed by the slavery and political situations he witnessed there. On his return from America he wrote American Notes for General Circulation (1842), which criticized America so severely that his reputation in the United States suffered for a period. By the time Dickens published A Christmas Carol, in Prose (1843), five of his ten children had been born. Supporting such a large family, plus a sister-in-law and his needy father strained Dickens financially; in 1844 he temporarily moved his family to Italy, where expenses were half what they were in London. While in Italy he wrote travel sketches about Italy as well as more Christmas stories, and he published The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), a novel treating greed which was not very successful. In 1846 Dickens moved his family to Switzerland, again in efforts to save money, and while there wrote Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation (1848), a novel that marks the beginning of his mature period. His next novel, The Personal History of David Copperfield (1851), a highly autobiographical novel, demonstrates a darker outlook, more serious themes, and a change to more character-driven plots. During the 1850s and 1860s Dickens owned and edited his own magazine, Household Words, and increased the frequency of his public speaking engagements, scheduling readings throughout Great Britain and America. In 1858 he separated from his wife. She took their oldest child and left Dickens with the other nine children and her sister, who were soon joined by Dickens's mistress, Nelly Ternan, twenty-seven years his junior. The affair was kept secret from the public during his lifetime and revealed only in 1939. Toward the end of his life, Dickens quarreled with his publishers, found a new publisher, and started the magazine All Year Round, in which he serially published A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861). As Dickens grew older, his production slowed and the time between novels increased. He made a final American tour in 1868, and although it was successful, he returned home exhausted and ill. During the summer in 1870, after a long day of working on his last and unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Dickens suffered a stroke and died the next day. Although he wanted to be buried in Rochester near his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, his request was denied and he was interred in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. His grave was left open for two days to accommodate the mourners, but when the doors of the abbey closed there were still a thousand people waiting outside to pay their respects.


Dickens's first novel, Oliver Twist, focuses on the unfairness of laws governing the poor. It was published in installments in Bentley's Miscellany with illustrations by George Cruikshank. Oliver, the protagonist, is born in the workhouse to a dying mother and is put in an orphanage, where he is mistreated and starved. Sent to apprentice to an undertaker, he runs away to London, where he associates with criminals. He begins his training as a pickpocket under the tutelage of the Artful Dodger and joins Fagin's gang of child thieves but is rescued by the kindly Mr. Brownlow, who turns out to be his grandfather. In the novel, Dickens uses a combination of comedy and tragedy, a technique he would continue to employ in the future. He contrasts the cheeky antics of the Artful Dodger with the brutal environment of the poorhouse and the savagery of the underworld in this work.

Probably Dickens's most famous work and unquestionably his most popular, A Christmas Carol created a new genre of Christmas ghost stories and set a tone for the Christmas season that strongly influenced succeeding generations of celebrants. The parsimonious and cranky Ebenezer Scrooge finds himself the victim of a haunting on Christmas Eve. He is visited first by his old and long-dead partner, who warns him of the danger his soul faces and offers him salvation if he heeds the spirits who will visit him that night. During the night, Scrooge meets three ghosts, the spirits of Christmases past, present, and future, who show him what his life was, is, and will be if he does not change his ways. In the morning, Scrooge has undergone a spiritual transformation and become part of the communal psyche. A Christmas Carol was an immediate financial, literary, and popular success. Many renditions of A Christmas Carol, in the form of plays, musicals, spoofs, and modernizations, have been produced for the stage, screen, television, and radio.

Many critics assert that Dickens invented some of his best characters for David Copperfield, including the profligate Mr. Macawber, based on his own father, the unctuous Uriah Heep, the formidable Betsy Trotwood, and the endearing Peggoty and her family. In the novel, David's father dies before he is born, and his mother remarries a harsh and cruel man, Mr. Murdstone. Murdstone sends David to a school where he suffers cruelly, and when David's mother dies, he is sent to work in a menial job. Rescued by his Aunt Betsy Trotwood, he finally receives an education. He makes an unsuitable marriage to the silly and impractical Dora, mourns her death, furthers his education with travel, and at last returns to marry Agnes, his true love, and begin his life as a writer. David Copperfield was concerned less with social crusades than Dickens's earlier novels were, and critics note the novel as the beginning of a new phase of his work in which he became more concerned with his characters.

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is often required reading in high school English literature courses. The novel takes place during the French Revolution, although Dickens treats the political situation more as a backdrop than an inherent part of the story. Fast-moving and full of action, the story follows Sydney Carton, an English lawyer in love with a French woman, Lucie Manette. Lucie loves and marries Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat who has fled to London to escape the Revolution. When Darnay returns to Paris on a mission, he is captured and condemned to the guillotine. Carton, who looks like Darnay, rescues Darnay and takes Darnay's place on the scaffold, speaking the line, "It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done." His unselfish sacrifice leaves Lucie happy with the man she loves and who loves her. Although there are historical inaccuracies in the book, factual history was not important to Dickens.

Originally conceived as a comic novel to bail out Dickens's failing magazine All Year Round, Great Expectations (1861) became Dickens's masterpiece. Philip Pirrip, nicknamed Pip, is a poor orphan who lives with his strict sister and her husband in a coastal town near the moors. One day he chances upon an escaped prisoner in the marshes and tries to help him. Although the prisoner is recaptured, he tells Pip he will repay him. Pip is subsequently summoned to the home of the eccentric Miss Havisham to play with her adopted daughter, Estella. Pip falls in love with Estella, but Miss Havisham, nursing and nurturing the hurt she received when she was left at the altar many years ago, is raising Estella to have no heart; Estella cannot return Pip's affection. Miss Havisham gives Pip money to become apprentice to a blacksmith, and when he later receives money to move to London and set himself up as a gentleman, he assumes it also comes from her. While in London he pursues his education, sees Estella married to another man, and discovers that his true benefactor, the escaped convict Abel Magwitch, is Estella's father. Eleven years later, Pip is working in an export business and decides to visit home. Miss Havisham has died in a fire, and Estella has been widowed. Her experiences have matured and changed her, and she and Pip are finally able to be united.

Less well-known than his novels are Dickens's many short stories, most of them published in Household Words and All Year Round, his own periodicals. Many of his short stories are ghost tales set around the Christmas season and involve magic and memories, such as The Child's Story (1852), about an elderly man, and The Magic Fish-Bone (1868), written in the style of a folk tale. The Life of Our Lord was written by Dickens for his own children and was read to them every Christmas as part of their traditional family celebration. It was not published until 1934, after his children were deceased.


Dickens's work was immensely popular during his lifetime, with wild public anticipation greeting each installment of his ongoing novels as they were published in periodicals. Vast readerships were saddened by the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, and Dickens's unfavorable commentary about Americans in American Notes aroused national outrage among his American readers. His exposure of social ills elicited the full range of public opinion, and the name Charles Dickens was well-known in every English-speaking household. At his death, the world grieved his passing, with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow proclaiming he had never known "an author's death to cause such general mourning."

Dickens's life and works have been the subject of tomes of critical analysis and attention. His books remain in print more than 125 years after his death and are required reading in many high school and college literature courses. Irving Howe wrote: "With the opening chapter of Oliver Twist, Dickens made his way, forever, into world literature.… [I]n its opening chapters … we can recognize the Dickens who belongs in the company of [Nikolai] Gogol, [Honore de] Balzac, and [Fyodor] Dostoevsky." Critics and popular audiences alike have embraced Dickens's works, identifying with the common themes and reveling in the succinct characterizations and vivid depictions. Matthew Titolo suggested that David Copperfield was a milestone for Dickens: " David Copperfield, Charles Dickens's first aesthetically grown-up novel, ironically signals its maturity by linking novel-writing itself with the vicissitudes of childhood.… [The novel] invites us to embrace the ethical compromises of professional life, creating one of the most seductive liberal allegories of grown-up independence in modern literature." Dickens's novels and short stories have been adapted to picture books, "Junior Editions," comic book format, and other bowdlerizations; plays, musicals, films, and television specials based on his work abound and continue to be produced and revived; and he is credited with almost single-handedly creating the holiday atmosphere and expectations now common to the Christmas season.


* Sketches by "Boz," Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People [as Boz] (essays and short stories) 1836

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [as Boz] (short stories) 1837

Oliver Twist, or the Parish Boy's Progress (novel) 1838

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (novel) 1839

Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty (novel) 1841

The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841

American Notes for General Circulation (essays) 1842

A Christmas Carol, in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (novella) 1843

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (novel) 1844

The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In (novella) 1845

The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home (novella) 1846

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation (novel) 1848

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain: A Fancy for Christmas-Time (short stories) 1848

The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1851

The Child's Story (short story) 1852

A Child's History of England [originally published in three volumes] (history) 1852-1854

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 (short stories) 1861

Our Mutual Friend (novel) 1865

The Magic Fish-Bone (short story) 1868

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished novel) 1870

The Life of Our Lord (short story) 1934

*The first series was published in two volumes in 1836; the second series was published in 1837. These were both republished as Watkins Tottle and Other Sketches Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People and The Tuggs's at Ramsgate and Other Sketches Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People, both in 1837.

†All of Dickens's novels were originally published serially in magazines, usually over periods of one to two years.


Matthew Cooper (essay date December 1988)

SOURCE: Cooper, Matthew. "Why We Need a New Dickens: Everyone Cares about Oliver Twist. Now We Need to Help the Artful Dodgers." Washington Monthly 20, no. 11 (December 1988): 48-52.

[In the following essay, Cooper considers the inspiration for and nature of Dickens's appeals for social reforms and the need for a similar voice to address current social problems.]

Christmas is always the busy season for Dickens, but this year there's more going on than usual. There's a Bill Murray remake of A Christmas Carol (playing the perfect eighties Scrooge—a TV exec too busy to do lunch with his ghost) and, for the truly sturdy, a two-part, six-hour film of Little Dorrit. Coming soon: Disney's Oliver Twist. And a new biography of Dickens is getting prominent reviews, including front-page billing in The Washington Post Book World.

But what's been missing from the articles I've read about these works is the recognition of Dickens's central accomplishment: he prodded (and entertained) millions of readers into caring about the poor. Instead of seeing the poor, as Malthus did, as some abstract, seething mass of "surplus population," Dickens saw them as individuals, engaging enough to merit novels of 700, 800, 900 pages. He made his readers see them that way too. And that was a revolutionary accomplishment,

One indication of his influence lies in numbers. He was the best-selling author in Victorian England, writing novels that became standard household items, as common as candles and brooms. In the 12 years after he died, nearly four million copies of his books sold in Britain alone—an amazing feat even by Stephen King standards. When it came to influence, Daniel Webster argued that Dickens had "done more to ameliorate the condition of the English poor than all the statesmen Great Britain had sent into Parliament." Even the conservative Economist conceded that Dickens fueled "the age's passion—we call it so designedly—which prevails to improve the condition of the working classes." Queen Victoria hailed his humanizing influence on the nation and his "strongest sympathy with the poorer classes."

As for the poor themselves, they not only saw Dickens as their champion, they read him. Journals of the period are filled with accounts of chimney sweeps and factory hands captured by his work. And when they couldn't make out all the words, there were plenty of illustrations to help them along. The working classes responded by deluging Dickens with invitations to speak before their guilds. "Ah! Mr. Dickens," shouted a carriage driver to Dickens's son, on the day of the novelist's funeral. "Your father's death was a great loss to all of us—and we cabbies were in hopes that he would be doing something to help us."

It was not without reason, then, that Dostoevski called Dickens "the great Christian."' Characters like Oliver Twist and Mr. Bumble, who ran the infamous workhouse, carry lessons as old as the New Testament. When Mr. Bumble terrorized Oliver for asking for a second helping of gruel, even affluent Englishmen knew how the orphan felt. They knew, too, that they had an obligation to help. That kind of empathy stoked the era's major reform movements. The resulting bouquet of triumphs included everything from fewer working hours to free education and universal suffrage.

There's more to Dickens, though, than misty-eyed sentiment. His was a subtle and muscular vision that recognized (and condemned) the sins of impoverished individuals as well as the collective guilt of a society. Dickens gives us not only Oliver Twist but Fagin, the criminal ringleader who pressgangs Oliver into service. He's no victim of society. Fagin's problem is Fagin.

Is there any relevance in this today? After all, the sprawling squalor of Victorian Britain has gone the way of the workhouse. The laissez-faire liberalism that Dickens deplored is light-years away from today's social welfare state. (No food stamps had Oliver. No case-worker.) But America today is in at least one way like the England of the 1830s: most of us see the underclass as a seething, abstract mob. Of course, it's not just our artists who've failed us, but our politicans too. And it's too much to expect all art to serve as social glue, binding each of us to the concerns of the less fortunate. But today, when so much fiction is either mired in minimalist ennui or panting with the lifestyles of the rich and promiscuous, we need someone who can animate our social concern. We need a new Dickens.

A Street-Walking Man

Where to find one? My guess is that it can only be someone who has seen poverty up close; perhaps a journalist. Dickens himself became acquainted with the poor as what today's social scientists would call a "participant observer." He was one of them.

His father, John Dickens, tried to give his children a life of parlours and singing lessons on the paycheck of a navy clerk. As a result, like so many working people of the time, the Dickens family floated in and 'out of debtors' prison (bringing their servant with them, as was the custom of the day). By 1822, when Charles was ten, debt's constant tug forced his family to yank him out of school and place him in a factory pasting labels on pots of shoe polish. When not at work, he spent long days wandering the alleys of work-weary London. With his parents often imprisoned, describing what he saw there became a way of mastering a hostile world. He'd jot down dozens of "sketches," detailed descriptions of just about anything he'd run into. They captured not only turmoil and toil, but character Typical was the one about his uncle's Soho barber, a man who, playing Monday-morning quarterback, recounted how he would have guided Napoleon's troops at Waterloo.

Eventually his family earned its freedom and Dickens became a law clerk, allowing him to tame "the savagery of stenography," as he put it, and later become a reporter. At the time, reporting mostly meant taking shorthand, but Dickens was so talented an editor called him "the most rapid, the most accurate, and the most trustworthy reporter then engaged on the London press."

His star rising, Dickens didn't leave the poor behind. Instead he sketched them. Under the pseudonym "Boz," he churned out copy about vulgar vendors, ragged children, raging arguments. In "The Pawn-broker's Shop," Dickens presented his comfortable readers with a prostitute: "the lowest of the low; dirty, unbonneted, flaunting and slovenly." In his "Visit to Newgate," he took them inside a prison that housed children. "Fourteen terrible little faces we never beheld.—There was not one redeeming feature among them—not a glance of honesty—not a wink expressive of anything but the gallows and the hulks, in the whole collection."

This kind of firsthand experience became central to Dickens's fiction. To write Hard Times, for instance, he traveled to the north to cover a workers' strike. He was no sit-in-the-study author. After writing in the mornings Dickens would take afternoon walks of ten miles or more that returned him to the streets that powered his prose.

Obviously it wasn't just the reporting that made Dickens Dickens. It takes a little more than stenography, and a lot of something called imagination, to spin a 900-page novel. But Dickens's immersion in street life made his novels richer. When a barrister picked up Dickens's work, he saw his servants and his slums. He saw his London.

The stenographer's eye and the novelist's mind gave Dickens the ability—virtually unprecedented—to make the poor seem real. As Gertrude Himmelfarb explains in The Idea of Poverty, this was a time when servants were invisible, even to their masters. When a contemporary critic hailed Dickens's talent for making a "washerwoman as interesting as a duchess," it was a tribute not only to Dickens's wonderful prose, but to his new vision.

After all, one of the main characters in his first lengthy work of fiction, the serial Pickwick Papers, is Sam Weller, a servant. He not only fails to remain invisible; more often than not he seems a good deal wiser than his master. When he first signs on as Pick-wick's valet, the negotiations turn into a "Who's-on-first?" routine that sounds like Weller is hiring Pickwick. Weller still seems in control when Pickwick checks into an inn. After Pickwick stumbles into the wrong bedroom, only to be kicked out by a very unhappy woman, it's Weller who rescues him and guides him to his room. "You rather want somebody to look after you, sir when your judgement goes out a wistin'," Weller chirps. The servant's introduction in the serial's fourth issue sent sales surging.

In his next book, Oliver Twist, and throughout the other novels he was to write until his death in 1870, Dickens stuck to the simple proposition that no class had a monopoly on smarts or morality or decency or humor. This was a revolutionary creed at a time when the affluent saw the poor as a mob—to be feared or appeased, perhaps, but definitely not to be considered as individuals. And the rich were scarcely alone in their class-bound vision. As Dickens was spinning novels, the history of the working class in Manchester was being written by a German emigre named Friedrich Engels.

The idea of Jacobin-style revolution haunted Dickens, who poured his fears into prose in A Tale of Two Cities. In our century of failed revolutions, there's no more haunting or timely image than Dickens's Madame Defarge, knitting by the guillotine. He recognized that, just as the poor weren't all good, the rich weren't all bad. His pages brim with venal landlords, nasty bankers, and callous captains of industry; but good-guy capitalists pop up too. A product of the streets himself, Dickens saw no romance in revolution. It's not the proletariat who overthrew Scrooge, but his conscience.

If Dickens feared revolution, he didn't fall into the opposite trap of forgetting why mobs charged the barricades. He understood that the capitalist society was rife with institutions that kept the poor down. The villains of Hard Times aren't just bad apples, but overlords of a cruel factory system, dehumanizing in the monotony of its work. The tragedies of Bleak House, one of his last and gloomiest books, are found in the systematic injustice of the courts. By challenging these institutions, he made the lawyer or factory owner see that they shared responsibility.

The Idea of Poverty

And when Dickens trained his guns, liberals weren't exempt. The workhouse that Dickens took on in Oliver Twist was one of the most prominent liberal programs of his day. Today it's hard to think of the book's cruel overseers as being progressive. But the Poor Law of 1834 was considered a great liberal victory, one that would segregate the indebted poor and prevent them from dragging their fiscally responsible neighbors into the red. (Talk about the unintended consequences of liberal reform.) When Oliver meekly seeks a double dose of gruel, we see unbridled cruelty. "Enlightened" Victorians saw themselves.

And what they saw was folly. Consider the way that Mr. Bumble—who runs the "progressive" workhouse—understands Oliver's revolt.

"It's meat."

"What?" exclaimed Mrs. Sowerberry.

"Meat, ma'am, meat," replied Bumble, with stern emphasis. "You've over-fed him, ma'am. You've raised a artificial soul and spirit in him, ma'am, unbecoming a person in his condition."

The humor of the scene helps carry its meaning. Had Dickens's criticisms been heavy-handed, as Steven Marcus points out, middle-class readers wouldn't have touched his works. Instead of promoting a specific alternative to the workhouse, he satirized it, appealing to his readers' Christian charity. A second key to Dickens's success is his choice of the symbol of the good child, in Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit or David Copperfield. He tapped the well-springs of protectiveness that cultures can be made to feel for the young. Martin Luther King put that same insight into action when Birmingham school children stared down firehoses and police dogs, leaving us with one of the most arresting images of the civil rights movement.

But even as he skewered institutions, Dickens understood that the poor were often in the wrong themselves. If anything, there's a schism in his writing, dividing what you might call, for lack of better terms, the worthy poor from the unworthy between those who merit our admiration and those who don't.

Winning hands down in the Worthy Category, family division, are the Christmas Carol 's Cratchits. It's not just their "conditions" that make them sympathetic—the fact that they're poor or that Bob Cratchit has a boss like Scrooge or that Tiny Tim needs crutches. It's the family's own nobility that lends the story such power, remake after remake. One clear signal to Victorian readers was the Cratchits' white-glove cleanliness—a paramount virtue at a time when filth was almost always followed by disease. The Cratchits were "darned and brushed" before the Christmas feast. After supper "the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept." In the Cratchits, like Oliver Twist or David Copperfield or Little Dorrit, respectable British middle-class readers found an ideal of themselves.

Meanwhile, a first in Unworthiness might go to the brickmakers of Bleak House, who seem like something out of a documentary on battered wives. We spy them when Mrs. Piggle happens by. "An't my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty—it's nat'rally dirty, and it's nat'rally onwholesome," boasts the father. 'And we've had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them.… And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I giv' it her; and if she says I didn't she's a Lie!" Today, when many liberals still romanticize the poor, Dickens's ability to distinguish poverty from nobility is well worth remembering.

Dickens understood that there were good and bad individuals within every class. But he rarely saw the individuals who were a mixture of good and bad. His heroes and heroines don't whine, don't curse, and even though they're raised in the company of foulmouthed, cockney villains, they speak the King's English. To be sure, his supporting cast could include people like the Peggottys in David Copperfield who were not so well spoken. But they too were practically flawless. This strict division between the worthy and the unworthy poor is more than an aesthetic flaw. It limits Dickens's relevance today.

Dickens makes his readers want to help the deserving poor. And, indeed, the Victorian (and New Deal) reforms that were, in part, inspired by Dickens focused on these able-to-help-themselves characters. Kids who'd be okay if child labor was abolished; workers who'd prosper with a union. This is the story of America through the 1950s: the New Deal and rising prosperity catapult the "worthy" poor into the middle class. Oliver goes to Levittown.

This left behind an underclass that seemed short on lovable Cratchits and long on pregnant teens, drug addicts, and gang members. What we don't have is the popular literature that will jar the affluent into caring about these less savory characters. We don't have the literature that will condemn their faults and recognize that these are people who can be helped. When I worked in a Big Brothers program in New York City, I remember noticing that there was no novel or film that got at the downright weird complexities of those tenements I visited on 102nd Street. I couldn't point to any book that explained how those kids could be such utter failures in school, unable at age 15 to write a single sentence, and still be as sharp and savvy and as alert as any kids I had known growing up in the New Jersey suburbs. There was no film that I could tell my friends about that captured the complexity of those mothers I would meet who'd blow much of their money on VCRs, and HBO, but who were also selfless when it came to helping their kids. There was—and still is—no writer who combines great talent and great popularity and who captures that bizarre marriage of sin and decency I saw in those tenement families.

The Dickens character who most reflects our dilemma is the Artful Dodger, the young pickpocket who befriends Oliver Twist. He's engaging to be sure. The first thing we see him do is take Oliver drinking; by the end, he's in court, trying to sweettalk a magistrate into pardoning him. But he's a side dish. We never understand or care about him the way we care about Oliver. The next Dickens needs to put us not in our Olivers' shoes, but in those of our own Artful Dodgers.

While a new Dickens couldn't cure poverty, he could inspire personal commitment from the middle class. I don't mean the anesthesia of paying for yet another government program, but involvement. And that takes understanding. Public health care won't improve unless talented doctors and nurses want to choose Harlems over Humans, at least for a few years. We won't really become a kinder, gentler nation unless our leaders know something that's true about those on the bottom. But working with or for the poor requires inspiration; it doesn't come naturally. Individuals disappoint. Projects collapse. Easier lives beckon. Great art, as opposed to Brookings reports, can be the spur we need.

In 1945 Lionel Trilling lamented that no writer in his day had done what many of the leading Victorian writers had done—combine great literature and social concern. "In three-four decades, the liberal progressive has not produced a single writer that itself respects and reads with interest. A list of writers in our time shows that liberal progressivism was a matter of indifference to every writer of large mind—Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Mann, Kafka, Yeats." The absence of such a writer may have been a marginal loss in the middle of this century, when the politics of the time were liberal even if the great novelists were not or when poverty seemed like it could be erased simply through economic expansion and a few social reforms. Today when politicians are retreating from helping the poor and growth offers no panacea, we need another Dickens to inspire each of us to help.

I don't know if there will be a single figure—be it a novelist or filmmaker or journalist—who can animate a nation's imagination the way Dickens did, or whether it may take a disparate group, or even an artistic movement. But I'm certain those Dickens-like qualities will not be had by some writer-in-residence strolling the hallowed halls of Haverford. The Dickens mantle demands a life outside the academy, exposed to the real world. It belongs to the writer who can make us care not only about our Tiny Tims but our Artful Dodgers, too.

Robert Sirabian (essay date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Sirabian, Robert. "Dickens's Little Dorrit. " Explicator 54, no. 4 (summer 1996): 216-20.

[In the following essay, Sirabian comments on the character of Flora Finching, positing that she is more fully and deeply drawn than most of Dickens's female characters.]

Dickens's female characters traditionally have been divided into three types: evil (associated with passion or parental neglect); angelic (associated with the selfless devotion to domestic and maternal duties); and comic (associated with silliness). This type of division not only creates a limited conception of gender roles but also oversimplifies Dickens's attitudes toward his female characters and their relationships with men. When we first meet Flora Finching in Little Dorrit, she appears to be another of Dickens's stereotyped comic females; but as Michael Slater points out, "the more we see (and hear) of Flora, and of the genuine kindness and shrewd common sense that lies beneath her foolish manner, the more we come to accept her as a complex and sympathetic human being" (Slater 246). Flora's "foolish manner" is often interpreted as a mental deficiency, but a more careful examination of her character reveals that her capricious dialogues are part of her role-playing.

A central preoccupation in Dickens's personal life, role-playing allows Flora the freedom to explore other selves that social convention and day-to-day duties prohibit. While some Dickensian role players, such as Rigaud, carry their play to extremes—withdrawing from society behind the Dionysian mask of play—Flora's role-playing is a creative means of self-discovery, of challenging her fixed identity as widow and caretaker of her husband's aunt. Rather than remaining trapped as an aging widow within the narrow confines of her father's house, she explores the meanings of selfhood, including possibilities for romantic relationships that still exist for her. Much like Jenny Wren's play world on the rooftop garden in Our Mutual Friend, Flora's play world, created through her role-playing, is an intermediate space linking her past, present, and future where she can—finally, by confronting Arthur—attempt to redefine her existence.

Flora's socially fixed identity as a secluded widow and caretaker conflicts with the buried emotions of her past. Childhood sweethearts who had fallen in love, Flora and Arthur were forcibly separated by Mrs. Clennam and Flora's father because of religious and class differences. After marrying Mr. Finching and becoming his devoted wife until his death, Flora accepts her position as a quiet, self-sacrificing woman while looking after Mr. Finching's aunt. When she meets Arthur again, however, she reveals a different Flora who is trying to make sense of her personal history and find her place in the present. The freedom of role-playing results from her ability to lose herself in her play; yet unlike the schizophrenic, she is still conscious of the world around her. According to Eugen Fink, "[Humans] exist in two spheres simultaneously, not for lack of concentration or out of forgetfulness, but because this double personality is essential to play" (23). Flora's position becomes relational, encompassing not just her past but accounting for the present and future as well.

When she meets Arthur in the novel, Flora recalls for him their past and the way in which they were abruptly separated. Constantly excusing her indulgences in the past and apologizing for addressing Arthur too informally (by his first name), she recreates herself before him, playing the role of a young lover who tries to rekindle the passion of her old companion. As she does this, Arthur notes Flora's joy in recollecting her past life, describing her ebullience as she acts out past roles. Arthur sees her "putting herself and him in their old places, and going through all the old performances—now, when the stage was dusty, when the scenery was faded, when the youthful actors were dead, when the orchestra was empty, when the lights were out" (Dickens 196-97; bk. 1, ch. 13). For Arthur, childhood is unrecoverable, faded like the scene of a performance that can never be replayed; and the emotions and feelings that he and Flora experienced are for practical purposes gone in his mind forever, destroyed by the harshness of the world over which, as children, they had no control. This is not the case with Flora. Although she accepts her duties as a devoted wife and as supporter of Mr. Finching's aunt, she negotiates the limits of a somber past with the possibilities of the present and future. Her acting out of scenes extends her past, like a continuous performance, into the present, allowing her to speculate about buried emotions of desire and love and to recreate her identity as a vibrant woman rather than a devoted caretaker. The play Flora actively engages in allows her to resist the imposition of a dead present and a fixed role within it. Whereas Arthur views their places in society as prescribed and unchangeable, Flora searches for possibilities through play.

Flora's continual self-corrections for "inadvertently" referring to Arthur by his first name rather than using a formal salutation are part of her role-playing, her attempt to revive his feelings and thoughts in order to understand her own. She does not wish to be recognized by Arthur as Mr. Finching's widow or the provider for his aunt, and Flora's continual self-deprecation about her status is her way of undercutting his polite affirmation of her life. In discussing the concept of imitation in play, Hans-Georg Gadamer observes that a child does not dress up in order to be discovered behind a disguise, but rather "intends that what he [or she] represents should exist, and if something is to be guessed, then this is it" (102). Assuming the role of a chattering, playful woman, Flora wants Arthur to see what she represents in the present, but she is not hiding behind a disguise nor is her imitation an end in itself. The dynamics of her play become clear when upon her tetea-tete with Arthur at the counting house in Bleeding Heart Yard, he prepares for the intrusion of her father and Mr. Pancks:

Once more he [Arthur] put his hand frankly to poor Flora; once more poor Flora couldn't accept it frankly, found it worth nothing openly, must make the old intrigue and mystery of it. As much to her own enjoyment as to his dismay, she covered it with a corner of her shawl as she took it … and seeing two figures approaching, she cried with infinite relish, "Papa! Hush, Arthur, for Mercy's sake!" and tottered back to her chair with an amazing imitation of being in danger of swooning, in the dread surprise and maidenly flutter of her spirits.

(318: bk. 1, ch. 24)

Flora's audience is not only Arthur. Playing for her own enjoyment, she delights in acting out roles of the childhood lover and flustered maiden and in distressing Arthur, whose inability to play has deadened him. Her purpose, however, is not simply to imitate a character type but to create a new self composed of unexpressed feelings from the past—feelings whose absence continually redefines her present—and of imaginative possibilities she projects. Rather than a serious, externally driven activity, play, for Flora, is internally driven, a creative exploration of selfhood. Her role-playing is not simple fantasy but rather a mediation of genuine feelings and desires based on an established past and a projected, imaginative present and future.

Flora's exploration of identity is underscored by her language, which is constructed of disjointed clauses linked together with conjunctions and commas. An absence of any perceivable structure to her syntax or of expected grammatical markers makes her intended meaning difficult to grasp, thus characterizing her as foolish or dimwitted. But this perception results because Flora's language, like her identity, resists set structures which would rigidly fix it within social and cultural conventions. Her language is structured around its play of ideas rather than by conventional transitional and grammatical markers. Fred Kaplan notes that both Joyce's Molly Bloom and Flora Finching are fascinated "by the picturesque, by the promise and allure of a reality that will be far more intense than their present accommodations to rather ordinary lives: and in both the strategic use of the conjunction 'and' is basic to the impression of visionary, semiconscious continuity within their discontinuity of syntax and language" (345).

Her understanding of human nature reveals itself in Flora's intuitive and compassionate attitude toward Mr. Finching's aunt. She sees beneath the facade of the old, garrulous woman and responds to her spontaneous outbursts with patience and dignity. Whereas Arthur has no patience for the aunt and views her as an annoyance, Flora understands her. Flora recognizes that the aunt's sudden retorts at the world are her means of self-expression; but unlike her, Flora chooses not to close herself off from the world. The women represent two possibilities, one a retreat into the self and the other an exploration of the self. With Amy's marriage to Arthur, Flora must accept the "closing scene" between herself and Arthur. Although she sincerely wishes them well, she leaves the novel with an air of despondency. Her relationship with Arthur is resolved, but her future is still undetermined. Whether or not she experiences the romance of her youth again, she will not, like Mr. Finching's aunt, become withdrawn from the world. Flora is one of Dickens's women characters who is realized as a complex human being rather than serving as a comic type, or as an example of dutiful womanhood, such as Agnes Wickfield in David Copperfield. Resisting the resolution of Victorian closure, Flora remains within the realm of play, reenacting the faded scenes of her past as she explores and redefines her identity beyond the confines of Dickens's novel.

Works Cited

Dickens. Charles. Little Dorrit. Ed. John Holloway. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

Fink, Eugen. "The Oasis of Happiness: Toward an Ontology of Play." Trans. Ute and Thomas Saine. Yale French Studies 41 (1968): 19-30.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad, 1975.

Kaplan, Fred. "Dickens's Flora Finching and Joyce's Molly Bloom." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 23 (1968): 343-46.

Slater, Michael. Dickens and Women. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1983.

Catherine J. Golden (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Golden, Catherine J. "Late-Twentieth-Century Readers in Search of a Dickensian Heroine: Angels, Fallen Sisters, and Eccentric Women." Modern Language Studies 30, no. 2 (fall 2000): 5-19.

[In the following essay, Golden offers a critical analysis of Dickens's stereotypes of women.]

A paradox confronts late-twentieth-century readers examining the novels of Charles Dickens. Dickens's skill in narration, description, multiplot structure, and imagery merit our scrupulous attention. Works including Oliver Twist (1838), A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1850), and Hard Times (1854) present a Dickens who is progressive in his treatment of children, the poor, and education. The meanspiritedness of Scrooge's outrage when refusing to provide for the destitute still stings: "'Are there no prisons?'… 'And the Union workhouses?' … 'Are they still in operation?'" (25). Thomas Gradgrind's opening lines of Hard Times —"'Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else'" (47)—indelibly implant the importance of progressive education. Noteworthy also is Dickens's awareness of the victimization of women by villainous men, whom he created in the likes of the vicious robber Bill Sikes of Oliver Twist and the repulsive, menacing dwarf, Daniel Quilp, of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). Women's connection to violence becomes more perturbing and timely when we consider Dickens's portrayals of women berating and even disfiguring other women within the perimeter of his novels. However, Dickens's depictions of women in these and other of his works seem startling lacking and thoroughly steeped in the traditional views of his times.

Different from contemporary women authors—particularly Charlotte Brontë, who offers spirited Jane of Jane Eyre (1847), or George Eliot, who provides spunky, strong-willed Maggie Tulliver of The Mill on the Floss (1860)—Dickens idealizes the angelic woman. As Patricia Ingham and Merryn Williams note, respectively, in Dickens, Women, & Language (1992) and Women in the English Novel, 1800-1900 (1984), Dickens's female characters fit easily into categorized types. Any fictional type, or composite of characteristics, when imposed on a character by an author, may well reinforce and reflect not only the beliefs of the author but prevailing cultural assumptions, in this case surrounding gender. Drawing examples from text and illustration, I group Dickensian women into three types that resonate in Victorian literature: angels, fallen sisters, and eccentrics. My categories differ from Ingham's and Williams's and do not intend to be comprehensive.1 If we evaluate these models of womanhood according to the Victorian society which fostered as well as criticized them, we can better understand why each leaves modern readers dissatisfied. All three types of Dickensian women pose problems for late-twentieth-century readers in search of a viable Dickensian heroine. While still not satisfying to modern readers, the eccentric woman emerges as the most intriguing of the Dickensian types, revealing an inversion in values of Victorian culture and today.

Agnes Wickfield of David Copperfield, Dickens's favorite novel, ideally represents the Victorian angel in the house. She epitomizes Dickens's ideal woman, a rich reward for every man as well as for David, his fictionalized self and most beloved character. The Dickensian angel demonstrates a model of womanhood, exceedingly popular in the 1840s and 50s, that seems too saccharine, self-effacing, and domestic to a late-twentieth-century readership. Often associated with the stained glass windows of a church, Agnes is ever pointing David upward to higher things. Acting as surrogate wife to her rapidly deteriorating father and sister to David, Agnes embodies the qualities of the angel in the house, immortalized in Coventry Patmore's sequence of poems The Angel in the House (1854-63): patience, unselfishness, earnestness, faithfulness, and devotion.

Agnes and those Dickensian angels who stand behind her also match George Elgar Hicks's depiction of the prototype in Woman's Mission: Companion to Manhood (1863). Hicks designed this canvas as part of a trilogy to illustrate three phases of a woman's duties of ministering angel: tending her infant son, comforting her husband, and ministering to her father in old age.2 Dressed in a demure rich-brown taffeta gown ornamented with lace, Hicks's feminine, supportive, and devoted wife sympathetically ministers to her husband within the orderly haven she has created for him on earth. This now cloying narrative painting tells the story of a wife, who, as country singers might croon today, is "standing by her man" during his hour of trial; upon receiving news of a bereavement, he covers his face with his right hand to conceal his emotion. Hicks takes pains to show how neatly and carefully this loving and attentive wife, in fulfilling her mission as "companion to manhood," has arranged the breakfast things including the morning mail, which carries a black-edged envelope, bringing her husband the devastating news of death.

The selfless Victorian angel approaches the divine on earth by functioning as the holy refuge for her brother, father, or husband, all of whom, in most cases, do not deserve her. Still, the angelic Dickensian woman offers unconditional love and support to her less moral male counterpart even if he unquestionably burdens her until he dies, as in the case of Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend (1865); scorns her, as Florence Dombey's father does in Dombey and Son (1848); and nearly ruins her life until he finally reforms, as in the case of Agnes Wickfield of David Copperfield. Dickens also ties the morality of ideal womanhood to hearth and home; Agnes creates a haven for Mr. Wickfield despite the fact that his love for his child, by his own admission, becomes "'diseased'" (708). Dickens takes pains to describe how Agnes "set glasses for her father, and a decanter of port wine" (195), or how "Agnes made the tea, and presided over it" (195). Rarely does Agnes venture from the home despite the taint imbued by the growing incompetence of her father. And the novel rewards her richly. The final lines pay a tribute to David's "'good Angel'" (312); David praises Agnes's "Heavenly light" (737), ever pointing him "upward!" until his own death, which he imagines in the final paragraph of the novel (737).

Yet, as Nina Auerbach notes in her harsh critique of Dickens's Agnes, David's good angel is an "immobilized angel" (84), an "unmoved mover, pointing others upward though static herself" (85). Along with the Victorians' beloved Little Nell Trent of The Old Curiosity Shop, Agnes has been received distastefully by readers today. Ever repressing her love for David until he finally confesses his love for her, Agnes remains steadfast to a father who succumbs to drink and loses the family business to despicable Uriah Heep, who moves into her home, sleeps in David's old room, and lusts after her. At what cost, today's readers cannot help but question, does Dickens ultimately grant Agnes a reward for her patience and goodness? Dickens does not consider this question. Likewise, the accompanying illustrations—often telling counter clues in nineteenth-century novels3—never even hint at Agnes's suffering. Hablot Knight Browne intensifies the Victorian image of the angel in the house that Dickens presents. He consistently pictures Agnes in passive roles that, we can imagine, might well have inwardly riled her: smiling among the guests at David's marriage to another woman in "I Am Married," and sitting demurely as the slimy Uriah Heep lingers around her in "Uriah Persists in Hovering Near Us, at the Dinner Party." Her composure in these images matches that in her final depiction, "A Stranger Calls to See Me", where she sits contentedly in the family parlor, surrounded by her husband and children. Agnes holds an open book on her lap, suggesting her role as moral teacher for her children as well as her beloved David, whom she ever points upward. Fittingly, the mantel contains a symmetrically placed pair of angel figurines.

Agnes is but one of many Dickensian angels: Little Nell of The Old Curiosity Shop, Rose Maylie of Oliver Twist, Florence Dombey of Dombey and Son, Esther Summerson of Bleak House (1853), Lucie Manette of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend (1865) also appear to be Dickensian saints, to varying degrees. In Dickens's oeuvre, the fragile wax doll, Dora Spenlow of David Copperfield par excellence, typically withers away while Dickens frees and thus rewards the stronger angelic woman when her male counterpart reforms or dies. But such is not the case with Little Nell Trent, another early Dickensian angel whom Dickens ardently embraced. Like Agnes, Little Nell is burdened with the care of an aged parent, in this case, her grandfather, a gambler who, unlike Agnes's father, never reforms. Nothing is more drippingly poignant, albeit maudlin by today's standards, than Dickens's narration of Little Nell's death; her fate was so grave a matter of public concern in 1841 that throngs of Americans lined the pier in New York City awaiting the final installment, shouting out to the crew to learn the answer even before the boat from England reached the shore. Dickens writes of her death in a manner that supposedly brought Thomas Carlyle to tears: "No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death" (652). George Cattermole, in his illustration of "Little Nell Dead," emphasizes Nell's "freshness," beauty, and calm that seemingly transcends her saintly death.

Unlike Agnes, Nell becomes a homeless angel for much of the novel. Still, in true angelic fashion, she remains strong and purposeful throughout her pilgrimage plagued by disaster until the final third of the novel when her strength gives way.4 In this respect, another early Victorian angel, Rose Maylie of Oliver Twist, offers an interesting counterpoint to Little Nell. Dickens burdens the ever sweet and good Rose Maylie with an unknown parentage and a fear of illegitimacy, much as he does Esther Summerson of Bleak House. Unlike Little Nell, however, Dickens spares Rose from a near-fatal illness and blesses her in marriage to the honorable Harry Maylie.5

The Dickensian angelic ideal persisted for two decades with Lucie Manette of A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Early in A Tale of Two Cities, we are introduced to a young lady with blue eyes and "a quantity of golden hair" (29), akin to George Eliot's Eppie of Silas Marner (1861). These qualities accentuate Lucie's angelic nature at a time when external beauty was readily linked to inner goodness. Lucie remains loyal and devoted to her father, Dr. Manette, freed from his cruel imprisonment in the Bastille. Before she marries Charles Evrémonde, called Darnay, Lucie professes to her father, "'I am deeply happy in the love that Heaven has so blessed—my love for Charles, and Charles's love for me. But, if my life were not to be still consecrated to you, or if my marriage were so arranged as that it would part us, even by the length of a few of these streets, I should be more unhappy and self-reproachful now than I can tell you'" (188). Ever an angel, golden-haired Lucy suffers the loss of a beloved son and, too, "stands by her man" as he faces sure death by the Parisian guillotine for the sins of his Evrémonde forefathers.

Williams suggests that, as Dickens's career progressed, he grew aware that interest in his angelic heroines was dwindling. Perhaps that is why in his last two novels, Our Mutual Friend (1865) and the unfinished Edwin Drood, we see Dickens toying with the creation of a new type of woman more satisfactory to readers today (Williams 85-87). Lizzie Hexam departs from her angelic sisters in her courage despite her poverty as well as in her physical strength and responsibility. She is stalked by two dangerous men who are tortured in their love for her, as the 1998 PBS presentation of Our Mutual Friend so well conveys. When the self-destructive, rejected suitor, Bradley Headstone, attempts to murder his rival, Eugene Wrayburn, a careless and insolent barrister, Lizzie—"as if possessed by supernatural spirit and strength" (769)—heroically lifts Eugene's body from the river and saves him. Marcus Stone's compelling opening illustration entitled "The Bird of Prey" shows a progression in the angelic ideal: a steadfast, strong-looking, able Lizzie rows her father in a boat on the Thames. But in contrast, her final depiction tending the dying Eugene Wrayburn in "Eugene's Bedside" echoes the popular iconography of the good Samaritan. Stone transforms Lizzie into an angel, matching Browne's and Dickens's Agnes in softness and compassion and intensifying the still pervasive ideal of angelic Victorian womanhood. Even in her early characterization in the novel, Lizzie conforms to type in her devotion to her ungrateful brother Charley and her trying father Gaffer, a boatman who drags the Thames for corpses. As Lizzie Hexam selflessly declares, "'The harder father is borne upon, the more he needs me to lean on'" (113). Her tempered reward is marriage to Eugene Wrayburn, who reforms only after an extreme test.

Not only angels but fallen women who transgress sexual norms abound in Dickensian fiction. David Copperfield contains both Emily Peggotty and Martha Endell, a fallen woman whom Hablot Knight Browne illustrates in "The River," walking among the blackened sewage of the Thames. Browne's depiction of Martha reflects the cultural regard for the fallen woman. Billowing industrial smoke stacks form a fitting backdrop for the now sullied Martha, who contemplates taking her life by drowning herself in the polluted river.

Dickens often created minor characters who mirror the virtuous and the fallen; just as angelic Sophy Traddles accentuates Agnes Wickfield's goodness, Martha Endell underscores Emily Peggotty's fall. The chapter titles alone convey Dickens's scorn for Little Em'ly, who spurns the love of the honest Ham Peggotty to run off with James Steerforth, David's "'bad Angel'" (312), or so Agnes calls him. Chapter XXX, "A Loss," describes the death of Peggotty's husband, Barkis, but Dickens entitles Chapter XXXI, chronicling Emily's fall and resulting disgrace, "A Greater Loss." Dickens foreshadows the severity of Emily's fall twenty-eight chapters earlier when a reflective David, remembering how little Em'ly came dangerously close to falling into the sea, ponders: "There has been a time since—I do not say it lasted long, but it has been—when I have asked myself the question, would it have been better for little Em'ly to have had the waters close above her head that morning in my sight; and when I have answered Yes, it would have been" (39). Though David's judgment is severe, Daniel Peggotty devotes his life to Emily and saves her with the help of the fallen Martha and David. But there is no place for Emily or Martha in Dickens's Victorian world. Banishment to Australia becomes the punishment for sinning sexually, and Dickens denies Emily marriage, despite her offers. Of love, Emily sadly states, "'that's gone for ever'" (730). Dickens leaves Emily alive but perpetually penitent, spending her days teaching children, tending to the sick, and caring for her devoted uncle, her sexuality permanently sublimated in a bond of non-sexual love.

Oliver Twist provides a bleaker death for the fallen Nancy, Rose Maylie's saintly sister, whose depiction is compromised by George Cruikshank's inability to draw an attractive woman. The original chapter heading of "Two Sister-Women" makes explicit Nancy's and Rose's relative status of sister to each other and Oliver. Never waning is Dickens's regard for the saintly prostitute, who seemingly assuaged the consciences of his middle-class readers through her loyalty to and love for a middle-class child. When Dickens was working through the idea of making Rose Maylie Nancy's saintly counterpart,6 he was already saddled with Cruikshank's unconvincing interpretation of Nancy.7 In "Oliver Claimed by His Affectionate Friends," a broad-nosed, wide-mouthed, squat-faced, slovenly Nancy grabs Oliver by the arm, much as vicious Sikes does. Dickens explains that Nancy carries "a little basket and a street-door key in her hand" (93) to appear respectable enough to pose as Oliver's sister, but these and her clean white apron in the illustration "Oliver Claimed" become costume props accentuating her dishonesty.

In Twist, as in Copperfield, we witness a bonding between the fallen woman and her angelic sister. Much as Agnes comforts Emily before she sails to Australia, Rose, likewise, tries to save Nancy by offering to help her find refuge in a safer world. But Nancy, remaining loyal to her robber lover, dies brutally at the hands of Bill Sikes. As Sikes strikes her down, Nancy holds Rose Maylie's own white handkerchief "as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, [and] breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker" (303). A saintly Nancy exits the novel as Rose's double, bonded to her through their loyalty to and love for Oliver.

The relationship between the fallen woman and her angelic sister in both novels satisfies the contemporary feminist reader, who celebrates the bonds of sisterhood bridging angelic purity and fallen sexuality.8 The bonds are broken in both cases through banishment or death, a fate conforming to the standard treatment of the fallen woman. Dickens is not alone in punishing the fallen woman, but in David's refusal to see or touch Emily after she sins sexually, we witness Dickens's judgment of the fallen woman, which is harsher than that of Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. All these writers who sympathetically present the fallen woman in fiction were well aware that an element of Victorian society did not allow for a distinction between a prostitute and a young woman who made one mistake. In her controversial Ruth (1853), Gaskell gives Ruth Hilton a second chance after her disgrace and allows her illegitimate child—proof of her fall—to live; although ultimately punished by death, Ruth dies as a good Samaritan, her illness resulting from nursing the very man who seduced her. Hardy and Eliot compound illicit sexuality with murder in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Adam Bede (1859), respectively. Killing her seducer, Hardy's Tess Durbeyfield hangs, and Eliot's Hetty Sorrel—guilty of infanticide—escapes the gallows but dies years later in transportation after long suffering. Through Dickens's Nancy, more than Emily, we see Dickens challenging what critic George Watt refers to as the dichotomy of two classes of women,9 which persisted throughout the nineteenth century—the virtuous and the fallen. Dickens suggests that Nancy, with a kind benefactor, might have been a Rose Maylie. Nonetheless, punishment for both erring women is swift and unalterable, aggrandizing the view of the fallen woman in Victorian culture, replete with sternness and Christian morality.

Today, Dickens's fallen women appear as victims of a now dated and easily discarded sexual and moral code sacrosanct to the Victorians and to an extent upheld by Dickens himself. Also dated, Dickens's angels may well bore modern readers, some of whom find their saccharine natures distasteful. However, Dickens's gallery of eccentric women proves more interesting to a late-twentieth-century readership. I place in this category "redundant" women and those widowed or perceived as celibate, as in the case of Betsey Trotwood. Although Madame Defarge of A Tale of Two Cities is married, she, too, belongs in this group alongside the beautiful though scarred Rosa Dartle of David Copperfield, for both characters exude a terrible rage that ultimately consumes them.10

Youngest sister of the peasant family grossly injured by the wealthy Evrémondes, Madame Defarge seemingly has no heart and so anticipates the creation of Estella of Great Expectations (1861). Michael Slater suggests that in the character of Madame Defarge, "Woman's apparently endless capacity for devotion to those she loves is made to turn into devotion to revenge, devotion not to life but to death, and she becomes then fearful indeed" (355-56). The ferocity of Madame Defarge's knitting throughout the novel—and her very act of knitting the names of those to be executed when the revolution falls—undercuts the gendered connotation of hand work, turning Thérèse Defarge into a fearful and deadly character. In "The Wine-Shop," Hablot Knight Browne depicts Madame Defarge as a beautiful though harsh and brooding woman consumed by her knitting. Noteworthy is the way Browne exerts his artistic influence in the depiction of this excessive female who here averts eye contact with the spy who has entered their shop: he decidedly sharpens her mouth in this illustration and "The Double Recognition." Late in the novel, Dickens justifies her hate: "imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress" (353-54); but he continues more judgmentally about her: "She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her" (354).

Madame Defarge's harshness radiates most brilliantly when refusing Lucie Manette's plea for her imprisoned husband: "'As a wife and mother,' cried Lucie, most earnestly, 'I implore you to have pity on me and not to exercise any power that you possess against my innocent husband, but to use it in his behalf. O sister-woman, think of me. As a wife and mother!'" (266). In turn, Madame Defarge stares at Lucie "coldly as ever" (266). In spurning the triple entreaties of the Dickensian angel, who begs forgiveness as a wife, mother, and sister-woman, the unsisterly Defarge grows monstrous to her Victorian readers. Moreover, Dickens places this critical scene well before he divulges the real reason for her rage, which might have softened reader response. Defarge's cruelty to the angelic Lucie, an innocent of her own sex, contrasts sharply to the bonding that occurs between Dickens's angels and their fallen sisters, as the cases of Rose and Nancy and Agnes and Emily convey. Interestingly, Madame Defarge meets a brutal death in battle with another eccentric woman, Miss Pross, Lucie's devoted companion. Defarge disfigures Pross, who, though victorious, emerges with her hair torn, her face bearing the deep marks of Defarge's "griping fingers" (361). To ensure her cherished Lucie's escape from Paris (along with her father, husband, and child), Miss Pross acts with more ferocity than the "tigress" and defeats Defarge; as Dickens concludes, "the vigorous tenacity of love, [is] always so much stronger than hate" (360).

Like Madame Defarge, Rosa Dartle has a reason for her rage. On first meeting Rosa, David cannot help but linger on the scar that disfigures her beautiful face; Steerforth caused this injury, which becomes an ever constant reminder of her tormented love for him. Upon the death of her father, Rosa becomes companion to her distant relation, the widowed Mrs. Steerforth, but she lusts after James Steerforth, who spurns her. Although Rosa stands demurely alongside the commanding Mrs. Steerforth in "Mr. Peggotty and Mrs. Steerforth" when Peggotty demands that Steerforth raise up the fallen Emily, Rosa's eyes glow darkly with anger. Interestingly, Browne makes her scar barely visible in this depiction, and we grow fascinated, rather, by her beauty and her outrage. From a late-twentieth-century vantage point, the consuming fire of passion that Rosa Dartle and Madame Defarge both exhibit offers modern readers more light than any Dickensian angel can shed.

As in A Tale of Two Cities, the eccentric Rosa spars with her sister-woman, in this case the fallen Emily, who becomes the object of Rosa's passionate rage. Ironically, however, Rosa gains no triumph in her fury during her long sought after confrontation with Emily, whom she refers to as "'This piece of pollution'" (605-06) and "'James Steerforth's fancy'" (604). In her rage, Dickens describes her as having "a face of such malignity, so darkened and disfigured by passion" (606). Akin to Madame Defarge's treatment of Lucie Manette, Rosa sneers at Emily's entreaties to a commonality of "'our sex'" (604) and declares "'I would have this girl whipped to death'" (606). When she strikes at Emily, however, her "blow, which had no aim, fell upon the air" (606). Much as he does with Little Em'ly, Dickens sublimates the sexuality of the attractive, yet disfigured Rosa Dartle, locking her away in a nonsexual bond with her aging, mourning companion, Mrs. Steerforth. David concludes: "Thus I leave them; thus I always find them; thus they wear their time away, from year to year" (735). Frozen in time like Miss Havisham, Mrs. Steerforth and Rosa Dartle live longing for the dead, unworthy Steerforth, who, after his deception with Emily, fascinates David no more.

The repugnancy of unrequited love in a woman, which Dickens scorns in Rosa Dartle, seems even more potent in the character of Miss Havisham of Great Expectations (1861).11 Time-frozen Miss Havisham appears as vengeful as Rosa Dartle and Madame Defarge. But she cannot easily be dismissed as "the last figure in Dickens's work to illustrate the perversion of womanhood that can be brought about by the passions" (293), as Michael Slater characterizes her. Miss Havisham, like her eccentric sisters, has a vengeance that burns in her as strongly as a tigress. Dickens gives her "such a disagreeable laugh" (122) and a repugnant plan to make Estella wreak her own revenge on men. He repeatedly points out that Miss Havisham takes "malignant enjoyment" (122) in torturing Pip with the unattainableness of Estella. However, Dickens creates moments of sympathy for Miss Havisham, such as when he divulges how she was tricked by her unworthy, dishonest lover. We cannot but marvel at Pip's fascination and constant devotion to Miss Havisham even after discovering his real benefactor. Almost like a character in a Grimm's fairy tale, Miss Havisham burrows herself away from the world and fascinates and haunts us as much as she does Pip, who risks his own life to rescue her from a fire. In her obsession with man-hating, more alluring to a feminist readership today than a Victorian one; in her ability to stop time—a fantasy many of us share in our fast-paced technological world; and in her financial independence, leaving her free from reliance on any male—Miss Havisham illustrates not a "perversion of [angelic] womanhood," but an eccentric type of Dickensian woman who captivates modern readers and viewers, as Anne Bancroft's and Charlotte Rampling's recent performances in adaptations of Great Expectations reveal.

Another financially independent, eccentric woman, Betsey Trotwood of David Copperfield rants about donkeys and blatantly prefers girls. But, unlike Miss Havisham, Betsey Trotwood transforms before our eyes into a loyal, likeable character because of her nonconformity, as witnessed by her commitment to the crazed Mr. Dick and David. She at first rejects David for not being a girl and so foreshadows Miss Havisham's anger toward men in Great Expectations. However, she could also be considered an early feminist who tries to stop her young maids from marrying and, thus, repeating her own foolish mistake by wedding an unworthy man (whom she has the strength to desert but secretly supports). Betsey Trotwood takes David in, saves him from the murderous Murdstones, guides his education, and keeps him from "forming" Dora and, thus, not repeating the wrongs his stepfather committed against his fragile mother, Clara. Williams asserts that it is "possible to argue that Betsey Trotwood is the real heroine of this novel" (83), and so she may appear to some readers today. Dickens's Miss Betsey does not match the angelic heroines in grace and beauty, however, and has a firmness about her manner that frightens the fragile Clara Copperfield. Dickens describes Miss Betsey as a "tall, hard-featured lady" though he admits she is "by no means ill-looking," that "her features were rather handsome than otherwise, though unbending and austere" (170). Likewise, Browne depicts the hardness in her features and not the handsome qualities, as "The Momentous Interview" conveys. Aunt Betsey's posture and facial features—particularly her hawk-like nose accentuated through profile—make her seem "unbending and austere" and manly. While her firmness reflects a strength of character necessary to confront David's would-be murderers and contrasts strongly with the kindly and humorous muse on Mr. Dick's face, only the painting of the good Samaritan adorning her drawing room wall speaks to the kinder nature of Aunt Betsey, who becomes David's true protectress.

Do late-twentieth-century readers who admire Dickens's progressive agenda for reform in education and child labor prefer the eccentric type of woman who glows with a passion of revenge, even though, in many cases, Dickens scorns her as sexually unpleasing? While Dickens's eccentric characters might well fascinate modern readers, does this type, or any of his types, truly satisfy? The Miss Betseys, Madame Defarges, and Rosa Dartles are deficient in Dickens's eyes. Given Dickens's obsession with their oddities and failings as well their thwarted ventings of anger toward their fictional sisters, they cannot truly appear as heroines in the eyes of a feminist readership today.

Do we pity the fallen sisters who end up befriended but banished or dead? While some might embrace them as victims of an arcane morality, might we concomitantly recognize residues of this same stern judgmental view within factions of our more progressive society today? Emily's fall is seemingly a result of what we now refer to as date rape. The punishments for Emily and Dickens's other fallen women, harsher than those meted by his contemporaries, lead us to question the sternness of their creator despite his active involvement in safe houses for prostitutes and his help in the emigration of many fallen sisters.

As Nina Auerbach notes in Woman and the Demon, "We no longer adore angels; we do not even like them, dismissing them impatiently as soggy dilutions of human complexity" (64). Dickens's angelic Agnes, steeped in repression of feeling, would likely not find her true love in today's world while Eliot's Maggie Tulliver, unburdened by the rigid codes of morality, and Brontë's Jane Eyre, already blessed with the ability to seek her true love, would surely thrive.

Recent adaptations of Dickens's fiction, including Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations, suggest that Dickens's novels with their multiplot structures, rich narration, and vivid description still intrigue readers today. But our "great expectations" are not met when it comes to Dickensian women. From a late-twentieth-century vantage point, Dickens's stereotypical presentations of angels, fallen sisters, and eccentric women regrettably leave us in search of a viable heroine.


  1. Ingham's categories in Dickens, Women, & Language include "nubile girls," "fallen girls," "excessive females," "passionate women," and "true mothers." Williams's categories in Women in the English Novel, 1800-1900 include "shrews," "adventuresses," "old maids," "heroines," and "new women."
  2. Woman's Mission: Companion to Manhood is located in the Tate Gallery. The two flanking panels (now lost) are entitled The Guide of Childhood and The Comfort of Old Age. Hicks wrote on the subject: "I presume no woman will make up her mind to remain single, it is contrary to nature." The painting and this quote appear in Susan B. Casteras, Images of Victorian Womanhood in English Art, 50-52.
  3. Consider, for example, Thackeray's images for his self-illustrated Vanity Fair (1848). He refuses to condemn his "heroine" Becky Sharp of adultery or committing murder in the text, but, as author-illustrator, he twice draws her in compromising images playing the part of the murderess Clytemnestra.
  4. Dickens writes further of Nell's death: "When Death strikes down the innocent and young, … a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it. Of every tear that sorrowing mortals shed on such green graves, some good is born, some gentler nature comes" (659). Whereas A Christmas Carol 's Scrooge repents, sparing the life of Tiny Tim, Nell's grandfather cannot be led away from temptation despite his pilgrimage, which Nell initiates when Quilp seizes his shop due to debt.
  5. Like other Dickensian angels, Rose's character seems flat and static. Her depiction suffers, in part, because of George Cruikshank's inability to draw an attractive women. In "Rose Maylie and Oliver," a dignified, slender, and well-bred though inert and passive Rose rests a willowy hand gently on Oliver's shoulder. As pictured, she possesses Little Nell's inertness without her freshness. Her goodness in returning Oliver to his rightful home and family seems more richly rewarded in the text when Oliver exclaims: "'Not aunt,'… 'I'll never call her aunt—sister, my own dear sister, that something taught my heart to love so dearly from the first! Rose, dear, darling Rose!" (337).
  6. See Dickens's letter of 1837 quoted in Oliver Twist, The Clarendon Dickens, xxxv-xxxvi.
  7. In her introduction to Oliver Twist, The Clarendon Dickens, xxxvi, Kathleen Tillotson suggests Dickens would doubtlessly have criticized Cruikshank's portrayal of Nancy had he conceived the women as a pair sooner.
  8. For another example of such a pairing, consider Esther Summerson and her true "fallen" mother Lady Dedlock of Bleak House. However, as Michael Slater notes in Dickens and Women (263), Lady Dedlock never laments like a fallen woman in true melodramatic fashion, as Emily Peggotty does. Such a connection also exists in other fallen woman fiction by George Eliot (e.g. Adam Bede) and Thomas Hardy (e.g. Tess of the D'Urbervilles).
  9. For more discussion of this dichotomy of the virtuous and the fallen and the finality of the fall, see George Watt's "Introduction" in The Fallen Woman in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel, 1-10.
  10. Barbara Black pairs these Dickensian women with Miss Wade of Little Dorritt (1857) in an essay entitled "A Sisterhood of Rage and Beauty: Dickens' Rosa Dartle, Miss Wade, and Madame Defarge" published in Dickens Studies Annual 26 (1998): 91-106. I recommend it to the reader interested in Dickens's depictions of women.
  11. Great Expectations appeared in Charles Dickens's magazine All the Year Round without illustrations. Marcus Stone was commissioned to illustrate the novel when it appeared in volume form.

Works Cited and Consulted

Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Black, Barbara. "A Sisterhood of Rage and Beauty: Dickens' Rosa Dartle, Miss Wade, and Madame Defarge." Dickens Studies Annual 26 (1998): 91-106.

Casteras, Susan P. Images of Victorian Womanhood in English Art. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London; Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1987.

Cox, Don Richard, ed. Sexuality and Victorian Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967.

———. David Copperfield. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1990.

———. Dombey and Son. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

———. Great Expectations. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

———. Hard Times. New York: Penguin, 1976.

———. The Old Curiosity Shop. New York: Penguin, 1984.

———. Oliver Twist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

———. Oliver Twist. The Clarendon Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

———. Our Mutual Friend. New York: Penguin, 1976.

———. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Ingham, Patricia. Dickens, Women, & Language. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. "From Outrage to Rage: Dickens's Bruised Femininity." Dickens and Other Victorians. Ed. Joanne Shattock. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988. 75-96.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Slater, Michael. Dickens and Women. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983.

Watt, George. The Fallen Woman in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. London: Croom Helm; Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Nobles Books, 1984.

Welsh, Alexander. From Copyright to Copperfield. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Williams, Merryn. Women in the English Novel, 1800-1900. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Edward Achorn (essay date 20 December 2000)

SOURCE: Achorn, Edward. "Charles Dickens Trashes America." Providence Journal (20 December 2000): K6252.

[In the following essay, Achorn recounts Dickens's trip to America and his reaction to it.]

In 1842, only one year before he wrote A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens came to America. To say he took the country by storm is a gross understatement. Beatlemania, circa 1964, paled by comparison.

"There never was a king or emperor upon the earth so cheered and followed by the crowds, and entertained in public at splendid balls and dinners, and waited on by public bodies and deputations of all kinds," Dickens boasted in a letter to a friend. "You cannot imagine what it is."

In 1842, "Boz" was a revered figure in this country. Regarded as far more than a wonderful storyteller, Dickens seemed to be the very voice of kindness, good humor and benevolence. Unlike other literary gentlemen, he gave struggling, unsophisticated people an even break—the kind of people America had in abundance, despite its astonishingly high literacy rate. Like the reformed Scrooge, Dickens seemed a man of whom it might have been said that he honored Christmas in his heart—its ideals of joy, familial love and unstinting dedication to the poor. Who would understand America better?

He came here expecting to adore the country as much as its people adored him.

When he departed five months later, he was filled with loathing, and he poured his disgust into a book called American Notes, which I have finally gotten around to reading. (For some reason, despite perennial bouts of acute Carol poisoning, I am drawn to Dickens at Christmas time.)

It is interesting to follow a great writer, whose artistic genius is not unworthy of comparison to Shakespeare, making his way through some familiar haunts: from Boston, to Lowell, to Worcester, to Hartford (somehow missing Providence). But I can see how Americans of the 1840s were hurt and disappointed by American Notes. It is disheartening to find this writer of seemingly infinite broadmindedness, generosity and comic invention becoming increasingly smug, and small, and haughty, and even dull as he goes along. The Dickens sparkle is nowhere to be found in the book.

Not that many of his criticisms of America do not ring true, even 160 years later.

Dickens, for example, was appalled by the barbaric manner in which rushed, bloated Americans wolfed down their food, later writing this scene into the novel Martin Chuzzlewit : "All the knives and forks were working away at a rate that was quite alarming; very few words were spoken; and everybody seemed to eat his utmost in self-defense, as if a famine were expected.… Great heaps of indigestible matter melted away as ice before the sun."

Could anyone who has visited McDonald's say we are all that different today?

He described Congress thusly: "I saw in them, the wheels that move the meanest perversion of virtuous Political Machinery that the worst tools ever wrought. Despicable trickery at elections; underhanded tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers; shameful trucklings to mercenary knaves … in a word, Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and unblushing form, stared out from every corner of the crowded hall." As a reporter who covered Congress for years, and has seen it grow worse since, I can attest to the accuracy of that description.

He noticed that Americans talked of little but politics, especially of the presidency: "The great constitutional feature of this institution being, that directly the acrimony of the last election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins." (Note that, hours after the long Bush-Gore struggle was settled last week, speculation about the 2004 run was already percolating.)

He was revolted by Americans' constant spitting—on streets, in restaurants, on parlor rugs ("I can bear anything but filth," he said). He hated Americans' fondness for toasty heating, which in his view made rooms and railroad cars insufferably hot and stuffy. He was alarmed by their tendency to settle disputes with violence, and by their inordinate love of guns. He was offended by their overweening curiosity about strangers, and their boldness in asking questions, which he considered presumptuous and ill-mannered. He didn't like Americans' crude obsession with making money, and their willingness to get it by honest means or otherwise. After assiduously courting their admiration, he was offended by Americans' obsession with celebrity.

He found the slave states especially grim, pervaded by an atmosphere of "decay and gloom." To slave owners who insisted it was in their own financial interest to treat their slaves well, he retorted: "It is not in a man's interest to get drunk, or to steal, or to game, or to indulge in any other vice, but he did indulge in it for all that."

By the end of the trip, he was fulminating about the ugliness of pioneer cabins on the frontier. He thought the Mississippi River "intolerable" and "slimy" and trusted he would never see it again, "saving in troubled dreams and nightmares." When he got to a great prairie, he saw only dreary flatness.

Most of all, he detested the unbridled freedom of the American press, which he thought brought shame on American institutions and encouraged only unscrupulous men to seek office. But this hatred is the key to the whole book, I think, because the American press offended Dickens' fragile ego by criticizing him early on in the trip.

It happened when Dickens, rising to speak during lavish dinners in his honor, ripped into American publishers for printing "pirated" editions of British books without paying writers or owners of the material for the privilege. He was right, of course. But America was in the grip of a terrible depression. Prices for books had plunged, publishers had radically cut production or been forced into bankruptcy, and thousands of working printers had lost their jobs. Some in the press found it outrageous that a phenomenally rich author would complain bitterly at that moment, while being feted and worshipped, that he was not making more money. In his book, Dickens did not mention the controversy that so deeply wounded his feelings.

American Notes made Dickens money, but it harmed his reputation. The great British historian William Macauley refused to review it, calling it "at once frivolous and dull." The prestigious Quarterly Review called it insipid, and denounced the "arrogant selfishness" of its author. On these shores, the reaction was worse. The mighty New York Herald said the book revealed a "coarse, vulgar, impudent and superficial" mind, and condemned the work as "the essence of balderdash, reduced to the last drop of silliness and inanity." (Of course, some of this was the notorious touchiness of Americans to criticism of any kind. As Alexis de Tocqueville once noted, "A stranger who injures American vanity, no matter how justly, must make up his mind to be a martyr.")

The Beloved Boz had revealed himself to be distressingly human. For a time, Dickens was in disfavor. But only for a time. It is hard to stay mad at someone who could write David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, Great Expectations —and, of course, the incomparable, and incomparably loved, A Christmas Carol.

Francis Bennett (essay date November 2001)

SOURCE: Bennett, Francis. "City Versus Country in Great Expectations. " English Review 12, no. 2 (November 2001): 8-12.

[In the following essay, Bennett analyzes Dickens's differing attitudes toward rural and urban life.]

Dickens will forever be associated with depictions of city life, particularly of London. When his name is mentioned we immediately think of the criminal underworld of Oliver Twist and the urban settings of such novels as Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities. The list seems endless, and could lead to the conclusion that all Dickens ever wrote about was life in the city.

By 1850, 51% of the population of England was urban, as opposed to a mere 30% in 1801. Movement into towns was therefore a great social issue of the period. In his book Dickens and the City, [F. S.] Schwarzbach comments:

What was the criminal underworld like in early Victorian London? Turn to Oliver Twist, we are told […] The accuracy and sheer inexhaustible scope of Dickens' observations of contemporary urban life alone make him the most important Victorian writer for such a study as this.

(p. 79)

However, it would be wrong to identify Dickens solely with the city. Great Expectations, for example, is divided almost equally between London and the Kentish countryside. In fact, contemporary critics responded to the novel 'almost unanimously by hailing it as a return to his earlier, Pickwickian style' (Schwarzbach, p. 184). And that earlier style incorporated a great deal of writing about places other than London.

In Great Expectations, Dickens attributes differing values to town and country life, but these values are essentially unstable. Put simplistically, Pip's views of the urban and the rural move from country = bad, town = good, to town = bad, country = a little better. It is this shifting evaluation, mirroring Pip's shifting evaluation of what it means to be a 'gentleman', which I shall concentrate on here.

Pip's Formative Years

To begin with, even ignoring Pip's first encounter with Magwitch on the marshes, life in the rural forge is far from idyllic. The early formative years of Pip's life are to leave him with one of the guiltiest consciences in literature (a Freudian critic would have a field day with this book). His guilt is formed by several key events, all of which take place in the supposedly tranquil rurality of Kent. After stealing food for the convict Magwitch, for instance, Pip is ravaged by guilt: All images are from the classic 1946 film, Great Expectations. Pip's rural upbringing (left and below) is far from idyllic.

But I ran no further than the house door, for there I ran head foremost into a party of soldiers with their muskets: one of whom held out a pair of handcuffs to me, saying, 'Here you are, look sharp, come on!'

(p. 30)

The handcuffs are reminiscent of Magwitch's leg irons, and so (even though we know he has not really done anything terribly wrong) Pip thinks he too will be incarcerated for theft. The guilt association he has with the forge is further compounded by the injury inflicted upon his sister:

With my head full of George Barnwell, I was at first disposed to believe that I must have had some hand in the attack upon my sister.

(p. 112)

All this adds up to a very uncomfortable depiction of rural life. From Pip's viewpoint, there are only negative associations with Kent. Even Joe, who is to be the true gentleman of the story, cannot prevent the loathing with which Pip comes to regard his rural origins. He develops a sense of snobbishness, and a keen sense of incongruity between Joe and his 'London self'. This division becomes developed well before he actually lives in London, and is enhanced every time he visits Miss Havisham, where he is deceived into thinking she will make him into a town gentleman.

The Attractions of Urban Life

It is very apt that Pip should refer to George Barnwell. This popular stage tragedy, subtitled 'The London Merchant', was first performed in London in 1731. Its apprentice hero becomes implicated in a crime, and suffers much regret and distress—just as Pip himself comes to do.

Yet in the early part of Great Expectations, Pip certainly does not anticipate that London will become a scene of tragedy or distress. On the contrary, he views urban life as positive and attractive, and believes his life will be better if only he can go to London and fulfil his great expectations:

They seemed in their dull manner, to wear a respectful air now, and to face round, in order that they might stare as long as possible at the possessor of such great expectations—farewell, monotonous acquaintances of my childhood, henceforth I was for London and greatness.

(p. 137)

London is coupled with greatness and destiny. It is not monotonous like Kent. It provides Pip with a way out. Where the country offers only regret, guilt and negative thoughts, the city provides him with the opportunity to better himself. Or so he thinks. Of course, Pip is not yet aware of the irony that this opportunity is founded on crime, much as George Barnwell's is. Equally, he has yet to learn that it is not the city that makes a 'gentleman'—whatever Dickens means by this term—and that the true gentle man, in the shape of Joe, is back in Kent.

Shades of the Prison-House

Schwarzbach observes:

It is not long before we realise that the entire city is like the prison—both are places which systematically incarcerate and dehumanise their inhabitants.

(p. 189)

Pip's first encounter with city life is with Smithfield Market, where he is surrounded by the 'filth and fat and blood and foam' (p. 152) associated with slaughter. This incident is juxtaposed with a visit to Newgate, where four men are waiting to be hanged. The reader therefore receives an image of the city as a place of death and danger; an image of which Pip is ignorant.

Indeed, Pip seems blind to his surroundings. He is not dissuaded by his residence, which looks 'like a flat burying-ground' (p. 159) and of which Wemmick remarks so astutely, 'Ah! The retirement reminds you of the country' (p. 160). Instead, he looks only to his gentlemanly future. It is not until significantly later in the story that Pip begins to realise that the urban lifestyle and values are not so superior to the rural ones he has discarded. The realisation begins to dawn when his true guardian makes an appearance.

The Moment of Truth

All the truth of my position came flashing on me; and its disappointments, dangers, disgraces, consequences of all kinds, rushed in in such a multitude that I was borne down by them and had to struggle for every breath I drew.

(p. 293)

This is the moment when all the dangers inherent in Pip's urban lifestyle and its method of acquisition suddenly dawn on him. This is the beginning of the end. Once tainted by his association to Magwitch, he can no longer perceive himself as being a true gentleman. Around every corner and under every stairwell is the prospect of incarceration: 'in every rage of wind and rush of rain, I heard pursuers' (p. 297).

Suddenly, life back in the Kentish forge seems rather appealing. Of course, this final section of the book is where Dickens rather crudely draws up his moral conclusions. However, before Pip can become a good man, he needs reminding of the moral values he has lost in the hunt for his expectations—and Joe Gargery is the man for the job. On several occasions, Pip's conscience is pricked by Joe: 'I had not mistaken in my fancy that there was a simple dignity in him' (p. 207). But it is not until he has suffered the full horror of his London experience that he comes to see that maybe country values can be the values of a real gentleman:

For, the tenderness of Joe was so beautifully proportioned to my needs, that I was like a child in his hands. He would sir and talk to me in the old confidence, and with the old simplicity, and in the old unassertive protecting way, so that I would half believe that all my life since the days of the old kitchen was one of the mental troubles of the fever that was now gone.

(p. 426)

It would seem that Pip's opinion has now come full circle. Previously, everything about his country upbringing was a source of negative energy, and his urban future was one of positive expectations. Now, all that is positive is the honest, kind, moral country values of Joe, and all that is bad is the corrupt, criminal, dirty air of London. Indeed, in the passage quoted above, Pip states that his life in the big city is almost like a bad dream or hallucination, and he longs for the simple pleasures he enjoyed as a child in Kent.

A More Complicated Picture

It would be nice if we could be entirely happy with such a circular interpretation of Great Expectations. Yet however crude and simplistic Dickens's moralising may be, the differing values which he attributes to urban and rural life are problematic and complicated. As Schwarzbach contends: 'the city […] was no different from the rest of the world: it was even like the village home that had seemed its antithesis' (p. 193). Indeed, a simplistic reading of country = good, city = bad is totally inadequate. There is just as great a threat of violence in the country as in the city, courtesy of Orlick, and just as much illness and corruption in the shape of Miss Havisham and Pumblechook. In addition to this, Pip decides to travel abroad at the end of the book. In this way, neither London or Kent is identified as superior—morally or otherwise. The closing lines do not portray Kent as a positive, Wordsworthian, Romantic, pastoral idyll. Rather, Pip's 'the world spread before me' should be read as a Miltonic expulsion from Eden, where Eden holds painful memories.

Harold Bloom (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. "Charles Dickens." In Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, pp. 778-84. New York: Warner Books, 2002.

[In the following essay, Bloom declares his admiration for Dickens's body of work, particularly The Pickwick Papers.]

If you think of genius in regard to a novelist writing in English, you begin and end with Dickens. In our Information Age, he joins Shakespeare and Jane Austen as the only writers evidently able to survive the dominance of the new media. Throughout the world, he is second only to Shakespeare as a universal author. Shakespeare is everywhere in Dickens, sometimes concealed, though Dickens's people began closer to Ben Jonson's incarnated humors than to Shakespeare's inwardness.

John Ruskin thought that Dickens's genius was essentially dramatic, and Dickens's public readings from his novels were one of the glories of the Victorian age. These were expensive glories, as they exhausted him, and may have contributed to his death in late middle age. What Ruskin called "stage fire" is central to Dickens, and redeems even his most melodramatic works, such as the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Alexander Welsh, one of Dickens's most useful critics, emphasizes the importance of King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet to the novelist. I myself have wondered why Falstaff did not mean more to Dickens, whose Shakespeare was the tragedian, and not the comic genius that to me is the heart of Shakespeare's achievement.

As a child, I loved The Pickwick Papers best, and in old age I have not altered, though plainly David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House, above all, are rightly considered to be the true foundation for Dickens's eminence. Welsh remarks that only Don Quixote, among novels, stands higher in general estimation than Bleak House, which is as it should be. No one expects Dickens to have the cosmological sweep of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dante, and Chaucer. He is only just below them, fully as rammed with life, but not as preternatural as they can be in their control of perspectives, and except for Shakespeare, he is their equal in "stage fire."

I have written elsewhere about Bleak House, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield, and though The Pickwick Papers is early Dickens, I follow my lifelong passion and will contemplate his genius there, while acknowledging how much more depth and power were to come. It is rather like seeking Shakespeare's genius only in Love's Labour's Lost, and not in the Henry IV plays, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter's Tale. And yet Pickwick remains one of the books for extremely intelligent children of all ages, and Dickens's stage fire burns on in it.

The Pickwick Papers are joyous until Mr. Pickwick enters debtor's prison, after he refuses to pay what a court unjustly imposes as costs and compensation for a supposed breach of a marriage proposal to the unfortunate Mrs. Bardell. My two sharpest memories of the book, across some sixty years, are of the learned barrister, Mr. Serjeant Buzfuz, denouncing Mr. Pickwick at the trial, and of Mr. Leo Hunter reciting to Mr. Pickwick two stanzas of Mrs. Leo Hunter's "Ode to an Expiring Frog," before the literary Public Breakfast given by the poetess:

"Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;

Can I unmoved see thee dying
On a log,
Expiring frog!

"Say, have fiends in shapes of boys, With wild halloo, and brutal noise, Hunted thee from marshy joys,
With a dog,
Expiring frog!"

Against this I hear the countermelody of Serjeant Buzfuz:

And now, gentlemen, but one word more. Two letters have passed between these parties, letters which are admitted to be in the handwriting of the defendant, and which speak volumes indeed. These letters, too, bespeak the character of the man. They are not open, fervent, eloquent epistles, breathing nothing but the language of affectionate attachment. They are covert, sly, underhanded communications, but, fortunately, far more conclusive than if couched in the most glowing language and the most poetic imagery—letters that must be viewed with a cautious and suspicious eye—letters that were evidently intended at the time, by Pickwick, to mislead and delude any third parties into whose hands they might fall. Let me read the first:—'Garraway's, twelve o'clock. Dear Mrs. B.—Chops and Tomata sauce. Yours, PICKWICK. ' Gentlemen, what does this mean? Chops and Tomata sauce! Yours, Pickwick! Chops! Gracious heavens! and Tomata sauce! Gentlemen, is the happiness of a sensitive and confiding female to be trifled away, by such shallow artifices as these? The next has no date whatever, which is in itself suspicious.—'Dear Mrs. B., I shall not be at home till to-morrow. Slow coach.' And then follows this very, very remarkable expression—'Don't trouble yourself about the warming-pan.' The warming-pan! Why, gentlemen, who does trouble himself about a warming-pan? When was the peace of mind of man or woman broken or disturbed by a warming-pan, which is in itself a harmless, a useful, and I will add, gentlemen, a comforting article of domestic furniture? Why is Mrs. Bardell so earnestly entreated not to agitate herself about this warming-pan, unless (as is no doubt the case) it is a mere cover for hidden fire—a mere substitute for some endearing word or promise, agreeable to a preconcerted system of correspondence, artfully contrived by Pickwick with a view to his contemplated desertion, and which I am not in a condition to explain? And what does this allusion to the slow coach mean? For aught I know, it may be a reference to Pickwick himself, who has most unquestionably been a criminally slow coach during the whole of this transaction, but whose speed will now be very unexpectedly accelerated, and whose wheels, gentlemen, as he will find to his cost, will very soon be greased by you!

G. K. Chesterton preferred The Pickwick Papers to all the rest of Dickens, though it was written at the age of twenty-four, his second book:

Even as a boy I believed that there were some more pages that were torn out of my copy, and I am looking for them still … If we had a sequel of Pickwick ten years afterwards, Pickwick would be exactly the same age … It is first and foremost, a supernatural story. Mr. Pickwick was a fairy. So was old Mr. Weller … Dickens has caught, in a manner at once mild and convincing, the queer innocence of the afternoon of life. The round moon-like spectacles of Samuel Pickwick move through the tale as emblems of a certain spherical simplicity … Dickens went into the Pickwick club to scoff, and Dickens remained to pray.

As an enthusiast, but in a very different critical mode, Steven Marcus revisited Pickwick two-thirds of a century after Chesterton, and praised Dickens's great genius in this exuberant work of his young manhood, while finding in this first and freest of his novels a negativity at its dramatic center, but a negativity of the Hegelian sort, which is necessary if freedom is to be persuasively represented. A third critic, the late Northrop Frye, deftly described the formulaic elements in The Pickwick Papers.

Most of the standard types of humor are conspicuous in Dickens, and could be illustrated from Bleak House alone: the miser in Smallweed; the hypocrite in Chadband; the parasite in Skimpole and Turveydrop; the pedant in Mrs. Jellyby. The braggart soldier is not much favored: Major Bagstock in Dombey and Son is more of a parasite. Agreeably to the conditions of Victorian life, the braggart soldier is replaced by a braggart merchant or politician. An example, treated in a thoroughly traditional manner, is Bounderby in Hard Times. Another Victorian commonplace of the braggart-soldier family, the duffer sportsman, whose pretensions are far beyond his performance, is represented by Winkle in The Pickwick Papers. There are, however, two Winkles in The Pickwick Papers, the duffer sportsman and the pleasant young man who breaks down family opposition on both sides to acquire a pleasant young woman. The duality reflects the curious and instructive way that The Pickwick Papers came into being. The original scheme proposed to Dickens was a comedy of humors in its most primitive and superficial form: a situation comedy in which various stock types, including an incautious amorist (Tupman), a melancholy poet (Snodgrass), and a pedant (Pickwick), as well as Winkle, get into one farcical predicament after another.

Can the adventures of Samuel Pickwick, in which Dickens first found himself, serve to define the particular quality of Dickens's genius? Though we ordinarily speak of Dickens as a novelist, he writes romances, though after The Pickwick Papers they will look more like novels. Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James write novels; Dickens writes a mixed genre, mingling Sir Walter Scott and Tobias Smollett and obliterating them in the originality of his perpetual newness. There is something waiflike in Dickens's genius: it makes a universal appeal, because it calls out to the waif in each of us, unlikely as most of us must seem if we assumed the roles. The young Henry James, who had extraordinary critical gifts, nevertheless nodded twice in 1865, with ghastly reviews of Walt Whitman's Drum-Taps and Dickens's Our Mutual Friend. James more than changed his mind about Whitman, but his defensive resentment of Dickens proved permanent. Yet James is supremely useful in defining Dickens's genius if we merely turn the critic inside out:

What a world were this world if the world of Our Mutual Friend were an honest reflection of it! But a community of eccentrics is impossible. Rules alone are consistent with each other; exceptions are inconsistent. Society is maintained by natural sense and natural feeling. We cannot conceive a society in which these principles are not in some manner represented. Where in these pages are the depositories of that intelligence without which the movement of life would cease? Who represents nature?

The Pickwick Club is of course a community of eccentrics: in Dickens's waiflike vision the cosmos is peopled by eccentrics, and nature itself is eccentric, as is society. Henry James was not exactly a waif, and his strictures reflect a normative viewpoint that became more generous as he matured. James desperately wanted theatrical success and never could achieve it. Dickens had only to mount a stage and read Dickens aloud, and audiences surged in. His genre is dramatic romance, which is almost unique to him, and which he reinvents in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, to give its full title.

I have just completed a rereading of Pickwick across several joyous days, deliberately slowing myself down, with many pauses, to enjoy the book as long as possible. Somewhere Dostoevsky surprisingly admits that his Prince Myshkin in The Idiot compounds Mr. Pickwick and Don Quixote. The mind of Dostoevsky is, to me, a very dark place, and perhaps, through Karamazov's eyes, Don Quixote and Myshkin have their affinities, but what would the prince and Samuel Pickwick have had to say to one another? I can find more of Shakespeare than of Cervantes in Dickens, and Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller would fit better in Smollett's Humphry Clinker than in Don Quixote. If there is a metaphysical aspect to Dickens's first full-scale narrative, as Marcus suggests, then it is too deeply implicit to be explicated. Don Quixote attacks reality; Samuel Pickwick accepts it, except when imprisoned in the Fleet, where he endures the irreality. If Mr. Pickwick is too cheerful to resemble the sad Knight, Sam Weller is too insouciant to challenge the massively grounded Sancho Panza, genius of the common life.

Dickens's characters, as Northrop Frye suggested, resemble Ben Jonson's, whose Every Man in His Humour Dickens produced and took on tour. Thus, Pickwick represents "genial, generous, and lovable" humors, while Sam Weller incarnates loyalty and resourcefulness. The sublime Pickwick begins the book as an amiable enough pedant, but then catches fire as Dickens's genius flares up. It is as though Pickwick cannot remain for more than a few chapters in Ben Jonson's cosmos; instead, he inaugurates what critics call "the Dickens world." That world darkens considerably after The Pickwick Papers, and yet its parameters remain comic, though it sounds odd to call Bleak House a comic romance.

The language of the Pickwickians has been studied adroitly by Marcus. Here I want to invoke only one aspect of The Pickwick Papers : the central relationship, master and man, between Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller. The Knight and his squire, Quixote and Sancho, are equals: after only a few pages, no hierarchy exists between them, they become friends and brothers, quarrelsome but loving. Samuel Pickwick and Sam Weller truly become father and son, equally loving, but Dickens places old Mr. Weller in the book so as to preserve the formal relationship of master and man. The loyalty towards one another of Pickwick and Sam Weller is absolute—it is not accidental that they are both Samuels—but of the two, Sam Weller is finally the stronger and more obstinate will, rugged as Pickwick's is, and Sam's will prevails. Though Pickwick, in an ultimate act of fatherly love, attempts to release Sam into marriage, Sam will not leave Pickwick, and marries only when the housekeeper's role is available for his new wife.

It feels odd to say it, but the bachelor, childless Samuel Pickwick is the center of a community of love, which would be impossibly idealized outside the pages of The Pickwick Papers. Everyone in the book is redeemable, except lawyers (Mr. Perker being the exception), who for Dickens as for Shakespeare constituted the Devil's profession. There is no overt religion in The Pickwick Papers ; Angus Wilson called the book's faith New Testament Christianity, without explaining what he thought that meant. Pickwick does not need anyone to redeem him; he is Original Goodness itself, Adam early in the morning, beyond temptation and in no need of an Eve. His freedom from sexual desire has a subtle relation to his freedom from financial anxieties.

Chesterton, a natural Pickwickian and a Roman Catholic, found "popular religion, with its endless joys" to be the essence of The Pickwick Papers. Chesterton meant a sort of "folk Catholicism," which he fancied had been the norm in Chaucer's time. Pickwick may indeed be from Fairyland, but I know of no religion, popular or formal, which features "endless joys," and The Pickwick Papers, in my experience of it, is beautifully secular. Mr. Pickwick is neither a churchgoer nor a Bible-reader. He is an adventurer, always out upon the roads, heading his loyal and absurd followers into innocent but difficult pleasures. When, at the end, he is too old and infirm to wander, he sits at home, listening to Sam Weller read aloud, with commentaries by the irrepressible Sam. The work's final sentence, after more than eight hundred pages of benign exuberances, concludes with the heart of the matter:

on this, as on all their occasions, he is invariably attended by the faithful Sam, between whom and his master there exists a steady and reciprocal attachment, which nothing but death will terminate.



Economist (essay date 25 December 1999)

SOURCE: "New Society, New Voices." Economist 353, no. 8151 (25 December 1999): 16.

[In the following essay, the critic contends that Pickwick Papers gave rise to a new kind of English fiction.]

When The Pickwick Papers made its appearance in 1836, a new kind of English fiction had been born. With the young Princess Victoria's accession only months away, this fresh voice—called "Boz", but soon revealed as that of a 24-year-old journalist named Charles Dickens—was pitched exactly to catch the quickening mood. For 20 years the English novel had drifted, failing to reflect the nation's profoundly changing social, political and economic landscape. Enter Mr Pickwick and his friends.

As first presented, there was nothing new or promising about Pickwick. It was to be put out in monthly parts. Dickens had been hired to write copy to fit round a series of sketches by Robert Seymour, the leading illustrator of his day. The subject of the mainly visual narrative was to be a hackneyed one, a group of London bloods trying their clumsy hand at country pursuits. But a few months into the project Seymour killed himself. Dickens, who had been chafing at the bit from the start, took charge.

Now The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club became story-led and text-led, with the pliable "Phiz"—Hablot Knight Browne—providing illustrations in response to Dickens's narrative. That narrative turned out to be revolutionary. Although it clearly drew on an earlier picaresque tradition, Dickens packed it with quite new sounds and sights, replacing the steady measure and polite distance of the 18th-century novel with something altogether more dynamic and demotic.

The central spine of the story—Mr Pickwick and his friends on a fact-finding mission to discover the English spirit—split and split again into a web of tales, each told in a different voice. And those voices were quite unlike any previously heard in the English novel; quirky, slangy, minutely right. Monthly publication, still an innovative strategy for new fiction, allowed Dickens to make up-to-the-minute references to public events and private moods. The reading public could see its own life—sensation and urban squalor, the tedium of stagecoach journeys and provincial tea-parties, the follies of the hustings and the law, the debtors' prison—set down in print.

Everyone read Pickwick. Lords, lawyers and doctors bought each new episode as it came out month by month. The less well-off waited until they could get it from the circulating library. Others hung around shop windows, trying to guess the progress of the tale by the puff on the cover, while those who could not read begged others to give them a clue. Sales were huge. The publishers distributed a cautious 400 copies of the first installment. By the end, 20 months on, they were selling 40,000.

This creation of a national readership for the work was not due to Dickens alone. Improved technologies meant that each monthly installment could be put together and sold for the relatively low price of a shilling (about 40% of a London labourer's daily wage at the time). Much improved roads and burgeoning lending libraries brought the work rapidly to potential readers. And there were plenty of these, thanks to the rise in literacy. They were accustomed to "penny dreadfuls"; but here—for many, perhaps, for the first time—was a piece of genuine literature that was just as lively, and just as down-to-earth.

Pickwick was a turning point for Dickens too. It took him from lively hackdom to something he had always wanted—the status of an accepted writer. Yet he had not had to give up his existing strengths and skills along the way. "Pickwick" depends on the conceit that its hero and his friends are filing reports on their travels around the country, with Boz as their editor. Dickens's observant eye—and his shorthand—helped him catch the oddities of real life and reproduce them on the page. Here was the craft of the reporter raised to the highest levels of the writer's art, to give the new Britain its first truly popular great novelist.

Yet still a reporter. Dickens is (and was) often accused, rightly, of shameless sentimentality. But here, vividly drawn, was British society in transformation; and Pickwick or, later, Hard Times says, and said, as much about that process as would Engels writing on The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.


Irving Howe (essay date 20 June 1983)

SOURCE: Howe, Irving. "The Spell of Fagin—Reconsideration: Oliver Twist. " New Republic 188 (20 June 1983): 27-32.

[In the following essay, Howe examines how Dickens's depicts the character of Oliver Twist as a "passive hero" in contrast to the vividness and strength of the character Fagin.]

With the opening chapter of Oliver Twist, Dickens made his way, forever, into world literature. His place in the English tradition was already secure: he had written The Pickwick Papers, a work of spectacular comic gifts, marred, it's true, by sentimentalism but lovely as an idyll of gentlemanly Christian innocence. The Pickwick Papers seems utterly English, a fiction attuned to the idiosyncrasies of its own culture. Oliver Twist, however, can attract and hold almost every kind of imagination, since its main figures—the defenseless waif, the devilish fence, the unctuous beadle—speak a language of gesture and symbol that quite transcends national cultures. Drawn with those expressionist stabs of language that would become one of Dicken's major resources, Oliver Twist anticipates such later, greater novels as Bleak House and Little Dorrit. True, it lacks the compositional richness and maturity of feeling we find in Dicken's culminating work; but in its opening chapters, where Oliver is coldly brutalized by agents of English society, and in the sequence where Oliver is kidnapped and taken by Bill Sykes on a housebreaking expedition, we can recognize the Dickens who belongs in the company of Gogol, Balzac, and Dostoevsky.

It has been customary in recent decades to speak of at least two Dickenses, the first an exuberant performer of comedy and the second a mordant social critic increasingly expert in the uses of symbolic grotesquerie. Modern literary criticism has understandably focused on the second, the dark and serious Dickens, but it's only in analysis that the two Dickenses can be separated. In the strongest novels, entertainer and moralist come to seem shadows of one another—finally two voices out of the same mouth.

The entertainer takes over again in Oliver Twist. He is splendidly busy in the chapter where Bumble courts Mrs. Corney, with one hand round her waist and both eyes on her silver, while expressing—definitely, for all the ages—"the great principle of out-of-door relief," which is "to give the paupers exactly what they don't want, and than they get tired of coming."

Entertainer and moralist are not always at ease with one another; they tend at some points to go about their business separately; and that's one reason we find it unprofitable to keep Oliver Twist neatly placed in a categorical bin—is the book a crime story, a fairy tale, a novel of education, a social melodrama? The only sensible answer is that it is all of these together, mixed up with Dickens's usual disregard for the boundaries of genre.

For all our pleasure in its comic play, Oliver Twist finally grips us as a story of moral rage. The opening chapters may seem a little too declamatory, even strident—some of Dickens's furious interjections might well have been cut. But remember, this is a young man's book, full of anger and mistakes; and one's deepest response to the "overture" of the first few chapters isn't critical at all, it is a blend of astonishment and admiration. Oliver begging, "I want more"; the horrible chimney sweep Gamfield explaining that "boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy, and there's nothing like a good hot blaze to make 'em come down [from chimney's] with a run"; Bumble growing warm over the ingratitude of the poor ("It's meat," he opines, that has made Oliver so refractory); Dickens sputtering on his own that he wishes he could see "The Philosopher" (read, economist) "making the same sort of meal himself, with the same relish" that Oliver has just made—such bits of incident must survive in collective memory as long as the world knows the bitter taste of the insolence of office.

Later on Dickens would often misuse his gifts, sometimes as the result of sheer exuberance, sometimes through a retreat from the fearful conclusions to which his imagination kept driving him—for how could the most popular novelist of Victorian England acknowledge to himself that his strongest books formed a scathing condemnation of early industrial capitalism? Often there is a deep split between what his mind imposes on his concluding pages. But finally his imagination could never really be tamed, it could only be diverted—and even then it would break out again in spontaneous fury. Dickens had a passion for seeing things as they are.

A little boy creeps through this book, an orphan, a waif, an outcast. He is a puling, teary little fellow, never rebellious for more than a few minutes, and seldom even angry. He is a perfect little gentleman who has managed somehow to come into the world, and the novel, with a finished code of morality. The wickedness of the world never stains him. Through all his wanderings in "foul and frowzy dens, where vice is closely packed"—as Dickens puts it in his preface to the novel's third edition—Oliver maintains a sublime loyalty to English grammar. Starved, beaten, terrorized, kidnapped, he is nevertheless unwilling to resort to the foul language or gutter slang it may be reasonable to suppose he has heard in the slums of London.

To some readers this represents a strain on their credulity, and so indeed it would be if Oliver were conceived by Dickens as an ordinary realistic figure, just another boy thrust into "the cold, wet, shelterless midnight streets of London." But it would be a mistake to see Oliver in that way. Dickens himself tells us, again in the preface to the third edition, that "I wished to show, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance and triumphing at last." I stress the word "principle" in order to suggest that more is at stake here than the life of an individual character.

For Oliver is one in a series of recurrent figures in the Dickens world, slightly anticipated in Pickwick but more fully realized in Little Dorrit. Oliver is emblematic of "the principle of Good" sent into the world on a journey of suffering. This journey, which has some points of similarity to that of Christian in Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress, Oliver undertakes with no armor other than a blessed helplessness. Oliver is not expected to overcome the evil of the world, nor to struggle vigorously against it, nor even to learn much from his suffering. He is not a figure of strong imposing will—on the contrary, he is usually ready to accept whatever burdens the world imposes on him. He acts only to refuse evil, never to combat it. Yet, as if by some miracle of grace, this journeyer emerges from his experience morally immaculate, quite like the hero of a Western movie who after gun fights and killings doesn't even need to straighten his hat. Everywhere about Oliver evil thrives, but at the end he is as pure as at the start.

This celebration of the passive hero is sometimes related to primitive Christianity, though perhaps what we really mean is that it forms an historical residue of Christianity, clung to by those who can no longer believe God is omnipotent or even attentive, and who must consequently make passivity a substitute for active moral engagement. The modern sensibility finds this view of things very hard to accept, even though it is a view that keeps recurring, as a benefit of desperation, in modern literature.

Yet in his very powerlessness Oliver reveals an enormous power: the world cannot destroy him. It is as if he had received, from whom we can hardly say, that blessing that mother Rachel schemed so hard to get for her son Jacob. Clearly, no one in this world had blessed Oliver, his blessing must have come from another world; and if so, all it can do for him, through the main stretch of the book, is to protect without rescuing him. It's as if God had given Oliver all that He can—which in the world of Dicken's London is not enough.

Such feelings about "the principle of Good" are by no means unique to Dickens: they are to be found among many sincere Christians. Dostoevsky called Dickens "that great Christian" and saw in Pickwick "a positively good man," perhaps a faint emblem of Christ. The creator of Myshkin would have understood why Dickens located "the principle of Good" in a completely helpless little boy.

To gather Dicken's intentions regarding Oliver is not, however, to find his treatment entirely satisfying. Most readers learn to brush past Oliver, seeing him as a (slightly inconvenient) convenience of the plot. We care about what happens to him, but hardly suppose anything much is happening within him. Still, it's worth asking why Dicken's effort to realize "the principle of Good"—always very difficult for a novelist—seems shaky in Oliver Twist and relatively successful in Little Dorrit. A plausible answer might be that Oliver, no matter how extreme his suffering, never gets past the conventions of middle-class behavior. One of his few signs of spontaneous life is the burst of laughter with which he watches Fagin and the boys pantomime the picking of a gentleman's pocket; but whenever Oliver is with Mr. Brownlow, Rose Maylie, and other paragons of middleclass virtue, he serves mostly as their parrot. Such a goody-goody doesn't make a persuasive agent of "the principle of Good," if only because he seems so inert before the temptations of the Bad. Litte Dorrit, by contrast, cares nothing about status or respectability; she neither accepts nor rejects the standards of the world; she is beyond their reach, a selfless creature forever assuaging, healing, and loving those near her. It took Dickens the better part of a lifetime to discover what "the principle of Good" really is.

Fleeing poorhouse and apprenticeship, Oliver makes his way to the big city: there is no place else to go. His entry in London, stylishly eased by the Artful Dodger, forms a critical moment in the history of nineteenth-century literature—one of the first encounters with the modern city as physical presence, emblem of excitement, social specter, locus of myth. The early Dickens is still vibrantly responsive to whatever seems fresh in the world; he takes an eager pleasure in the discovery of streets. For him the city is a place of virtuosity where men can perform with freedom and abandonment: London as the glass enlarging upon the antics of Sam Weller, Sarry Gamp, and a bit later, Micawber. But London—this note is first struck in Oliver Twist —is also pesthole and madhouse, a place of terror from which the child-hero must be rescued periodically through a convalescence in the countryside.

Now it is the mixture of these contradictory feelings about the city that helps give the novel its distinctive tone of diffuse anxiety. The contradictory feelings about the city interweave, clash, and run along uneasy parallels, and from the tension they generate Dickens makes his drama. The darkening vision that will overwhelm Dicken's later novels is already present, shadow-like, in Oliver Twist —that vision which will prompt him to write in Our Mutual Friend that London is "a hopeless city, with no rent in the leaden canopy of its sky.…" Yet in Oliver Twist London is also the home of spectacle, lurid and grotesque, and one of Dicken's narrative purposes—slyly helped along by the sequence that starts with the Artful Dodger discovering the hungry Oliver and ends when the boy is brought to Fagin's den—is to involve us in Oliver's excitements of discovery. But more than involve: it is a saving characteristic of this novel that we are never limited to Oliver's milky perceptions.

Fagin's den, one of the spittled grey-and-black hovels in which he hides out, is reached by a labyrinth of stairs, eerie and dark. "The walls and ceilings … were perfectly black with age and dirt," but, it's important to note, there is a fire in the den before which "a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair," stands roasting some meat. Here Dickens's ambivalence about the city—which finally is to say, about English society—reaches a high point: this London hovel is hell yet also a wretched sort of home, these are thieves and murderers yet also lively figures who have made for themselves a perverse sort of community.

The point is well elaborated by J. Hillis Miller:

Fagin's den is both a dungeon and a place of refuge. It is … absolutely shut off from the outside world, but it is also a parody, at least, of a home, that place where one lives safely.… Fagin's den [says Dickens] is a "snug retreat," and inside its walls we find a society leagued for common protection against the hostility of the outside world.

Those of us who have but little taste for a romantic glorification of criminality will resist the temptation to see Dickens as totally caught up with the world of Fagin and Sykes—though the accounts we have of Dicken's public readings from Oliver Twist, in which he impersonated its characters with a terrifying vividness, suggest that part of him must have felt a subterranean kinship with these outlaws. (Less, I think, with their criminal deeds than with their experience as outsiders.) We are surely meant by Dickens to deplore the thieves and murderers, to feel disgust and fright before them. Yet their enormous vitality and articulateness of feeling put them in the sharpest contrast to the blandness of the "good" characters. Fagin and his gang talk like recognizable human beings, Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies as if they had stepped out of a copybook. And when the Artful Dodger, in one of Dickens's most brilliant set-pieces, is dragged into court, he sounds like a comic echo of Julien Sorel at the end of The Red and the Black. "Gentlemen, I have not the honor to belong to your class," Julien tells his jurors. "This ain't the shop for justice," the Artful Dodger tells his judges.

The living core of the novel is neither the story of Oliver nor the depiction of his protectors; it is primarily those segments of narrative devoted to Fagin and his gang. Just as Dostoevsky often yielded himself to the sinners he was determined finally to make suffer, so Dickens yielded himself to the criminals he knew had to be brought to a relentless punishment. We are talking here not about conscious intent but those energies of the unconscious which, in every true writer, shape his values.

Fagin is the strongest figure in the book—certainly the most troubling. He is more figure than character, and more force than figure. He barely exists as an individual—barely needs to. We learn nothing about his interior life, we are not invited to see him as "three dimensional," except, minimally, in the glittering chapter toward the end, where he sits in prison waiting to be hanged and suffers that terror of death which finally makes him one of us. Nor is Fagin given the sort of great redeeming speech that Shakespeare gives Shylock. Fagin does cry out before his death, "What right have they to butcher me"" but this has little of the generalizing moral resonance of Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" Clever and cunning, with a talent for mimicking the moral axioms of the respectable world, Fagin is all of a piece, monolithic, a creature of myth. He never rises to Shylock's tragic height, he never so much as becomes a character at all. Fagin is an emanation of historical myth, generic, emblematic, immensely powerful. Having so created him—or better yet, having so dredged him up out of the folk imagination—Dickens had no need to worry about nuances of depiction.

And Fagin, we cannot forget, is "the Jew." Throughout the novel he is called "the Jew," though in revising for a later edition, especially in the chapter devoted to Fagin's last night, Dickens tried to soften the impact by substituting "Fagin" for "the Jew." It did not help or matter very much: Fagin remains "the Jew" and whoever wants to confront this novel honestly must confront the substratum of feeling that becomes visible through Dicken's obsessive repetition of "the Jew." The film adaptation made several decades ago in England did precisely that. Alec Guinness impersonated Fagin with brilliant, indeed, frightening effect, putting heavy stress on the idea of an archetypical Jewish villain, as well as a secondary stress on the homosexual component of Fagin's gang that Dickens could only hint at.

Most critics have been skittish about Fagin. They have either ignored Dickens's fixed epithet, "the Jew," as if there were nothing problematic or disconcerting about it, or they have tried to blunt the meaning of Dickens's usage by "explaining", Fagin historically. There is, of course, something to explain. Dickens himself, in a letter to a Jewish woman who had protested the stereotypical treatment of Fagin, sought to reduce the problem to one of contemporary verisimilitude. "Fagin," he wrote, "is a Jew because it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew." Whether this was "almost invariably" so is a question, but that some fences were Jewish is certainly true. One of these, Ikey Solomons, had been tried and sentenced in a spectacular trial only a few years before Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, and it seems likely that Dickens, with his keen reportorial scent, drew upon this case.

I am convinced that, despite some conventionally nasty phrases about Jews in his letters, Dickens was not an anti-Semite—he had neither conscious nor programmatic intent to harm Jews. Indeed, a writer with such intent could probably not have created so "primitive" and therefore haunting a figure as Fagin. For, if the fascination with criminal life that's evident in Oliver Twist derives in some twisted way from Dickens's childhood traumas, the representative or mythic strength of Fagin comes, I believe, from somewhere else. It comes from the collective folklore, the sentiments and biases habitual to Western culture as these have fixed the Jew in the role of villain: thief, fence, corrupter of the young, surrogate of Satan, legatee of Judas. With Fagin, as Edgard Rosenberg says, we are … thrown back to that anonymous crowd of grinning devils who, in the religious drama of the fourteenth century, danced foully around the Cross and who, in mythology, functioned as bugaboos to frighten little boys.… [Dickens] has come up with some prehistoric fiend, an aging Lucifer whose depravity explains him wholly.

The spectral image of "the Jew" may indeed be "prehistoric" in the sense that it abides in the timeless spaces of myth, but it is also very much part of a continuous Western history. The image of the fiendish Jew has survived with remarkable persistence through the Christian centuries. Like Judas, Fagin has red hair, and like Satan, he is compared to a serpent.

As Fagin glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.

Whenever we encounter such overripe language, Fagin expands into a figure other than human: he becomes a monster drawn from the bad dreams of Christianity.

Novels are composed by individual writers, but in some sense they also derive from the cultures in which these writers live. Collective sentiments and collective stories enter the most personal of fictions. Imagining a world, the writer must draw on the substance of his culture and thereby, so to say, the culture speaks through and past him. All great writers are in part ventriloquists of myth—some inferior writers, nothing else. Fagin the individual figure was conceived by Dickens, but Fagin the archetype comes out of centuries of myth, centuries, too, of hatred and fear.

The power of Fagin is a collective, an anonymous power. Once we realize this, the question of what "to do" about Fagin comes to seem hopelessly complicated—as if there were something one could "do" to expunge the record of the deepest biases of Western culture! As if one could somehow cancel out the shadowy grotesques of Satan and Judas, Shylock and the Wandering Jew! There is nothing to "do" but confront the historical realities of our culture, and all it has thrown up from its unsavory depths. That this can lead to reflections exceedingly somber I would be the last to deny.

The ending of Oliver Twist, like the ending of that far greater book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a mess. Theme and plot, uneasily stitched together for the bulk of the novel, are ripped apart at the end. Dickens rushes his plot to a neat conclusion which lifts Oliver to suburban security while, in effect, abandoning the theme of the book—which is simply the condition of all the Olivers.

Mark Twain, having launched his adolescent hero on a journey that washes away, in the sublime waters of the Mississippi, all signs of race and caste, has no plausible resolution for his story. For the idyll of Jim and Huck cannot last, the problems they have "transcended" on the raft persist on shore. Dickens, having launched his child-hero on a terrifying journey through the city, keeps accumulating social difficulties and contradictions that his plot cannot cope with. "Until Oliver wakes up in Mr. Brownlow's house," remarks Arnold Kettle, "he is a poor boy struggling against the inhumanity of the state. After he has slept himself into the Brownlow world he is a young bourgeois who has been done out of his property." Oliver's troubles are miraculously disposed of, through the generosity of Mr. Brownlow: a convenience for the plot and a disaster for the theme. But no serious reader is likely to be satisfied, for the difficulty is not just that the issues cast up by Oliver's story are left hanging in the air, it is that even if we confine ourselves to the narrow boundaries of Dickens's plot, the ending must seem weak and willed. Falling back on Mr. Brownlow, that is, on the individual benevolence of a kindly gentleman, Dickens could not confront the obvious truth that Mr. Brownlow is utterly unequipped to deal with the problem of Oliver. Nor could Dickens confront the truth already prefigured in Blake's lines: Pity would be no more, If we did not make somebody Poor: "And Mercy could no more be, If all were as happy as we …"

Dickens's imagination had led him to a point where his mind could not follow. Endings are always a problem for novelists, and the problem for the young Dickens wasn't simply that he lacked the courage to see his story through to its bitter end, it was that he didn't really know what the bitter end might be. So he wound up, in the person of Mr. Brownlow, with that "Pitty" and "Mercy" about which Blake had written so scornfully.

Even writers determined to show things as they really are, often have no choice but to leave us anxious and uncertain. Why should we expect "solutions" in their books to problems we cannot manage in our lives? Whatever is vibrant and real in Oliver Twist every reader will recognize the rest is the filler of literary convention, here a sign of the evasions a writer must turn to when his imagination, overextended, is finally balked.

Cates Baldridge (essay date summer 1993)

SOURCE: Baldridge, Cates. "The Instabilities of Inheritance in Oliver Twist. " Studies in the Novel 25, no. 2 (summer 1993): 184-95.

[In the following essay, Baldridge suggests that Dickens attributes Oliver Twist's steadfast goodness to child-instinct as opposed to inherited virtue and contrasts this characterization with Dickens's later novels which depict more realistic presentations of interactions between social classes.]

Dickens' decision to represent Oliver Twist as incorruptible has exposed both author and character to considerable abuse.1 Exactly why did Dickens pursue such a strategy? I will argue that Dickens represents his hero as morally immune from the effects of his brutal childhood environment because of an acute anxiety about the ability of the bourgeois hearth to inculcate a moral regimen sufficient to withstand the threats and solicitations lurking beyond what the author wished to imagine as the charmed circle of Victorian domesticity. This anxiety, far from being peculiar to Dickens, is mandated by the very structure of nineteenth-century middle-class discourses of domestic pedagogy. Thus what I hope to achieve is not so much a revelation of Dickens' personal psychology as a demonstration of how certain contradictions within bourgeois ideology create, in Oliver Twist, a protagonist and a narrative in conflict with each other and—at times—with the formal requirements of the novel as a genre.

The anxiety that ensures that Oliver enters his novel fully formed rather than realistically impressionable arises out of the tendency of Victorian middle-class culture to nominate, with unprecedented stridency, the home as the primary location wherein each rising generation is groomed for the offices of adulthood and citizenship. The church, the school, the community, all have their parts to play; but these institutions contribute influences that are conceived of as supplemental to the moral instruction imparted, and the moral example provided, within the domestic circle. This ranking of the familial hearth so far above its more public allies in the business of pedagogy (in the widest sense of that word) is inextricable from the dichotomous conception of society's moral geography prevalent among middle-class Victorians. According to this dualistic view, the atmosphere of the world at large is radically corrosive of all needful virtues, for outside the sheltering walls of home lies a realm given over to the barely-regulated rapine of getting and spending and the animal pursuit of sensual pleasures. Conversely, and indeed consequently, the home must be maintained as a place apart, a sealed area into which no infected draughts may be suffered to intrude, for only there can children be rendered immune to the solicitations of modern life, and the breadwinner solaced and refreshed from his daily battle with necessity.

This cultural conception, however, is fraught with anxiety, as is illustrated by a passage from Ruskin:

This is the true nature of home—it is a place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division. In so far as it is not this, it is not home: so far as the anxieties of the outer life penetrate into it, and the inconsistently-minded, unknown, unloved, or hostile society of the outer world is allowed by either husband or wife to cross the threshold, it ceases to be a home; it is then only a part of that outer world which you have roofed over and lighted fire in.2

Images of refuge and siege permeate this discussion, and Ruskin frames the charge so perilously as to generate acute attendant worries: "But do not you see that to fulfil this, [the mother] must—as far as one can use such terms of a human creature—be incapable of error? So far as she rules, all must be right, or nothing is. She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise."3

This distinctively bourgeois orientation of mind toward the family and the moral education it provides can therefore be said to consist of a faith accompanied by a fear. The former takes the shape of a belief that the middle-class hearth is uniquely capable of shaping children into morally adequate adults, for any family circle tainted by the vices endemic to its class—vices such as those arising from working class "indecency" or aristocratic marriages of convenience, say—must, given the assumed connection between home and child, introduce (or reproduce) the "injury" and "error" that cannot help but deform the characters of the young. But stalking such expressions of pedagogical hubris is the fear of defeat, an anxiety that even one deviation from strict propriety and perfect judgment will invite disaster, and that the virtues fostered in even the most exemplary bourgeois home may not prove at all durable once the "vestal temple" (Ruskin's phrase)4 is left behind.

We can begin to tie these Victorian ideas about domesticity to Oliver's incorruptibility by reminding ourselves that Dickens is under no illusion that he is writing a traditional Bildungsroman in which the forging of his protagonist's personality will be experienced by readers as a process of becoming. Indeed, he appears wholly unembarrassed about endowing his hero with that "inert nobility" that Mikhail Bakhtin finds characteristic of the archaic "Novel of Ordeal," in which the hero's identity is not changed but merely affirmed by dire experience.5 Recall, for instance, Dickens' famous pronouncement in the Preface of 1841 that the story of Oliver was designed to depict "the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last" (p. 33). As if to underscore this resolve, Dickens dropped "The Parish Boy's Progress" as the subtitle in the edition of 1846 and renamed his novel The Adventures of Oliver Twist. This alteration can be seen as the author's conscientious removal of a possibly misleading phrase, for, as Barry Westburg points out, the idea of a "Progress" suggests "that a character can become something different from what he was at the beginning, as presumably in Bunyan's allegory," while "the conception of life as adventure (as chance encounter, for example) implies that change, real change, is not an issue."6

When Dickens attempts to explain in Oliver Twist just how his hero has arrived at this state of incorruptibility, he conspicuously refuses either to rule out or endorse the explanation that springs most readily to mind—that Oliver has acquired his parents' impeccably middle-class traits through some sort of blood-inheritance. Given the lack of alternatives, such a conclusion—however difficult to swallow—cannot help but obtrude itself. And yet, Dickens seems extremely shy about mentioning it out loud, fobbing us off instead with ambiguous passages like the following, in which the narrator informs us that "nature or [italics mine] inheritance [has] implanted a good sturdy spirit in Oliver's breast" (p. 49), or in which Rose maintains that "that Power which has thought fit to try him beyond his years, has planted in his breast affections and feelings which would do honour to many who have numbered his days six times over" (p. 370). But this attempt to obscure the issue of just how such traits make their way into the protagonist is doomed to fail. "Nurture" cannot explain Oliver's character since he was nurtured in the workhouse; "nature"—in the sense of a physical and moral inheritance—becomes the only explanation we can reasonably consider once we begin to discover the identities of the hero's parents. Oliver physically resembles his progenitors, and the unmistakable implication of his likeness to Brownlow's pictures and memories is that his middle-class personality comes from the same source. Blind chance and divine intervention are hard things to fit convincingly into a genre so committed to secular causality as the Victorian novel, and even Rose and the narrator's attempts at equivocation cannot escape the metaphors of sowing and generation.

But why should Dickens be so reticent about admitting what is so obvious? I suggest that the answer lies in an attempt to escape the difficulties that spring from the author's endeavor to quiet the kind of domestic and pedagogic anxiety so evident in the passage from Ruskin. The author tries to obfuscate the obvious origins of his hero's character because his decision to render him impervious to experience involves not some unproblematic recourse to fairy-tale materials,7 but rather the spinning out of a precarious political fantasy fraught with embarrassing contradictions. Let us examine the fantasy itself first, and defer the subsequent complications for just a moment. Here, quite illogically but very comfortingly, we have a child thoroughly imbued with bourgeois virtues even though his contact with his parents is the most tenuous imaginable—a dead father and a mother who perishes in childbirth. By creating a protagonist who absorbs all the needful habits and maxims from an older generation whose tie to him resembles "gold to airy thinness beat," Dickens symbolically banishes the anxiety that even the requisite years of incessant and in errant upbringing beside a wholly orthodox hearth will still prove insufficient. Having known Ruskin's idealized home only through such "memory" as his veins and sinews provide, Oliver nevertheless emerges as the perfect bourgeois child, utterly immune from the "danger … temptation … error [and] of fence" endemic in the outside world.8 Such is the stuff of dreams, surely, but politically potent for precisely that reason. The problem is, this fantasy of a supremely durable middle-class ethos, of a rising generation carrying the home's "vestal temple" within, is not without its embarrassments. As stated above, such a fantasy cannot help but find itself everywhere haunted by the implication that Oliver's "blood" is responsible for his sterling character, and the truth of the matter is that positing blood-inheritance as the sole and sufficient explanation of character is, to some extent, both anti-novelistic and anti-bourgeois. The result of even the passive endorsement of such an explanation for Oliver is therefore a text constructed of materials at odds with the genre's (historically contingent) structure and also politically at odds with itself.

As to Oliver Twist 's departure from conventional novelistic form, it should first be pointed out that if its hero had experienced anything like an idealized Victorian childhood, his resemblance to the previous generation would not be nearly so vexatious. However, the fact that his inheritance wins such a complete and easy victory over the competing environmental influences of the workhouse and Fagin's gang means that we must see it as constituting a kind of genial determinism, and this is what places it in conflict with the enabling constraints of the novel as a genre. That the label "determinist" has rarely if ever been applied to Oliver Twist is due in part, I think, to the fact that most of the novels we conventionally refer to as "deterministic" or "naturalistic" do not end happily and usually profess contempt for middle-class values. But consider: it is undeniable that Oliver's personality is the direct result of his parents' "blood" bequest—that throughout his incarcerations under Bumble and Fagin he remains "the avatar of his father"9—and thus the text is laid open to the attacks I mentioned at the outset. In truth, almost all such deprecations of Oliver Twist spring from a tension between verisimilitude and certain forms of naturalism, a tension explained by W. J. Harvey:

The purer the variety of naturalism, the more a novelist stresses one kind of determining force, the greater this strain [on our belief] will become. The danger is that we shall attend less to an imagined fictional world and more to some dogmatic philosophy of life which engages us in an area of controversy entirely outside the world of art. The extreme naturalist is, metaphorically, a Rousseau rather than a Montesquieu in that he tends to narrow down the multiplicity of … determining factors to a few, or even to one factor. This we tend to reject.10

The variety of what one might call "vulgar naturalism" outlined above clearly does occur in Oliver Twist, for there is no explanation in the novel that can seriously compete with that of his genetic inheritance in explaining the hero's immunity from ethical infection. And not only is there a lack of rivals, but the best potential candidate for a competitor—his environment—is paraded continually before us only to be discounted at every turn, making the insistence upon "blood" seem all the more strident. Dickens gets into trouble not because of his desire to depict an immaculately bourgeois child, but because he appears so anxious to affirm that such virtues can be handed down the generations by a nature completely unassisted by nurture. We may not like his sentimentality in the person of either Oliver or Rose, but it is only in the depiction of the former that the author's anxieties over the durability of middle-class mores lead him to postulate a triumphant geneticism that struggles against the culturally mandated assumptions of the genre.

The second problem with Oliver's inheritance is that it is an attempt to graft onto middle-class characters and contexts an essentially upper-class means of explaining the conservation of valuable personality traits over time. As we have seen, bourgeois ideology views the well-conducted familial home as the necessary and sufficient explanation for the moral orthodoxy of each rising generation. Furthermore, aristocratic notions of immaculate bloodlines are routinely discounted in bourgeois discourses as a mystification employed to perpetuate the unearned privileges of a morally suspect ruling class. In Disraeli's Conningsby, for instance, the "Saxon" industrialist Millbank claims that he does not understand "how an aristocracy can exist, unless it be distinguished by some quality which no other class of the community possesses." And as for England's peerage of blood, he finds them no "richer … better informed, wiser, or more distinguished for public or private virtue" than himself and his fellow businessmen.11 Thus while Dickens may attempt to suggest that Oliver is nature's nobleman, the protagonist's physical and moral resemblance to his parents in the face of physical and moral brutalization cannot help but appear to endorse a way of conceiving character that is opposed to the author's own overarching bourgeois convictions. The message of Oliver's life is that "breeding will tell," a moral anathema to several middle-class habits of mind.

Actually, we need look no farther than Oliver Twist itself to see how Dickens is contradicting himself on this issue, for the rest of the characters in the novel reveal the author to be fully committed to the idea that environment shapes character. Nancy, for instance, says to Rose: "Thank Heaven … that you had friends to care for and keep you in your childhood, and that you were never in the midst of cold and hunger, and riot and drunkenness, and—and—something worse than all—as I have been from my cradle" (p. 362). This emphasis upon formative surroundings is also present in the depictions of Noah Claypole and even Sikes, with the result that the novel presents two incompatible versions of the relationship between experience and personality.12 It is for this reason that one part of Harvey's thesis seems not to apply to Oliver Twist : we are not led to "some dogmatic philosophy of life" or an "area of controversy entirely outside the world of art" because Dickens in no way believes in the geneticism his protagonist—and only his protagonist—implies. In general, and outside the realm of the text's political fantasy, Dickens is typically Victorian in his belief in the molding power of environment and circumstance.13Oliver Twist is thus determinist not by design, but by default, another reason it has not generally been recognized as being determinist at all. Clearly, anxiety over the "survivability" of Oliver's virtues leads Dickens not only to create the kind of static protagonist ill-suited to a novel, but to butt his head against his own political presuppositions.

One hesitates to put forward any biographical specifics in order to account for Dickens' deliberate decision to render inheritance immune from the forces of environment in this novel, but as the members of the Bakhtin circle remind us, ideology and psychology are not separate and opposed; rather, they always intermingle. Ideology our psyches exist on the borderline between our own organism and the outside world and mediate between the two.14 It may therefore be germane to raise the well-worn issue of the blacking warehouse in this instance, for the childhood trauma that apparently shaped so many aspects of the author's imagination dovetails with the political anxieties discussed here. The young Dickens, feeling as though he had been wrenched from his proper sphere and unjustly consigned to the fate of a "little labouring hind,"15 most likely did entertain both fantasies and fear I about "blood" proving stronger than Circumstance. If Oliver Twist is in part a biographical novel, then we can see in the protagonist's situation a repetition of the author's own juvenile hopes that some immanent manifestation of his middle-class parentage would serve to set him apart from the low company to which he had been relegated, and that his bourgeois birthright would somehow be brought to light in a manner able to effect his return to a world resembling that of Brownlow and the Maylies.16 John Carey thus labels Oliver's characterization "a hymn to the purity of the middle-class soul"17 prompted at least in part by an experience of social dispossession from which the author never fully recovered.

Be this as it may, Oliver Twist contains a number of episodes that indicate that Dickens himself is embarrassed by his choice of "blood" as the guarantor of his hero's middle-class orthodoxy; and, though none of these efforts to undo the havoc wrought by his political wishful thinking represents more than a token atonement or a feeble apology, they deserve attention because they cast light upon aspects of the text otherwise difficult to account for. The first of these counter-moves involves the unusual prevalence of quasi-Wordsworthian discourse in the novel.18 At several points the protagonist evidences psychic states that appear to owe much to the Intimations Ode,19 and these, I would suggest, are designed to account hedgingly for Oliver's virtues in ways that distract attention from his implicit genetic inheritance. When he is first ensconced at Brownlow's, for instance, he opines that "perhaps [his mothers does see [him]," and that "perhaps she has sat by [him]," for he "almost feel[s] as if she had," admitting that he has "dreamed of her" (p. 126) and beheld her face. These hints of Wordsworthian pre-existence are reiterated more strongly when Oliver is taken in by the Maylies. Note here that the self-contradictory constructions recall nothing so much as Wordsworth's half-remembered "heaven" that "lies about us in our infancy," and that the passage as a whole suggests that Oliver has arrived in the world trailing clouds of middle-class comfort:

The boy stirred, and smiled in his sleep, as though these marks of pity and compassion had awakened some pleasant dream of a love and affection he had never known Thus, a strain of gentle music, or the rippling of water in a silent place, or the odour of a flower, or the mention of a familiar word, will sometimes call up sudden dim remembrances of scenes that never were, in this life: which vanish like a breath; which some brief memory of a happier existence, long gone by, would seem to have awakened; which no voluntary exertion of the mind can ever recall.

(p. 268)

The covert argument of these and similar scenes has been pinpointed by J. Hillis Miller, who demonstrates that such passages express not only the sentiments of the Intimations Ode but also the more bizarre idea that "one may [also] find signs in the present of a secret past life which existed on this earth [Miller's italics] before one was born."20 This notion, which seems too outlandish to emanate from Dickens, does in fact appear in other scenes in the novel, and we can perceive the difference between it and the more familiar Wordsworthian idea of pre-existence by comparing Oliver's good-bye to Little Dick with his attack upon Noah Clay pole. In the former scene, Dick says the doctors' prognosis of his death must be true because he "dream[s] so much of Heaven, and Angels, and kind faces that [he] never see[s] when [he is] awake" (pp. 96-97). Oliver's own "shadowy recollections," however, are (as seen in the passages above) usually of a more personal cast. When Noah insults the mother whom Oliver has never heard described as anything but evil, the protagonist reacts in a way that suggests he possesses some hidden certainty about his parent's virtue. Furthermore, the act of defending her honor seems to transform him into a wholly different person—the person he would have been in the underprivileged bourgeois life he was apparently meant to lead:

A minute ago, the boy had looked the quiet, mild, dejected creature that harsh treatment had made him. But his spirit was roused at last; the cruel Insult to his dead mother had set his blood on fire. His breast heaved; his attitude was erect; his eye bright and vivid; his whole Person changed, as he stood glaring over the cowardly tormentor who now lay crouching at his feet: and defied him with an energy he had never known before.

(p. 88)

Notice how the movement here is still away from environment—he is no longer the "dejected creature that harsh treatment had made him"—but not toward the only obvious alternative. This violent epiphany, as well as the more peaceful ones cited previously, though definitely linking Oliver to his deceased parents, in fact muddies the issue of his blood-inheritance by its vaguely mystical suggestions, depicting a transformation and a recollection of middle-class security no mere link of "blood" could possibly account for. In short, all such quasi-Wordsworthian passages can be read as attempts to transform the monochromatic determinism behind Oliver's character into something resembling a rainbow.

To explain why Dickens, consciously or unconsciously, might profitably pursue such a strategy, we can turn once again to Harvey, who points out that "our sense of conditional freedom depends upon a combination of factors which, considered singly, may seem to determine us, but which in association tend to liberate us."21 The "hyper-Intimations" episodes thus partially absolve the text of its troubling reliance on a single explanation for character without having recourse to the familiar—but forbidden—expedient of environment. Oliver's recollections of a middle-class pre-existence, fantastic as they are, distract from the embarrassing situation Dickens forced himself into when he decided to render "The Parish Boy's Progress" no progress at all. Furthermore, if the credibility of such scenes is questionable, their politics is immaculate, for by calling Wordsworth to his aid in supplementally constructing Oliver's goodness, Dickens is invoking an explanation of innate virtue that has nothing to do with aristocratic genealogies, and that pointedly insists upon such inner beauty's availability to the middling and even the lowliest run of mankind. Among the English Romantic, the middle-class mind discovered Wordsworth to be the most congenial to its outlook and the most applicable to its purposes, and thus the protagonist's mystical recollections can not help but heal the ideological rupture his "lineage" has introduced into the novel.

The other indication of Dickens' discomfort with his explanation of Oliver's virtues can be found in the text's eleventh-hour attempt to redefine moral and physical inheritance as an exclusively retrograde and upper-class Phenomenon. This effort to restore a bit of bourgeois political Orthodoxy is undertaken largely through the character of Monks, about whom two objections have traditionally been raised: 1) that he starts off as a villain with promise, only to weaken and fade towards the end, and 2) that he gets off—legally speaking—quite easily.22 But, however disappointing Monks final disposition may be to the causes of gothicism and equal justice for all, it does play its part in shifting our attention away from Oliver's hitherto exceptional resemblance to his bourgeois parents, for in the novel's final pages the protagonist's half-brother is suddenly revealed to be the very embodiment of all the previous generation's upper-class vices. As Brownlow spins out the tale, we learn that Monks' and Oliver's father was, before meeting the hero's mother, party to a "wretched marriage, into which family pride, and the most sordid and narrowest of all ambition, forced [him] when a mere boy." This abandonment of his own class for an "ill-assorted union" with a wealthy but immoral woman led swiftly to a state of mutual "loathing" and a separation, whereupon the unnamed wife, reverting quickly to the decadent ways of her kind, adopted a manner of life "wholly given up to continental frivolities" (p. 435). Monks, we soon learn, is almost exclusively his mother's child—her avatar, if you will—for between his and Brownlow's accounts, a rough outline of his childhood and subsequent development is laid before the reader. What is most interesting about this revelation of character and motive, however—and what ties it all the more strongly to Dickens' seeming uneasiness over Oliver's inherited immunity from evil—is its own meticulous balancing of nature and nurture. On the one hand, the novel insists that specifically upper-class vices can be passed along by means of "blood" to the next generation, while on the other, it accompanies each invocation of a tainted inheritance with a seconding, environmental cause, as if discounting the "genetic" explanation with the same breath that proclaims it. Brownlow, for instance recalls the father speaking of "the rebellious disposition, vice, malice and premature [italics mine] bad passions of … his only son" while at the same time asserting that the boy had been "trained [by his mother] to hate him" (p 458). Thus, when Oliver's protector goes on to say that Monks has "from an infant, repulsed [his father] with coldness and aversion" (p. 458), it is difficult to tell with any certainty whether this is due mainly to nature or nurture. This same crucial ambiguity is reiterated when Monks takes up his own story:

"There she died," said Monks, "after a lingering illness; and, on her death-bed, she bequeathed these secrets to me, together with her unquenchable and deadly hatred of all whom they involved—though she need not have left me that, for I had inherited it long before." (p. 459) This issue of "inherited" vs. "acquired" is even blurred in so apparently straightforward a matter as the villain's venereal disease, for observe how the diction waffles; "you, who from your cradle were gall and bitterness to your own father's heart, and in whom all evil passions, vice, and profligacy, festered, til they found a vent in a hideous disease which has made your face an index even to your mind" (p. 439). This seems not so much an example of Victorian euphemism as an attempt to indict both the womb and the brothel as the origins of the disfiguring malaise. Now, while these passages are not crucially important (except as they work the levers and pulleys of the denouement) their studied balance is striking. In my view, such attempts to represent ethical inheritance as a primarily upper-class phenomenon while contradictorily refusing to admit that blood alone can determine character at all amount to a strategy whereby Oliver Twist may attempt to atone for its anti-bourgeois and anti-novelistic aspects simultaneously.

It only remains to point out that an anxiety over the durability of middle-class values in a morally corrosive world seems to have shaped Oliver Twist into one of Dickens' most monologic texts, for there is a connection between the protagonist's immunity from his environment and the fact that the middle-class and criminal realms never seem to influence or interpenetrate each other. The novel's social vocabularies are divided into those of alabaster and those of pitch, and Oliver, though bounced back and forth between these two hermetic discourses, never learns how to juxtapose them in any way that might educate him about the realities of Victorian culture, for, as Westburg says, such "static dualism is alien to any systematic notions of personal growth."23 This last point rings true, I believe, because, especially for a young hero like Oliver, character development must almost necessarily entail a receptivity to the varied languages of social life and an ability to transform them dialogically into what Bakhtin terms an "internally persuasive discourse" that could then begin to speak to and influence others on equal terms.24 But, when an ideological position mandates that a novel's youthful protagonist must spring forth onto the world's stage with his ears shut and his lines already memorized, it will likely be dangerous to depict the world at large as more willing to listen, learn, and grow. This is so because a hero who is less receptive to dialogism than the society that surrounds him announces his lack of dynamism in too obvious a manner—no, if he is reified, his novel had better be so as well. Certainly we can point to Dickens' subsequent development as a novelist and observe how a growing interest in the process of Bildung is paralleled by an increasingly skillful ability to interilluminate dialogically the various languages of his society. In his later works, the protagonist typically engages in a process wherein "the movement toward a constructed unity is unending," while the character who "refuses to reinvent himself imaginatively" falls prey to "the conservative tendency to repeat the past, to deny the need for change because such change is always threatening," a conception that brings us Copperfield and Pip on the one hand, and Havisham, Headstone, and Jasper on the other.25 At the same time, the novels of Dickens' maturity show the social languages of Victorian England influencing and feeding off one another in a way that Oliver Twist does not. Because of the early novel's insistence upon a radically dichotomous social sphere, Bumble's workhouse cannot fatally tar the "respectable" society whose interests it serves, whereas the flawed Offices and bureaucracies of the later novels emphatically implicate the ruling culture in crime.26 Indeed, from mid-century onward, no supposedly respectable drawing-room or department of government is unaffected by, or free from responsibility for, the enormities committed among the crowded warrens of the poor. In this manner are the discourses of middle-class "virtue" and underworld "vice" employed to undermine the former's claims to be uninvolved in exploitation and violence, as the similarities between, and the hidden conjunctions of, society's official and criminal languages are brought to light. It is very much to the point, of course, that accompanying both these developments is Dickens' growing estrangement from the bourgeois orthodoxies whose contradictions and anxieties so permeate Oliver Twist.


  1. See, for instance, Phillip Collins, Dickens and Education (London: Macmillan & Co., 1963), pp. 184-185; Grahame Smith, Dickens, Money, and Society (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968), pp. 13, 33; and Angus Wilson, "Introduction," Oliver Twist (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 26. All subsequent citations of Oliver Twist in the body of the text refer to this edition.
  2. John Ruskin, "Of Queens' Gardens" in Sesame and Lilies, Works, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1905), Vol. 18, p. 122.
  3. Ibid., p. 123.
  4. Ibid., p. 122.
  5. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 105-07.
  6. Barry Westburg, The Confessional Fictions of Charles Dickens (De Kalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1977), p. 6.
  7. See Steven Marcus, Dickens: From Pickwick of Dombey (New York; Basic Books, 1965), pp. 66-77.
  8. Ruskin, p. 122.
  9. Westburg, p. 13.
  10. W. J. Harvey, Character and the Novel (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 134, 137.
  11. Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982), p. 148.
  12. See William T. Lankford, "The Parish Boy's Progress: The Evolving Form of Oliver Twist, " PMLA 93 (1978): 20-21.
  13. See Janet L. Larson, Dickens and the Broken Scripture (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985), p. 71.
  14. See Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1990), p. 202.
  15. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), p. 208.
  16. For a longer discussion of the biographical aspects of Oliver Twist, see Morris Golden, "Dickens, Oliver, and Boz," in Dickens Quarterly 4 (1987); 65-77.
  17. John Carey, Here Comes Dickens: The Imagination of a Novelist (New York: Schocken, 1974), p. 149. 18. For another discussion of Wordsworth and Oliver Twist, see Rosemarie Bodenheimer, The Politics of Story in Victorian Social Fiction (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 119-30.
  18. This is pointed out by Larson, p. 54. Also see David Grylls, Guardians and Angels: Parents and Children in Nineteenth-Century Literature (London: Faber & Faber, 1978), pp. 140-142.
  19. J. Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 81.
  20. Harvey, p. 137.
  21. See, for instance, Wilson, pp. 25-26, Humphry House, "Introduction," Oliver Twist (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), pp. v-vi, and Joseph Sawicki, "Oliver (Un) Twisted: Narrative Strategies in Oliver Twist," The Victorian Newsletter 73 (1988): 27.
  22. Westburg, pp. 7-8.
  23. Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, pp. 341-48.
  24. Lawrence Frank, Charles Dickens and the Romantic Self (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1984), pp. 22, 28.
  25. See H. M. Daleski, Dickens and the Art of Analogy (London: Faber & Faber, 1970), p. 60.

Angela Marie Priley (essay date winter 1993-1994)

SOURCE: Priley, Angela Marie. "An Analysis of Oliver Twist. " Children's Literature Association Quarterly 18, no. 4 (winter 1993-1994): 189.

[In the following essay, Priley compares the novel of Oliver Twist with the movie musical Oliver!]

For this paper, I have chosen to write on the book Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens, and the movie musical Oliver!. I will discuss the differences in the book and the movie, and I will show how the movie does not induce the same impression as the book.

The movie Oliver was drastically different from the book Oliver Twist. The whole purpose behind the book Oliver Twist is to solve the mystery of Oliver's heritage and family. The subject of Oliver's history was barely touched throughout the whole movie, and it could hardly be called a subplot. In addition, some of the most important parts in the book were left out totally in the movie. Rose Maylie was never mentioned, nor was Oliver ever at her house. In the movie, Oliver was never shot, as he was in the book, and therefore a large piece of the book had been left out. The only purpose in the movie was to get a contrasting view of music. It was a great musical, but the whole story line was extremely different from that of the book. Each story even had different plots. Two stories shouldn't be related in any matter to each other if they don't even have the same plot. The plot is what makes up the whole story. Hollywood should have written a whole new story instead of modeling it after Oliver Twist.

Dickens wrote Oliver Twist to show the horrible conditions in the workhouses and in the poor social class in London during the mid-1800's. He wrote his books to scorn the poor laws and to show the real lives of the lower class. He wrote to scorn Parliament and the government. He wrote to show what dirt and filth these people often live in, and what they must resort to in order to survive. He wrote to shame the people who caused these conditions. He wrote to get his point across and, at the same time, entertain the public.

His voice showed bitter sarcasm for the government and he took a stand against the law. He wanted to show the people what they are doing and he wanted to prove a point. He used irony and humor to show things that, in fact, were not humorous at all. He used extremely sophisticated writing techniques to prove his point. The voice in the movie hardly accomplishes this. The voice in the movie Oliver! was gleeful, cheerful, and blithe. It also didn't use any irony. These two are exact opposites of each other. There was nothing hidden in Oliver! and no really great techniques were used.

The movie didn't seem to come close enough to the feeling the book left in the reader after the last page was turned. Oliver Twist left the reader feeling angry and deceived by the government and the poor laws. The book gave a sense of controversy that made its points extremely susceptible to argument. The movie left the viewer with a sense of merriment; everyone lived happily ever after. It was, more or less, a fairy tale. The viewer didn't come away feeling deceived or angry, because none of the controversial factors were present. The people in Oliver Twist became thieves, which was not very uncommon, just to survive. Being thieves was not exactly a sinecure, but at least they survived.

Yet throughout the whole movie Oliver!, the group of criminals is a humorous and sanguine group, all except for Bill Sikes, and there is not one hint of despondency. The movie was rather propitious and light-hearted. Throughout the entire novel, there was an aura of depression and deeply-felt grief and bitterness. The movie carried on and didn't reveal any type of loathing. The movie was mainly for entertainment; it was a movie meant to appeal to the audience, not to reveal any sort of truth. It had no other motive than what was on the screen; there was no concealed meaning.

Part of what makes Oliver Twist such a wonderful piece of literature is the mystery of Oliver's birth. The events are chained together and lead to the disclosure of Oliver's history. Dickens releases small portions of evidence at a time, such as the golden locket, the portrait, and the relation of Oliver to Monks. The readers find themselves pressing to read on and see themselves reaching to learn the truth of Oliver's past. The mystery is the plot in the book, and the movie revokes this. It instead forms the illusion that the plot is Oliver's struggle to attain an upper class and better life. This is a subplot in the book, but it is not as important as Oliver's history.

The compassion Nancy revealed wasn't shown at all in the movie, since the scene with Rose Maylie had been forgotten and was replaced by an unfeeling scene with Mr. Brownlow. The reader sees a different side to Nancy. It shows her compassion and her regret. The reader sees that Nancy is not totally hardened by her upbringing and she is still sensitive to what happens. When she is conversing with Rose in Oliver Twist, she begins to cry, which is the first time in the book that her sensitive side is revealed. In the movie, only her scorn for the upper class and her pity for Oliver is disclosed. The whole compassionate scene with Rose is what shows that Nancy is not totally hardened by her environment.

These two works differ in many ways. I hope this paper gave you some idea of what the movie industry has done to this novel. It has taken out all of the controversial points and turned it into a movie that has no significant impact on society. Dickens wrote Oliver Twist to provide opinion. The movie industry produced Oliver! to provide profit.


Horn Book Guide (review date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Horn Book Guide 6, no. 1 (spring 1995): 65.

Unusual fare for a picture book, the edited Dickensian ghost story [The Baron of Grogzwig ] tells of a footloose baron domesticated and made poor by marriage. He contemplates ending his life until a conversation with the Genius of Despair and Suicide convinces him that things are not as bleak as he had supposed. The prose is engaging, and the illustrations are lively and humorous.


SOURCE: School Library Journal 30, no. 2 (October 1983): 179.

One of the pleasures of receiving books whose timeless value or legendary status has made them classics is reading with new eyes a book read long ago but overlooked because it seemed too familiar to reread. A Christmas Carol may lack readers simply because most people feel they already know the story from its various movie and television incarnations. These editions, especially Hyman's, may help remedy that sad state. Foreman's edition is attractive: his eight full-page color paintings and numerous black-and-white drawings are appropriately eerie while the color illustrations show portions of Scrooge's visions—the visit by Marley's ghost, the appearance of Ali Baba, the "jolly Giant" who represents the spirit of Christmas present, the solitary lighthouse which that spirit shows to Scrooge, etc. The style is humorous and cartoon-like and would appeal to a younger age group than other editions of A Christmas Carol. However, the writing may be too difficult for the elementary school age child attracted by the format and illustrations of this edition. The only faults possible to find with Hyman's illustrations are that there aren't more of them (there are six full-page color ones and several small black and white) and that they are not placed exactly opposite the pages of the text they illustrate. But each is faithful in every detail to Dickens' descriptions. The ghosts are appropriately transparent and the old thieves who steal Scrooge's possessions have the sinister appearance one expects from Dickens' villains. The print is clear and readable. This is an attractive edition which should be more appealing to children than that illustrated by John Groth.

School Library Journal (review date October 1985)

SOURCE: School Library Journal 32, no. 2 (October 1985): 191. [Michael] Cole's full-color illustrations, although rich in detail, are heavy in shadows and dark hues, adding an accompanying somber tone to Dicken's familiar tale [A Christmas Carol ]. The interminably small print is surrounded by disjointed boxes and sections of illustrations that add confusion to the cluttered pages. For a lighter touch, without destroying the reality of Dickens' England, see Trina Schart Hyman's A Christmas Carol (1983), or Michael Foreman's A Christmas Carol (1983). This version would have more appeal for an older audience that could appreciate the depth of detail that Cole presents. The cover jacket alone, with sinister drawings, is enough to scare away the most enthusiastic of readers. Not a coffee table book to warm the hearts of holiday guests.

Joan Zahnleiter (review date November 1991)

SOURCE: Zahnleiter, Joan. Magpies 6, no. 5 (November 1991): 3-4.

This large deluxe edition of the celebrated story [A Christmas Carol ] first published in 1843, is a companion volume to [Roberto] Innocenti's rendition of Pinocchio. It is a beautiful combination of high quality book design and production which does justice to the classic text and Innocenti's splendid paintings.

Infinite care and artistic skill has gone into the presentation of the text of the page. Each page features soft shading in creamy tones from top to bottom with the text framed in fine lines decorated by a sprig of holly at the top and the page number in a small medallion at the bottom. An appropriate vignette is inset at the beginning of each chapter, e.g. the apparition of Marley's dead face in the door knocker at the beginning of chapter one. Fourteen full pages and three magnificent two page spreads in colour capture perfectly the mood of the story, the social life of the era, the contrast between poverty and wealth, and the bitter cold of the snowy Christmastide.

Innocenti's art work pays attention to fine detail but is suitably restrained and is never busy. It repays repeated browsing, with something more to discover each time, e.g. the face of Marley as a recurring motif in the tiles surrounding the fire place as his ghost and Scrooge have their celebrated tete-a-tete. The sombre tones of the earlier illustrations give way in the happy ending to a delightful study of Scrooge and Tiny Tim seen through an open window, in a summer garden.

This magnificent production of a classic tale is a collector's item and provides an aesthetic experience which children should have.

Publishers Weekly (review date 18 September 1995)

SOURCE: Publishers Weekly 242, no. 38 (18 September 1995): 96.

Though [Pamela] Kennedy (A Christmas Celebration) offers a crisp retelling [A Christmas Carol ] for the picture-book set, it is [Carol] Heyer's accomplished art that justifies yet another version of this classic. These impressively realistic acrylic paintings by the illustrator of Excalibur and All Things Bright and Beautiful are richly hued and filled with Victorian detail. Heyer effectively depicts such scenes as the horrified Scrooge eating his thin gruel as the chain-dragging ghost of Jacob Marley appears, and the transformed, ebullient Scrooge—a sprig of holly tucked into his hat band—announcing to Cratchit on the day after Christmas, "I'll not only pay you more, but I'll help your family." Since Kennedy stays close to Dickens's story line, her version doesn't bring Scrooge into the Cratchits' home on Christmas, which for many youngsters has undoubtedly become the familiar joyful climax of this tale.

Jane Marino (review date October 1996)

SOURCE: Marino, Jane. School Library Journal 42, no. 10 (October 1996): 34-5.

With over 28 different editions of A Christmas Carol in print, it is difficult to make a case for yet another one. This effort, described in the afterword as one in which Dickens himself made all the edits, is far shorter than the versions illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger (1991) or Michael Foreman (1983). Its manageable, read-aloud length and shimmering watercolor and colored-pencil illustrations make it an attractive package. The various ghosts are spectral with shimmering chains; innocent and filled with light; huge and rippling; or skeletal limbs and flowing veils, sending forth a greenish aura of death itself. The party scenes are more haunting than merry, the few splashes of color muted by the ever-present golden-brown hues. [Carter] Goodrich makes effective use of light and color to create this haunting version; the appealing artwork as well as the compact length are solid reasons to add this newest incarnation of the classic story to holiday collections.

Michael Patrick Hearne (review date 3 November 1996)

SOURCE: Hearne, Michael Patrick. Bookworld 26, no. 44 (3 November 1996): 10.

Not all humbugs may be found in Oz. Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol is the classic holiday parable about abundance, but Carter Goodrich's new edition is meager fare. So washed out and monochromatic are the pictures that it is not always clear exactly who are the ghosts and who are of flesh and blood. That is a shame, for this talented New Yorker artist did such a splendid job with The Nutcracker not so long ago. This time the American illustrator has not read up on the period or place and brings nothing new to Dickens's bountiful table. He also depicts a peculiarly prosperous Cratchit family. Likely the text chosen for The Books of Wonder edition has hampered him. Nowhere on the title-page is it mentioned that this is an abridgment. A peel-off sticker on the jacket calls it "Charles Dickens' Read-Aloud Edition," and one turns in vain to Peter Glassman's slim and misleading "Afterword" to find out exactly what it is. It is not A Christmas Carol in Prose as published in 1843 but the shortened version Dickens himself prepared for his public readings of the story.

It is by no means the first appearance of this text nor the first illustrated one as suggested here. Dickens himself published it in America in 1857 with a frontispiece by Sol Eytinge Jr., and Scott Cook interpreted it for Knopf a few years ago. If it is indeed as Glassman states "transcribed directly from the authors own prompt copy, now a part of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library," it may well be a copyright violation of the library's facsimile published in 1971. Although implied otherwise, the library never authorized The Books of Wonder edition. Those wishing to read A Christmas Carol this holiday season exactly as Dickens wrote it over 150 years ago must look elsewhere. And, as Ebenezer Scrooge observed, "Bah! Humbug!"

Charles Foran (essay date December 1996)

SOURCE: Foran, Charles. "How Ebenezer Got Scrooged." Saturday Night 111, no. 10 (December 1996): 115-20.

[In the following essay, Foran discusses the social commentary in A Christmas Carol.]

About Christmas, we know a few things. A white one is best. A green one will sometimes have to do. Reindeer like carrots. Santa likes his supper. The Grinch winds up mush in the hands of Cindy-Lou Who. Jimmy Stewart caves in to a single inept angel. And then there is Ebenezer Scrooge, the granddaddy of grumps.

Scrooge started off in a book—Charles Dickens's 1843 novella A Christmas Carol —but we know him as well from the movies. Scrooge is Alastair Sim and Mr. Magoo and Michael Caine giving Kermit the Frog a hard time. He's Bill Murray in Scrooged, a film that codified a new verb, and he's the actor in the bad wig peddling Canadian Tire products on TV. Our Scrooge, in print and on the screen, is not only a blowhard and a curmudgeon—Bah! Humbug!—he's also one tough nut: it takes three Spirits to crack him. Finally, though, he buys a turkey for the Cratchit family and gives his clerk a fat raise, so that Bob's son, Tiny Tim, won't die. God bless us, Everyone!

We know Scrooge because we know—or think we know—a few things about A Christmas Carol. This is the original, and best loved, of Dickens's Christmas books, which he once described as "a whimsical sort of masque intended to awaken loving and forbearing thoughts." This is a story so delirious in its detailing of Christmas merriment—dance parties and parlour games, visits to elders and elaborate family meals—that some, including Peter Ackroyd, author of an acclaimed biography of the novelist, believe that Dickens transformed how the holiday was celebrated in England. Meaning, in effect, that he paved the way for our own saccharine, treacly treatment of the birth of Jesus Christ.

And, finally, we're sure we have the book on Charles Dickens. He was the natural genius—no pedigree, little formal education—who wrote sprawling novels notable for their energy and empathy, not their original thinking. He was a source of cultural reassurance, not a challenge to values. In Dickens, for example, Peter Ackroyd offers a shopping list of motivations for A Christmas Carol. They include a glimpse of the effects of industrialization during a trip to America, a nightmarish visit to a charity school, and public speeches in which he promised to take action on behalf of labouring children. Here, in a way, is the stereotype of Dickens as the half-journalist, half-moralist, who responded to injustice by swiftly penning works of passionate denunciation and sticky sentimentality. By these standards, A Christmas Carol was light fare, a toss-off to earn the thirty-one-year-old author some much-needed cash.

Challenging all this received wisdom on the great Victorian and his novella isn't an easy task. But University of Toronto professor Fred Flahiff is hard at it, beginning with a bold new take on Ebenezer Scrooge. What Professor Flahiff knows is that Ebenezer Scrooge is an iconoclast who resists buying into the illusion of Christmas. He is a gruff social critic whose immortal "Bah! Humbug!" is not a peevish complaint—a Victorian would have recognized that humbug means "fraud" or "sham"—but a call to acknowledge the hypocrisy of society setting aside one day a year to satisfy all its altruistic obligations. He is an individualist who comes under intense pressure to conform. He is an unhappy man with integrity, who ends up a giddy baby, complicit in a lie.

I first heard Flahiff lecture on Scrooge in a 1981 undergraduate course in Victorian literature. His interpretation of A Christmas Carol stayed with me, as did his overall insistence on treating Charles Dickens as a complex mind. Fifteen years later, with the cultural view of Ebenezer Scrooge largely unchanged—Ackroyd, for example, offers no fresh insights into the character—I met my old professor again, and found him delightfully unrepentant. His theory remains audacious, but it is rooted in a close reading of the text, ears purposefully closed to the din of conventional thinking. Dickens, Flahiff believes, designed the story as a simple tale of a miser's redemption so that it simultaneously outlined a process that could be interpreted as achieving the exact opposite. The narrative, in other words, argues with itself about both the real function of Christmas and what society is putting Scrooge through in order to save his soul.

"Marley was dead," begins A Christmas Carol. "There is no doubt whatever about that." In fact, Jacob Marley, the longtime business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge, is "dead as a door-nail." Immediately, the narrator wonders why we use this expression. Dead as a coffin-nail, he reasons, would make more sense. "But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile," he concludes, "and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for." The narrator, it appears, wants the reader to be aware that everything that follows could be challenged, viewed in an entirely different, and even dangerous, light, but that he won't be doing so.

The business of asking awkward questions falls initially to Scrooge. Early in the story, he fends off Christmas Eve visitors in his office. To his nephew, who makes a point of inviting his irascible uncle to dinner each year, he says: "Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine." Next he tangles with two "portly gentlemen" who are seeking money for charity on the grounds that the poor "suffer greatly at the present time." Scrooge is thunderous in his refusal. "Are there no prisons or workhouses or poor laws?" he asks rhetorically. "I help to support the establishments I have mentioned," he continues. "They cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."

No question, he is already behaving like, well, Ebenezer Scrooge. What he is saying, though, isn't entirely unsound. The poor are as needy in summer as they are in winter. Why should one's attitude towards charity be different come late December? For Fred Flahiff, the corpulence and self-satisfaction of the charity seekers are significant: these are the haves of English society slumming it on behalf of the have-nots to appease their own consciences, and it is safe to say they won't be banging on doors with the same Christian fervour in July. To be effective, attention to social problems—in Victorian England or contemporary Canada—must be a year-round proposition. It isn't, of course; charities, especially food banks and shelters, still count heavily on the philanthropic bubble surrounding the holiday season.

Christmas, then, not only absolves us from our responsibilities as citizens, it helps to bury society's genuine problems and needs. Scrooge literally points this out near the end of his second fright. Having been forced by the Ghost of Christmas Present to endure a newsreel of his own past misjudgments, including a broken engagement with a kind-hearted woman, Scrooge is humiliated and contrite. His wits, though, are not yet blunted. Noticing a billow in the spirit's robe, he asks: "I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?" The Spirit, a jolly, well-fed man wearing a loose green robe and a holly wreath, is caught out by the question, and reveals his own dirty secret: two shivering children huddled at his feet. They are, of course, "Ignorance" and "Want," and are the property, the ghost claims, of all humanity. Scrooge then asks about guardianship. "Are there no prisons?" the Spirit snaps, throwing Ebenezer's earlier words back in his face. "Are there no work-houses?"

With that exchange readers learn the truth about child poverty: that it is a brutal presence in Victorian society. They see the Ghost of Christmas Present concealing that fact in his gown. And who notices this? Scrooge.

Finally, in a passage that Professor Flahiff calls "in-escapable," the narrator of A Christmas Carol forgets his first paragraph, with its embargo on dangerous thinking, and briefly collapses the character of Ebenezer Scrooge into that of Jesus Christ. As Scrooge is made to stare at his covered corpse, the narrator offers an elegy for the departed. "And see his good deeds springing from the wound," he says, "to sow the world with life immortal!" What could Christ and Scrooge possibly share in common? At first glance, little more than the fact that they both, in a sense, rise from the dead. For Flahiff, though, the connection is impatience with social conventions. Christ expels moneychangers from the temple: Scrooge denounces Christmas piety. In the New Testament, Christ ascends into heaven. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is reborn back into society. "I'm quite a baby," he says on Christmas morning. But it's difficult to say if he has been reborn or if he's regressed. The final section of the tale is titled "The End of It." This could simply refer to the narrative; it could also allude to Scrooge's independence. Likewise, the narrator's friendly conclusion about the new-and-improved Ebenezer Scrooge—"It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well"—suddenly seems cool, even dryly ironic.

To the modern reader, the comment also sounds an alarm. Our century's predilection for totalitarian regimes and mass culture has led artists to ponder aloud whether governments may eventually resort to reprogramming deviants or rebels in order to render them compliant, harmless citizens. Think of George Orwell's 1984 or Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. The visitations of the Spirits in A Christmas Carol, each one more terrifying, are clearly not going to end until Scrooge relents. Society will be satisfied only with his total surrender and, needless to say, it is all being done for his own good.

This may be stretching the point. Still, Fred Flahiff believes that "Dickens is only slowly emerging from the jeweller's cotton," an unwrapping that encourages reassessments. Critics now generally acknowledge the genius of Little Dorrit and Bleak House, the great novels of the 1850s. No coincidence, Professor Flahiff has long championed these books, noting, as have others, how Dickens railed in them against the gap between social conventions and real human need. All Flahiff is doing with A Christmas Carol is tracing that theme back to an early, not so obvious source. The U of T professor isn't alone in this: recent arguments for the story include it as a study in class differences, even as an attack on capitalism. As for Dickens himself, he is no help—if anything, his comments seem to encourage an innocent reading of the text. Flahiff, though, is unperturbed. "Great writers are courteous," he says. "Dickens would never have condescended to tell his audience how to read his work."

Even if he had been inclined to explain himself, the author might not have known what to say about A Christmas Carol. He clearly loved the Christmas season, and probably sat down in 1843 to sing its praises. In the process, he may have discovered an ambivalence about the social purposes of the holiday and the pressures it placed on individuals. Dickens didn't bury his unease so much as state it upfront, using the curious door-nail and coffin-nail simile in the story's opening. Only he declared that this theme was a road he was unprepared to travel down, at least not overtly.

It is easy to see why the young Dickens hesitated before this chasm. The narrator refers at the beginning of A Christmas Carol to a convention that must be maintained. What could it be except the convention of a Merry Christmas? Society counts on everyone's agreeing that December 25 should be a happy day, and that people ought to be nice to each other and generous towards the less fortunate. Challenge that—i.e. wonder why we shouldn't act in such a manner every day of the year—and you are questioning the wisdom of your ancestors. You are questioning the status quo, challenging the state. That can't be tolerated. That must be dealt with. Otherwise, the Country's done for.

Carol Rochman (review date 1 September 2000)

SOURCE: Rochman, Carol. Booklist 97, no. 1 (1 September 2000): 127.

Part of the Whole Story series, this packed volume includes the full original text of Dickens' Christmas classic [A Christmas Carol ], first published in 1843. William Geldart provides amazing new illustrations, in watercolor-and-ink cross-hatching, that capture the shivery drama as well as the comedy of the timeless story. There are also tiny reproductions of period pictures, fully captioned, with fascinating historical and biographical notes about Dickens' own childhood and the social conditions of his time. The problem is it's all packed into 100 pages, with barely a sliver of white space; everything is crammed into the margins. This is clearly not for reading aloud, or for those new to the story; but older readers who know the tale and remember where they heard it will enjoy browsing through the parts they love and dipping into the wealth of historical and biographical connections.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 September 2000)

SOURCE: Kirkus Reviews 68, no. 18 (15 September 2000): 1354.

Over 150 years old, it is no surprise that Dickens's classic tale [A Christmas Carol ] is filled with details and references that have become obscure—and so, voila! This sumptuous new edition, originally published in France, is printed on coated stock and well-supplied with marginal notes. It includes small but clear contemporary street scenes, title pages, documents, a mid-19th-century map of London, even reproduced portions of the original manuscript, all designed to give readers a literary and historical context for the story's creation and events. Readers will come to know more about Dickens, too, since many of the notes refer to the connections between his life and his writing. Moreover, [William] Geldart's homey, soft-lined new art complements the selected examples of John Leech's 1843 illustrations nicely to track Scrooge's changes. More colorful, if less scholarly, than The Annotated Christmas Carol (1989), this is not only well-suited to assignment-driven reading, but is likely to entice some new young fans into the Dickensian fold.

Publishers Weekly (review date 22 September 2003)

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 38 (22 September 2003): 76-7.

For many people in the 21st century, Dickens's A Christmas Carol has come to define what "keeping Christmas" should look like. And according to Michael Patrick Hearn's superb introduction to this annotated edition of Dickens's beloved classic, that was precisely the author's intention. Dickens feared that encroaching industrialism undermined the traditional values of family, faith and simplicity, and that killjoy Puritans had done away with many of the pleasures of Christmas, so he set out to revive old-fashioned English customs. Hearn's introduction grandly describes the story's enduring popularity around the world (including Dickens's irate but mostly ineffectual attempts to stem the tide of its plagiarism). The annotated edition is enriched by numerous wood etchings, including some from the original 1843 art by Punch cartoonist John Leech. Old Scrooge himself would approve.


David W. Toise (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Toise, David W. "'As Good as Nowhere': Dickens's Dombey and Son, the Contingency of Value, and Theories of Domesticity." Criticism 41, no. 3 (summer 1999): 323-48.

[In the following essay, Toise examines the Victorian attitude toward social change, domesticity, and economics as exemplified in Dombey and Son.]

In the order of things, Michel Foucault traces the shift from an early modern paradigm in which meaning was an inherent part of the sign to a more modern formulation in which meaning was positioned as the outcome of human efforts at representation and interpretation. Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Foucault argues, there was a shift from an early modern paradigm where "knowledge always resided entirely in the … sign" into a modern paradigm where "the sign … can be constituted only by an act of knowing."1 However, current accounts of domesticity in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century England suggest that while in the economic sphere people unhappily resigned themselves to the fact that meaning based on exchange was uncertain (investments could be lost or gained, partners could be friends or secret enemies), they expected the domestic sphere to exist as a utopian refuge precisely because things were just as they appeared. Thus, if the English were gradually coming to recognize the sort of shift that Foucault describes, studies of the domestic sphere suggest that they were coming to this recognition only in the economic sphere (and even there did so reluctantly). Examining "The home whose ideological dimensions Mary Poovey and Nancy Armstrong survey," Jeff Nunokawa points out that in these histories domesticity "offers a vacation from the pressures of the market economy, or translates the terms of its divisions and divisiveness from the marketplace where they are invented and exacerbated into a sphere of romance where they are resolved."2 Home offers a vacation from exchange because it is the site where meaning is more stable, free from divisions and divisiveness. James Thompson similarly argues that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, "with all of its monetary experiments and innovations in banking, credit, and paper currency, political economists were forced to acknowledge that, in effect, silver was not always silver, but novelists came to insist that love was always love, because value as such originated in the home and companionate marriage" (22). As Thompson formulates it, the domestic sphere, with its effusive emotions and properly sublimated sexuality, "can be read as an ideological regrounding of intrinsic value."3

However, it seems unlikely that culture could work in such a rigid and monolithic manner as these theories suggest. Even as Victorians were recognizing the increasingly representational nature of cash exchange they might not have applied this new sense of representation to exchanges in the personal sphere. Similarly, it is unlikely that if such an increasing sense of the power of representation to create meaning were recognized it would be a power entirely feared by Victorians, as out of their control and in their eyes necessarily and always best cordoned off to the economic sphere. I want to question, then, a model in which one sphere would always be associated with intrinsic value, that some notion of intrinsic value would always be associated with safety and comfort, and that each sphere would always depend upon different logics of representation. In this essay, I want to suggest a more flexible model in which either economic and/or sexual value could be paired with a choice of meaning that is either intrinsic or that results from exchange. The consensus on the apparently intrinsic nature of value in the emotional/sexual sphere (distinct from the sphere of economics) misses the possibility that Victorian texts may have presented the emerging structures of their increasingly institutionalized cash economy in terms that mirror rather than contrast with the presentation of the domestic sphere. For example, one possibility that has been overlooked is that not only may the pleasures of the domestic be figured as making up for the uncertainty and pains of the economic but that both spheres could be presented in a utopian light precisely because they depended upon a notion of value that is created through exchange.

This possibility appears less salient to critics of the domestic/public divide because they have focused so intensely on synchronic comparisons between these two categories. However, prior to a Victorian ideology of separate spheres, an early modern discourse linked, rather than separated, questions of status and rituals of marriage. As I discuss below, the early modern discourse linked economics and sexuality because in a world where value was intrinsic to the nature of commodities value was also limited by the amount of wealth already existent in the world. Because value could not be created by human efforts, the main focus of economic activity was the preservation and transmission of value through marital, reproductive, and familial relationships. What the traditional synchronic opposition between the economic and the domestic leaves out, then, is the need the Victorians had to distinguish the workings of value in these newly distinct spheres from that of early modernity, in which all value was intrinsic, limited, and beyond human attempts at creation. In the discussion of Charles Dickens's 1848 novel Dombey and Son that follows, I examine the split between the economic and the sexual itself as a principal catalyst in the creation of a new model of value in both spheres in which value is created through exchange.

When Sol Gills, the kindly uncle of this Dickens novel, first describes his investment in stocks, he does so woefully. Unable to get at his capital, he confusedly describes his money as "here and there, and—and, in short, it's as good as nowhere."4 But of course, his investment capital is out in the world, quickly circulating, allowing for corporate profits that will (with any luck) enable an eventual return on his investment. For Gills, the purpose of money seems to be only in its ability to be exchanged for commodities—if he can't see it, use it, exchange it for goods, it might as well be "nowhere." However, to understand the power of investment capital, Sol must give up conceiving of money as simply the tangible representation of the value of commodities; on the stock market, money itself is the commodity.

Gills must learn to live in a world where paper money does not simply represent commodities but becomes value itself. Gills's confusion about his money seems to refer to the circulation of money as a commodity and, in a related way, to the nineteenth-and twentieth-centuries' highly abstract, intangible notion of value. When money becomes a commodity, it becomes self-referential, losing its ties to the actual commodities it used to represent. In Capital, Marx describes how, in a system of advanced commodity exchange and investment capital, money circulates on its own, irrespective of any particular commodity: "instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, [money] … enters into private relations with itself."5 In other words, as Jean-Joseph Goux describes it, "the history of the money function is marked by a progression toward abstraction and convention."6 When money is free of its reference to the value of any commodity in particular, it becomes pure value in a highly abstract, exchangeable form. An implication of this shift is that now, as value in its purest, most representational form, cash defines, rather than simply represents, the value of goods. In a modern system of advanced commodity exchange and investment capital, money has no inherent value but only has meaning insofar as we give it power to represent a vast network of exchanges. In consequence, value is no longer a tangible aspect of goods but only a contingent meaning given to the object through cash exchange.

Dombey and Son places in novelistic form Marx's history of an increasingly abstract and contingent conception of economic value. Gills's puzzled and amateurish speculation contrasts with other characters' attitudes towards economic exchange; in particular, his attitude contrasts with the attitude of Paul Dombey, Sr., the compulsive mercantile trader, whose every thought is devoted to the status and glory his vast wealth brings him. Not surprisingly, Dombey's prideful and obsessive devotion to his wealth only leads, in this Victorian novel, to his downfall—the destruction of his business, the collapse of his health, and the loss of everything that is meaningful to him. Dombey has often been seen, in the words of Julian Moynahan, for example, as "a permanently valid image of the nineteenth-century Economic Man in all the unyielding pride of his power and the pathos and repulsiveness of his blighted heart."7 Similarly, Jeff Nunokawa classifies him as representing "a strain of nineteenth-and twentieth-century enthusiasm within the Occident for the exportation of capitalism to the third world."8 For these critics, Dombey represents the nineteenth-century economic sphere at its worst. I argue, however, that he represents, not nineteenth-century capitalism at its worst, but an increasingly archaic early modern ideology that was unable to separate the personal from the private. Dombey's obsession that everyone have "daily practical knowledge of his position in society" (51) is tinged by early modernity's aristocratic ideology and reflects a sense that no relationship is outside the concerns of status.9 Such an obsession also suggests a sense that worth—his worth, for example—does not exist unless it is palpable. Value that only exists in as much as it is apparent, touchable, real, indeed "practical," logically cannot simultaneously be recognized as an abstract, representational concept. While Sol Gills benign neglect of financial matters allows his money to take on new meaning, Dombey's rigid fixation with status prevents him from realizing the change that is occurring. Dombey, I argue, represents an increasingly archaic sense of value that is quickly being replaced by the ideology of free trade associated with a system of advanced commodity exchange and institutionalized investment capital. This system, much to Dombey's chagrin, seems to ignore considerations of status, making participants out of formerly passive, anonymous subjects like Sol Gills.

Reconceiving of Dombey not as representative of nineteenth-century capitalism but rather as signifying an early modern understanding of value allows us to see not only the new power given money's representational status but also the new power given to sentiment's representational status in the sphere of personal relations. If critics, according to my argument, have flattened out Dombey's historical resonances by simply making him the negative embodiment of capitalism in its entirety, they have in turn flattened out the resonances of Florence's domesticity, seeing it simply as a positive contrast to such a monolithic embodiment of capitalism. In Nina Auerbach's words, for example, the novel reveals the Victorian ideology in which "the power of the man who controls the world gives way before the influence of the woman who controls the mind."10 However, if Dombey doesn't simply represent the world but only one approach to it, then Florence may not stand in a simple opposition to the public or economic sphere in its entirety, especially if the world of the mind, or interpersonal relations, reveals fractures as well. In my reading, the relationship between Florence, Dombey's daughter and the novel's angel in the house, and the rest of the novel's characters suggests a new significance accorded to emotional relations no longer guided by considerations of status but by the power of emotions to signify familial ties even where, biologically and/or legally, none exist. If the importance of the actual commodity is surpassed by money's ability to represent it, the significance of documented lineage and alliance—which Dombey, as we shall see, expects emotions to signify—is surpassed by sentiment itself, which is now seen as creating, not simply representing, familial, personal, and sexual relations. In each case, what had formerly been seen as signifying a tangible, "practical," value, is then positioned as creating the reality of economic or personal/sexual value precisely because of its representational status. In this sense, I take up Goux's claim that a "fresh reading of the money form elaborated by Marx" can be applied to other domains, where values are no longer economic, where the play of substitutions defines qualitative value."11 Florence, rather than standing in clear opposition to the world of economic relations is equated with certain aspects of it.

If the nature of investment capital appears mysterious to Sol Gills, then the power of sentiment embodied by Dombey's neglected daughter Florence—"the ideal woman … alone in her unique 'sphere,'"12—has seemed equally abstract and ethereal to critics. As Audrey Jaffe writes, "Critics discussing Florence's influence on Dombey falter in describing the exact form this influence takes. She has what Louise Yelin calls a 'commanding submissiveness,' but precisely how her submissiveness commands is difficult to pinpoint. Auerbach writes that the manner in which she influences Dombey is 'ungraspable by definition.'"13 As these critics suggest, Florence appears as a self-referential symbol of domesticity without active control and cut off from the world of business. The power that Florence "commands," if that is the right word, is limited to her position as a signifier of purely non economic, deeply interpersonal love. Critics remain mystified by Florence's effects in a world of interpersonal connections precisely because she is seen simply as the only positive alternative to Dombey's monolithic representation of capitalism. However, the "power" Florence controls in an economy of sentiment exists in as much as she precisely mirrors the emergent significatory power of cash within the material economy.

The novel, then, places the process by which the economic and the emotional/sexual become inverse mirror images of each other in the context of a history of the increasingly representational nature of value within both economic and sexual/interpersonal exchanges. The novel's happy ending envisions the completely impersonal investments of Sol Gills providing the financial backing for the reemergence of the firm of Dombey and Son, while the new head of this firm, Sol's nephew Walter Gay, marries Florence Dombey out of a purely personal sense of love and sublimated sexuality. Emotional exchange in this novel can only happen in as much as love is distinct from status and economic interest and can be signified as love for Florence. Analogously, only when characters act as if cash is purely representational, abstract, and fully distinct from personal relations, does economic exchange function and thus cause the triumphant return, at the novel's close, of the firm of Dombey and Son. Florence, the abstract embodiment of the personal, and cash, the abstract embodiment of the economic, each serve a remarkably similar role in the structure of this narrative. The narrative logic of the text, then, contrasts Dombey's early modern notion of the tangible nature of value and the conflation of the economic and the personal, with a new, more contingent, representational, and abstract model of value that underlies the nineteenth-century distinction between the economic and the sexual. The opposition between the economic and the sexual allows for each term to retain meaning (through difference) even as, on its own, the meaning of each becomes increasingly abstracted and seemingly devoid of actual content. Bringing these two historical transformations together, I argue that Dombey and Son does not simply contrast the economic with the emotional/sexual but rather portrays a history in which the distinction between the economic and the sexual is linked to the emergence of a new model of value in each sphere that is increasingly contingent (or what we might call textual). In this way, the novel, rather than placing its utopian hopes solely in the solutions provided by domesticity, endorses the emergence of a new model of value and meaning in both of the increasingly distinct public and private spheres, a model that suggests that meaning resides neither in metaphysics nor the natural world but in attempts at representation itself.

In this early modern system of status and deference, economic concerns were linked to more personal concerns, such as familial lineage.14 The depiction of Dombey caricatures this system of social relations in as much as conjugal relations in Dombey's mind were not a site of emotional release (as it would become for moderns) but, simply, economic activity strategically conducted by other means. Dombey, true to this earlier paradigm, sees marriage not as an emotionally gratifying cross-gender relationship but as the means to continue the male line. That is why Dombey, in the following passage, sounds like the king of a vast empire as he imagines the putative happiness of his first wife, who, ironically, is about to die giving birth to his first son: "a matrimonial alliance with himself must, in the nature of things, be gratifying and honorable to any woman of common sense. [He believed] that the hope of giving birth to a new partner in such a House, could not fail to awaken a glorious and stirring ambition in the breast of the least ambitious of her sex" (50-51). In his mind, "aristocratic" honor eclipses conjugal affection, glory eclipses parental love. If there is any sense of the personal or the pleasures of the sexual in his musings on marriage, they are simply subsumed into concerns about public status. In other words, the emotional signifies status: in Dombey's world the emotional "must, in the nature of things" correspond to and signify alliance and honor. In truth, Mrs. Dombey is not brimming with honor, glory, ambitious stirrings, or even happiness. Instead she appears starved for affection: her "happiness was in the past, and [she] … was content to bind her broken spirit to the dutiful and meek endurance of the present" (50). Indeed, the contrast between Mr. Dombey's joy at the birth of his son and the "cool, business-like, gentlemanly, self-possessed regret" (54) which characterizes his reaction to the death of his wife in childbirth emphasizes the importance he places on the economic function of marriage, that is, to produce a new head of the Dombey firm. Her satisfaction, his wealth and arrogance are all, according to Dombey, the result of a world ordered by providence with Dombey at its pinnacle.

The novel similarly caricatures early modern notions of deference in Dombey's response to his son's question, "what is money?" (152). Dombey holds back a more technical explanation he would like to give (which I will discuss below), but he nonetheless offers the following, apparently more accessible answer: "money caused us to be honoured, feared, respected, courted, and admired, and made us powerful and glorious in the eyes of all men" (153). Money is valued first, not for its purchasing power, but rather because it recreates the deference associated with aristocratic status in early modern Europe: words like "honoured," "glory," and "courted," for example, ring deeply with the resonances of early modern aristocratic ideology. In Dombey's understanding, money is reminiscent of early modern wealth which was meant, as Nell McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb put it, to "underline the exclusive status of the nobility."15 This archaic understanding of wealth prevented the "democratization of consumption"16 necessary to a system of advanced commodity exchange and a full cash economy. Dombey represents a cultural moment prior to the "ethic of consumption" which, Joyce Appleby argues, in the late seventeenth-century appeared "to threaten the whole complex of conventional religious precepts."17 According to Albert Hirschman's study The Passions and the Interests, these religious precepts formed an ethics of desire in which lust, pride, and vanity were "solidly linked to one another in literature and thought" and were viewed as "wholly vicious or destructive."18 The emphasis on the control of desire overshadowed the importance Victorians place on the object of desire, economic or sexual. (In a historical shift too complex to be fully covered here, by completely separating the sexual as a separate discourse, moderns have refined this Victorian emphasis on the object of desire into the distinction between homo-or heterosexuality). This ethical imperative to control desire, then, tended to conflate the economic and the sexual just as early modern rituals of courtship, based on status and wealth, also conflated the economic and the sexual. The emergent ethics of consumption threatened this emphasis on the control of desire and the attendant "class discipline and social control" (as McKendrick puts it) that allowed aristocrats greater wealth and consumption without appearing to violate the control of desire.

We can find traces, again caricatured, in Dickens's presentation of this ethics of desire, in as much as even though Dombey thinks only of his company, its prestige, and its assets, he is characterized more forcefully by rigidity than by voracious desire. Dombey's desire, and this is precisely what is wrong with it in the moral context of the novel, seems to come to the surface only as inflexibility and the appearance of invulnerable self-control. Thus, the language Dickens uses to describe this rigidity and reluctance to express desire suggests a connection between an early modern understanding of value and a related emphasis on the control of the passions. Despite Dombey's overwhelming interest in his own property and the respect he is owed by others, he seems not to express desire or feelings at all but rather "kept his distant seat on the top of his throne." Dombey's fetishization of his status allows him to appear as invulnerable to "all gentle sympathy from without, all trust, all tenderness, all soft emotions" (648). Moreover, he does not see his unchecked interest in his own company and the wealth it provides as one of overweaning desire; it appears to him as a natural relation to the world around him. "The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and the moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships … stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre" (50). For Dombey, this invocation of early modernity's great chain of being places the force behind his acquisitiveness in the external construction of the world rather than positioning it as the result of internal desire. In his mind, his own value, the value of his firm and possessions, has reference to a providentially constructed yet tangible natural order, that is, how "the earth was made."

The contrast between Dombey and his rapacious right-hand man, Carker, only serves to highlight Dombey's seemingly automatic control of desire. Unlike Dombey, Carker was not born into the firm but worked his way up through his excessive flattery of his boss. Similarly, unlike Dombey, Carker is characterized by rampant desire: he wants everything that Dombey has, and attempts to steal both Dombey's company and his second wife, Edith. While Dombey's entitlement and seeming lack of desire are characterized by his rigidity (he is described as appearing "frozen" [103] and wearing the "armour" of pride [648]), Carker, the novel's evil, self-made man and rising capitalist, "sly of manner, sharp of tooth, soft of foot, watchful of eye, oily of tongue, cruel of heart, [and] nice of habit" (372-73), is symbolized by his overlarge and rapacious teeth. The contrast between Carker's greedy unending appetite and Dombey's greedy unending rigidity suggests that Dombey's sense of entitlement and strict propriety may present, as Robert Clark puts it, "an upper class version of Scrooge's miserliness"19 (despite Dombey's accumulation of wealth and some conspicuous consumption). Carker represents the endless acquisitiveness of consumer capitalism; Dombey represents the rigid control of limited resources in early modernity, Both Dombey and Scrooge seem more interested in salivating over the assets they have than in contemplating what their assets would allow them to acquire.

Robert Clark uses Foucault's conception of the early "deployment of alliance" to characterize Dombey and Scrooge. Describing the deployment of alliance as "a system of kinship that serves to maintain and reproduce the social structure" rather than to proliferate and extend it (as in modernity's deployment of sexuality), he links Dombey's emphasis on the preservation rather than expansion of his firm to the miser's intense control over his assets. Indeed, this comparison links Dombey not only to Scrooge but to other villains in the Dickens pantheon, such as Mrs. Clennam in Little Dorrit, who seem not just deeply interested in emotional control, but whose inability to take emotional risks is linked to financial rigidity as well. Like Scrooge and Dombey, Mrs. Clennam, according to John Kucich, is characterized by "extreme … repression."20 In her personal life, she hoards her emotions and seems unwilling to enter into new relationships. In her financial life, she seems equally unwilling to make new investments: she presides over a place of business which is "out of date and out of purpose," with an ever-shrinking clientele. As Arthur Clennam says of their unadventurous business practices: "our House has done less and less for some years past, and our dealings have progressively been on the decline … the track we have kept is not the track of the time; and we have been left far behind."21 Blurring the boundaries between public and private, this place of business is also Mrs. Clennam's home. Both her inability to separate the emotional from the economic, and her obsessive hoarding of value, are reflected in the following description of her inner life: she "was always balancing her bargains with the Majesty of heaven, posting up entries to her credit, strictly keeping her set-off, and claiming her due."22 Though eventually reformed by the novels' plots, each of these Dickens characters treats value as finite, reveals an intense control over their emotions, and refuses risk or speculation in either the emotional or financial realm.

Although Foucault's description of early modernity's deployment of alliance does not specifically suggest it, Dombey's conception of marriage and desire has links to an early modern conception of economic exchange. When, after the death of his mother—a life unable to be saved by money—little Paul Dombey, Jr. asks his father the philosophically inflected question, "What is money?" (read: what good can money do anyway?), the answer Dombey would like to give but fears his son will not understand involves "some explanation involving the terms circulating-medium, currency, depreciation of currency, paper, bullion, rates of exchange, value of precious metals in the market, and so forth" (152). Here, each of Dombey's terms deals with money as a medium of exchange that is powerfully controlled by the balance of trade between countries (i.e., "depreciation of currency" and "rates of exchange"), and we can infer that Dombey's import and export firm exploits differing countries' exchange rates. These terms suggest an early modern mercantilist conception in which "both bullion movements and fluctuations in foreign exchange rates depend upon the balance of merchandise trade."23 Ultimately, then, mercantilists saw national wealth as based on the percentage of the earth's precious metal (or bullion) that was hoarded in their national treasury. Mercantilism, Stanley Engerman points out, was based on "the 'zero-sum' nature of international power and wealth."24 As Joyce Appleby persuasively argues, such an emphasis "blocked" economic thinkers "from appreciating the role of domestic consumption."25 Because wealth based on the earth's limited resources of precious metals was limited, the mercantilist's economic strategy was to keep imports up, exports down, and, like Dombey's single-minded preservation of the family property, hoard wealth. Like Dombey's sense of status, economic value also seems figured as tangible—the amount of precious metal in the treasury of England or France, for example.

If we examine Dombey's emphasis on money as a means of exchange, as opposed to investment, it seems that his ideas fit more closely with what Marx would call simple circulation than the more historically advanced exchange of money as capital. Marx denotes exchange, which aims at the transfer of commodities as "simple circulation," represented by the formula "C[ommodity]-M[oney]-C[ommodity]," in which "money serves only one purpose, namely, their exchange."26 However, in advanced commodity exchange (M-C-M'), getting more money (M') is the goal of the process because money appears to have value on its own. Here cash, not the commodity, becomes the goal of exchange. Money therefore becomes not the means of exchange or the representation of the commodity's value, but rather money "presents itself as an independent substance." For mercantilists, the value of their currency clearly represents the difference between the value of the goods England imported from France and vice versa. Thus, since money is seen more powerfully to represent a relation to some tangible wealth and commodities than to embody an abstract notion of value in and of itself, we can say that exchange, for mercantilists, is closer to "simple commodity exchange" (C-M-C) than more fully advanced capitalist formulation. In this worldview, in which Dombey participates, economic value—just like Dombey's own personal value or status—seems inconceivable without its tangible referent in the natural world. It is striking that Dombey holds on to such a view despite the fact that Britain, at the time of the novel's action, was being transformed, in Robert Clark's words, "from a country ruled by merchants and landowners to one ruled by industrial entrepreneurs."27 Dombey seems comfortable with trade and, as Clark puts it, "disinclined to invest or speculate."28 Rather than placing him squarely, as Nunokawa suggests, within "nineteenth and twentieth-century enthusiasm … for the exportation of capitalism to the Third world," his business practices seem more closely tied to an old-fashioned discomfort with modern capitalism and a preference for mercantile trading practices that preceded the nineteenth century's greater institutionalization of investment and the workings of investment capital.

The changes that were rendering Dombey's view of value obsolete, particularly in the economic sphere, were reflected in governmental reforms contemporaneous with the writing and publication of Dickens' novel. The Corn Laws, repealed in 1846, and the Navigation Acts, repealed in 1849, were the linchpins of the waning protectionist economy supported by Britain's landed classes and shipping interests and opposed by industrialists and free-trade economists.29 Dickens made his opposition to protectionist economics and his commitment to free trade and an associated model of cash exchange clear. In his first editorial for the Daily News, Dickens declares an allegiance to, among other things, "Justice, Reason … [and] the free investment of Capital."30 Throughout the 1840s Dickens had made his opposition to the Corn Laws clear; in an essay entitled "The Agricultural Interest" in the Morning Chronicle, Dickens writes that "It is not alone within the walls of … the Free Trade Hall at Manchester … that the cry 'Repeal the Corn-Laws' is raised. It may be heard, moaning at night, through the straw-littered wards of Refuges for the Destitute … and may be plainly traced on every record of mortality."31 With Dombey and Son, Dickens seems to turn his attention away from the Corn Laws to the Navigation Acts, yet to be repealed. Paul Dombey, for whom (as I quote above) "the rivers and seas were formed to float [his] … ships," would typically benefit from the kind of protectionist policies that the Navigation Laws enforced because it "protected the British shipping industry against European competition … and compelled the colonies to trade through British ports," allowing British shipowners a monopoly, cutting down competition when they purchased goods in the colonies, and reducing competition when they sold them again in England.32

Alongside the dismantling of a set of laws that suggested a mercantilist philosophy of trade, England was reforming its banking system. Rather than continuing a system in which almost any bank could offer paper money, or notes, the Bank Act of 1844 was an attempt to tidy up a messy paper money situation by giving a monopoly to the Bank of England on future notes issued in England, with the eventual goal of eliminating all other note issues, and establishing requirements concerning the species in reserve backing up bank notes. Despite bullionists' attempts to put England fully back on a metal standard, the act did not, however, require that the full amount of notes in circulation be backed up by specie, allowing for the bank to issue 14,000,000 [pounds sterling] above its gold reserves that were backed, instead, by securities. Prior to this Bank Act, paper money was often issued by small, vulnerable banks whose frequent bankruptcy would make the banknotes worthless.33 The 1844 Bank Act was an attempt to standardize paper money, thus allowing the value signified by the paper to stand in for the "real" value of gold or silver. As John Vernon says of the results of the Bank Act of 1844, "money, like capital, became impersonal and mobile."34 As paper money becomes increasingly uniform and trustworthy as a representation of real value, metonymy becomes metaphor, and paper money appears as value itself. Suggesting just how much Dickens's novel was also part of this discussion, Charles Kindleberger in A Financial History of Western Europe states that the "most famous bullionist of the nineteenth century was Lord Overstone, taken by Dickens as the model for Mr. Dombey—most unfairly, insofar as Mr. Dombey is an unsympathetic figure who had no friends and who failed in business, whereas Lord Overstone had a wide circle of intimates and was inordinately successful as banker and as pundit on financial questions."35 Dombey thus stands in as an overdetermined figure of this historical moment: a combination of the arrogant and rigid aristocrat with no interest in emotion, love, and personal relations, the shipping magnate who benefits from the protectionist Navigation Acts, and the bullionist, Dombey represents a Victorian embodiment of a past quickly being eradicated. As the shift from metonymy to metaphor that the shift to paper money suggests, underlying the various aspects that converge in this overdetermined figure was the inability to recognize value as abstract and fully dependent upon exchange.

Despite this transformation of an early modern formulation of value, critics have focused on the distinction between the economic and the sexual as fully accounting for the novel's narrative structure. In the following section, I examine the contrast between Paul Dombey, Sr., who conflates the economic and the personal/sexual, and his daughter Florence, who seems to live fully within a world of emotions and sentiment as a significant part, although only one instance, of the novel's broader critique of Dombey's early modern notion of value. The "purity and innocence" (335) of Florence's disinterested feelings and sentiments serves to drive home the importance of the split between public and private, economic and sexual. While I argue below that Florence's embodiment of emotion and sentiment is only one aspect of the novel's critique of early modernity's notion of value, it is important both for the critical attention it has drawn and the clarity with which it throws into relief Dombey's own "contracted sympathies" (739). In contrast to Dombey, Florence exudes feelings and a domesticated sexuality that are fully distinct from economic concerns: "Nothing wandered in her thoughts but love" (326). With nothing but love on her mind, Florence has little interest in the status distinctions that occupy her father's mind, as her eventual marriage to the poor-but-honest Walter Gay suggests.

She first meets Walter as she is wandering aimlessly around the streets of London after having been robbed and separated from her nurse. Suggesting the romantic and sexualized potential of such a meeting, Dickens compares it to Cinderella's reunion with her Prince Charming. Informed that Walter could show her the way to her father's business, 'Florence runs towards Walter Gay, losing her shoe. He "picked up the shoe, and put it on the little foot as the Prince in the story might have fitted Cinderella's slipper on" (134). Florence's ability to circulate among the differing socioeconomic levels of London comes not just in this random meeting but also in her continuing interest in, and concern for, the inhabitants of the Mid-shipman—the small, nautical instrument shop where Walter, his uncle, and their friend, Captain Cuttle, live. Since Florence freely shows her emotion, the feelings that Dombey seems unable to express are recognized and circulate more widely. In comparison to the failed relationships of Dombey and his second wife, Edith, marked by "pride" and "flinty opposition" (736), Florence reveals latent "wifely" characteristics that allow her to create a sexually tinged domestic bliss while, for example, visiting the irascible, childlike, old sailor, Captain Cuttle. Here, though she knows little about the lives of the inhabitants of the Mid-shipman, she manages to magically arrange everything just so. Florence's tasks inspire "The captain's delight and wonder at the quiet housewifery of Florence" (775). She seemed to be "some Fairy, daintily performing these offices for him" (775). Indeed, Florence's housewifery sets off a volley of involuntary physical reactions: "the red rim on his forehead glowing again, in his unspeakable admiration.… When he had filled his pipe in an absolute reverie of satisfaction, Florence lighted it for him … and … looked at him with a smile that showed him so plainly how her forlorn heart turned to him, as her face did, through grief' (775). This attention and emotion seem to be more than the Captain can take, distracting him so "that the smoke of the pipe got into the Captain's throat and made him cough, and got into the Captain's eyes, and made them blink and water" (775). Florence was, we are told, "truly wishing to please him" (774). Here, the uncontrollable bodily reactions (perspiration, crying, coughing, blushing), her attention to his "pipe," etcetera, all suggest potentially erotic possibilities for the two characters. Significantly in this regard, Captain Cuttle is fond of pointing out in reference to Florence that "'Tis woman as seduces all mankind" (893). Florence both unconsciously and unproblematically suggests sexuality. In a pointed contrast to Dombey's reverence for status, more obscured feelings, and more stifled sexuality, Florence's self seems to be clearly visible in "a smile that showed him so plainly how her forlorn heart turned to him." This is a self that by its very presence in the world of the Mid-shipman proves itself unpreoccupied with issues of status. This scene encapsulates how Florence's sexual potential comes out in her ability to circulate freely both in the sense that she circulates among the various classes of England and that she shows her true feelings easily.

Emphasizing the power of Florence's embodiment of the domestic ideal, Robert Loesberg, for example, writes that Florence's relation "to the economic exchanges that surround her reenacts the Kantian sublime: 'the sublime is that, the mere ability to think which shows a faculty of mind surpassing every standard of sense.' In the same way, the ability to love Florence shows a faculty of mind surpassing every standard of economics."36 Loesberg sees the ethical significance of the novel as ultimately depending upon the transcendental meaning of affection. Similarly, Jeff Nunokawa stresses that the logic of domesticity differs from that of capital, arguing that "the marriage of … Florence is cast as a cure by the novel" which "establishes … a space for covert possession, sheltered from the alienating floodlights of capital."37 And Moynahan suggests that such a "cure" makes the novel literarily and politically naive: "At the end of Dombey and Son Dickens is saying that things would be all right if men of Dombey's class and function made their daughters their mothers and lay down.… The vast resources of human energy and wit that have been trapped within an unjust and destructively oriented socio-economic system are not released but merely abandoned."38 In Moynahan's reading, the novel's ending represents a retreat from the world of action and business into the home. These critics argue that the novel positions the value of emotional interaction, that is, love, as the stable standard against which the more ephemeral value that emerges from economic exchange can be compared.39 Like Loesberg, and these other critics, I suggest that the novel uses "the device of juxtaposing marriage and family with economic relationships."40 However, if Florence ends up exceeding the "function of money imagined by Dombey at the beginning of the novel,"41 Loesberg argues, it is more because Dombey incorrectly conceptualizes economic exchange, than because Florence's feeling, or the feeling she inspires, "surpasses every standard of economics." Ultimately, the idealized view of sentiment that Florence embodies does not seem more powerful, more awe-inspiring, or more important for narrative closure than the particular conception of money that enables the revival of the firm Dombey and Son: Sol Gills's long-forgotten investment.

In contrast to Dombey's obsessive concern with wealth and status, Sol Gills's relationship to money is a completely impersonal one; it is, in fact, wealth so unrelated to its owner's greed and compulsive control that the owners seemed virtually to have forgotten about it. In the final installment, when the great house of Dombey and Son has fallen, along with Dombey himself, we are told about the seemingly miraculous riches paid off by Sol Gills's ancient investments: "they do say … that some of Mr. Gills's old investments are coming out wonderfully well; and that instead of being behind the time in those respects, as he supposed, he was in truth, a little before it, and had to wait the fullness of the time and the design." In fact, "[t]he whisper is that Mr. Gills's money has begun to turn itself, and that it is turning itself over and over pretty briskly" (971). Gills is the otherwise poor owner of the Midshipman, the nautical instrument store that hasn't sold an instrument for as long as anyone can remember. The investment referred to briefly in chapters ten and eleven and then never mentioned until the end of the novel is first described in Sol Gills's moment of economic despair which I cite earlier in this essay: "It's here and there, and—and, in short, it's as good as nowhere," as indeed investment capital might often seem to an investor. Gills confesses, "I don't understand these things" (184). Diffuse and invisible—like the power of Florence's feelings—such money seems incomprehensible in the more personal terms in which Gills lives his life.

The seeming ability of investment capital to live a life completely divorced from its owner, magically augmenting itself—an ability which seems real in the world of this novel—was of course discussed by Marx. In advanced commodity exchange, the concept of investment capital emerges in which money circulates on its own: "the circulation M-C-M' appears abridged. We have its result without the intermediate stage, in the form M-M', 'en style lapidaire' so to say, money that is worth more money, value that is greater than itself."42 So that with the circulation of money itself, as in Mr. Gills's investment, the commodity upon which exchange might be assumed to be based has completely dropped out of sight, seeming to confirm that money is an independent substance, value itself, rather than the measure of value. In this system "both money and the commodity represent only different modes of value itself, the money in its general mode, the commodity in its particular or, so to say, disguised mode."43 If the commodity is value in its disguised mode, then money is the hidden meaning of all commodities: money lends meaning to the commodity. In other words, in contrast to Dombey's belief that value only exists in as much as it is tangible, in the world of advanced commodity exchange, value only exists in as much as it is in its abstract and representational form: money. In this novel Gills's investment is significant not, as it might be to Marx, because it covers over some other economic relation (between commodities, or even between people). Rather, the role of Mr. Gills's money in the plot of the novel—supporting the emergence of a new Dombey and Son without Dombey's deeply personal greed—suggests that the ethical significance of his money comes in its distinction from more personal relations. Mr. Gills's new fortune is funneled into the company of Dombey and Son through Walter Gay's (Mr. Gills's nephew and heir) noneconomically motivated marriage to Florence. As one character notes, Walter Gay, in reviving the firm of Dombey and Son, is "assisted by his uncle at the very best possible time of his fortunes" so that "from his daughter, after all, another Dombey and Son will … rise … triumphant" (974). Mr. Gills's investment, then, allows for the firm's rebirth in a world of more fully distinguished sexual and monetary economies than Dombey's.

Just as critics may have invested too much unilateral emphasis on Florence's role, they have tended to underplay the significance of Gills's investment. Even Robert Clark, who carefully notes Dombey's archaic approach to business, deemphasizes Gills's investment as only part of "an ending which does not so much resolve the novel's themes as retie them into a style more conventional, more generically appropriate"44 which cannot counter the text's overwhelmingly negative sense that "all will become venture, all will become risk."45 I argue that the investment suggests a new form of value that is mirrored in Florence's role in an economy of sentiment. This new form of value enables narrative resolution (to the extent that it can ever be offered) and contradicts Clark's sense that this new system of economic exchange is portrayed in the novel as making "the maintenance of working capital … impossible."46 But, indeed, Gills's investment allows not only the maintenance of capital but its increase as well. Thus, Gills's investment suggests not just a superficial happy ending but also a substantially new conception of value. Precisely because critics have missed the twinned, and ultimately mutually dependant, nature of the shift to a more abstract and contingent sense of value in both the economic and, now separate, personal/sexual sphere, they have been unable to see the ways in which an economy of sentiment mirrors the novel's cash economy.

The novel's positive representations of personal/sexual relations are not only clearly distinguished from the economic sphere but also are dependent upon the same conception of value we find in the successful and ethically efficacious investments of Sol Gills. Dombey, then, does not only misconceive economic value, he misconceives value itself. Long before the revival of the firm, Florence has set up an alternate economy from that in which her father participates: Dombey's economy is based on the exchange of goods, while Florence's is an economy based on the exchange of feeling. Because Dombey is completely involved in an economy of material wealth, status, and alliance and can see nothing outside of this economy, he can have no exchange of feeling with Florence. Since she can have no place in the continuation of the firm, a girl, to Dombey, "was merely a piece of based coin that couldn't be invested—a bad Boy—nothing more" (51). The novel suggests that in response to Dombey's neglect Florence has to create, on her own, other relationships distinct from concerns of commodity exchange in order to meet her emotional needs. Excluded from a familial structure based on a system of alliance and primogeniture, in which women only had value in as much as they could reproduce heirs or represent wealth, Florence redefines family as delimited, first and foremost, by a set of emotional ties, not by documented lineage and concerns of alliance. After the death of her brother and the subsequently increased alienation from her father, Florence thinks "of finding, a long way off, some little sisters to instruct, who should be gentle with her, and to whom, under some feigned name, she might attach herself, and who … would grow up in their happy home" (772). If she could only find another family, she would slip right in. Critic Audrey Jaffe asks "what is 'the family' in Dombey and Son ?"47 What does it mean to find a family, if family is actually something you are born into? Dombey expected Florence's mother to be happy simply because she was producing an heir to this all-important family; he expected the emotions of family members to signify and reflect their place in his empire. Florence's notion of family and her feelings, however, are no longer restricted to particular people like her father, nor do feelings simply reflect concerns of alliance; rather, her feelings can circulate outside a biologically defined family, creating families where no documentable lineage exists.

Because of this ability to circulate and her position as idealized sexual/emotional object, Florence is a wife/mother/daughter simply waiting to happen. Florence, as Jaffe points out, "remains true to an ideal of familial affection even when—in fact, especially when—it remains absent from her experience."48 The value of family refers not to the natural order, that is, to her actual family, nor to how the earth was made, but rather to her own, less tangible, more abstract, ideas about what family means. In her sense, families are groups of people who "act" like families; but, of course, the very circularity of this formulation suggests that what defines family is a set of interpersonal exchanges which correspond to an abstract, representational concept of "family" itself. Conversely, since she creates family wherever she goes, being in a relationship with Florence then allows other characters to take on the text's somewhat abstract value of a beloved family member (husband, wife, sister, daughter, son, mother, etc.). Once Florence has displayed her housework-magic for Captain Cuttle (as discussed above), he becomes, we are told, remarkably childlike. The scene suggests that if Florence is a wife/mother waiting to happen, then Captain Cuttle is a child waiting to happen. Florence's presence, and her embodiment of this sentimental ideal, seems to be the primary explanation for his full transformation. As they relax in the post-orgasmic haze of Florence's tidying efforts, the narrative voice dilating on the two figures, one next to the other, tells us that "unlike as they were externally … [n]o child could have surpassed Captain Cuttle in inexperience of everything but wind and weather; in simplicity, credulity, and generous trustfulness" (776). Captain Cuttle, a relative failure in economic terms, is valuable in the economy of feeling for his childlike nature: his responsiveness to Florence's ever-present affection and his love for Florence marks him as valuable in an economy of feeling.

Similarly, Florence's unexplained and immediate affection for her stepmother, Edith Dombey, uncovers the second Mrs. Dombey's hidden feelings. At the first moment of meeting Edith, when Dombey introduces her as Florence's new mother, the daughter "started and looked up at the beautiful face in a conflict of emotions, among which the tears that name awakened, struggled for a moment with surprise, interest, admiration, and an indefinable sort of fear. Then she cried out, 'Oh, Papa, may you be … very happy all your life!' and then fell weeping on the lady's bosom" (496). After a moment's hesitation, Florence literally falls to her new mother's breast and the new mother is, thus, quickly installed. Such a move strengthens our sense of the flexibility, even indiscriminateness, of Florence's sense of significant relations. In response, the heretofore icy and angry Edith Dombey reveals hidden warmth: "The beautiful lady, who at first had seemed to hesitate whether or not she should advance to Florence … bent her head down over Florence, and she kissed her on the cheek, but she said no word" (486). Florence's ability, or need, to feel immediate and intense emotions towards others—sometimes deserving, sometimes not—brings out what is a more hidden and discriminating affection in Edith's case.

Like Captain Cuttle, when Edith Dombey is seen side by side with Florence, her seemingly hidden value in the world of sentiment is made visible. Here the narrative voice considers the spectacle of Florence and Edith Dombey sitting beside each other: "Was this the woman whom Florence—an innocent girl, strong only in her earnestness and simple truth—could so impress, that by her side she was another creature, with her tempest of passion hushed, and her very pride subdued? Was this the woman who now sat beside her in a carriage, with her arms entwined, and who, while she courted and entreated her to love and trust her, drew her fair head to nestle on her breast, and would have laid down life to shield it from wrong or harm?" (504). Again, Florence seems able to make the value of feeling in others apparent by her steadfast and unconscious commitment to this abstract ideal of sentimental feeling.

As Walter describes her, she is "something precious, unattainable, unchangeable, and indefinite" (288); she is the abstract value of feeling in its purest form. As the standard, Florence operates like the "$" in a system of advanced commodity exchange. When placed next to a commodity on our supermarket shelf, "$" renders the commodity's unrealized internal use value visible and intelligible in terms of a system of exchange. As Florence's relations with Captain Cuttle, Edith, or Dombey reveal, each of the others' affection for Florence serves to characterize their affections more generally. But Florence can only serve this role if, like money, she continually needs to circulate to make her value felt: outside an economy of exchange, money by itself is just so much paper.

Just as Dombey resonates with other Dickens characters in need of reform, Florence tends to echo other Dickens heroines. The association of Florence's value with the magic of investment capital is echoed in Sissy Jupe's characterization in Dickens's 1854 novel Hard Times. Like Florence, Sissy Jupe, abandoned by her father, has no family of her own, but like Fanny is able to bring about the resurgence of this family, or at least its survival. Sissy Jupe, like Florence, survives an upbringing in which "everything was to be paid for.… Gratitude was to be abolished and the virtues springing from it were not to be."49 Because Sissy cannot help but believe in the value of her adoptive family, even though their treatment of her is far from kind, Sissy's loyal devotion to each member of her adopted family is ultimately seen as more pure than that of the blood relations. Like Florence, Sissy believes in the ideal of "familyness," rather than in the reality of her (non-biological) family. Just as Dombey underestimates both Florence and investment capital, Gradgrind underestimates Sissy's value and that of the economic activity with which she is clearly associated: entertainment. Sissy bears a remarkable resemblance to the product produced and consumed in the circus in as much as her transcendent goodness is a function of her efforts to entertain others. The end of the novel depicts her working the crowd, as it were: "trying hard to know her humbler fellow-creatures, and to beautify their lives … with … imaginative graces and delights. "50 Mr. Gradgrind dismisses entertainment as "idle imagination"51 presumably because it has no use value. If cash is that commodity that has only exchange value, then it may resemble literature and entertainment. Like paper money, like Sissy's role within the novel, the circus and entertainment more generally have value only in circulation and exchange, a value only created through the desires of the audience.

Carrying the connection between Florence Dombey and money one step further, we can see how Florence needs continual circulation in an economy of feeling to provide her identity. Because her father withholds what should be his natural sentiment, there is no other person whose feeling can take Florence out of the circulation in which the novel places her. Moreover, like money (which has no use value), Florence can never embody the use value of the familial relationship herself. Without her father's love, she cannot accumulate the value of feeling, but rather needs constant circulation. She constantly searches for, but never finds, either her father's love or some replacement for it. Her love for her father was "a wandering love, indeed, and castaway—but turning always to her father" (326). Ironically, at the end of the novel, as I discuss below, it is Florence's feelings that call forth feelings in her broken and desperate father—suggesting ultimately that he, like Captain Cuttle, like Edith, reflects the rather abstract value of her feeling and not, as she had once hoped, that she could hold onto, or embody, the value of his feeling. In other words, the original basis of her meaning—her relationship to her father has dropped away, but she continues to signify meaning because family is now defined as the ability to portray or represent "familyness" rather than a set of relations defined by lineage. Florence becomes the standard in this world precisely because of her ability to portray or represent this familial relationship with almost anyone, just as cash, which has no internal value or utility, becomes the standard because of its ability to represent the "value" of any commodity with which it is juxtaposed. Just as each commodity's value only exists through its relation to cash, the worth of each of the other characters is determined by their relation to—love for—Florence. Since Florence seems to love everyone despite what they do or say to her, her love seems both pure and contentless, just as cash (in a system of advanced commodity exchange) is pure value and represents no commodity in particular.

Florence does not just simulate money in as far as she is an abstract ideal: feeling for Florence is the currency in this sentimental economy. Discussing Edith Dombey's claim that Dombey's newfound love for Florence at the novel's closure "is one feeling in common between us now, that there never was before" (827), Loesberg argues that "Florence's role within the relationships in the novel is precisely as a circulating medium."52 For Dombey and Edith, the relationship each has to Florence allows feeling to circulate where it did not before. We can see this same dynamic in the relationship between the characters Toots and Miss Nipper. Toots, who enters the novel as a school-mate of Florence's younger brother, falls in love with Florence when she comes to visit her sibling. Miss Nipper enters the novel as Florence's crusty, but benign, maid. At the end of the novel, they are not each devoted to Florence on their own but rather each devoted to the other based on their strong feelings for Florence.

Here the characters' feelings for Florence enable them to circulate feeling amongst themselves. In a passage that leads to their eventual marriage, Toots and Miss Nipper bond in their mutual sadness over Florence's plans to go to sea with Walter Gay. Toots and Nipper "mingle their tears together" (883). In a conversation with Mr. Cuttle, Toots describes his marriage with Susan Nipper as based on their mutual feelings towards Florence. No instance of his wife's "excellent sense" has been more "remarkable than the perfection with which she has understood my devotion to Miss Dombey" (972-73). But Toots's wife does not just understand his devotion—she shares it. In response to his confession that he "consider[s] Miss Dombey the most beautiful, the most amiable, the most angelic of her sex," Miss Nipper, now Mrs. Toots, states "My dear, you're right. I think so too " (973; emphasis in original). In this example, feeling for Florence serves as the content of the relationship between Mr. Toots and Susan Nipper. Now what circulates is not simply feeling, but feeling about Florence.

Once the nexus of feeling, of which Florence is the center, distinguishes itself from concerns of alliance and documentable lineage and the economic sphere more generally, feeling for Florence takes on the properties of cash within the world of emotional interaction and exchange. Ultimately in relationships like Toots and Miss Nipper's, or more significantly, in the tenuous final connection between Edith and Dombey discussed above, affection for Florence takes on a life of its own, not simply representing feeling but also defining and facilitating its exchange. Here, in the circulation of feeling, the originary feeling (for example the originary marital relationship between Dombey and Edith themselves) seems to have dropped out. The common feeling between Edith and Dombey represents a mediated relation to Florence. In the Marxist formulation, C-M-C becomes M-C-M, the more generalizable form of value becomes the basis and goal of exchange. Analogously, since the originary feeling between, for example, Dombey and Edith becomes a mutual feeling about Florence, we can say that the more generalizable form of value—feeling for Florence—becomes the basis and goal of exchange in the economy of feeling as well. Florence's embodiment of the sentimental ideal positions her as the abstract signifier of value in a system of exchange.

After the ramifications of Gills's investment (a completely impersonal economic transaction) have already been felt, Mr. Dombey's reabsorption into the family begins. Now "ambitious projects trouble" Mr. Dombey "no more" (970). Now his "only pride is in his daughter and husband" (970). After Dombey's total breakdown ("shattered in mind and perilously sick in body" [957]), he begins to remake himself in his daughter's image. He does so at first through his relationship with his granddaughter, developing an interpersonal intensity that he had never had before. It is a bond that in its intensity echoes the dynamics of the novel's other profound erotic/emotional relationships. This relationship's intensity is in part marked by its private nature: "The child herself almost wonders at a certain secrecy he keeps in it.… He steals away to look at her, in her sleep. It pleases him to have her come wake him in the morning. He is fondest of her and most loving to her, when there is no creature by" (975). Instead of his highly controlled relation to money and property, the reformed, but disempowered, Mr. Dombey has at first a highly controlled relation to his granddaughter. He "hoards" little Florence "in his heart" (973). Even as Dombey rebuilds a more sentimental version of himself, this hoarding deprives his personal relationships of a wider impact. Florence's, or Walter Gay's, more free-flowing affection can reshape the social landscape by bringing together characters who might otherwise be separated by England's socioeconomic system. Because "[h]e is fondest of her and most loving to her, when there is no creature by," Dombey's affection still does not really circulate. Thus his emotional "hoarding" still seems lacking in relation to Florence's more generous affections.

However, in contrast to this initial foray into the world of sentiment, in the novel's close Dombey seems to transcend fully his previous notion of value and is rewarded with the benefits of this economy of sentiment. Just as M-C-M appears transformed into M-M', love for Florence seems to mysteriously augment itself: love for Florence mysteriously becomes [love for Florence] (1). The utopian appeal of investment capital's ability to magically augment itself with little effort on the part of its owner, as in Sol Gills's case, is matched by the possibility that love for Florence also magically augments itself, leading to an eternal wellspring of love. For example, Dombey's love for his daughter Florence is doubled in his love for his granddaughter, and hence her name: little Florence. Beyond this literally doubled return for his love, Dombey's love of Florence has an unending, seemingly miraculous, return. The last words of the novel show us the return on an investment that love of Florence can bring. It also shows us a Dombey less intent on "hoarding" his love for his granddaughter because he is more willing to share love with his family. Dombey here appears to reach a state of free-flowing affection closer to that of his daughter. The last paragraphs reveal how love of Florence, his daughter, turns into an unending source of love itself: "The voices in the waves speak low to [Dombey] … of Florence, day and night—plainest when he, his blooming daughter, and her husband, walk beside them … listening to their roar. They speak to him of Florence and his altered heart; of Florence and their ceaseless murmuring of the love, eternal and illimitable" (975-76). Having partly overcome his intensely secret hoarding of love so that he can share love as part of a group, love of Florence now becomes "eternal and illimitable." Moreover, his love of Florence calls forth not simply a return of such love, but makes accessible to him all the love the world has to offer. The dynamics of Victorian sentimentality seem to mirror those of investment capitalism: each set of relations here seems based on a contingent and abstract model of meaning. The mirror could hardly be a more appropriate image for the relation of sentimentality and investment capital: one the precise inverse of the other (suggesting the transposition which takes place in a mirror), but also strikingly similar in their inverse relation. Such a mirroring represents a new conception of value as ideologically coherent in as much as it operates in two fully oppositional spheres of human relations. The novel contrasts Dombey's pointedly old-fashioned model of value, which causes failure in both economic and emotional relations on the one hand, and a new, utopian model of economic exchange associated with—but distinct from—an idealized world of sentiment on the other. This contrast suggests that Dickens is aiming not just to distinguish a uniform monolith of economic relations from a uniform monolith of emotional and sexual relations. Rather, the novel contrasts two historical moments, each with its own specific articulation of value, and each with its own relation between the economic and the sexual.

This novel then works hard to separate the economic from the sexual that early modern culture had linked, for example, in courtship rituals that invoked status. As the novel separates what had formerly been linked, it maintains an underlying link between the economic and the sexual in a model of value that seems common to both the newly distinct economic and sexual spheres. Dickens's novel, then, is one example of the reformulation of desire which defines desire increasingly by the object which evokes it. Such a process has also continued into the twentieth century, reshaping the landscape of our sexuality, for example, by focusing with ever more energy on desire's object. Precisely because the divide between the economic and the sexual seems more intuitive to us, the energy with which Dickens imagines a world polarized into economic and sexual aims can seem simplistic precisely because we often miss the energy with which this new paradigm of economic and sexual exchanges needed to distinguish itself from a model of value that preceded it.

Jumping a century ahead, the culturally powerful divided between homo-and heterosexuality, for example, reveals how the twentieth century has brought us an increased focus on the object of desire within sexuality. It is only, I think, once we have begun to focus on the internal differences within sexuality as constitutive of it that the field of sexuality exists on its own as a fully independent field of inquiry. The birth of psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century consolidates this focus on the differences within sexualities, and in doing so fully distinguishes sexuality from other forms of human interaction. Similarly, Marxism analyzes the different objects of desire imagined by the capitalist producer and consumer. After the emergence of these two late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century schools of thought, the focus was not so much on the distinction between economic and sexual objects of desire, but on the differences within economic and sexual objects of desire. We can contrast our certainty about the distinct nature of the field of sexuality with the nineteenth century's taut metaphorical relations between the economic and the sexual. With this shift in mind, I want to suggest that inquiries into nineteenth-century domesticity and emotional/sexual exchanges that miss sexuality's deeply held similarities with economic exchange may, in one sense, impose a more recent, fuller distinction between the two fields. We may then be reading through our own intuitive sense of the full separation between the economic and the sexual a literature that is profoundly caught up in a struggle to distinguish itself from the still lingering early modern association between these two spheres of human interaction and the model of value upon which they depend.


  1. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 59.
  2. Jeff Nunokawa, The Afterlife of Property (Princeton University Press, 1994), 13. Nunokawa complicates the standard argument by arguing that even though the "angel of the house" was positioned as "a kind of estate exempted from all [the commodity's] … vicissitudes … the distance between domestic securities and the vicissitudes of capital circulation cannot be saved" (12). Nunokawa sees the possibility that value in the interpersonal realm of domesticity operates in accordance with the circulation of a cash economy. However, the point of his book is to show how Victorians resisted this comparison. In Making a Social Body, Mary Poovey uses Our Mutual Friend to ask the following question: "Given … the naturalization of womanly virtue, and the removal of many of the threatening connotations previously associated with credit, why might Dickens reanimate the old anxiety once generated by the link between woman and figuration?" (172-73). Poovey argues that in this novel, women become associated not with the internal, intrinsic value of domesticity, but with the unstable value of the economic sphere "because of the … emergence of the first specific challenge to the naturalization of female virtue. This challenge was articulated in the 1850s in a self-consciously politicized feminist movement, which was itself a response to the increasing number of women entering the workforce" (173). In this article, I suggest the association between domesticity and intrinsic value may not have been as hegemonic as Poovey assumes it was prior to Our Mutual Friend. See Poovey, Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830-1864 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
  3. James Thompson, Models of Value: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy and the Novel (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996), 21.
  4. Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation (1848; New York: Penguin Classics, 1970), 184. All future references to this work will be made parenthetically in the text.
  5. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling: New York: International Publishers, 1967), 153.
  6. Jean-Joseph Goux, Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud, trans. Jennifer Curtiss Gage (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 49.
  7. Julian Moynahan, "Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Firmness versus Wetness," in Dickens and the Twentieth Century, eds. John Gross and Gabriel Pearson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), 129.
  8. Nunokowa, 40.
  9. I use "early modernity" to specify a period in English history from approximately the sixteenth century to the early eighteenth century, which was marked by mercantile economic theory and aristocratic ideology. See Joyce Appleby, Neil McKendrick, and Albert Hirschman below.
  10. Nina Auerbach, Romantic Imprisonments: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 107.
  11. Goux, 3.
  12. Audrey Jaffe, Vanishing Points: Dickens, Narrative, and the Subject of Omniscience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 94.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Lawrence Stone, for example, argues that during the period roughly from 1450 to 1630 marriage, with its attendant family settlement, was a critical ingredient for the extension of the network of patronage connections, and was therefore strictly controlled" (73). The shift away from larger kinship structures to the patriarchal nuclear family from 1640 to 1800 does not represent a significant change in the ideology of marriage in these regards. Stone argues that from 1640 to 1800, "the choice of marriage partner … was especially important in a society where there were large financial and political stakes in marriage" (127). See Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, abridged addition (New York City: Harper Torchbooks, 1979). James Thompson describes how the genre of the novel works to embody this shift. Novels thus enable the shift to the "female protagonist who comes to be value for herself, not for what she brings with her. That is, by a process of transcoding the protagonist herself becomes the inestimable treasure, the jewel of great price, rather than a vehicle for, or representation of, portion, property, or inheritance" (21). Here Thompson describes the separation of economic from sexual value first emerging in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Of course, as this essay suggests, I disagree that this "transcoding" necessarily refigures women not as representing wealth but as intrinsically embodying value. If in the earlier view women are a "representation" of property this is surely a relation of metonymy between women and property, not a symbolic replacement where women appear to signify without being directly associated with wealth, as we usually think of representation or metaphor.
  15. Nell McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 2.
  16. Joyce Appleby, "Ideology and Theory: The Tension between Political and Economic Liberalism in Seventeenth-Century England," The American Historical Review, 81, 3 (June 1976), 515.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 21.
  19. Clark, 76.
  20. John Kucich, Repression in Victorian Fiction: Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 236.
  21. Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857; Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1967), 85.
  22. Little Dorrit, 89.
  23. Erich Roll, A History of Economic Thought (New York: Prentice Hall, 1940), 76.
  24. Stanley L. Engerman, "Mercantilism and Overseas Trade, 1700-1800," in The Economic History of Britain since 1700, Volume 1: 1700-1860, eds. R. Floud and D. McCloskey. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 197.
  25. Appleby, 500.
  26. Marx, 151.
  27. Robert Clark, "Riddling the Family Firm: The Sexual Economy in Dombey and Son, " ELH 51, 1 (Spring 1984), 76.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Knick Harley writes that the "British political consensus shifted radically in the middle of the nineteenth century from supporting a trade policy designed to protect vital interests—particularly the landed interests—to a commitment to free trade." See "Foreign Trade: Comparative Advantage and Performance," in The Economic History of Britain since 1700, Volume 1: 1700-1860, eds. R. Floud and D. McCloskey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 309.
  30. For the editorial quoted in full see Gerald C. Grubb's "Dickens and the Daily News: The Early Issues," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 6 (1961-62): 239-40.
  31. Charles Dickens, Reprinted Pieces, National Library edition (New York: Bigelow and Brown, n.d.), 375, cited in Michael Shelden, "Dickens, 'The Chimes,' and the Anti-Corn Law League," Victorian Studies (spring 1982): 335.
  32. Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey, eds. The Economic History of Britain since 1700, 469.
  33. For an explanation of the contents of the Bank Act of 1844 see Frank Whitson Fetter's The Economist in Parliament: 1760-1868 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1980), 106-7. For a broader history of this Act see Fetter's Development of British Monetary Orthodoxy, 1797-1875 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965). Also see chapter 10 "Banks and Credit," in Francois Crouzet's The Victorian Economy, trans. Anthony Forster (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 317-41.
  34. John Vernon, Money and Fiction: Literary Realism in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 32.
  35. Charles P. Kindleberger, A Financial History of Western Europe, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 36.
  36. Jonathan Loesberg, "Deconstruction, Historicism, and Overdetermination: Dislocations of the Marriage Plots in Robert Elsmere and Dombey and Son, " Victorian Studies (spring 1990): 458.
  37. Nunokawa, 51.
  38. Moynahan, 151.
  39. In various ways, these specific claims about Dickens's text have much in common with Thompson's more general claims about the development of the novel genre in as much as he claims that novelistic discussions of romance and courtship "can be read as an ideological regrounding of intrinsic value."
  40. Loesberg, 455.
  41. Ibid., 458.
  42. Marx, 153.
  43. Ibid., 152.
  44. Clark, 75.
  45. Ibid., 82.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Jaffe, 101.
  48. Ibid., 94.
  49. Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854; New York: Bantam Books, 1964), 292.
  50. Ibid., 301.
  51. Ibid., 42.
  52. Loesberg, 458.


David M. Wilkes (essay date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Wilkes, David M. "Dickens's David Copperfield. " Explicator 51, no. 3 (spring 1993): 157-59.

[In the following essay, Wilkes describes the character of David Copperfield as a softer version of Mr. Murdstone, particularly as portrayed in his relationship with Dora Spenlow.]

As the gentle hero of his own autobiography, David Copperfield is not immediately associated with a snake, a bandit, a beast, a monster, and a spider. Yet these are precisely the images that give definition to David's character at several points in the novel [David Copperfield ], especially when it comes to his relationship with Dora Spenlow.

Prior to meeting Dora, David tells us that his stepfather, Edward Murdstone, has already placed him in the general category of "little vipers" (105). We naturally dismiss this vitriolic comment as the sentiment of a child-hater, yet no sooner is this "gloomy theology" of Murdstone's outlined than we find the boy "twined round" his cruel stepfather and savagely biting him on the hand, albeit in self-defense (108). "It sets my teeth on edge to think of it," the adult David tells us, apparently still agitated by his own violent action (108). And upon entering Mr. Creakle's boarding school in the very next chapter, David is forced to wear a placard that reads, "Take care of him. He bites"—a sign that clearly identifies him with beastial behavior (130).

As David grows, so does the number of his pejorative labels. Nowhere is this made more clear than during a secret rendezvous with his betrothed Dora at the home of her friend, Miss Julia Mills. When he first enters, David is thought to be an intruding "Bandit" by Dora's wary little dog, Jip (602)—a description that is reminiscent of Milton's famous serpent-invader, the fallen Lucifer: "So clomb this first grand Thief into God's fold" (Paradise Lost 4.1.192). When David then ardently tries to impose his own vision of humble domesticity on Miss Spenlow—could she learn to keep house, to keep accounts, and to cook?—Dora is overcome with anxious tears and swoons on the spot. "I thought I had killed her, this time," David cries out, feeling all the while like "a remorseless brute and ruthless beast" (605). This shift to a harsher type of imagery tells of the emotional violence rendered by David's seemingly innocent request. After accidently pouring a container of needles over Dora instead of applying the appropriate "smelling bottle" to revive her (the entire sequence, in fact, reads like a comedic assault), David then desperately declares, "Behold the destroyer!"—again drawing an intertextual parallel with that well-known "Destroyer" of Milton's epic poem (see 4.2.748-49).

By the time David actually leaves Dora, he feels "like a sort of Monster who had got into a Fairy's bower" (607). And rightly so, for he has been a threatening presence in both the Mills's house and the Spenlow bower, as Dora's father clearly notes after discovering his daughter's secret engagement: "You are very much to blame, sir.… You have done a stealthy and unbecoming action, Mr. Copperfield" (614). Although David acknowledges, "all the blame is mine … and I bitterly regret" the deception involved, he immediately resumes his amorous assault when Mr. Spenlow suddenly dies.

With all the significant obstacles removed, David marries Dora only to reproduce the harmful behavior of his spidery stepfather, Edward Murdstone, that consummate predator, who eventually destroys the women he marries. Just as Murdstone disrupted Clara's secure haven at Blunderstone, so David snatches Dora from her protective environment at her father's. Whereas Murdstone began immediately to impose his notion of "firmness" on Clara (99), David indulges Dora's impracticality for a while until it becomes unacceptable to him, and then he, too, decides to apply some firmness of his own. But what specific action should he take? Should he "'form her mind'? This was a common phrase of words which had a fair and promising sound, and I resolved to form Dora's mind" (762).

David's rhetoric here registers simultaneously the conscious, patriarchal assumption that altering a woman's mind was acceptable and David's own subconscious decision to turn to the very practice that drained the life out of his own mother, for Murdstone's desire to "form" Clara Copperfield's thinking proved to be nothing less than a form of deadly oppression. So, too, is the stepson's attempt to shape his wife's mind, for "it had no other effect upon Dora than to depress her spirits" (763). James Kincaid notes in passing that David "steps briefly into the role of Murdstone" (190). Kincaid's discussion, however, does not focus on the similar way in which David plays the part of the oppressive manipulator:

I found myself in the condition of a schoolmaster, a trap, a pitfall; of always playing the spider to Dora's fly, and always pouncing out of my hole to her infinite disturbance.


This Murdstonean tendency to manipulate for selfish reasons is what informs David's desire to play "the spider to Dora's fly," a practice that curiously precedes her premature and unexplained death. Just as Murdstone gave Clara "the wounds she died of" (270)—for as Peggotty-Barkis tells us, "a hard word was like a blow to her" (185)—so David appears to have "killed off" his wife with the harsh rhetoric of his mind-forming experiment. It is a disturbing conclusion indeed, one that the narrator manages quietly, or even subconsciously, to sidestep.

Yet Copperfield differs from Murdstone in one very crucial respect: After one last, unsuccessful attempt at playing the spider to Agnes Wickfield's fly, by compelling her to reveal "a secret.… Let me share it, Agnes" (934), David finally yields to love's transformational influence, which in turn adds a redemptive cast to the writer's presentation of himself as a brutish figure capable of doing harm. Such a change perhaps also allows Dickens to close his thinly veiled autobiography with a similar type of reassurance: that with the right kind of love (which he later seeks from actress Ellen Ternan), he too can lay to rest those brutish thoughts and behaviors regarding his own disappointing marriage to Kate Dickens, that real-life Dora who could not be so gracefully removed with the convenient stroke of a pen.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. 1850. New York: Penguin Classics, 1985.

Kincaid, James. Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1971.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Merritt Y. Hughes, ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1978.


Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 August 2000)

SOURCE: Kirkus Reviews 68, no. 15 (1 August 2000): 1114-15.

[Harvey] Chan (Music for the Tsar of the Sea, 1998) illustrates one of Dickens's lesser-known Christmas stories [The Child's Story ] (in this case there's only a passing reference to the holiday) with lustrous, full-page scenes of figures in antique dress, slightly hazy as if viewed through a scrim, and moving through shadowy woods. It's an allegorical journey, in which a never-seen traveler is accompanied for a time, in turn, by a child, a student, a young swain, and a hardworking family man, then sits down at the end with an elder to bring them all back in memory. Except for one brief omission, the author's stately, eloquent, sentiment-rich narrative is left untouched: "They had plenty of the finest toys in the world and the most astonishing picture books: all about scimitars and slippers and turbans, and dwarfs and giants and genii and fairies, and blue-beards and bean-stalks and riches and caverns and forests and Valentines and Orsons: and all new and all true." Still among the greatest of "crossover" writers, Dickens broadens the appeal of this most ancient of metaphors by casting it as a tale told by a child—and it positively begs to be read aloud.

Susan Hepler (review date October 2000)

SOURCE: Hepler, Susan. School Library Journal 46, no. 10 (October 2000): 120-21.

Originally published as a short story in the mid-1800s, this [The Child's Story ] allegory for life's journey introduces a traveler who joins and "loses" various companions along the way. He meets a child who is always at play, a boy who is always learning, a young man who is always in love, a grown man who is always working, and, finally, an old man who is always remembering. Players come and go while the observing wayfarer moves inexorably forward and the tone of the narrative and the illustrations darkens. [Harvey] Chan's dramatic, often murky paintings, rendered in oil pastels, reveal the companions at rest or at work while the never-depicted traveler remains offstage. Children are likely to understand Dickens's comparison of life and journeys. However, with no plot, an enigmatic intrusive nod to "grandfather" (the old man) at the end, and various unfamiliar Victorian circumlocutions and references, this easy introduction to allegory may not find an audience.

Publishers Weekly (review date 9 October 2000)

SOURCE: Publishers Weekly 247, no. 41 (9 October 2000): 86.

Rendered in oil pastels, [Harvey] Chan's (Music for the Tsar of the Sea) softly focused, shadowy paintings at once capture a Victorian sensibility and the ethereal, romantic tenor of Dickens's lyrical parable [The Child's Story ] about the cycle of life. Marked by a verbal economy not usually associated with this novelist, the narrative describes a traveler who sets out upon a "magic journey [that] was to seem very long when he began it, and very short when he got halfway through." Along the way he makes several stops: he spends time with a beautiful child who "is always at play"; a handsome boy who is "always learning" (but finds time to partake in "the merriest games that ever were played"); and later a young man who announces, "I am always in love." Chan's illustrations hint at the story's outcome as he charts the resemblance between the boy, the young man and finally the old man who is "always remembering. Come and remember with me!" On a final spread, all the traveler's friends reappear and bring the tale full circle. Though youngsters may need shepherding through this unabashedly sentimental journey, readers young and old will appreciate Dickens's vision and honesty, as well as Chan's evocative artwork.

Grace Anne A. DeCandido (review date 1 December 2000)

SOURCE: DeCandido, Grace Anne A. Booklist 97, no. 7 (1 December 2000): 718.

Like most of Dickens' work, this sentimental story [The Child's Story ] is a parable of sorts. A traveler meets a young boy who says, "I am always at play. Come and play with me." And the traveler does. The youngster vanishes and is replaced by an older boy who says, "I am always learning. Come and learn with me." And the traveler does. That boy is replaced by a young man who is always in love, followed by an older man who is always busy. Then more children appear as the traveler advances through all the stages of his life. [Harvey] Chan's accompanying oil-pastel paintings are richly colored and evocative, beautifully capturing a sense of misty memory. His opening picture of a boy on a rocking horse surrounded by books, blocks, and toy, is a marvelous, memorable image. Read this aloud to allow the stately pace and opulent vocabulary to unfold naturally.


Terry Eagleton (essay date 7 April 2003)

SOURCE: Eagleton, Terry. "Hard Times: False, Fragmented and Unfair, Dickens's 19th-Century London Offers a Grimly Prophetic Vision of the World Today." New Statesman 132, no. 4632 (7 April 2003): 40-1.

[In the following essay, Eagleton contends that Bleak House has improved with age.]

Some novels, like some alcoholic drinks, improve with age. A century or so after they first appear, they may seem more urgently contemporary than they were on the day of their publication. Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, published in the mid-18th century, has a claim to being the greatest of English novels—not least if you think size matters, as it is certainly the longest. But the Victorians found it prudish and preachy, and only with the advent of modern feminism did this astonishing portrait of a cruelly exploited woman come triumphantly into its own. The paranoid fictions of Franz Kafka only really came alive once we had witnessed the rise of totalitarian states. Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent includes the first suicide bomber in English literature, which makes it more relevant now than it was when it first appeared in 1907.

The same might be said of one of the most magnificent of all English novels, Charles Dickens's Bleak House. At first glance, this claim might be doubted. The book opens with one of the great Victorian literary set pieces, a vision of London shrouded from end to end in fog; and pea-soupers, along with Peelers, are features of 19th-century London which have passed away. This fog, however, is more symbolic than real. It is a dank, clammy, putrid, fetid ooze that seeps into every crevice of Victorian society; from the East End slums to the Lord Chancellor's chambers. Later in the book, it will merge into the foul infection which creeps from the human cesspit of Tom-all-Alone's to contaminate the fashionable suburbs.

What also spontaneously combusts in the book is its central plot: the Kafkaesque legal case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which has dragged on for so long that there is nobody still around who understands what it is about. The lawsuit finally eats up its own expenses and collapses. It is one of Dickens's many images of a social order which is out of control—one that works by its own impenetrable logic, callously indifferent to the human lives it is supposed to serve.

This is a clairvoyantly ecological vision. Dickens sees his society as rotting, unravelling, so freighted with meaningless matter that it is sinking back gradually into some primeval slime. In Our Mutual Friend, London is one huge dust heap, and "dust" is a Dickensian euphemism. The whole place is awash with garbage, and human beings are becoming hard to distinguish from bits of rag and bone. The sinister Krook of Bleak House dies by spontaneously combusting, reduced to a few spots of grease, as though this whole top-heavy system is in danger of imploding.

The fog is symbolic of this social opaqueness. Men and women in this world are caught up together in the same sombre narrative, their lives subtly intermeshed. In Bleak House, Jo the illiterate crossing-sweeper, the decaying aristocracy of Lord and Lady Dedlock, and the saintly middle-class narrator Esther Summerson are all secretly interconnected without being aware of it. But this is a plot that no one of them is able to fathom. The unlettered Jo and Krook quite literally cannot "read" the world around them. Only the novelist himself can bring these hidden relations to light, laying bare the logic of a world that no one any longer can decipher as a whole.

This, too, has a prophetic feel to it. It is, so to speak, Dickens's version of globalisation. The more unified the world is, the more fragmented it feels. In Bleak House, as in the global banking system, everything connects with everything else; but like the fog, the contagious fever and the lawsuit, these are negative images of human solidarity. It is as though any more positive version of human relations is now impossible to represent. Characters in Bleak House live in their own secluded, sealed-off worlds: the crazed Miss Flite, the washed-up Dedlocks, the destitute Jo, the paranoiacally suspicious Krook, the scatologically named Mr Turveydrop. The system that brings them together also forces them apart. For these figures, there is no such thing as society—and this, ironically, at exactly the point when society feels more "total" than ever before.

Social life, as usual with Dickens, is just a bewildering assortment of eccentrics, grotesques, amiable idiots and moral monstrosities. They have no language in common, as each sports his or her unique mode of speech like an eye-catching disability. The only thing they share, ironically, is solitude. Jo is an orphan, like so many Dickensian children; but being orphaned is now a collective condition, as society disowns responsibility for its citizens.

What governs this world, as in Little Dorrit or Great Expectations, is money. But money is no longer just in the miserliness of a Fagin: it is now a system that imprisons and denatures even those supposed to be in command of it. The staggeringly rich financier in Little Dorrit, Merdle (another suggestively excremental name), is a mouse of a man terrified of his own butler and driven finally to suicide. The government officials who supposedly run the state bureaucracy advise you confidentially to steer well clear of it. Crime, poverty and deepening inequality are now apparently "Nobody's Fault"—one of Dickens's original titles for Bleak House.

Dickens no longer trusts that all this could be set to rights, as it might have been in his earlier fiction, by some bumbling paternalist with a twinkle in his eye and a purse in his fist. Nor can he turn to the family as a refuge from a heartless society. The families of Bleak House are more a microcosm of society than an alternative to it. They tend to be twisted patriarchal set-ups, domestic versions of the oppressive state. Dickens's fiction is full of failed fathers and false paternalists, prematurely aged children and waifs of indeterminate age. The whole socio-sexual network is somehow diseased. In Great Expectations, the hero's mother is actually his sister, while his brother-in-law plays the role of his father. Harold Skimpole, the bohemian artist of Bleak House, has hordes of children and little to feed them on; but whereas the young Dickens would have sneakingly admired this extravagant irresponsibility, Skimpole is unmasked as a squalid egotist.

Are there no points of light in this darkening vision? There are a few, but they are hardly adequate. Dickens was close to some of the utilitarian reformists, sharing something of their Blairite, briskly modernising spirit. The positive characters in Bleak House are men with practical skills who get something done, characters such as Woodcourt (a physician), Bucket (a detective) and Rouncewell (an inventor). They are the hard-headed types who will dispel the fog, uncover concealed connections and patch up a social order bound together by little more than the rotting parchment of its bureaucracy.

Yet if Bleak House urges this solution, it also protests against it. Its imaginative insight is at odds with its politics. It would take a good deal more than improved medical care and sanitation to repair the false, dehumanised society it portrays. Bleak House, like quite a lot of novels, is a good deal more radical than its author. Its creative power is so deep that it puts into question its own reformist solutions. Nobody ever accused our own Blairites of doing that.


Lionel Trilling (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Trilling, Lionel. " Little Dorrit. "In The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism, pp. 50-65. New York: Viking Press, 1955.

[In the following essay, Trilling discusses the historical and societal context of Little Dorrit.]

Little Dorrit is one of the three great novels of Dickens' great last period, but of the three it is perhaps the least established with modern readers. When it first appeared—in monthly parts from December 1855 to June 1857—its success was even more decisive than that of Bleak House, but the suffrage of later audiences has gone the other way, and of all Dickens' later works it is Bleak House that has come to be the best known. As for Our Mutual Friend, after having for some time met with adverse critical opinion among the enlightened—one recalls that the youthful Henry James attacked it for standing in the way of art and truth—it has of recent years been regarded with ever-growing admiration. But Little Dorrit seems to have retired to the background and shadow of our consciousness of Dickens.

This does not make an occasion for concern or indignation. With a body of work as large and as enduring as that of Dickens, taste and opinion will never be done. They will shift and veer as they have shifted and veered with the canon of Shakespeare, and each generation will have its special favorites and make its surprised discoveries. Little Dorrit, one of the most profound of Dickens' novels and one of the most significant works of the nineteenth century, will not fail to be thought of as speaking with a peculiar and passionate intimacy to our own time.

Little Dorrit is about society, which certainly does not distinguish it from the rest of Dickens' novels unless we go on to say, as we must, that it is more about society than any other of the novels, that it is about society in its very essence. This essential quality of the book has become apparent as many of the particular social conditions to which it refers have passed into history. Some of these conditions were already of the past when Dickens wrote, for although imprisonment for debt was indeed not wholly given up until 1869, yet imprisonment for small debts had been done away with in 1844, the prison of the Marshalsea had been abolished in 1842 and the Court of the Marshalsea in 1849. Bernard Shaw said of Little Dorrit that it converted him to socialism; it is not likely that any contemporary English reader would feel it appropriate to respond to its social message in the same way. The dead hand of outworn tradition no longer supports special privilege in England. For good or bad, in scarcely any country in the world can the whole art of government be said to be How Not To Do It. Mrs. General cannot impose the genteel discipline of Prunes and Prisms, and no prestige whatever attaches to "the truly refined mind" of her definition—"one that will seem to be ignorant of the existence of anything that is not perfectly proper, placid, and pleasant." At no point, perhaps, do the particular abuses and absurdities upon which Dickens directed his terrible cold anger represent the problems of social life as we now conceive them.

Yet this makes Little Dorrit not less but more relevant to our sense of things. As the particulars seem less immediate to our case, the general force of the novel becomes greater, and Little Dorrit is seen to be about a problem which does not yield easily to time. It is about society in relation to the individual human will. This is certainly a matter general enough—general to the point of tautology, were it not for the bitterness with which the tautology is articulated, were it not for the specificity and the subtlety and the boldness with which the human will is anatomized.

The subject of Little Dorrit is borne in upon us by the symbol, or emblem, of the book, which is the prison. The story opens in a prison in Marseilles. It goes on to the Marshalsea, which in effect it never leaves. The second of the two parts of the novel begins in what we are urged to think of as a sort of prison, the monastery of the Great St. Bernard. The Circumlocution Office is the prison of the creative mind of England. Mr. Merdle is shown habitually holding himself by the wrist, taking himself into custody, and in a score of ways the theme of incarceration is carried out, persons and classes being imprisoned by their notions of their predestined fate or their religious duty, or by their occupations, their life schemes, their ideas of themselves, their very habits of language.

Symbolic or emblematic devices are used by Dickens to one degree or another in several of the novels of his late period, but nowhere to such good effect as in Little Dorrit. The fog of Bleak House, the dust heap and the river of Our Mutual Friend are very striking, but they scarcely equal in force the prison image which dominates Little Dorrit. This is because the prison is an actuality before it is ever a symbol;1 its connection with the will is real, it is the practical instrument for the negation of man's will which the will of society has contrived. As such, the prison haunted the mind of the nineteenth century, which may be said to have had its birth at the fall of the Bastille. The genius of the age, conceiving itself as creative will, naturally thought of the prisons from which it must be freed, and the trumpet call of the "Leonore" overture sounds through the century, the signal for the opening of the gates, for a general deliverance, although it grows fainter as men come to think of the prison not as a political instrument merely but as the ineluctable condition of life in society. "Most men in a brazen prison live"—the line in which Matthew Arnold echoes Wordsworth's "shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing boy," might have served as the epigraph of Little Dorrit. In the mind of Dickens himself the idea of the prison was obsessive, not merely because of his own boyhood experience of prison life through his father's three months in the Marshalsea (although this must be given great weight in our understanding of his intense preoccupation with the theme), but because of his own consciousness of the force and scope of his will.

If we speak of the place which the image of the prison occupied in the mind of the nineteenth century, we ought to recollect a certain German picture of the time, inconsiderable in itself but made significant by its use in a famous work of the early twentieth century. It represents a man lying in a medieval dungeon; he is asleep, his head pillowed on straw, and we know that he dreams of freedom because the bars on his window are shown being sawed by gnomes. This picture serves as the frontispiece of Freud's Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis—Freud uses it to make plain one of the more elementary ideas of his psychology, the idea of the fulfillment in dream or fantasy of impulses of the will that cannot be fulfilled in actuality. His choice of this particular picture is not fortuitous; other graphic representations of wish-fulfillment exist which might have served equally well his immediate didactic purpose, but Freud's general conception of the mind does indeed make the prison image peculiarly appropriate. And Freud is in point here because in a passage of Little Dorrit Dickens anticipates one of Freud's ideas, and not one of the simplest but nothing less bold and inclusive than the essential theory of the neurosis.

The brief passage to which I make reference occurs in the course of Arthur Clennam's pursuit of the obsessive notion that his family is in some way guilty, that its fortune, although now greatly diminished, has been built on injury done to someone. And he conjectures that the injured person is William Dorrit, who has been confined for debt in the Marshalsea for twenty years. Clennam is not wholly wrong in his supposition—there is indeed guilt in the family, incurred by Arthur's mother, and it consists in part of an injury done to a member of the Dorrit family. But he is not wholly right, for Mr. Dorrit has not been imprisoned through the wish or agency of Mrs. Clennam. The reasoning by which Arthur reaches his partly mistaken conclusion is of the greatest interest. It is based upon the fact that his mother, although mentally very vigorous, has lived as an invalid for many years. She has been imprisoned in a single room of her house, confined to her chair, which she leaves only for her bed. And her son conjectures that her imprisoning illness is the price she pays for the guilty gratification of keeping William Dorrit in his prison—that is, in order to have the right to injure another, she must unconsciously injure herself in an equivalent way: "A swift thought shot into [Arthur Clennam's] mind. In that long imprisonment here [i.e., Mr. Dorrit's] and in her long confinement to her room, did his mother find a balance to be struck? I admit that I was accessory to that man's captivity. I have suffered it in kind. He has decayed in his prison; I in mine. I have paid the penalty."

I have dwelt on this detail because it suggests, even more than the naked fact of the prison itself, the nature of the vision of society of Little Dorrit. One way of describing Freud's conception of the mind is to say that it is based upon the primacy of the will, and that the organization of the internal life is in the form, often fantastically parodic, of a criminal process in which the mind is at once the criminal, the victim, the police, the judge, and the executioner. And this is a fair description of Dickens' own view of the mind, as, having received the social impress, it becomes in turn the matrix of society.

In emphasizing the psychological aspects of the representation of society of Little Dorrit I do not wish to slight those more immediate institutional aspects of which earlier readers of the novel were chiefly aware. These are of as great importance now as they ever were in Dickens' career. Dickens is far from having lost his sense of the cruelty and stupidity of institutions and functionaries, his sense of the general rightness of the people as a whole and of the general wrongness of those who are put in authority over them. He certainly has not moved to that specious position in which all injustice is laid at the door of the original Old Adam in each of us, not to be done away with until we shall all, at the same moment, become the new Adam. The Circumlocution Office is a constraint upon the life of England which nothing can justify. Mr. Dorrit's sufferings and the injustice done to him are not denied or mitigated by his passionate commitment to some of the worst aspects of the society which deals with him so badly.

Yet the emphasis on the internal life and on personal responsibility is very strong in Little Dorrit. Thus, to take but one example, in the matter of the Circumlocution Office Dickens is at pains to remind us that the responsibility for its existence lies even with so good a man as Mr. Meagles. In the alliance against the torpor of the Office which he has made with Daniel Doyce, the engineer and inventor, Mr. Meagles has been undeviatingly faithful. Yet Clennam finds occasion to wonder whether there might not be "in the breast of this honest, affectionate, and cordial Mr. Meagles, any microscopic portion of the mustard-seed that had sprung up into the great tree of the Circumlocution Office." He is led to this speculation by his awareness that Mr. Meagles feels "a general superiority to Daniel Doyce, which seemed to be founded, not so much on anything in Doyce's personal character, as on the mere fact of [Doyce's] being an originator and a man out of the beaten track of other men."

Perhaps the single best index of the degree of complexity with which Dickens views society in Little Dorrit is afforded by the character of Blandois and his place in the novel. Blandois is wholly wicked, the embodiment of evil; he is, indeed, a devil. One of the effects of his presence in Little Dorrit is to complicate our response to the theme of the prison, to deprive us of the comfortable, philanthropic thought that prisons are nothing but instruments of injustice. Because Blandois exists, prisons are necessary. The generation of readers that preceded our own was inclined, I think, to withhold credence from Blandois—they did not believe in his aesthetic actuality because they did not believe in his moral actuality, the less so because they could not account for his existence in specific terms of social causation. But events have required us to believe that there really are people who seem entirely wicked, and almost unaccountably so; the social causes of their badness lie so far back that they can scarcely be reached, and in any case causation pales into irrelevance before the effects of their actions; our effort to "understand" them becomes a mere form of thought.

In this novel about the will and society, the devilish nature of Blandois is confirmed by his maniac insistence upon his gentility, his mad reiteration that it is the right and necessity of his existence to be served by others. He is the exemplification of the line in Lear : "The prince of darkness is a gentleman." The influence of Dickens upon Dostoevski is perhaps nowhere exhibited in a more detailed way than in the similarities between Blandois and the shabby-genteel devil of The Brothers Karamazov, and also between him and Smerdyakov of the same novel. It is of consequence to Dickens as to Dostoevski that the evil of the unmitigated social will should own no country, yet that the flavor of its cosmopolitanism should be "French"—that is, rationalistic and subversive of the very assumption of society. Blandois enfolds himself in the soiled tatters of the revolutionary pathos. So long as he can play the game in his chosen style, he is nature's gentleman dispossessed of his rightful place, he is the natural genius against whom the philistine world closes its dull ranks. And when the disguise, which deceives no one, is off, he makes use of the classic social rationalization: Society has made him what he is; he does in his own person only what society does in its corporate form and with its corporate self-justification. "Society sells itself and sells me: and I sell society."2

Around Blandois are grouped certain characters of the novel of whose manner of life he is the pure principle. In these people the social will, the will to status, is the ruling faculty. To be recognized, deferred to, and served—this is their master passion. Money is of course of great consequence in the exercise of this passion, yet in Little Dorrit the desire for money is subordinated to the desire for deference. The Midas figure of Mr. Merdle must not mislead us on this point—should, indeed, guide us aright, for Mr. Merdle, despite his destructive power, is an innocent and passive man among those who live by the social will. It is to be noted of all these people that they justify their insensate demand for status by some version of Blandois's pathos; they are confirmed in their lives by self-pity, they rely on the great modern strategy of being the insulted and injured. Mr. Dorrit is too soft a man for his gentility mania ever to be quite diabolical, but his younger daughter Fanny sells herself to the devil, damns herself entirely, in order to torture the woman who once questioned her social position. Henry Gowan, the cynical, incompetent gentleman-artist who associates himself with Blandois in order to épater society, is very nearly as diabolical as his companion. From his mother—who must dismiss once and for all any lingering doubt of Dickens' ability to portray what Chesterton calls the delicate or deadly in human character—he has learned to base his attack on society upon the unquestionable rightness of wronged gentility. Miss Wade lives a life of tortured self-commiseration which gives her license to turn her hatred and her hand against everyone, and she imposes her principle of judgment and conduct upon Tattycoram.

In short, it is part of the complexity of this novel which deals so bitterly with society that those of its characters who share its social bitterness are by that very fact condemned. And yet—so much further does the complexity extend—the subversive pathos of self-pity is by no means wholly dismissed, the devil has not wholly lied. No reader of Little Dorrit can possibly conclude that the rage of envy which Tattycoram feels is not justified in some degree, or that Miss Wade is wholly wrong in pointing out to her the insupportable ambiguity of her position as the daughter-servant of Mr. and Mrs. Meagles and the sister-servant of Pet Meagles. Nor is it possible to read Miss Wade's account of her life, "The History of a Self Tormentor," without an understanding that amounts to sympathy. We feel this the more—Dickens meant us to feel it the more—because the two young women have been orphaned from infancy, and are illegitimate. Their bitterness is seen to be the perversion of the desire for love. The self-torture of Miss Wade—who becomes the more interesting if we think of her as the exact inversion of Esther Summerson of Bleak House —is the classic maneuver of the child who is unloved, or believes herself to be unloved; she refuses to be lovable, she elects to be hateful. In all of us the sense of injustice precedes the sense of justice by many years. It haunts our infancy, and even the most dearly loved of children may conceive themselves to be oppressed. Such is the nature of the human will, so perplexed is it by the disparity between what it desires and what it is allowed to have. With Dickens as with Blake, the perfect image of injustice is the unhappy child, and, like the historian Burckhardt, he connects the fate of nations with the treatment of children. It is a commonplace of the biography and criticism of Dickens that this reflects his own sense of having been unjustly treated by his parents, specifically in ways which injured his own sense of social status, his own gentility; the general force of Dickens' social feelings derives from their being rooted in childhood experience, and something of the special force of Little Dorrit derives from Dickens' having discovered its matter in the depths of his own social will.

At this point we become aware of the remarkable number of false and inadequate parents in Little Dorrit. To what pains Dickens goes to represent delinquent parenthood, with what an elaboration of irony he sets it forth! "The Father of the Marshalsea"—this is the title borne by Mr. Dorrit, who, preoccupied by the gratification of being the First Gentleman of a prison, is unable to exercise the simplest paternal function; who corrupts two of his children by his dream of gentility; who will accept any sacrifice from his saintly daughter Amy, Little Dorrit, to whom he is the beloved child to be cherished and forgiven. "The Patriarch"—this is the name bestowed upon Mr. Casby, who stands as a parody of all Dickens' benevolent old gentlemen from Mr. Pickwick through the Cheerybles to John Jarndyce, an astounding unreality of a man who, living only to grip and grind, has convinced the world by the iconography of his dress and mien that he is the repository of all benevolence. The primitive appropriateness of the strange—the un-English!—punishment which Mr. Pancks metes out to this hollow paternity, the cutting off of his long hair and the broad brim of his hat, will be understood by any reader with the least tincture of psychoanalytical knowledge. Then the Meagles, however solicitous of their own daughter, are, as we have seen, but indifferent parents to Tattycoram. Mrs. Gowan's rearing of her son is the root of his corruption. It is Fanny Dorrit's complaint of her enemy, Mrs. Merdle, that she refuses to surrender the appearance of youth, as a mother should.

And at the very center of the novel is Mrs. Clennam, a false mother in more ways than one; she does not deny love but she perverts and prevents it by denying all that love feeds on—liberty, demonstrative tenderness, joy, and, what for Dickens is the guardian of love in society, art. It is her harsh rearing of her son that has given him cause to say in his fortieth years, "I have no will."

Some grace—it is, of course, the secret of his birth, of his being really a child of love and art—has kept Arthur Clennam from responding to the will of his mother with a bitter, clenched will of his own. The alternative he has chosen has not, contrary to his declaration, left him no will at all. He has by no means been robbed of his ethical will, he can exert energy to help others, and for the sake of Mr. Dorrit or Daniel Doyce's invention he can haunt the Circumlocution Office with his mild, stubborn "I want to know.…" Butthe very accent of that phrase seems to forecast the terrible "I prefer not to" of Bartleby the Scrivener in Melville's great story of the will in its ultimate fatigue.

It is impossible, I think, not to find in Arthur Clennam the evidence of Dickens' deep personal involvement in Little Dorrit. If we ask what Charles Dickens has to do with poor Clennam, what The Inimitable has to do with this sad depleted failure, the answer must be: nothing, save what is implied by Clennam's consciousness that he has passed the summit of life and that the path from now on leads downward, by his belief that the pleasures of love are not for him, by his "I want to know …, " by his wish to negate the will in death. Arthur Clennam is that mode of Dickens' existence at the time of Little Dorrit which makes it possible for him to write to his friend Macready, "However strange it is never to be at rest, and never satisfied, and ever trying after something that is never reached, and to be always laden with plot and plan and care and worry, how clear it is that it must be, and that one is driven by an irresistible might until the journey is worked out." And somewhat earlier and with a yet more poignant relevance: "Why is it, that as with poor David, a sense always comes crushing upon me now, when I fall into low spirits, as of one happiness I have missed in life, and one friend and companion I have never made?"

If we become aware of an autobiographical element in Little Dorrit, we must of course take notice of the fact that the novel was conceived after the famous incident of Maria Beadnell, who, poor woman, was the original of Arthur Clennam's Flora Finching. She was the first love of Dickens' proud, unfledged youth; she had married what Dickens has taught us to call Another, and now, after twenty years, she had chosen to come back into his life. Familiarity with the story cannot diminish our amazement at it—Dickens was a subtle and worldly man, but his sophistication was not proof against his passionate sentimentality, and he fully expected the past to come back to him, borne in the little hands of the adorable Maria. The actuality had a quite extreme effect upon him, and Flora, fat and foolish, is his monument to the discovered discontinuity between youth and middle age; she is the nonsensical spirit of the anticlimax of the years. And if she is in some degree forgiven, being represented as the kindest of foolish women, yet it is not without meaning that she is everywhere attended by Mr. F's Aunt, one of Dickens' most astonishing ideas, the embodiment of senile rage and spite, flinging to the world the crusts of her buttered toast. "He has proud stomach, this chap," she cries when poor Arthur hesitates over her dreadful gift. "Give him a meal of chaff!" It is the voice of one of the Parcae.

It did not, of course, need the sad comedy of Maria Beadnell for Dickens to conceive that something in his life had come to an end. It did not even need his growing certainty that, after so many years and so many children, his relations with his wife were insupportable—this realization was as much a consequence as it was a cause of the sense of termination. He was forty-three years old and at the pinnacle of a success unique in the history of letters. The wildest ambitions of his youth could not have comprehended the actuality of his fame. But the last infirmity of noble mind may lead to the first infirmity of noble will. Dickens, to be sure, never lost his love of fame, or of whatever of life's goods his miraculous powers might bring him, but there came a moment when the old primitive motive could no longer serve, when the joy of impressing his powers on the world no longer seemed delightful in itself, and when the first, simple, honest, vulgar energy of desire no longer seemed appropriate to his idea of himself.

We may say of Dickens that at the time of Little Dorrit he was at a crisis of the will which is expressed in the characters and forces of the novel, in the extremity of its bitterness against the social will, in its vision of peace and selflessness. This moral crisis is most immediately represented by the condition of Arthur Clennam's will, by his sense of guilt, by his belief that he is unloved and unlovable, by his retirement to the Marshalsea as by an act of choice, by his sickness unto death. We have here the analogy to the familiar elements of a religious crisis. This is not the place to raise the question of Dickens' relation to the Christian religion, which was a complicated one. But we cannot speak of Little Dorrit without taking notice of its reference to Christian feeling, if only because this is of considerable importance in its effect upon the aesthetic of the novel.

It has been observed of Little Dorrit that certain of Dickens' characteristic delights are not present in their usual force. Something of his gusto is diminished in at least one of its aspects. We do not have the amazing thickness of fact and incident that marks, say, Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend —not that we do not have sufficient thickness, but we do not have what Dickens usually gives us. We do not have the great population of characters from whom shines the freshness of their autonomous life. Mr. Pancks and Mrs. Plornish and Flora Finching and Flintwich are interesting and amusing, but they seem to be the fruit of conscious intention rather than of free creation. This is sometimes explained by saying that Dickens was fatigued. Perhaps so, but if we are aware that Dickens is here expending less of one kind of creative energy, we must at the same time be aware that he is expending more than ever before of another kind. The imagination of Little Dorrit is marked not so much by its powers of particularization as by its powers of generalization and abstraction. It is an imagination under the dominion of a great articulated idea, a moral idea which tends to find its full development in a religious experience. It is an imagination akin to that which created Piers Plowman and Pilgrim's Progress. And, indeed, it is akin to the imagination of The Divine Comedy. Never before has Dickens made so full, so Dantean, a claim for the virtue of the artist, and there is a Dantean pride and a Dantean reason in what he says of Daniel Doyce, who, although an engineer, stands for the creative mind in general and for its appropriate virtue: "His dismissal of himself [was] remarkable. He never said, I discovered this adaptation or invented that combination; but showed the whole thing as if the Divine artificer had made it, and he had happened to find it. So modest was he about it, such a pleasant touch of respect was mingled with his quiet admiration of it, and so calmly convinced was he that it was established on irrefragable laws." Like much else that might be pointed to, this confirms us in the sense that the whole energy of the imagination of Little Dorrit is directed to the transcending of the personal will, to the search for the Will in which shall be our peace.

We must accept—and we easily do accept, if we do not permit critical cliché to interfere—the aesthetic of such an imagination, which will inevitably tend toward a certain formality of pattern and toward the generalization and the abstraction we have remarked. In a novel in which a house falls physically to ruins from the moral collapse of its inhabitants, in which the heavens open over London to show a crown of thorns, in which the devil has something like an actual existence, we quite easily accept characters named nothing else than Bar, Bishop, Physician. And we do not reject, despite our inevitable first impulse to do so, the character of Little Dorrit herself. Her untinctured goodness does not appall us or make us misdoubt her, as we expect it to do. This novel at its best is only incidentally realistic; its finest power of imagination appears in the great general images whose abstractness is their actuality, like Mr. Merdle's dinner parties, or the Circumlocution Office itself, and in such a context we understand Little Dorrit to be the Beatrice of the Comedy, the Paraclete in female form. Even the physical littleness of this grown woman, an attribute which is insisted on and which seems likely to repel us, does not do so, for we perceive it to be the sign that she is not only the Child of the Marshalsea, as she is called, but also the Child of the Parable, the negation of the social will.


  1. Since writing this, I have had to revise my idea of the actuality of the symbols of Our Mutual Friend. Professor Johnson's biography of Dickens has taught me much about the nature of dust heaps, including their monetary value, which was very large, quite large enough to represent a considerable fortune: I had never quite believed that Dickens was telling the literal truth about this. From Professor Dodd's The Age of Paradox I have learned to what an extent the Thames was visibly the sewer of London, of how pressing was the problem of the sewage in the city as Dickens knew it, of how present to the mind was the sensible and even the tangible evidence that the problem was not being solved. The moral disgust of the book is thus seen to be quite adequately comprehended by the symbols which are used to represent it.
  2. This is in effect the doctrine of Balzac's philosophical-anarchist criminal, Vautrin. But in all other respects the difference between Blandois and Vautrin is extreme. Vautrin is a "noble" and justified character; for all his cynicism, he is on the side of virtue and innocence. He is not corrupted by the social injustices he has suffered and perceived, by the self-pity to which they might have given rise; his wholesomeness may be said to be the result of his preference for power as against the status which Blandois desires. The development of Blandois from Vautrin—I do not know whether Dickens's creation was actually influenced by Balzac's—is a literary fact which has considerable social import.

Rodney Stenning Edgecombe (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. "Middle-Class Erasures: The Decreations of Mrs. General and Mr. Podsnap." Studies in the Novel 31, no. 3 (summer 1999): 279-95.

[In the following essay, Edgecombe analyzes the characters of Mrs. General and Mr. Podsnap in Little Dorrit.]

Vereen Bell has suggested that in Little Dorrit Dickens holds "up a mirror to those whom he considered responsible [for the social inequalities of England]—apparently with the hope that if they could see nothing else they could at least see themselves,"1 and that Mrs. General typifies the social indifference of the middle class: "Her attitudes are hers, and at the same time, Dickens implies, they are England's—vague, unoriginal, evasive" (p. 179). Evasion is a key issue here, for William Dorrit has employed the governess to shape his daughters, or rather to reshape them by censoring their history. To that extent Mrs. General inverts the figure of Pygmalion (as recharacterized in Shaw's play of social transference). She is a sculptress who turns women into lifeless simulacra. One of her methods is to empty their minds. Just as in classical mythology those who drank the waters of Lethe forfeited their human identity, so Mrs. General decreates her charges by enjoining inhuman forgetfulness—"Accidents, miseries, and offences, were never to be mentioned before her"2—and she bowdlerizes experience in a way reminiscent of Mrs. Clennam, who herself locks up evidence of impropriety (Arthur)—"there was the old dark closet, …in which he had many times been the sole contents, in days of punishment" (p. 33):

Even her propriety could not dispute that there was impropriety in the world; but Mrs. General's way of getting rid of it was to put it out of sight, and make believe that there was no such thing. This was another of her ways of forming a mind—to cram all articles of difficulty into cupboards, lock them up, and say they had no existence. It was the easiest way, and, beyond all comparison, the properest.

(P. 450)

The paradox here derives from the application of the creative verb "form" to the act of nullification: formation issues in shapeless detachment. There is something decorously demonic in this—she is, after all, a "Ghoule in gloves" (p. 612), and, like Goethe's Mephistopheles, a Geist, der stets verneint/Unddas mit Recht; denn alles, was entsteht, / ist weft, das es zugrunde geht3—in Bayard Taylor's version, "the Spirit that Denies! / And justly so: for all things, from the Void / Called forth deserve to be destroyed."4

In Our Mutual Friend, too, we will remember that Dickens gives Mr. Podsnap similar powers of decreation, for his arm flourishes recall those of the Deus Artifex on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And if, as Michael Squires suggests, the later fiction demonstrates how "'self-command' translates into escape from experience,"5 then Podsnappish "self-advance" translates into the denial of experience altogether:

Mr. Podsnap had even acquired a peculiar flourish of this right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems, by sweeping them behind him (and consequently sheer away) with those words and a flushed face. For they affronted him.

Mr. Podsnap's world was not a very large world, morally; no, nor even geographically: seeing that although his business was sustained upon commerce with other countries, he considered other countries, with that important reservation, a mistake, and of their manners and customs would conclusively observe, "Not English!" when, PRESTO! with a flourish of the arm, and a flush of the face, they were swept away.6

For the Podsnaps of Victorian England, not to be English in the fullest (yet most limiting) sense of the word often meant to be French, and not for nothing does Dickens (who envied the artistic freedom of his novelist counterparts across the Channel) choose a Frenchman as victim for Podsnap's patronage at his dinner party. The yellow covers of a French novel were, in the eyes of the middle class, a virtual inventory of Mrs. General's cupboards of oblivion, and the purified, half sentient beings she (and Podsnap) fashioned from living girls, the measure of universal experience:

A certain institution in Mr. Podsnap's mind which he called "the young person" may be considered to have been embodied in Miss Podsnap, his daughter. It was an inconvenient and exacting institution, as requiring everything in the universe to be filed down and fitted to it. The question about everything was, would it bring a blush into the cheek of the young person? And the inconvenience of the young person was that, according to Mr. Podsnap, she seemed always liable to burst into blushes when there was no need at all. There appeared to be no line of demarcation between the young person's excessive innocence and another person's guiltiest knowledge. Take Mr. Podsnap's word for it, and the soberest tints of drab, white, lilac, and grey, were all flaming red to this troublesome Bull of a young person.

(Pp. 129-130)

Like a moral bed of Procrustes, this fictive icon of virginity, with no voice of her own beyond the strident ventriloquism of her bourgeois parent, is used to shrink the world to the compass of a single class, a class in which gradations of moral judgement ("drab, white, lilac and grey") are muffled with a blanketing crudity that equates the red of a toreador's cape with the scarlet cloak of a streetwalker.

Nor is Mr. Podsnap the only character in Our Mutual Friend given to these ontological erasures. There are also the pious women, either Tractarian or Evangelical—Mrs. Generals all—who visit the Ragged Schools:

It was a school for all ages, and for both sexes. The latter were kept apart, and the former were partitioned off into square assortments. But all the place was pervaded by a grimly ludicrous pretence that every pupil was childish and innocent. This pretence, much favoured by the lady-visitors, led to the ghastliest absurdities. Young women old in the vices of the commonest and worst life, were expected to profess themselves enthralled by the good child's book, the Adventures of Little Margery, who resided in the village cottage by the mill; severely reproved and morally squashed the miller when she was five and he was fifty; divided her porridge with singing birds; denied herself a new nankeen bonnet, on the grounds that turnips did not wear nankeen bonnets, neither did the sheep who ate them.

(P. 214)

Here again we witness that middle-class effacement of reality. The improbabilities of Little Margery might just obtain in the world of Georgiana Podsnap—a world, like the Lady of Shalott's, comprising shadows and reflections—but they cannot find purchase in the streets of London. For Dickens had long set up a sharp contrast between those streets and the pastoral environment from which they were sealed—a contrast so sharp indeed that, in Nicholas Nickleby, a butterfly seems all but surreal as it hovers over a bed of metal flowers ("No; sight more unwonted still—there is a butterfly in the square—a real live butterfly! astray from flowers and sweets, and fluttering among the iron heads of the dusty area railings"7), while Ralph Nickleby, no doubt with Joseph Andrews in mind, asks Sir Mulberry, when Lord Frederick shows signs of a conscience, if "he has come fresh from some country parson" (p. 494). To prescribe a Hannah More-ish tract in a Ragged School and to expect its pastoral vacuities to apply to the pupils, is proof that, far from addressing the social ills of society, the middle class evaded them, censoring real for fictive space, substituting a Lockean tabula rasa for the thumb-worn palimpsest already in existence. The world of Little Margery, with its communal definite articles ("the village cottage by the mill"), and its children as precocious as the infant Jesus among the rabbis, and as ascetic as St. Francis of Assisi, is so much painting on Mrs. General's cupboard door.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Dickens should present Mrs. General as "the daughter of a clerical dignitary in a cathedral town" (p. 447), since few of its inhabitants would have had first-hand knowledge of industrialization. Most, like so many Podsnaps, assumed that the apparently contented peasantry of the encircling farms could be extrapolated to the slums of London or Leeds, and so prove the satisfactoriness of: "'The Constitution Britannique,' Mr. Podsnap explained, as if he were teaching in an infant school. 'We Say British, But You Say Britannique, You Know (forgivingly, as if it were not his fault). The Constitution, Sir'" (p. 132). Here "infant school" punningly turns on the Latin etymology of "infant" (the incapacity for speech), and darts a barb at Mr. Podsnap's readiness to speak on behalf of everybody else … but in his own name! No less arrogant is Mrs. General's readiness to disregard the obstacles in the path of Propriety (which is Podsnappery by another name) and crush them into nothingness: "In the course of their united journey, they ran over several people who came in the way of the proprieties; but always in a high style, and with composure" (p. 447). Where being has been denied, no death can occur—or so her erasive habit has led her to believe.

By alluding to a cathedral town, Dickens not only stresses the opposition of North and South that, one year before, had emerged in Mrs. Gaskell's novel by that name—but jabs at Trollope, no doubt to avenge an attack in The Warden (1854). In that novel about "a clerical dignitary in a cathedral town" he had figured as Mr. Sentiment, social concerns are dismissed with glib bourgeois complacency all too like Mr. Podsnap's (or Mr. Bounderby's, with its cant about silver spoons): "It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects, and that when he has made the working class comfortable, and got bitter beer put into propersized pint bottles, there will be nothing left for him to do."8

But, Trollope's sneer notwithstanding, there was a great deal left for Dickens to do, and his assault on the middle class formed part of that agenda. Confirming Little Dorrit 's subtle pattern of symmetries and displacements, Mrs. General figures as a provincial counterpart to Mrs. Merdle insofar as she occupies a position in her sphere almost identical to the latter's in her more imposing metropolitan one: "she had led the fashion until she was as near forty-five as a single lady can be" (p. 447). That crucial duplication serves to confirm the complicity of the two classes, upper and middle, in the misgovernment of England, since leading the fashion in both instances is predicated on an ignorance of social realities, or, in the case of Mrs. Merdle, on turning their urgency into languid drawing-room chitchat:

"But," resumed Mrs. Merdle, "we must take it [society] as we find it. We know it is hollow and conventional and worldly and very shocking, but unless we are Savages in the Tropical seas (I should have been charmed to be one myself—most delightful life and perfect climate I am told), we must consult it.["]

(P. 239)

Not only are those Rousseau-esque "Savages" meant to inoculate the charges that should be laid against an unreal and irresponsible governing class, but they also serve to direct the attention away from other "Savages" closer to home, whose life is undelightful in the extreme and whose climate most imperfect. Indeed, parallels could also be drawn in this regard with the telescopic philanthropy of Bleak House, where Mrs. Pardiggle, a Tractarian counterpart to the purveyors of "Little Margery" in Our Mutual Friend, assigns her son's pocket money to the "Tockahoopo" tribe (pre-Joycean aphemia for Take-a-heap-of), so that, as Esther observes, "At the mention of the Tockahoopo Indians, I could really have supposed Egbert to be one of the most baleful members of that tribe, he gave me such a savage frown."9 Mrs. Merdle's gaze likewise replicates Mrs. Pardiggle's and Mrs. Jellyby's in failing to focus on the issues at hand, issues that accordingly blur into nothingness.

Shortly before starting Little Dorrit, Dickens declared that "our political aristocracy and our tuft hunting are the death of England,"10 a judgement that implicates both upper and middle class, the empowered and the toadying "wannabes" beneath them, in the static, ineffectual bureaucratic mess that passed for government. Katherine Retan has noted how he "becomes less optimistic about the ability of the middle class which he has begun to see as morally bankrupt, as guided solely by the principles of political economy to alleviate social distress."11 As proof of this, we can observe how some brush strokes darken the portrait of Mr. Meagles, who at first glance might simply seem a palimpsest of such middle-class philanthropists as the Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby. Kind as he is, he demonstrates the author's conviction of middle-class complicity in the power of the Circumlocution Office (aka Whitehall), shutting his eyes to savor a connection to a body that has thwarted the career of Daniel Doyce: "'Nephew-to-Lord-Decimus,' Mr. Meagles luxuriously repeated with his eyes shut, that he might have nothing to distract him from the full flavour of the genealogical tree" (Little Dorrit, p. 204). In this instance, shut eyes figure as emblems of blindness at the same time as they convey the character's luxurious reverie.

In a way that compounds the unreality of her world view, Mrs. General also regulates her language through erasures and skirtings. As S. J. Harrison points out, "though careful to deny that she is a governess, [she] plainly fulfils that function."12 Other denials are effected through her periphrastic formulas—not for nothing is the Circumlocution Office a dominant image in the novel—a point underscored by the way in which Dickens transposes the allegorical "proprieties" from the "cool coach of ceremony" to the hearse of the late Mr. General. Abstract allegory thus colonizes the real space that subsists outside it: "the whole team of proprieties were harnessed to his hearse, and they all had feathers and black velvet housings with his coat of arms in the corner" (p. 447). Furthermore, since money is too vulgar a topic to mention by name (as witness the absurd Victorian periphrasis for trousers—"unmentionables"), Mrs. General "began to inquire what quantity of dust and ashes was deposited at the bankers" and "found her means so much diminished, that, but for the perfect regulation of her mind, she might have felt disposed to question the accuracy of that portion of the late service which had declared that the commissary could take nothing away with him" (p. 447). The unreality of provincial Anglicanism, pretending to a life divorced from money and yet implicitly depending on it, registers through the ascetic periphrasis of "dust and ashes" (Job 42:6) which clashes in its cultural alienation from the bank in which it lies in all its hard metallic reality. The allusion becomes the more mordant for the disavowal to which it is attached—"Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes"—for, of course, it is self-satisfaction (not self-abhorrence) that defines the outlook of Podsnappery and Generalism alike. While Wilfrid Dvorak observes that "Dickens is still confident that at least some Victorians possess the capacity for self-knowledge, and the power to break free of the prevailing restrictive and dehumanizing economic rules,"13 a condition for this self-knowledge is a knowledge of the world at large—knowledge that propriety de facto regulates into nothingness.

We see the reach of Podsnappery in the figure of Bradley Headstone, who, by mechanically replicating the propriety of middle-class norms, achieves a "decent" exterior. To become visible to Podsnap he has had to become like him. Seldom has Dickensian heratio (rhetorical repetition) seemed more monomaniac than here:

Bradley Headstone, in his decent black coat and waistcoat, and decent white shirt, and decent formal tie, and decent pantaloons of pepper and salt, with his decent silver watch in his pocket and its decent hair-guard round his neck, looked a thoroughly decent young man of six-and-twenty.

(P. 217)

To define "decency" by monochromatic externals is to imply indecency in uniforms of a different nature, an implication borne out by the fact that Mr. Podsnap conceives the arts in terms of gipsydom, and requires that they be vaccinated with middle-class values. Thus literature and music become as "respectable" as Bradley Headstone is "decent":

Mr. Podsnap's notions of the Arts in their integrity might have been stated thus. Literature; large print, respectively14 descriptive of getting up at eight, shaving close at a quarter-past, breakfasting at nine, going to the City at ten, coming home at half-past five, and dining at seven … Music, a respectable performance (without variations) on stringed and wind instruments, sedately expressive of getting up at eight, shaving close at a quarter-past, breakfasting at nine, going to the City at ten, coming home at half-past five, and dining at seven. Nothing else to be permitted to those same vagrants the Arts, on pain of excommunication. Nothing else To Be—anywhere!

(Pp. 128-29)

Not for nothing does Dickens list among Headstone's accomplishments the ability to "sing at sight mechanically," and to "blow various wind instruments mechanically." Mechanical music is music tamed for the middle-class drawing room—Mendelssohn in his salon mode—"sedately expressive" at best. And, of course, the emotions that moil beneath Headstone's Podsnappish exterior are anything but sedate, as little sedate as the resentment toward her husband that Mrs. General's well-regulated mind prevents her from expressing.

Part of Mrs. General's strategy in circumscribing the experience of the Dorrit girls, and fitting them to her procrustean yardstick, is to limit their capacity for speech:

"Papa is a preferable mode of address," observed Mrs. General. "Father is rather vulgar, my dear. The word Papa, besides, gives a pretty form to the lips. Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism, are all very good words for the lips: especially prunes and prism. You will find it serviceable, in the formation of a demeanour, if you sometimes say to yourself in company—on entering the room, for instance—Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, prunes and prism."

(P. 476)

Once again the word "formation" applies to the subtraction of form, privileging Edward Learian non sequiturs above purposeful speech. Mrs. General is in this regard the first cousin of Mr. F's Aunt, a descendant "from all the builders of Babel" (p. 1) to whom Dickens alludes in chapter 1.

The inspiration behind the mantra of plosives is probably a scene in John Burgoyne's The Heiress (1786). Here the mischievous Lady Emily mocks an arriviste by having her copy a silly mannerism:

Lady Emily :

My dear Miss Alscrip, what are you doing? I must correct you as I love you. Sure you must have observed the drop of the under-lip is exploded since Lady Simpermode broke a tooth! [Sets her mouth affectedly]I am preparing the cast of the lips for the ensuing winter—thus—it is to be called the Paphian mimp.

Miss Alscrip :

[Imitating] I swear I think it pretty—I must try to get it.

Lady Emily :

Nothing so easy. It is done by one cabalistical word, like a metamorphosis in the fairy tales. You have only, when before your glass, to keep pronouncing to yourself nimini-primini—the lips cannot fail of taking their pile.

Miss Alscrip :

Nimini-pimini-imini, mimini-oh, it's delightfully enfantine! and so innocent, to be kissing one's own lips.15

Since, like Miss Alscrip, Fanny Dorrit secretly follows Mrs. General's precepts while pretending to ignore them, we can note in parenthesis that The Heiress seems to have influenced her characterization. Even if a writer of Dickens's genius had no imaginative need of Burgoyne's, it is nonetheless possible that memories of the play might have entered the creative process as so many filings patterned by a magnetic field. For example, Lady Emily provokes the heiress into believing that marital love and maternity cannot be squared with haut ton:

Lady Emily :

Do you know there is more than one Dutchess who has been seen in the same carriage with her husband, like two doves in a basket, in the print of Conjugal Felicity? And another has been detected—I almost blush to name it!

Mrs. Blandish :

Bless us, where? and how? and how?

Lady Emily :

In nursing her own child!

Miss Alscrip:

Oh! barbarism!—For heaven's sake let us change the subject.

(P. 76)

This is Mrs. General's regulated (read "censored") mind in ovo. It even offers a faint anticipation of the postlude of Little Dorrit, where, we are told, Amy "Went down to give a mother's care, in the fulness of time, to Fanny's neglected children no less than to their own, and to leave that lady going into Society for ever and a day" (p. 826). Likewise Fanny's insolence toward Mrs. Merdle (even while she submits to the exactions of Society), and her sense of marriage as revenge are foreshadowed in Miss Alscrip's final exit: "I will then take the management of my affairs into my own hands, and break from my cloud anew: and then you shall find [to the company] there are those without a coronet, that can be as saucy, and as loud, and stop the way in all public places as well as the best of you. [Lady Emily laughs.] Yes, madam, and without borrowing your ladyship's airs" (p. 147).

Let us return, though, to Lady Emily's moue, which she calls the "Paphian mimp." That is an oxymoron, for Paphos, a city sacred to Venus, gave rise to "Paphian"="prostitute," while a "mimp" purses the lips in distaste and repulsion. The mimp, moreover, by making full contact impossible, reduces kissing to a peck. Lady Emily's formula is described by the Shorter OED as a "Fanciful formation based on NAMBY-PAMBY" while the OED suggests that it is "imitative of a mincing utterance." I wonder, though, whether the nonsense does not carry a semantic charge. Nemini—"to nobody"—is the dative form of nemo, implying that the mimp keeps all comers at bay—an important resource for the coquette. In The Rape of the Lock, after all, Belinda's success depends on her offering "Favours to none"16 and the tableau vivant in the Cave of Spleen reveals a connection between Ill-nature and Affectation. Hence the connection, before Miss Alscrip drops the R, of "nimini" and "primini." The fact that the grimace must be practised before a mirror also has the effect of making it sterile and self-reflexive rather than spontaneous. That narcissism is redoubled by Miss Alscrip's "enfantine" delight at "kissing one's own lips."

Mrs. General restores the R, and follows it with the back vowel/u:/ to produce an even tighter contraction of the lips and, with that, all the phonaesthemic associations of/pru:/. The most obvious of these is "prude," familiar from The Rape of the Lock as an image of sexual frustration, but we also think of the crinkly texture of "prunes," and recall that in the same poem Ill-nature has a "wrinkled Form." Arthur Nethercott suggests, furthermore, that the governess in The Importance of Being Earnest was named with Mrs. General in mind, and that "Prism" "is a combination of prim, prissy and perhaps prison"17 Although "prissy" could not have been on Dickens's mind forty years earlier, the connection of "prism" with "prison" probably was. Not only does it reinforce Little Dorrit 's governing image, but it also introduces a nuance of sexual repression.

The English governess, partly (I would suggest) as a result of Mrs. General, became an international image of prudery in the second half of the century. Sheridan's eponymous Duenna had had a frank and frontal approach to sex:

When a tender maid
Is first essayed,
By some admiring swain.
How her blushes rise,
If she meets his eyes,
While he unfolds his pain;
If he takes her hand, she trembles quite,
Touch her lips, and she swoons outright,
While a pit a pat & c.
Her heart avows her fright.
But in time appear
Fewer signs of fear,
The youth she boldly views,
If her hand he grasp,
Or her bosom clasp,
No mantling blush ensues.
Then to church well pleas'd the lovers move,
While her smiles her contentment prove,
And a pit a pat & c.
Her heart avows her love.18

But look what happened to her more than a century later, when she had been Generalized. Lady Sophy is the English gouvernante in Utopia Limited:

As he gazes,
Hat he raises,
Enters into conversation.
Make excuses—
This produces
Interesting agitation.
He with daring,
Gives his card—his rank discloses.
Little heeding
This proceeding,
They turn up their little noses.
Pray observe this lesson vital—
When a man of rank and title
His position first discloses,
Always cock your little noses.
When at home, let all the class
Try this in the looking-glass.
English girls of well-bred notions
Shun all unrehearsed emotions.
English girls of highest class
Practise them before the glass.19

There again is that narcissistic recourse to the mirror and that prudish divorce of feeling from expression. Small wonder then that the governess in Delibes's Lakme is purse-lipped and repressive:

Ms. Bent :

Quelles danseuses?

Frederic :

N'avez-vous jamais entendu parler des Bayaderes de l'Inde.

Ms. Bent :

Que font elles ordinairement?

Frederic :

Elles vivent dans les pagodes pour la plus grande joie des pretres de Brahma.

Ms. Bent :

Ce sont des vestales?

Frederic :

Si vous voulez. Ce sont des vestales qui n'ont rien a garder.20

At which point, in the Decca recording, Monica Sinclair exclaims "Shocking"—either off her own bat, or because she is au fait with a performing tradition that sprang up after the publication of the vocal score in 1883.

Dickens would certainly have endorsed this view of English sexuality. Since we know that he defended the freedom and truth of the French novel when a real-life Mrs. General attacked its impropriety, it is difficult to agree with Philip Collins's claim that his "values were not completely different from Mrs. General's," and that his heroines "never offend against the normal standards of propriety—any more than Dickens, who satirized the narrow prudishness of Mr. Podsnap, ever wrote or published anything that could 'bring a blush to the cheek of a young person.'"21 Dickens wrote under constraint, as did Thackeray, who longed for the comparative freedom of the eighteenth century, but neither novelist had the courage to write a Madame Bovary or an Anna Karenina. Even though Dickens never pulled down the temple, he went further than Thackeray in mocking the pillars of a repressive society—Podsnap a telamon and Mrs. General a caryatid.

For Mrs. General to succeed in her task of decreation, she has to instill a passionless conformity in her charges, moulding them in her own image. Not for nothing does Dickens describe her as "waxy" (bland and plastic), the middle class counterpart of Mrs. Merdle, who, while she uses "impressible" to mean too "sensitive," implies an equally waxy conformation to type: "I am very impressible myself, by nature" (p. 239). Such references once again bring the eighteenth century to mind—this poem ("To Miss Georgiana"), for example:

Hither British Muse of mine,
Hither all the Grecian Nine,
With the lovely Graces three,
And your promis'd nurseling see:
Figure on her waxen mind
Images of life refin'd.22

Here Ambrose Philips figures the mind as a tabula rasa, passively receiving its impress of refinement. But Locke himself, when he attacks the notion of innate principles in The Essay Concerning Human Understanding, keeps such terms as "imprint" and "impression" in an unfigured suspension: "and no less unreasonable would it be to attribute several truths to the impressions of nature and innate characters, when we may observe in ourselves faculties fit to attain as easy and certain knowledge of them as if they were originally imprinted on the mind."23 In Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, Bishop Berkeley likewise has Hylas remark, "You cannot say objects are in your mind as books in your study: or that things are imprinted on it, as the figure of a seal upon wax."24 Philips, on the other hand, makes the impalpable mind seem opaque and lifeless, meltable as it is malleable. Mrs. General's waxiness thus reminds us of the flatness of eighteenth-century epistemology, just as her name, viewed from one semantic vantage, recalls the Augustan aesthetics of generality.

We should also bear in mind that many religious images in the nineteenth century were made from wax. A visitor to Benediction at J. H. Newman's Oratory reports seeing a wax statue of St. Mary in the chapel, and Frederick Faber, writing to the Rev. J. B. Morris in 1838, records his discomfort with the materials of Catholic worship—"But at best, when I can get away into a side chapel with no wax virgins in it, and no hideous pictures of the FATHER, I cannot manage well"25—ironical enough if we recall that, after his conversion, he could not get enough of either. Given the ubiquity of wax Virgins (Dickens would surely have encountered them in Italy, even if he never set foot in a Roman church at home), one is tempted to connect Mrs. General's waxiness not only to her lifelessness and her efforts at decreating the world in her own image, but also to the novel's many images of idolatry. (Mr. Merdle, for instance, is exalted by London public: "Then, leaning on Mr. Merdle's arm, did Mr. Dorrit descend the staircase, seeing the worshippers on the steps and feeling that the light of Mr. Merdle shone by reflection in himself" [p. 618].)

A more obvious allusion is woven with this cryptic hint of idolatry, however—the Victorian waxwork show. We should definitely read Mrs. General with Mrs. Jarley in mind:

"It isn't funny at all," repeated Mrs. Jarley. "It's calm and—what's that word again—critical?—no—classical, that's it—it is calm and classical. No low beatings and knockings about, no jokings and squeakings like your precious Punches, but always the same, with a constantly unchanging air of coldness and gentility; and so like life, that if wax-work only spoke and walked about, you'd hardly know the difference. I won't go so far as to say, that, as it is, I've seen wax-work quite like life, but I've certainly seen some life that was exactly like wax-work."26

So even while Dickens sets up the Arcimbaldan image of Mrs. General as a faulty taper—"A cool, waxy, blown-out woman, who had never lighted well" (p. 450)—he also wants those sensory data to open up the range of associations, the waxwork connecting sexual repression with gentility (as Mrs. Jarley had done decades before), and its inhuman texture suggesting a nolime-tangere virgin incapable of taking fire. "Blown-out" reminds us of Macbeth—"Out, out, brief candle!"27—a reminiscence that also prompts memories of dust—"And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death"—represented here by Mrs. General's powder. In describing this, Dickens anticipates a stylistic procedure of Patrick White, just as he foreshadows Joycean stream of consciousness in Flora's monologues and Kafkaesque Absurdism in the behavior of Mr. F.'s Aunt.

As so often in White, contingent syntax privileges metaphor above literal truth: "If her countenance and hair had rather a floury appearance, as though from living in some transcendentally genteel Mill, it was rather because she was a chalky creation altogether, than because she mended her complexion with violet powder, or had turned grey" (p. 450). Here is an ironic recollection of the Cathedral town, where the only industry is the labor of the toilette, and a matron's knowledge of mills amounts to nothing more than a knowledge of restrictive codes. The simile passes over the real source of powderiness, and foregrounds a fanciful one. Dickens conceives Mrs. General as a woman made of sterile chalk instead of the nourishing "clay" from which Yahweh and Prometheus fashioned their creatures. (The word "creation," because it is flanked by its constitutive material, makes us think of effigies, and so, once again, of waxworks.) Moreover, the French phrase for finely ground flour (what English millers used to call "fine whites") is fleur de farine, and "floury" likewise brings its "flowery" homophone to mind, substituting inert powder for organic texture, just as "blown out" subverts the maturation of "full blown." "Floury" also connects through "Mealy Potatoes" in David Copperfield with the bilabial exercise: "Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism" (p. 476). And it resurfaces later in the narrative when Mrs. General dustily fossicks through "the driest little bones of antiquity, and bolting them without any human visitings—like a Ghoule in gloves" (p. 612). In Arabian mythology, ghouls frequent the desert and—another variation of der Geist der Verneinung—eat human beings. Nor should we forget that Mrs. General's bank account is a repository for "dust and ashes" (p. 446)—a further instance of lexical decreation, of language supplanted by cant.

Philip Collins has said that Mrs. General "combines that narrow propriety and mental vacuity which Dickens always associates with expensive female education" (p. 132), a vacuity realized in the way she reduces and trivializes such myths as that of Sisyphus, or of the circular buffeting in Inferno V: "Mrs. General had no opinions. Her way of forming a mind was to prevent it from forming opinions. She had a little circular set of mental grooves or rails on which she started little trains of other people's opinions, which never overtook one another, and never got anywhere" (p. 450). Since in 1856 the idea of grooves had nothing like the charge it developed after the invention of the phonograph, we might ask ourselves why, in miniaturizing a tragic myth to a toy, Dickens speaks of "mental grooves or rails." The answer, I think, is to be found in "Locksley Hall": "Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range, / Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change."28 Admiring Tennyson as he did, Dickens would almost certainly have known the origin of this couplet as the poet himself explained it: "When I went by the first train from Liverpool to Manchester (1830) I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was a black night, and there was such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made this line" (p. 699). By associating railways and grooves, Dickens mischievously invokes "Locksley Hall" just as he often alludes to proverbs and "elegant quotations" in elaborate paraphrase. The irony is obvious, for, instead of repeating Tennyson's vigorous Excelsior, Mrs. General conceives the future in terms of circular repetition, like Macbeth's "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow" (p. 153).

Because Mrs. General reduces the antiquities of Europe to drawing room chitchat (a fate that Mrs. Merdle had in turn visited on Rousseau), Dickens turns that reductiveness on herself, and characterizes her as Victorian Boadicea. In The Art and Architecture of London, Ann Saunders draws attention to "Thomas Thornycroft's statue of Boadicea and her daughters. The queen stands stiffly upright, spear in hand, her daughters crouch beside her in their scythed chariot, which is drawn, apparently without harness, by rearing horses. The sculptor began work in the 1850s and laboured for 15 years, at first with the encouragement of Prince Albert, who wished to place the group on top of the arch at Hyde Park Corner."29 Any project that interested the Consort would surely have been in the news, and one suspects that Dickens got wind of Thornycroft's project (started in 1856, when the serialization of Little Dorrit was in full swing). Just as he had elsewhere used "archaeological" materials to conflate what in a letter to Forster he called the "Savage Chronicles"30 of older societies with those of contemporary England, here he aligns a "savage" chieftainess with a chilly matron to erase the supposed moral division between Roman and Victorian Britain: "A stiff commissariat officer of sixty, famous as a martinet, had then become enamoured of the gravity with which she drove the proprieties four-in-hand through the cathedral town society, and had solicited to be taken beside her on the box of the cool coach of ceremony to which that team was harnessed" (p. 447). Since the governess seems to epitomize the Tory ethos of a Trollope novel, the conceit of a matron as coach driver (a conceit so improbable as to seem grotesque—imagine Mrs. Proudie driving a four-horse carriage!) suggests its essential inhumanity. And here the underlying Gestalt of a woman in a chariot has to be that of Boadicea—an image likely to have been in people's minds in 1856.

By averting their gaze from the working class and directing it instead toward the tufts on aristocratic mortar boards, the middle class effectively deleted the former's existence. But for Dickens this epistemological "cupboarding" of urgent social problems amounts to more than a spatial deletion. It issues also in a deletion of time, so that an apparently progressive society is actually travelling back toward the stone age.31 Middle-class piety tries to mask working-class needs with its own vision of decency (as Podsnap's persona is borrowed by Headstone), and it decreates the evolution of time just as much as it decreates "offensively" vibrant and lively objects:

Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people. No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world—all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again.

(Little Dorrit, p. 28)

No wonder, therefore, that Boadicea should find herself at home in Wells or Gloucester or Canterbury. Mrs. General is as ruthless as her historical prototype, even if she has refined away her energy: "In the course of their united journey, they ran over several people who came in the way of the proprieties; but always in high style, and with composure" (p. 447). But whereas Boadicea had stood for revolution, Mrs. General, inoculating her rebellious energy as Mrs. Merdle had inoculated Rousseau, stands for conformity.

Before we leave the governess's dehumanizing, procrustean code, we need to recall that in the dialectic art of Dickens, almost every charge is matched with a counter-charge—in this instance the figure of Miss Wade. She too is a governess of sorts, and Tattycoram is her charge. In The Scholemaster, Roger Ascham had noted that "singularitie, in dissenting from the best mens judgmentes, in liking onelie their owne opinions, is moche misliked of all them, that ioyne with learning, discretion and wisdome,"32 a judgement endorsed by "The History of a Self Tormentor" (pp. 663-71). Because it provides a photographic negative of the Mrs. General passages, Dickens implies that the decreating force of wilful dissent is finally indistinguishable from that of will-less assimilation. Exiling herself from middleclass coziness, Miss Wade becomes a scapegoat for the angry, anti-social impulses that run so close to the surface of Little Dorrit.


  1. Vereen M. Bell, "Mrs. General as Victorian England: Dickens's Image of His Time," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 20 (1965): 177-84.
  2. Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, intro. Lionel Trilling (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953), p. 450. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page reference.
  3. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, intro. Max von Boehn (Berlin: Carl Albert Kindle, 1940), p. 49.
  4. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: A Tragedy, trans. Bayard Taylor (London: Frederick Warne. n.d.), p. 40.
  5. Michael Squires, "The Structure of Dickens's Imagination in Little Dorrit, " Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30 (1998): 49-62.
  6. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, intro. E. Salter Davies (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1952), p. 128. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page reference.
  7. Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, intro. Dame Sibyl Thorndike (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1950), p. 469. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page reference.
  8. Anthony Trollope, The Warden, intro. Kathleen Tillotson (London: Everyman, 1957), pp. 225-26.
  9. Charles Dickens, Bleak House, intro. Osbert Sitwell (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1948), p. 101.
  10. Charles Dickens, The Letters of Charles Dickens, 9 vols., eds. Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-97), 7: 523.
  11. Katherine A. Retan, "Lower-Class Angels in the Middle-Class House: The Domestic Woman's 'Progress' in Hard Times and Ruth, " Dickens Studies Annual: Essays in Victorian Fiction 23 (1994): 188-89.
  12. S. J. Harrison, "Prunes and Prism: Wilde and Dickens," Notes and Queries 43 (1997): 351.
  13. Wilfred Dvorak, "The Misunderstood Pancks: Money and the Rhetoric of Disguise in Little Dorrit, " Studies in the Novel 23 (1991): 344.
  14. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens has "respectively," the Penguin edition—Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, ed. Stephen Gill (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 174—"respectfully." Surely the latter reading must be the right one, and "respectively" a dittographic anticipation of "descriptive"?
  15. John Burgoyne, The Dramatical and Poetical Works of the Late Lieut. Gen J. Burgoyne: A Facsimile Reproduction, eds. J. C. Hilson and Lois Potter (Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1977), pp. 77-78. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page reference.
  16. Alexander Pope, The Complete Works of Alexander Pope, ed. John Butt (London: Methuen, 1963), p. 223.
  17. Arthur H. Nethercott, "Prunes and Miss Prism," Modern Drama 6 (1963): 113.
  18. Richard Sheridan, The Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 2 vols., ed. Cecil Price (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 2: 251.
  19. W. W. Gilbert, The Savoy Operas Being the Compete Text of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas as Originally Produced in the Years 1875-1896 (London: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 612-13.
  20. Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille, Lakme: Musique de Leo Delibes (Paris: Au Menestral, 1883), p. 119.
  21. Philip Collins, Dickens and Education (London: Macmillan, 1965), p. 134. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page reference.
  22. Ambrose Philips, The Poetical Works of Ambrose Philips, With the Life of the Author (Edinburgh: Apollo Press, 1781), p. 100.
  23. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, By John Locke, Gent. with the Notes and Illustrations of the Author, and an Analysis of His Doctrine of Ideas. Also Questions on Locke's Essay, by A. M. Gold Medallist and Ethical Moderator in Trinity College, Dublin (London: William Tegg, n.d.), p. 12.
  24. George Berkeley, The Works of George Berkeley, Formerly Bishop of Cloyne Including His Posthumous Works, 4 vols., ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891), 1: 470.
  25. John Edward Bowden, The Life and Letters of Frederick William Faber Priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri (London: Burns & Oates, n.d.), p. 65.
  26. Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, intro, the Earl of Wicklow (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1951), p. 203.
  27. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1972), p. 153. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page reference.
  28. Alfred Tennyson, The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks (London: Longman, 1969), p. 699. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page reference.
  29. Ann Saunders, The Art and Architecture of London: An Illustrated Guide (Oxford: Phaidon, 1984), p. 135.
  30. John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens (London: Chapman and Hall, n.d.), p. 85.
  31. Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, "Reading Through the Past: 'Archaeological' Conceits and Procedures in Little Dorrit, " Yearbook of English Studies 26 (1996): 65-72.
  32. Roger Ascham, English Works: Toxophilus, Report of the Affaires and State of Germany, The Scholemaster, ed. William Aldis Wright (Cambridge: Univ. of Cambridge Press, 1904), p. 243.


Simon Petch (essay date winter 2002)

SOURCE: Petch, Simon. "The Business of the Barrister in A Tale of Two Cities. " Criticism 44, no. 1 (winter 2002): 27-42.

[In the following essay, Petch presents a critical reading of the character of Sydney Carton—focusing on his occupation as a lawyer—in A Tale of Two Cities.]

A Tale of Two Cities is the story of one lawyer, Sydney Carton, and his self-sacrificing love for one woman, in the context of his relations with several other professional men, at the time of the French Revolution. It is also the most problematic novel in the Dickens canon, primarily because of the elusiveness of its hero, the barrister Sydney Carton. We know, from what Dickens said about his own performance as Richard Wardour in Wilkie Collins's The Frozen Deep that Carton was central to the emotional genesis of A Tale of Two Cities, 1 and most readers would agree with Richard M. Myers: "Carton is the pivotal figure in the Tale, not merely because of the central importance to the plot of his heroic suicide, but because he embodies all the disparate elements of the novel's moral-political drama."2 But there is little agreement about Carton's precise place in this drama. Those who read A Tale of Two Cities as an historical novel find Carton difficult to pin down because he is such an apparently ahistorical figure,3 and feminist or gender-based criticism has subtended Carton's function to that of the female characters. Thus Hilary Schor dubs the novel "a Tale of Two Daughters," and maintains that Carton functions for Lucie as "the guide to the erotic wanderings that mark (off) the adulterous path."4 Other commentators have responded to his elusiveness by casting him in a variety of roles—Byronic hero,5 Carlylean hero,6 even as a clown in a harlequinade.7 As Albert D. Hutter has said: "[Carton] suffers chronically from meaning too much in relation to too many other characters and themes."8

Despite his centrality to the novel's plot, Carton is an "unsubstantial" (216) social presence, on the edge of groups to which he belongs only tangentially, and at home nowhere. In Darnay's first trial, before Carton's decisive intervention, his attention is "concentrated on the ceiling of the court" (64), and his torn gown and untidy wig (79) may—for all we know at this stage—suggest professional incompetence. The narrator handles Carton with figurative delicacy: after a night's work with Stryver, Carton is "rumoured to be seen at broad day, going home stealthily and unsteadily to his lodgings, like a dissipated cat" (90), a simile which intrigues because of the indirection with which it is approached ("rumoured to be seen"), and which tells precisely because Carton is not returning from a night on the tiles, but from a working night that has set his partner up for the day's legal battles, and which therefore hints at Carton's own problematic involvement with his work. As "the jackal" to Stryver's lion (II.v), Carton metaphorically provides his senior barrister with professional sustenance. But the jackal, in Darwin's words, is "an animal not destined by nature to exist[,] & carrying with it the provision for death."9 Such a symbolically hybrid form perfectly captures Carton's morbid alienation, which drives him unpredictably between self-hatred and self-pity.

Fitzjames Stephen's celebrated trashing of this novel was prompted by a lawyer's anger at the novelist's misrepresentation of legal process,10 but his hostility at least has the virtue of drawing attention to the centrality of law in Dickens's conception of his novel. At the opposite end of the critical spectrum perhaps only a lawyer might claim, as the barrister Edward Clarke did in 1914, that "The one great heroic character to be found in the works of Charles Dickens is Sydney Carton."11 These legal opinions chart the parameters of this essay, which explores the significance to the novel of Carton's status as a barrister. And, following critics who have looked beyond Carton's obvious doubling with Darnay to his more complex connections with his senior barrister Charles Stryver, with Alexander Manette, and with Jarvis Lorry,12 I examine Carton in the context of the professional culture that is integral to the representation of English society in A Tale of Two Cities.

The novel's treatment of French and English cultures of work is unbalanced. In France, the novel shows us the aristocracy of the ancien régime in exploitative relation to the peasantry and the urban working classes; in England neither aristocracy nor peasantry is represented, the only lower class worker is Jerry Cruncher, and the focus is firmly on middle-class professional males—the lawyers Stryver and Carton, the businessman Lorry, and the tutor Darnay. Alexander Manette, Doctor of Beauvais, is the significant French connection, linking the two cities of the title, in both of which he works, and also comparing, through his working lives, the professional cultures of France and England.

The opening chapter of A Tale of Two Cities introduces the first of the many comparisons between France and England that pervade the novel: "There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France" (5); and both pairs of rulers, in 1775, "carried their divine rights with a high hand" (7). But from this superficial similarity there emerges a contrast, as the chapter goes on to illustrate the defective legal system of each country. The example here offered of French injustice is the excessive punishment of a youth for failure to observe religious formality, an excess which prompts the narrative voice into a prophetic mode introducing the Woodman, Fate, and the Farmer, Death; in the logic of revolution, necessity is fomenting retribution. Dickens's sense of legal injustice in the England of 1775 is less systematic, but more complex, and more expansive, and in describing how the indiscriminate application of capital punishment to a variety of offences has created an ineffectual system of criminal justice, the narration is charged with comic energy:

Daring burglaries by armed men, and highway robberies, took place in the capital itself every night; families were publicly cautioned not to go out of town without removing their furniture to upholsterers' warehouses for security; the highwayman in the dark was a City tradesman in the light, and, being recognised and challenged by his fellow-tradesman whom he stopped in his character of 'the Captain', gallantly shot him through the head and rode away; the mail was waylaid by seven robbers, and the guard shot three dead, and then got shot dead himself by the other four, 'in consequence of the failure of his ammunition': after which the mail was robbed in peace; that magnificent potentate, the Lord Mayor of London, was made to stand and deliver on Turnham Green, by one highwayman, who despoiled the illustrious creature in sight of all his retinue.


This carnivalesque catalogue of burglary and robbery dwarfs the single—and simple—French example of transgression, and in the irony which, throughout the passage, is directed at legal institutions, the narrative voice virtually celebrates such lawless anarchy. Richard Myers has said that in this chapter "Dickens describes France from the point of view of Marx or Rousseau, and England from the point of view of Hobbes;"13 certainly, the critique of each legal system is shaped from a different ideological perspective. The most striking difference is that, in England, the criminal subculture underwrites the official economy: "the highwayman in the dark was a City tradesman in the light." Its energies may have been misapplied, but England in 1775 was a busy place, and this malfunctioning vibrancy is preferable to the France of the ancien régime, which, because all creative energy is stifled by oppressive authority, does not work.

France is a worked rather than a working country because its labor is geared to aristocratic consumption rather than communal production. The aristocracy is represented in the person of Monseigneur, "one of the great lords in power at the Court" (108), who requires not only a cook to prepare his chocolate, but also four "lacqueys" to serve it. This superfluity of servants is a synecdoche of a crisis of labor in French culture; it heralds the description of the mis-married Farmer-General and his overloaded retinue (109-10), which in turn foreshadows the diagnosis of disorder in the professions: "Military officers destitute of military knowledge; naval officers with no idea of a ship; civil officers without a notion of affairs; brazen ecclesiastics, of the worst world worldly … all totally unfit for their several callings …" (110). Integral to this "leprosy of unreality" (111) is the sacrificing of "public business" (109) to such nepotism and patronage; and several phrases—"sound business" "uncomfortable business" "anybody's business" (110)—play adjectival variations on one of the novel's key terms of reference, "business." In the reader's first, dramatic glimpse of France, after the wine cask smashes on the stones in Saint Antoine, as "All the people within reach had suspended their business, or their idleness, to run to the spot and drink the wine" (30-31), the parallel clauses suggest equivalence, in France, between "business" and "idleness." After the revolution, "business" in France fares no better, as can be seen from the career of the Parisian wood-sawyer, formerly a provincial mender of roads. The mender of roads is introduced as a bystander in the lead-up to the revolution, as, "cap in hand," he is an incidental informant to Monsieur the Marquis (119). Drawn to Paris, this "provincial slave" (179) is swept up in the revolution, and transfers his servitude to Defarge and his wife. Planted in Paris near La Force, his earlier role as informer is intensified, and this "lacquey" of the revolution masquerades as the wood-sawyer who observes Lucie's walks near the prison as she tries to let her husband see her. His insistent disclaimer, "'But it's not my business'" (287) is revolutionary double-speak, for such surveillance is entirely and specifically his "business." Rehearsed as a witness by Madame Defarge, the wood-sawyer later declares himself willing to manufacture such evidence—to perjure himself—as may be needed to convict Lucie (373-74). Such sinister "business" is a revision of the earlier parasitical "business" of the ancien régime, and a sure sign that the revolution has bred its own sickness: plus ça change. "Business" is therefore a decisive term in the novel's analysis of French society, and, introduced by Jarvis Lorry, the self-styled "man of business," in the fourth chapter of the novel (25), it also serves to distinguish between the working cultures of England and France. The term "business" does suggestive work in the England of A Tale of Two Cities, where it becomes a site of ideological stress, and it is brought into particular focus through Sydney Carton.

At the end of Charles Darnay's first (English) trial, when the jury is considering its verdict, Carton communicates information to Darnay on behalf of Jarvis Lorry, for, as Carton considerately says to Lorry, "'It won't do for a respectable bank gentleman like you, to be seen speaking to him publicly, you know'" (81). After Darnay's acquittal, Carton, who has been drinking, finds Lorry talking to Darnay, and alludes to his own earlier words to Lorry: "'If you knew what a conflict goes on in the business mind, when the business mind is divided between good-natured impulse and business appearances, you would be amused, Mr Darnay'" (86). Nettled, Lorry justifies himself: "'We men of business, who serve a House, are not our own masters'"; sensing that this is a retreat, and so becoming more nettled, Lorry then tells Carton that it is none of his business.

"Business! Bless you, I have no business," said Mr Carton.

"It is a pity you have not, sir."

"I think so, too."

"If you had," pursued Mr Lorry, "perhaps you would attend to it."

"Lord love you, no!—I shouldn't," said Mr Carton.


Heated by Carton's indifference, and angry with himself, Lorry then attempts a defence of "business" as "'a very good thing, and a very respectable thing,'" but he is floundering, and knows it. Carton has maneuvered Lorry into such a position by shifting the word "business" from the meaning in which Lorry understands it, the sense of "a person's official or professional duties as a whole" to the more general sense of the word, "action which occupies time, demands attention and labour."14 Lorry intends the former meaning, but Carton (who fully understands Lorry's intention) assumes the latter, and thus challenges Lorry's professional status by ignoring it.

This conversation is echoed in a later interchange between Carton and Charles Stryver, the novel's other barrister. About to inform Carton of his own intention to marry Lucie Manette, Stryver criticizes Carton for his manners, and general lack of social graces: "'You are a disagreeable fellow.'" Irritated by Stryver's complacency, and possibly by some intimation of what Stryver is to tell him (for Carton is himself in love with Lucie), he responds scornfully: "'will you never understand that I am incorrigible?'"

"You have no business to be incorrigible," was his friend's answer, delivered in no very soothing tone.

"I have no business to be, at all, that I know of," said Sydney Carton.


In going beyond his earlier words to Lorry, "I have no business," Carton uses the general sense of the word "business," introduced here by Stryver, to ground his existential doubt, and to hint at his self-hatred. Carton is especially "disagreeable" when he shifts words from the meanings assumed by their users, because this involves the skill for exploiting semantic variations that he has acquired in his profession as a lawyer. As Carton knows, there are no innocent meanings, and his uses of the word "business" signal his ambivalent relationship to the business and professional worlds of Lorry and Stryver.

Sydney Carton speaks the language of his profession, and his double capacity to use and to challenge the authority of this language makes him a powerful and attractive figure in the novel. Although he has little standing in the professional hierarchy, he has a firm grasp of the core professional skill which Stryver, his senior barrister, lacks: "[Stryver] had not that faculty of extracting the essence from a heap of statements, which is among the most striking and necessary of the advocate's accomplishments" (90). This faculty is described in detail by Dickens's friend Thomas Noon Talfourd:

[The retained advocate] penetrates the maze of precedents and authorities to search after the leading principle of his subject, and traces its application in the succession of decisions with strenuous care. Dry, hard, and uninteresting as the labour seems, it soon generates its own fervour, and becomes its own reward. The faculties which would else be relaxed and dissipated among various exciting pursuits are braced and strengthened by the silent toil; the very remoteness of the subjects of inquiry from the ordinary aspects of business imparts a certain elevation and refinement to the study which masters them; while the habit of continuous exertion, frequently piercing through the accumulated illustrations and distinctions of ages to the same ancient principles of law, though in different directions, invests life itself with the consistency which belongs to singleness of purpose and aim.15

Carton does this intellectual work, but without benefit of the self-fulfilment stressed by Talfourd, because his legal capacities are exploited by Stryver, whose access to the "pith and marrow" of his "business" is through such exploitation of Carton. Thus Stryver "always had his points at his fingers' ends in the morning," and Dickens makes clear that the questions Stryver put to the Crown witnesses in cross-examination at Darnay's trial were prepared by Carton, and not by Stryver himself (90).

Notwithstanding the obvious differences between them, Stryver thinks he knows Carton better than anyone. They were at school together at Shrewsbury, they were fellow-students in Paris, and (at least in the early stages of the novel) are friends as well as partners. Stryver is critical of his junior barrister—"'You summon no energy and purpose'"—and he diagnoses his problem as instability: "'the old seesaw Sydney.'" But Carton himself blames Stryver and their professional culture of competition for his plight: "'Before Shrewsbury, and at Shrewsbury, and ever since Shrewsbury, you have fallen into your rank, and I have fallen into mine. Even when we were fellow-students in the Quartier Latin … you were always somewhere, and I was always—nowhere.'" When Stryver asks him whose fault that was, Carton continues, good-naturedly enough: "'Upon my soul, I am not sure that it was not yours. You were always driving and riving and shouldering and pressing, to that restless degree that I had no chance for my life but in rest and repose'" (94). Uncompetitive as Carton is by nature, his work for Stryver is a continuation of the habit formed in his schooldays, the habit of doing exercises for other boys, rather than his own. Carton's sense of himself as one who does not rank, and his self-destructive streak, are both reactions to an ideology of competition which he finds abhorrent, rather than to the law itself, for he is at home in a world of principle.16 Many characters in the novel offer Carton advice about his conduct, but no one criticizes him for his work as a lawyer, or advises him to do anything else. Carton is comfortable with the law, and his dissatisfaction is less with his work than with the conditions in which it is practiced. As he has intimated to Stryver, he feels himself to be a nowhere man in his professional world, and his profoundly ambivalent attitude to his work is wonderfully caught in his careless manner of "lounging with his elbow against the bar" (81), an attitude of casual antagonism to the profession that supports him.

The Carton we see in court is very good at his job. Talfourd draws attention to the noble condition of an advocate who, "called on to defend the subject against the power of State prosecution, may give to the very forms and quibbles with which ancient liberty was fenced, a dignity, and breathe over them a magic power."17 At Darnay's trial, this is the very situation in which Carton is introduced into the novel, but Carton goes one better than Talfourd's hypothetical advocate: his "magic power" cuts through the legal claptrap by moving beyond language, and bringing the talk to a halt. Carton is never shown at work in court again, but his devastating exposure of Barsard in "A Hand at Cards" (III.viii) is entirely a matter of acquired forensic rhetoric, and reminds us of his legal skill.

The nature and quality of Carton's commitment to his professional identity give him an authority that is denied most of the professional men in A Tale of Two Cities. He is the touchstone by which the other professionals are judged, and so the central figure in the novel's masculine network of professional affiliations which may be traced from character to character through contrast, comparison, and mutual definition. Darnay, who lacks professional accreditation, is in this respect the shadowy double of Carton the renegade professional whose skills are acknowledged only by exploitation. At Cambridge, Darnay "read with undergraduates as a sort of tolerated smuggler who drove a contraband trade in European languages" (135), an illicit trader relegated, like Carton, to the margins of the professional economy, but whose professional integrity, like Carton's, is impeccable. Carton and Stryver are contrasted as lawyers, and as suitors, "The Fellow of Delicacy" and "The Fellow of No Delicacy" (II.xii-xiii). Stryver's declaration to Jarvis Lorry of his intention to make an offer of marriage to Lucie Manette establishes a tension between "the banker" and "the barrister" (153) that undermines the wall which Lorry is forever trying to build between his business character and his private relationships. When Darnay presses his suit for Lucie to her father, he strategically points the similarities between himself and Dr Manette—"like you, striving to live away from [France] by my own exertions" (139)—as voluntary exiles and independent professionals. And, ironically, it is Lorry's loyalty to Tellson's bank that finally compels Darnay to go on his mission to France. His primary reason for going is to rescue the old servant Gabelle, but he finally overcomes his "latent uneasiness" and hesitation by "the pointed comparison of himself with the brave old gentleman in whom duty was so strong" (252).

The most subtle filaments in this network of professional relationship and influence are those which link Carton with Alexander Manette,18 and with Jarvis Lorry. Carton and Manette speak directly to each other only once in the novel. After Darnay has been condemned to death, Carton, his plan to rescue Darnay now fully formed, gets Manette out of the way by sending him back to the authorities for a final appeal. Manette and Carton seem unconscious of each other, and yet the novel silently builds bridges between them. Carton, like Manette, possesses a "useful life laid waste" (48), and Manette's "black brooding" (83) reflects the dark side of Carton. In the famous Night Shadows passage (I.iii), the intriguing sense of the secrets of personality and the mysteries of individuality is equally proleptic of Carton and Manette. Like Manette, Carton is recalled to life through being reawakened to his professional identity.

Manette links France and England, and also contrasts the France of the ancien régime with Republican France, but his professional status is the key to his complex function of the novel. Five years after his release from the Bastille, Manette earns a comfortable living in Soho: "Doctor Manette received such patients here as his old reputation, and its revival in the floating whispers of his story, brought him. His scientific knowledge, and his vigilance and skill in conducting ingenious experiments, brought him otherwise into moderate request, and he earned as much as he wanted" (97). His capacity to control his income is the mark of his professional independence, and the dining-room appropriately doubles as Manette's consulting-room, for his work puts the food on the table. But this independence is illusory, and the profession is precariously perched over a trade, for in his bedroom his shoemaking bench and tools of that trade that he brought with him from prison in France await his dreamlife; the profession represses the trade, as the doctor represses the Bastille prisoner. On his return to France Manette is most fully recalled to his professional life, a "new life" (282) that is quite unlike his private practice in London. Appointed inspecting physician of three prisons at the age of sixty-two, Manette acquires a new and elevated status: "Silent, humane, indispensable in hospital and prison, using his art equally among assassins and victims, he was a man apart" (284). And yet his status as the dignified and impartial epitome of professional public service is underwritten by his status as the Bastille Captive; for what preserves Manette as "a man apart" is partly "the story of the Bastille captive," which "removed him from all other men" (284). Because his present authority is grounded in his having been a prisoner of the ancien régime, Manette is still a prisoner; his professional authority is hostage to the republic, and, as becomes clear at his son-in-law's second French trial, his independence is politically contingent. The revolution catches up with him: addressed as Citizen Doctor at the arrest of Darnay (303), at the trial he is plain Citizen Manette (329), without professional status, power or influence.

Manette's story, as completed by his own account of his dealings with the Evrémonde brothers, is a fable of professional disempowerment. Daniel Duman has claimed that in nineteenth-century England "the professions" developed into "a distinct and self-conscious social category," central to which "was the formulation and diffusion of a unique ideology based on the concept of service as a moral imperative." This was partly effected by the social and economic changes consequent upon industrialization: "The traditional bonds which connected the professions to the landed aristocracy began to loosen. The patron-professional relationship of the eighteenth-century, in which the professional practitioner was dependent upon aristocratic custom, was replaced by a client-professional relationship."19 Manette's attempt to resist such "traditional bonds" sees them tighten around him, and his account (III.x) of how a "young physician" with "a rising reputation" was betrayed and imprisoned, is an emblem of the injustice that inspired the revolution. Hijacked in Paris by the Evrémonde brothers, he is assured that his "clients" are people of condition; but his "patients" are people of no condition, and this fissure between client and patient is the essence of a system of patronage of which Manette is as much the victim as the sister and brother of Madame Defarge. The term "Doctor" becomes highly charged in the several manners of its application. The dying boy consistently addresses Manette as "Doctor," whereas the Evrémonde brothers do not; in fact he is only addressed as "Doctor" by the elder brother when he is effectively threatened: "'Doctor … [y]our reputation is high, and, as a young man with your fortune to make, you are probably mindful of your interest. The things that you see here, are things to be seen, and not spoken of.'" The threat (heralded by acknowledgment of professional status, but enforced by the mention of "interest" and "fortune") is ignored by Manette, whose response—"'in my profession, the communications of patients are always received in confidence'" (340)—reasserts a crucial distinction, and amounts to a refusal of patronage. Money is thrown, offered, given (but not taken), and then left at Manette's door. To accept payment from the brothers would obviously compromise Manette's professional status, because the money is a bribe for silence, and therefore complicity, rather than payment for service. Manette returns the money, and complains to the authorities, only to be betrayed by the Minister to whom he writes, because the state is at the mercy or behest of the nobility—the pervasive condition of patronage that was analyzed so scathingly in "Monsieur the Marquis in Town" (II.vii). But at the trial of Darnay, the law is at the behest of the revolutionary tribunal, which results in a perversion of justice parallel to Manette's imprisonment. Working for the Republic is little different from working for the ancien régime, and it is impossible not to contrast Manette's two periods in France with the true professional independence he acquires in England. Furthermore, the fortunes of his son-in-law in France anticipate the appropriation of Manette's identity by the revolutionary authorities. When Darnay sets foot in France his identity is immediately under siege, and the narrator's neutral designation "traveller" is translated, by the institutionally-pressured speech of those running the revolution, from "emigrant" to "aristocrat" to "prisoner." His name shifts with his status, and by the time he has reached Paris, Darnay has become Evrémonde. At Beauvais, ironically, Darnay learns of the decree that has made him a "traitor" (256-59); and the narrator's analogy for Darnay on his way to prison secures him in the economy of revolution, which will later engulf his father-in-law: "that a man in good clothes should be going to prison, was no more remarkable than that of a labourer in working clothes should be going to work" (263).

The contrast between French and English cultures of professionalism partly explains why Manette and Carton, who would seem to have much in common, have so little to say to each other in the novel. But this novel may also reflect the different degrees of independence enjoyed by the two professions of law and medicine in England. Duman maintains that during the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries the bar and physic "represented two distinct types of professions and professionalism. The bar had begun to emerge as a proto-modern profession, a precursor of mid-nineteenth century developments, while physic largely conformed to the paradigm of the pre-industrial gentlemanly professions. The physicians lacked complete autonomy over the content and goals of their work and discipline. The bar, on the other hand, had the independence and authority which resembled that later created by the new model professions."20 While, at the time represented by the novel, both barristers and physicians worked largely for the landed classes, the relationship of the two professions to the social élite was by no means identical, for the barrister was less reliant upon "a particular geographical or social milieu" for his clients.

The barrister's increasing liberation from aristocratic patronage was mirrored in the increasing diversification of his clientele, a process accelerated by the industrial revolution. And patronage, either by the aristocracy or the republic, is what contains Manette's independence and controls his professional authority in A Tale of Two Cities. This consciousness of what Duman has termed "the era of professionalism" (the second quarter of the nineteenth century) may have enabled Dickens to discriminate among the relative degrees of independence of the various professional occupations represented in the novel, and as an English advocate Carton is more of a free agent than Manette, the Doctor of Beauvais. It is significant that the hero of a novel written in 1859 should be an independent English professional.

Jarvis Lorry, banker and self-professed "man of business," is the exemplar of the ideology of service to which Carton's profession commits him. The comic conflict between the man of business and the true-hearted old gentleman is done within the early stages of the novel, for all Lorry's actions are motivated by service and duty rather than by self-interest. In this sense, as he has already told Carton, he is not his own man: "'We men of business, who serve a House, are not our own masters. We have to think of the House more than ourselves'" (86). The fiduciary relationship of employee to employer implied by such a sense of responsibility is indicated by Lorry's anxiety about Lucie and her child taking refuge at Tellson's bank in Paris: "he had no right to imperil Tellson's by sheltering the wife of an emigrant prisoner under the Bank roof. His own possessions, safety, life, he would have hazarded for Lucie and her child, without a moment's demur; but the great trust he held was not his own, and as to that business charge he was a strict man of business" (324). Lorry's sense of his institutional responsibility is neither questioned nor criticized here, and indeed as effective distinction between the personal and the professional is validated by the legal concepts of "right" and "trust."

In 1921 R. H. Tawney wrote: "The difference between industry as it exists to-day and a profession is … simple and unmistakable. The former is organised for the protection of rights, mainly rights to pecuniary gain. The latter is organised for the performance of duties. The essence of the one is that its only criterion is the financial return which it offers its shareholders. The essence of the other, is that, though men enter it for the sake of livelihood, the measuring of their success is the service which they perform.…"21 Tawney's distinction between the ethos of business and that of the professions is central to his main argument that a Functional society is preferable to an Acquisitive society, for a functional society is characterized by social purpose,22 and the appropriate ethos for such a society is the professional one; for the "essence of a profession is … that its members organise themselves for the purpose of function."23 The energy and busy-ness of London in the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities might be said to characterize activity without social purpose, and so to represent a society in search of function. Jarvis Lorry collapses Tawney's distinction between business and profession, for in Paris Lorry is mindful of the "right" that he does not have, and of his duty to the bank "whose bread I have eaten these sixty years" (246). A man whose business is his profession, and therefore a man of business with a professional conscience, Lorry thinks of "pecuniary gain" only in terms of the duty it imposes. Aged 60 in 1775, and therefore almost 80 when the novel concludes, Lorry is an eighteenth-century man, and his pre-industrial consciousness is suggested by his conception of his work as a "trust."24 He was a trustee to the marriage of Dr Manette, and, as he tells Lucie, "'In a similar way I am, or I have been, trustee of one kind or other for scores of our customers.'" His most significant function in the novel is as a trustee, for his great trust was Lucie Manette, and she knows it: "'when I was left an orphan through my mother's surviving my father only two years, it was you who brought me to England'" (25-26). This rescue mission turns Lorry into a Prospero figure (he remembers holding a child in his arms "when the hail drifted heavily and the sea ran high" [23]), and its counterpart in the later stages of the novel is Carton's rescue mission to Paris.

After the marriage of Charles Darnay to Lucie Manette, Carton too becomes a fiduciary figure, with "a certain rugged air of fidelity about him" (214). When Carton and Lorry come together in Paris, they bond in fiduciary relationship as surrogate son and father, and Carton's self-sacrifice is a surrogate fulfilment of all that Lorry would have hazarded for Lucie and her child "without a moment's demur" (324). In giving his life in the service of his clients, Carton fulfils absolutely the professional ideology of service. Duman cites a civil servant's report to a Parliamentary Committee in the 1850s: "The first duty and cardinal quality you want [in public service] is a deep self-sacrificing sense of duty.… The sense of duty is one of the quietest and least demonstrative of qualities, because it finds so much of its reward in itself. You cannot go into the general market and lay your hands upon it as a visible commodity."25 Such duty distinguishes the professional from the commercial world, and supplies a professional context for Carton's self-sacrifice. Within the novel that context is signified by Lorry, and what Carton does is evaluated in relation to him. In Paris, after the second arrest of Darnay, and after Manette has been sent to do what he can, Carton falls into conversation with Lorry, who says (of Darnay): "'But he will perish; there is no real hope.' 'Yes' [replies Carton]. 'He will perish; there is no real hope'" (416). As Carton repeats Lorry's words exactly, the men are in complete verbal harmony. Dickens later qualified this repetition by changing the punctuation. The words and the syntax remain the same, but in place of the semi-colon that punctuates Lorry's sentence, Carton's is broken by a colon.26 This visual variation is the first sign of Carton's benign duplicity, and a hint that his consent to their agreement is silently qualified by what he will not disclose. This is also the introduction of Carton's double-speak, which counters the revolutionary double-speak of the wood-sawyer. In speaking of himself here in the third person as if he were someone else, Carton takes Lorry's pronoun, "he," and substitutes himself (as the referent) behind the commonly understood signified, Darnay. As Baldridge has said, of this interchange: "It is as if Carton has already ceased to be a discrete subject, his personality commingling with that of Darnay's as he approaches his salvational moment."27 Such benign duplicity characterizes Carton's final conversation with Lorry. When Manette returns, unsuccessful, from his hopeless task, and relapses into insensibility, Carton and Lorry help the doctor to his chair "as if by agreement;" and the phrase is repeated when "as if by agreement, they looked at one another with one meaning in their faces" (356). The single meaning is fictitious, for Lorry cannot know what Carton means when, speaking of the departure of the carriage from Paris, he tells him: "'Wait for nothing but to have my place occupied.'" Catching the flame, Lorry harmoniously compounds Carton's duplicity by saying, "'it does not all depend on one man, but I shall have a young and ardent man at my side'" (359-60). The youth and ardour to which he refers are Carton's, but Carton, ahead of him, anticipates only Darnay. The "veritable merging of two individuals into one"28 is complete, and Lorry is the conscientious trustee who, however unwittingly, oversees this transaction whereby Darnay is released back into his own life.

The ethical significance accorded Lorry as a "man of business" complicates the status of his employer, Tellson's bank; because of his "fidelity to the House of which he had grown to be a part, like strong rootivy" (269), the bank cannot simply be mocked.29 Introduced as a moribund English institution, "the triumphant perfection of inconvenience" (55), Tellson's is initially associated with the vogue for capital punishment that was criticized in the novel's opening chapter: "the forger was put to Death; the utterer of a bad note was put to Death; the unlawful opener of a letter was put to Death; the purloiner of forty shillings and sixpence was put to Death; the holder of a horse at Tellson's door, who made off with it, was put to Death; the coiner of a bad shilling was put to Death; the sounders of three-fourths of the notes in the whole gamut of Crime, were put to Death" (56). Nicholas Rance has pointed out that Dickens changes his tune and begins to approve of the bank as soon as it becomes a haven for aristocratic emigrés;30 for "Tellson's was a munificent house, and extended great liberality to old customers who had fallen from their high estate" (244). It is as the representative of the interests of such customers that Lorry goes to Paris, to prevent bank documents that may have "compromising consequences" for "numbers of people" (245) from being destroyed or from falling into the wrong hands. Tellson's is, from the point of view of ordinary English people, a symbol of inhumane and conservative inefficiency, but for the French aristocracy it is a source of stability in anxious times, and a refuge from the unjust effects of the revolution. The narrative voice registers both points of view, and is untroubled by any apparent contradiction between them, but in the later stages of the novel this contradiction implodes as the anti-social "function" of Tellson's as an institution is exposed by Jerry Cruncher, himself "the live sign of the house" (57).

A self-styled "honest tradesman" (60), and a general factotum to the House of Tellson, Jerry Cruncher is also messenger, escort, and bodyguard to Jarvis Lorry, and later the "daily retainer" to the Manette household in Paris (298). But he is also a Resurrection Man, and as a body-snatcher he represents service at the behest of the market. When Lorry realizes the nature of Cruncher's "unlawful occupation" (318) his anger is professionally rather than morally driven, and he speaks most truly as a man of business: "'you have used the respectable and great house of Tellson as a blind, and … you have had an unlawful occupation of an infamous description.'" Tellson's is foremost in the mind, and it is Cruncher's imposition on Tellson's to which he takes primary exception. Cruncher justifies himself to Lorry by explaining the relation of his trade to the medical profession and to the bank: "'There might be medical doctors at the present hour, a picking up their guineas where an honest tradesman don't pick up his fardens … a banking away like smoke at Tellson's, and a cocking their medical eyes at that tradesman on the sly.… Well, that 'ud be imposing, too, on Tellson's'" (318-19). The bank itself is indeed a front between the professional doctors and the traders in the alternative economy who supply them with bodies, a hidden link or "blind" between the economy of professional respectability and the black market. Cruncher's point, that professional wealth and status are built on his own trade of body-snatching, subverts both Lorry's stance and the bank's standing, and he does not need to labor the point about Tellson's key place in this structure of institutional malpractice. Lorry relents, and the situation is resolved—for this conversation, however pertinent to the novel's interest in professional work, is incidental to the need to get on with things in Paris—by Cruncher making Lorry an offer: that he be allowed to pursue the legitimate trade of grave-digging, and that his son succeed him as oddjob man at Tellson's. Now the "honest tradesman" comes into his own as truly as did the "man of business" earlier in the conversation, for his own status as a tradesman is properly validated by the acknowledgment of his son's apprenticeship.

Jerry Cruncher's analysis of his own position recalls "the highwayman in the dark [who] was a City tradesman in the light" from the first chapter of the novel (6), but with a significant refinement: the underwriting of the official economy by a criminal subculture is here reinterpreted as the surreptitious patronage of commercial criminality by professional respectability. The relationship of professions and trades is uncomfortable in A Tale of Two Cities, both here, and in the treatment of Manette's double life, in which the repressed life of a tradesman returns to disrupt or dispel the professional consciousness. This is part of a broader interest in the relationship of work to social function which runs throughout the novel. The treatment of such concerns serves to contrast England and France, for whereas the economy of labor in France is geared to dysfunctional exploitation, in England the quality of the malfunctioning itself signifies energy in need of redirection. Sydney Carton points the way. Alienated from the exploitative competitiveness of capitalism, yet committed to professional service, he is himself the "live sign" of English bourgeois social ideology in 1859 (a year which saw the publication of Samuel Smiles's Self-Help, as well as of A Tale of Two Cities ). As an independent professional and representative of the ideology of service, Carton symbolizes the potential for function that characterizes Dickens's critique of English society.


  1. See Dickens's Dedication and Preface to the First Volume Edition, in A Tale of Two Cities, ed. Richard Maxwell (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 2000), Appendix II 397. Subsequent page references are to this edition, and will be placed in parentheses in the text, as will occasional references to Book and Chapter.
  2. Richard M. Myers, "Politics of Hatred in A Tale of Two Cities, " Joseph M. Knippenberg and Peter Augustine Lawler, eds., Poets, Princes, and Private Citizens: Literary Alternatives to Postmodern Politics (New York and London: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996) 67.
  3. Avrom Fleishman says that Carton figures "the promise of social regeneration through sacrifice," The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971) 123; Andrew Sanders claims that Carton's sacrifice "proclaims the supreme importance of the individual in the social process," The Victorian Historical Novel, 1840-1880 (London: Macmillan, 1978) 93; and Beth Herst's reading of the novel is based on her claim that Carton's predicament "exists independently of 'historical' concerns": The Dickens Hero: Selfhood and Alienation in the Dickens World (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990) 147.
  4. Hilary M. Schor, Dickens and the Daughter of the House (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 84, 91.
  5. William R. Harvey, "Charles Dickens and the Byronic Hero," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24 (1969): 305-16.
  6. Michael Timko, "Splendid Impressions and Picturesque Means: Dickens, Carlyle, and the French Revolution," DSA 12 (1983): 177-95.
  7. Edwin Eigner, "Charles Darnay and Revolutionary Identity," DSA 12 (1983): 147-59.
  8. Albert D. Hutter, "Nation and Generation in A Tale of Two Cities, " PMLA 93 (1978): 456.
  9. Charles Darwin's Notebooks, 1836-1844, transcribed and edited by Paul H. Barrett, Peter J. Gautrey, Sandra Herbert, David Kohn, Sydney Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), Notebook N [1838-39] 574-75.
  10. Stephen's hostile notice appeared in The Saturday Review (17 December 1859): 741-43.
  11. Edward Clarke, K. C., "Charles Dickens and the Law," The Cornhill Magazine 36 (1914): 648.
  12. J. M. Rignall, "Dickens and the Catastrophic Continuum of History in A Tale of Two Cities, " ELH 51 (1984): 575-87; and Cates Baldrige, "Alternatives to Bourgeois Individualism in A Tale of Two Cities, " SEL 30 (1990): 633-54.
  13. Myers, 67.
  14. These definitions are from the OED (second edition): see "business" 12 and 13.
  15. Thomas Noon Talfourd, "On the Principle of Advocacy as Developed in the Practice of the Bar," The Law Magazine 55 (1846): 8-9.
  16. Rignall maintains that "no cogent reasons are offered for [Carton's] alienation," but then points out that Carton has been "marginalized … by the energy and values embodied in Stryver who, more properly than Darnay, is his alter ego. " See "Dickens and the Catastrophic Continuum of History": 582-83. Late in the novel we learn that Carton "had been famous among his earliest competitors [not "contemporaries"] as a youth of great promise"; A Tale of Two Cities, 325.
  17. Thomas Noon Talfourd, "Lord Eldon and Lord Stowell," Quarterly Review 13 (1844): 38.
  18. Rignall has said that Manette and Carton are the most estranged figures in the novel: "Dickens and the Catastrophic Continuum of History": 578; and Baldridge claims that as "the victim of alienated labor, [Carton] too is 'buried alive'"; "Alternatives to Bourgeois Individualism": 645.
  19. Daniel Duman, "The Creation and Diffusion of a Professional Ideology in Nineteenth-Century England," The Sociological Review 27 (1979): 114-15.
  20. Daniel Duman, "Pathway to Professionalism: The English Bar in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries," Journal of Social History 13 (1980): 618.
  21. R. H. Tawney, The Acquisitive Society (London: G. Bell & Sons Ltd., 1921) 108. I owe this reference to Duman's "Creation and Diffusion of a Professional Ideology." "A function may be defined as an activity which embodies and expresses the idea of social purpose." Tawney, The Acquisitive Society, 9.
  22. Ibid., 13.
  23. Lorry would be as anachronistic in the financial worlds represented in either Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend as Tawney's theory is anomalous in the current ideology of economic rationalism.
  24. Cited by Duman in "Professional Ideology in Nineteenth-Century England": 117-18. Duman also cites Sydney and Beatrice Webb's statement, in the New Statesman for 1917, that in "the higher ranges of professional ethics," the member of a profession "is expected to risk and to sacrifice, his health or his life in the performance of his professional duty, an expectation which never exists in business": 128.
  25. See the Everyman edition of A Tale of Two Cities, edited by Norman Page (London: J. M. Dent, 1994) 339. This text is based on the Charles Dickens Edition, which embodies the author's final revisions.
  26. Baldridge, 649.
  27. Baldridge, 647. As Baldridge suggests, "doubling" is an inadequate term to describe what occurs between Carton and Darnay in the final stages of the novel, and it is impossible to read the account of their "joint letter" to Lucie without backtracking, "for Dickens makes it especially difficult to keep the speakers straight for any length of time": 646, 649-50.
  28. The significance accorded to Lorry, and indeed to Tellson's, is, as Baldridge has perceptively suggested, profoundly paradoxical; for "the banker, like the model citizen of the Revolutionary Republic, defines himself first and foremost as part of a collectivity"; and there are "odd echoes of the Terror cheek by jowl with the comic 'Olde England' trappings of Tellson's." "Alternatives to Bourgeois Individualism": 642-43.
  29. Nicholas Rance, The Historical Novel and Popular Politics in Nineteenth-Century England (London: Vision Press, 1975) 97.

Library Journal (review date July 2003)

SOURCE: Library Journal 128, no. 12 (July 2003): SS26.

The storming of the Bastille, the trundling death carts with their doomed human cargo, the chillingly merciless guillotine—this is the frenzied Paris in revolt that Charles Dickens vividly captures in his famous work A Tale of Two Cities. With passionate eloquence, he brings to life a time of terror and treason, for when the starving French masses rise to overthrow a corrupt and decadent regime, both the guilty and the innocent fall victim to their rage. A masterful portrait of idealism, love and supreme sacrifice—in a Paris alive with revolutionary zeal and a London watching with nervous anticipation, Dickens humanizes the story of the French Revolution with four of his greatest characters: the sinister Madame Defarge, the lovely Lucie Manette and her honorable husband Charles Darnay, and the complex, ultimately heroic Sydney Carton.


Dana Whitney Pinizzotto (review date December 1986)

SOURCE: Pinizzotto, Dana Whitney. School Library Journal 33, no. 4 (December 1986): 84.

This tale ["Captain Murderer" ], retold by Dickens in The Uncommercial Traveller, is re-re-told in a format that is not quite picture book in quantity of illustration or brevity of text, but still relies heavily on illustration and format to attract fledgling readers. The story is narrated as told by Dickens' nurse. Initially, there may be some confusion because the adapter alternates between first-and third-person voices; and because he stops using quotation marks to indicate the narrator's voice after the first page. This obstacle sorts itself out after a few pages. This is not a book for the squeamish. Captain Murderer's brides are serially decapitated and cannibalized. His come-uppance occurs only when a self-sacrificing twin realizes the fate of her sister and ingests a deadly poison prior to becoming the pirate's pie. After Captain Murderer has consumed the last of this supper, he swells, turns blue, and blows up. [Rowan] Barnes-Murphy's watercolor and ink drawings are absurdly and delightfully humorous, considering the vile deeds they portray. The characters look like a successful collaboration between Ronald Searle and Hilary Knight. Rewarding details for the observant include the see-, hear-, and speak-no-evil monkeys, a raven who surely quotes "Nevermore," and assorted bones and skulls.



Carol Ann Wilson (review date November 2000)

SOURCE: Wilson, Carol Ann. School Library Journal 46, no. 11 (November 2000): 113.

Dickens's marvelously descriptive turns of phrase and [Robert] Florczak's pencil-and-oil illustrations bring to life this story [The Magic Fish-Bone ]ofan endearing and rambunctious Victorian family. Things couldn't get much worse for seven-year-old Princess Alicia. As the eldest of 19 children, she copes as best as she can with her mother's illness, the cook's desertion, and accidental injuries to siblings. However, when her father reveals that the family faces utter penury, Alicia calls on the magical powers of a fish-bone from the Fairy Grandmarina. The resultant pile of golden coins assures them of a solvent future; a visit from the imperious but kindly Grandmarina cures all injuries and illness. And in true fairy-tale style, the patient, intrepid child is wed to a handsome young prince and promised a happy ever after. While animal lovers may cavil as the fish-bone effectively chokes a rather nasty pug dog, it's certainly consistent with this tale of "deserved comeuppances." The tongue-in-cheek wit and the lengthy text demand a degree of listener sophistication but the many oversized illustrations and the open typeface increase the tale's accessibility. The realistic tintype complexions and meticulous outlines of the characters play against detailed backgrounds that artfully blend the prosaic with the fantastic. Unusual and beautifully rendered in words and pictures, this is a fine addition to a unit on literary fairy tales, a droll introduction to Dickens, and an example of purely entertaining wish fulfillment.

Carolyn Phelan (review date 1 January 2001)

SOURCE: Phelan, Carolyn. Booklist 97, nos. 9-10 (1 January 2001): 958.

Originally published in a children's periodical in 1868, this oddly down-to-earth fairy tale [The Magic Fish-Bone ] is told in a decidedly mannered style. The Fairy Grandmarina gives Princess Alicia a magic fishbone. To her father's confusion and consternation, she declines to use it until "we have tried very hard, and tried all ways" to make do without magic. Her reward is marriage, which does seem a fantasy, as she and the groom appear to be about 12. Still, it's a fantasy that may appeal to some children, especially as interpreted in [Robert] Florczak's lively and suitably stylized illustrations. The characters are depicted with a soft-edged realism that sometimes has the quality of tinted photographs, while the colors, settings, and composition are more reminiscent of an old volume of nursery rhymes. A quirky but amusing interpretation of Dickens' tale in a handsome, large-format book.

Anita L. Burkam (review date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Burkam, Anita L. Horn Book Guide 12, no. 1 (spring 2001): 60.

Dickens is perfectly tongue-in-cheek [The Magic Fish-Bone ] describing seven-year-old "Princess" Alicia, who courageously slaves away caring for her eighteen brothers and sisters while the family endures all manner of disaster. A magic wish-bone, properly employed, leads to the early arrival of payday, good fortune, and soon, Alicia's wedding to Prince Certainpersonio. The illustrations often give surreal results out of step with Dickens's spot-on tone.


Cathy Clancy (review date August 1981)

SOURCE: Clancy, Cathy. School Library Journal 27, no. 10 (August 1981): 81.

At the time of his death in 1870, Charles Dickens had completed 22 chapters of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the unfinished novel that has fascinated scholars and the reading public for over a century. In those chapters Dickens gradually disclosed the jealousy of opium-addicted choirmaster John Jasper toward his nephew and ward, Edwin Drood. The author established the rivalry between Edwin and Neville Landless for the attention of Edwin's fiancée, Rosa Bud. In the last chapters completed, Edwin disappears, and clues point to his death by drowning; Rosa flees to her guardian, Mr. Grewgious, after Jasper threatens to have Neville convicted of murder, and a mysterious stranger, Datchery, arrives in Cloisterham several months after Drood's disappearance, displaying more than mild curiosity about the event. Who is Datchery? Was Edwin Drood actually murdered? If so, who killed him? Leon Garfield answers all questions in the 19 chapters he has added to complete the book. He not only presents a logical conclusion to the mystery, but also manages to adopt a style close to Dickens' own. Although his lively resolution of the Drood mystery might not be a good classroom introduction to Dickens, since it does not display the same genius that a novel like Tale of Two Cities does, the mystery is wonderful recreational reading, and librarians should encourage YAs to try it.


Patricia Pearl (review date January 1988)

SOURCE: Pearl, Patricia. School Library Journal 34, no. 5 (January 1988): 74.

Until 1934, when the last of Dickens' children died, this [The Life of Our Lord ] remained a private document, unpublished at the author's wish. It was written for his own children as a simple introduction to Jesus Christ. Always a rebel against religious pomposity and high-flown theology, Dickens intended his family to learn about the human Christ who served the poor, loved children, and lived a beautiful and blameless life. He seldom alludes to Christ's divinity. Since this is a father's personal statement and not a faithful version of Gospels and Acts, perhaps he can be forgiven the condescensions and discrepancies appearing in the manuscript, such as confusing Herodias with Salome and Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, stating that the Hebrew Sabbath occurs on Sunday, and eliminating Moses and Elijah from the Transfiguration. Unfortunately, however, an anti-Semitic tone appears whenever he mentions the Jews by name. He both ignores Jesus' Jewishness and the fact that his followers were largely Jewish. The work is probably best viewed as a period piece done with the author's usual charm and fervor, including earnest asides to his audience, but not polished with his usual care. The format is handsome. Each page of text is framed with a decorative border. The full-page illustrations, done in warm soft colors, are crisp and solid. There are no references to specific New Testament sources. Foreward, afterward, facsimiles of pages from the manuscript, and several prayers of the Dickens family are also included.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 November 1999)

SOURCE: Kirkus Reviews 67, no. 21 (1 November 1999): 1674.

Dickens rivals Uriah Heep at his 'umblest in this mawkish rehearsal of the Christ story [The Life of Our Lord ]. The Victorian master novelist wrote it for his children in the late 1840s, when he was composing David Copperfield, and read it aloud to them every Christmas. His handwritten manuscript was passed down after Dickens's death in 1870 to his descendants, who also read it at Christmas and, at the author's request, delayed publication until the last of his children died (which happened in 1933). Though a best-seller at the time, it is way down on the list of rewrites of the life of Jesus that an adult would ever care to read. (One can imagine Dickens's grown-up sons and daughters suffering through it each Christmas.) Phrased with deliberate artlessness meant to woo children, the text pales in comparison to A Christmas Carol as a piece of holiday storytelling—not a fair comparison, perhaps, but it is fair to note its puzzling lack of any of the strengths Dickens is noted for. Well, that's not quite true. He decorates the Resurrection with Roman soldiers fainting as the earth trembles and shakes, while an angel, whose "countenance was like lightning," rolls away the rock sealing the tomb.

Piety for mopheads.



Smiley, Jane. Charles Dickens. New York: Viking Press, 2002, 212 p.

Smiley presents a definitive biography of Dickens.


Aldama, Frederick Luis. "Novel Possibilities: Fantastic and Real Fusions in Our Mutual Friend. " Dickens Quarterly 19, no. 1 (March 2002): 3-16.

Aldama considers Dickens's combination of fantasy and reality in Our Mutual Friend.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. "Dickens and Addison: A Possible Source for Mrs Jellyby." Dickensian 98, no. 2 (summer 2002): 153-55.

Edgecombe offers a critical analysis of Addison's influence on Dickens.

Ferguson, Susan L. "Dickens's Public Readings and the Victorian Author." Studies in English Literature 41, no. 4 (autumn 2001): 729-49.

Ferguson offers a discussion on Dickens's public readings.

Flowers, Ann A. Review of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 1 (January-February 1996): 73-4.

Flowers offers a positive assessment of A Christmas Carol, illustrated by Quentin Blake.

Geller, Conrad. "Was Charles Dickens David Copperfield? Authors, Characters, and Real Life." Writing! 25, no. 3 (November-December 2002): 16-18.

Geller explores the autobiographical elements in David Copperfield.

Heady, Emily Walker. "The Negative Capability: Real Images and the Allegory of the Unseen in Dickens's Christmas Books." Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction 31 (2002): 1-21.

Heady discusses Dickens's use of allegory and visual imagery in A Christmas Carol and The Haunted Man.

Hearne, Michael Patrick. "Charles Dickens." In Writers for Children, edited by Jane M. Bingham, pp. 181-90. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988.

Hearne explores the influence of works of romance and fantasy that Dickens read as a child on his own writing and on his attitude toward the importance of imagination.

Herrick, Bruce. "Business Lessons from Scrooge and Marley." Indianapolis Business Journal 22, no. 41 (17 December 2001): 33.

Herrick provides an analysis of Scrooge and Marley's business practices in A Christmas Carol as they apply to the real world.

Litsios, Socrates. "Charles Dickens and the Movement for Sanitary Reform." Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 46, no. 2 (spring 2003): 183-200.

Litsios describes Dickens involvement with the sanitary reform movement.

Lodge, David. "Dickens Our Contemporary." In Consciousness and the Novel: Connected Essays, pp. 114-34. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Lodge expresses appreciation and respect for Dickens as a writer despite the failures in the author's personal life.

Lougy, Robert E. "Desire and the Ideology of Violence: America in Charles Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit. " Criticism 36, no. 4 (fall 1994): 569-94.

Lougy examines Dickens's portrayal of Americans in Martin Chuzzlewit.

Lupton, Christina. "Walking on Flowers: The Kantian Aesthetics of Hard Times. " ELH 70, no. 1 (spring 2003): 151-69.

Lupton contrasts the differences between rational thought and emotional response as portrayed in Hard Times.

Marino, Jane. Review of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. School Library Journal 41, no. 10 (October 1995): 37.

Marino evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of A Christmas Carol.

McGill, Meredith L. "Circulating Media: Charles Dickens, Reprinting, and the Dislocation of American Culture." In American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853, pp. 109-40. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

McGill examines international copyright issues and how they apply to the reprinting of the works of Dickens.

Shadwell, Ruth. "The 'Wisdom of the Heart' in Hard Times. " English Review 10, no. 1 (September 1999): 37.

Shadwell comments on the importance of religion to the characters Stephen and Rachel in Hard Times.

Thomas, Owen. "Part Politics, Part Christmas Story." Christian Science Monitor (23 December 2002): 18.

Thomas explores the origins of A Christmas Carol.

Thomson, Douglass H. "Charles Dickens." In Gothic Writers: A Critical and Bibliographical Guide, edited by Douglass H. Thomson, Jack G. Voller, and Frederick S. Frank, pp. 105-12. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Thomson comments on Dickens's contribution to the genre of gothic novels.

Timko, Michael. "Why Dickens Wrote A Christmas Carol : Fancy and Fact." World and I 16, no. 12 (December 2001): 300.

Timko evaluates Dickens's examination of Victorian attitudes toward Christmas in A Christmas Carol.

Welsh, Rosalynde Frandsen. "Culture Carol: Dickens's Influence on LDS Christmas Fiction." Brigham Young University Studies 40, no. 3 (2001): 28-47.

Welsh discusses the influence of Dickens on Mormon Christmas literature.

Additional coverage of Dickens's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: 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; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832-1890 ; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 21, 55, 70, 159, 166; DISCovering Authors ; DISCovering Authors: British Edition ; Discovering Authors: Canadian Edition ; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural, Most-studied Authors ; DISCovering Authors 3.0 ; Exploring Novels ; Junior DISCovering Authors ; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; iterature and Its Times, Vols. 1, 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 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; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, Vol. 4; 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, Ed. 4; World Literature Criticism ; Writers for Children ; and Writers for Young Adults.

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Dickens, Charles 1812-1870

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