At a small fair in Berkshire, in the autumn of 1833, pitchman “Lord” George Sanger pipes his patter:
Walk up! . . . walk up and see the only correct views of the terrible murder of Maria Martin. They are historically accurate and true to life, depicting the death of Maria at the hands of the villain Corder in the famous Red Barn. You will see how the ghost of Maria appeared to her mother on three successive nights at the bedside, leading to the discovery of the body and the arrest of Corder at Eveley Grove House, Brentford, seven miles from London….Observe the horrified faces of the ladies, and note, also, so true to life are these pictures, that even the saucepan is shown upon the fire and the minute-glass upon the table timing the boiling of the eggs. [Sanger, 49]
Sanger’s patter is an example of an artistic genre, a form of cultural expression, which is also performed by griots and guslars, by troubadours and shamans, as well as by rappers and riddlers, preachers and politicians. In diverse instances, in near and remote places, in ancient and immediate times, people perform with words in front of an audience. I call this artistic genre oral performance art. It is a genre which was eminently a part of the Victorian landscape, and one which is still a part of our own.
The art of the pitchman, the showman, is an art which carries its own unique generic aesthetics, and its own functions and effects. Audiences are familiar with this art form, and authors, as well, share this familiarity and make use of it in their literary art. When literary artists translate oral performance art, when they use the oral art of the pitchman in the literary art of their texts, they create a unique type of literature, drawing liberally from the associations of the pitchman’s art, and even more liberally and uniquely from the contrast between the art of the pitchman and the art of the author. There are many examples of this type of literary representation, ranging from Beowulf to Beloved, from Mules and Men to Moby Dick. One such example, previously unidentified as such, is the subject of this article, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
To read the translation of oral performance art in this literary work, to find the contrast between the written and the oral which operates in this novel, the first step is to examine the core elements of the pitchman’s art which is being translated. Since 1993, I have been conducting fieldwork with contemporary pitchmen, their performances, and their audiences at fairs and carnivals. In the course of this fieldwork, I have identified three primary qualities of oral performance art. These qualities, inherent in the nature of the pitchman’s art, are: (1) a contested control of the performance and its reception, (2) a display of verbal virtuosity, and (3) a familiarity of form which links the performance to an established tradition. These qualities give oral performance art its distinctive appeal and performative power, and they also give it its distinctive moral ambiguity and agonistic attraction. These are the qualities which are translated, and contrasted with the qualities of literary art, in Bleak House.
Bleak House is constructed with two narrators, with the chapters almost exactly divided between them. There is one omniscient third-person narrator. The second, first-person, narrator is the novel's main character, Esther Summerson, a naïve but sensible and sensitive young orphan woman, taken in as a "protégée" (and ultimately wife) by the kindly but mysterious Mister Jarndyce.
In using these two narrators, Dickens is able to maintain the interest and melodramatic emotional connection provided by the audience's identification with and affection for Esther, and at the same time to provide the scope and range of descriptive detail and insight into other characters' thoughts and motivations provided by the omniscient narrator. Some critics (Gissing, Sitwell) have seen these alternating narrative voices as a flaw in the novel, finding a leakage of one voice into another or an implausibility in Esther's character. Other critics (Nabokov, Johnson) see this choice as one of the novel's main strengths, as do I.
There is one vital feature of the voice of the third-person narrator, however, which has not previously been recognized or analyzed. This third-person narrator's voice is, in fact, a voice which was easily recognized by Dickens’ audience, the voice of the showman, the pitchman.
For a convenient framework within which to describe the ways in which Dickens constructs this narrator as a pitchman, I will use the thirteen characteristics of Bleak House's style listed by Vladimir Nabokov in his lecture on this novel. I will list all thirteen here, and examine them one by one below, pointing out where they connect and, frequently, overlap.
- vivid evocation, with or without the use of figures of speech
- abrupt listing of descriptive details
- figures of speech: similes and metaphors
- oratorical question and answer
- the Carlylean apostrophic manner
- evocative names alliteration and assonance
- the and-and-and device [parataxis]
- the humorous, quaint, allusive, whimsical note
- play on words
- oblique description of speech [Nabokov, 114-123]
There are certainly other ways to categorize these characteristics, but Nabokov's are concise and comprehensive, and, although this fact is unrecognized in his lecture, the definitions he gives to most of these characteristics clearly apply to the characteristics of oral performance art which I have identified in my fieldwork and described above. Of his thirteen stylistic characteristics, at least ten can be identified with certainty as stylistically oral characteristics. In addition (and this fact is also unrecognized—or at least unmentioned—by Nabokov) the ten oral performance art characteristics are generally the province of the third-person narrator, while the three more literary characteristics generally appear in Esther Summerson's chapters.
I will take these characteristics of the novel one by one. The first characteristic, vivid evocation, is clearly not exclusively an oral performance technique. However, there is a specific type of descriptive evocation, as I have discussed in the context of my fieldwork above, which is used by pitchmen to provide the audience a familiarity of form, with referential pegs to connect to a specific time and place and to be drawn into the performance. This kind of description—the evocation of memory by painting a picture with a few familiar strokes—is a distinctive technique of oral performance art (Sanger’s "Eveley Grove House, Brentford, seven miles from London," or the Dutchess County Fair pitchman’s "Let me tell you what happened just across the river in New Paltz" or "right there in the doctor's office, on that hard table with the paper cover"). This is also the type of description Dickens' narrator uses in the beginning of almost every chapter he narrates.
Bleak House begins with a famous descriptive passage, evoking foggy London and the Court of Chancery. This passage works as literary description, but it also works in many ways as a translation of oral performance art. The fragmented sentences, repetitive rhythmic formulas and alliteration, as well as the copious, additive catalogues, all add up to the type of description which oral performance art constantly includes. The specific place names and references to types of people, places and times go even further to provide the referential pegs which concretize audience connections to the performance.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex Marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of the ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds. 
In addition, this type of oral descriptive evocation includes a commanding, a leading by the hand into almost cinematic panning and zooming which imitates the unsubtle steering and bringing of an audience by the hand that pitchmen practice ("Just turn your eyes to the overhead mirror, here, you'll see exactly how it works"). This is part of the contested control of all oral performance art. The act of leading is foregrounded, and the active leader's authority is reified in a way that tends to short-circuit exceptions and exemptions—in a way that tends to make the accession to being led a definite choice, seemingly freely entered into.
Another example is Dickens' beginning to his second chapter: "It is but a glimpse of the world of fashion that we want on this same miry afternoon. It is not so unlike the Court of Chancery, but that we may pass from one scene to the other, as the crow flies." (8)
Dickens makes explicit the narrator's request, and the audience's choice, in taking "but a glimpse," and in "pass[ing] from one scene to the other as the crow flies." This passage functions as a literary translation of Sanger’s “walk up and see…” or the contemporary pitchman's "Let me take you behind the scenes for a minute…" or "Think for just a minute about the back seat, just after you took the kids down to Chuck E. Cheese…" These descriptions ask outright for cooperation, directly requesting and leading to the audience's connection to the description. They emphasize the possibility of that request being rejected and simultaneously make such a rejection unlikely.
Nabokov's second category "abrupt listing of descriptive details" connects, as he acknowledges, to the seventh category "epithets," and the eighth, "evocative names." These three categories, especially when examined together, become translations of oral performance art techniques as well. These features work as part of the familiarity of form of oral performance art, making more meaning immanent in the "abruptness" of the descriptive details. In other words, these descriptive devices function as shorthand markers, bringing to mind for the audience a constellation of personal and traditional connections and recollections. Dickens’ “fog on the Essex Marshes, fog on the Kentish heights” (1) works in this way, as does a pitch for a "Woodsman" electric jigsaw which begins, "I remember my daddy's garage. Sawdust. And that dusty, oily smell," for the pitchman’s audience at the fair, or Dickens’ reading audience, a brief mention, pegged to a conventional tag, brings smiles or nods of recognition.
The oral performance, which must often be brief and must always be efficient, can still provide, through its familiarity of form, a richness of meaning and association. Dickens' pitchman narrator, like an oral performance artist, is able to bring characters and situations to mind with minimal signaling, yet these characters and situations can be fully realized because they are experientially known.
Now do those two gentlemen not very neat about the cuffs and buttons who attended the last Coroner's Inquest at the Sol's Arms, reappear in the precincts with surprising swiftness (being in fact, breathlessly fetched by the active and intelligent beadle), and institute perquisitions through the court, and dive into the Sol's parlour, and write with ravenous little pens on tissue-paper. 
Elsewhere, the "giddy Voluminia" or the "watchful Mrs. Snagsby," like the "active and intelligent beadle," or those two gentlemen "not very neat about the cuffs and button," call to mind the characters (especially the minor characters) with brief but euphonious and telling tags serving purposes which are sonic, as well as mnemonic (and often humorous). The evocative names—Smallweed, Krook, Guppy, Guster, even Ada Clare and Dedlock—function similarly: mnemonically, sonically, and humorously. Pitchmen, as well, use tags of this type—Sanger’s “the villain Corder,” or from my fieldwork, "the little woman," "greasy grimy mess," or "Wondermop," "Sweepa" or "Miracle Shine," as well as abrupt, shorthand listings, "Saturday, you don't want to be working—watch TV, put your feet up."
Figures of speech, particularly similes and metaphors, Nabokov's third element of Dickens' style, are not distinctively oral, at least not within the results of my fieldwork. This is not to say that oral performance artists do not use these figures (they are, of course, "figures of speech"), but in general they appear to be just as effective and common in literary works as in oral performance art. However, there are instances where these figures overlap with other more clearly oral features, such as alliteration, rhyme or even epithet, and in these cases, as in the cases where the similes or metaphors are traditional rather than original in nature, the connection with oral performance art must be recognized. In Bleak House, however, these figures seem to be equally distributed between the literary and the oral, and equally used by the third person narrator and Esther Summerson.
Nabokov's fourth element, repetition, however, is a quintessential feature of the pitchman's oral performance art style. Nabokov even calls Dickens' use of repetition "a kind of incantation, a verbal formula repetitively recited with growing emphasis; an oratorical, forensic device." (118)
Pitchmen use catalogues, I have found, demonstrating their verbal virtuosity with splendid displays, such as "It cleans Dacron, also nylon, herculon, linoleum. Wool, wood, cotton, canvas, muslin. Rattan and bamboo, and scotchguard and concrete...." ("PermaSeal") and repetitive passages like "Click it, fold it, paint a wall. Click it, fold it, trim a tree. Fold it, click it, change a bulb. Click it, fold it, wash a window. Fold it, click it, clear a gutter." (The "Little Giant" ladder)
Dickens uses catalogues such as
In the shade of Cook's Court, at most times a shady place, Mr. Snagsby has dealt in all sorts of blank forms of legal process; in skins and rolls of parchment; in paper—foolscap, brief, draft, brown, white, whitey-brown, and blotting; in stamps; in office-quills, pens, ink, India-rubber, pounce, pins, pencils, sealing-wax, and wafers; in red tape and green ferret; in pocket-books, almanacks, diaries and law lists' in string boxes, rulers, inkstands—glass and leaden, penknives, scissors, bodkins and other small office-cutlery; in short, in articles too numerous to mention; ever since he was out of his time and went into partnership with Peffer. 
Gentlemen of the green baize road who could discourse, from personal experience, of foreign galleys and home treadmills; spies of strong governments that eternally quake with weakness and miserable fear, broken traitors, cowards, bullies, gamesters, shufflers, swindlers and false witnesses; some not unmarked by the branding-iron, beneath their dirty braid; all with more cruelty in them than was in Nero, and more crime than is in Newgate. 
The example above of the novel's opening description of London in fog is similarly an oral catalogue in translation, as is the moving and apostrophic
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day. 
This specifically oral type of repetition functions as a display of verbal virtuosity--of copious, additive cataloging, deriving its force and efficacy from it aural qualities. Oral repetition can work without a logical building from term to term, but with a preponderance of terms creating its own rolling, continuing force. When Dickens' pitchman narrator uses this same type of repetition, he can summon some of the same force, and also connect to his audience's knowledge and experience with the verbal virtuosity of the pitchman's art.
Nabokov's fifth and sixth elements—oratorical question and answer, and the Carlylean apostrophic manner—are manifestly constructed as translations of oral performance art, and are used in Bleak House only by the pitchman narrator. These constructions allow at least an illusion of the quintessential feature of oral performance art, a feature which can not be included in literary art, the interaction of the performer and the audience. The contested control of the audience, the steering of questions and interest by posing the questions and answering them before they can be asked, are effective tools of every pitchman. Dickens translates these tools in passages such as these:
In search of what? Of any hand that is no more, of any hand that never was, of any touch that might have magically changed her life? Or does she listen to the Ghost's Walk and think what step does it most resemble? A man's? A woman's? The pattering of a little child's feet, ever coming on—on—on? Some melancholy influence is upon her; or why should so proud a lady close the doors and sit alone upon the hearth so desolate? .
On such an afternoon, the various solicitors in the cause, some two or three of whom have inherited it from their fathers, who made a fortune by it, ought to be–as are they not? –ranged in a line, in a long matted well (but you might look in vain for Truth at the bottom of it), between the answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters' reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. 
Relatively even to this world of ours, which has its limits too (as your Highness shall find when you have made the tour of it, and are come to the brink of the void beyond), is a very little speck. 
Dickens' many parenthetical additions, qualifications, apostrophes and anticipations of challenges are directly translated from the techniques of oral performance art. Dickens uses "as are they not?" and "(but you might look in vain...)" and "(as your Highness shall find...)" and so on, just as an oral artist does, to anticipate, manage and include into the performance the interjections, reactions and challenges of a present, shifting and diverse live audience.
Nabokov also names alliteration and assonance as being characteristic of Dickens' style, and as being connected to the characteristic of repetition. These features, are, of course, also the techniques of oral performance art. Alliteration and assonance, like other figures of sound, originate in oral performance and take their effect from the echoes of performances in which readers have taken part. Dickens uses these figures, like a pitchman, for their humorous effects, their mnemonic value, and especially as a display of verbal virtuosity.
"Tumbling tenements," (220) "Cook's Court, Cursitor Street," (127) "smoke rising from the chimney, and a child, chased by a woman, running out into the rain," (9) are clear examples of this type of alliteration. Of course, alliteration and assonance are frequently used in literary texts, and I would argue that there is at least some echoing of oral performance art contexts in every literary use of alliteration and assonance. The literary translation of these two oral features, however, is a technique which, although it is more common and easily identifiable in literary works in general, is less essential (and less frequently appearing) than some of the others which Dickens' pitchman narrator employs. The virtuosity displayed in appropriate oral use of alliteration and assonance is easily short-circuited by overuse, making the inherent humor and appreciable talent become ridiculous and ineffective. It would seem Dickens' narrator, like all skilled pitchmen, is aware of this.
What Nabokov calls the "and-and-and device," may seem, like the repetition, to be another translation of an oral performance technique. However, the examples Nabokov notes, and most of the instances of this device in the novel, are in the chapters narrated, not by the omniscient third-person narrator, but by Esther. In fact, in these instances, as Nabokov notes, it is Esther's emotional nature which is being emphasized. The "and-and-and device," as in
I put my two arms round his neck and kissed him; and he said was this the mistress of Bleak House; and I said yes; and it made no difference presently, and we all went out together, and I said nothing to my precious pet about it. 
is more a case of words running away with Esther than of Esther playing with words. The effect is that of the thoughts and emotions taking control—quite unlike the control of ideas and receptions practiced by the pitchman. The pitchman's catalogue (like Dickens' pitchman narrator's catalogue) is a lengthy accumulation, eloquently constructed, with its number and variety of terms intentionally extended and enjoyed. Esther's catalogues (of and-and-and's) are an unimpeded flow—reined in, with difficulty, as soon as possible, with an attempt at finality—"and I said nothing to my precious pet about it."
The “humorous, quaint, allusive, whimsical” (121) tone which Nabokov notices in Dickens' pitchman narrator is a translation of another feature of oral performance art. The pitchman, in his performance, often makes use of humor, especially humor which is at least slightly hostile or insulting to some part of his audience—or to some other, absent, audience. The pitchman at the fair may make a joke about slicing his wife "you get the utility knife—you can use for PVC and carpeting or radiator hose and still slice that nice tomato—or my wife…. She uses it for bagels." he may explain that the thinnest setting for slicing vegetables should be for when the mother-in-law drops by; or he may ask the women in his audience to remind husbands who object to the price of stainless steel cookware "just how much money is tied up in those power toys—I mean tools—gathering dust in the garage."
In the same way, Dickens' pitchman narrator uses his humor to emphasize his position as skirting of moral norms, to set up and diffuse competition and hostility between himself and his audience and among the members of his audience, and to demonstrate his own confidence and his control of the audience.
Mr. Bucket and his fat forefinger are much in consultation together under existing circumstances. When Mr. Bucket has a matter of this pressing interest under his consideration, the fat forefinger seems to rise to the dignity of a familiar demon. 
Why, Mrs. Piper has a good deal to say, chiefly in parentheses and without punctuation, but not much to tell. Mrs. Piper lives in the court (which her husband is a cabinet-maker), and it has long been well beknown among the neighbours (counting from the day next but one before the half-baptising of Alexander James Piper aged eighteen months and four days old on account of not being expected to live such was the sufferings gentlemen of that child in his gums) as the Plaintive—so Mrs. Piper insists on calling the deceased—was reported to have sold himself. Thinks it was the Plaintive's air in which that report originatinin. 
In each of these cases, and in the other instances in which this feature appears in the novel, Dickens' pitchman narrator sets himself on a level above the characters he is describing. Because his comments on the characters are humorous, while condescending, the audience can share in the sense of superiority, while at the same time feeling the slight discomfort that comes from humor at the expense of others—humor which may be turned against anyone. Of course, this superiority and condescension must be delicately balanced by pitchmen at the fair, and by this narrator, with instances in which the pitchman takes (with characteristic humorous exaggeration) the opposite stance, referring to his audience as "your Highness" (8) or "your Majesty" (649).
Nabokov also mentions the play on words as his twelfth characteristic. These plays on words are generally placed in the mouths of characters, rather than the pitchman narrator, but the narrator, by relating them, continues both his humorous tone, and the connected air of superiority and condescension. The narrator reports Mr. Jobling's humorous misstatement of the French,
'How am I to live? Ill fo manger, you know,' says Mr. Jobling, pronouncing that word as if he meant a necessary fixture in an English stable. 'Ill fo manger. That's the French saying, and mangering is as necessary to me as it is to a Frenchman. Or more so.' 
And he reports the breathless phrasing of the debilitated cousin,
The debilitated cousin says of her that she's beauty nough—tsetup Shopofwomen—but rather larming kind—remindingmanfact—inconvenient woman—who will getoutof bedand bawthstablishment—Shakespeare. 
These translations set the narrator (and with him, the audience) as superior in understanding to Mr. Jobling and the cousin, so that they become figures of fun. In addition, this sort of allegedly exact translation of the patterns and errors of his characters' speech demonstrates the pitchman's connectedness to their world. His knowledge places him above the characters' misunderstandings, and allows the audience to feel joined with him in this superiority, but his attention to and believable accuracy in reporting the characters' misunderstandings connects him with the world of the characters and allows the audience to feel joined with him in this connection.
There is also a complication in these instances, however. In presenting as accurate the humorous misstatements and addled diction of characters, Dickens, more than the narrator, is employing a typical tool of the written translator of oral performance art. By displaying, and by using to his own advantage, the difference between the speech patterns of these characters and the patterns of standard written English, Dickens is emphasizing and taking advantage of the nature of his work as translation. He is writing, from behind his pitchman narrator, to his reading audience. In this way, the reading audience can be reminded that they are reading, that they are more literate than the characters, and that the way the characters speak is a result of their Otherness. This kind of direct translation of speech emphasizes, for a reading audience, the stereotype of oral performance art as the realm of the untutored, the folk, the Other.
Nabokov's final characteristic of Dickens' style, the oblique description of speech, is one which is almost exclusively used by Esther as a narrator, and is a characteristic which is, like the and-and-and device, connected to her task of writing her narrative, barely reining in her emotion and narrative flow to make it fit a written work, rather than confidently controlling and displaying, leading her audience as a pitchman does and must. In addition, the type of oblique description of speech to which Nabokov refers is more frequently found in and effectively suited to written rather than oral narratives. Oral narratives, and their literary translations, do not use oblique quotation nearly as much as they do the kind of direct quotation, distinguished by aural features, which is practiced by Dickens' pitchman narrator in this novel.
In ten of Nabokov's thirteen characteristics of Dickens' style, therefore, and in all the characteristics of the style of one of the narrators, Bleak House works as a translation of oral performance art. However, what makes the novel most successful is not just the translation, not just the fact that there is a pitchman narrator, but also the fact that there is also a literary narrator. In addition, the actual identity of this literary narrator within the context of the novel sets up an interplay of receptions and expectations uniquely connecting the novel to the oral performance art context, as well as the context of literary art. This interplay adds to, and is, in fact, constituent of, the novel's texture and themes.
Esther begins her narrative, "I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever." (14) She adds, a little later,
I don't know how it is, I seem to be always writing about myself. I mean all the time to write about other people, and I try to think about myself as little as possible, and I am sure, when I find myself coming into the story again, I am really vexed and say 'Dear, dear, you tiresome little creature, I wish you wouldn't!' but it is all of no use. I hope anyone who may read what I write, will understand that if these pages contain a great deal about me, I can only suppose it must be because I have really something to do with them, and can't be kept out. 
These statements directly oppose Esther to the pitchman narrator, who is far less in the story as a character, yet far more active as a participant in steering and managing, and far less likely to ever dream of keeping himself out. Esther is hopeful and self-effacing, at times to an extreme degree. The pitchman narrator is generally manipulative and ostentatious.
For Dickens' audience, the pitchman narrator evokes the same responses—mingled pleasure and distrust, fear and comfort—which are evoked in a live audience by a live pitchman in a real oral performance event. Dickens' pitchman narrator is also characterized, and evokes responses from his audience, by the arenas into which he has access, the settings and characters he describes. As a pitchman, he has the credentials to enter and to report the courts of Chancery as well as the world of the shooting gallery and the slum. He can enter, at least in the guise of a con-man, the fashionable world of Chesney Wold and Bleak House. His access to and familiarity with these diverse worlds, his status as one who dwells in between, makes him simultaneously fascinating and frightening. The audience, because this narrator connects with the familiar role of the pitchman, allows him to guide them through worlds with which they may have either distanced melodramatic or familiar everyday knowledge.
This novel also connects (at least in Esther's sections) with the conventional literary genre of the autobiographical novel of progress—the first chapter of Esther's narrative is titled "A Progress." Dickens can reach an audience which connects to both types of popular performance, the literary as well as the oral. Readers who are attracted and pleased by the popular literary genre as well as readers who are attracted and pleased by the oral performance art of the pitchman can all be drawn into this novel. This certainly accounts for some of the popularity of this novel in its original appearance—the fact that it is accessible and acceptable to audiences at many points on the folk-elite continuum.
Another effect of using the pitchman narrator is the way in which he allows Dickens to narrate scenes of emotionally devastating effect, while retaining emotional immediacy. The chapters of the pitchman's narration are all in the present tense, and place the audience directly in the scene, imitating the present immediacy of the oral performance art context. This allows the threatening intensity to have its full effect, and uses it to forge links between the audience and the performer, as well as among the members of the audience. The narration of the death of Jo is one such instance, well worth repeating in this context, in which an incredibly painful moment is related as if it were happening, as if the pitchman narrator were present at the event and presenting it to a live, present audience.
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day. 
In this passage, and others like it, Dickens' pitchman narrator, like the pitchmen I observed in the field, forges the audience into an "us" with the performer, as well as separating them from the performer by labeling them "your Majesty," and "my lords and gentlemen." This passage also divides and sets up competitions among the audience members, to determine who among them has "Heavenly compassion." The narrator emphasizes the divisions and differences between himself and his audience, between different members of the audience, and even between the members of the audience and others for whom they feel ambivalently—the "Right Reverends" and "Wrong Reverends." This is quite similar to the ways in which I have observed pitchmen at the fair setting up competitions in their audiences, between husbands and wives, parents and children, mothers-in-law and sons-in-law, and so on.
In Bleak House, Dickens has created a novel which works for half the chapters as a simulacrum—a re-presentation—of oral performance art. At the same time, by including the other chapters, and giving them equal space and weight, he has created a confrontation between oral performance art and literary art. He highlights both sides of the confrontation. He emphasizes the oral performer's narrative control (with its inherent untrustworthiness), his verbal virtuosity and the familiarity of his form; he also emphasizes the sincerity, depth of true feeling, and worthiness of affection of the writing narrator.
More than either of these, though, he emphasizes the confrontation and the contradiction. His audience for the novel can not be active participants in its creation in the way an actual oral performance art audience always is, but his audience can experience at least a simulated degree, a remembered association, of this type of participation.
In Bleak House Dickens has, as he states in his preface, "purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things." (xiv) It is this contrast, this intermingling of the romantic and the familiar, which is the novel's real success, and which is so uniquely emphasized by the intermingling of the oral and the written narrators. The intersections—of the Chancery case and the real lives of the young people, of greed and poverty, of fashion and the underworld, of the country and the city, of the fair and the home, and of oral performance art and literary art—are the meshing forces which give the novel its interest and its appeal.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1948. (1868).
Gissing, George. Charles Dickens: A Critical Study. London: Blackie & Son, Ltd., 1898.
Johnson, E.D.H. Charles Dickens: An Introduction to his Novels. New York: Random House, 1969.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Literature. Ed. Fredson Bowers. San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1980.
Sanger, "Lord" George. Seventy Years a Showman. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1935.
Sitwell, Osbert. Introduction. Bleak House. Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1948.
Last modified 20 September 2005