No one can paint more picturesquely by an apposite epithet, or illustrate more happily by a choice allusion. . . . [Dickens] freshens with new life the oldest facts and breathes into thoughts the most familiar an emotion not felt before. — John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens (1872-74)
. . . they who should have oped the door
Of charity and light, for all men's finding,
Squabbled for words upon the altar-floor,
And rent The Book. . . . — Charles Dickens, poem written for Lady Blessington's Keepsake Book (1843)
And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. — Mark 4:33
Northrop Frye finds his generating text for The Great Code: The Bible and Literature in Blake's aphorism: "The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art." Biblical imagery and narrative, in Frye's words, constitute "an imaginative framework — a mythological universe, as I call it — within which Western literature had operated down to the eighteenth century and is to a large extent still operating "(xvi, xi). From the sentiments about the Bible conventionally if sincerely expressed in Dickens' letters, we would not guess that the Great Code was an imaginative resource for his fiction. When we turn to the major novels, we encounter a far more imaginatively engaged response to the Old and New Testaments — the Pentateuch (especially Genesis), the historical books, major and minor prophets, Psalms, Wisdom literature, the Book of Esther, the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles (especially Romans and Corinthians), Revelation, and some of the Apocrypha (bound into the Dickens family Bible). Dickens alludes to the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer more often than to any other texts. But in his hands the Authorized Version is no longer the simple readable book of his professed belief, nor even the coherent "mythological universe" of Frye's literary creed. Especially in Dickens' mature novels, the Bible becomes a paradoxical code that provides him with contradictory interpretations of experience; it is drawn upon as though it were still a source of stable values, resonant familiar images, and reassuring conventions of order, but it is also becoming a locus of hermeneutical instability reflecting the changed status of the Bible in his time. This book is about that paradox; its aim is not merely the tracing of allusions, even less the discovery of a mythological system implying a Christian philosophy in Dickens' work, but the rather more delicate task of examining the status of the Bible texts he replays and revises in five novels from the beginnings to the end of his career.
1. WE CAN GLIMPSE the bearings of this paradox on his work by considering at the outset two kinds of parable Dickens tells.
In Westminster Abbey the Sunday following Dickens' funeral there. Dean [3/4] Stanley preached a sermon on Dickens as parabler. Taking his text from Luke 16, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Stanley argued for "the sacredness of fictitious narrative" and urged his hearers to "see how the Bible itself sanctions a mode of instruction which has been, in a special sense. God's gift to our own age. . . . the gift of 'speaking in parables'; the gift of addressing mankind through romance and novel and tale and fable" (4, 5-6). In his long series of novels, Dickens was "the special teacher" of the day's text: through his "modem human Parables . . . [Dickens was] the advoca[te] of the absent poor. . . . By him that veil was rent asunder which parts the various classes of society. Through his genius the rich man, faring sumptuously every day, was made to see and feel the presence of the Lazarus at his gate" (10, 12). Dean Stanley's sermon is typical, for as George Ford notes, Dickens' "social criticism had acquired a New Testament aura of considerable importance to its status" by the time of his death (109). More generally, the writer who came "Next to the Bible and Shakespeare" in sales (as The Book Monthly reported in 1906) achieved in his own time the stature of a religious figure whose works (like those of other great Victorians) were compared with Holy Scripture.5 Such a characterization helps to define one unquestionably influential way Dickens used the Bible in his fiction: to clarify the moral outlines of his "parables" and, by invoking the Book appealed to by all parties, to strengthen his relation with a wide Victorian audience.
But there are also in Dickens' fiction, as in the Bible, "some things hard to be understood," which the "unstable," Peter says, "wrest . . . unto their own destruction" (2 Pet. 3:16). Preaching on Ezekiel 20:49 (where the prophet entrusted with a dreadful oracle exclaims, "Ah Lord God! they say of me. Doth he not speak parables?"). Dean Stanley's mentor, Dr. Arnold, wrestled with the fact that "Scripture has its parables . . . which cannot now be understood" — "not only . . . the obscurities of God's word, but . . . its perpetual and invincible obscurities. . . " (408, 400). The Greek parabola and the Hebrew mashal encompass a wide range of meanings, from the simple metaphor and the exemplary tale to the riddle and the dark saying. When the Psalmist says, "I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old" (Ps. 78:2), he promises the kind of total disclosure that Dean Stanley praised in Dickens' rending of the veil between the classes "by the dramatic power of making things which are not seen be as even though they were seen" (12). But speaking in parables means the opposite of open proclamation when Jesus tells his disciples in Mark 4:11-12 "Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them." In his prolonged [4/5] meditation on this text in The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode takes parable as paradigmatic of unstable and enigmatic stories, "narratives that mean more and other than they seem to say, and mean different things to different people." The reader of such riddling texts remains on the outside; and Kermode insists that there are only outsiders' interpretations, for one is never completely "inside" a story text, in full possession of its latent meaning although it may yet be glimpsed as a momentary "radiance" (25, 23, 28).
In his later novels, Dickens creates enigmatic, disturbing fictional worlds that resist any easy, concordant interpretation. They anticipate the modern narratives Kermode describes as "intermittent, forgetful, at times blind or deaf": their "varying focus, fractured surfaces, overdeterminations, displacements, have constituted a perpetual invitation to all inquirers after latent sense" (15), yet the text eludes us even as we are interpreting it; and the accumulation of such unstable meanings in a Dickens novel affects the way we can take in even the clear moral parables he continues to tell. Searching for the key to the meaning of the whole, some readers have looked to Dickens' biblical patterns; and indeed he reaches for such patterns himself as a mode of containment and assurance against his darker parables of social and metaphysical evil. But in the protean works of his maturity, the biblical patterns are fractured, counterpointed, contradictory, "forgetful" of other, rival patterns or "deaf" to the undertones of his own subtexts from the more notoriously obscure or troubling biblical books. Early Bible commentators, Kermode reminds us, "would have attributed the darkness of the tale to the intention of a divine author" (45), as Ezekiel does. But when Dickens is working as parabler in this second sense, he must relinquish his cherished role as the providential novelist proposing and disposing of his story in a "finished" design, as he presents himself in the 1857 preface to Little Dorrit (lix), and can only attend faithfully upon the mysterious outlines of his story, like Kermode's St. Mark and Kafka's doorkeeper in his parable, "Before the Law." As a parabler in this darker sense, Dickens writes in figures of which even he does not "know" the meaning although he generates them; he remains on the outside of the very riddles he would rede. Entering into the play of his text to reconstruct the unstated meanings, the reader discovers that "being an insider is only a more elaborate way of being kept outside," although not without occasional glimpses of the radiance that Kafka's petitioner also sees through the barred door of the Law (Kermode, 27-28).
This riddling Dickens only began in the occasional indignation G. B. Shaw hailed that "spread and deepened into a passionate revolt against the whole industrial order of the modern world" (reprinted Ford and Lane, 128). This outrage often enough found vent in parabolic utterances of the most transparent kind, although they become more [5/6] enigmatic as the angry voices accumulate in the later fiction. The steady increase in ironic biblical allusions exposing this modern order as disorder testifies to Dickens' deepening sense that his culture had outgrown the Bible's scheme, perhaps any scheme — a historical fact that exposed even the biblical ideals the prophetic Dickens invoked as impossible fictions of belief. It was, therefore, a deeper malaise than indignation that put the Bible itself through this crux and compelled Dickens to tell the darker parable. Of his contemporaries who responded to this unease,13 Thomas Carlyle was perhaps the most congenial to the darker Dickens, even though Carlyle celebrated the novelist in his lifetime (when not damning the novels) for his cheer and manly heart. I am thinking especially of Carlyle's letter of 16 February 1874 to Forster upon the publication of the Life, in which Dickens' mentor saw his "bright and joyful sympathy" but also, "deeper than all, if one has the eye to see deep enough, dark, fateful, silent elements, tragical to look upon, and hiding, amid dazzling radiances as of the sun, the elements of death itself" (qtd. Gray, 282). While, as will soon become clear, I tend to read Dickens' novels as Carlyle does the Life in this letter, there are still the not wholly "uninterpretable radiance[s]"; and any reading of Dickens' fiction that aims to take as much of the biblical allusion as possible into account must remain poised on the paradox of a Dickens who both discloses and withholds his meanings, who "may proclaim truth as a herald does" with his allusions but also uses them in ways that "conceal truth like an oracle" (Kermode, 47).
2. Although several books treat Dickens' uses of the Bible in his novels, this essential aspect of his art has not been much studied in comparison with his plots, characters, imagery, or symbolism. One suspects that the main cause of this relative neglect is the stumbling block presented by one kind of biblical usage in Dickens — those sentiments of "the New Testament in its broad spirit" (Life 2:422), as he put it in his will, that are sometimes implicated in the worst stylistic excesses of his work. There are several problems of audience and artistic coherence with this language, which will first be taken up with Dombey and Son. In this unimaginative phase of Dickens' style, the Bible and the Prayer Book become repositories of clichés which to draw automatic reactions for certain kinds of novelistic occasions, such as the child's deathbed or the exaltation of the heroine's virtues. Such bids for Victorian solidarity, when Dickens bribed his readers' uncritical assent with the small change of conventional religious language, have become prime exhibits of the least attractive side [6/7] to us of "that particular relation (personally affectionate and like no other man's)" which he savored with his public (letter to John Forster, March 1858, D 3:15). Allusions that call upon the reader to do no creative work, merely to respond to an abstract stimulus, can foster the worst sort of complacency while passively consuming "truths" thought to be ennobling, the consumer is invited comfortably to withdraw from experience. Shaw recognized the dissonance that then disturbs Dickens' art when he charged that the novelist's "sentimental assumptions are violently contradicted by his observations."16 Although the Bible is not in itself a complacently optimistic book, it gave Dickens language of idealistic simplification and premature closure he was not loath to use when the psychological or social facts could bear no, or no more, examination. His religious allusions can then take on what a Blackwood's reviewer called "the strangest counterfeit air": in such defensive transactions, Dickens self-consciously calls upon the Bible to lend its authority to the putative sincerity of his own "higher sentiments . . . calling upon heaven and earth to witness how genuine they are"17 while his own facts belie it all.
That the biblical Dickens can be embarrassing, caught out at his least inventive and most pandering, must be admitted. But as Alexander Welsh observes about David Copperfield's parting apotheosis ("O Agnes, O my soul . . . pointing upward!"), "the more [such words] have been regretted, the less they have been examined"; and his book, The City of Dickens, itself makes an impressive case for examining such Victorian conventions as the salvific female attending the dying on their journey to another world (180). Dickens' use of similar conventions will also be treated here, but in relation to larger fictional contexts that allow familiar religious formulas to be placed in question. Beyond this, the Inimitable Boz puts his Bible to many more imaginative, and some more disturbing, uses than the imposture of religious sentimentalism. A brief survey of this range will help us anticipate some of the problems with reading the Dickens who does not speak in only one biblical voice.
For one thing, his Scripture does not "repudiate] all familiarities" like Mr. Dombey's "glazed and locked" bookcase (5.44); Dickens freely plays with the Bible and the Prayer Book, his imagination ever stimulated to improve upon the convention and the set phrase. This inventiveness ranges from the fanciful — as in his description of the Dutch tiles paving Scrooge's fireplace, where there were "angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds," and "Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats" (CB 14) — to the potentially blasphemous, as in Edwin Drood's jocular reference to "the highly-popular lamb who has so long and unresistingly been led to the slaughter" (10.80).19 In Bleak House Peepy replays the drunkenness of Noah by dipping this toy figure [7/8] from his ark "head first into the wine-glasses, and then put[ting] him in his mouth" (30.376); at the other end of the scale are Reverend Chadband's pastiches of pious proof texts, which might be less brutally funny if they were not addressed to Jo. These variously playful kinds of allusion, in a context also fostering pious ones, add a flavor of inconsistency to the novels that is Dickens' way, as though (to borrow the words of the unsigned review of Dombey in the 1847 North British Review) "the strong spices of Punch were to be mixed up with the savory morsels of the Churchman's Monthly Magazine" (110).
Besides these sentimental, fanciful, jocular, and parodic biblical Bozes, there are also the satiric, ironic, skeptical, and elegiac voices that draw some of their power from scriptural allusion and precedent. Here again, too often this heterogeneity has been missed while only the more obvious and pious features have been noted. Humphrey House observes, for example, that when Dickens requires "a special burst of eloquence, he returns again and again to the scenes and forms and language of the Church" (10). But House does not distinguish here between the early and the later Dickens and misses altogether the subversive potential of his heavily ironic uses of liturgical language. It is also notably absent in some scenes where a rite is being enacted, either because Dickens is satirizing empty forms or — quite a different reason — because he is unconcerned himself with the full traditional meaning of the ritual. Such silences and inattentions, paradoxically occurring within contexts that attend carefully otherwise to biblical tradition, must also be accounted for, as must lapses like the botched allusion in Great Expectations that Julian Moynahan has made famous: Pip's inadvertent "pharisaic rewording of the publican's speech" while he is attending the dying Magwitch ("I thought I knew there were no better words I could say beside his bed, than 'O Lord, be merciful to him, a sinner!'").22
The desideratum for an assessment of the biblical Dickens is some reasonably precise method of accounting for such contradictory attitudes and strategies. We risk blunting the sharpness of the text if we abstract from it only the continuities that shape our artificially coherent picture of the religious Dickens — the biblical archetypes, a "Christian philosophy," even the "social gospel" that does unify parts of Bleak House.23 Yet the assumption that scriptural reference lends coherence to the fiction underlies most studies of this subject.24 Dickens' biblical allusions are generally seen as obvious performances in his Victorian "repertoire of [the] familiar" — to borrow Wolfgang Iser's phrase (288) — pious gestures toward his culture's most cherished treasury of sacred stories, archetypal images, stable moral values, and privileged inspirational language that nineteenth-century readers required. What has not been carefully examined by some is the assumption that, whatever else might be fractured in his world, the Bible [8/9] according to Boz is an unbroken book, like Carlyle's Scripture "before all things, true, as no other Book ever was or will be" (LDP 323). Even without this premise, the Word in Dickens is read as a univocal presence providing interpretive stability within the welter of human voices that strain the limits of orderly discourse in the major novels. Thus are his uses of the Bible thought to clarify the "religious centre" of fictional works that are "about ends," in Alexander Welsh's words: "whatever sense of direction or purpose can be salvaged from experience" (141, 228).
Certainly Dickens does use the Bible in these ways. His Esther Summerson, for example, reaches for consolation in the resurrection miracle of Luke 7:12-16 ("that young man carried out to be buried, who was the only son of his mother and she was a widow," 31.389), assuming her reader will immediately recognize this story of the widow of Nain. But as I will suggest, darker "resurrection miracles" in Bleak House jar the reader's acceptance of Esther's Gospel pieties. The repeated appearance of such antithetical allusions in single novels, wherein an even wider range of biblical voices can be heard, suggests that not the unifying Logos but a broken Scripture lies behind Dickens' mature work. As Carlyle very well knew, and taught Dickens to observe, in their times of religious uncertainty and babble of doctrines, the Bible like nineteenth-century religion had been "smote-at . . . needfully and needlessly" until it was "quite rent into shreds" (SR 184). Certainly Dickens deplored the acrimonious religious debates of his day — what he called "Gorham controversies, and Pusey controversies, and Newman controversies, and twenty other edifying controversies" which were driving "a certain large class of minds in the community . . . out of all religion."27 Yet even as he deplored these "unseemly squabbles about the letter which drive the spirit out of hundreds of thousands" (to Rev. R. H. Davies, 24 December 1856, D 2:818), Dickens' whole procedure with Scripture presupposed developments in biblical interpretation that had "rent The Book" and jeopardized its claim to absolute authority. Although Higher Critics debated the Bible's authenticity in intellectual circles from which Dickens was excluded by temperament and education, echoes of that larger battle had reached his ears, as his letters show.28 More generally, all around him far-reaching cultural dislocations were shaping a world that seemed no longer to fit the Bible's concordant design of history. In his transactions with the Authorized Version, Dickens is very much a widely experienced man who "under[stood] the temper and tendency of the time," as he wrote to W. F. de Cerjat on the Essays and Reviews controversy (21 May 1863, D 3:352) — a time when the Bible was "the subject of accommodation, adaptation, varying interpretation without end" (25 October 1864, D 3:402). [9/10]
Dickens' most avowedly religious Victorian creation is The Life of Our Lord, a document suppressed in his lifetime (he even forbade Georgina to remove it from the house) and not published by the family until 1934.29 This "history" he constructed for his children because, as he wrote his son Edward, the New Testament "is the best book that ever was or will be known in the world, and because it teaches you the best lessons by which any human creature who tries to be truthful and faithful to duty can possibly be guided" (26 September 1868, D 3:668). Despite such avowed intentions, this manuscript of eleven chapters, moving from the birth of Jesus to the persecution of the early Christians, is not only a pious work translating the New Testament's language for children's hearing and turning it into more readable continuous narrative.30 Nor is The Life of Our Lord merely a simplified religious testament to replace what Dickens called "the church catechism and other mere formularies," which unnecessarily "perplex" children's minds "with religious Mysteries that [they] . . . can but imperfectly understand."31 Rather, The Life of Our Lord is symptomatic of an age in which the Bible was the "subject of accommodation, adaptation, varying interpretation without end." Deliberately constructed according to Dickens' one conscious principle of interpretation — which was that there need be none, for as he wrote Edward, "the interpretations and inventions of Man" cannot improve upon the New Testament's simple story and must be "pu[t] aside"32 — The Life of Our Lord represents Dickens' effort to recapture the essence of Christianity.
First he follows the line of defense advocated by his friend, Rev. Chauncy Hare Townshend, to "throw overboard" the Old Testament and Judaism "in order (to use Paley's words) 'to lighten the sinking ship of Christianity.'"33 The Life of Our Lord is the prime example of Dickens' often-expressed belief that one can take "the New Testament as a sufficient guide in itself" rather than "forcing] the Old Testament into alliance with it — whereof comes all manner of camel-swallowing and of gnat-straining," as he wrote Frank Stone in 1858 (13 December, D 3:79). Then like many other Victorians, Dickens tries to harmonize divergent Gospel accounts, basing his on Luke but with additions from John and Matthew and ending with selected stories from Acts. Like the Gospel writers themselves, Dickens freely compresses and moves around material to suit his thematic purposes: for example, Jesus' words from the cross ("Father! Forgive them! They know not what they do!") become his response to Pilate's cruel soldiers (LOL 102). Instead of Luke's Sermon on the Plain we have Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, which is reduced to the Lord's Prayer in the narrative but so infuses the spirit of the whole account that the themes Dickens recapitulates in his own concluding homily are all from Matthew's Sermon. Luke's themes of the great pardon for all men and the gospel of the poor were [10/11] undoubtedly attractive to Dickens, the "Great Physician" persona he would have admired, and Luke's softening of the violent and strong emotional reactions were congenial to Dickens' purposes, but certain of the Lukan themes and stories did not fit his "essential" gospel: notably, the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy in Christ's messiahship as well as the temptation of Christ, the sacramental significance of the Last Supper, and the story of Pentecost. Dickens is, however, very explicit about the physical aspects of crucifixion (LOL 105-6) and includes two particularly violent narrative climaxes, the deaths of Judas (99) and of Ananias and Sapphira (121). With his narrative of the Passion and Resurrection, Dickens seems to shift into John's Gospel, from which he also borrows other stories such as the Cana miracle and the raising of Lazarus. There is some irony in the choice of John because this account more than any other insists that Jesus is the Son of God, whereas The Life of Our Lord articulates no clear doctrine of the incarnation. The Christmas angels announce Dickens' Jesus as "a child . . . who will grow up to be so good that God will love him as his own son" (and they add, "people will put that name [Jesus Christ] in their prayers" not because Jesus is God but "because they know God loves it," 14). Such a rationale makes Dickensian sense, then, of the voice of God offstage at Jesus' baptism, announcing, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!" (23-24), as well as the unavoidable divine titles Dickens is careful to put only in the mouths of characters who "said" or "believed" them (see 60, 83, 102-3, 109 — 10). Dickens makes no such claims himself, carefully explaining, "because he did such Good, and taught people how to love God and how to hope to go to Heaven after death, he was called Our Saviour" (34).
Thirty years in advance of God and the Bible, Dickens'The Life of Our Lord was illustrating the dilemma Matthew Arnold bluntly summarized in 1875 in his Preface to God and the Bible: "two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is" (409). Dickens believed that the Church should "considerately yiel[d]" to "the more thoughtful and logical of human minds . . . [so] as to retain them, and, through them, hundreds of thousands" (letter to de Cerjat, 21 May 1863, D 3:352), and The Life of Our Lord is an example of what that yielding might mean. Nonetheless, had this manuscript been published in the author's lifetime, it would have brought down on his head the very controversy that his revised New Testament tries to settle. If his refusal to confess Jesus as "Very God of very God" would have offended conservative Anglicans and evangelicals, the fourteen miracles he includes, climaxing with Christ's resurrection, would have amused the rationalists among his readers, although they might have been content enough with the moral parables Dickens retells in stressing Jesus' teaching ministry. One such rationalist, William Kent, comments on Dickens' "selective process" for accepting miracles: he "pick[s] out as credible everything that is clearly beneficent. Those which a lover of his race might wish to have happened are accepted without any apparent strain of credulity" (Dickens and Religion, 18-19). Like William Ellery Channing abandoning some points of faith disproved by reason but not others, Dickens inadvertently courts the ironies of a Mr. Facing-Both-Ways.38 [11/12] He does not allow that Jesus is really divine [11/12] (he only "look[s] so divine and grand," 60),37 yet he credulously reports the miracles, the most powerful signs that Jesus is God; the forgiveness stories are particularly important. For example, Dickens' "A Christmas Tree" climaxes a series of impressionistic images from Christ's life with the Crucifixion's "one voice . . . 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do'" ( Selected Short Fiction, 409). Nonetheless, Dickens insists that heaven is the reward of Duty Done. The duty theme is paramount: John baptizes people who "promise to be better" (23); the early Christians "knew that if they did their duty, they would go to Heaven" (124); and Jesus is the exemplary human being who teaches us "TO DO GOOD always" so that we may be forgiven and "live and die in Peace" (124, 127). If one might expect this emphasis from a father to his children, one also hears in this reconstruction the voice of the Victorian who cannot believe in Bible promises of Christ's full atonement for sin, a religious mystery even adults "can but imperfectly understand," and Unitarian sympathizers like Dickens not at all.39 Although he uses much from the biblical accounts down to the red-letter words he cites verbatim as though they were ipsissima verba, the Gospel according to Dickens attempts to stabilize "varying interpretation" of the New Testament by substituting one of his own that raises more questions than it resolves, while it implicitly makes his private "accommodation" to the attenuated authority of the New Testament as God's self-revelation in Christ. As for other "essentialists" of the nineteenth century, there can be no impeccable naiveté for Dickens, although this "simple New Testament Christian" (as Angus Wilson and dozens of others have called him) has tried to recover it.40
In House's influential chapter on Dickens and religion, he concludes that no one could gather from the novels that "during the years in which they were written the English Church was revolutionized" (111). True, it would be folly to look there for Tractarian figures (although one recalls Mrs. Pardiggle, with her High Church notions of liturgy "very prettily done"). But the revolution in attitudes toward the Bible does find practical expression in certain telling strategies of Dickens' fiction, as well as broadly implicative thematic expression in the darker novels to be discussed. Some of the practical effects can be summarized here: While eminent theologians inconclusively debated their views on future punishment, Dickens refers to the Devil and hell "ambiguously," as House writes; "they might be either literal or metaphorical, so that details of belief are left open" (112). .
While rationalist critics were treating Scripture as a book of myths, Dickens was drawing upon some of its stories as divine fairytales — the Book of Esther on the level of Cinderella. While orthodox typological interpretation was being discredited, with its elaborate readings of Old Testament characters as types or prefiguring shadows of Christ, Dickens' David, Esther, Job, and Christ figures are wholly humanized; they represent only religious and moral ideals severed from the fuller implications of the typologist's sacred text.43 Like other nineteenth-century writers Dickens secularized sacred plots; Victorian Adam [12/13] and Eve figures leave their latter-day Gardens of Eden at the ends of Little Dorrit and Great Expectations, just as Tom and Maggie pass the Golden Gates at the close of book 2 in The Mill on the Floss. Such allusions can ennoble characters, but they can also produce the incongruous effect of Dorothea Brooke's appearance in provincial Middlemarch, "the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible, — or from one of our elder poets, — in a paragraph of to-day's newspaper" (1.1.1). Further, such dislocations of biblical references can produce irony at the Bible's as well as a character's expense. On occasion in the novels Dickens even shifts from implicit to direct statement about the inadequacies of Scripture to modern life.45 Dickens also expressed his belief in progressive revelation (see letter to de Cerjat, 21 May 1863, D 3:352), of which he may have believed himself a human instrument; his frequent assumption of the prophetic mantle suggests as much. Most important for the argument developed in the following chapters, the Bible's contradictions, given such alarming attention in nineteenth-century intellectual circles, turn up in the popular novelist's work, as he invites rival allusions from quite different parts of the sacred book to coexist uneasily in the same fictional world.
Such free uses as Dickens made of the Bible could not have emerged but in a culture where, for example, with the breakdown of the figurative interpretation of Scripture, there is growing unconcern about the unity of the canon, so that specific texts can be read (and adapted for fictional purposes) as self-contained units (see Frei, 7, and Alter, 16). In a climate where the historical facticity of God's Word in all its parts is no longer assured, nor even deemed necessary (as for Dean Stanley preaching on "the sacredness of fictitious narrative"), biblical character types or paradigmatic plots do not have to be thought historical to have emotional resonance; for Dickens as for Matthew Arnold, such things are part of the "poetry of religion" that is still available to the writer although the fact may be failing it. In an intellectual milieu where, as Erich Auerbach writes, "the doctrine which [the biblical stories] had contained, now dissevered from them, becomes a disembodied image" (16), the novelist who wants the design of a vicarious atonement for a Sydney Carton can borrow it from the New Testament without having to believe the doctrine as rooted in fact or as necessary to salvation.
In the multivocal works of Dickens' maturity, their miscellany of biblical allusions is hardly concordant; capable of being harmonized only selectively, they more often arrange themselves in patterns of contradiction and dissonance. Studying these configurations will not bring us to that condition of literary grace, interpretive certitude, but it will help us understand more about how Dickens read his Bible and take us to the heart of his novels' formative tensions. Like other Victorian novelists George Levine has described, Dickens could not totally [13/14] "acquiesce in the conventions of order" he had inherited, not even the Authorized Version; yet he struggled as they did "to reconstruct a world out of a world deconstructing, like modernist texts, all around" (4) him. Although Levine excludes Dickens from his survey of Victorian realists, these conflicting aims, I would argue, produce the form of Dickens' mature fictions and direct his manipulations of biblical texts in "a time to break down, and a time to build up" on the ruins. In Dickens' mature fictional reconstructions, which never achieve the "new Mythus" Carlyle had called for, the Bible becomes a paradoxical book: it is at once a source of stability, with its familiar conventions of order, and a locus of hermeneutic instability reflecting the times of religious anxiety in which Dickens wrote.
3. Allusion: Terms, Functions, Patterns
. LITERARY ALLUSIONS are only one element among the heterogeneity of things brought into that expansive, polyglot phenomenon, a nineteenth-century novel — itself a fabricated context for the allusion and one embedded in other contexts (literary, biographical, historical, and more). Dickens' big novels are such phenomena par excellence, or ad nauseam according to one's taste, that to read even a modestly complex allusion is to venture into a network of interpretive possibilities, if one tries to keep these dynamic contexts in mind as one reads. The folly of then writing a book about those provisional interpretations comes home in the problem of definition — of terms and of focus. In the absence of a received definition of allusion, I would like to begin by offering an expansive one that, reaching from the direct quotation to the merest reference, allows for the multiplicity of "plays" Dickens makes on and with biblical words.
In two common literary handbooks, allusion is defined as a brief "reference," tacit or explicit — see Miner, 18 and Abrams, 18 — but our common use of the word also includes the sense of quotation, as Michael Wheeler is right to insist in The Art of Allusion in Victorian Fiction. The reference points to an adopted text without stylistically mimicking it, as when a mother in Bleak House declares of some rowdy children, "you cannot expect them specially if of playful dispositions to be Methoozellers which you was not yourself" (11.134). The direct quotation need not necessarily be flagged typographically; characteristically, the Inimitable prefers the unmarked quotation (see Wheeler, 2-4).
Attorney and Client: Fortitude and Impatience by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne).
Dickens' playfulness with received religious formulas requires other broad categories between the reference and the direct quotation that include the echo and the adapted text. A truncated form of quotation, the echo may use a key [14/16] word or phrase from a particular Bible passage, but frequently it calls up a host of associations from assorted texts that may, or may not, converge in meaning. In the illustration (which occupies p. 15), when Mr. Vholes, legal advisor to Richard Carstone, raps on his hollow desk ("your rock, sir!") "with a sound as if ashes were falling on ashes, and dust on dust" (BH39.485-86), the conjoining of several echoes produces a complex effect because of the discordant sets of passages they bring to mind.51 The first set confirms the novel's satiric reading of Richard's Chancery foolishness, possibly by recalling ironically Jesus' words to Peter ("upon this rock 1 will build my church," Matt. 16:18) but more obviously by drawing without irony upon his parable about builders of houses on "rock" and on "sand" (see Matt. 7:24-27). As counterpoint, the second set of echoes from the Anglican Burial Service ("ashes to ashes, dust to dust") and the numerous Bible passages on which it is based (especially from Genesis, Job, and Ecclesiastes) accumulates an elegiac reading for Richard's sad course leading to his death. Beyond this, the biblical allusions produce a generalizing effect that sets Richard's downfall into a larger cosmic scheme in which even the brightest and best can be deluded, fail, die — a Joban theme in Bleak House that tends to undermine the novel's satiric certainties. Other allusions in this chapter uphold them, however: Vholes' pledge, "The suit does not sleep; we wake it up, we air it, we walk it about" (486), exposes the soullessness of English law by mocking the resurrection promises in the Burial Service while making ghoulish parody of Esther's favorite miracle (the ruler's daughter who "is not dead but sleepeth," Matt. 9:24).
In this last instance, we have the adapted quotation. In a sense, this term could be used for all allusions to adopted texts, for adoption becomes adaptation as soon as the original bit of discourse is placed into a new verbal context. More specifically, in what I call the adapted quotation, besides recontextualizing the original, Dickens has made lexical and/or syntactic changes in his source, as when he ironizes the spirit and application of Isaiah 40:6 ("All flesh is grass"; cf. 1 Peter 1:24) with Vholes "making hay of the grass which is flesh" (482). The range of Dickens' adapted quotations is very broad, from facetious plays on Bible words to revisions of its theological ideas, as in the narrator's apostrophe to Jo, "thou art not quite in outer darkness" (BH 11.138; cf. Matt. 22:13).
Finally, Dickens employs subtextual allusion, in which a biblical passage, chapter, or whole book (or other popular religious text) signaled by local direct reference, quotation, or echo also forms an underpattern for longer stretches of Dickens' text. Two types of subtexts in his novels offer different kinds of structuring. One is the narrative that parallels events in Dickens' plot while providing a running commentary, sub voce, on his characters who are analogous to its own; such are the structural allusions to The Pilgrim's Progress in Oliver Twist, [16/17] The Old Curiosity Shop, and Esther's narrative in Bleak House. The second type of subtext is the nonnarrative but pervasively influential parallel text, which can serve in two ways: for parts of a novel it may provide a medium of interpreting episodes or characters (the Sermon on the Mount for Amy Dorrit); or a biblical book or passage to which sets of allusions in the fiction point can act as an analogical matrix for part of a novel or for wider reaches of its imaginative vision (Wheeler, 161). To further complicate matters, a novel can have rival subtexts, which may persist in a state of unresolved tension, as the allusions to Ecclesiastes and Revelation do in Little Dorrit; or they may have a hierarchical relationship, with one subtext mediating the other, as in the opening of Bleak House, where a Genesis subtext is present but reinterpreted skeptically through Joban lenses. Dickens' uses of subtextual allusion create some of his richest, most complex effects because a subtext can comment ironically as well as supportively on Dickens' story, or to reverse the relation, his story can place the biblical material in perspective.
More important for this study than the classifying of instances into these general categories are the multiple functions of allusions as they work to stabilize meaning or to make it more indeterminate. Allusion is a poetic device with potential for introducing some dissonance into literary work because the original text is never completely assimilated into its new environment. There will always be difference between the two texts simultaneously activated — Dickens' alluding text and the text he quotes or evokes — for the writer's act of alluding and the reader's act of decoding are both performed in new linguistic settings. Beyond this irreducible difference, the relationship between the two texts is likely to move in one of two general directions in the mind of the reader. Either they will be brought closer together through the reader's perception of multiplying correspondences between them, or else "the more elements are recalled and the more patterns are formed, the farther apart the [two texts] grow." Imagining these intertextual patterns, as Ziva Ben-Porat has put it, we "reconstruct a fuller text" (126-227). In simpler terms, we have enhancing allusions and ironic ones that operate through discrepancy. This distinction will prove important for the chapters that follow if we understand further two kinds of undercutting that can take place. Wayne Booth's discussion of stable and unstable irony is useful here: in the first kind, the author gives us "an unequivocal invitation to reconstruct [to recognize and interpret unstated meanings], and the reconstructions have not themselves been later undermined"; in contrast, unstable irony does "not yield to clear and final classification . . . our interpretations will slip away from us even as they are made" (233; see also 230-77). Stable allusions, then, may enhance or undercut but their immediate significance will be clear, whereas unstable allusions [17/18] will invoke complexities that increase indeterminacy, teasing us into thought as we try to interpret the fuller text.
As I have suggested, Dickens critics have emphasized the role of scriptural
allusions to stabilize meaning. Michael Wheeler, who reads the allusions to the
Four Last Things in
The pragmatic functions of such stable scriptural reference points for reader and author should be sufficiently obvious. Grounding Dickens' fictional world in an eternal order of value, they help us to judge characters and read plots as moral designs. Enhancing allusions serve the purpose of thematic magnification: they may ennoble a character by associating him with a hero of faith, such as Arthur Clennam with the Good Samaritan, or they may raise a social practice to the level of a spiritual issue, as in the Hard Times chapter on schooling entitled "Murdering the Innocents" (book 1, chapter 2). The biblical identification of a Dickens character early on — such as George Rouncewell with the Prodigal Son — can also adumbrate plot developments, building into the book in this instance the anticipatory structure of absence and joyous return. Stable allusions can also help the reader to chart a moral path through the morass of plot. Titling the three books of Hard Times "Sowing," "Reaping," and "Garnering," for example, provides a parabolic structure that counteracts the potential chaos of the novel's title by suggesting that the temporal flow of events, however hard the times are, unfolds as a natural and moral action.
One subcategory of stable allusion is the implicit valuation of a character in terms of how he misuses, misinterprets, or misses the point of religious texts. Pecksniff's speech abounds in this sort of comic deflation; Sairy Gamp's misquotations and mispronunciations of Scripture and Bunyan ("this Piljian's Projiss of a mortal wale," MC 25.471) make for wonderful Dickensian parody of the sober moralist. Other parodies expose misquotation with humor that shades into black. Smallweed cursing Hawdcn turns the Litany inside out: "Plague pestilence and famine, battle murder and sudden death upon him" (BH 26.334; cf. BCP 35). The most elaborate of such ironic placing in Bleak House is Reverend Chadband's misappropriations of Scripture texts. When he addresses Jo, "My young friend, it is because you know nothing that you are to us a gem and jewel" (19.242), he reverses Proverbs 20:15 ("the lips of knowledge are a precious [18/19] jewel") in order to make Jo a likely prospect for his own lessons of wisdom. When he blesses the Snagsby dwelling, "May this house live upon the fatness of the land; may corn and wine be plentiful therein; may it grow, may it thrive, may it prosper, may it advance, may it proceed, may it press forward!" (242), Dickens' allusion to Isaac's blessing meant for Esau but given to the dissembling Jacob (Gen. 27:28) revises the roles in this classic tale of deception: Chadband is the false patriarch blessing other impostors as well as himself, their well-fed guest who wants another invitation. In such instances of ironic allusion, the reader readily reconstructs the unstated meanings which the controlling author has built into the text.
To the reader of a novel seasoned with biblical language, obviously the serious stable allusions serve as a form of psychological reassurance as well as pragmatic aids to reading. In a quasi-religious way they function like the rescuing texts in Pilgrim's Progress that fix Christian's mind on heavenly things and stabilize his drift toward the heresies his tempters put forward. But in nineteenth-century fiction the sacred language takes on a peculiar urgency, like the "songs in the night" of Job 35:10. In 1837 Henry Melvill, Queen Victoria's chaplain, preached a sermon on this rescuing text, in which he declared his complete confidence that "there cannot be imagined, much less found, the darkness, in passing through which there is no promise of Scripture by which you may be cheered."57 Of course, Dickens' words in season are not always biblical, but Esther Summerson's are; and in her narrative, salvation by quotation is a strategy as urgently useful to the "writer," to calm her own troubled heart, as stable biblical allusions of any sort are to the reader of the chaotic Bleak House world. Further, for the novelist recording the impact of rapid historical change, all the more important is the Bible as "the familiar model of history," as Kermode has called it in A Sense of an Ending. This book "begins at the beginning ('In the beginning . . .') and ends with a vision of the end ('Even so, come. Lord Jesus'); the first book is Genesis, the last Apocalypse. Ideally, it is a wholly concordant structure, the end is in harmony with the beginning, the middle with beginning and end" (6). In secular novels even the brief biblical allusion can invoke this concordant scheme, in which past reality and future hope give meaning to the present, faintly or vividly reminding the reader that such a reassuring model of history exists or at least had existed. Finally, for the adult reader whose memories of childhood training, earlier reading, and past authorities might be reawakened through encountering a familiar Bible text, a scriptural framework for his present acts of interpreting the novel at hand as a "book of life"59 might help him to imagine that he can unify the different stages of his experience. Then, at least during his reading, might a Victorian see his life steadily and whole. [19/20]
If stable allusions give readers hermeneutic aid and psychological assurance, the Victorian writer employing such strategies gains several advantages for himself. Those modes of literary criticism that reduce novels to meanings which are already common knowledge offer a special temptation to the investigator of Dickens' biblical allusions precisely because their most evident function was to connect what the novels portrayed with what was commonly known. In an Uncommercial Traveller piece in which Dickens goes to see a Sunday night religious service on a London stage, he reflects on his own problem: "'A very difficult thing,' I thought, when the discourse began, 'to speak appropriately to so large an audience, and to speak with tact. Without it, better not speak at all. Infinitely better, to read the New Testament well, and to let that speak. In this congregation there is indubitably one pulse; but I doubt if any power short of genius can touch it as one, and make it answer as one'" (40). In Dickens' novelistic discourse, he takes his own advice, touching that single pulse and building a powerful ethos into his works by making charismatic appeals to Everyman's Book. In the very act of handing on this cherished cultural possession, the writer secures at once authority over and solidarity with his reading public.
To stop here, however, to treat Dickens' biblical allusions only as a form of controlling rhetoric, is to leave them, his readers' responses, and the Bible itself at the level of the unproblematic, whereas my argument is that in Dickens we see signs of the Great Code's fracturing. It seems to me significant that in literary handbooks, nineteenth-century examples of allusion are rarely used; typically, Milton, Nashe, or Pope illustrates the enhancing type of allusion, while The Waste Land or Ulysses exemplifies the undermining kind. One might well expect that major Victorian texts provide, line for line, fewer pure instances of either kind of literary allusion in a period when the authoritative testimony of the past is both desired and suspect. Under such conditions of uncertainty, it is not necessarily always clear how an allusion should be read; one person's correspondence may be another's ironic discrepancy. Thus, to the pious reader, Esther Summerson's rescuing texts are in-breakings of. the mercy of God; to the skeptical, as to Victorian readers who found her unconvincing, her piety undermines itself, sounding suspiciously self-ingratiating toward the dear reader she wants to win. Dickens unleashes the subversive capacities of unstable biblical allusion in many different ways; here two types might be illustrated with a range of examples from Bleak House for the sake of contextual continuity, although as we shall see, biblical allusion becomes problematic from Oliver Twist onward.
In the first kind of instability, an allusion that can be read in divergent ways creates ambiguity in characterization — not to dissolve the Victorian notion of "character" altogether, but to lead us into the perception of more complexity [20/21] than the model outlines at first suggest. In chapter 18, Esther Summerson, with her simplistic religious language, undergoes a crux of the sort that the Bible itself, or at least its more idealizing elements, suffers in its exposure to the Bleak House world. Meditating complacently on the beautiful woods near Chesney Wold in terms Romantic poetry had made familiar, with grace notes from popular religious language, Esther looks "through a green vista . . . upon a distant prospect made so radiant by its contrast with the shade which we sat, and made so precious by the arched perspective through which we saw it, that it was like a glimpse of the better land" (228). When a storm breaks "so suddenly," Esther, "while thinking with awe of the tremendous powers by which our little lives are encompassed," emphasizes "how beneficent they are, and how upon the smallest flower and leaf there was already a freshness poured from all this seeming rage, which seemed to make creation new again." Although the repetition of "seem" provides a clue, the irony of this allusion to Revelation 21:1 and 5 cannot be constructed until the reader knows Esther's secret, although the tables will ultimately be turned on that irony, too, by Esther's renewal after much more than "seeming rage" by her story's end. But long before that, we must come to see the limits of her religious perspective uninstructed by later experience. In her ordered world, Esther, like a good typologist, sees sermons in stones and God's voice in everything. The illegitimate child rescued by the Hand of Providence who habitually speaks of being renewed projects the new heaven and new earth too readily on her own scene, as though the kingdom has already arrived. In this moment of peace it is natural but ironic that she should turn to a text which also promises, "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there by any more pain" (v. 4).
With her romantically detailed descriptions, Esther involves us in this apocalyptic hypothesis of desire until its insubstantiality is verbally "exposed" by a voice breaking from the gloom: "Is it not dangerous to sit in so exposed a place?" (228). Suddenly the storm comes up again from Esther's own gloomy interior, when "there arose before my mind innumerable pictures of myself like those she saw the Sunday before when "something quickened within" her upon beholding her unknown mother's face. Esther's religious piety has not prepared her for the complexities of identity her relation with this woman will bring to life. Although her conventional phrases can give her a structure of meaning for the "rage" without, she will find she cannot frame the rage within in any beneficent prospect until she has been exposed to all her outlook excludes — tears, sorrow, pain, death — and undergoes a rather more difficult transformation than the earth made new by the rain. [21/22] The allusions here foster the heuristic process through which Dickens takes us and his heroine: we form a configuration of meaning she invites us to form, but that illusion of "meaning" is disrupted and we must reconstruct it to fit the new facts. As the biblical allusions become destabilized, we are invited to reconsider their truth, along with their function for the speaker, and by extension the import and utility of all such common religious language. In the Bleak House passage, the model Esther as well as the biblical model she cites are put in question, not to be discarded but to be transcended by a more complex mode of consciousness. Usually, there is a limit to this kind of instability, and its muted didactic purpose gives to the reading process a dialectical form. When at this chapter's close Esther reasserts her old optimistic vision as she looks at Chesney Wold, peaceful and rain-refreshed, with "the little carriage shining at the doorway like a fairy carriage made of silver" (231), the jarring cruxes we have undergone help us now to see through this hypothesis of reality as a fiction of belief. So does its contrast with the final thing Esther "still" is forced to see: "Still, very steadfastly and quietly walking towards [the carriage] . . . went Mademoiselle Hortense, shoeless, through the wet grass." The Bible as fairytale must be corrected by a vision that more nearly sees the world as it is: Hortense represents an "earth . . . filled with violence" (Gen. 6:11) like the world before the Flood evoked on the novel's opening pages. As I will argue, Dickens' corrective vision in Bleak House comes not only from secular sources, but also from those parts of the Bible that speak to sorrow, pain, death. If ironic deflation of idealizing biblical language is implicit in passages like these of chapter 18, other texts come, in effect, to the rescue — not to arrest the destabilizing of meaning but to remind us that the Bible also has a word in season for the indeterminacics of life.
It should be added here that unstable allusions do not always signal genuine complexities of character; they may also indicate Dickens' ineptness or indecision. Such a muddle occurs in an apparent eleventh-hour attempt to provide Lady Dedlock with a Passion story subtext. Chapter 48 climaxes in the mysterious murder of her enemy Tulkinghorn, who plays an unambiguous antichrist to her ambiguous Christ. Leading up to this, when Lady Dedlock tells Rosa, "what I do, I do for your sake, not for my own," her words may recall Christ's "not my will, but thine, be done" in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42); she adds cryptically, "It is done" (574; cf. John 19:30). In the next scene with Tulkinghorn — her Judas, "Always at hand" (575; cf. "he is at hand that doth betray me," Matt. 26:46) — Lady Dedlock has "a steady hand," with which she drinks the cup (of water, 581) as steadily she tells Tulkinghorn she is "quite prepared" for the course he will take (presumably, to bring her downfall, 582). [22/23] Later, "Her soul . . . turbulent within her" and "sick at heart," she goes to "walk alone in a neighboring garden" (583) to wrestle with her fate. Meanwhile, Tulkinghom returns to his quarters; a shot rings out and all "is soon over" (584; cf. "It is done"). But not until "a little after the coming of the day" (585) — a phrase echoing the Easter morning passages in the Gospels — is the body found by witnesses who shriek and flee like the disciples who "trembled and were amazed" at Jesus' empty tomb (585; Mark 16:8). No angel but the "paralysed dumb witness" on the ceiling announces this demonic Easter parody, complete when Tulkinghorn is later "resurrected" as an evil force: "Her enemy he is, even in his grave" (55.666).
What do these sketchy allusions accomplish? Tulkinghorn's associations with the Antichrist ally him with Krook and the Lord Chancellor — anti-Shepherds all in the "valley of the shadow of the law" (32.391) — and firmly place him in a critical light. Lady Dedlock, however, remains a muddled figure. Her echo of "It is finished" becomes an unstable allusion merely mystifying her intentions: it suggests some decision taken, but what? — a murderer's vow to do the deed? a brave woman's resolution to spare others her shame? a victim's resignation to her pitiable fate? a fatalistic heroine's heedless self-sacrifice for a past deed done that cannot be undone? no decision at all, but mere bravado to cover her terror and irresolution? With these shadowy Christ-associations Dickens may have wanted to ennoble Lady Dedlock as heroine in the central passion story of Bleak House, as well as create some sympathy for her at the hour of her betrayal into the hands of sinners; yet the allusions neither settle nor enrich our view of a woman who remains (as Tulkinghorn says) "a study" (48.581).
Biblical allusion becomes indeterminate in a second way when what begins as a critical or satiric reading of events turns into something else. In the apparently ironic but ultimately beneficent allusion to Jacob's dream in chapter 12, we also have an instance of a biblical text that becomes predictive in more than one sense. Lady Dedlock, "in the . . . clutch of Giant Despair," cannot "go too fast from Paris" in her carriage: "And, when next beheld, let it be some leagues away, with the Gate of the Star a white speck glittering in the sun, and the city a mere mound in a plain: two dark square towers rising out of it, and light and shadow descending on it aslant, like the angels in Jacob's dream!" (139). At first this may seem merely a picturesque Sunday school leaflet effect, perhaps one sickens had recalled on his own restless flights between Paris and London. But the more one meditates on the allusion, the more stable ironic discrepancies appear between Jacob's dream and Lady Dedlock's illusions that help the reader to Judge her and anticipate her doom. Unlike the spiritually sleeping beau monde, Jacob awakens from his dream to declare, "Surely the Lord is in this [23/24] place; and I knew it not" (see Gen. 28:10Ñ22). Jacob's vision of angelic messengers becomes a theophany in which the Lord promises, "in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed." But the Dedlock set denies Jacob's divine world; they have replaced its God with an "exhausted deity . . . terribly liable to be bored to death, even when presiding at her own shrine" (150). Instead of Jacob's Bethel ("House of God"), where he built his shrine, Lady Dedlock sees "a mere mound in a plain"; the "gate" of her heavenly city, Paris, has been reduced to "a white speck" in what might be seen as a descriptively desacralized landscape, with the towers of Notre Dame also reduced to "dark square" shapes. Unlike Jacob on his journey, my Lady is fleeing from the House of God and, unwittingly, toward her own judgment. The iconographic representation of "light and shadow descending on it aslant" in this passage merges visually with the allegorical "bend-sinister of light that strikes down crookedly into the [Dedlock] hearth, and seems to rend it" (two paragraphs earlier, 138). Together these pictures "seem" to suggest that unlike Jacob's seed. Lady Dedlock's has not been blessed to her; in the Philistine categories operating here, illegitimacy in the Dedlock line will rend the family hearth, and she has no further legitimate issue with Sir Leicester. Her nightmarish revelation will shortly appear through a dark messenger, Tulkinghorn, whose threat to her blasphemous position will drive her to only a graveyard "gate." When one meditates skeptically on it, Dickens' biblical similitude moves from the pretty and pious to the ominous.place; and I knew it not" (see Gen. 28:10Ñ22). Jacob's vision of angelic messengers becomes a theophany in which the Lord promises, "in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed." But the Dedlock set denies Jacob's divine world; they have replaced its God with an "exhausted deity . . . terribly liable to be bored to death, even when presiding at her own shrine" (150). Instead of Jacob's Bethel ("House of God"), where he built his shrine, Lady Dedlock sees "a mere mound in a plain"; the "gate" of her heavenly city, Paris, has been reduced to "a white speck" in what might be seen as a descrip- tively desacralized landscape, with the towers of Notre Dame also reduced to "dark square" shapes.. Unlike Jacob on his journey, my Lady is fleeing from the House of God and, unwittingly, toward her own judgment. The iconographic representation of "light and shadow descending on it aslant" in this passage merges visually with the allegorical "bend-sinister of light that strikes down crookedly into the [Dedlock] hearth, and seems to rend it" (two paragraphs earlier, 138). Together these pictures "seem" to suggest that unlike Jacob's seed. Lady Dedlock's has not been blessed to her; in the Philistine categories operating here, illegitimacy in the Dedlock line will rend the family hearth, and she has no further legitimate issue with Sir Leicester. Her nightmarish revelation will shortly appear through a dark messenger, Tulkinghorn, whose threat to her blasphemous position will drive her to only a graveyard "gate." When one meditates skeptically on it, Dickens' biblical similitude moves from the pretty and pious to the ominous.
Yet, ironically, the ironic vision is not the only one in Bleak House, for Lady Dedlock's seed has already been blessed through the daughter who moves from one end of the novel to the other dispensing benedictions. Through the natural love (for Havvdon and her child) that "saves" Lady Dedlock morally, she has been a vessel of God's promise after all, the promise in which Esther believes and on which she acts. On this reading, then, the descending slant of light replaces and redeems the "bend-sinister." The initial impression of a pious allusion to Jacob's dream will be justified, if deepened in human significance, and the reader of the Bleak House world will be surprised to learn that the Lord is even in this place, though he knew it not.
In this novel, the interpretation invited by the more disturbing variety of the second type of unstable allusion takes a self-reflexive rather than a progressive form. Such a reading occurs when a seemingly containable irony breaks the bonds of moral closure to turn back on the standard of valuation initially employed. This is the built-in liability of satire that exploits religious language: as William Hone discovered in the heresy trials of 1817 for his political parodies of the Prayer Book, because the satiric reduction of the religious standard exposes [24/25] the standard as well as the current heresies to ridicule, the satire can be charged with blasphemy.60 A less extreme instance of self-reflexive destabilization occurs in Dickens' use of the Prayer Book to judge the aristocracy in Bleak House.61
With "it's to be hoped they line out of their Prayer-Books a certain passage for the common people about pride and vainglory" (12.142), Watt Rouncewell begins the satire lightly enough ("forgive me, grandmother! Only a joke!") but with the awareness that the joke may be perceived as a trifling with holy things (cf. BCP 35). Although pious where Watt was impious, Esther, another social outsider, picks up the satire again in chapter 17 at the Chesney Wold chapel, where one of the coachmen "looked as if he were the official representative of all the pomps and vanities that had ever been put into his coach," forgetting his baptismal vows (224 and n.6; cf. BCP 321).
By chapter 28 a shift in ironic implication occurs in the course of a political argument between Watt and Sir Leicester — new class meeting old class. A slur of the ironmaster's on the village school prompts the landowner to meditate upon "the whole framework of society . . . receiving tremendous cracks in consequence of people . . . not minding their catechism, and getting out of the station unto which they arc called — necessarily and for ever, according to Sir Leicester's rapid logic, the first station in which they happen to find themselves; and from that, to their educating other people out of their stations, and so obliterating the landmarks, and opening the floodgates, and all the rest of it; this is the swift progress of the Dedlock mind" (354; first emphasis added). The catechism passage he has stumbled upon is the prescribed answer to the question, "What is thy duty towards thy Neighbour?" Sir Leicester has forgotten the spirit of the question and remembers only part of the response: "My duty towards my Neighbour is, to love him as myself, and to do to all men, as I would they should do unto me: . . . To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters: To hurt no body by word nor deed: . . . and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me" (325). Even as he shows satirically that Sir Leicester has reduced this part of the catechism — perhaps all of it — to a class oath, however, Dickens also turns his critique back upon the Book of Common Prayer itself in the reforming spirit of the times that Sir Leicester, circa 1832, fears. Bleak House was written in a decade when controversy over changing the Prayer Book was becoming noisier and the parties for reform better organized, and when the Religious Census of 30 March 1841 had revealed that in an officially Christian nation less than half the populace were attending Sunday services (see Jasper). In the latitudinarian spirit of Dr. Arnold's Principles of Church Reform [25/26] (1833), but with his own later humanist urgency, Dickens is demonstrating that the interpretation of these Prayer Book words must be revised if it is to command the respect of the newly rising classes; the ironic clause beginning "necessarily and for ever" implies that people might change their stations, do their duty there, and still faithfully repeat the catechism response. Notably, however, Dickens' revisionary impulse does not arise in the name of the Book of Common Prayer or the Church so much as for the sake of social responsibility on the part of all classes, in a newly fluid society putting ever greater pressure on his chief stabilizing principle of "love thy neighbour as thyself."
Right after this catechism response on "My duty towards my Neighbour" is the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, by which the child is to call for God's grace in order to do his duty. Dickens' most bitter reflections on the Church's language emerge when he draws attention to its neglect of the poor, graphically emphasized in the distant churchtower of Browne's dark plate etching, "Tom-all-Alone's." In a novel where a primal catechetical scene is often replayed — such as Mrs. Pardiggle's grilling the brickmakers out of a religious book — the most disturbing is the final catechizing of Tom-all-Alone's prime prospect for Church charity, who is "a moving on right forards with his duty" towards "that there berryin ground" (47.567, 571). As Alan Woodcourt fails to teach Jo the Lord's Prayer — for his "immortal nature" has been sunk by ignorance "lower than the beasts that perish" (564; cf. Ps. 49:20) — we have a darker instance of the ironic, self-reflexive destabilizing of liturgical allusion.
The prayer comes into Dickens' text in a - of truncated quotations, whose poignant revisions by Jo might have stabilized the scene as pure pathos. Woodcourt starts the train of antiphonal responses between living and dying voices:
"Jo, can you say what I say?"
"I'll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it's good."
"Our Father! — yes, that's wery good, sir."
"WHICH ART IN HEAVEN."
"Art in Heaven — is the light a comin, sir?"
"It is close at hand. HALLOWED BE THY NAME!"
"Hallowed be — thy — "
The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead! [571-72]
But the passage does not end in pathos and piety. This dialogue's defamiliarization of the old, old words releases the narrator's most bitter ire toward the nominal Christians in his audience who have not done their duty: "Dead, your Majesty. . . . Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. . . . [26/27] And dying thus around us every day." Taking his readers through a more violent crux than he had with Esther Summerson's religious language, Dickens so sets up the scene that he invokes readers' sentimental responses to Christian deathbeds, as Dennis Walder has noted (159-60), in order to betray them. Although the pious reader may hope the kingdom comes for Jo in "the light a comin," Jo never gets to that petition and dies, like Gridley, without accepting the "blessing" (see 25.315); pinioned on the hard words, "Hallowed be — thy — ," Jo can scarcely know what a blessing is, or a name.
The violence that breaks out then in the narrator's rhetoric not only turns on Dickens' audience, but also implicitly puts in question the providential scheme the "Our Father" expresses, a scheme that fails when "Heavenly compassion" (572) dies out in the human heart. Moving through a series of destabilizations, this passage may ironically clarify where duty lies, but like so many of Dickens' darkest reflections on human nature, it holds out little hope that duty will be done in any rank of society on any significant scale. Despite the real presence of a few compassionate souls "close at hand," the fact remains that lives like Jo's and Gridley's were accursed — and no amount of private Good Samaritanism, or the "magic balsam" of half-crowns duly administered (569), seems likely to change the larger condition of indifference which permits such "dying thus around us every day." Despite the passage's tantalizing "radiances" in kind words and allusions to heavenly light, the only "light" that "is come" for Jo is that thrown by the narrator on the social causes of this creature's "dark benighted way." The rest is darkness indeed. Rather than being charged with stable irony indirectly affirming belief in the afterlife (as some readers interpret it), the language of Jo's deathbed scene — defamiliarized, truncated, unable to affirm any belief — submits more evidence for the power of "KING DEATH!" (33.413) in Bleak House, where more than Chancery suits or Bad Samaritanism is on trial before the "great eternal bar."
Read this way, Jo's deathbed does not effectively counteract the earlier pauper burial service it recalls, like beneficent slants of light reinterpreting sinister ones, but tends rather to confirm (and personalize) the dark parable of "Our Dear Brother." This "dread scene" (11.137) will offer a final extended example of how apparently stable ironic allusions become indeterminate at the expense of the religious values they invoke, especially for the orthodox Christian reader. Spending some time on the concluding paragraphs of chapter 11 will anticipate a recurrent hermeneutic crux in these readings of the biblical Dickens, for in this passage we discover that how far the indeterminate meanings extend is a matter of interpretation — and not one definitively closed by the satiric, prophetic, and allegorizing impulses here. Nonetheless, I shall argue, what makes the [27/28] biblical ironies most disturbing, as so often in the later Dickens, is their amplification within the novelistic context.
In the passage describing Nemo's burial near the close of "Our Dear Brother," it seems at first that Dickens borrows the priest's lines from the funeral service simply to contrast, in Stephen C. Gill's words, "the horror of what is going on . . . with the meaning of genuine Christianity" (149): "Into a beastly scrap of ground which a Turk would reject as a savage abomination . . . they bring our dear brother here departed, to receive Christian burial" (137). In Oliver Twist's | precursor scene, where a clergyman on the run reads over the pauper coffin "as much of the burial service as could be compressed into four minutes" before Sowerberry tells the grave-digger, "fill up" (5.33), Dickens' refusal to quote any Prayer Book words signals the utter failure of this perfunctory rite to console the two wretched mourners. By the time of Bleak House, Dickens has refined his technique. Now, through a persona who does not narrate or re-present the scene so much as turn it into an occasion for prophetic discourse, he uses just enough of the Burial Service to remind readers of the meaning lost, playing upon the phrase "our dear brother" until they feel the hollow form of words it has become. Whether such an echo does its work depends upon some vestigial belief in Dickens' readers that the burial liturgy should mean something, as a powerful reminder of the brotherhood of all under the Fatherhood of God. On a stable first reading, it seems that the writer manipulating this narrative voice seeks to reactivate this belief in the hearts of his brothers and sisters.
Yet, as one meditates on this bitterly disillusioned passage, its controlled ironies dissolve into ambiguities that tend to undermine the "genuine Christianity" on which Dickens calls. For it is specifically the Christian world view that the whole passage fails to endorse and even puts in question. First, by so emphasizing the phrase "our dear brother," Dickens collapses the fuller implications of the traditional rite upon its one, not necessarily Christian, idea of brotherhood. If those who say the rites over the poor without feeling and allow such churchyards to exist deny the ritual's witness of Christian hope, Dickens seems uninterested in reinstating it at least through this narrator, who implies only that the conduct of the ceremony should show proper respect for the dead (and the participants more respect for life). More disturbing is the way the other religious allusion here is handled — an adapted Bible quotation picked up from the background mumbling of the Burial Service ("So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption," 1 Cor. 15:42). When the narrator says that those who "lower our dear brother down a foot or two . . . sow him in corruption, to be raised in corruption," he borrows St. Paul's language to intensify the moral impact of his reformist point about a [28/29] sanitation problem of a corrupt society, while grotesquely reversing the apostle's meaning: the dead "rise" only to generate more dying. At the same time he recalls this religious reading of death by retaining the sound of "incorruption" ("in corruption"). Altogether, he pointedly fails to affirm the eloquent testimony of 1 Corinthians 15 to the resurrection, the crux of the Christian faith to St. Paul (see verses 12-17, ". . . if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching in vain. . . . Ye are yet in your sins"). Besides recalling this wider context for the allusion, Dickens' Christian reader would also think of Paul (a favorite saint to the Victorians) as the New Testament's prime example of personal conversion, his own life dramatic corroboration for his creed, as well as for the importance of Christian brotherhood to mediate such individual transformations. (According to Acts 9:17-20, Paul's conversion was not complete until he was taken into the Christian community at Damascus.)
For such readers, then, this conjunction of ironic reversals, depletions, and elisions would draw particular notice to the loss of the Christian framework in which the bid for brotherhood and change of heart would have been more firmly secured. Without any expression of St. Paul's faith, or at least some ringing affirmation of a compensatory creed, the bitter alienation and cynicism of Dickens' narrator then become symptomatic of the larger spiritual crisis toward which his ironic allusions point, a crisis in divine and human relationships marked by the loss of belief in any transcendent power of transformation working through community. It is also a crisis for language no longer secured in human history by the living Logos. The narrative voice, however aware of suffering, is "corrupted" by contempt, like an unconverted Saul; and with no formulas for explaining human misery nor any words at all for hope, his preaching to Victorian sinners is in vain.
The linguistic crisis targeted by and embodied in the religious language of this passage releases farther-reaching ironies than one at first expects. But, some readers might argue, do not the satiric and prophetic voices in this chapter contain these disturbances? To weigh this question, one must consider further what the object of the prophetic satire is. As Dickens rewrites the religious formulas in order to expose the earthly practices that churchly words conceal, he is doing more than continue the Chadband satire on religious hypocrisy, which might be dismissed (and was by indignant Evangelical reviewers) as an irrelevant distortion, an indulgence of the Inimitable's love for grotesquely comic idiolect. In this part of "Our Dear Brother," however, where there is only a generalized "they" to criticize, Dickens can be more attentive to the capacity of otherworldly, idealizing religious language in itself to shroud the facts — here, of pauper misery and public indifference to it. Rather than attacking religious [29/30] hypocrites, Dickens' skeptical revisions of Prayer Book words forward the attack on the Church pursued elsewhere in Bleak House, where "the great Cross on the summit of St. Paul's Cathedral" not only is distant from the unredeemed suffering below, but also symbolizes, as "the crowning confusion of the great, confused city" (19.243), the Babel Church's mere logoi that mystify the causes of human misery. In this later, iconographic allusion to the resurrection through the sign of the cathedral's triumphant gold cross, the otherworldly "language" of "St. Paul" is again implicitly presented as mumbo-jumbo that is socially retrograde (just as elsewhere Dickens lets us see the capacities for Pauline formulas to mask some truths from Esther Summerson and impede her growth). And indeed, throughout his career, Dickens pressed beyond the insights of his own satires on characters whose pious words do not match their deeds, to explore the far-reaching implications of experienced gaps between religious idealization, like other abstractions, and human fact — even though Dickens could also ignore such gaps at notorious moments in the fiction. Ironies at the Church's expense do not necessarily amount to a metaphysical critique, of course; but surely Dickens' exposure of the ways that the Church not only fails to act on its beliefs but also "talks nonsense" would be deeply disturbing to the orthodox believer with ears to hear Dickens' parable, in which "civilisation and barbarism wal[k] this boastful island together" (137). If barbarism flourishes with the help of the language of religion, what is regarded as the supreme expression of civilization is in league with the powers of darkness.
The paragraph immediately following these words forms a theatrical segue, in which the controlling author ostentatiously changes the scene while "time passes." Here Dickens abruptly introduces an allegorizing voice that tries to halt subversions of certainty. With "Come night, come darkness" — an allusion to Macbeth (see 137, n. 7) prompted by the theatrical mode — the narrator blots out the dread scene, although with the next invocation, "Come, flame of gas," he invites "every passer-by" to "Look here!" at it. In this embarrassingly written paragraph, the odd sense of contradiction — suggesting perhaps Dickens' ambivalence toward the dangerous train of thought he has begun — seems resolved when onto the set shuffles a more hopeful figure, whose Good Samaritan example we priests and Levites passing by are to "look" at. With Jo's secular ritual of respect for the dead Nemo, his attempt to clean up the sanitation and moral pollution problems here by sweeping the graveyard step, Dickens' narrator illumines the darkness as the chapter closes on this tableau. Moving away tentatively from his earlier cynicism, this persona descries "something like a distant ray of light" in Jo's physical and verbal tributes to the "wery good" deeds of his Good Samaritan (138) — and the deliberate quotation of Jo's idiom markedly contrasts to the barbaric eloquences of the Church just exposed. With "thou art [30/31] not quite in outer darkness" (138 and n. 8), the narrator also revises Jesus' wedding feast parable, or a certain reigning dogmatic interpretation of it. In thus doing his own good deed he verbally rescues Jo from those who had earlier put this religiously uninstructed creature aside for his wrong theological answers at the inquest (134), and who have literally deprived this ragamuffin of his "wedding garment" while commandeering all the places at society's feast. Finally, with a suggestion that biblical charity's light is breaking in on himself, the narrator addresses Jo directly as "thou." Such momentary "radiances" cannot be dismissed; they have their effect.
But to argue that this conclusion of "Our Dear Brother" arrests the disturbances of religious certainty here would be to ignore the highly qualifying language in which such allusions are entangled. The "light" descried in Jo is not said to be that of God, but of "reason"; and the verbal rescue of Jo from outer darkness is made with typical restraint. Despite the touches of biblical rhetoric, the refusal to articulate any specifically Christian interpretation remains consistent to the close.
What most powerfully eclipses the glimmerings of religious meaning in chapters 11 and 47, as well as the humanism that tries to replace them, is their larger novelistic context: again and again, rays of light die out in the surrounding gloom. Both passages are amplified by innumerable occasions of the same uses of hollow formula and ironic religious allusion. In Bleak House especially, the sheer proliferation of such allusions presses social and ecclesiastical critique, whose ironies might have been contained by a reformist program, toward despair of cosmic order operating in this world where such barbarisms flourish. If in nearly all quarters one finds indifference to biblical values, if it seems that "They dies everywheres" (31.383) without compassion, hope, or meaning, then not only have Bible values become irrelevant to the majority of the populace so portrayed, but the God of the Bible has receded into the fog that lifts only now and then with the arrival of a rescuing text. The spiritual darkness swiftly descending through such long stretches of the novel would seem to foreclose any likelihood that life can be seen sub specie aeternitatis, or perhaps understood at all. All we have, then, is the eye of the writer and his words; but when he still draws heavily at crisis points upon the cadences of Scripture in his nostalgia for origins and secure values, he creates unintended effects with a borrowed Word that has lost its basis in experienced historical fact. The ironic tensions thus created are not resolved. Meanwhile, the very desperation with which this Victorian writer so often shores up the ruins of a barbarous civilization with biblical fragments testifies to the problematic status of both holy and human words in the nineteenth century for building the new Mythus.
The manifold functions of scriptural allusion discussed here illustrate the [31/32] essential complexity of Dickens' art. If his allusions can offer some of the cues, simplifications, and closures that Victorians, especially, needed in order to read their novels at all, his revisions of the Bible also provide occasions for hermeneutic instability — from the momentary stimulus to revise a judgment to far-reaching dislocations of meaning — that invite readers to reconstrue the ancient wisdom for the present time. Biblical allusions then become strategies for complicating the act of reading and sometimes help to generate the secrecy of the text, thereby challenging the prevailing norm of interpretation (as preached by Carlyle) that art should reveal "the Divine Idea of the World" at the bottom of appearances (Iser, Act of Reading, 6). We risk trivializing the Victorian public, those avid readers, if we assume that they wanted no more than confirmation of their world views or conventional inspiration for living. Dickens also gave his readers experiential extensions of their lives and occasions for imaginative play, from the sheer facetiousness of "Piljlan's Projisses" to that play of the mind over experience and tradition which made nineteenth-century novels of the highest rank instruments of discovery — even discoveries that full disclosure may be impossible, appearances impenetrable, the Divine Idea a fiction. The advantage to the writer of using unstable allusions is the satisfaction of having challenged his audience "To Think" rather than "Be Thought For" (as an 1856 Household Words article by Wilkie Collins put the choice), while casting into a form of words his own perplexed sense of his world and expressing his fundamental ambivalence toward authorities of all kinds, including the sovereign Word.
4. Allusion as Mimesis and as Rhetoric
TO ASSESS the status of Dickens' biblical allusions is to consider them in relation to each other and to other things. In this final stage of introduction to the biblical Boz, it will be helpful to survey the grid of relationships in which his allusions are involved, organizing more schematically some of the issues already raised and bringing in other dimensions of my subject not yet discussed. Literary allusions are enmeshed in two different but intersecting structures of relationships:67 they are part of the order of words (however indeterminate) that constitutes a literary text, with its implicit or more overt links to previous texts as well as to an experiential world of facts, feelings, events, leading ideas, world views, language, and other conventions (the mimetic axis of the grid); and literary allusions are enmeshed in a structure of communication between a writer and his or her readers (the rhetorical axis). Each of these two headings generates its own particular textual and contextual concerns. Some of the multiple ways of looking at literary texts that this grid produces provide the varying [32/33] angles from which I examine Dickens' biblical allusions, although not with the same distribution of attention in every chapter of this book. It would have been far simpler, of course, to have looked at these allusions in only one way — to see them, for example, as a kind of metaphor. But the principal assumption behind this study's method is that by shifting perspectives on a subject one can grasp it, if never completely, in its multidimensionality. Surveying those perspectives here will map the broad terrain of this book, which considers literature both as representation and as communication, while disclosing the eclectic theoretical rationale behind these readings of Dickens.
As part of a literary structure, allusions may be considered purely as a feature of style — as verbal embellishments in the text, for example, or as a species of local metaphor. The Bible gave Dickens not one but many styles to import directly, mimic, or otherwise adapt imaginatively (if sometimes also ponderously) for his fiction. Identifying the main biblical voices in each novel and observing some of the plays Dickens makes with the diction, syntax, cadences, and figures of his imported words will be indispensable in each chapter. But an exclusive focus on such stylistic features might lead us to assume that Dickens' allusions achieve merely local effects, to be consumed (in Herman Meyer's homely phrase) like "raisins in the cake" (4). In the mature works this is rarely the case. Dickens' scriptural allusions form larger configurations in the text: they contribute to the networks of interlocking images, allegorical designs, and symbolic patterns that have attracted much critical attention (for example, the Flood archetype and baptismal water in Bleak House}; they also form the subtextual strata, chains of harmonic and disharmonic verbal echoes, and contrapuntal patterns of rival meanings that will receive emphasis here.
My treatment of style and structure as multiform and often dissonant is grounded in a sense of Dickens' historical context. Mikhail Bakhtin has identified the indispensable condition for the development of the novel as the historical emergence of "a contradictory and multi-languaged world" being shaped by centrifugal forces in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century life (Discourse, 275, 273). This cultural condition of "heteroglossia" enters a novel through its throng of social voices, each carrying its own belief system into the work. In a mediocre novel, Bakhtin argues, such voices will be merely random, but in a work of novelistic art the language systems represented will be "dialogized," in his jargon — orchestrated, interrelated, and sometimes in local passages stylistically intercut. These voices "know about each other (just as two exchanges in a dialogue know of each other and are structured in this mutual knowledge of each other). . . . A potential dialogue is embedded in [the discourses of the novel], one as yet unfolded" (324, emphasis added).
In the expanded soundscape of Dombey and Son, for example, a range of [33/34] voices from the past (such as phrases from the Prayer Book, Dr. Watts' hymnody, fairytale conventions) contend with each other and with the voices of the dynamic present (the impersonal idiom of the managerial class, metaphors and speech rhythms from railway culture, the bitter logic of the displaced poor, and so on); and through all these voices representing competing social worlds and value systems Dickens weaves the cryptic, nonhuman murmurings of the waves, also multivoiced but speaking first of an eternal world that "rolls round" this one of Past and Present (1.9). Dialogism in Dombey serves to remind us that the Victorian universe in Dickens is often a soundstage of voices "contending in boundless hubbub," in Carlyle's terms, with Vox as its God (CME 28.32-33; LDP 192). In Dickens' frequent use of it, the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 becomes an archetypal expression of his finely tuned sense of the contemporary scene; but he also wants to understand what these voices say to one another, how interactively they modify each other's values and claims. In Bleak House, for example, he uses this "hubbub" for what Bakhtin calls "the orchestration of his themes and for the refracted (indirect) expression of his intentions and values" (292) — an expression that dialogism, most obviously present in the strategy of double narration, keeps dynamic and unstable. Hornback reads the Babel phase of Genesis mythology primarily as a story of noncommunication "Noah's Arkitecture," pp. 104-5), but Dickens' use of the story is wider than this.
Dickens' multilanguaged historical context bears upon his treatment of biblical allusion in several ways. First, style: In a novel like Dombey and Son, the noisy presence of all the other, nonreligious languages and the world views they represent creates centrifugal pressures not only on the stylistic unity of Dickens' fictional world, but on the univocity of the Word. Gifted as a parodist and mimic, tuned in to the polyphonic scene, Dickens cannot hear just one biblical voice. Moreover, because a unitary Word is inadequate to meet the variously challenging words of its nineteenth-century context, a separating out of the differently cadenced messages in the Bible tradition seems inevitable in order to provide a more flexible lexicon of "words in season." (The fracturing of the Great Code helped to make possible this freely ranging exploitation of whatever parts of the tradition came to hand for particular uses, whether they agreed with each other or not.) Biblical allusions in dialogue with their pressuring contexts and with each other turn out to be multivocal, incompletely merged, competing, sometimes contradictory. They can also be at times no more than the "dead quotations" Bakhtin dismisses (bits of authoritative discourse that have no artistic relation to the dialogic life of their fictional world), although as we shall see the didactic voices in Dickens cannot be adequately explained in Bakhtin's terms.72
Second, structure: Using some slippery terminology of his own, Bakhtin describes "the language of the novel" as "the system of its 'languages' (262). If we [34/35 take his second "language" here as any interrelated and consistent set of distinctive usages, and if we refuse to read "system" as either hierarchy or organic totality, Bakhtin's description can usefully be applied to Dickens: we shall find that while the larger patterns which sets of allusions make in a work (or to which they contribute) may each have their own integrity and constitute a "language," these patterns will not necessarily be interrelated harmoniously in the novel's "system." Rather, while these allusive structures will sometimes converge with or complement each other, at other times they will come together only tangentially, diverge, undermine, or overthrow one another.74 Structuring allusions enter a field of many intersecting and diverging lines of force — sometimes even a battlefield of the sort Bakhtin's militarized terminology suggests. Like the diverging Bunyan and Good Samaritan parables in Oliver Twist, or the "battles of biblical books" in Esther's narrative to be discussed, Dickens' patterns of allusion are dialogically multiple and embedded in the novels' formative tensions — tensions that critics have increasingly found essential to understanding Dickens' work.
That biblical allusions should lead such a pluralistic life in his fiction inescapably means that his religious messages and moral judgments cannot be read as monological. Here the didactic parabler's narrowest purposes give way to the tolerance, the democratizing impulses, and the imaginative curiosity ("to find out what it's all about, and what it means" DS 21.248) that impel the mimetic life of Dickens' fiction. Whatever his other professional reasons for peopling large canvasses, Dickens' novels were his chief expressive means of entering into important cultural dialogues of his day. Although hardly in the manner of a Mrs. Ward, his major fictions (far more profoundly than his speeches) carry on the debate of essential questions through representations of Victorian voices. As I have suggested, these "voices" do not simply coincide with individual characters' idiolects but come into the text in many ways. It is partly through religious and other kinds of allusion that various world views, ideals, values, and even competing interpretations of Scripture are championed, questioned, condemned, and entertained. The heterogeneous ideas and modes of consciousness that Dickens' borrowed words thus import into his fiction become involved in a dialogical play of viewpoints that resists easy resolution, even when he tries to foreclose the issues with fairytale endings or biblical rhetoric. Such diversification no doubt helped to broaden Dickens' appeal — so that nominal Anglicans and devout ones, Unitarians and secular rationalists, all claim him for their own. But it also makes the "religious" dimension of his works, even his code of ethics, far more elusive than they have been taken by some to be. At times that indeterminacy reflects Dickens' sensitive response to many-sided issues; on [35/36] other occasions, as in The Old Curiosity Shop's range of attitudes toward death and immortality, textual elusiveness seems to reflect the equivocation of a man who wants to be consoling but has no settled belief.75
Complicating this account of novelistic dialogue is the fact that ideas are not served up raw in fiction but come encoded in received modes of representation. Some attention is given here to the popular conventions that mediate Dickens' uses of biblical ones, such as the melodramatizing and gothicizing of Scripture texts in Bleak House. Dickens' use of iconographic signs from religious pictorial art comes up especially in the chapters on Dombey, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend, and in remarks along the way about the novels' original illustrations, which Dickens so closely supervised and approved. As we shall see, on some occasions these popular conventions — self-consciously indulged to the point of parody — call attention to their own artificiality and thus tend to reduce the biblical conventions they mediate to the status of unreliable, if necessary fictions. Dickens' use of conventions his readers knew and needed is not only a question of mimesis, of course, but of communication. Here is one of the places where the two axes of the grid clearly cross, compelling us to shift perspectives on our subject.
As one element in the structure of communication between a writer and his readers, allusion can be considered contextually, first, in light of the author's attitudes, intentions, and motivations (public or private, conscious or unconscious). Apart from Dickens' frequent expressions of respect for the New Testament, we have little extratextual information about his religious intentions and none about his literary aims as an alluder to the Bible. The indeterminate texts to be explored, however, will prompt occasional speculation about Dickens' internal dialogue of faith and doubt, as well as the dynamics of his relationship with Thomas Carlyle, a chief reader for whom Dickens wrote and a "biblical" influence. Allusion may also be considered contextually in terms of the history of literary response to a work and its wider impact. Because we have no evidence of real readers' responses to so particular a literary strategy as biblical allusion, only more general contemporary assessments of Dickens' religious language and of the moral suasion his works have been thought to exercise in his culture will come into the argument. A third contextually related issue, concerning the problems of "reading" dramatized and thematized within these novels, will be taken up at the close of this chapter.
Turning to textual issues, we can consider allusion on this communications axis in two ways: as a form of the author's controlling rhetoric, or as an occasion in the text for reader collaboration in the production of meaning. Without attempting to settle all the questions that arise when more than one theoretical construct is being applied to a literary work, I would like to explore here the [36/37] mutual usefulness of these two apparently antithetical ways of viewing allusion for reading Dickens, especially since both address matters outside Bakhtin's usual range of discussion.
Whatever their context, whatever qualifications are attached, biblical allusions are peculiarly laden with "ideology," especially in Victorian texts. Given Bakhtin's little sympathy for "pedagogic" and authoritative voices in the novel that are univocal, single-minded, and historically nonspecific, that put forward "truth" as abstract proposition and precept, he would probably dismiss many of Dickens' biblical allusions (as indeed do many Dickens critics) as irrelevant to, because unengaged with and even opposed to, the abundant dialogic life of his fiction.76 They are "rhetoric" in a pejorative sense, failed attempts to effect closure in a dynamic text. In coming to terms with Dickens' scriptures, we must confront the fact that, as the first sort of parabler I have described, he does use stable biblical allusion in some privileged ways. Here the broader, more appreciative understanding in Wayne Booth's earlier work on the "rhetoric of fiction" — all the means a writer uses to convey a world view to his audience — is especially useful in reading Dickens as a popular Victorian novelist with messages to deliver to his public. As we shall see, they are not always singlemindedly prepositional or handed down from on high, but sometimes issued with the authority of an orchestrator of multiplicity who appreciates the historic life of language, where precept must be related to specific character and event to be heard. In this broader view, plot, for example, can also be a form of biblical allusion, although as scriptural ideals become involved with these other "rhetorical" strategies, in an elaborately detailed work they become entangled in caveats and qualifications that attenuate the power of the Word.
Even where Dickens' moral aesthetic works least qualifiedly and most highhandedly through biblical allusion, those readers who cannot value it aesthetically can appreciate it culturally as language directed to a concrete context which, many felt, needed a newly Authorized Revision of Scripture. Here Barry V. Qualls' work on "the novel as book of life" helps richly to explain why and how Victorian novelists, inheriting Carlyle's amalgamation of the Puritan and Romantic traditions, wrote with special urgency their own form of "biblical romance" (Qualls' improvement on Northrop Frye's too-secular "secular scripture"), in which they guided their readers to set their own lives under the eye of eternity like the lives in the story (see Qualls ix, xi, 1-16). Looking at biblical allusion in Dickens, who consciously "imitat[ed] the "ways of Providence" in his art (to Wilkie Collins, 6 October 1859, D 3:125), will require some attention to these insistent authorial purposes conceived in response to needs the writer shared with his audience.
But, as Qualls also recognizes, such rhetorical overtures become problematized [37/38] in a cultural context where the writer can no longer appeal to an unbroken biblical standard, assume unanimity among his readers, interpret contemporary life coherently, or act with clarity and equanimity on writerly intentions perfectly known. (As Terry Eagleton puts the latter problem, "An author's intention is itself a complex 'text'" open to interpretation, although the same can be said of the reader's reception and the culture in which intentions and receptions arise. ) Where such uncertainties emerge — where, for example, one seemingly "stable" biblical allusion is contradicted by another — we must look beyond appreciative or dismissive theories of the author's controlling rhetoric to explain the workings of allusion.
As a poetic device, allusion obviously requires not only a writer to devise it but also a reader to recognize and activate it for it to produce literary effects at all. Its relevance to the immediate novelistic context is always implicit; in Bakhtin's terms, its dialogue with the voice(s) in that context is "as yet unfolded." How, then, does the reader unfold the dialogue within the text, an act that involves the reader as a dialogist with the text? The interpretive possibilities of any Dickens novel proliferate further if we understand this historically actual reader as himself multivoiced, in Bakhtin's terms, because he is a social being, capable of hearing out and producing multiple interpretations to varying degrees, whether he is a nineteenth-century ideologue of some persuasion, a Victorian anxiously self-conscious about the dialogue of the mind with itself, or a post-Freudian likely to be less alarmed by the multiplicities within personalities and a more critical appreciator of the polyphonic Dickens world. Thus defined as multiple, how does Dickens' reader confront a biblical allusion embedded within the dialogues of the work: what shall she or he "do" with it, within the author's constraints on interpretation?
Although Bakhtin does not address the phenomenology of dialogical reading in the "Discourse" essay, some of his foundational earlier writing on the relationships between authors and their heroes, and between people in everyday life, stresses the necessary distance between the "I" and the "other," two consciousnesses that can help to "author" one another only if they do not fuse. This notion of "the absolute aesthetic need of one person for another" points toward a conception of the reader as not entirely within the orbit of the controlling author, but as necessarily to some degree an "outsider" if the various consciousnesses within the work are to be "created" for him ("Author and Protagonist," 34, qtd. Emerson, 70). Bakhtin's conviction that true learning is dialogic, not pedagogical, allies itself with a basic assumption of reader response theory, upon which I have drawn selectively in paying special attention to reading the biblical Dickens (with periodic checks into actual responses these five novels have evoked). Whereas Wayne Booth's reader [38/39] is persuaded to grasp a core of norms everywhere implicit in the work interpreting its events, Wolfgang Iser's reader is a more active participant in the production of meaning, impelled by the paradox of the text — its cues to interpretation and its inexhaustibility — to build provisional illusions of consistency.81 In The Implied Reader, two general descriptions of what texts do to encourage this participation are particularly relevant to the reading of Dickens' biblical allusions. First, texts' omissions and gaps provide occasions for interpretive expansions the reader can perform as he seeks to establish connections and stabilize meaning — not because stable meanings are necessarily the best ones, but because this is one thing readers need to do. Because there is always a gap between the alluding text and the text alluded to, even stable allusions require some imaginative work on the part of the reader to "reconstruct a fuller text," although the play of interpretive possibilities will be circumscribed rather sharply. Further, while there are many different local ways Dickens' allusions stimulate reconstruction, the hardest work they call for is the effort to harmonize, or weigh against one another, the throng of religious and nonreligious voices in one fictional world. Although Iser and Bakhtin may make strange theoretical bedfellows in other ways, the latter's "heteroglossia" creates precisely those gaps which stimulate the productive interpretations of Iser's reader.
Second, Iser discusses the ways that texts thwart or negate a reader's expectations, forcing him continually to adjust the configuration he forms as he proceeds through the text. Here we are usefully reminded that reading allusions, like all reading, is a temporal process; and the fact that an allusion may be qualified by what comes after opens even "stable" ones to reinterpretation. Iser identifies allusion as one element in the writer's "repertoire of [the] familiar" which is then defamiliarized by various textual strategies with the effect of "over-magnification, trivialization, or even annihilation of the allusion" (Implied Reader, 288; see also The Act of Reading, 53-103). An allusion may be inserted into an incongruous situation, for example; but it may also become estranged from its original import by a subsequent, antithetical allusion which alters the schema that the first one had invited the reader to form. In such cases, allusion becomes itself a literary strategy of defamiliarization, generating unexpected associations that the reader must somehow incorporate into his revised hypothesis of the text.
Such heuristic procedures are not only descriptive of the phenomenology of reading; as Harry Levin writes in The Gates of Horn, they are central in the European tradition to which Dickens belonged, a tradition in which the novel contributed to the bringing-out of truth by fostering that ongoing revision of hypotheses characteristic of nineteenth-century science (31). Iser's parallel argument in The Implied Reader, based on the assumption that reading is a process of discovery, is that [39/40] Victorian novelists turned their co-creating readers into critics of the prevailing ideologies and of themselves (28). Although Dickens as "Mr. Popular Sentiment" (in Trollope's phrase) could do precisely the opposite, my application of this line of argument is that he also invites his readers to become biblically oriented critics of Victorian ideologies and, sometimes surreptitiously, revisers of biblical and liturgical traditions as well.
Reader response theory is valuable because it helps us see how many of Dickens' scriptural allusions are more imaginatively engaging than the sort of authoritative religious language Bakhtin dismisses, and more dynamically upen to interpretation than the controlling rhetoric Booth describes, offering readers a constructive role to play in the creation of new meanings for their time. Allusion can then also be understood in relation to Dickens' larger fictional purposes and his most characteristic moral intentions toward his public. In Household Words he once ridiculed the worst sort of authorial tyranny, when he described the zealous writer of a new work on spiritualism ("the sans-culotte of the Spiritual Revolution") as using his own book like "a Clown in a Pantomime," knocking "everybody on the head with it who comes in his way."85 As "Conductor" Dickens often wanted to come out strong, to "strike a blow" at some abuse or other; but in his letters, the memoranda of a working novelist and editor, he frequently spoke of readers as co-creators whose intelligence and independent judgment are to be respected,86 and, most important, whose imaginations are to be nurtured. The address to his readers in the first number of Household Words (30 March 1850) is his most famous declaration of these literary intentions: the journal would "tenderly cherish that light of Fancy which is inherent in the human breast" and "show to all, that in all familiar things, even in those which are repellant on the surface, there is Romance enough, if we will find it out."
Weighing the rhetorician's need to "show to all" against the necessity for readers to "find it out" was one of the chief challenges of Dickens' art. To him, as to the Victorian sages John Holloway has discussed, to know through experience, to feel the truth of a commonplace (George Eliot), is to decipher world and heart by exercising the imagination, "King over us" (Carlyle), a power of knowledge "inherent in the human breast" (Dickens) (4-17). To the limitations of this liberal humanist ideology Dickens was not, I think, completely blind; but he persisted in teaching that through imaginative reading, wisdom could be learned for human uses. In Dombey and Son he illustrates the wrong way of inculcating the tradition in Mr. Feeder, B.A.'s "barrel-organ" teaching, which reduces the poets' fancies and the sages' lessons to "a mere collection of words and grammar" (11.121). The boys at Blimber's Academy do not imagine that which they know. For Dickens, meaning is not a content poured into waiting vessels but a [40/41] creation; and if the "lessons of the sages" or the Bible writers are to find their proper significance for modern times, they must be interpreted through an imaginative and personal revaluation.
How challenging that process can be we will see in Dickens' critical treatment of Victorian modes of consolation in Bleak House, or the doctrine of renunciation in Little Dorrit. If considered in their dynamic multiplicity rather than from the standpoint of their endings, Dickens' mature texts are not the "dangerous" kind Iser warns against, which, by encouraging the uninterrupted formation of illusions, "offer nothing but a harmonious world" (The Implied Reader, 284). When this "uncomfortable writer" — as John Eagles phrased it in Blackwood's — stimulated his readers to do more than passively consume pathetic effects or contemplate a Victorian ideal, he was striving to transform them as finer readers of themselves, their world, and England's condition. Whether they are finding Romance or finding it out, the collaborators in Dickens' audience are offered the role of a broadly sympathetic, morally imaginative, and critically alert implied reader so common in his writing that we must sometimes remind ourselves that it is only a fiction. The difference between this idealized figure and the typical Englishman as Dickens often angrily described him in letters of the 1850s suggests precisely why he believed this "Reader" had to be created as a redemptive persona in his culture. At the same time, his knowledge of real readers as opposed to the ideal discoverer of Romance, even biblical romance, gave impetus to the darker parables Dickens tells which foster that spirit of critical inquiry no imaginist can afford to be without.
Given these intentions and practices, some aspects of reader response theory are arguably appropriate for Dickens' case, as he might have described it himself. Nonetheless, several tendencies in Iser's accounts of the reading process limit his capacity to explain the instabilities in Dickens' uses of allusion. Especially in The Implied Reader, Iser treats the intentions of Victorian novelists as though they were always in command of them, deliberately implanting in their works "cunning" devices to elicit the "right" kinds of participation (xiv). To some extent this description fits the enlarged, confessedly problematized, but nonetheless didactic purposes of major nineteenth-century writers such as George Eliot.91 It is by no means always so clear, however, where Dickens is in command or even aware of his own disruptive ambiguities — or where they are primarily self-expressive, rather than sagelike ruses to effect his readers' reconstruction. Indeed, such socially "useful" ends may be thwarted altogether when the participatory strategies Iser identifies issue in the subversion of all certainty rather than lead to new clarity, as Dickens' unstably ironic biblical allusions can do. On the other hand, a different social benefit than any Iser seems to consider arises from Dickens' dialogical imagination as it produces that democratization [41/42] of the text Bakhtin so highly values. The Dickens of this study is not Bakhtin's favored Dostoevsky, but these writers shared much; and while their respective commitments to Christianity as expressed through their fiction differed in accent, intensity, and details of dogma, both novelists stretch the moral and existential imaginations of their readers by allowing a full range of voices, including the antireligious and the amoral, to have their say. If the cost in the fiction of this "genial Dickens" is a loss of certitude and a subversion of his own moral aesthetic by what has been loosely termed his verbal "exuberance," the twofold gain is delight in human diversity and readerly practice in tolerance, quite apart from the impetus to "correct" some voices or to re-form outworn ideology as a new myth for the times: a tolerance broader than that Dickens so much admired in the liberal churchmen of his day (and did not find in the increasingly one-note Carlyle).
Iser's account of the beneficial heuristic effects of reading novels requires one further qualification. In Dickens the critique of a prevailing ideology (such as the false messianism of Little Dorrit's capitalists) may go forward on the strength of another set of conventions (the "prophetic" denunciation of capitalism); one set collapses only to disclose another taking its place; and even Dickens' revisions of biblical conventions proceed in some conventionally Victorian ways. It is not necessary to call up deconstruction's intertextual scene of "endlessly shuttling allusion" (Norris, 122), or to concede this alluder's hopeless enthrallment with the cultural preconceptions built into his imitative language, to see that his ability or even willingness to disconfirm habitual modes of thought was, like that of all writers, limited. Contra the fashionable dismissal of "the author," however, while affirming the view that each of us is a multiple social being, this book celebrates the many authoring Dickenses whose very manipulations of biblical conventions display a remarkable imaginative freedom from old preconceptions, allegiances, even the public persona of "Charles Dickens." And that freedom testifies to powers of origination stimulated by the very "textuality" of this "author." The Inimitable was original precisely because of the ways he was multiple, with a headful of voices (styles, patterns, conventions, literary texts, ideologies) that he orchestrated and combined in so many forms throughout his career. Although of course he did more imaginative things than invent biblical allusions, his uses of Scripture are "original" in these entirely characteristic ways.
Moreover, we can appreciate Dickens' revisions of Bible texts even as we see how they also signal a vast cultural shift in which he was caught up, which he could not yet have completely understood and in some ways stoutly opposed. With this last in mind, we can now consider a final definition of "allusion." Although Dickens consciously rejected "the interpretations and inventions of [42/43] Man" in Bible criticism, his allusions are always in some sense a mode of interpretation — not only a lens through which Dickens sees things in his world, but also a means of looking back at Scripture itself. Dickens recalls tradition into the present not merely to repeat it but to re-envision, re-accent, simplify, complicate, imitate critically, defamiliarize, dethrone, or otherwise rewrite the sacred text. T. S. Eliot took it as axiomatic that tradition is "altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past" (5), and we can see the tradition only through a reconceptualization particular to our time. For an author writing in Carlyle's "mean days that have no sacred word," the Bible becomes not precisely a standard of eternal verities, nor yet only a repertoire of the familiar, but a Code itself discordant that is already being reinterpreted in Dickens' play of allusion.
The related contextual issue along the rhetorical axis of my scheme concerns the fact that Dickens thematizes the subjectivity of knowledge and interpretation from Dombey onward. Some of his biblical allusions, here, are as much a part of the problem as in another author or era they might have been its solution. In general, as preformed chunks of literary material with well-known contours, Scripture allusions call attention to themselves and thus to the formulated quality of religious statements. In a time when meaning, as Iser's The Act of Reading puts it "is no longer an object to be defined, but is an effect to be experienced" (10), some of Dickens' scriptural formulations call attention away from their status as Truth-bearing language, and toward their own creation of effects — or to the novelist's rhetorical strategies and the reader's work of interpretation. Especially as Dickens discovered the vast extent of the kingdom called "fiction," the ways (as an All the Year Round essay put it) "we are all partly creators of the objects we perceive,"95 he came to see that a religious reading of events is at least partly and perhaps wholly a human interpretation — a necessary and possible one, he says in Dombey, for "all who see it" (16.191). Further, by giving his readers indeterminate allusions, Dickens offers them occasions to sense the vicissitudes of interpretation and to experience their own processes of reconstruction. This sense need not be formulated as it would be by a literary critic already selfconscious about what is, after all, her professional work; any reader's uneasy impression that a passage is dark, that a character's moral outlines are uncertain despite his biblical associations, that an allusion might mean one thing or quite another, registers the fact that the message has been received. Hence Dickens' efforts to create a public that might redeem the time are complicated, even thwarted, by the darker parables he tells about our incapacities to penetrate the secrecy of the text.
From the complex of mimetic and rhetorical, textual and contextual concerns [43/44] sketched out here comes my hypothesis to cover Dickens' paradoxical case. To put it simply, biblical allusions in his fiction work both to control indeterminacy and to contribute provocative instabilities. Stable and unstable allusions, implying different perspectives on the world reflected in the work and on the Bible itself, cohabit Dickens' major novels in dialogic play: they seem, in Bakhtin's terms, even to "know about each other" and to be structured in relation to each other, as well as to other voices in each fictive world, where dialogue is still going on when "the story is done" (OMF 4.13.845) whatever provisional clarities have emerged along the way.
The need for several angles of critical vision in this study will soon become evident from the many forms scriptural allusion takes, slipping like the protean Dickens himself through the theorist's grids and classifications with wonderful dexterity. Because the elusive play of meanings in which his biblical allusions are engaged is the object of my pursuit, I begin with Dickens' second novel. While even Pickwick Papers cannot be said to offer only a "harmonious world" of concordant allusion, its disturbing interpolated tales largely enclose their own monologic spaces in the text. It is rather in Oliver Twist that a dialogical relation between Dickens' two kinds of "parable" begins to emerge — and to pose those problems of interpretation that become absorbing in his later work.
Last modified 15 August 2009