Decorative Initial George MacDonald's fantastical mode necessarily contrasts with Dickens's more realistic writing, which blends the realistic and fantastic — as he does, for example, in his novel, Little Dorrit (1857). In Phantastes (1858), MacDonald presents his reader with a work rich in fantasy, seldom appealing to a conventional sense of reality even in his apoproach to characterization.

In the scene in which Anados comes to the old woman's island cottage, prior to his encounter with painful memories on the opposite side of the cottage's various doors, we find a passage that characterizes the old woman:

"The moment I saw her eyes, I no longer wondered at her voice: they were absolutely young - - those of a woman of five-and-twenty, large, and of a clear gray. . .A wondrous sense of refuge and repose came upon me. I felt like a boy who has got home from school, miles across the hills, through a heavy storm of wind and snow. Almost, as I gazed on her, I sprang from my seat to kiss those old lips. . .I could not help laying my head on her bosom, and bursting into happy tears. She put her arms round me, saying, "'Poor child, poor child!'" (129)

MacDonald describes a nurturing woman who comforts Anados like a mother. The woman's physical appearance paints a clear picture of age: "older than any countenance I had ever looked upon. There was not a spot in which a wrinkle could lie, where a wrinkle lay not." And yet Anados feels strangely drawn to this woman. Her youthful spirit overshadows her physical aspects. Her young eyes and ability to console almost cause Anados to kiss her.

MacDonald's characterization of the old woman, the most powerful character in Phantastes, closely compares to a passage from Little Dorrit in which Dickens characterizes Amy herself: "So faithful, tender, and unspoiled by Fortune. In the sound of her voice, in light of her eyes, in the touch of her hands, so Angelically comforting and true! As he embraced her, she said to him, 'They never told me you were ill,' and drawing an arm softly round his neck, laid his head upon her bosom, put a hand upon his head, and resting her cheek upon that hand, nursed him as lovingly, and God knows as innocently, as she had nursed her father in that room when she had been but a baby." (825) This characterization of Amy Dorrit, which parallels MacDonald's passage about the old woman, shows us a nurturing mother figure, at once attractive and consoling to Arthur Clennam. Little Dorrit's purity and "angelic" comforting qualities compare to the god-like representation of the old woman. Just as Little Dorrit's nurturing characteristics appear throughout the novel, so do consistently protective and nurturing female characterizations recur throughout Phantastes. In the form of the beech-tree lady, the lady of the farmhouse, the girl with the globe and the aged woman of the cottage, MacDonald creates female personages who save and console Anados from the dangers of the fairyland. Similarly, Little Dorrit saves and comforts with a seemingly infinite and incorruptible goodness.

Dickens and MacDonald employ different literary modes. Although aspects of the fantastical may be found in Dickens's work, he relies on his ability to revert to a realistic mode for detail and vividness of characterization. It has been said of MacDonald: "In his prose MacDonald too often yielded to the suggestion of fantasy, and much of his work is disfigured by this trait" ("MacDonald Biography"). The discontinuous, episodic plot, the supernatural characters and settings in Phantastes combine to create a brilliant work of fantasy. The techniques of characterization and description, however, lack the precision and wit of Dickens.


Victorian Web Overview George MacDonald

Last modified 16 October 2002