Decorative Initial Images of blinding light and wicked shadow (in Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens and Phantastes by George MacDonald) add depth to each novel. Both authors use descriptions of light and dark to create various moods, but the writers' techniques are very different. Specifically, Dickens' fictional world responds to an oppressive, intrusive light, whereas an evil shadow lurks in MacDonald's fantastical realm.

Little Dorrit begins with a chapter entitled "Sun and Shadow," and these pages convey a lot of information about the hot spotlight of society versus the dark privacy of prison. Outside the prison walls, white light exposes every member of society. This light comes to be seen as an unavoidable eye, a confining camera which locks all into certain poses. Society, Dickens might suggest, is as much a prison as the building which houses Rigaud. This chapter sets the stage for a great deal of action between both figurative and literal prisoners. By shining the unpleasant light on his world at the start of the novel, Dickens prepares the reader for a planet in which men and women become slaves to this powerful glare. The following passage describes the free world of Marseilles as a land which lies broiling in the white-hot sun.

Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day. . . Strangers there were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring white tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away," (Book I, ch 1, p.39). Dickens goes on to describe the prison of Marseilles as "so repulsive a place that even the obtrusive stare blinked at it, and left it to such refuse of reflected light as it could find for itself. [Ch 1, p.40]

These images of hostile light reveal Dickens' irony: people outside prison can be just as limited as those locked in musty cells.

The sun stares at everything and causes everything under its power to stare in return. . . The chink or keyhole here [through which light shoots into the people's homes] suggests the near impossibility of ever completely escaping surveillance. One can never entirely shut it out. . . Dickens' inversion of the image suggests that in addition to seeing entrapment in extreme privacy as tragic, he now also sees entrapment in an extreme lack of privacy as equally devastating. [Natalie McKnight, Idiots, Madmen, and Other Prisoners in Dickens, p.113]

In other words, Dickens uses the technique of setting and light imagery to begin his tale about the many prisoners of mankind.

Chapter three, entitled "Home," describes Arthur Clennam's boyhood home in London. Clennam has just returned to London after leaving Marseilles, the land of the white light. He heads toward his mother's home on a dreary Sunday, and gloomy darkness describes the setting. As if Clennam returns to a cell, exchanging the light of Marseilles for drab prison quarters: he trades society’s entrapment for personal psychological imprisonment. Setting in the first chapter conjures thoughts of light and dark confinement in the third chapter. The writer has prepared his reader to look out for this entrapment, and Clennam seems to lock himself away in the musty city of London. "It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale. . . Ten thousand responsible houses surrounded him, frowning as heavily on the streets they composed, as if they were every one inhabited by the young men of the Calendar's story, who blackened their faces and bemoaned their miseries every night," (Ch 3, pp.67-68). These lines create images of heavy frowns, black faces, and nighttime. In contrast to the shiny eye of Marseilles, Clennam now seems to have walked into a dank jail cell. The reader is aware that he imprisons himself in the memories of childhood. His mother's home, "so dingy as to be all but black,"(Ch 3, p.71) serves as his figurative cell.

Images of light and dark also contribute to Phantastes' storyline. In this novel, MacDonald describes Anodos' shiny surroundings and he uses characterization to bring the man's ominous shadow to life. As Anodos continues on his spiritual journey through a fantastical land, his shadow hounds him like a spiteful demon. In Chapter ten, the glimmering landscape soothes Anodos. Lighted objects equal divine goodness, trust, peace. Anodos seeks peace of mind and believes that seeing the "Spirit of the Earth" will make him content. Put simply, he must look to the light and lose his shadow to achieve this happiness.

Details about both light and dark allow the reader to understand better this enigmatic journey. "Content! - Oh, how gladly would I die of the light of her eyes," (Ch 10, p.65). Anodos, in other words, seeks a divine presence. The light of this peace contrasts with the darkness of his weighty shadow, which MacDonald characterizes as an evil presence in the next chapter. At the end of chapter ten, Anodos rests in a palace which shines like silver in the sun. Again, goodness is associated with light. And Anodos almost becomes spiritually content in this setting, but his own cynical egotism and tendency for depression prove too much for his imagination to handle. Description of the wicked shadow. convey these human flaws. Perhaps Anodos' open, uncluttered mind has allowed him to reach the level of divine inspiration in which he has a sense of "past blessedness," (Ch 11, p.71), but he cannot sustain this state for too long. Just as soon as he gets close to the illuminated goodness, his doubt casts a shadow over his very imagination. "For this whole morning I never thought of my demon shadow. . . But its presence, however faintly revealed, sent a pang to my heart. . . 'Shadow of me,' I said; 'which art not me, but which representest thyself to me as me; here I may find a shadow of light which will devour thee, the shadow of darkness!" (Ch 11, p.72) So, Anodos seeks the light which can save him from his own shadowy thoughts.

Without the technique of symbolism of light and dark images, MacDonald would not convey Anodos' predicament so clearly. It seems that everyone possesses a shadow like that of Anodos. The image of this obnoxious demon at one's feet illustrates perfectly the human tendency to become doubtful and arrogant. This shadow, as MacDonald asserts, stands in the way of Anodos' faith and prevents him from enjoying the divine light of his imagination. "It is only your shadow that has found you," she replied. "'Everybody's shadow is ranging up and down looking for him. . . The very outline of it could be traced in the withered grass, and the scorched and shrivelled flowers which stood there, dead, and hopeless of any resurrection," (George P. Landow, "Anodos Encounters His Dark Shadow," from Phantastes). This example reveals just how important the characterization of Anodos' shadow is to the overall story. This shadow promotes finality and death, therefore, the light of goodness must lead to a divine existence.

In old western films, good characters were clad in white and villains in black. This contrast is far more simple than the one which Dickens and MacDonald use in their novels. Darkness in Dickens has double meaning, and light is often anything but favorable. MacDonald assigns evil characteristics to shade and pleasant ones to light, but both light and dark remain a mystery to be interpreted. Each writer creates a novel organized around shiny brightness versus covert blackness

Victorian Web Overview George MacDonald

Last modified 16 October 2002