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n a few novels early death is neither a narrative device nor a shared social problem. Rather, an attempt is made to recover the child character's own innermost experience by the kind of 'interior confronting' which Emily Dickinson, on the other side of the Atlantic, knew all about. [....] Various methods are used by the novelists, from the kind of accumulation of intimate detail already found in Richardson, to Sterne's stylistic recreation of the consciousness. However, the most striking common feature of the first three episodes discussed here is their shared symbolism. Although this symbolism has Biblical and emblematic associations (see Qualls 93ff.) its immediate source seems to be "The River of Death" either in Bunyan or in Mrs Sherwood's children's version of Bunyan's famous work [The Infant's Progress], where In-bred Sin is finally "annihilated" and Jesus advances to meet the struggling pilgrims (237).

The first evocation of a dying child's own consciousness which strikes me as psychologically accurate is by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre. In Miss Scatcherd's class, Helen Burns has sometimes been "listening to the visionary brook" (89) which runs near her home. This gentle hint suits her dreamy character and her willing lapse into death well. No dying child could be more saintly than Helen, or speak more confidently of her reception by God. But some of Helen's grounds for being resigned to die are far from conventional, very personal and very negative: "I have only a father, and he is lately married, and will not miss me ... I had not qualities or talents to make my way very well in the world" (113). The contrast with her young sympathizer could not be plainer. Jane has no one to miss her, either, and has felt herself far inferior to her friend in store of knowledge; but whatever Jane Eyre says in passion or self-deprecation, we know very well she does not set her earthly self at naught. The clash between Helen's submissive martyrdom and Jane's indignant observation of her friend's suffering, complements that between Helen's readiness to die and Jane's positive attitude to this life. More striking than the words of faith uttered by the dying child during the pair's last whispered conversation, is the sense that she is letting her identity drift away, dissolve almost, while Jane is embarking on the struggle to establish hers. Obviously, this exploration of early death is undertaken with a view to disclosing not the dying child's but the heroine's vitality, her rejection of death. The experience is evoked, the pull of selfless submission to it felt, but both the author and her heroine turn again much more heartily to the challenges presented by this world. John Reed calls his cousin 'Madam Mope,' but this is a misnomer; Jane recalls being taken from her dead friend's arms in the morning, cuts briskly through the confusion surrounding it, remembers Helen's grave in one sentence--and moves on to a new chapter in her life.

The retreat from the quotidian is marked, in Dombey and Son, by a whole series of allusions to the sea and the Thames. There are symbolic waters of this kind in other Victorian works, notably Tom Brown's Schooldays, where Arthur talks to Tom with unchildlike rhetorical fervour about his close encounter with death; but Dickens roots his imagery in the details of Paul's immediate surroundings, and makes Paul's recently awakened imagination their vehicle. Again, but at much greater length, the pull of death and the ebbing away of life are evoked. Coming around the wheels of his little carriage on the Brighton beach, the water seems to draw the child, even throwing up the weather-beaten old seaman, Glubb, "who smelt like a weedy sea-beach when the tide is out" (170), to be his companion; it is not so much "benign" (Barbara Hardy 69) as positively enticing: hence Paul's illusion, from his window at Dr Blimber's sea-front establishment, that the silvery sail of a moonlit boat is beckoning him like an arm. Child-like, he forgets this illusion in the excitement of glimpsing his sister, as she passes on the street beneath; briefly, Florence draws him back into life with her love. But with the telling change of scene, from beach to sea-view window, and finally to the wall of the little invalid's London bedroom, the enticement of the water continues. The only "titillating movement" here, the only "slyness" (Kincaid 236-37), is that of death itself. During the day, ripples of sunlight remind him of it; night terrors induced by thoughts of the black river hurrying through the city (so like the darkness that falls on Bunyan's Christian in his last fearful struggle through the River of Death) are inevitably soothed. At last Paul is a willing voyager, who reports that the boat which will reunite him with his mother is "out at sea, but gliding smoothly on" (297).

However, further than Paul's imagination can stretch, this pleasant water imagery mingles with the whole tangy sea-breeze atmosphere of the happier side of the novel, which lifts its clouds at last, and sets another "very strong" Paul upon a shining beach with his repentant grandfather (975). A similar passing of the baton occurs in John Halifax, Gentleman, when Muriel, the daughter who is about to die, embraces her new-born sister and "a strange likeness" grows between them (288). In Dombey and Son too, the bare bones of allegory are only cursorily fleshed out at this point, but the namesake strategy with which Dickens often boosts Scriptural promises for his departed children is rather skilfully reinforced: the new Paul is the son of parents, Florence and Walter, whose names (as is often noted) are aurally associated with the murmuring waves which are heard again at the end of the novel. This time, the waves offer the promise of "love ... illimitable" (976). A darker concluding paragraph recalling the alarming "swift river" was surely not cut by Dickens simply for reasons of space (see the Penguin ed., Appendix 977-79).

Paul's decline is not marked only by the water imagery; the ebb and flow of his consciousness conveys it more subtly. There is a strong whiff of Smollett and his old 'sea salts' behind Captain Cuttle and his crew (see Q.D. Leavis, Dickens the Novelist 56ff); here too there was inspiration from an old friend: the novelist began this work by taking his copy of Tristram Shandy down from his shelf, and seeking (and finding) direction in it (Ackroyd 508-09). The attempt to express links and lacunae between fleeting perceptions, some triggered by underlying mental preoccupations, some by external reality, seems highly deliberate: some short pieces, such as "Lying Awake," published in Household Words a few years after this, confirm this.

One of Paul's intermittent spells of dizziness occurs when he is wondering whether the old nurse Florence has just told him about is still alive. Losing his grip on reality, except for the one steadfast figure he never fails to recognize, "Floy, are we all dead, except you?" he asks his sister.

There was a hurry in the room, for an instant — longer, perhaps; but it seemed no more — then all was still again; and Florence, with her face quite colourless, but smiling, held his head upon her arm. Her arm trembled very much.

"Show me that old nurse, Floy, if you please!"

What is remarkable here is that there is only the child's own vague sensation of rushed movement and time-lapse to account for the interval between question and request. When Paul comes to himself, though, he is at once aware of his sister's expression and how her arm shakes as she supports him, and of his original desire to see this other "kind face" he so dimly remembers (295-96). We are left to guess at the mixture of relief, and determination to comfort and reassure, which produces Florence's smile at this desperate juncture. Having been promised that Polly Richards will come, Paul is relieved too, at once closes his eyes, and falls into a deep sleep.

The river provides George Eliot with a more dynamic and integral expression of Maggie's movement towards death in The Mill on the Floss, but the whole imaginative recreation of the experience of dying in Dombey and Son, especially through such omission of detail, is deeply impressive. [....]


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Last modified 24 July 2007