If you want your public to believe in what you write you must believe in it yourself. When I am describing a scene I can as distinctly see what I am describing as I can see you now. So real are my characters to me that on one occasion I had fixed I upon the course which one of them was to pursue. The character, however, got hold of me and made me do exactly the opposite to wbat I bad intended; but I was so sure that he was right and I was wrong that I let him have his own way. — Charles Dickens, quoted by Henry Fielding Dickens, Harper's Monthly Magazine, CXXIX (1914)
It is remarkable that what we call the world, which is so very credulous in what professes to be true, is most incredulous in what professes to be imaginary; and that, while, every day in real life, it will allow in one , man no blemishes, and in another no virtues, it will seldom admit a very strongly-marked character, eitber good or bad, in a fictitious narrative, to be within the limits of probability. — Nicholas Nickleby, Preface
In seasons of pestilence, some of us will have a secret attraction to the disease — a terrible passing inclinationto die of it. And all of us have like wonders hidden in our breastsn only needing circumstances to evoke them. — A Tale of Two Cities, Book Three, Chapter 6
he characters in Dickens' novels are real in the same way that characters in plays are real, and in the same way, perhaps, that living people seem real to each other. Their true identities are masked even from themselves under conventionally prescribed poses, yet declare themselves through all kinds of surface clues: not only in the overt act, but in its accompanying gesture and facial expression; not just in the spoken word, but in the intonation and turn of speech with which it is uttered. Dickens' method of characterization does not allow for the delicate probing of psychological states of mind; rather its success depends on the artist's resourcefulness in creating consistent and emphatically defined patterns of individualized responses to external circumstance; in showing, that is to say, character in action. Like Browning's Fra Lippo, whose "soul and sense" grew "sharp alike" through early neglect, Dickens might have traced to his waiflike boyhood in the London streets his preternatural alermess to "the look of things," the tokens of dress or mannerism which differentiate one personage from another. But unless this acuity of vision had been tempered by the additional faculties of insatiable curiosity about human behavior [115/116] and a genial, if sometimes caustic, sympathy with its oddities, the novelist would never have achieved the comprehensive humanity which informs his attitude towards his creatures. "His genius," Forster well remarked, "was his fellow feeling with his race; his mere personality was never the bound or limit to his perceptions, however strongly sometimes it might colour them...."
Incredible though they often are, the beings who populate Dickens' stories command assent because of the vitality imparted to them by their creator's own transparent belief in their reality. "No man," according to Forster, "had ever so surprising a faculty as Dickens of becoming himself what he was representing . . ."; and the critic George Henry Lewes wrote: "Dickens once declared to me that every word said by his characters was distinctly heard by him...." These statements are corroborated by Mary Dickens' account of seeing her father act out the fictional roles which he was imagining. The novelist's instructions to his illustrators are further evidence of the fact that his characters had assumed in the mind's eye the lineaments of living people. And frequent references to works in hand indicate the extent to which the writer became immersed in the lives of their characters. As he approached the end of The Old Curiosity Shop, he confessed to his future biographer: "I went to bed last night utterly dispirited and done up. All night I have been pursued by the child; and this morning I am unrefreshed and miserable." Of the emotional toll exacted by his Christmas book, "The Chimes," he wrote to Forster:
Since I conceived, at the beginning of the second part, what must happen in the third, I have undergone as much sorrow and agitation as if the thing were real; and have [116/117] wakened up with it at night. I was obliged to lock myself in when I finished it yesterday, for my face was swollen for the time to twice its proper size, and was hugely ridiculous.
Forster is undoubtedly correct in associating Dickens' closeness to his characters with his keen dramatic sense:
He had the power of projecting himself into shapes and suggestions of his fancy which is one of the marvels of creative imagination, and what he desired to express he became. The assumptions of the theatre have the same method at a lower pitch, depending greatly on personal accident; but the accident as much as the genius fayoured Dickens, and another man's conception underwent in his acting the process which in writing he applied to his own.
E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel drew on Dickens to illustrate his theoretical disapproval of two-dimensional or "flat" characters. Yet, impressed by the "wonderful feeling of human depth" conveyed by many of these figures, he had to concede that the novelist's "immense success with types suggests that there mav be more in flatness than the severer critics admit." Forster's argument had in part been anticipated by George Santayana in an important essay on Dickens. No one has better described the conventional point of view which finds it more comfortable to pretend that Dickens is a mere caricaturist:
He was the perfect comedian. When people say Dickens exaggerates, it seems to me thev can have no eyes and no ears. They probably have oniy notions of what things and people are; they accept them conventionally, at their diplomatic value. Their minds run on in the region ofSx discourse, where there are masks only and no faces, ideas and no facts; they have little sense for those living grimaces that play from moment to moment upon the [117/118] countenance of the world. The world is a perpetual caricature of itself; at everv moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be. But as it nevertheless intends all the time to be something different and highly dignified, at the next moment it corrects and checks and tries to cover up the absurd thing it was, so that a conventional world, a world of masks, is superimposed on the realitv, and passes in every sphere of human interest for the realitv itself. Humour is the perception of this illusion, the fact allowed to pierce here and there through the convention, whilst the convention continues to be maintained, as if we had not observed its absurdity. Pure comedy is more radical, cruder, in a certain sense less human; because comedy throws the convention over altogether, revels for a moment in the fact, and brutally says to the notions of mankind, as if it slapped them in the face, There, take that! That's what you really are! At this the polite world pretends to laugh, not tolerantly as it does at humour, but a little angrily. It does not like to see itself by chance in the glass, without having had time to compose its features for demure self-contemplation. "What a bad mirror," it exclaims, "it must be concave or convex; for surely I never looked like that. Mere caricature, farce and horse play. Dickens exaggerates; I never was so sentimental as that, I never saw anything so dreadful; I don't believe there were ever any people like Quilp, or Squeers, or Serjeant Buzfuz." But the polite world is lying; there are such people; we are such people ourselves in our true moments, in our veritable impulses; but we are careful to stifle and hide those moments from ourselves and from the world; to purse and pucker ourselves into the mask of our conventional personality, and so simpering, we profess that it is very coarse and inar- tistic of Dickens to undo our life's work for us in an instant and to remind us of what we are.
There is no reason to quarrel with Forster's assertion that Dickens' characters ultimately derive from the "humours" of Jonsonian comedy — Every Man in His Humour, it will be remembered, was the first play to be performed by Dickens' amateur company, with the novelist himself in the part of Bobadill. But too much [118/119] has been made of their typological aspect. Although Dickens did not work from living models, he often combined in one figure traits taken from different individuals, or, conversely, distributed among several characters the qualities observed in a single great eccentric. When the chiropodist, Mrs. Hill, protested against her portrait as Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield, Dickens retorted that all his characters "being made out of many people, were composite and never individual." Some of the foibles of John Dickens crop up in John Jarndyce and William Dorrit, as well as in Micawber. The originality which Dickens exercised in naming characters suggests that they were never con- ceived purely as types. Bumble and Bounderby and Pumblechook are ail blustering and officious fools; but as the connotations of their names betoken, generic likeness is sunk in idiosyncratic aberrations from the norm.
Like seventeenth-century "humorous" characters and their progeny in the novels of Smollett and Field- ing, the immortal comic and grotesque creations of Dickens' early period spring full-blown into existence, with no possibility or need for further growth. The scenes in which they appear are dramatically con- structed to allow them to appear "in character," as it were. Thus it may be said that in the novels from Pickwick Papers to Martin Chuzzlewit the action reveals, but does not develop, character. Chesterton shrewdly observed of Dickens' practice at this time in his career: ". . . the moving machinery exists only to display entirely static character. Things in the Dickens story shift and change only in order to give us glimpses of great characters that do not change at all."
Chesterton's statement, however, does not make sufficient allowance for the surprise and pleasure [119/120] attending progressive revelation. While characters certainly do not change in the sense that they are psychologically transformed, their experiences lead to behavior so unpredictable that growing familiarity is attended by a constant sense of discovery. This developing awareness, indeed, is a refraction of Dickens' own delight in creation. With regard to Pecksniff and Jonas Chuzzlewit he wrote Forster, while Martin Chuzz1ewit was in progress:
As to the way in which these characters have opened out, that is to me one of the mosr surprising processes of the mind in this sort of invenrion. Given what one knows, what one does nor know springs up; and I am as absolutely certain of its being true, as I am of the law of gravitation — if such a thing be possible — more so.
In Dickens' world character is never so inscrutable as the circumstances which bring out its inherent potentialities. Those two amiable buffoons, Dick Swiveller and Toots, need only to fall in love to become themselves lovable. And from that trio of limply fatuous aristocrats, Cousin Feenix, Sir Leicester Dedlock, and Twemlow, loyalty to the traditional values of their order calls forth a wholly admirable display of dignity.
Much as has been written about Dickens' supreme humorous figures, they resist critical analysis. Like their compeers, the great originals of Shakespearean comedy, they enjoy a free and autonomous life, uncircumscribed by the works in which they appear. Theirs is the license traditionally accorded the clown, whose antic disposition is a law unto itself. The Dickensian comic spirit is unfailingly embodied in histrionic guise. Its exemplars are self-declared fantasts, "of imagination all compact." They inhabit a world [120/121] of their own making, a world which parodies, yet exists in total defiance of reality, a world in which the distinction between shadow and substance is turned topsy-turvy. At the outset stands Sam Weller with his inexhaustible store of analogues deriving from the absurd reactions of nonexistent beings caught in preposterous predicaments, and at the end there is Wegg, vicariously involved in the doings of his imaginary "Miss Elizabeth, Master George, Aunt Jane, and Uncle Parker." In between comes Sairey Gamp, not by any stretch of the fancy to be divorced from her fictitious confidante, Mrs. Harris.
These beings live by the power of the spoken word, though each has appropriated the resources of language for ends that subvert all habitual channels of communication. For them words are magic talismans, expressive of a perpetual state of wish-fulfillment, reordering actuality into conformity with felt needs. Dick Swiveller's idiom with its hodgepodge of music hall cliches provides the same escape from an impoverished present that Flora Finching finds in the lunatic disarray of her recollections. There is no disappointment for which Micawber cannot compensate by the triumphant exercise of his epistolary style. Like Falstaff and the other clowns in Shakespeare, Dickens' comedians are fully self-aware. They enact their roles quite as much for their own delectation as to impose on their auditors, even though, as the novelist said, "My figures seem disposed to stagnate without crowds about them." "The great fool," Chesterton wrote, "is he in whom we cannot tell which is the conscious and which the unconscious humour." This ambiguity characterizes all of Dickens' greatest comic scenes, but none more than those in which Micawber appears. There is, for example, the unforgettable episode when David, about to part from his friends, receives [121/122] the following lecture on the future conduct of his affairs:
We had a very pleasant day, though we were all in a tender state about our approaching separation.
"l shall never, Master Copperfield," said Mrs. Micawber, "revert to the period when Mr. Micawber was in difficulties, without thinking of you. Your conduct has always been of the most delicate and obliging description. You have never been a lodger; you have been a friend."
"My dear," said Mr. Micawber, "Copperfield," for so he had been accustomed to call me of late, "has a heart to feel for the distresses of his fellow-creatures when they are behind a cloud, and a head to plan, and a hand to — in short, a general ability to dispose of such available property as could be made awav with."
I expressed my sense of this commendation, and said I was very sorry we were going to lose one another.
"My dear young friend," said Mr. Micawber, "I am older than you; a man of some experience in life, and -- and of some experience, in short, in difficulties, generally speaking. At present, and until something turns up (which I am, I may say, hourly expecting), I have nothing to bestow but advice. Still my advice is so far worth taking that — in short, that I have never taken it myself, and am the" — here Mr. Micawber, who had been beaming and smiling, all over his head and face, up to the present mo- ment, checked himself and frowned — "the miserable wretch you behold."
"My dear Micawber!" urged his wife.
"I say," returned Mr. Micawber, quite forgetting himself and smiling again, "the miserable wretch you behold. My advice is, never to do to-morrow what you can do to-day. Procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him!"
"My poor papa's maxim," Mrs. Micawber observed.
"My dear," said Mr. Micawber, "your papa was very well in his way, and Heaven forbid that I should disparage him. Take him for all in all, we ne'er shall — in short, make the acquaintance, probably, of anybody else possessing, at his time of life, the same legs for gaiters, and able to read the same description of print without spectacles. But he applied that maxim to our marriage, [122/123] my dear; and that was so far prematurely entered into, in consequence, that I never recovered the expense."
Mr. Micawber looked aside at Mrs. Micawber, and added, "Not that I am sorry for it. Quite the contrary, my love." After that he was grave for a minure or so. "My other piece of advice, Copperfield," said Mr. Micawber, "you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the God of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and — and in short you are for ever floored. As I am!"
To make his example more impressive, Mr. Micawber drank a glass of punch with an air of great enjoyment and satisfaction, and whistled the College Hornpipe.
The lesser comic characters in Dickens exhibit the same extraordinary resilience and imaginative supremacy over adversity, born of an unquenchable inclination to idealize reality. The novels are thronged with individuals w ho thus get along on theatrical make-believe. Their company includes such foolish widows as Mrs. Nickleby and Mrs. Sparsit; humble artisans whose fancies are related to their callings like Miss La Creevy and Jenny Wren; social impostors like Turvevdrop and Mrs. General, with her fixation on the "formation of a surface"; would-be philosophers, such as the likable Captain Cuttle and the detestable Skimpole.
It is a recognized fact that Dickens' humorous vein runs most richly through the early novels. Its thinning out and turning acrid in the later work is commonly attributed to a decline in the exuberant optimism of the youthful years. But there are other reasons for this apparent loss of comic verve more closely allied with Dickens' artistic development. Professors Butt and Tillotson have shown in Dickens at Work that on the [123/124]rare occasions in his later career when the novelist overwrote his monthly numbers, comic passages were always the first to be sacrificed to space requirements. The increasingly rigorous plot construction, first manifest in Dombey and Son, entailed a more functional view of characterization. Such characters as Major Bagstock, Bounderby, and Podsnap are creatures of their environments, giving lip service to the values on which worldly reputation depends. In contrast to the freedom enjoyed by their predecessors in the early stories who belong to no definable social class, these figures do not create for themselves private roles to satisfy the hunger of the imagination, but rather strut and fret through public parts, prescribed by their notion of what is expected of them. As a result, their playacting, expressive of the author's satiric intent, no longer provokes the untrammeled laughter of a Sam Weller or Mrs. Gamp or Micawber.
Strangely akin to these embodiments of the pure comic spirit are the grotesque villains of Dickens' early writings. Fagin, Squeers, Quilp, Pecksniff, even Uriah Heep, are only to be distinguished from their antic counterparts by a greater inclination and capacity to cause hurt. Like the clowns, their unfailing vivacity and resourcefulness constantly defy narrative restraint, so that the scenes in which they appear seem staged to release their sinister hilarity. Condemnable though these figures may be, moral reprobation sinks before the spectacle of Fagin schooling his gang of pick- pockets, or Quilp bullying his wife by a display of indiscriminate voracity, or Pecksniff liquorishly fon- dling Mary Graham. For these characters also make an enduring appeal through their histrionic virtuosity. Old Martin Chuzzlewit is in reality paying grudging tribute to this faculty when he says to Pecksniff: [124/125]
"Why, the annoying quality in you, is . . . that you never had a confederate or partner in your juggling; you would deceive evervbody, even those who practise the same arr; and have a way with you, as if you — he, he, he! — as if you really believed yourself. I'd lay a handsome wager now, . . . if I laid wagers, which I don't and never did, that you keep up appearances by a tacit understanding, even before your own daughters here.... You're not offended, Pecksniff?"
"Offended, my good sir!" cried that gentleman, as if he had received the highest compliments that language could convey.
In the later novels evil-doing, as has been said, is presented under an instiutionalized aspect; and the villains, as a general rule, no longer exhibit the same malignant joy in wrong for its own sake. Already in Barnaby Rudge, Dennis the hangman condones his scoundrelism by appealing to the punitive legal system of which he is a minion; and so barefaced a malefactor as Blandois in Little Dorrit repeatedly insists that he is a gentleman who conducts himself no whit differently from respectable members of the business and professional classes. Yet, although the behavior of a Dombey or a Tulkinghorn or a Madame Defarge is in part explicable by class affiliation, the rampant evil in Dickens' world cannot finally be assimilated to any social system. There lurks at its heart an insoluble element suggestive of the novelist's ambivalent attitude toward the sources of human motivation.
Much of the time Dickens seems to have subscribed to the teaching of the political economists that individuals are shaped by environment. Monks' diabolical plot against Oliver is based on the assumption that the boy cannot avoid being contaminated by association with Fagin and his gang. "The wily old Jew," Dickens writes, "had the boy in his toils. Having prepared his [125/126] mind, by solitude and gloom, to prefer any society to the companionship of his own sad thoughts in such a dreary place, he was now slowly instilling into his soul the poison which he hoped would blacken it, and change its hue for ever." Similarly, of Nicholas Mckleby's appalled recognition that Dotheboys Hall is a spawning-ground for every kind of vice, the novelist says:
But the pupils — the young noblemen! How the last faint traces of hope, the remotest glimmering of any good to be derived from his efforts in this den, faded from the mind of Nicholas as he looked in dismay around! Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness of distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible en- durance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympath~ and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can foster in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!
The warped natures of Smike in Nicolas Nickleby and of Hugh in Barnaby Rudge are alike referable to [126/127] early neglect and maltreatment. And in the Preface to Martin Chuzzlewit Dickens, somewhat unconvinc- ingly, attempts to explain Jonas' criminal disposition on the same grounds:
I conceive that the sordid coarseness and brutality of Jonas would be unnatural, if there had been nothing in his early education, and in the precept and example always before him, to engender and develop the vices that make him odious. But, so born and so bred, admired for that which made him hateful, and justified from his cradle in cunning, treachery, and avarice; I claim him as the legiti- mare issue of the father upon whom those vices are seen to recoil.
At other times Dickens' division of his characters into camps, opposing unassailable virtue to immitigable depravity, points to an essentially Manichaean habit of mind. In answer to the charge that the portraiture of Sikes was too unrelieved in its darkness, the author offered the following tentative excuse in the Preface to Oliver Twist:
. . . I fear there are in the world some insensible and callous natures, that do become utterly and incurably bad. Whether this be so or not, of one thing I am certain: that there are such men as Sikes, who, being closely followed through the same space of time and through the same current of circumstances, would not give, by the action of a moment, the faintest indication of a better nature.
In the same novel the half brothers, Monks and Oliver, stand in implausibly stark contrast. The malevolent motivation of the one is as incomprehensible as is the other's innate innocence, given the conditions under which he grows up. A similar polarity of moral ab- solutes creates an unbridgeable gulf between Quilp and Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. [127/128]
Sceptical of organized charity and all other official agencies for reform, Dickens relied on individual benevolence to relieve suffering and misfortune. In the early novels, as has been noted, this mission is entrusted to the company of affluent and compassionate elders which includes Pickwick, Brownlow, the Cheeryble brothers, Garland, old Martin Chuzzlewit, Betsey Trotwood, and John Jarndyce. Although the Cheeryble brothers were inspired by a pair of philanthropic Manchester industrialists, Dickens' portrayal of this type is so deliberately lacking in realism that one may doubt whether its exemplars were ever actual to their creator in other than a symbolic sense. Their Olympian hovering over the action of the stories, on which they fortuitously intervene at opportune moments, suggests that they belong to a transcendent order representative of ideal charity. Esther Summerson, indeed, acknowledges as much when she admits at the end of Bleak House to feeling towards John Jarndyce "as if he were a superior being. . . ."
Dickens' growing insight during the 1840S into the organic constitution of Victorian society led to im- portant developments in his methods of presenting character, as well as to the perfecting of his narrative art. A shift in perspective is reflected in the very titles of the later novels. In contrast to the early works named after their protagonists, Bleak House, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, Nobody's Fault (the original title of Little Dorrit), Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend call attention to the new emphasis on theme within an expanding social focus. Edmund Wilson was the first to point out that Dickens originated "a new literary genre . . . the novel of the social group." Beginning with Dombey and Son, there is an increasing interaction between characters and their cultural milieu. Motivation is determined more by [128/129] environmental pressures and less by the impulses of the isolated and unrestrained ego. Society has assumed the role of corporate villain, and hldividual malefactions are made to seem symptomatic of prevalent abuses. The victimized child is a recurrent figure in Dickens' fiction from his earliest work; but in the mature novels the all but universal neglect or abuse of children by their parents is systematically elaborated as one of the signs of the times. Dombey's pride, so fatal to the happiness of his family, is a class pride, typifying the irresponsible exercise of authority by those in positions of rank and power. The novelist ironically poses the question: "Was Mr. Dombey's master-vice, that ruled him so inexorably, an un- natural characteristic?" And he goes on: "It might be worth while, sometimes, to inquire what Nature is, and how men work to change her, and whether, in the enforced distortions so produced, it is not natural to be unnatural." Given a social order dedicated to the perversion of all natural bonds, there is little to choose between Dombey and all the other heartlessly self- infatuated parents, including Mrs. Jellyby, Gradgrind, William Dorrit, Podsnap.
Such is the power of institutionalized evil in these later novels that individual philanthropy is of little avail. John Jarndyce is helpless to safeguard his wards, and Boffin seems almost to have been conceived as a parodv of the Pickwickian savior. In Dickens' early work, charity exists as a transcendent ideal, invading the stories from outside in the persons of altruistic, but essentially disengaged, benefactors. Florence Dombey bey signalizes the emergence of new type to embody the regenerative power of love, now represented as in- hering within the social scene. She is the first of the suffering girl heroines who play a redemptive role in most of the subsequent novels. The category includes, [129/130] in addition to Florence, Agnes Wickfield, Esther Summerson, Sissy Jupe, Amy Dorrit, Lizzie Hexam. There is an unmistakable family likeness among these characters. A development from the lost children, Oliver Twist and Nell, of the earlier works, they exhibit in fusion a number of traditional strains associated with the archetypal figure of the saintly innocent, as variously endorsed by New Testament Christianity and the romantic glorification of childhood.
The type can be enlarged to include the actual fools who so often originate or are the occasion for meritorious actions in Dickens' fiction: Smike, Barnaby Rudge, Mr. Dick, Maggy in Little Dorrit, perhaps even Joe Gargery. Henry James, who was less than sympathetic with these characters, wrote of Jenny Wren in his review of Our Mutual Friend: "Like all Mr. Dickens's pathetic characters, she is a little monster, . . . she belongs to the troop of hunchbacks, imbeciles, and pre- cocious children, who have carried on the sentimental busi- ness in all Mr. Dickens's novels, the little Nells, the Smikes the Paul Dombeys."
In virtually every respect, save incorruptibility of heart, they stand at the farthest remove from the images of paternal benignity. Whereas Pickwick and his successors are aging and securely prosperous members of the middle class, these figures are young girls, usually destitute and invariably unprotected. Esther is illegimate; Sissy and Lizzie come from the dregs of society and are illiterate. All have lost their mothers and have been neglected or otherwise mistreated by fathers or surrogate parents. They resemble each other in additional ways, which doubtless reflect Dickens' dislike of nis own disorderly family life. They share with their creator, for example, a kind of passion for tidiness in their domestic arrangements. Of Nell, who is in many ways the progenitor of the type, Gissing wrote: "From the beginning of the story, when she is seen making order and comfort in the gloomy old house, to the end of her wanderings in the cottage by [130/131] the still churchyard, her one desire is for the peace and security of home." Furthermore, like Nell, Dickens' later heroines habitually reverse the customary pattern of familial responsibility, the daughter assuming the place of mother and wife to the erring father. In every case the sovereign virtue which enables these beings to remain irreproachably immaculate amidst all the evil which environs them is a spiritual holiness based on unreflecting trust in divine providence. And their indubitable role in their respective narratives is to embody the dynamic power of love, as a touchstone for making moral discriminations among the actions of all the other characters.
Although Dickens' girl heroines are much more vitally involved in their stories than the patriarchal benefactors whom they replace, they, like all of the novelist's creatures who conform to type, are con- ceived in fundamentally static terms. They are, how- ever, frequently played off against a very different kind of female character who testifies to Dickens' growing concern with the psychological grounds of internal conflict. For the later novels present a remarkable series of women of passionate temperament, whose outbursts of feeling and reckless actions signify divided natures. They all, for one reason or another, have been humiliated, placed on the defensive, and relegated to the position of outsiders by society, with which they seek to get even for their wounded self-esteem. Their number includes Edith Dombey, Rosa Dartle, Lady Dedlock and Hortense, Louisa Gradgrind, Fanny Dorrit, Miss Wade and Tattycoram, and, with significant differences, Estella and Bella Wilfer. Whether innocent or guilty, all these fear, while at the same time they resent and defy, the tyranny of opinion. The sympathy which they in part compel as victims under a moral code inequitable in its oppression of their sex [131/132] is counteracted by their erratic response to fancied grievances. For all, like Miss Wade, are neurotic self-tormentors, riven between hatred against those who have used them and against themselves for submitting to be so used. Dickens, however, could never rival Richardson or Charlotte Brontë in fineness of insight into the feminine nature; and the interest which these characters arouse is dissipated through such anticlimactic scenes as that between Edith Dombey and Carker, or Rosa Dartle and Emily, or Louisa Gradgrind and her father on the night of Harthouse's attempted seduction.
Forster perceptively observed of Dickens' methods of characterization that
no man could better adjust the outward and visible oddities in a delineation to its inner and unchangeable veracities. The rough estimates we form of character, if we have any truth of perception, are on the whole correct: but men touch and inrerfere with one another by the contact of their extremes, and it may very often become necessarily the main business of a novelist to display the salient points, the sharp angles, or the prominences merely.
While generally true enough, this statement fails to take into account Dickens' fascination with the phenomenon of split personality or to give credit to his techniques for dramatizing the buried motives which individuals keep hidden from the world and even from themselves. That the writer had developed to a high degree the facultv of self-disassociation and was cap- able of dispassionately probing his own subliminal states of mind is apparent from his occasional writings. In "A Fly-Leaf in a Life" from The Uncommercial Traveller he speaks of "Being accustomed to ob- serve myself as curiously as if I were another man . . ."; and a second piece, entitled "Lying Awake" gives an astonishing display of the power of autosuggestion [132/133] on the passive mentality. Not surprisingly, then, in his more searching character studies, Dickens takes account of the conditions of imaginative awareness which lie on the borderline between the conscious and the unconscious and which find expression in dreams and related states.
Dickens' use of dreams for fictional purposes is extremely sophisticated, anticipating in many respects the findings of Freud. He is especially original in exploiting what may be called the waking dream, in which impressions derived from the surrounding world merge with subjective imaginings. Oliver Twist undergoes two such experiences, which leave in their wake an intuitive sense of the evil threatening him. The first occurs in Chapter 9 when Oliver "in a drowsy state, between sleeping and waking" beholds Fagin sorting over the jewelry which includes the trinket once in the possession of the boy's dead mother. "At such times," the author comments, "a mortal knows just enough of what his mind is doing, to form some glimmering conception of its mighty powers, its bounding from earth and spurning time and space, when freed from the restraint of its corporeal as- sociate." The second and more sinister episode comes in Chapter 34. Oliver's new-found security in the Maylie household is shattered when he awakens from a nap to the certainty that Fagin and Monks have been watching him through the open window. The scene is prefaced by this passage:
There is a kind of sleep that sreals upon us sometimes, which while it holds the body prisoner, does not free the mind from a sense of things abour it, and enable it to ramble ar its pleasure. So far as an overpowering heaviness, a prosrration of strengrh, and an utter inability tO control our thoughrs or power of morion, can be called sleep, this is it; and yet, we have a consciousness of all [133/134] that is going on about us, and, if we dream at such a time, words which are really spoken, or sounds which really exist at the moment, accommodate themselves with surprising readiness to our visions, until reality and imagination become so strangelv blended that it is afterwards almost a matter of impossibility to separate the two. Nor is this, the most striking phenomenon incidental to such a state. It is an undoubred fact, that although our sense of touch and sight be for the time dead, yet our sleeping thoughts, and the visionary scenes that pass before us, will be influenced and materially influenced, bv the mere silent presence of some external object; which may not have been near us when we closed our eves: and of whose vicinity we have had no waking consciousness.
Equally ambiguous in their implications are the dis- torted images of actuality that penetrate the drowsing minds of Nell, frightened by the nocturnal apparition of her father in the grip of his mania, and of Stephen Blackpool holding vigil over his drunken wife.
Allied with the dream state are the hallucinations which may torment the imagination under extreme emotional stress. Pip prophetically foresees Miss Havisham's death in the hanging effigy that appears to him on his first visit to Satis House. And memories of their long years of imprisonment come back to unsettle the minds of William Dorrit in his final collapse at Rome and Dr. Manette after Lucy's marriage. Differing in effect but equally revelatory of conflicting levels of apprehension are the watery visions which precede Paul Dombey's death and which shadow Eugene Wrayburn's struggle to survive.
Another device for dramatically projecting the warring impulses in man's nature, and one which particularly appealed to Dickens' imagination, is that of doubling. Sometimes, as in the case of Flintwinch and his twin brother, the novelist uses similarity in appearance [134/135] merely as a narrative contrivance. More often, however, a character recognizes in his double the more ideal or the more degraded half of his divided being. Thus, Sydney Carton confronts his better nature in Charles Darnay; and Edith Dombey's discovery of spiritual kinship with the fallen Alice Marwood provokes the surmise: "In this round world of many circles within circles, do we make a weary journey from the high grade to the low, to find at last that they lie close together, that the two extremes touch, and that our journey's end is but our starting-place?"
These graphic methods of bringing to the surface that clandestine other self which lurks in the inner recesses of being are displayed with special adroimess in the depictions of criminal behavior which are by general agreement Dickens' psychological masterpieces. R. H. Hutton, one of the novelist's earliest and most sagacious critics, declared: "No author indeed could draw more powerfully than he the mood of a man haunted by a fixed idea, a shadowy apprehension, a fear, a dream, a remorse...." And calling attention to Dickens' success in presenting "the restlessness of a murderer," Hutton comments on his knowledge of Œ'the sort of supremacy which a given idea gets over the mind in a dream, and in those waking states of neryous apprehension akin to dreams." Dream psychology is strikingly used to differentiate between two contrasting kinds of criminal mentality in the nightmares which visit Montague Tigg and Jonas Chuzzlewit on the eve of the murder of one by the other. Jonas, furthermore, is paralyzed by the hallucinatory conviction that he has become two separate individuals, as he prepares, after his deed of violence, to return to the room from which he set out in disguise: [135/136]
Dread and fear were upon him. To an extent he had never counted on, and could not manage in the least degree. He was so horribly afraid of that infernal room ar home. This made him, in a gloomy, murderous, mad way, not only fearful for himself bur of himself; for being, as it were, a part of the room: a something supposed to be there, yet missing from ir: he invested himself with irs mysteri- ous terrors; and when he pictured in his mind the ugly chamber, false and quiet, false and quiet, through the dark hours of two nights; and the tumbled bed, and he nor in it, though believed to be; he became in a manner his own ghost and phantom, and was at once the haunting spirit and the haunted man.
In like manner, subjective and objective reality intermingle and are confused in the visions that accompany the headlong flights of Sikes and Carker; and the staring eyes of the dog that drive Sikes over the parapet and the rushing of the engine that dismembers Carker gradually take on for the reader the same unearthly significance lent them in the demented imaginations of the transgressors.
Lady Dedlock, Bradley Headstone, and John Jasper brilliantly exemplify Dickens' handling of the device of doubling to project complexity of motivation in narrative terms. The true nature of each is revealed through the disguises that he assumes. At different times Lady Dedlock is identified with her fierce maid-servant Hortense and Jenny, the brickmaker's wife. The first deception helps create suspense about the perpetrator of Tulkinghorn's murder; the second serves to prolong the chase which fatally terminates at the gates of the burial ground. At a deeper metaphori- cal level, however, the two characters for whom Lady Dedlock is mistaken represent the felonious and con- science-stricken impulses contending in her breast. Hortense in a very real sense is her symbolic agent in settling accounts with the lawyer who has discovered [136/137]her secret. In changing garb with Jenny, Lady Ded- lock not only tacitly acquiesces to the common tie which unites all forlorn mothers, but symbolically atones for her failure in love toward her own daughter. Bradley Headstone's plot to pin suspicion on Rogue Riderhood is a subtle elaboration of Hortense's similar scheme with regard to Lady Dedlock. Of Bradley clad in his schoolmaster's attire the author writes that "there was a certain stiffness in his manner of wearing this, as if there were a want of adaptation between him and it...." When he masquerades as Riderhood, however, Dickens says: "And whereas, in his own schoolmaster's clothes, he usually looked as if they were the clothes of some other man, he now looked in the clothes of some other man, or men, as if they were his own." Bradley's hope that he can return to his old self by shedding the incriminating raiment is as unavailing as are his efforts to put behind him the crime which he perpetually reenacts in his thoughts. Riderhood's arrival to taunt him with the evidence of his duplicity precipitates the teacher's symbolic gesture of erasing his name which he has written on the black- board. The denouement follows with inflexible logic; for the circumstances of their deaths seal the fellow- ship of these twin spirits.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood, even in its un- finished form, carries to still more refined extremes Dickens' exploration of the mysterious incongruities in human motivation. The characterization of John Jasper, lay precentor of Cloisterham Cathedral and opium-eater, melodious singer and strangler, anticipates Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For in this schizophrenic the two selves are fully internalized, and the conflict between good and evil is traced to its ultimate source in the irreconcilable duality of human nature.[137/138]
No one has presented the corrosive effects of guilt more vividly than Dickens. It, more than any other force, motivates change, whether for better or worse, in those of his characters who are not merely static. Dickens' villains are customarily destroyed by guilt, just as his protagonists are redeemed by its operation. It works, however, in different ways, being an effect of wicked actions, but a cause of noble conduct. Its destructive power is manifest in Dickens' earliest delineations of criminals, a Sikes or Ralph Nickleby. Not until relatively late in his career did he succeed, largely through its instrumentality, in creating psychologically convincing roles for the heroes of his stories.
The youthful "leads" who give their names to the early novels or who are nominally apportioned prominent parts in them, Nicholas Nickleby, Kit Nubbles, Jo Willett, Martin Chuzzlewit, Walter Gay, remain for the most part insubstantial figures. Bourgeois variations on the picaro seeking his fortune through adversity, they emerge unscathed from their adventures to enjoy the reward of the conventional happy ending. David Copperfield is the first of Dickens' protagonists who recognizably grows to maturity as a result of the trials he passes through. His characterization is the combined result of Dickens' deepened social awareness and of his need to impose a meaningful pattern on his own early experiences. In this novel, furthermore, Dickens first seriouslv confronted a challenge which he shared with other Victorian novelists: namely, the problem of locating within the context of contempo- rary manners and morals the grounds for heroic action. His solution to this problem, paralleling similar efforts by Thackeray, Trollope, and Meredith, was to seek to redefine the traditional concept of the gentleman in conformity with Victorian ideals. In David's eyes, it is Steerforth and not himself who is the hero [138/139] of the story through half its course. And, indeed, the two figures strangely complement each other. Both exhibit a certain ruthlessness in pursuing their ends. Without the narrator's proneness to self-delusion, Steerforth lacks the saving grace of fellow-feeling for the sensibilities of others which mitigates David's weakness. His egoism and readiness to capitalize on his personal charm and the prerogatives of social rank reappear in such gentlemen manque's as Harthouse in Hard Times and Henry Gowan in Little Dorrit. On the other hand, Steerforth repays David's idolatry with genuine, if condescending, affection; and he is sufficiently shamefaced over his failure to live up to the image he has instilled in David's heart to part with him before the final betrayal. If Steerforth so often usurps interest from the protagonist, it is because his conduct exhibits signs of inner stresses of conscience from which David is exempt as a result of the better fortune contrived for him.
Richard Carstone, whose deterioration under the seductive vision of unmerited gain carried out the author's original plan for Walter Gay, is a transitional figure, anticipating the more complexly motivated protagonists of subsequent novels. Arthur Clennam, Sydney Carton, Pip, and Eugene Wrayburn are inheritors of Richard's well-meaning, but vacillating, nature. Like him, also, they nurture undefined, although deeply ingrained, feelings of guilt, which relate them in many ways to the malefactors for whom Dickens compels sympathy. It was one of the novelist's great original insights that unjust treatment may be fully as effective as actual wrongdoing in arousin~ feelings of remorse and self-doubt. In The Old Curiosity Shop Kit Nubbles' anguish at being falsely accused occasions the following passage of commentary: [139/140]
Let moralists and philosophers say what they may, it is very questionable whether a guilty man would have felt half as much misery that night, as Kit did, being innocent. The world, being in the constant commission of vast quantities of injustice, is a little too apt to comfort itself with the idea that if the victim of its falsehood and malice have a clear conscience, he cannot fail to be sustained under his trials, and somehow or other to come right at last; "in which case," sav they who have hunted him down, " — though we certainly don't expect it — nobody will be better pleased than we." Whereas, the world would do well to reflect, that injustice is in itself, to every generous and properlv constituted mind, an injury, of all others the most insufferable, the most torturing, and the most hard to bear; and that many clear consciences have gone to their account elsewhere, and many sound hearts have broken, because of this very reason, the knowledge of their own deserts only aggravating their sufferings, and rendering them the less endurable.
Although reproachless, Florence Dombey cannot shed the conviction that she is somehow to blame for her father's hostility. Of the state of mind which ensued on his brutal whipping by Murdstone, David Copperfield says: "My stripes were sore and stiff, and made me cry afresh, when I moved; but they were nothing to the guilt I felt. It lay heavier on my breast than if I had been a most atrocious criminal, I dare say." And Pip nurses a residue of self-recrimination as a result of his sister's harsh treatment.
Guilt, instilled by injustice, has in Dickens' view the invariable effect of paralyzing the wills of its victims. The resulting apathy made up in equal measure of self-pity and distrust of active engagement in outside affairs, is brilliantly exemplified by the narrator of the strange short story entitled, "George Silverman's Explanation," as well as in Miss Wade's "The History of a Self-Tormentor." Such poseurs as Harthouse [140/141]and Gowan and Bentley Drummle make much of this lassitude as an aspect of their gentlemanly pretensions. The self-lacerating habit of mind which it induces in more consequential figures is most penetratingly explored in Little Dorrit, where it is associated not only with Mrs. Clennam's gloomy Calvinism, but with all the other socially sanctioned forms of egoism which incapacitate the characters in this novel. William Dorrit is not less disabled by his assumption of grandeur than Merdle is by his false eminence as a financier or Casby by his patriarchal posture or Miss Wade by her masochistic delusions.
Humphry House noted that Dickens' view of human nature does not allow for the concept of original sin. Its place is taken by the complex of penitential feelings which enmesh the novelist's most deeply studied characters — feelings which, although they originate in some private conviction of failure or insufficiency, carry with them a sense of responsibility for the evil perpetrated by others. As a result, for all these individuals the inertia imposed by the self-inflicted consciousness of guilt seeks release in acts of vicarious atonement for the actual guilt of others. Arthur takes on himself the burden of Mrs. Clennam's unrevealed secret, and Rokesmith sacrifices his in- heritance to make amends for the eccentric provisions of old Harmon's will.
In Dickens' world love is the only force strong enough to burst the bonds the imprisoning ego and to release the capacity for genuinely altruistic action. This is not the divisive sexual passion, which is really another form of self-love. A late discovery in Dickens' fiction, its power destroys Bradley Headstone and John Jasper, leading to deeds of violence which only confirm their dreadful isolation from their kind. The characters [141/142]who achieve self-transcendence are the ones who undergo a change of heart, having learned through suffering to prefer a good other than their own.
Allegorical implications hover over Dickens' representations of spiritual redemption. The fact cannot be too strongly emphasized, however, that Dickens invariably took pains to knit his thematic concerns into the texture of the narrative proper. For example, the expectations raised by Jarvis Lorry's password, "Recalled to Life" at the start of A Tale of Two Cities, are circumstantially satisfied by the recovery of Dr. Manette. It is only in the context of the entire train of events leading up to Sydney Carton's heroic sacrifice that the phrase takes on full metaphorical significance. The same is true for the splendid irony of the remark made at the end of Chapter 2 by Jerry Cruncher whose gruesome calling as a Resurrection-Man has yet to be revealed: "'Recalled to life.' That's a Blazing strange message. Much of that wouldn't do for you, Jerry! I say, Jerry! You'd be in a Blazing bad way, if recalling to life was to come into fashoion, Jerry!"
Although most clearly announced in A Tale of Two Cities, the theme of resurrection is common to all the late novels. Dombey and Son first establishes a recurrent pattern in which the regeneration of a central character is preceded by a period of illness or nervous disorder. Florence Dombey saves her father from suicide. David Copperfield is free to seek out Agnes only after a period of probation in Switzerland. Arthur Clennam undergoes purgation in the Marshalsea. Joe Gargery returns to nurse Pip through the sickness which ensues on Magwitch's death. John Rokesmith emerges with a new identity from near-drowning; and Eugene Wrayburn, broken in body and spirit, is quite literally reborn. In each instance, recovery conforms to the stages in the experience of conversion. The individual, having passed through his dark night of despair, affirms his recovery by some deed of expiation. These deeds are manifold in their points of moral reference; they may be motivated by a desire on the doer's part [142/143] to compensate for his own past transgressions; but in their salvific effects on the lives of others they incarnate the triumph of love over evil. Thus, Sydney Carton's death, in saving the husband of his beloved, at the same time redeems both the inhumanity of Darnay's aristocratic forbears and, more directly through his kindness to the seamstress, the matching inhumanity of the revolutionary tribunal. By succoring Magwitch, Pip does not simply repay in full his debt to his benefactor, but makes up for Compeyson's betrayal of Magwitch and his own of Joe.
The cases of Clennam and Wrayburn are slightly different, since each is tangibly recompensed for his transformation (as is also true for Pip in the revised ending of Great Expectations). Yet, each acts without expecting reward; and neither story, as has been pointed out, can be said to end in unclouded felicity. For in rededicathlg themselves to the happiness of Amy Dorrit and Lizzie Hexam, both Arthur and Eugene bring to their unions the contrite knowledge that through their own previous misprisal of the treasures of devotion offered them, they have helped confirm the martyr's role reserved for saints in this world. Nevertheless, Dickens is finally saying that salvation from the blight of the social will can only come through the reconstitution of the individual will by love.
Last Modified January 2000