[This web-essay is an English synopsis of my article which appeared in Japanese (1999).]

decorated initial 'R' uth Richardson's Death, Dissection and the Destitute (1988) explores the Anatomy Act that was passed behind the scenes of the Reform Act in 1832. It recommended that the government should confiscate the bodies of paupers dying in workhouses instead of giving hanged murderers to anatomists. This explains better than the 1834 New Poor Law why, in Our Mutual Friend, Betty Higden refuses to send her family into the workhouse. Her case is enough to make us suspect that fragmented human bodies are used as metaphors for divided human relationships, families, societies, or bodies politic.

Our Mutual Friend contains some of Dickens's richest descriptions of the dead body. His interest in human bodies has peaked in the creation of Silas Wegg the con-artist with a wooden leg, Venus the articulator of human bones, and Jenny Wren the crippled dolls' dressmaker. Dickens has an acute consciousness of the metaphorical relationship between the human body and society; as if nothing happened Dickens makes Wegg admire Venus's patience "to fit together on wires the whole framework of society". The extremely dehumanised, acquisitive Victorian society based upon the Carlylean "cash nexus" justifies Wegg in severing "a family tie" by which Mr. Boffin has employed him. Dickens's reiterated use of the word "artist" for Venus represents the former's strategy of the unifying function given to the latter's "skill in piecing little things together". A character more important to the repairing of fragmentary effects is Jenny Wren. Dickens calls her fair hair her "golden bower," giving the same symbolic significance to it as he does to "the golden thread" of Lucie Manette's hair, by which she attempts to weave her severed family back together in "the disjointed time" of the French Revolution.

Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of a waterside character robbing corpses which he finds in the Thames, refuses to sever her acquaintance with the crippled Jenny. This is not so much because she has to make "compensation -- restitution" for Jenny, the granddaughter of her father's prey, as because she feels her repressed imagination fired by Jenny's golden bower. Lizzie's compensation functions as a reconstruction of the scattered fragments of class and society. It is significantly fitting that Lizzie and Jenny become acquainted. While they gaze into the fire, Jenny's imagination helps Lizzie fancy herself a suitable lady for Eugene Wrayburn the indolent barrister; she envisions her body as spiritually divided. His regeneration, one of the novel's themes, is realised in the plot of his conjugal union with this girl of the labouring class.

More important still, Jenny's imagination soars up to a prophecy. It is characterised by its transcendence of all experience, and enables those around her to reach their moral and spiritual regeneration. Jenny's golden bower is a symbol for her ability. Unlike "Boffin's Bower", Jenny's bower alters a little garden at the top of Pubsey and Co. into a utopian world of eternal life. This is a future-oriented "real world" of the same kind that Lizzie says she has read in the fire. Lizzie and the old Jew Riah can see Jenny's metaphysical, Christian vision: "Come up and be dead!" Dickens describes the small garden as "a prophet's grave". Jenny is a successor to the Old Testament's prophets; they climbed holy mountains to speak to God, and their prophecy was fulfilled by Christ on a high mountain. Jenny is radiant with her golden bower as Christ "shone like the sun" before his followers. Dickens may have been thinking here of Christ's transfiguration. Riah sees Jenny's face looking down out of "a Glory of her long bright radiant hair". The Glory suggests not only the glorifying aureole surrounding the Saviour's body, but also the majesty and splendour attendant upon the resurrection of Jesus. When it guides characters like Eugene through a near-death experience to spiritual regeneration, the Glory clarifies the symbolic significance of Jenny's golden bower.

Denial of Jenny's raison d'être leads the reader to ignore her shrewd observation which, for example, puts some difficulty in Bradley Headstone's "articulating his words", and consequently to underestimate her profound contribution to the acceleration of the Eugene-Lizzie plot to its blissful climax. The imagination of Jenny, full "from head to foot with energy", leads the narrative toward the word "Wife" — the same word that can spare Eugene from death. If Eugene achieves an epiphany as a result of his awareness of its truth, the truth is that the word "energy" which he abominates is not far in meaning from the imagination long repressed within him. Jenny can see the truth because imagination makes her "an interpreter between this sentient world and the insensible man". Imagination, in this sense (and Coleridge's), is a creative power which connects such divided oppositions as consciousness and unconsciousness.


Victorian
Overview Charles Dickens Symbolism in Dickens

Last modified 14 October 2002