“Dickens,” by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (2005)

The trope of the child that earns his rewards by discovering his origins is both a plot device and an impetus for Dickensian style: the wonder and exhilaration of the everyday. But not all always ends well for these lost children: his novels are full of those that remain lost–foils against which can be measured the successful (plot) recuperation of the main protagonist, but also stylistic successes in their own right: an overflow that the text can not entirely contain in the syuzhet.

Some might think this adversely affects the political potential of Dickens’ works: there is no line between the true and the rhetorically effective, in Gissing’s assessment. But this also gives Dickens his transformative force. In Bleak House, he writes: “I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things.” And in David Copperfield, the hero claims that “trifles make up the sum of life.” [This mode of representation gets taken up in curious ways by Elizabeth Gaskell and George Gissing.] In later Dickens, this triviality leads to bulging list, incredible plot complexity, and seemingly directionless narrative wanderings [an extreme form of the Lacanian détour]. But it also leads to characters that are out of control, seemingly spilling over the boundaries set by the plot. Dickens is character-driven; but at times the characters seem to emerge right out of the social conditions (Fagan, Veneerings, the minor characters that cluster around Chancery), confirming Victorian fears about social determinacy. [This has a connection with Thomas Hardy’s notion of “fate,” where character somehow equals fate equals nature equals plot, and the equivalences multiply]. D-F draws the helpful analogy with Ruskin’s notion of the Gothic: a democratic art that claims that perfection must be imperfect if it is to represent something living.

Dickens later novels take on the form of the London it is trying to represent, implicating the reader in the semantic and syntactic tangles that mime the social conditions of London. For instance, Bleak House is a serial novel that parodies the serial novel in the form of Chancery. Escaping from these conditions, like Pip attempts, takes the form of, yes, a dramatic opening of windows, etc. but also opens up him up to further mockery (in smaller form, he fights that guy in the garden, and wins, but he senses that he is just playing out the stock role of the maturing Englishman)–walking down the street in his finery is at once laughable and victorious. Similarly, Tom Grangrind escapes from the world of “fact” but only in the form of a clown–a clown that is last heard of participating in an aventure plot somewhere far off in the new world. This form of “escape from the plot” can also be thought of as an “escape from fiction”–that is, into reality. Esther breaks off “even supposing – ” with the dash highlighting the need for continuation the realm outside the boundaries set by the novel.

 

 

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