Tag Archives: dickens

D.A. Miller – The Novel and the Police (1981)

The novel is not conceived as the doomed attempt to produce a stable subject, but instead would be the successful project of “forming–by means of that very failure–a subject habituated to psychic displacements, evacuations, reinvestments, in a social order where power circulates all the better for being pulverized” (xiii).

Oliver Twist offers a good illustration of this thesis. Despite levying critique of institutions of social control, the novel participates in the logic policing by showing how there is in fact very little tension between the various forces seeking to control Oliver: their methods are different, but Fagin, the police, Monks, and Bromlow all participate in acts of coercion. The space of delinquency is thoroughly implicated with the space of the official police: the workhouse and apprenticeship are shown to be logical steps in an evolution towards Fagin’s gang. Further, Bromlow’s desire to know Oliver’s “story” is an attempt to impose a story that shores up the gaps in the fragmented plot, etc.

Bleak House gives a lightly different model, in which instituions of incarceration/control are not confined to out of the way, peripheral spaces, but in the form of Chancery Court, inhabit the very center of the text. In fact, Chancery is so prominent that its totalizing presence can not be perceived, making inside/outside binaries meaningless or at least inadequate. Furthermore, the contradictory elements of the Court–both efficient and inefficient, etc–are not merely symptomatic of, say, capitalism, but are also constitutive of the novel’s strategy of coercion. The illegibility of the the Jarndyce suit eventually requires reduction to legible “criminal case”: which explains how this sprawling novel turns into a murder mystery. Miller argues that the tension between the law and the law enforcement takes many different guises [one is faceless while the other has a face in Bucket, etc.], it is finally the very contradictions between these terms that the novel actively produces: not consciously, but as part of the novel form itself. The excessively long novel Bleak House differentiates itself from the excessively long court case Chancery by promising a moment in which meanings will be finally revealed, the text digestible, etc: Esther and the anonymous narratorial voice gradually merge, etc.So while the novel trains us to be patient within structures of Chancery-confusion, it makes good on this promise through a logic of delayed gratification: compare Richard and Esther, for example. But this negative relation, productive of a difference that is at first negative, finds a positive dividend in the form of family practice: which is both outside of social institutions, but also, at the same time, invested in carrying out its programs of order and discipline.

Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White offers us different paradigm of control in relation to bodily sensation. The “sensational novel” is relegated to the margins of the canon because it is perceived to mechanically function on the body, the flesh, and therefore to be devoid of meaning, or sense, in a more spiritual sense [already the vocabulary of sense is showing troubling contradictions]. But Miller argues that sensational novels, like that of Collins, provides its own ways of representing and reading bodily sensation: in other words, troubling the critical lens that relegates sensational effects to mere textual immediacy. “Nervousness” is the condition not only of the characters within the novel, but also the affect dimension of the readerly experience. The paradigm for nervousness is found in the 19th-century theory that homosexuality is a case of a female soul imprisoned within a man’s body: which is also a way of describing the plotting of this novel. This upsets traditional privileging of the reader who observes the processes of coercion and social violence but is immune for their effects: in a sensational novel, we feel what the characters feel. When Fosco reads Marian’s journal, we are shocked, but we have also already participated in that form of virtual rape: we identify and disidentify with Fosco simultaneously. The paranoia produced in these acts of identification is productive of the readerly nervousness (suspicion, surprise, etc.) that the second half of the novel, narrated by Walter Hartwright having returned from Central America more masculinized, which seeks to find and fix a determinate meaning ending in domesticity. But Woman in White is unique in that it dramatizes the production of those subjective traits that will need to be overcome in the course of the novel’s development.


ongoing post on Miller::::


Charles Dickens – Great Expectations (1860-1)

The orphan Pip is brought up by his sister and her husband Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. One night Pip encounters a convict in the cemetry, and he does him an act of kindness which the convict, who will turn out to be Magwitch, Mr. Provis and Mr. Campbell all in one, will never forget. He soon goes to Miss Havisham’s house to be a playmate with Estella. He starts to become ashamed of himself and his lower-cultured childhood friends. He becomes and apprentice with Joe, and works alongside Orlick, who is a sort of double that plays out all the crimes that Pip almost commits but never does. [An instance of shadowing the protagonist with doubles, sorta like Bertha Rochester and Jane Eyre.] Pip receives an inheritance (via Jaggers) from an unknown source, but he assumes it is from Miss Havisham. This enacts the processes of accumulation that correlate with the field of desire associated with Miss Havisham.  But he soon gets into debt and it is revealed that Abel Magwitch–and it is further revealed that he is the father of Estella (her mother is Molly, Jagger’s housemaid). Pip tells Havisham this story, she stands to close the fire and dies from her injuries, despite Pip’s attempts to save her. Magwitch is arrested and dies; Pip is about to be put into debtor’s prison, but he gets sick, and then is nursed back to health by Joe. He returns to Joe’s home, where they have had a child named Pip [cf. Sydney Carton at the end of Tale]. He visits Stalis house, where he meets Estella. It’s ambiguous whether they marry or not.


Guilt vs. desire – One can frame Pip’s two worlds according to this tension. Pip is marked by guilt from the very beginning, as his actual inheritance. The world of desire, or lack, is associated with Havisham and Estella. Cognitively adjusting to the knowledge that his inheritance comes from guilt rather than desire entails a confrontation with a world of crime that does not square with the tenants of individuality and subjectivity he had adopted in the middle part of the book. Rather, crime seems somehow universal: Magwitch somehow emerges from the landscape, he is an atmosphere of sorts. Pip himself will toggle between these two spheres.

Is Pip being a bad reader because he has not yet grown up? (structure of dramatic irony to deal with how these things can be known at all) Contrast this with Maisie (does not give signification, only registers impressions). As an example of better reading by way of negative contrast: Magwitch shows Pip how he acted poorly towards Joe. But where do we locate this knowledge?

In David Copperfield, the impetus to give full signification (retrospective and fully) is the same impulse as in Great Expectation (Pip as narrator does know things that phenomena subject does not know) but sometimes we just get the narrated Pip and we see his ignorance negatively. In the end, Pip the narrator and narrated converge but there is not a full knowledge. Indeed, the reduplication of Pip as a young boy points to the “bad infinity” that could ensue: the second Pip is able to effectively truncate the narrative with a new beginning. And to the degree that “family” is posited as a source of final cohesion, it should be noted that Pip is excised from that family.

Two ends in Great Expectation: 1. very clear that Estella and Pip don’t get married 2.  you don’t know whether they get married or not, structurally undecideable.

More broadly: Can think of Thackeray, Dickens and Trollope as obsessed with evidentiary character of narration, must give an account fo how the narrative has come into being. On the other hand, Eliot, Hardy and James fully accept the arbitrary nature of the narrative–they can’t justify it, so they just start. [in Hardy in particular, one has the sense that anyone walking along a road could furnish the novelist with a story]


“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.



Charles Dickens – Tale of Two Cities (1859)

[Plot Summary]

Published right before Woman in White, serialized right after—what a coincidence! Much less interesting representation of history compared to other late works like Bleka House and DC

He assembles a weird hodepodge of the historical events (the Terror is a week), so for what is realism sacrificed if not for accurate historical event?

It’s more about how we contain and establish an idea of Britishness that is not going to dismiss this issues and contain them: a marriage plot.

Causes of revolution: 1. Structural problem (like the court in bleak house) 2. Contagion of mob violence >>> keeps this separate and say that the latter is not the solution to the former…so in England we have to wed this political fervor to Reformism

Sydney Carton: ends by writing himself into narrative (golden hair of the boy that is named after him…relate this to the golden water at the end of Mill on the Floss, and then to de Koven on golden and the transition to a modernist aesthetic founded on receding narrator, aestheticization, etc.)…but this final narrative sublimation is highly qualified….opens with “were he write soemthing and were it to be prophetic….”

Secondary – Bleak House

M. Clare Loughlin-Chow, “Sociological Contexts of Victorian Fiction”

Bleak House is Dickens’ attempt to negotiate the social division in Mid-Victoiran London. The use of coincidence is double-edged: could be interpreted as the contingency of the city, or an emphasis of the still existent social bonds between characters divided by wealth, status, geography, etc. But even if the latter is the case, the case of Jo getting Esther sick, illustrates the sickness and dangers of a system where one part of the population is ignored. When the narrator rhetorically pleads, “What connection can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world,” we are asked, I think to see the world in a particular way–this mode of seeing is in fact a type of active creation, a creation of social bonds that DO EXIST whether we like them to or not. That is, Jo will infect the upper class whether we recognize him or not.


Elana Gomel, “Part of the Dreadful Thing”: The Urban Chronotope of Bleak House

This essay addresses the paradox of Dickens as an urban writer through exploration of his narrative space. On the one hand, like Mayhew, Engels, and other Victorian urban explorers, Dickens is a fierce critic of the social ills of the industrial metropolis. On the other hand, Dickens is ranked alongside Baudelaire and Benjamin as the creator of a new vocabulary for urban pleasures, such as flânerie, consumption, visual distraction, and psychological stimulation.

This ambiguity of Dickens’ urban attitudes is encapsulated in the doubleness of his urban chronotope. The city of Dickens is often imaged in vertical terms as the dichotomously divided space of the rich and the poor. But equally often, it is structured horizontally as a maze, network, or ring of contagion that unites all the city dwellers in a complex ecology of mutual interdependence. These two axes of representation correspond to the two types of urban involvement, that of the reformer and of the flâneur. In Bleak House they are epitomized by the omniscient narrator’s “bird’s eye” view of society and Esther’s “street level” vision of it.

The essay explores the tension and interaction between the detached aesthetics of flânerie and the passionate involvement of social reform in the narrative fabric of Dickens’s world. It analyzes the narrative architecture of Bleak House by focusing on the techniques of vision and focalization rather than on the novel’s thematic concerns and/or characters’ actions.

David Paroissien, “Subdued by the Dyer’s Hand: Dickens at Work in Bleak House

This essay examines the implications of Dickens’s statement in the preface to the one-volume edition of Bleak House (September 1853) that in the novel he “purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things.” This claim, I argue, goes to the core of Dickens’s art as a writer, an art that combines the presentation of disturbing news about the contemporary state of society with a skilful attempt to provide narrative pleasure, pleasure designed to ensure that the narrator retains his hold over readers for 67 chapters. Dickens’s achievement, I conclude, constitutes literary art of the highest order, one that instructs readers in social and ethical truths while also delighting them and holding their attention in the course of telling a compelling story.


Secondary – Our Mutual Friend

Never over till it’s over, syllepsis opens minds as well as grammar, keeps things going and up for grabs. It gives us one syntactic timeline braided together with a syncopated grammatical strand. With closure resisted at the phrasal level, response is held not in check but in expectancy. . . . It keeps difference alive across iteration or ellipsis, implanting the null with surplus. Time and time again, syllepsis abruptly refocuses the other through the lens of the same.

Garret Stewart, “Ethical Tempo of Narrative Syntax: Sylleptic Recognitions in Our Mutual Friend,” 2010


These three vignettes obviously present a range of models for agency, from the abject powerlessness of the waterlogged corpse to the omnipotence of old Harmon’s attempt to enforce his intentions from beyond the grave. In fact, the problem of agency permeates Our Mutual Friend. By using a variety of cases to foreground concerns about the scope and powers of social systems—economic, legal, and educational, as well as classist, gendered, and normative—to control and condition individuals, the novel rehearses one of the pressing issues for mid-Victorian England debates about morality and responsibility, that is, how to disentangle individual motive from social conditioning. Rather than figuring these as mutually exclusive terms, Our Mutual Friend repeatedly emphasizes the impossibility of distinguishing between self- and social determination when it comes to agency.

Connect with JS Mill On Liberty: “A person whose desires and impulses are his own—are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture—is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character”

Molly Anne Rothenberg, “Articulating Social Agency in Our Mutual Friend” (2004)



Charles DIckens – Oliver Twist (1836-37)

Oliver Twist is born to Agnes (who immediately dies) in a workhouse. He is raised by Mrs. Mann until moving to a workhouse run by the beadle Mr. Bumble. While there, he asks for more soup. He gets into a skirmish with Noah Claypole, who insulted Agnes, and after being beaten by Bumble (the Sowerberries are also complicit) runs  away to London. He has heard that there are new and unimaginable ways of life to be led there. He runs into the Artful Dodger (John Sawkins), who introduces him to Fagin, along with Charley Bates,  Nancy, Charlotte, and eventually Bill Sikes. He gets picked up by Mr. Bromlow after Dodger and Bates attempt to rob him. He thrives while there but is soon captured by Nancy and Bill. Fagin lets Oliver go on a robbery with Sikes in the country side. Oliver gets shot and takes shelter with people he attempted to rob (this is where he meets Rose Maylie). He thinks he sees Fagin and Monks at some point in time, but they can’t track them down. Monks (who turns out to be Oliver’s half-brother by a different mother) has conspired with Fagin to sully Oliver’s reputation because his inheritance depends on maintaining perfect morality. Nancy, who feels awful about recapturing Oliver, confesses to Rosa and Bromlow and tells them that Fagin and Monks are attempting another kidnapping. Noah Claypole overhears this and tells Fagin, who tell Sikes, who then kills Nancy. He flees the city. He returns to the city where he holes up with the others (the Dodger has already been imprisoned) but somehow hangs himself. His dog jumps off the roof. Harry Maylie marries Rosa (who cares!), and Oliver grows up comfortably under Bromlow. Fagin is executed.

The 1834 New Poor Law: Dickens critiques new law by registering its effects on a child. Strict dietary regimes, etc, are satirized in the opening sequences, but much of that drops out in the latter London sections.

Narrative structure: sloppy overall, with a hidden subplot (Monks) that comes with its own humungous backstory only towards the end of the novel. This is not a Bildungsroman, because Oliver has no choice; rather, he is knocked about by various social forces.

Characters: Dickens has nto yet masted the art of the secondary character. Here they take on great vibrancy (Dodger, Monks, Bumble, etc.) but they do not effectively complicate the dynamics of central plot. Curious to acces in terms of narrative desiring-production. How are these characters excessive in ways that they are not in Bleak House or Copperfield. In Our Mutual Friend, the writing becomes excessive.

Orphan: As counterexample to peter Brooks characterization of bildungsroman.

Omniscient and self-conscious narrator: at times clumsy, drawing attention to important events in ways that undercut their narrative power.

Mob: Half of London tracks down Bill Sikes and calls for his death. A mob with its heart in the right place.

Violence: blow-by-blow account of Nancy’s murder.

Anti-Semitism in portrait of Fagin