Dickens and Critical Theory
Grahame Smith
Grahame Smith studied English Language and Literature, and received his MA with first class honours from the University of Aberdeen in 1960. In 1963 he received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. He has taught at the University of Wales, University of California, and is currently Professor of English at the University of Stirling. His publications include books on Dickens, Money and Society; The Novel and Society: Defoe to George Eliot; The Achievement of Graham Greene; Hard Times.

This paper is based on the assumption that one of the surest tests of a writer's greatness is the ability of his or her work to be interpreted in a whole number of ways over an extended period of time: Shakespeare would be an obvious example.

In the nearly 130 years since his death, Dickens' novels have been read in a whole number of varied and sometimes conflicting ways. For example, what might be called the liberal humanist celebration of character could be contrasted with application of Marxist thoughts. And the roll-call of those who have made significant contributions to our understanding of Dickens is itself varied: George Gissing, G.K.Chesterton, Edmund Wilson, F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, J. Hillis Miller, and so on.

This ability to find fresh things to say about Dickens, without doing violence to the integrity of the texts themselves, is charted by George Ford in his excellent book, Dickens and his Readers. However, the story that Ford tells in such a lively and interesting day does not, of course, reach as far as our own time. The issue I wish to address is the question of how far recent developments in thinking about literature can usefully be applied to Dickens. This is, of course, a very large subject and I shall have to limit it in a number of ways, and perhaps the best way for me to do this is to indicate three basic suppositions in which everything I am going to say will be grounded:

In other words, any application of critical theory to Dickens' work must take account of its linguistic virtuosity; its comic spirit; and be as applicable to the early and middle period work as the late. If it fails any of these tests, then it seems to me that the theory, whatever it is, has to be abandoned, at least for the purposes of understanding the novel.

Having just made my three suppositions, I now want to make a distinction between kinds of critical theory: what I shall call 'open theory', which is usefully to be applied to Dickens' work, contrasted with 'closed theory' which seems to me to do a violence to essential aspects of Dickens' writing. For the sake of brevity, I shall associate my idea of 'open theory' with Derrida and 'closed theory' with Foucault; I want to suggest that there are key features in the literary production of Dickens' texts which make them available to the kinds of readings associated with Derrida. In arguing this position I am, of course, taking for granted that the kind of post-structuralist thinking associated with Derrida does not set up simplified binary oppositions between, say, order, ambivalence, rationality and the daylight world of consciousness, which it then proceeds to subvert in favour of disorder, the irrational, and the dark world of the unconscious. Rather, the best kinds of open critical theory recognise the validity of both; in other words, they don't strive for the simple replacement of the ordered by the confused, but make a critical examination and dissolution of both terms of the opposition. One way of putting this has been expressed very well by Steven Connor when he states that "poststructuralism celebrates the energies of becoming over the fixities of being" (Postmodernist Culture, Blackwell 1989: 18).

Is it possible, then, to see that there are aspects of Dickens the writer and his work that make them particularly amenable to an approach of this kind? Perhaps at this point I could develop what I said a moment ago in relation to literary production. We all know that Dickens' novels were published in serial texts, usually monthly although sometimes weekly. But if I could change one aspect of Dickens studies with a wave of my magic wand, it would be to substitute the phrase "serial writing" for "serial publication" in his criticism and scholarship. This is because I believe that "serial publication" hides the reality of Dickens' working methods in a way that helps to obscure the force of just what it meant for Dickens to write, and publish, in the way that he did.

What are some of the implications of Dickens' commitment to seriality? It can take us back to Connor's distinction between becoming and being, because it is surely possible to argue that over the nineteen monthly parts of its writing and its appearance before the public, a novel such as Bleak House was in a continuous process of becoming. In other words, its state of being as a literary text is of a quite different order to the static being of a Victorian three-decker novel, the writing of which was completed before it saw the light of day in the hands of a reader. Such a method of writing and publishing give Dickens' texts a sense of fluidity in a number of ways.
One of the most obvious is their interactive relationship with the public, the possibilities of change and modification in the light of changing patterns of sales and of audience response. More deeply (and this is an idea I wish to develop later) seriality might be said to be in keeping with a whole range of Dickens' responses to the world - for example, the duality indicated in [John] Forster's famous phrase "the attraction of repulsion", as applied to Dickens' work as well as to his general outlook.

But what, now, of what I referred to earlier as 'closed theory'? Perhaps I could get into this topic by way of a very different view of serial writing and publication to the one I have just been offering. In a recent essay on A Tale of Two Cities, John W.Lamb makes an interesting transference of the concept of 'moral management' from the sphere of the Victorian treatment of lunacy to a reading of the novel. This leads him to the view that "novel reading, particularly the reading of serialised novels like A Tale of Two Cities, mimics the patterns of managed asylum life, redistributing time." Because he is committed to the Foucault-influenced view, that "violence [is] at the heart of domestic ideology", the lunatic asylum, the Victorian home, and the novel itself as a genre, all become sites of repression and control. This seems to me to be the reverse of the liberation of texts and writers and, rather, the encasing of them in lead-lined boxes. For Foucault, in my view, language is not simply the representation of power but, rather, its embodiment and so, within this self-encasing determinism, any attempt at resistance to ideology becomes yet another mode of enforcement. Perhaps it goes without saying that this mode of theoretical criticism seems mainly to concentrate on the later novels and to write about them in ways that prevent even a glimpse of their comic power.
I am arguing, then, that there are two main fields of critical theory open to us at the moment, the one liberating, the other constraining. I am also suggesting that there are features of Dickens' work, both in themselves and in terms of their literary production for the market-place, which are particularly amenable to the fluidities of post-structuralist criticism.

At this point, I wish to be more specific and to suggest that there is one major theorist of recent times who offers himself as a particularly useful tool for the illumination of Dickens' work, and that is Bakhtin. Bakhtin is hardly our contemporary in chronological terms, of course, but the relative lateness of his appearance in theoretical debates, via Julia Kristeva, and above all in his relatively recent translation into English make him seem contemporary in the power and freshness of his insights. And further, as I shall hope to show, the terms of his theoretical position speak with a peculiar directness to those aspects of Dickens' outlook and work which I suggested earlier made him a potentially fruitful site for poststructuralist analysis.

Apart from the general application of Bakhtin's ideas to Dickens, he does of course write, with amazing insight and freshness, on some pages from Little Dorrit in The Dialogic Imagination.

It seems to me that there are three major areas of Bakhtin's thought which are fascinating in their own right and which are rewarding in their specific application to Dickens. First, there is an indisputably social foundation to Bakhtin's thought which is relevant to Dickens in a number of ways. For Bakhtin, literary discourse is a social as well as a verbal phenomenon, which means that for him the literary text cannot fail to retain some relation to the world of which it is a part. This link with reality, however defined and however complex, seems an indispensable element of any successful approach to Dickens. Those theories which seek to annihilate the link between the text and the world have little chance of saying anything meaningful about a writer or a literary output which are so insistently social. Second, the dialogic or polyphonic novel (as opposed to the monologic text) seems to fit Dickens as well as, or even better, that the Dostoevsky for whom it was invented. Third, the concept of the carnivalesque (as opposed to carnival proper) is one that can be applied to Dickens with almost endless fruitfulness.

The application of polyphony to Dickens' texts is one that can be pursued in a number of directions, I think. You might remember that the original epigraph to Eliot's Waste Land was an admiring comment by Betty Higden in Our Mutual Friend, that "he do the police in different voices" - that is, that a character could take on the range of voices of characters, whose criminal cases were being reported in publications such as the Police Gazette. The multiplicity of voices at work in any of Dickens' texts is, of course, almost bewildering in its range and variety. To use Bakhtin's own words: "In the English comic novel we find a comic parodic re-processing of almost all levels of literary language, both conversational and written, that were current at the time." And it is surely Dickens who brought this tradition to his highest point of development, at least until the appearance of Joyce's Ulysses.

Bakhtin illustrates what he calls the 'heteroglossic' of the 'dialogic novel' in Dickens in a whole number of ways - in relation, for example, to what he calls 'hybrid construction'. By hybrid construction he means a "single speaker's utterance which contains within it another utterance with no formal ... boundary between them". As an example, he gives this brief passage from Little Dorrit: "But Mr. Tite Barnacle was a buttoned up man, and consequently a weighty one." For Bakhtin, this appears to be an authorial statement but "in actual fact, the motivation lies within the subjective belief system of his characters, or of general opinion" (The Dialogic Imagination: 200). Or, putting it slightly differently, this is an example of "fictive solidarity with hypocritically ceremonial general opinion".

But, in addition to this "double voicedness", as Bakhtin calls it, there are a whole number of ways in which his theoretical position illuminates Dickens' work. For example, at the deepest level, the polyphonic novel "is authentic only insofar as it represents an engagement in which, in various ways, the discourses or self and other interpenetrate each" (The Dialogic Imagination: 42). And this leads him to a moral imperative which is as central to Dickens as it is for the Dostoevsky for whom it was formulated. For Bakhtin, Dostoevsky writes "to affirm someone else's 'I', not as an object but as another subject." In its turn, this leads to the view that, for Dostoevsky, "as an artist the human being cannot be finally explained ... there is always something only he himself can reveal" (The Dialogic Imagination: 43).
These are insights which can, surely, be applied to Dickens in a fruitful manner. The affirmation of someone else's 'I' not as an object but as another subject is surely present in his work from Sketches by Boz onwards, in the delighted recognition of the otherness of his created characters, an otherness which can hardly be separated from that sense of the irreducible mystery of human beings expressed everywhere in Dickens' writings and perhaps most memorably concentrated in Hard Times.

Almost more useful is the recognition of the unavoidable necessity of that element in Dickens' work which one critic sums up in the phrase "unnecessary detail". This subject of Dickens' work can, and has been read in opposing ways: as the explicit sign of a superabundant energy, or as the wastefulness of an artist who lacks control of his own material, amounting to irresponsibility. Although not writing of Dickens himself, Bakhtin provides a way out of this dilemma in his assertion that "for individuals cannot be completely incarcerated in the flesh of existing sociolinguistic categories ... [there is] no form that he could fill to the very brim, and yet at the time not splash over the brim." This position might be summarised in the statement that "the 'polyphonic' novel [is a form] in which the voices of the characters are dialogically engaged by the voice of the narrator without the narrator seeking the final word, or seeking to place or explain the characters" in a limiting manner (The Dialogic Imagination: 157).

What, then, of the carnivalesque? I use this word because the concept of carnival itself is controversial in Bakhtin, not least because the social existence of carnival was declining at the point when the novel itself was coming into existence. The carnivalesque is a celebration of the "anarchic, body-based and grotesque elements of popular culture" and, as such, is associated with two other concepts - what Bakhtin calls "grotesque realism", within which a major role is assigned to the "grotesque body". The grotesque body is particularly interesting notion in the terms of my argument since Bakhtin defines it as "a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continuously built, created and builds and creates another body" (Rabelais and his World: 217). This clearly relates to the state of becoming, as opposed to being, that I associated earlier with the nature of serial writing and publication, and thus the openness of Dickens' texts to being read in the terms of open critical theory.

Yet we cannot simply apply the concept of the carnivalesque to Dickens in an unqualified Rabelaisian spirit. His version is clearly watered down, by his own sensibilities as much as by the pressure of his Victorian audience. But if we allow our minds to play over the whole range of Dickens' work, there are surely innumerable scenes and characters to which the carnivalesque can be applied. The Pickwick Papers is a particularly happy hunting ground - Mr. Pickwick and his companions in their drunken sorties to all parts of England; the world of Bob Sawyer and his stories, such as the girl swallowing beads which are afterwards heard rattling about in her stomach. It seems almost impossible to separate this carnivalesque celebration of human life from the clamour of voices competing for our attention, from Sam Weller to Dr. Slammer to Mr. Jingle and so on, almost into infinity. Nicholas Nickleby lives on in the memory as a carnivalesque phantasmagoria. An example from a later novel might be the Freudian, and Biblical shearing of the grotesque head of Casby by Pancks in Little Dorrit, to the accompaniment of that carnivalesque laughter of those who have been oppressed by Casby in his role as their hypocritical landlord.

I hope I have suggested to you that Dickens can be read in terms of more open versions of critical theory because of the ways in which he deconstructs his own work in the act of writing it. I would like to leave you with one final example, from Our Mutual Friend, where there is no simple opposition between good and evil in relation to wealth. The greedy and materialistic are ruthlessly exposed, but this is combined, ultimately, with a celebration of the power of money to transform and enhance human lives. Double-voicedness and the heteroglossia of the dialogic are everywhere present in Dickens' fiction.