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Dickens, a Modern Writer

January 17, 2012

I have to admit that my prior excursions into the works of Charles Dickens have been quite limited. Meaning, I read “A Tale of Two Cities”, “Oliver Twist”, and “Hard Times” somewhere between junior high and high school. There was also an abortive attempt at “Bleak House” (I vaguely remember laudanum, orphans, and perhaps a ghost [?]), so I am looking forward to finally finishing that one.

In my mind there has always been somewhat of a stigma concerning Dickens. The same could be said of the Victorians in general; however, I have gotten over that more encompassing bias and now consider the Rossettis, Gerard Manley Hopkins (esp., Fr. Hopkins), and John Ruskin to be some of my favorite writers (just to name a few). Yet something of that hum-drum, crusty, stiffened lip, boring, prudish aura has continued to hover about Mr. Dickens in the imagination of yours truly. Which is not to say that I did not enjoy my, so-called, prior excursions into the Dickensian universe (multiverse?), because I did. I just seem to have a terrible habit of forgetting how funny and downright modern Dickens can be.

Michael Cotsell puts it nicely in his Oxford World’s Classics introduction in stating that Our Mutual Friend “is closer to the creativity of Joyce’s Ulysses than to the cold eye of Gissing’s fiction.” This comparison struck me full force in the chapter “The Man from Somewhere” as Dickens style immediately put me in mind of the “Circe” section (part 14) of Ulysses in particular. Firstly because that section of Joyce’s novel is set up like a “play” with stage directions and all and much of Dickens’ descriptions read like stage directions: “The great looking-glass above the sideboard reflects the table and company” (10), or “Here, the Analytical Chemist (who has evidently formed a very low opinion of Mortimer’s story) concedes a little claret to the Buffers; who again mysteriously moved all four at once […] as they cry in chorus, ‘Pray go on'” (14). Lines such as these read like stage directions in the sense that they both direct the layout of the stage and direct the attitudes and actions of the actors (and hey, there is even a “chorus” propelling the story forward). Joyce merely takes this conceit and chops the prose into the form of a script.

I also really liked how the “stage directions” and “chorus” work in conjunction with a textual awareness of creating a “text” on the part of Mortimer, and in so doing all three power the fits and starts of trying to finish the story of “The Man From Somewhere”. Mortimer shows an awareness of his own weaving of a text in such asides as “We must now return, as the novelists say” (14). This willingness to play with narrative and the sort of self-awareness that could be called meta-textuality adds much to the humor and excitement of reading Dickens.

And now I once more look forward to driving further inland upon the realm of Dickens.

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5 Comments
  1. Very nice post! I like your comparison of “stage directions”. It was a very nice way of looking at the descriptions. A Ulysses reference is always impressive 🙂

  2. Love the “stage directions.” Could it be that Dickens was toying with deconstuctionism of novels?

  3. Interesting perspective of the, as I call it, Veneerings Dinner Scene. I never really thought of the descriptions as stage directions but as you discuss it I can see it clearly. I never made it completely through Ulysses so I can’t claim to make the comparison. It is impressive that you made the comparison as I would’ve never put these two authors together. As for this particular scene, it was one of my favorites thus far. I laughed out loud at the interactions between the guests. Can’t wait to read what you have to say next.

  4. I so enjoyed your post. Interesting that you mention Gerard Manley Hopkins. Readers and writers sometimes describe him as “little known.” Rather, I find that he is quite well known in most circles and he has so much to offer as a poet. There is plenty you can do with a comparison between the prose of Dickens and the poetry of Hopkins.

    • I think that Hopkins’ “critical stock” has been on the rise since his death for certain. I think that he is often little taught rather than little known. It always makes me glad to hear that other people love him. I think his writings reside in a strange place because his meter and vocabulary were so far ahead of their time, yet he is such a nature poet and even more of a religious poet. Many modern minds can barely stand the former, let alone the latter. This is naturally very sad. All in my opinion of course.

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