Monday, March 12, 2007
Notes on Dickens 2
Dickens's use of language reflects an exterior view of character. In most of Dickens we are outside the characters looking on and understanding them from their actions and their speech, as described by an omniscient narrator who goes everywhere and who knows everything. Dickens’s stories are usually told in the third person singular, past or present simple. There are a number of significant exceptions to this.
In his first published work the fantastic Sketches by Boz the narrative voice is 1st person plural, the Royal We; Reader and Writer united from the start.
The first three chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop are in the 1st person, but then the narrator - an old man who runs into Nell one dark night on the streets of London - bows out for the convenience of the narrative. It’s as if the naïve writer realizes that a 1st person narrative will limit his perspective, and that using the 3rd person will enable him to float around London. It’s amazing to see Dickens doing this on the hoof, in the third weekly installment of a project.
David Copperfield and Great Expectations are also told in the first person.
David Copperfield is the story of a boy from the middle classes who is plunged into personal poverty. The story is essentially his struggle to put himself back, about his re-entry into the middle classes as a young man (similar to Dickens’s own life story). Six months before he started writing it, the death from TB of his favourite older sister, Fanny, closely followed by the death of her mentally handicapped son, Dickens’s nephew, forced the writer to look in detail at his hitherto perhaps rather too successfully repressed childhood experiences. The 1st person narrative closely describes many of the experiences from Dickens’s own early life, and one has the sense that writing it is dealing with it.
Great Expectations, on the other hand, is the story of a working class boy who is suddenly and inexplicably elevated into the middle classes by inheriting a mysterious fortune from the Australian convict Magwitch. The story is essentially about his struggle to deal with his guilt at his elevation, to find his working class roots and return to himself.
The narrative trajectories of these two novels mirror each other, and they are both consciousness driven novels, which by necessity of their 1st person narratives explore the themes of memory and experience.
The two narratives of Bleak House – one 3rd person present simple, one 1st person past simple are the means by which the novel examines the relationship between the private and the public spheres: interiority but not at the cost of omniscience.