Recovered from obscurity : "structures of feeling" and discourses of identity and power relations through the peripheral characters in the novels of Charles Dickens.
Many of Charles Dickens‟s peripheral characters have not received critical attention through a de-centered reading in a single, unified body of work. For reasons which are related largely to his biography, Dickens had a deep and abiding interest in the members of the lower classes who feature prominently in his novels. This thesis, on the eve of the bi-centennial anniversary of the author‟s birth, examines his representations of a selection of these characters that appear to have been, to a large extent, forgotten and lie in obscurity, submerged in the vast storehouse of his creations. In his novels, Dickens vociferously champions the rights of the marginalised whilst he, simultaneously, evinces a discerning consciousness of their susceptibility to forms of conduct which he disapproved of. His empathy is, therefore, of a kind which is tinged with distrust, fear and, at times, repulsion. Central to this thesis is Dickens‟s ambivalence towards the proverbial small man/woman which is examined in terms of its genesis, development and resolution. In its engagement with these characters, this study draws, primarily, on the New Historicist (particularly the work of Stephen Greenblatt) and Cultural Materialist approaches to the reading of literary texts and is foregrounded in Raymond Williams‟s formulation of “structures of feeling”. Aligned to this, is Michel Foucault‟s conceptualizations of power. My Introduction defines the parameters within which this thesis is situated. The need for a study of this nature is outlined and an overview of the theoretical positions, intimated above, is presented. The central ideas which link Foucault, Greenblatt and Williams are clearly spelt out and their relevance to Dickens‟s peripheral characters is anticipated. Of the 14 novels discussed, David Copperfield, because of its strong autobiographical connections, is read as most crucial in the shaping of Dickens‟s attitudes towards the lower classes. Chapter 1 is therefore devoted, exclusively, to this novel which serves, initially, as a gateway to this thesis and, thereafter, as its nodal point. Chapter 2 (“Voices in the Crowd”) picks up the links from David Copperfield as it explores the realm of public space. It identifies and draws to the centre those characters that constitute the crowd, as it is seen in everyday contexts. Chapter 3 (“The World of the Public-House”) takes the reader into the Victorian tavern – that microcosm of society where “social energies” are seen to “circulate” in complex configurations. Chapter 4 (“Servants and Dickens‟s Double Vision”) discusses the representatives of the lower classes as they are seen in their roles as servants – a crucial area of Victorian “cultural poetics” and one that was very near to Dickens‟s heart. In my Conclusion I revisit the question of Dickens‟s ambivalence and situate this in the context of the posthumously published, and relatively unknown, The Life of Our Lord. It would seem that many commentators tend to allude to Dickens‟s ambivalence without actually offering a detailed examination of the peripheral characters, as they are seen in different contexts. In bringing together some of the smallest of the small in a unified body of work (for what may possibly be the first time), this thesis offers fresh insights into the ways in which the writer knew and understood the lower classes.