Through an extensive study of Dickens’s “new art form,” the illustrated novel, Spectral Dickens sets out to transform certain fundamental assumptions about realism, literary forms, and imitation of personhood that have long defined the discourse of novel criticism and character studies. This book redefines and expands the critical discourse on fictional character by bringing a wider range of modern critical theory to the study of Dickens’s characterization, using in particular the three “hauntological” concepts of the Freudian uncanny, Derridean spectrality, and the Lacanian Real to give new ontological dimensions to the basic question: “What is a character?” By taking into account visual forms of representation and emphasizing the importance of form in rethinking the strict opposition between real person and fictional character, Spectral Dickens shifts the focus of character studies from long-entrenched values like “realism,” “depth,” and “lifelikeness,” to nonmimetic critical concepts like effigy, anamorphosis, visuality, and distortion. Ultimately, the “spectral” forms and concepts developed here in relation to Dickens’s unique and innovative characters—characters that have, in fact, always challenged implicit assumptions about the line between fictional character and real person—should have broader applications beyond Dickens’s novels and the Victorian era. The aim here is to provide a richer and more nuanced framework though which to understand fictional characters not as imitations of reality, but as specters of the real.
The first chapter explores the creative explosion of caricature in the early nineteenth century as a type of characterization that offers an alternative to mimetic forms such as realism, and in particular to that of portraiture. The term caricature is often used in relation to Dickens’s characters, and has been from the beginning, but critics have rarely stopped to consider what caricature is and what it has to offer as a nonmimetic form of representation. Chapter 1 looks at how caricature offers a destabilizing potential for representing subjectivity at the very moment that mimetic portraiture is reinforcing a certain seemingly unassailable egocentric display of the subject. Caricature counters the image of the mirror implied in mimesis with a gesture of distortion that haunts the mimetic self-image of the subject with a spectral element. This dreamlike distortion, or anamorphosis, has not only destabilizing but in fact revolutionary potential, as illustrated by the origin of this creative explosion, the political lithographic artwork of the French caricaturists, Daumier, Philipon, and Grandville. This chapter explains why anamorphosis in particular has both ontological and political implications.
Chapter 2 demonstrates how dreams and distortion, as spectral forms, hold political and symbolic potential for refiguring the way we think about subjectivity or the idea of a person. The central mechanism of these forms of representation is anamorphosis, whether literally or figuratively, which is a means of shifting the point of perspective outside of the subject, a gesture of desubjectification that spectralizes the egocentric model of portraiture. The character of Rosa Dartle, from David Copperfield, provides a key example of this gesture of desubjectification inflicted upon the mimetic subject in the form of her scar. This chapter also looks at how Dickens and his illustrator, Phiz, engage in a specular play—a play between the visual and the verbal—that is inspired by the dreamlike distortions developed in the visual language of the lithograph, especially by Daumier and Grandville. This specular play exposes the “gaze” (in Lacan’s sense of the term) that is concealed in portraiture and it is explored through themes of imitation and play throughout The Pickwick Papers.
Chapter 3 introduces the concept of effigy, another form of spectral representation that haunts the mirror-reflection model of the ego with a sense of the uncanny, here especially in reference to bourgeoisie and its (social) self-image, as illustrated by Daumier’s famous caricature of King Louis Philippe as a pear. Effigy is an under-theorized and under-recognized means of characterization, yet it is everywhere in Dickens’s novels, early to late, from the figurehead of a ship Quilp uses as an effigy of Kit Nubbles to the Wooden Midshipman in Dombey and Son to painted Allegory on Tulkinghorn’s ceiling. As an object or image that acts as a symbolic substitute for a person, effigy defies the opposition between original and representation and at the same time it is uncannily reflective of the commodity fetishism—attributing a “magic” or “phantasmic” value to objects—burgeoning under nineteenth-century speculative capitalism. Dickens draws on these parallels with the commodity form, this chapter suggests, but also sees effigy as a self-reflexive metaphor for his own unique form of characterization, as it links subjectivity with objects, absence, and death.
Chapter 4 develops the concept of “moor eeffocish things.” G. K. Chesterton coins this term—which derives from an uncanny moment in Dickens’s autobiographical fragments (where he reads “Coffee Room” in reverse as “Moor Eeffoc”)—to describe the many eerily animated objects in Dickens’s universe. Accordingly this chapter analyzes animated objects as effigies, especially masks and dolls, in the text and illustrations of Bleak House. Two effigies in Bleak House that get particular attention in this chapter are Esther’s doll and Roman Allegory painted on Tulkinghorn’s ceiling. Throughout the novel Bleak House, characters such as Esther, Bucket, Tulkinghorn, Smallweed, and Krook, whose representations all incorporate the ontological otherness of objects like dolls, doubles, reflections, painted images, and masks, appear alternately as portraits of human subjects or as effigies of desubjectifying social forces
Chapter 5 takes as its point of departure Stephen Marcus’s intriguing claim that “Dickens has committed himself at the outset of The Pickwick Papers to something like pure writing, to language itself” and develops this idea by considering this “pure writing,” understood here in terms of the materiality of language, in a psychoanalytic framework. This framework provides a way to interpret character in relation to both language and the unconscious (which is “structured like a language” according to Lacan), but also places language in the context of Lacan’s symbolic/imaginary/Real dynamics. Taking these factors into account as “spectral materiality” provides a new perspective into Dickens’s fascination with fragmented and compound, often quasi-allegorical names, with scenes of writing, with speech tics and impediments, and with capturing spoken idiom in written form, all of which are central to his characters’ subjectivity. Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield provides a central illustration of the fact that language itself (“pure language,” its autonomy from the subject) is the “extimate” aspect of subjectivity and thus “spectralizes” the author himself.
Chapter 6 explores Dickens’s use of the “as if” linguistic structure in Little Dorrit to reflect the ontological crisis of nineteenth-century speculative capitalism, which, in Lacanian terms, threatens the status of the “quilting points” of the “Name-of-the-Father” that grounds the symbolic order (and thus identity) in reality. The “as if” structure in Dickens is thus shown to have a double function. It allows Dickens to introduce a kind of “montage thinking” into the narrative form, giving images a disjunctive relation to the realist tendency of the narrative and also giving the images or details a kind of symbolic or signifying autonomy of their own. The “as if” also provides a radical critique of the effect of capitalism on the social sense of reality and its patriarchal structure, which is why the novel is so concerned with the motif of unmasking paternal signifiers in the case of the novels “three fathers” (the “Father of the Marshalsea,” the “Patriarch” Casby, and Merdle the begetter of speculative capital).