Dickens and Imagination

Dickens and Imagination

Dickens and Imagination

Dickens and Imagination


Robert Higbie investigates the concept and use of imagination in Romantic and Victorian literature, concentrating on the novels of Charles Dickens and showing how they illuminate and are influenced by various tendencies in post-Romantic thought. Higbie offers a new definition of imagination as a function of desire, an unstable compound existing "at the intersection of reason and desire" and he discusses the way 19th-century writers attempted to use imagination to revive or replace religious belief.

Against this background he discusses Dickens's works from Pickwick to Our Mutual Friend, showing that both an idealist emphasis on imagination and a realist distrust of it evolved in complex ways throughout Dickens's career. He argues that Dickens's novels involve a search for some sort of spiritual ideal and that he based that search on imagination. At the same time, Dickens recognized the limitations of imagination and attempted to transform it through the process enacted in his novels.

During a period when,criticism has been dominated by ideological orthodoxy, Higbie does not impose modern, quasi-political attitudes on his subject but rather accepts the past sympathetically on its own terms. His work is refreshingly free of jargon and offers an alternate way of thinking about literature and the creative process.


This study is an attempt to understand the use of imagination in Dickens's fiction by seeing Dickens in terms of his relationship to Victorian idealism and to the concept of imagination that idealist writers adopted and adapted from the Romantics. A study of this kind can not only help us comprehend more about Dickens but can also throw considerable light on some of the main tendencies in nineteenth-century thought and even on the nature of imagination in general.

I hope the following chapters will make clear the ideas on which my discussion is based, but perhaps I should briefly mention them here. My research began with the observation that many nineteenth-century writers frequently referred to imagination in similar ways. I gradually realized that certain strands of thought related to imagination ran through nineteenth- century culture and that an understanding of these concepts would cast light on the literature of the period. In order to comprehend those concepts, I needed to develop an idea of what imagination was and how it worked in literature, an idea that fitted what nineteenth-century writers said. For the sake of clarity, I want to begin by explaining that idea, even though it is the result, not the starting point, of my research. To put it in the most general and widely applicable terms, I have found it useful to see works of literature as attempts to imagine some desired object but also as efforts to deal with the difficulties created by such attempts--for example, by trying to find ways of compensating for literature's inability to make the imaginary seem completely real or to accommodate impulses in the imagination that work against desire.

This way of thinking about literature has two advantages. Because it focuses on the way desire acts (through imagination) upon the work's content, it can get at much that is most basic in the work, since desire is so basic. Thus it can apply to a wide range of works--particularly to works in the nineteenth century . . .

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