Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Riches of Redundancy: Our Mutual Friend

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Riches of Redundancy: Our Mutual Friend

Article excerpt

Our Mutual Friend has not pleased many otherwise satisfied readers of Dickens's fiction. For his contemporaries and such acute assessors of fiction as Henry James, the novel seemed to lack structure, among other faults. More recently, critics have discovered ways in which Dickens can be seen experimenting in this novel, especially with a tightness of structure that, to a large extent, keeps itself hidden. (1) What I wish to argue here is that Dickens was in full command of his narrative, so much so that he wanted both to assist his readers in interpreting it correctly and to retain control of the mode of that interpretation. Dickens was a man devoted to orderliness and careful exertion to a determined end. These inclinations, it seems to me, are extended to his fiction as well, more so as he grows older. I also wish to argue that in establishing an incredibly elaborate structure for his novel, he was extending his quarrel with what has come to be known as realism. Calling attention to its own language and using highly formal structure were taboos of realism (see Levine 8, 11). Dickens glories in his command of language, especially metaphor, and creates a formal structure that intentionally challenges plausibility. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens employs his characteristic technique of offering a surplus of information in order to guarantee the transmission of meaning, what in information theory was early dubbed "redundancy." (2) In his early fiction, Dickens was rather obvious about this overload of data-the backing up of one pattern of references by another related pattern. But by the time he wrote Our Mutual Friend, his technique, though still perceivable, was subtler, hence my choice of this novel to study redundancy because it weaves imagery, allusion, and narrative detail into a mode of transmission that calls attention to itself and by doing so restricts what the information it transmits can mean. Insofar as it does this, it is directly opposed to the practices of realist fiction. In his early fiction, Dickens was serializing narratives of which he did not know the conclusions and his use of imagery was thus not as controlled as it became later. For this reason, the early novels are in some ways closer to realist technique than the later, though with a powerful admixture of fairy-tale qualities. There are many more examples of the gratuitous details that constitute Roland Barthes's "reality effect," undigested material that emphasizes the unexpectedness of everyday reality. In the later, well-planned novels, Dickens permitted very little that did not contribute to his design; the superfluity of information both in narrated detail and in the supporting imagery and allusiveness, despite immediate appearances, acts against this "reality effect," by narrowing the meaning of the narrative as a whole and confining it as strictly as possible to Dickens's own intended meaning. Like his own characters Jenny Wren and Mr. Venus, he wants to make use of every scrap. Even the serial mode of publication came to serve these ends as the segments became more tightly related to one another, as book and chapter titles often indicate; see, for example, the allusive book titles of Our Mutual Friend itself. My approach here bears some resemblance to John Kucich's concept of a fantastic rhetoric, where mode (inner form) and style (imagery, description, etc.) interweave to create an economy of rhetoric that reinforces authorial intent and finds its chief expression in characters who range from control to prodigal excess of human desire. In my formulation, employing tools from information theory, I see information diffused and coded throughout the text, thereby not requiring the concepts of mode and style, but instead depending on Dickens's own clues and signals for the reading of his text, through a redundancy, here not understood as mere excess or prodigality of style, as Kucich sees it, but as a guarantee of transmission. For Kucich, the tension in Dickens's prose comes from the interaction of mode and style, but for me it is in information that is tagged and that which is untagged. …

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