Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

All in the Mind: The Psychological Realism of Dickensian Solitude

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

All in the Mind: The Psychological Realism of Dickensian Solitude

Article excerpt

Episodes of solitary, interior wandering regularly punctuate the otherwise busy, peopled novels of Charles Dickens; critically, however, they are moments that have been left relatively unexplored. Their significance lies partly in their unusual quietude and solemnity and also in the authentic and often profound insights into the most private worlds of his characters, insights which in turn reflect aspects of the contemporary world beyond his novels. Focusing on key instances of solitude in Dombey and Son (1846-48), this essay investigates Dickens's portrayal of the contemporary relationship between interior spaces, individual identity and psychology.

On the first such occasion, young Paul Dombey is suffering under the harsh, academic regime of his new boarding school in Brighton. He seeks solace by sitting alone on the stairs but his solitude becomes double-layered when it is invaded by a gamut of lively, exotic characters:

He loved to be alone; and in those short intervals when he was not occupied with his books, liked nothing so well as wandering about the house by himself, or sitting on the stairs, listening to the great clock in the hall. He was intimate with all the paper-hanging in the house; saw things that no one else saw in the patterns; found out miniature tigers and lions running up the bedroom walls, and squinting faces leering in the squares and diamonds of the floor-cloth. (DS 158; ch.12)

Paul's experience, with its hallucinatory "squinting faces leering," verges on the fearsome and yet there is little suggestion that he is disturbed by this; instead, it proves a source of comfort. The effect upon Paul is noteworthy in that it offers an interior version of what Ruskin recommends in architecture as "a ministry to the mind, more than to the eye," with a capacity for "rousing certain trains of meditation in the mind" (Ruskin, 1903-12; 5). Different forms of meditation were of particular interest to Dickens, not just as a believer in the healing powers of such practices but also because, as Martin Willis and Catherine Wynne point out, "Dickens, the artist, was also Dickens the mesmerist" (3). (1) When Paul listens to the clock, therefore, it is a vital precursor to his imaginings. It has talked to him before, echoing Doctor Blimber's greeting, "saying 'how, is, my, lit, tle, friend? how, is, my, lit, tle, friend?' over and over and over again" (138; ch.11). In his sojourns on the stairs, however, its role goes beyond personification, for its repetitive "voice" acts as a form of mesmerism.

Mesmerism is a recurrent feature in many of Dickens's novels, reflecting both fashionable interest and Dickens's own fascination with it. Although it emerged initially as the revelation of German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), in the years preceding the novel's publication it continued to gain adherents. Many, like Dickens, considered it to be an important advance in health treatment, with a more scientific basis than hypnotism, with which it tends to be allied today. It was viewed as "a therapeutic system based on the idea that living bodies contain a magnetic fluid, and that by manipulating this fluid into a state of balance within the body, physical health could be restored" (Bakken Library and Museum). Despite efforts by those such as Charles Mackay, who tried in Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions (1841) to quash such practices as sensationalist quackery, "mesmerism particularly fascinated an age almost obsessed by the possibility of curing all illnesses and that suffered various epidemics of its own, particularly plagues of the nervous system and the psyche" (Mackay 693). In Dombey and Son, Paul's illness is never attributed to any physical cause; beyond the initial lack of feeding and nurturing by his own mother, his weakness is psychological and gives way when he is "forced and crammed" (158; ch.12), for example, with mental over-activity by the school. His condition is also rendered, however, as an inherent flaw, in his repeated characterization by others beforehand as "old-fashioned," "strange, and old, and thoughtful in his character" (158; ch. …

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