Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Spirits of All Three Shall Strive within Me": Bourdieuan Multiform Capital and Dickensian Characterization

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Spirits of All Three Shall Strive within Me": Bourdieuan Multiform Capital and Dickensian Characterization

Article excerpt

Since the beginning of Charles Dickens's career, critics have detailed with precision the effect of his characters while leaving the exact mechanics of his method undefined. Dickens has always been known to create vibrant minor figures with distinctive habits of speech, manner, and body, who often exist in contrast to his bland protagonists; he traffics in types, stereotypes, and caricatures, and privileges humor, incident, and sentiment over psychological development. (1) This view is emphasized nowhere more than in discussions of A Christmas Carol (1843), in which Ebenezer Scrooge's overnight rehabilitation has long appeared unrealistic at best and politically suspect at worst. (2) The contemporary reviewer R. H. Home lamented after the Carol's publication that the rapidity of Scrooge's transformation completely eclipses any discussion of "the processes whereby poor men are enabled to earn good wages, wherewith to buy turkeys for themselves" (152). In the mid-twentieth century, Edmund Wilson suggested that Scrooge suffers from Dickens's continual struggle to get "good and bad together in one character" (65) and concluded that Dickens failed to make Scrooge's dual nature believable: "if we were to follow him beyond the frame of the story," Wilson contends, he would "unquestionably... relapse when the merriment was over" (64). Elliot L. Gilbert fleshed out this objection thirty years later, writing that the serious reader of the Carol--no matter how moved by Scrooge's conversion--knows "that men who spend whole lifetimes in miserable offices and lonely rooms, bullying their clerks... do not turn overnight into decent, generous people, touched only in their own best interests by the past, and dedicated to the good of their fellowmen" (22). Gilbert recasts the novel from unconvincing moral fable to successful "metaphysical study of a human being's quest for, and rediscovery of, his own innocence" (24), but J. Hillis Miller, in his 1993 essay "The Genres of A Christmas Carol," returns to Home's objection, arguing that, despite the wonderful vivacity of Dickens's language, the novel "reinforces an essentially conservative ideology" in which "the capitalist system of getting, spending, production and exchange" is not "supposed to be altered in any basic way" (204). Delving deeper into the text's hegemonic investments, Audrey Jaffe theorizes that, through Scrooge's voyeuristic journey, Dickens creates the paradigmatic narrative of "enculturation," in which readers absorb "the dominant values" forwarded by a particular time and place (255). In short, these critics identify A Christmas Carol as the novel in which Dickens's tacit endorsement of capitalism and his methods of characterization dovetail with particular clarity. (3)

These critical accounts of A Christmas Carol and its politics are incomplete, however, without a robust, sustained theory of how Dickensian characterization creates and vivifies the individual. The political meaning of Scrooge's conversion--and its degree of verisimilitude--cannot be discerned if, as critics of the realist novel, we have not accounted for how exactly Dickens constitutes each of his characters as individuals. In this essay, working off of the social theory of Pierre Bourdieu, I theorize that Dickens allegorizes the multiform capital (economic, cultural, and social) of his characters through their bodies; he communicates each character's possession of capital to the reader via their frenetic bodily movements and idiosyncratic physical features. Scholars of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel have long argued that the genre possesses a unique ability to help its reader process how modern financial institutions have redefined individual personhood. Deidre Lynch has traced how authors and readers used literary characters "to renegotiate social relations in their changed, commercialized world, to derive new kinds of pleasure from the changes, to render their property truly private, to cope with the embarrassment of riches" (4-5). …

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