Dickens and Personification

By Reed, John R. | Dickens Quarterly, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Dickens and Personification


Reed, John R., Dickens Quarterly


George Ford wrote that at the height of Dickens's career, there was a general growing appreciation of the aesthetics of fiction along with a growing demand for realism in the novel, which created a tendency for critics to misvalue the developments in Dickens's own writing (128). Though Dickens employed many non-realist techniques, one feature of his writing that might have been off-putting for a critic demanding greater realism was his frequent use of personification. (1) What figurative device is less conducive to realism than personification, so deeply connected to unrealistic genres such as allegory and fable? Although Dickens was fully aware of his fanciful use of personification in his fiction, he also used the device frequently in his personal discourse.

This tendency surfaces early in Dickens's career, sometimes with amusing irony. Referring to an essay for Bentley's Miscellany, Dickens wrote to Theodore Martin, "The Dying Student is also at the Printer's. I will look him up, and entomb him in the February number" (Letters 1: 479). The personification of a piece of writing is not remarkably original, but to transform publication into entombment is. Rodney Stenning Edgecombe has examined personification in Dickens, but his approach is to discuss abstractions made concrete, such as Mendicity. He also makes an interesting observation about how alert Dickens was to the whole idea of personification, by pointing out that Dickens converts an idle personification--the allegory of the pointing Roman on Tulkinghorn's ceiling in Bleak House--to a functional one (232-3).

In this essay, however, I emphasize the animating quality of personification and am not interested in locutions such as "blind justice," which offer embodiments of abstractions, or "Heep was the personfication of guile," which offers an individual as an abstract model. Instead, I shall demonstrate that Dickens combines personification and de-animation as companion devices to emphasize the way in which human existence may be perceived as hyper real, hence constituting an implied resistance to the realist movement, for which personification was not an acceptable tool. That his tendency to this form of personification was part of Dickens's world view is evident in some of his public statements. In an address at a banquet in his honor at Hartford on February 7, 1842, he stated his belief that nothing is high because it is in a high place, and that nothing is low, because it is in a low one, then added.

   This is a lesson taught us in the great book of nature. This is the
   lesson which may be read, alike in the bright track of the stars,
   and in the dusty course of the poorest thing that drags its tiny
   length upon the ground. This is the lesson ever uppermost in the
   thoughts of that inspired man, who tells us that there are
      Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
      Sermons in stones, and good in everything. (Speeches 24)

For Dickens, all of existence, both animate and inanimate contained a kind of spirit that the human imagination could release. Harvey Peter Sucksmith states that animism and a sense of force permeating things is typical of introverted vision, which he argues is part of Dickens's makeup (345). This may be so, but my claim here is that Dickens consciously employed the device of personification or animation to create a literature that feels free to exceed the limits of realism and to stimulate a similar kind of animating activity in his readers. (2)

An early and simple instance of my sense of personification occurs in The Pickwick Papers. I choose this particular example because it combines humans, other living creatures, and inanimate things all contained in one modal presentation.

   The morning which broke upon Mr. Pickwick's sight, at eight
   o'clock, was not at all calculated to elevate his spirits, or to
   lessen the depression which the unlooked-for result of his embassy
   inspired. … 

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