Ethical Narrative in Dickens and Thackeray

By Fisher, Judith | Studies in the Novel, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Ethical Narrative in Dickens and Thackeray


Fisher, Judith, Studies in the Novel


Comparing Dickens to Thackeray in the context of these books brought me ultimately to the question of why we read each author. While both shared a thorough understanding of the conventions of fiction and its rhetorical power, they exploited those conventions to illustrate dramatically different ethical systems. Contrasting assessments of the relation between nature and culture in human character determined the kinds of stories Dickens and Thackeray would tell and, correspondingly, the kinds of readings we can make of these stories.

Clarke and Reed argue for conceptual and stylistic unity within the oeuvre of these novelists. The aesthetic differences that allow us to read a "Thackeray novel" or a "Dickens novel" derive from deep-seated assumptions about moral behavior. A consequential relation between theme and plot is a cornerstone of Reed's intent, which is to show "the way strongly held beliefs about what punishment and forgiveness involve determine the ways in which stories can be told" (p. xiv). Reed's primary technique, as he acknowledges, is repetition. He surveys almost all the work by each author to demonstrate the recurrence of one primary attitude toward punishment and forgiveness for Dickens and Thackeray; this determines plot structure, narrative presence, and resolution. Reed contextualizes his discussion of Dickens and Thackeray within the changing nature of penology from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Reed connects these practical changes in crime and punishment to the Victorians' larger theological debate about the nature of punishment and forgiveness, especially as this debate affected the raising of children.

Clarke's demonstration of Thackeray's unity is more developmental. Her basic argument is that "over a century ago, Thackeray's novels were already providing a brilliant analysis of the gender ideology of his age-not merely reproducing the assumptions that authorized the subjection of women but reproducing in order to oppose them" (p. 18). Clarke contextualizes Thackeray within the growth of early Victorian feminism and the history of Caroline Norton in particular. Harden's meticulous and valuable collection of letters, which supplements Gordon Ray's 194546 edition, offers support for Clarke's contention that Thackeray's sympathy for the restricted life of the Victorian "angel" stemmed from his own experience of his female friends' lives.

Although Reed does not rely on Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish, his analysis of Dickens shows us how fiction implicitly elaborated the interiorization of punishment into a transcendental but subjective moral code. Police officers and prisons, tortures and trials are unneeded in Dickens's novels. "Fate" seeded in the essence of the individual takes care of both reward and punishment. Foucault argues that the body in the nineteenth century becomes not the object of punishment but a means of reforming the soul.(2) Moreover, the interiorization of punishment which offers the "rehabilitation" of the individual also creates the idea of the individual, the subjective self with its history, practice, and morality inscribed on its surface language and behavior.(3) Readers of Dickens penetrate the surface of respectable villains such as Carker, Bradley Headstone, and the Lammles to enter into sordid worlds of self-torture. Their agonies are displayed for our entertainment and moral benefit. For example, in Dombey and Son, after Edith has deserted Dombey, he "incarcerates himself' (Reed, p. 176) in his cold, lonely house. The narrative voice punishes him, assuming the persona of a "scriptural prophet" to remind Dombey of his lovelessness and cruel treatment of Florence.

He was fallen, never to be raised up any more. For the night

of his worldly ruin there was not to-morrow's sun; for the stain of

his domestic shame there was no purification; nothing, thank

Heaven, could bang his dead child back to life. …

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