"Discard the Word Fancy Altogether!" Charles Dickens's Defense of Ambiguity in Hard Times

By Pollatschek, Nele | Dickens Quarterly, December 2013 | Go to article overview

"Discard the Word Fancy Altogether!" Charles Dickens's Defense of Ambiguity in Hard Times


Pollatschek, Nele, Dickens Quarterly


Contrary to F. R. Leavis's claim that in Hard Times everything is "immediately apparent as we read" (250), Dickens's choice and usage of the key term "Fancy" is surprisingly complex. "Fancy" is used not only to champion Christian fellow feeling but also as a point of contention for two different approaches to meaning. As Dennis Walder pointed out, "Hard Times gathers up and reinforces Dickens's repugnance towards Benthamite reductionism and his faith in Christian charity across class divisions" (145). It is specifically in the word "Fancy" that different Judeo-Christian values are bundled and made to withstand Benthamite utilitarian economy as personified by Josiah Bounderby and Thomas Gradgrind. (1) At the same time there is another resistance to Benthamite reductionism at work. By having different characters use "Fancy" in ways that are in semantic opposition, Dickens opposes utilitarian attempts to force a single meaning onto the word. Gradgrind's forceful efforts to control the meaning of "Fancy" mirror Bentham's "language therapy". (2) At the same time the narrator repeatedly embeds "Fancy" in contexts which open it up to interpretation. These narratorial endeavors to make "Fancy" ambiguous are aided by the fact that many of the meanings to which "Fancy" lends itself are specific to Hard Times. The Coleridgian divide between "Fancy" and "Imagination" is not enforced in the text; neither can one find the evangelical rejection of "Fancy" as dangerous or unchristian. (3) In Hard Times, Dickens frees "Fancy" from extra-textual fetters, to be used by the characters and the narrator in their own heteroglossic play.

The treatment of "Fancy" exhibits fictional representations of two positions that have been gathering momentum and importance to this day. In the early twentieth century Benthamite reductionism can be found in the attempt to therapize language by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards in The Meaning of Meaning (1923). 4 A direct reaction is expressed in William Empson's passionate defense of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). Owing to our ever growing need to make language computable, ambiguity has become the point of contention between literary criticism and (computer) linguistics. While many literary critics inherit Empson's appreciation of ambiguity as the creator of a literary excess of meaning, Benthamite reductionism lies at the heart of many aspects of linguistics. In trying to make natural language computable "[t]he problem to be solved is that many words have several meanings or senses" (Manning 229). Language still resists attempts to be weighed and measured as "a parcel of human nature, and tell [...] exactly what it comes to" (Dickens, Hard Times 2; bk. 1, ch. 2). In Hard Times "Fancy" becomes the piece de resistance in a linguistic battle that is more relevant than ever.

Samuel Johnson defines Fancy as "[i]magination; the power by which the mind forms to itself images and representation of things, persons, or scenes of being" (Fancy n.f.). Coleridge famously distinguishes between "Fancy" and "Imagination," defining the former as an "arbitrary bringing together of things that lie remote, and forming them into a unity," contrasting imagination, which "generates and produces a form of its own" (Coleridge 84). (5) Taking Coleridge into account, the OED definition differentiates between "Fancy" and "Imagination," describing "Fancy" as "aptitude for the invention of illustrative or decorative imagery" ("Fancy, N. and A."). Applying these definitions to Hard Times one arrives at a counter-intuitive character dichotomy: Josiah Bounderby, Mrs. Sparsit and to a lesser extent Mr. Gradgrind are characters of Fancy; Sissy Jupe is not.

The reader first encounters Mr. Gradgrind in the act of mentally introducing himself to an imaginary audience (Hard Times 2; bk. 1, ch. 2). Mr. Bounderby's fantasies--mostly involving his own humble origins or the desires of the working class--are too numerous to list. …

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