Works in Progress - Summer 2012

Digging Into Dickens

By Tom Bentley | January 23, 2014


How a novelist tells a story affects the way readers perceive what’s going on, says English professor Catherine Robson of New York University. Perhaps that’s not an earthshaking observation, but consider Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, a novel of unconventional form that Robson says changes our very conception of human conception.

A character, the illegitimate Esther, relates the story of Bleak House as a recounting of her past, with her storytelling alternating with a third-person, unidentified narrator. For Robson, how Dickens presents the relationships between the narrator and the character is a way to understand the central mystery of the novel’s plot: Esther’s genesis.

One passage finds Esther outside the closed door of two newlyweds, feeling excluded from “the murmur of their young voices” within. “That splitting of narration,” Robson says, “between an unlocated present-tense speaker and a single individual bears a relation, I’ll argue, to the simultaneous connect and disconnect between the love-making of Esther’s unmarried parents and the existence of their child.

“Nineteenth-century fiction’s most carefully elaborated psychologies are grounded upon hostility toward the sexual act that both created them and cared nothing for their individuality,” Robson says.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth. Robson will elaborate her thesis at the annual Dickens Universe, a week-long immersion in the author’s work to be held this summer at the University of California–Santa Cruz.

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