Between Voice and Text: Techniques of Narration in Charle Dickens's Early and Mid-Period Novels, 1836-50 (声と文字の交錯―ディケンズの前期中期小説(1836-50)に見られる語りの手法)

猪熊 恵子


This dissertation investigates the early- and mid-period novels of Charles Dickens (1812–70), focusing on their narrative techniques that foreground complex intersections of voice and text. The chief aim is to explore Dickens’s ambivalence within the broader context of 19th-century publishing market, as technological innovations contributed to produce a mass market of literature, in which people’s voices were transformed and standardised into print. Dickens utilises these changes to establish himself as a successful novelist, yet tries to preserve his own authentic voice, away from such cultural commodification.

The introductory section focuses on Dickens’s enthusiasm for public readings in later years, as he rewrote many of his early- and mid-period novels and performed the scripts aloud in front of his audiences. Although Mikhail Bakhtin argues that various different strata of social voice mutually influence and compete in Dickensian texts, I show how Dickens strenuously tries to define an authoritative oral version of his “heteroglossic” texts. Along with such a complex see-saw relationship between voice and text, another conflict between those two media comes to the fore. Dickens’s close friend, John Forster (1812–76), strongly opposed the project of readings, claiming that he should prioritise textual production. Forster’s argument presupposed a hierarchy between text and voice, as well as between art (creative writing) and non-art (oral recitals). Almost a century later, F. R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition (1948) justified its arguments for Dickens’s lack of greatness in terms of those factors: although Dickens was a “great entertainer”, his works lack seriousness and, Leavis concluded, would be best suited for parents to read aloud to their children.

Of course, Forster’s admonition and Leavis’s criticism have now become outdated. Indeed, the history of Dickens criticism, particularly from the late 20th century, has demonstrated how his public readings can be interpreted in relation to Victorian theatre and other popular entertainments, or more broadly, in relation to material conditions and technological innovations of his age. Malcom Andrew’s Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves (2006) analyses how this contributes to shaping his peculiar relationship with readers, which is not the familiar model between novelist and reader but a more liquid, innovative model between novelist-as-reader and reader-as-listener. Juliet John’s Dickens and Mass Culture (2010) also investigates Dickens’s reputation for popularity as an author as well as a reader in terms of cultural commodification and mass consumption in the Victorian period. Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton’s Dickens and the Myth of the Reader (2017) scrutinises Dickens’s public writings (that is, his published texts) as well as his private letters, clarifying how he mythologised the figure of the writer.

In spite of the massive quantity of studies related to Charles Dickens and his works, however, it is curiously rare to come across a book which exclusively takes up his early works and argues for their continuity with his later years. The early works are often associated with “orality”, and have been frequently treated as free and careless flows of words written without much planning; while on the other hand, the later works are praised as the result of Dickens’s overcoming his previous defects. This may imply that we are still―even unconsciously―preoccupied with the same axiom that connects F. R. Leavis and John Forster. Anything which is easy and amusing enough to be read aloud, and anything which does not necessitate silent, meditative reading, tends to be dismissed as not deserving serious treatment. Alternatively, the history of Dickens studies itself presents strong evidence that we in this (post-) post-modern century, are still entrapped in the framework of binary opposition, classifying what is great and what is not, what is textual and what is oral, and which will be the better of the two. On this basis, my dissertation reconsiders Dickens’s early- and middle-period novels, on the one hand for connecting them to his later years in their treatment of voice and text, and on the other hand for clarifying the dynamism between Dickens’s voice or vocal technique and his surrounding society.

Chapter 1 examines the historical context of Victorian England. Although sociological surveys suggest an unprecedented surge in literacy rates around this time, various episodes and data point to a wide range in the types and levels of literacy of supposedly educated people. Victorian novelists―among them Charles Dickens―were fully aware of the dynamic intersection of voice and text in contemporary reading experiences. Chapter 2 takes up Dickens’s early representative work, Pickwick Papers (1836–37), analysing how it internalises the conflict of voice and writing. It also reconsiders the nine interpolated tales in Pickwick Papers, which are traditionally regarded as unnecessary and as disrupting the integrity of the novel. My analyses illuminated how those tales function as decisive topoi in the whole narrative, in which multiple strata of voice, writing and print are overlaid. Pickwick Papers at first seems to assert tight and firm control over its textuality towards its readers. Yet at the same time, by implying the possibility that such materiality can be destabilised by oral modes of consumption, that same novel seems to suggest how fragile the apparently firm structure of the novel can be. Such dynamism developed between textuality and orality exemplifies the non-Aristotelian structure of early Dickens: they deviate from the normative pattern of beginning, middle and end, continuously changing and modifying themselves along with their readers’ reading experiences.

Chapter 3 analyses Master Humphrey’s Clock (1840–41) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41). Although the creative processes of these two novels are closely connected, there are many seams and scars in their narratives due to various hectic changes in Dickens’s plan. Chapter 3 reviews these disjunctions and reveals the striking similarity between the narrator, Master Humphrey, and the surrounding characters narrated by him. Moreover, the illustrations of the main narrator, Master Humphrey, are not consistent in the whole narrative. As if anticipating that base-minded readers would point out those apparent mistakes, the two novels repeatedly imply that they are not written for those who could not truly understand and share their interests. In this sense, Master Humphrey’s Clock and The Old Curiosity Shop self-reflectively internalise the processes by which they are consumed: his works were obviously developed through a convergence between the author’s act of writing and the readers’ acts of reading (aloud).

Chapter 4 digs deeper into the problematic relationship between Victorian authors, their creative works, and the behaviour of their readers and consumers, focusing on the topic of copyright. Dickens went over to America to make speeches to advocate the importance of international copyright. While he exaggerates the strength of his ties with his American readers, he at the same time requires them to pay a fee to be admitted to his intimate circle. Through tracing the interchange of criticisms between Dickens and his American audience, chapter 4 clarifies how the American tour leads Dickens to reflect on his own paradoxical standpoint as a literary author. In order to survive in the 19th-century literary market, Dickens introduces new styles of publication―such as part issues and serialisation in journals―even renouncing the right to monopolise his own creative process. Yet he cannot help criticising American publishers who were apparently working with the similar sales techniques.

The unstable balance between Dickens’s narrative voice and his position in the contemporary literary market is further considered in the following chapters. Chapter 5 takes up his travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation (1842), and considers how the word “notes” in the title contains various different meanings. The textual existence of the travelogue functions to imply the existence of some other, not so “general” notes, which can only be heard by a limited number of admitted people. Chapter 6 deals with Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44), whose American chapters also draw on the author’s actual tour there. Although these episodes were often dismissed as something unnecessary to the main story plot, which put the whole structure of the novel into confusion, this chapter considers the possibility that this supposed structural weakness or looseness is self-consciously created and developed in the world of Martin Chuzzlewit.

Chapters 7 and 8 finally analyse Dickens’s multiple attempts at autobiography―putting his own voice (rather than the voice of a narrator) into print. Chapter 7 provides an overview of how the Victorian period witnesses an immense increase of autobiographical writings. While those numerous attempts to assert individual uniqueness can be considered in terms of various different factors, such as the growing self-consciousness of working-class people or the changing line of demarcation between the private and public spheres, they more or less suggest the writers’ ambitions to differentiate and distinguish their written “selves” from the masses of other people. On the other hand, the genre compels the same writers to face dilemmas. Writing about oneself seems to be an act of unifying one’s self as a tangible whole, but the same act reversely multiplies the self into numerous different facets: the writing “I” (ever proliferating as the pages increase), the written “I” (also proliferating). To these existential difficulties, commercial necessities add another problematic question: whether putting autobiographical manuscripts into an already-saturated market could be recognised as a legitimate way to assert one’s “uniqueness” or not. Chapter 7 confirms Dickens’s, as well as other contemporary authors’, sensitivity to these problems.

Chapter 8 takes up David Copperfield (1849–50), illuminating how the apparently conventional format of Bildungsroman is secretly undermined in the opening chapter. The narrator’s striking present-tense narration of “I am born” vividly foregrounds the oral recitation of his own birth in front of his audience. Yet at the same time, an entangled relationship is established between David’s own voice and his writings: the narrator, who has already learnt how to speak and explain about his birth at the very moment of coming into existence, is not potent enough to know his own future, which should be already recorded in “these pages”, seemingly held at his hand. In this sense, the text of David Copperfield, in spite of its apparent façade of narrating the protagonist’s history of growth, doubts the status of its own textuality.

Such existential paradoxes let us realise a more fundamental problem inherent in every literary narration. It is almost impossible to define to what sphere the words of “narrator”, “narrating”, “narration”, and “narrative” truly belong. It is hard to find a satisfactory answer concerning whether those words belong to the oral or literal realm. Dickens experienced this ambiguity in various ways. As a Victorian author, he wrote within a period of rapid technological transition that absorbed people’s voices into print. As an author who tried to possess and control his creative property, he also had to be aware of the plethora of contemporary reading voices, which could undermine the authority of his writings. And as a dead author, his novels went through numerous critics’ interpretations―which are explicitly and implicitly concerned with his oral readability.

In conclusion, my dissertation argues that Dickens’s narratives are presented as loose, dynamic and ever-continuing interactions among the author’s voice, readers’ voices, and print letters. In this sense, Dickens’s true Dickensian narration lets us see why the literary terms of “narrative” and “narration” have a tendency to swing unstably between the textual and oral spheres. The act of narration cannot exist apart from a complicated social network, or without the acute self-consciousness of its audience. It can only anticipate its own manner of consumption: whoever listens to, reads, or experiences the narrative can take the contents in whatever ways they like; and as a result of these different and unpredictable modes of consumption, “narration” remains ultimately indeterminate.