Explosive intimacies: Family and gender roles in Dickens's early novels
Coleman, Rosemary G.
Patten, Robert L.
Doctor of Philosophy
Charles Dickens's early novels are engendered by what David Copperfield calls an "old unhappy want or loss of something," and the "something" wanted is the paradigmatic mother, providing perfect love, plenitude, and unity, while avoiding the female threats of desire and domination. Dickens's almost obsessive need to construct nurturing mothers from wives, sisters, daughters, and aunts, combined with his refusal to acknowledge his heroes' passivity, creates photographic double exposures in which a "happy family" overlays an isolated young mother/madonna and her adult male child, a domestic text half hides subtextual layers, and incestuous desires are disguised by returns to childhood innocence. When we read each narrative as if it were a palimpsest, using a three-layered psychoanalytic model, his representations of family and gender roles are startlingly different from accepted Victorian paradigms. The topmost layer of meaning, the manifest content, is that in which the realistic world of the novel is represented: family structures are created here, and family roles and relationships form the patterns of meaning. The second layer is comprised of primitive fantasies, wherein male fantasies of need for the nurturing breast, desire for the erotic breast, and fear of the smothering bad breast, pull the surface meanings into new designs. Here, gender roles and relationships form the crucial patterns. The third layer may be likened to dream work: meaning is encoded in representations of the body, its illnesses, and its metonymies. Each of the layers glosses and subverts the others, creating stories of crippled, ill bodies, mythic female roles, and narratival ambivalence. Oliver Twist constructs the paradigmatic hero who finds a mother after the mutilation of both male and female bodies. Nicholas Nickleby's hero avoids adult sexual stains by a return to his childhood and his sister. The Old Curiosity Shop offers serial primal fantasies wherein the heroine's body becomes increasingly dangerous and must be constrained. Finally, Dombey and Son constructs a heroine who becomes a mythic madonna and a hero who returns to passive infancy. The early novels thus enact a meta-narrative in which both male and female bodies are controlled by illness and disfigurement.