- Dickens’ Novels as Poetry: Allegory and the Literature of the City by Jeremy Tambling
In Dickens’ Novels as Poetry: Allegory and the Literature of the City, Jeremy Tambling immediately immerses his readers in his chosen subject and in Charles Dickens’s characteristic style. He begins with two deliberately fragmentary sentences and then prints a lengthy quotation from Dombey and Son (1846–48) describing the railroad construction as it fragments an urban neighborhood. Tambling ends the book with an implicitly self-referential sentence: “But the Mask terrifies because there is nothing beyond it; it says that there was never anything more than figuration, which it both makes to go on, scatters, and arrests, makes go on and scatters because it arrests”—arresting the book on the word “arrests” (218). Fragmentation, figuration, and proliferation suffuse Dickens’s style, and Tambling mimics these qualities in his analysis. The fifteen short chapters provide accretive readings rather than sustained argumentation, though Tambling does make several overarching claims. Dickens’s language, according to Tambling, is “that which cannot be paraphrased”; it “de-familiarizes but exceeds description, unmaking and making, reality” (6, 8). As the book’s title suggests, Tambling treats Dickens’s language as poetry and as allegory, but he does not offer a robust definition of, or justification for, either term. Tambling briefly asserts that he will treat Dickens’s “language as poetry (a) when it focuses on detailed themes and (b) where it exceeds conscious control or any unifying intention shaping the work” (8). Similarly, he notes that he uses “allegory in the sense that Walter Benjamin means throughout his work when stressing that allegory points to a collapse of meaning, … to signifiers which do not yield a ‘signified’, a single meaning” (10). The methodology is heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and [End Page 541] the Frankfurt School: the most frequently cited theorists are Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Walter Benjamin, with Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Theodor Adorno, and Emmanuel Levinas also making repeat appearances.
In keeping with his focus on meaning as multiple, excessive, and resisting unity, Tambling explores a wide-ranging network of recurring themes, including the blurring of animate and inanimate, corpses and death, jokes (especially jokes about decapitation), Warren’s Blacking and the trauma of Dickens’s childhood, dreams, written language and theatrical performance, literary allusions, and alternate character names and titles. The monograph is loosely organized into four parts. Part I: “Writing Styles: Romantic and Baroque” traces allusions in Dickens’s novels to a staggering array of eighteenth-century and Romantic literature, demonstrating Dickens’s intermingling of literature and popular culture, especially urban culture. It then links allegory to William Hogarth’s caricatures and to the grotesque, revealing the violent power of the sadistic joke. Part II: “Poetry and the City” continues to explore jokes, this time arguing that they emerge from an absence and “bring out the deficiency in all language” (91). More generally, Part II analyzes varied cases where Dickens exposes language as lacking a foundation, as creating meaning only through itself, before turning to examples of impeded growth and premature old age. Part III: “Opening Words” examines the opening chapters of several novels, reads them as dramatic, and sees in them the problem of what motivates the beginning of action. These chapters focus on problems of identity and a lack of mastery, including identities that are not unique, memories that are illegible or impede development, and the envious relations through which autobiography constitutes the self at the expense of the other. Part IV: “Dickens and the Poetry of Dreams” links the mask to allegory, trauma, and death; associates dreams with madness and double consciousness; and examines the transitional state of awakening.
There are some limitations and oversights in the project. Some readers may crave more organized and sustained argumentation, or more substantial engagement with prior scholarship on Dickens. While Tambling certainly makes a persuasive case for Dickens’s language as rich, generative, and exceeding conscious control...