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  • Dickens and the Scene of Recognition
  • Michal Peled Ginsburg

Several of Dickens's novels include moments of what Aristotle, in the Poetics, refers to as "anagnorisis": moments in which the recognition of one person by another (or others) establishes that person's identity. This recurrence testifies to the survival of an old tradition in Dickens's realist fiction, a tradition first associated with tragedy and epos, then with comedy and romance. Although the ease with which Dickens introduces elements of the recognition scene suggests, as Terence Cave has argued, a "reliance on the reader's knowledge of such scenes and how they operate,"1 this does not mean that recognition plots, because [End Page 75] of their stereotypical nature, always operate in the same way. Indeed, even Dickens's own handling of the scene of recognition differs, in subtle but important ways, in his different novels.

Dickens's particular use of the topos of recognition, I shall argue, is linked to a specific view of social reality centered on the belief that the legitimacy of the social order and the place of individuals within it are predicated on continuity. In analyzing scenes of recognition from Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and A Tale of Two Cities, I shall dwell on the variations they offer on Dickens's way of understanding recognition; these variations should be understood as the means by which Dickens attempts to work out a persuasive way of promoting and protecting this view of social reality in spite of the contradictions and impasses it entails.

In its narrowest sense, anagnorisis refers to the recognition of a person, usually of one's kin. Such recognition can form the basis of a plot only when it has become problematic owing to some rupture caused, typically, by the person's long absence from family and home. Such absence precludes "normal," automatic recognition—that is, recognition predicated on the resemblance between the person one sees and that person when last seen. The returning person has changed so much (because of the passage of time but often also because of the particular experience undergone during that time) that he or she does not resemble himself or herself, is precisely unrecognizable. This is why the returning person, by the very act of returning, makes a claim, a claim to his or her identity: I am so and so.

But since from this claim other claims—to property, inheritance, or spousal rights—are likely to follow, the suspicion of imposture frequently hovers around the returning person, whether or not he/she resembles his/her past self, since resemblance, under these circumstances, can be seen as the product of disguise, of an intention to deceive. For recognition to take place, then, resemblance needs to be supplemented by some other kind of proof: an object such as a locket or a piece of clothing; a mark on the body, such as a scar or a birthmark; knowledge of a secret from the past. All these proofs have one thing in common: unlike physical resemblance, which bears upon the entire person, they are partial and particular; in other words, they stand in a synecdochal or metonymical relation to the claimant. Therefore, in the crucial moment of determining individual identity, recognition scenes tend to give [End Page 76] more weight to the metonymical (the particular and contingent) than to the metaphorical (the similar, the general). If, as Cave puts it, anagnorisis is "the mark or signature of fiction, so that even when something like it occurs in fact, it still sounds like fiction" (4), then anagnorisis marks fiction as contingent, accidental, and particular; it resists or questions the generalizing capacity assumed by representation as resemblance or mimesis along with its promise of truth.

The material objects and the secrets which function as metonymical proofs in recognition plots involve, or are inserted in, narratives related to the life of the person before the separation; therefore, the establishment of identity often depends on the telling of tales. But since tales can also be told by impostors, and since the evidence that these tales bring in support of the claims they make is purely circumstantial, they cannot dispel doubts. In...


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