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  • Reading Style In Dickens
  • Robert Alter

It is a sad symptom of the devolution of literary studies and of our culture’s relation to language that it should at all be necessary to explain that style is crucial to the experience of reading. As the language of literature has been variously designated a mask for ideology, an expression of the “poetics of culture,” or a medium of communication not different in kind from menus and graffiti, the academic study of literature in many cases seems to have lost the essential sense that style has its unique enchantments, and that those enchantments can often be a privileged vehicle of insight, even of vision. As someone who is temperamentally a rationalist, I do not want to sound mystical, but I find it an empirical fact as a reader that great writers are able in a variety of surprising ways to tap into occult connections between words and social, historical, psychological, or moral realities. Saul Bellow has aptly stated this commingling of uncanny insight and deep satisfaction that style can give its readers:

A small clue will suffice to remind us that when we hear certain words—“all is but toys,” “absent thee from felicity,” “a wilderness of monkeys,” “green pastures,” “still waters,” or even the single word “relume”—they revive for us moments of emotional completeness and overflowing comprehension, they unearth buried essences. 1

A novel is a whole world reconstituted through words. Style in a novel is that world’s very air which we breath (I shall presently cite a rather literal illustration of this principle in Dickens), the rhythm of relation [End Page 130] of the represented objects and personages, the depth of field in which they are seen. When we read style in Dickens, or in any other novelist, we of course are reading all sorts of other things at the same time—plot, character, moral dilemma, historical predicament, and so forth—but we can see all these in their full complexity only if we attend to the illuminating play of style.

Despite the great length of his major novels, Dickens deserves to be read slowly, with delectation, with occasional pauses to reread a choice passage, because he is one of the most inventive and vigorous stylists in the whole range of English literature. Style, as we know, has many facets, and Dickens’s powerful rhythms, his supple patterns of alliteration, the hammer-blows of the anaphoric insistence he often favors, the cunning interplay of different linguistic registers he sometimes introduces, are all worthy of attention. But he is above all the great master of figurative language in English after Shakespeare, and what I want to concentrate on here is how I focus as a reader on Dickens’s use of figurative language, and what it reveals to me about the world of his novels.

Dickens is one of those novelists who is preeminently a rhetorical performer, and so there is a good deal of self-conscious display of virtuosity, sheer exuberant verbal high jinks, in his writing. The high jinks are there for the reader to enjoy—in historical context, to keep the reader’s interest from one monthly serial to the next—but as Dickens grows in mastery and gravity, they are more and more a means of what Bellow calls unearthing buried essences. Let me glance quickly at the operation of style in a passage from Dombey and Son (1848), an approximate midpoint in Dickens career, and then consider more closely the visionary power of his prose at two moments in his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (1861). Here is the description in chapter thirteen of the company office of Dombey and Son as its august proprietor enters:

The wit of the Counting-House became in a moment as mute as the row of leathern fire-buckets hanging up behind him. Such vapid and flat daylight as filtered through the ground-glass windows and skylights, leaving a black sediment upon the panes, showed the books and papers, and the figures bending over them, enveloped in a studious gloom, and as much abstracted in appearance, from the world without, as if they were assembled at the...

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pp. 130-137
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