Defining Habits: Dickens and the Psychology of Repetition
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Defining Habits:
Dickens and the Psychology of Repetition

It is notorious how powerful is the force of habit.

— Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (21)

It is [. . .] generally felt to be a far easier thing to reform the constitution in Church and State than to reform the least of our own bad habits.

Describing the powerful force of “daily domestic habit,” Elizabeth Gaskell claimed that “[t]he daily life into which people are born, and into which they are absorbed before they are well aware, forms chains which only one in a hundred has moral strength enough to despise.” It is the novelist’s task to chronicle “[t]he traditions of [. . .] bygone times, even to the smallest social particular” in order to “enable one to understand more clearly the circumstances which contributed to the formation of character” (2). Whether delineating the constricting habits of social prejudice or the quaint details of domestic routines, Gaskell outlines a theory of habit as a guiding psychological mechanism of social structure that was shared widely by her contemporaries and debated extensively in nineteenth-century psychology. This philosophical dialogue on the function and implications of habitual behavior dated back to associationist philosophers such as John Locke, David Hume, David Hartley, and Dugald Stewart, and continued in later-nineteenth-century psychological writings by, among others, George Henry Lewes, John Stuart Mill, James Sully, G. F. Stout, William Carpenter, Henry Maudsley, Alexander Bain, and William James. Theories of habit made further appearances in nineteenth-century advice literature, and were discussed extensively in popular works such as Sarah Stickney Ellis’s The Women of England (1838) and Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859), as well as in magazine articles, religious tracts, sanitary reports, treatises on character formation, and eccentric biographies of [End Page 399] the period. Influenced in part by discoveries in thermodynamics in the 1840s, and grounded in physiological conceptions of mental relations, nineteenth-century theories of habit affirmed a widespread view of the mind as an economy, subject to spatial limitations, energy exchange, and complex patterns of displacement and interdependency. The conservation of energy or “force”—that is, the idea that there was a stable amount of energy in the universe which could be neither increased nor destroyed, only redistributed—was used to describe a wide variety of relationships between mental processes that, in turn, shaped the most basic frameworks of consciousness.

At the center of this debate, as it took form in mid- to late- nineteenth-century England and America, were questions about the status of individual agency in biologically based theories of mind. After the 1840s, theories of habit relied on the conservation of energy to explain the tendency of the mind to reinforce mental patterns, pathways, channels, or, to use Gaskell’s suggestive term, “chains.” While these patterns traced the flow of thought and were seen as the structural mechanisms for all learning, they could also induce a static form of development in which the individual rehearsed characteristic behaviors rather than evolving new ones. In later-nineteenth-century discussions of habit, this potential rigidification of human character appeared to pose a threat of psychological stasis that was often linked to deterministic forces of production and consumption in modern industrial society. Theories of habit conceptualized the mind as a closed system, driven to repetitive, automatic behaviors in order to conserve energy for more difficult or novel tasks. Yet many feared that if the human psyche was biologically compelled to repeat mental experiences, and thus to trap the individual in predictable and inflexible patterns of behavior, this compulsion constrained possibilities for change and challenged conceptions of free will. The very capacity for moral transformation was problematized in and by nineteenth-century writings on habit, as habit became a contested area of psychological debate. It evoked concerns about the status of the individual in an increasingly modern, mechanized culture in which human behavior, like industrial objects, might be mass-produced. The psychology of repetition thus came to be understood not only as the basis of individual eccentricity, but as evidence of larger cultural routines.

This essay analyzes the competing narratives of mental flexibility and...