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THE AESTHETIC AND THE CLOSED SHOP: THE IDEOLOGY OF THE AESTHETIC IN DICKENS'S HARD TIMES STEPHEN PULSFORD Berea College There has never been critical consensus about Dickens's politics. In the first half of this century Shaw, Chesterton, and T.A. Jackson, among others, read him as a radical, while Louis Cazamian, Humphrey House, and George Orwell found him bourgeois, conservative, or even reactionary.1 More recent studies of Dickensian ideology diverge almost as sharply. Jameson, following Lukács, sees the novels crippled by middle-class preconceptions of the nature of reality, and in particular by the paradigm of the sentimental (Marxism 175; Political Unconscious 185-89). To Feltes, Dickens, despite exceptional playfulness and satire of bourgeois institutions, does not escape realism's usual imposition of "genial consensus" (Ermarth's phrase). Gagnier similarly makes little distinction between Dickens and other middle-class "Condition of England" fiction, which "objectifies the oppressed for its own . . . ends" (136). Other modern critics, however, make a special case of Dickens. In Raymond Williams's view, Dickens draws on popular culture to create "a new kind of novel — fiction uniquely capable ofrealizing a new kind of reality" (31). Like Williams, Pam Morris finds (in Dickens's subplots and marginal characters) "traditional elements [of] folk and popular art" (14) that contrast with the realist conventions of the main plots to produce a Bakhtinian "subversive dialogism" (13). At least as prevalent as these opposed definitions of Dickensian ideology is criticism that finds in Dickens political ambivalence or contradiction. The traditional dismissal of the relatively uneducated Dickens as simply more naive and confused about politics than other Victorian writers still has some currency.2 Other critics look to biography. Louis James finds "ambivalence" stemming from the Victorian Review 21.2 (Winter 1995) 146Victorian Review twelve-year-old Dickens's experiences in Warren's Blacking Factory: on one hand "die humiliation of die sensitive middle-class Dickens amid die working-class fellow-employees, one of whom was . . . called Fagin. On die other hand . . . hatred of his middle-class parents, who had so promptly abandoned him into it" (89). In another class-based biographical analysis, Dickens's politics are symptomatic of his pettybourgeois origins: "ambiguously placed within die social formation" he draws on "die ideological realms of both dominant and dominated classes" (Eagleton, Criticism 125, 126). For some critics ambivalence is the mark of Dickens's intellectual sophistication. D.A. Miller suspects the "incoherence" of Bleak House (1852-53) to be "the very resource on which the text draws for its consistency [and] a positively advantageous strategy" (63). Dominick LaCapra sees the same contradictions positively, as "critically inscrib[ing] the contradictions of a state agency" (122). Clearly, this range of opinion is evidence in itself of some fundamental contradictoriness or indeterminacy, and die best accounts of Dickensian ideology take ambiguity as their starting point. But where James's biographical explanation clearly leaves far too much unsaid about less personal influences on the production of aesthetic texts, Eagleton's parallel reduction of Dickens to his petty-bourgeois class origins fails to allow for anything beyond class, and denies ideological significance to all diat is distinctive in Dickens's writing. Miller's emphasis that the contradictions of Bleak House resolve into a definable political effect is much more productive, particularly since his reading takes account also of the idiosyncracies of Dickensian form. My own reading of Dickensian ideology centers on die novel Dickens wrote immediately following Bleak House, Hard Times (1854). Not only is this novel usually taken to be Dickens's most overtly political, thus figuring in most critical studies of Dickens's politics, but it offers revealing comparisons to the non-aesthetic political writing that frames each of its installments in Household Words. Hard Times, praised by Leavis for its organic unity, lacks most of the formal features on which Miller's reading ofBleak House is based. But (despite Leavis) it is similarly marked by ideological contradictions, at aesthetic or formal, as well as thematic, levels: its ideology is similarly an aesthetic ideology. Unlike Miller I am interested not in die hidden positivity of its ambiguities, but the negative operation of aesthetic intolerance, the compulsion ofform to (mis)represent political...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 145-160
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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