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ARTICLES THE W/HOLE REMAINS: CONSUMERIST POLITICS IN BLEAK HOUSE, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, AND OUR MUTUAL FRIEND MONIKA RYDYGIER SMITH University of Victoria Tropes of consumption (or implicit consumption) saturate the narrative texture of Bleak House (1853), Great Expectations (1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1865). In Bleak House, for example, the Smallweeds itemize the contents of Krook's Store with "ravenous little pens" (524); Chancery lawyers prosper "like maggots in nuts" (182); while Vholes's blue bags are "hastily stuffed, out of all regularity of form, as the larger sort of serpents are in their first gorged state" (605). In Great Expectations Miss Havisham anticipates that with her death, relatives will "come to feast upon me" (116); and when Orlik (whose name connotes distinctly oral activities) threatens to murder Pip, it seems to Pip that "he drew [his hand] across his mouth as if his mouth watered for me" (436). In Our Mutual Friend, likewise, a strain of images associated with feeding multiplies throughout the narrative. Wegg, for example, is figured as a human gastropod, living upon Cavendish House "with the air of a leech . . . that had 'taken' wonderfully" (88); while the description of Boffin's Bower as a "Dismal Swamp" has the effect, semantically, of reducing trades-people and fortune-hunters to little more than swimming stomachs — "fish of the shark tribe" and "Alligators" — and their commercial hopes to mere gastric impulse: they "[lie] by to drag the Golden Dustman under" (262). Victorian Review 19.1 (Summer 1993) Victorian Review The extent to which Dickens's narratives — ostensibly the plotting of stories — are in fact constructed from tropes of consumption is remarkable. The significance, however, of this proliferation of images, both as narrative strategy and mode of representation, is best approached through a consideration of the context that produced it; for I take it as a critical axiom that genre is political: that the construction of actions and subjectivities in fiction is related to conditions of literary production outside the text. Taking this relationship into account, particularly the way in which mechanisms of silencing in the nineteenth century influenced textual practice, my intention is to demonstrate that the semantic splicings generated by Dickens's metaphoric configuring of character and action specifically in terms of eater and eaten provide a potent means of narrative contra/diction: an other way of describing what cannot be directly related. When Disraeli observed in Coningsby (1844) that "there are yet great truths to tell if we had ... the temper to receive them" (142), he was commenting on the way Victorian notions of propriety, "a nebulous, but powerful system of ideas and social practices" (O'Neill 8), operated to create an atmosphere of censorship, limiting the scope of fiction as a forum for public debate, not simply in terms of sexual matters, but also with regard to pressing social problems. Because of its focus on maintaining "appearances," especially the appearance of civility and decorum, propriety helped foster the idea that decent, ethical behavior was the active agent in shaping a generally cohesive society. In this respect, as Philip O'Neill demonstrates in his study of Wilkie Collins, Victorian propriety served "the factional interest of property" (8), for it helped quash discussion (and thus hinder perception) of the social tensions and conflicts generated by a system of proprietorship favoring middle- and upper-class males at the expense of every other social group. The kinds of silences imposed by the successful manipulation of this social code, cloaking class and gender based problems in a kind of invisibility, fed directly into "the strenuous effort" of England's prosperous elite "to maintain the facade of a harmonious and stable system" (Barickman, MacDonald, and Stark 7). Encouraging attitudes intolerant of specific kinds of discourse — such as depictions of hunger and homelessness, rage and rebellion — propriety was complicit in silencing voices of opposition and dissent, and by extension obviating social realities which did not conform to the world of "appearances": the illusion that England was a nation of mutually prosperous classes. Part and parcel of the propertied, bourgeois attitude, Victorian standards of propriety operated, in short, as an ideological mechanism which, by structuring areas of ignorance in the public mind, served the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 1-21
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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