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  • "Happy and Yet Pitying Tears":Deafness and Affective Disjuncture in Dickens's "Doctor Marigold"
  • Martha Stoddard Holmes (bio)

Tears, Jerome McGann observes, are

the proper emblem of the literatures of sensibility and sentiment. They mark out a special population who live and move and have their being by affect, through sympathy: men and women of sorrow who are acquainted with grief—responding to it in others, suffering it themselves.


This characterization fits beautifully with Charles Dickens's fiction, in which weeping has long been the sign through which the imagined community of the sympathetic may recognize its fellows. Hippolyte Taine assessed Dickens as the writer who knew best "how to touch and melt," who "makes us weep, absolutely shed tears; before reading him we did not know there was so much pity in the human heart" (qtd. in Collins 351). Reports of these touchings and meltings, concurrently intimate and public, are a major thread in the culture of Dickens-loving. When Dickens met Kate Douglas (later Wiggin) on the train from Portland to Boston in the 1860s, for example, her statement about missing his recent performance generated the following lachrymal communion:

"Did you want to go to my reading very much?" asked Dickens. This was a question that stirred the depths of her disappointment and sorrow. Her lips trembled as she faltered, "Yes, more than tongue can tell." Only when she was sure the tears in her eyes were not going to fall did she look up, and then she saw that there were tears in his eyes too. "Do you cry when you read out loud?" she asked. "We all do in our family. And we never read about Tiny Tim, or about Steerforth when his body is washed up on the beach, on Saturday nights, or our eyes are too swollen to go to Sunday School." "Yes, I cry when I read about Steerforth," Dickens answered quietly.

(Johnson 1091) [End Page 53]

The author may have been thinking of his performances of excerpts from David Copperfield, his favourite of all the texts used in the reading tours that distinguished (and probably hastened) the end of his life. During the public readings, Dickens both invited and modelled audiences' emotional responses, reportedly laughing with them and letting tears fall at points of pathos.1 He also narrated himself as a writer who "wept and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner in the composition" of A Christmas Carol—providing a model for readers like Leslie Fiedler, who confesses that over this "schmaltzy classic," he has wept and will most likely weep again (House et al. 4.2; Fiedler 13).2 So, while tears were in Hippocratic medicine theorized as a waste product, crying over Dickens is arguably more product than waste, generative of (among other things) a sense of belonging to a vast imagined fellowship of weepers led by the Inimitable himself.

As part of a larger "affective turn" in critical and cultural studies, scholarship on the cultural and specifically literary history of tears has deepened an already enjoyable discussion of weeping readers, authors, and characters.3 From this base, however, specific kinds of affective formations in literary texts still merit more detailed scrutiny. Most critical inquiries into the pleasures of weeping over books elide, for example, the question of what it means to be the object cried over rather than the sympathetic body.4 Over whom do we cry in Dickens, and when, and why? What links are forged between crying characters and crying readers—and to what end?5 What larger cultural landscapes create and are created by those zones of emotional intensity?

Such questions propel my analysis of Dickens's Christmas story "Doctor Marigold," a work that makes productive and conventional use of a deaf child and, later, her speaking daughter as markers for the powerful feelings the story evoked in Victorian audiences and still evokes in readers and listeners today. While the story's pathos, particularly the pity it names in its closing moments, has been for most critics bound to deafness and hearing, muteness and speech, "Doctor Marigold" is actually a considerably happy and even progressive narrative about deafness...


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pp. 53-64
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