- “A Want of Taste”:Carnivorous Desire and Sexual Politics in The Pickwick Papers
Charles Dickens has long been recognized as a pioneer of the social reform novel. Yet when it comes to his female characters, critical responses have been somewhat mixed. Critics from the nineteenth century to the present day have claimed that Dickens failed to create plausible heroines, resorting instead to trite and often limiting female stereotypes.1 In his own time, Margaret Oliphant suggested that for Dickens, “a woman of a high ideal, and yet of a distinct individual character, is almost an impossible achievement” (“Charles Dickens” 465). George Bernard Shaw was even more disparaging in his assessment, noting that Dickens’s “attempts to manufacture admirable heroines by idealizations of home-bred womanhood are not only absurd but not even pleasantly absurd: one has no patience with them” (328). For many years, these one-dimensional heroines relegated Dickens at best to the status of a “conventional” patriarch and at worst to a place among the great misogynists of nineteenth-century literature.2
The last two decades have seen a growing interest in unearthing the real complexity of Dickens’s approach to gender.3 Kate Flint has suggested that the presence of female stereotypes in Dickens’s work, while seeming to promote a traditional model of female domesticity, also helps to expose “the structuring and power relations within society which such a norm, consciously or unconsciously, was designed to serve” (113).4 Seen in this way, Dickens’s exaggerated gender stereotypes both highlight the social fictions that underlie representations of the female and work to “destabilize the position of the male” (113). Recent studies—including the work of Rosemarie Bodenheimer, Holly Furneaux, Brian McCuskey, and others—have pursued this line of thought further by focusing on how Dickens’s male characters negotiate the friction between domestic responsibility and the opportunities afforded by relationships with other men. As Catherine Waters puts it, Dickens was “keenly attuned to the problem of self-division in man,” which stemmed from a “tension between homosocial and heterosexual imperatives” (369, 370). Confronting this tension has done much to advance our understanding of Dickens’s approach to the family, masculinity, and the politics of identity more generally.
Yet even as the scholarship has afforded valuable insights into the complexity of Dickens’s outlook on masculinity, by attending to the divisions between [End Page 155] the homosocial and the heterosexual it sometimes risks reinforcing precisely those sexual binaries it seeks to complicate. In this essay, I want to consider how Dickens’s representation of Victorian masculinity and of its “self-division” might help us not merely to a better understanding of homosocial relations but also to a better understanding of relations between the sexes. These questions are engaged with special force in The Pickwick Papers, a novel that seems to privilege the male perspective and yet, as I will suggest, ultimately advances a pointed critique of the cultural performances that undergird patriarchal power. The Pickwick Papers is very much a novel about men: men drinking, hunting, courting, and especially eating. As the itinerant Pickwick club crosses the English countryside in search of knowledge, adventure, and romance, their new friendships are routinely formalized at the supper table. Dickens describes the “feasting and revelry” (486) of the Pickwickians in elaborate detail, presenting a “tempting display” of “broiled ham, eggs, tea, coffee, and sundries” in nearly every chapter of the novel (72). Masculinity is consistently expressed, that is to say, through the consumption of meat.
But eating, which so often brings people together in the novel, can also provoke unnerving questions about the nature of social bonds and the risks of intimacy. Dickens’s novels abound in scenes of violence against women—grotesque scenes that frequently invoke either symbolic or literal acts of cannibalism. If scholars now recognize that not all of Dickens’s women are passive victims, we have yet to make sense of the rhetorical and political impact of his interest in representing such acts of aggression. Do these scenes bespeak a sensitivity to the cultural vulnerability of Victorian women, or do they re-inscribe women as passive and ultimately dispensable members of the...