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  • Transcending Melancholia:Mourning the Mother in The Old Curiosity Shop and Dombey and Son
  • Galia Benziman (bio)

Numerous child figures in Dickens experience maternal loss, yet this early trauma is sometimes overshadowed by other painful events, further bereavements, and subsequent instances of abuse and neglect. In two such cases, the event of a young daughter's premature severance from her mother has more significance than the overt plotline seems to suggest. The first case is that of little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–841), where the mother's death is never narrated and is hardly alluded to by the characters. The sense of grief and painful attachment that characterize the child protagonist are not represented as related to the loss of her mother; instead, they surround her relationships with other characters, primarily her grandfather. The second, analogous case, is that of Florence in Dombey and Son (1846-–48), where the powerful early scene of mother-child separation, absent from The Old Curiosity Shop, is soon followed and overshadowed by the major drama of the child protagonist's neglect by her father. It is this latter abandonment, by Mr. Dombey, that captures the stage and absorbs not only Florence's but also the reader's attention. Each of these two female child characters' melancholic attachment to her deceased mother, though denied and implicit, is deeper than it might first seem. Once read from a psychoanalytic perspective, it allows us to realize that the separation from the mother may serve as a key to Nell's and Florence's characterization and ensuing relationships, as well as to some of the imagery associated with their mental state.

Psychoanalytic and post-Freudian theories of loss and mourning tend to underline temporality and language as important factors in the grieving subject's sense of bereavement and their ensuing healing process. The primary text in any such discussion is Sigmund Freud's influential essay "Mourning and Melancholia," which posits a healthy versus a pathological process of coping with loss. The healthy response is affected by time and change in the grieving subject; the pathological state is defined by timelessness and [End Page 305] stasis. The post-Freudian and post-structuralist revisions of this model, presented below, link mourning to language as a means of overcoming loss by replacing the lost love object with an image. These theories, I suggest, illuminate some of the symbolic textures of Dickens's representation of his child characters' process of maturation.

In his 1915 essay "Mourning and Melancholia" ("Trauer und Melancholie," published in 1917), Freud observed how, in the internal sphere of psychic life, excessive grief is potentially destabilizing and might even be destructive to the self. Freud distinguishes between two disparate responses to loss: mourning, which is a healthy process (he terms it Trauerarbeit, or the "work of mourning"), and melancholia, a pathological and destructive condition. The healthy work of mourning allows the subject to undergo gradual separation from the lost love object, and eventually redirect that love to other objects and return to normal life. Melancholia, on the other hand, is a pathological response to loss that has no clear temporal structure. It is characterized by an ongoing denial of death's finality. In melancholia, the bereaved cannot separate from the lost love object but internalizes or devours it instead, and maintains a narcissistic relationship to the dead. Denying the fact of death, the survivor becomes immersed in fantasy. His or her attachment to the lost one is ambivalent, containing a mixture of narcissism and hostility, with loss of vitality, self-accusation, guilt, and potentially also a death-wish (Freud 243–58).

According to "Mourning and Melancholia," Trauerarbeit, the work of mourning, consists of a gradual realization that "the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object. This demand arouses understandable opposition–[…] people never willingly abandon a libidinal position" (Freud 244). Freud regards mourning as "work" because the libido has to invest much effort in order to detach itself from the dead object. Conversely, melancholia is opposed to "the normal affect of mourning" (Freud 243). The distinction is largely temporal, as both processes...