A White Flower In Her Hair For A Wedding English Literature: Charles Dickens’s Narrative Technique

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English Literature: Charles Dickens’s Narrative Technique

One critic wrote: ‘Every writer of fiction, even if he does not adopt the dramatic form, writes effectively for the stage.’ We cannot take the word ‘stage’ literally when considering the statement in relation to Dickens. Much of Dickens’ writing includes landscapes that cannot be accommodated on the stage, such as the marshes in ‘Great Expectations’ or Yarmouth Beach in ‘David Copperfield’. Also, the stage could not accommodate the numerous scene changes that occur in Dickens’ novels. The ‘stage’ that Dickens refers to is the stage of the reader’s imagination, and his narrative technique plays on that ‘stage’ to catch and capture our imaginations.

Dickens’s dramatic technique is more akin to cinema than theatre; But cinema is essentially a dramatic medium in that it works through character, action, dialogue and setting and only through literary technique. In this essay I will look at some of the dramatic and literary techniques in Dickens’ writing and consider their effectiveness and limitations.

When we think of Dickens’ novels, it is the images and dramatic events that first come to mind. In pictures we see, for example, Peggotty’s boathouse at Yarmouth in ‘David Copperfield’, the interior of Fagin’s cave in ‘Oliver Twist’ and the frozen wedding party in Miss Havisham’s room in ‘Great Expectations’. Among the dramatic events, we might remember Magwitch threatening Pip in the churchyard, Oliver asking for more, and Uriah Heep being unmasked by Micawber.

Dickens’s ‘pictures’ are an integral part of the fabric of the narrative, conveying meaning in themselves and, for example, as described by James Joyce, we do not need to interpret images looking for symbolism, but to see them clearly. He pulls us into the story through pictures on the stage of our imagination. For example:

‘She was dressed in rich materials – satin, lace and silk – all in white. Her shoes were white. And upon her hair was a long white veil, and in her hair were bridal flowers, but her hair was white. Some glittering jewels glittered on her neck and hands, and some other jewels glittered on the table.’ (Great Expectations. Ch.8.)

The words in this passage have only one purpose, to get us to see the scene in our imagination. The writer’s role is that of an objective reporter, and short factual sentences filled with detailed observations do not in themselves express any response or judgment. The reader responds to the picture, not the words. In fact the passage is notable for the total absence of emotional words. Nowhere do we see the words ‘decay’, ‘horror’, ‘constancy’ or ‘death’, and yet Pip fears, or at least understands, what we find in this room, where the only sign of life is. The movement of dark eyes staring at him.

As an example of a dramatic event, using action and dialogue, we can take this passage from ‘Oliver Twist’.

‘Before Oliver had time to look round, Sykes had caught him under the arm; And in three or four seconds he and Toby were lying on the grass on the other side. Sykes followed directly. And they stole cautiously homeward.

. . . He clasped his hands together and involuntarily uttered a terrified exclamation. A mist came before his eyes; A cold sweat stood on his blushing face; He failed on his body; And he sank to his knees.

‘Get up!’ grunted Sykes, shaking with rage, and drawing his pistol from his pocket; ‘Get up or I’ll spill your brains on the grass.’

The movement of the dramatic action here is so powerful that we don’t really need dialogue; If the scene is presented as a silent film, we will understand better what is going on. Oliver is being forced in a certain direction, against his will, and he is resisting with all his might, physically and morally. The dramatic scene reflects that Oliver has been forced into the role against his will since his birth in the workhouse. This is Dickens at his most dramatic, setting characters and action vividly on the stage of our imagination.

Much of Dickens’ writing works this way, but there is much that is non-dramatic that works on a verbal, literary level.

‘She was most remarkable, I thought, for her limbs; Her hair always had to be brushed, her hands always washed, and her shoes always mended and her heels pulled up. This description must be obtained with a weekday limit. She used to go to church on Sundays.’ (‘Great Expectations’ Ch.7.)

A reader might form a visual picture of Biddy from these fragments, but the passage really conveys ideas rather than images and conveys its effect through the use of language, achieving an effect that has no direct parallel in film or drama.

A more subtle literary technique, which goes beyond the confines of the play, is explained near the beginning of Great Expectations:

Having never seen my father or my mother, and having never seen a likeness of either of them (for their days were before the days of photographs), my first idea of ​​what they looked like was crudely drawn from their tombstones. From the shape of my father’s letters I had a strange idea that he was a square, stout, dark man with curly black hair. (‘Great Expectations’ Ch.1.)

This passage shows an intimate and complex process in which a person’s thoughts merge with his perception of the external world. The action here is purely conceptual, demonstrating the power of literature on stage or film – the ability to communicate concepts and abstract thought processes.

‘David Copperfield’ is perhaps the least dramatic of the three novels. Like ‘Great Expectations’ it is a fictional autobiography in the first person, but unlike Pip, David has become a writer and is consciously interested in his art. Thus when reading ‘David Copperfield’ we become aware of the fact that we are in ‘Great Expectations’, a story being told.

My school days! Silently gliding over my being—the unseen, unfelt progress of my life—from childhood to youth! Looking back at that running water, now a dry stream overgrown with leaves, let me wonder if there are any marks along its path, by which I remember how it flowed. (‘David Copperfield’ Ch.18.)

It is the work of a self-conscious artist primarily interested in his own imagination, and again there is an intimacy between writer and reader that cannot be achieved in the dramatic medium.

One cannot talk about Dickens’ play without mentioning his characters. The variety and memorability of Dickens’ characters is one of his greatest achievements as a writer. Often they are caricatures, but caricatures that capture something that exists in life. Every public school must have its Steerforth, its Bill and Nancy in criminal circles, its fishing community to Peggotty. These are the characters that Dickens puts on his ‘stage’.

I want to end with a passage whose relevance to the theme of this essay is self-evident. Perhaps it is reasonable to assume that it gives us an insight into Dickens’s creative mind as well as Pip’s.

‘Everything he said presented to me pictures, not just words. In the excited and exalted state of my brain, I cannot think of a place or persons without seeing them. It is impossible to exaggerate the vividness of these images’ (‘Great Expectations’ Ch. 53.)

Copyright Ian McCain. Read the full version of this essay here:


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