English Literature: Charles Dickens’s Narrative Technique

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A critic wrote: ‘Every writer of fiction, although he may not adopt the dramatic form, writes in effect for the stage.’ When considering the statement in relation to Dickens we cannot take the word ‘stage’ too literally. Much of Dickens’s writing involves the evocation of landscapes, such as the marshes in ‘Great Expectations’ or Yarmouth beach in ‘David Copperfield’ which could not be accommodated on the stage. Nor could the stage accommodate the numerous changes of scene which occur in Dickens’s novels. The ‘stage’ Dickens refers to is the stage of the reader’s imagination, and his narrative technique plays upon that ‘stage’ to grip and hold our imaginations.

Dickens’s dramatic technique has more in common with the cinema than with theatre; but the cinema is essentially a dramatic medium in that it functions through character, action, dialogue, and setting, and only minimally through literary techniques. In this essay I will look at some of the dramatic, and literary, techniques found in Dickens’s writing, and consider their effectiveness and their limitations.

When we think of a Dickens novel it is pictures and dramatic events which spring first to mind. In pictures we see, for example, Peggoty’s boathouse at Yarmouth in ‘David Copperfield’, the interior of Fagin’s den in ‘Oliver Twist’, and the frozen wedding feast in Miss Havisham’s room in ‘Great Expectations’. Among the dramatic events we might recall 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 meanings in themselves, and unlike, for example James Joyce’s descriptions, we are not required to interpret the images looking for symbolism, but to see them vividly. It is through conjuring images on the stage of our imagination that he draws us into the story. For example:

‘She was dressed in rich materials – satins, and lace, and silks – all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table.’ (Great Expectations. Ch.8.)

The words of this passage serve only one purpose, that we should see the scene in our imagination. The writer’s stance is that of an objective reporter, and the short factual sentences, packed with detailed observation, do not in themselves convey any response or judgement. The reader responds not to the words, but to the picture. In fact the passage is notable for the total absence of emotive words. Nowhere do we see words such as ‘decay’, ‘horror’, ‘stagnation’ or ‘death’, and yet we can feel, or at least understand, Pip’s horror at finding himself in this room where the only sign of life is the movement of the dark eyes looking 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, Sikes had caught him under the arms; and in three or four seconds he and Toby lay on the grass on the other side. Sikes followed directly. And they stole cautiously towards the house.

. . . He clasped his hands together, and involuntarily uttered a subdued exclamation of horror. A mist came before his eyes; the cold sweat stood upon his ashy face; on his limbs failed him; and he sank upon his knees.

‘Get up!’ murmured Sikes, trembling with rage, and drawing the pistol from his pocket; ‘Get up or I’ll strew your brains upon the grass.’

Here the movement of the dramatic action is so powerful that we do not really need the dialogue; we would understand perfectly what was going on if the scene were presented as a silent film. Oliver is being forced, against his will, in a certain direction, and he is resisting with all his might, both physically and morally. The dramatic scene reflects the way Oliver has been forced into roles against his will ever since he was born in the workhouse. This is Dickens at his most dramatic, placing characters and actions vividly on the stage of our imaginations.

Much of Dickens’s writing functions in this way, but there is also much which is non-dramatic which functions on a verbal, literary level.

‘She was most noticeable, I thought, in respect of her extremities; for her hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at heel. This description must be received with a weekday limitation. On Sundays she went to church elaborated.’ (‘Great Expectations’ Ch.7.)

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

A more subtle literary technique, which also goes beyond the limitations of drama, is illustrated near the opening of ‘Great Expectations’:

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. (‘Great Expectations’ Ch.1.)

This passage conveys an intimate and complex process in which an individual’s thoughts mingle with his perception of the outside world. The activity here is purely conceptual, illustrating the strength of literature over theatre or film – its ability to communicate concepts and intangible thought processes.

‘David Copperfield’ is perhaps the least dramatic of these 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 craft. Thus in reading ‘David Copperfield’ we are far more aware of the fact that we are being told a story that we are in ‘Great Expectations’.

My school days! The silent gliding on of my existence – the unseen, unfelt progress of my life – from childhood up to youth! Let me think, as I look back upon that flowing water, now a dry channel overgrown with leaves, whether there are any marks along its course by which I can remember how it ran. (‘David Copperfield’ Ch.18.)

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

One could not talk about Dickens’s drama without mentioning his characters. The variety and memorability of Dickens’s characters is perhaps his greatest achievement as a writer. Often they are caricatures, but caricatures which capture something which is present in life. Every public school must have its Steerforth, criminal circle its Bill and Nancy, fishing community it Peggoty. These are the characters Dickens puts upon his ‘stage’.

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

‘what he did say presented pictures to me, and not mere words. In the excited and exalted state of my brain, I could not think of a place without seeing it, or persons without seeing them. It is impossible to overstate the vividness of these images’ (‘Great Expectations’ Ch. 53.)

Copyright Ian Mackean. Read the full version of this essay at:


write by Fergus

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