by Ian Mackean
(Novels discussed: excerpts from Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield)
A critic wrote: 'Every writer of fiction, although he may not adopt the dramatic form, writes in effect for the stage.' When considering this statement in relation to the writing of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) 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 appeals to is the stage of the reader's imagination, and his narrative technique plays upon that 'stage' to draw us into his stories.
In fact Dickens's dramatic technique has more in common with the cinema than with pure 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:
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 when Pip says, 'I should have cried out if I could', 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.
In a passage such as this Dickens is using the stage of our imaginations like a cinema screen, his words being a substitute for the stage and film crafts of set-design, wardrobe, make-up, lighting, and props. We provide the response for ourselves. We might say that Miss Havisham in her room 'represents' the sterile lifelessness of an existence surrounded by wealth but without love. But to reduce the passage to such a paraphrasable message would be to miss the immediate dramatic impact Dickens has achieved.
As an example of a dramatic event, using action and dialogue we can take this passage from Oliver Twist.
The only part of that passage in which the author makes his own presence felt is: 'And now for the first time, Oliver, well-nigh mad with grief and terror, saw that housebreaking and robbery, if not murder, where the objects of the expedition.' This piece of information would not be necessary in a film, and it is almost redundant here, merely preparing to reader for the ensuing action which is self-explanatory, and 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. It also reflects the active resistance which is needed if good is to escape corruption by evil. 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, appealing to the 'stage' of the reader's imagination, but there is also much which is non-dramatic which functions on a verbal, literary level. For example:
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. The passage depends for its effect on the repetitive rhythm of 'hair - brushing, hands - washing, shoes - mending', rounded off by 'and pulling up at heel'; the amusing concept of a description having a 'weekday limitation'; and the unusual use of the word 'elaborated'. In passages like this Dickens is not appealing to any stage, but enjoying using words for their own sake, expressing himself through his style, achieving literary communication which goes beyond the limitations of drama or cinema.
A more subtle literary technique, which also goes beyond the limitations of drama, is illustrated near the opening of Great Expectations:
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. We are inside Pip's mind, sharing his consciousness, and a writer can share such experiences with his readers much more intimately and effectively than can a dramatist.
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.
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. The style here is akin to poetry; for example the metaphor of 'that flowing water, now a dry channel', and the evocative juxtaposition of general impressions such as 'the silent gliding on of my existence' with specific impression such as 'the earthy smell, the sunless air'. The passage works on 'the stage of our imagination', but in a more subtle manner than the concrete visual images of his dramatic passages. Dickens, or Dickens as David, is recreating the functioning of the imagination itself; the fluid, illogical, dream-like process of memory, existing in a reality of its own. Such aspects of inner reality can only be represented crudely on stage or screen.
In Great Expectations there is a particularly interesting passage which functions in a wholly dramatic way, but achieves an effect which is more obscure and subtle than is usual for Dickens. The action and the dialogue have a relationship which is at once tangential and parallel:
In that passage there is a correspondence between the removal of the bandage and the revelation of information; and between the sensitivity of Pip's wounded arm and his sensitivity to the information he is receiving. The dramatic situation is one in which two things are going on at once, not ostensibly related but having some metaphorical and suggested correspondence. The passage maintains suspense because the action with the bandage breaks up the delivery of the information into a slow, dangerous, bit-by-bit process which is equivalent to the slow, gradual, step-by-step manner of the removal, and reapplication of a bandage.
It would be a mistake to look for too much depth in a dramatic scene like this, but we could add that Pip's wounds are a painful reminder of his association with Miss Havisham; the fact that he got burned by her burning suggest that he was very closely associated with her; now the information imparted by Herbert reveals that he is even more closely associated with her that he realised. The progress of the scene corresponds in a complex way to the deepening of Pip's understanding.
One could not talk about Dickens's drama without mentioning his characters. It is hardly necessary, in view of the numerous TV serials and musicals, to say that his characters are eminently suitable for dramatic media. With Dickens greatest characters it is impossible not see them and hear them when they are introduced. Fagin for example:
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'. His novels even have a 'cast list' at the beginning and in the way Dickens describes the characters here we can see how he conceived of each as having a character note in keeping with his role in the drama. For example:
I would 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.
Novels referred to
© Ian Mackean, July 2001