Charles Dickens
Dickens's Narrative Technique

by Ian Mackean


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)

(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:

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. Dresses less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but once shoe on - the other was on the table near her hand - her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking glass.

It was not in the first few moments as I saw these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments that might be supposed. But I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could. (Great Expectations. Ch.8. p.67)

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.

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.

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. 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.'

'Oh! For God's sake let me go!' cried Oliver; 'let me run away and die in the fields. I will never come near London; never, never! Oh! pray have mercy on me, and do not make me steal. For the love of all the bright Angels that rest in Heaven, have mercy upon me!'

The man to whom this appeal was made, swore a dreadful oath, and had cocked the pistol, when Toby, striking it from his grasp, placed his hand upon the boy's mouth, and dragged him to the house. (Oliver Twist Ch.22. p.211)

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:

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. p.53)

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:

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. From the character and turn of the inscription, "Also Georgiana Wife of the Above," I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside the grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine - who gave up trying to get a living exceedingly early in that universal struggle - I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence. (Great Expectations Ch.1. p.9)

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.

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.

A moment, and I occupy my place in the cathedral, where we all went together every Sunday morning, assembling first at school for that purpose. The earthy smell, the sunless air, the sensation of the world being shut out, the resounding of the organ through the black and white arched galleries and aisles, are wings that to take me back, and hold me hovering above those days, in a half-sleeping and half-waking dream. (David Copperfield Ch.18. p.270)

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:

"Lay your arm out on the back of the sofa, my dear boy, and I'll sit down here, and get the bandage off so gradually that you shall not know when it comes. I was speaking of Provis. Do you know, Handel, he improves?"

"I said to you I thought he was softened when I last saw him."

"So you did. And so he is. He was very communicative last night, and told me more of his life. You remember his breaking off here about some woman that he had had great trouble with. Did I hurt you?"

I had started, but not under his touch. His words had given me a start.

"I had forgotten that, Herbert, but I remember it now you speak of it."

"Well! He went into that part of his life, and a dark wild part it is. Shall I tell you? Or would it worry you just now?"

"Tell me by all means. Every word." . . .

. . . "It seems," said Herbert, "- there's a bandage off most charmingly, and now comes the cool one - makes you shrink at first, my poor dear fellow, don't it. But it will be comfortable presently - it seems that the woman was a young woman, and a jealous woman, and a revengeful woman; revengeful, Handel, to the last degree."

"To what last degree?"

"Murder - does it strike too cold on that sensitive place?"

"I don't feel it. How did she murder? Whom did she murder?"

"Why, the deed may not have merited quite so terrible a name," said Herbert, "but she was tried for it, and Mr Jaggers defended her, and the reputation of that defence first made his name known to Provis. It was another and a stronger woman who was the victim, and there had been a struggle - in a barn. Who began it, or how fair it was, or how unfair, may be doubtful, but how it ended is certainly not doubtful, for the victim was found throttled."

"Was the woman brought in guilty?"

"No, she was acquitted. My poor Handel, I hurt you!"

"It is impossible to be gentler, Herbert. Yes? What else?"
(Great Expectations Ch.50. p.435-6)

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:

standing over them, with a toasting fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare . . .

. . . "We are very glad to see you, Oliver, very . . . Ah, you're a staring at the pocket handkerchiefs! Eh my dear! There are a good many of 'em, ain't there? We've just looked 'em out, ready for the wash; that's all Oliver; that's all, Ha! Ha! Ha!" (Oliver Twist Ch.8. p.105-6)

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:

Oliver Twist, a poor, nameless orphan boy.
Bill Sikes, a brutal thief and housebreaker.
Fagin, a crafty old Jew, a receiver of stolen goods.
Mr Brownlow, a benevolent old gentleman.
(Oliver Twist 'Characters' p.43)

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.

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. p.460)

Novels referred to
Oliver Twist, Penguin 1966
Great Expectations, Signet Classic 1963
David Copperfield, Harrap 1948

© Ian Mackean, July 2001


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