[•• = link to material outside this site. Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow.]

Illuminated initial P

layful, allusive, and speculative, John Gordon's fascinating study of the senses and the subliminal in Dickens's oeuvre never fails to surprise and delight the reader. As Gordon notes in his introduction, most of his previous scholarship has focused on James Joyce, and to Gordon, "The transition from Joyce to Dickens seems natural" since he sees "no two writers in English with more in common" (5). While their similarities may not seem immediately apparent, he notes that each of the two writers had a "larger-than-life father," plunged into poverty at a young age, felt restless and driven, had the same body type, and died early at 58 (5-6). Both were also exceedingly hard-working writers with wonderful memories. "Neither wrote the same book twice," Gordon declares, and "[b]oth were virtuosos of English prose" who "mastered and rearranged the facts of their ... cities" (6). Most important for Gordon's argument, both writers were also deeply concerned with sensation and the psyche.

Reading Gordon's richly complex, spirited, and at times rambling, free-association prose does sometimes remind me of Joyce. And this is important. If one is able and willing to grasp the gossamer thread of Gordon's argument, it often leads to moments of keen insight, reaching its conclusions less often by means of a formal presentation of evidence and argument than through indirection and suggestion. If one is looking for a more traditional monograph, tightly presented, clear and direct, the book will prove a disappointment. Readers in search of systematic argument might better consult books such as John Jordan's Supposing Bleak House (2011; ••review or Linda Lewis's Dickens, His Parables, and His Readers (2011). Yet despite its lack of a strong central thesis, I found this book refreshing and even entertaining. While Gordon sometimes overstates his assertions, he is often the first to admit doing so. And however far he may stretch his claims, his erudite, genial, and conversational tone makes this book a pleasure to read.

After a short introduction, the book offers three substantive chapters on Oliver Twist, Dombey and Son, and Bleak House, a fourth chapter of questions and responses regarding Bleak House, and a short afterword. Gordon aims to "dwell on mystification" and to investigate "presences and processes obscured" (2). While he contends that when least inhibited, as in the dream state, sensation can yield insight into buried truths, ultimately, his investigation shows the futility of this enterprise too. We learn just as much about the ways in which Dickens's characters and readers miss the sublimated as we do about their ability to gain understanding through effort or insight. Gordon also shows how Dickens's construction of texts allowed submerged and sometimes dangerous meanings (such as the blood libel) to become embedded in the text. While Gordon takes a psychological approach to sublimation, he does not try to psychoanalyze either Dickens's characters or Dickens himself, as John Jordan does. Instead he uses pre-Freudian concepts of the subconscious that Dickens and his readers would have known, and in this regard, his book makes an original contribution. It also extends the discussion of nature vs. nurture in Goldie Morgentaler's Dickens and Heredity (1999) and the debate about language in Patricia Ingham's Invisible Writing and the Victorian Novel (2001). With each of the three novels he examines, he also draws on a range of intriguing primary and pertinent secondary sources, enhanced by a few carefully chosen illustrations, and his endnotes offer valuable asides.

Chapter 1 tackles several problematic features of Oliver Twist, especially its anti-Semitism. In addition to the repeated anti-Semitic imagery of Fagin, topics such as Rose's sudden recovery, the mysterious portrait scene, and Oliver's vision of Fagin and Monks at the window have been thoroughly explored by many scholars, and Gordon directly engages with critics such as Catherine Robson, Roland Anderson, and Robert Newsom. Gordon asks different questions about these topics, though, and seems more willing than others to pursue an associative train of thought. "Oliver Twist," he argues, "shows one of history's great tale-tellers discovering the power his gift conveys while in the process of, and as a result of, succumbing to one of his culture's master narratives, the blood libel.... [Dickens] began by having a story; then the story had him" (3). Gordon dissects several "moments" in the novel where certain characters, often Oliver himself, are "in states of disorientation sensing something deeply true but dimly graspable" (8). While often it is Oliver in the semi-/sub-conscious state, others, too, experience such moments, including Brownlow, Nancy, and Rose Maylie, who all catch glimpses of "some hidden truth, courtesy of Oliver's mediumship" (8). In fact, Gordon sees Oliver as a central actor in the novel rather than the passive, insipid quasi-hero sometimes posited by other critics.

The claim for the mediating power of Oliver rests on a number of fascinating new interpretations which show that "supremely heightened sensation is coextensive with visionary powers" (27). Even when other characters or outside forces seem in control, the novel's young hero is the novel's ultimate mediator. For example, here is Gordon's analysis of the portrait scene:

Thanks to Oliver's positioning before the portrait and the sudden synchronization it effects, Brownlow is simultaneously able to see through Oliver, through the image of a woman he never met, through the memory of her lover his friend, into its blending with the memory of his own one love. The experience sustains the hunch that earlier came and went. Thus does the young man before him engineer a flashback to the young man Brownlow was at the decisive interval of his life, the buried memories of which, until Oliver arrived, have driven him into the forgetful "abstraction" that is his distinguishing feature. [28]

Because Brownlow's vision originates through untainted Oliver, it reveals the truth. Indeed, writes Gordon, it is often Oliver who is "simultaneously ... seer and agent" (23); even Agnes's single glimpse of baby Oliver, he suggests, is enough to imprint him on her soul and by transference on her portrait.

Furthermore, Gordon contends that Oliver's Christlike qualities make him the perfect foil and counterpart to Fagin. Oliver's similarities to Jesus--that is, a Unitarian view of Jesus, which Gordon somewhat questionably assumes Dickens held--are notable:

He is born in the dead of winter. For a time he is apprentice to a carpenter--Mr. Sowerberry, maker of coffins. As a child he escapes those who wish him ill by running away. He consorts with prostitutes and other lowlifes without being corrupted by their influence; instead, he helps one of them achieve salvation.... His dreams and musings typically bring him into communion with heaven. He forgives his enemies: indeed his last recorded words of the book, spoken in Fagin's cell... can hardly fail to recall Jesus' own last words on the cross.... (33)

Further, Gordon claims that Oliver saves Rose from death through his holy intercession, thus "replicat[ing] the miracles of a divine spirit as human as Jesus at his earthiest" (32). But Fagin personifies the most diabolical stereotypes of anti-Semitism. Just as

Oliver comes to incarnate Jesus, Fagin approaches the opposite role, not as defined by the abstractions of theology but as fed by the folklore of child roasters, cannibal kings, and witches. In this company, Fagin is not a Jew but the Jew, the one who as the devil's earthly stand-in must drain and drink the blood of Christ's stand-in, a saintly Christian child, of whom the two most famous in English lore are William of Norwich, aged twelve, and Hugh of Lincoln, aged somewhere between eight and ten.... Oliver Twist is a fairy tale in modern dress, and the tale in question is the blood libel. [33-34]

Stressing the novel's dual themes of hanging and infanticide, Gordon then meticulously shows how Oliver Twist not only recalls this deep-seated anti-Semitic tale but essentially reenacts it. (An appendix to this chapter also neatly argues that Oliver is born in Lincoln, which links him to the murdered Hugh.) This chapter offers one of the best analyses of Oliver Twist that I have ever encountered, and my subsequent readings of the novel will undoubtedly be influenced by Gordon's argument.

While chapter one is clearly Gordon's best, in my opinion, his analysis of Dombey and Son in chapter two is also interesting and well presented. Though Dombey may seek to illuminate injustice, Gordon argues, its "main point... is all about how what matters most has been occulted, marginalized, and especially, pushed under" (56). The novel is "not particularly ideological," Gordon contends. "If anything, it seems to go out of its way to frustrate, at least, the most obvious of the formulaic reflexes that some of its material might otherwise invite" (65). Indeed, numerous examples of repression and obfuscation aptly demonstrate how the novel keeps its secrets. Yet while it cannot be fully decoded, its secrets can be approached through the sort of semi-conscious states described above. Asserting that "dreams and borderline states" always blend the "supernatural" with "lived experience," Gordon writes that "premonitions of the beyond also plausibly register the actual" (77). He illustrates this point from his own experience:

Waves: when I was a child, ... my family would take me to Virginia Beach, where I would splash and swim in the tides and be tugged back and forth. Later, when I took a bath to wash off the salt, I remember still feeling the tug of the tides, as if they were with me in the bathtub. I'm pretty sure I remember them later, pulling and tugging, when I was in bed. Is it out of the question that Paul has had something of the same experience?

Still, however determinable the different tributaries to Paul's death scene, the central question remains vexingly unanswered. He never says what the waves are saying. ("I hear the waves! They always said so!" Said what so, pray tell?). These last words, delivered at the utmost pitch of otherworldly vision, stay unresolved, at least for this reader. The waves speak for the sea, and the sea in this novel stands for the noncomputable, what Captain Cuttle calls the "wonders in the deep." The sea is that which is beyond the calculations of the likes of Dombey and Carker, and, usually, us as well. [78]

True to his introductory promise to dwell on "mystification," Gordon never balks at unanswerable questions but tries to pursue them as far as possible, even when he cannot find an answer.

In his chapters on Bleak House, Gordon first considers what the novel does with three myths: the stories of Daedalus and Icarus, Perseus and Medusa, and Orpheus and Eurydice. While explaining how these myths are woven into multiple plotlines, Gordon also shows how "[d]enial, avoidance, and sublimation are ... the order of the day" (124). This is undoubtedly true of Esther Summerson. Gordon demonstrates that after her blindness, her enhanced sense of sight leads to greater perception and in consequence a need to deny, avoid, and sublimate what she sees. Knowing that she is being victimized by her guardian, who wants to marry her, Esther deliberately stymies his manipulations. " It discomposes him," writes Gordon,

that Esther interrupts him as he is pondering her (she, in turn, thinks that he is looking exceptionally "worn": ouch), and visibly depresses him for that split second when she registers his reaction to [calling him] "Father." He is sufficiently self-aware to understand why. Hence, his uneasiness. Esther is uneasy, too, from the same cause, despite her claim not to have understood for "many and many a day."

Well, honestly, Miss S.: just how many-a-days did that equal? Ten? A thousand? This is a typical Esther halfway lie. Doubtless it begins as a lie to herself, concocted at the same moment Jarndyce reassumes his fatherly mask. He has told her that she cannot "understand" his feelings, and Esther, ever obedient, does her best not to. But she has seen what she has seen. If she did not to some degree comprehend John Jarndyce's drift, she would not answer as she does: "Father." With, no less, a capital F (all other capitalized "Father"s in the book refer to God) and an exclamation mark at the end of the sentence. Both are for emphasis.... It is the only time in Bleak House that she calls him that to his face. She knows why it makes him flinch. [135]

I rather like this image of Esther, knowing what she does and fighting back in the only way she can--through words. Differing from other critics, including Jordan, Gordon highlights "the innate desire to make meaning" inherent in Bleak House (185). Significantly, he also believes "there is something real" which dreams can tap into (186). According to Gordon, Esther's dreams are not fuel for a psychoanalytic reading of her character but clues to the correct interpretation of both character and plot.

Gordon's interpretation of Bleak House as "a psychological puzzle palace" whose "central mystery is the mind" (153) offers the reader plenty to consider although ultimately no firm answers. As a whole, Sensation and Sublimation aims to unravel this mystery but also seems to assume that we will fail. Dickens may have believed, as Gordon claims, that "it was not in the nature of things for secrets to stay hidden" (189), and through close reading and associative logic Gordon often reveals them. In the end, however, "the unfathomable mystery" (192) is simply unfathomable; we gain ground only to lose it, and at the end of this book the mystery remains largely intact. But this is no insult. The more we see, the more we ask. This is a book whose answers raise useful questions.


Gordon, John. Sensation and Sublimation in Charles Dickens. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 226 pp.

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Last modified 20 June 2014