Like Barrett Browning, Dickens battles with the constraints of fictional autobiography. His Book of Memoranda includes this self-reflexive fragment: “This is the first time I ever set down even these particulars, and, glancing them over, I feel like a wild beast in a caravan describing himself in his keeper's absence" (Kaplan 4). Carr analyzes the dynamics of revelation and containment in Dickens's perception of autobiography:

A written life — with its narrative sequences, implied progress, and causal relationships — may enforce a cultural or literary pattern on a life [cf. Fleishman's personal myth]...A more desperate image of containment appears in Dickens's description of himself as a wild beast, who must be caged to protect the public from the dangers of “free" revelations, made when his “keeper" is away. Self-expression becomes a secret, wild act, performed when the keeper is not looking, a covert communication between the “beast" and the “audience." Yet the metaphor turns on itself, for if Dickens is the beast, he has also been the keeper, refusing details when asked and keeping information to himself. (Carr 447)

Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dickens struggles with a dual identity as an autobiographer, informed in his case by the two-faced legacy of his childhood experiences:

The animal can be viewed and admired without risk to the audience, contained within structure and form to control his excesses; yet the safety is artificial, a controlled imitation of the “natural" habitat. Dickens, as both wild beast and keeper, has a stake in escape and containment; he must preserve both the illusion of danger and the assurance of safety. The illusion seems as necessary for Dickens as for his readers: he often describes himself as a great writer because of a certain excess or restlessness, a certain wildness that cannot be satisfied with lesser performance. Yet the wildness functions (and can be observed) because it is frustrated or contained, because it never achieves its ultimate escape. Dickens inscribes himself between the poles of force and order, of freedom and constraint...The beast must preserve its keeper to display its wildness (448)...[Dickens's] personality grew more diffuse and layered as the line between his own life and his involvement with his fictional characters blurred, and as he used his own experiences for material for his fictions...He understood — and indulged the habit of role-playing and acting that was so much a part of his life and that made his personality so hard to pin down (453)...He well knew, however, that it would be impossible to maintain such absolute control without falsifying the very account he wished to present so faithfully. (455)


Carr, Jean F. “Autobiographical Narration in Dickens and Trollope." Dissertation Abstract International 40 (1980): 5449A.

_______. “Dickens and Autobiography: A Wild Beast And His Keeper." ELH 52 (1985): 447-469.

Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 1996