This essay, which was originally delivered at a March 1998 Dickens conference, Charles Dickens and His Work, at the Middle East Technical University in Turkey, and then placed on the conference website, has been graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web by Laurence Raw, British Studies Manager, The British Council, Turkey,


The nineteenth-century novel hosts many villains who all seem to be experts in intimidating people around them. Dickens' novels too have many "bad" characters who all have their peculiar ways of oppressing the weak and the innocent. However, intimidation does not always occur through the explicit threats and practices of an evil character. Often "good" characters intimidate others, and characters intimidate each other even when they are polite and "nice" as well. Intimidation also occurs within social interactions which may have several other results and defining characteristics; for example embarrassment is another emotional state which often accompanies or replaces intimidation. In this paper I will first propose a definition of intimidation and later exemplify this definition by explicating some conversations, scenes and characters in several of Dickens' novels.

Definition of "Intimidation"

Although people may intimidate others in numerous ways, all intimidating actions impose a "face threat" to one or more of the parties involved in a social interaction. Erving Goffman defines the term "face" as "the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact" (5). By this definition Goffman also suggests that "face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes" (5). Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson qualify Goffman's definition by attributing two aspects to "face": negative face and positive face (66). These two are defined in terms of the basic wants that an individual has; the negative face is "the want of every 'competent adult member' [of society] that his actions be unimpeded by others" whereas the positive face is "the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others" (Brown and Levinson 67).

According to these two approaches, an individual's face is threatened whenever the public image, the desire to complete an act or the approval of society towards the wants of the person is challenged. There are roughly three ways a face threat may occur: the face threat may be unintentionally posed so that the offender may be "innocent." It may be maliciously and intentionally posed to intimidate someone. Thirdly, it may be incidental since it may come as the by-product of another action (Goffman 14).

"Face Threats" in Dickens

Since these options cover a very wide range of social interaction and communication patterns, the focus of this paper is limited to the face threats that occur during conversations between two characters in Dickens. Before going into complicated social interaction models which involve face threats at several levels, it may be practical to start with some simple face threats. I use this term with reference to all interactions in which one of the parties poses a face threat to the other without being challenged in return. Such threats which cause intimidation often occur in Dickens when people in different age groups and social positions meet. Professionals in their relationships with one another or with non-professionals usually intimidate others, since professionalism as a behaviour pattern differentiates people according to their status. This attitude results in the intentional neglect of some of the parties in a social interaction.

"Face Threats" in David Copperfield

An obvious example is observed at Mr. Waterbrook's dinner table in Chapter 25 of David Copperfield. In this scene two of Mr. Waterbrook's guests indulge in what David Copperfield calls a "mysterious dialogue" which includes many abbreviations, jargon and other hidden but implied information:

I observed that Mr. Gulpidge and Mr. Henry Spiker, who had hitherto been very distant, entered into a defensive alliance against us, the common enemy, and exchanged a mysterious dialogue across the table for our defeat and overthrow.

"That affair of the first bond for four thousand five hundred pounds has not taken the course that was expected, Spiker," said Mr. Gulpidge.

"Do you mean the D. of A's?" said Mr. Spiker.

"The C. of B's!" said Mr. Gulpidge.

Mr. Spiker raised his eyebrows, and looked much concerned.

"When the question was referred to Lord --I needn't name him," said Mr. Gulpidge, checking himself-

"I understand," said Mr. Spiker, "N." ...

"So the matter rests at this hour," said Mr. Gulpidge, throwing himself back in his chair. "Our friend Waterbrook will excuse me if I forbear to explain myself generally, on account of the magnitude of the interests involved." (434-35)

The dialogue takes place in the company of several people who have no knowledge about the issues being discussed or the people being referred to. As David comments, the dialogue intends to "defeat and overthrow" others by making them feel ignorant and out of place in company. Two men as well as the host have "an expression of gloomy intelligence" which makes all the others "outsiders" and "victims of a salutary awe and astonishment" (David Copperfield 435). The speakers obviously desire not to be understood, which endangers the feeling of belonging to the group for the listeners and undermines their social value in that interaction.

"Face Threats" in Pickwick Papers

Another example of professionalism as a means of intimidation may be seen in the court scene of Pickwick Papers. The scene, which also reflects Dickens' view of "justice-at-work" among other things, has long soliloquies by Sergeant Buzfuz, who uses his professional status in court to address the members of the jury and attempts to intimidate Mr. Pickwick by excluding him from the interaction.

"I say systematic villainy gentlemen," said Sergeant Buzfuz, looking through Mr. Pickwick, and talking at him; "and when I say systematic villainy, let me tell the defendant Pickwick, if he be in court, as I am informed he is, that it would have been more decent ... if he had stopped away ... and let me tell him further, as my lord will tell you, gentlemen, that a counsel, in the discharge of his duty to his client, is neither to be intimidated nor bullied, nor put down .... (Pickwick Papers 561).

Mr. Pickwick is the intended hearer of this speech; however, since technically the jury ("gentlemen") is being addressed, Pickwick cannot respond. Moreover, he is being threatened by Sergeant Buzfuz's information about the possible consequences of his actions if he intimidates the Sergeant. Even that bit of information is not given to him but to the jury. Sergeant Buzfuz, though "looking through Mr. Pickwick," does not acknowledge his physical presence and accepts it only on the ground that he has been informed about it by others. Mr. Pickwick's obvious desire to be an active participant of the interaction is disregarded and suppressed, which poses several threats to his negative face.

"Face Threats" in The Old Curiosity Shop and Little Dorrit

Professionalism is only one attitude that may threaten people's desires to be a part of a social interaction or be unimpeded in their actions. Dickens' novels display such simple face threats very often when a villainous character has an interaction with a child or a weak figure. The Old Curiosity Shop provides several examples through Quilp's interactions with Nell, the Grandfather or Mrs. Quilp. At the end of Chapter 5, running also into the following chapter, Quilp and Little Nell have a conversation that is worth studying.

Quilp greets Little Nell "with his dishevelled hair hanging all about him and a yellow handkerchief over his head" (Old Curiosity Shop 90) as well as a strong exclamation that startles the child. The conversation lacks formal greetings, salutations and farewells that conventionally indicate due respect to the interactants' faces. As Erving Goffman observes, greetings are significant indicators that the encounter "involves sufficient suppression of hostility for the participants temporarily to drop their guards and talk" (41). In this case Quilp threatens the conditions under which a mutually controlled and balanced exchange of information can take place, and he instead establishes a superiority over the little girl. The style, direction, content and duration of the dialogue is determined by him, whereas Nell should ideally have the right and duty to determine those factors as well.

Dickens also notes that even the appearance of the man "was something fearful to behold" (Old Curiosity Shop 90), but Quilp makes the encounter even more difficult and unusual for Nell by asking her if she can see "a boy standing on his head" (90). For someone like Nell, who is not accustomed to Tom Scott's unusual way of protesting his boss, this question is out of context and thus confusing. Consequently, the reader is told that Nell stands "timidly by" and shows "some fear and distrust of the little man" (90). After the period of silence during which Quilp reads the letter Nell has brought, she is again startled by his loud "halloa here!" (92).

Quilp has already frightened Nell by his physical appearance, loud voice and total disregard for conventional forms of conversation; during the rest of the scene his insistence on learning if Nell knows anything about the contents of the letter takes on a physically intimidating nature: "Do you wish you may die if you do know, hey?" (Old Curiosity Shop 92), he asks her. His further inquiry about Nell's desire to be his second wife is also unexpected and completely out of place as he is already married and Nell is only a child. Nell is frightened by the question even when she does not understand its full nature. When she does understand, she "shrank from him in a great agitation, and trembled violently" (93). Although it is obvious that she is more frightened that anything else, the situation is also embarrassing for her. She is further intimidated by not being permitted to go home, which is literally an impediment to her desire to act freely.

In this scene Nell is severely harassed, but her fears and embarrassment do not lead to any reaction in order to change her position in the interaction. However, embarrassment may bring along an active protest of the intimidating and embarrassing face threat in an effort to get out of that situation through what Erving Goffman calls "face saving practices" (15-19).

The conversations that take place between Amy, Fanny and later William Dorrit regarding Amy's "infamous" conduct in Chapter 31 of Little Dorrit show face saving practices which arise after the face threats. This scene is very complicated in terms of face threats since it involves threats imposed by almost all parties on others and the subtle relationship between intimidation and embarrassment becomes very explicit.

Here Amy Dorrit is walking towards the Marshalsea Prison with Mr. Nandy, and as the running title of the page states, "she appears in public with a pauper" (Little Dorrit 417). Fanny meets the couple just before they reach the prison door and instead of the usual forms of greeting, she makes a curious observation: "Why, good gracious me, Amy!...You never mean it!" (Little Dorrit 417). Amy is confused by her sister's obscure comment and asks her what she means. The explanation she gets from Fanny is far from satisfactory, moreover insulting:

"Well! I could have believed a great deal of you," returned the young lady with burning indignation, "but I don't think even I could have believed this of even you!"

"Fanny!" cried Little Dorrit, wounded and astonished.

"Oh! Don't Fanny me, you mean little thing, don't! The idea of coming along the open streets, in the broad light of day, with a Pauper!"...

"O Fanny!"

"I tell you not to Fanny me, for I'll not submit to it! I never knew such a thing. The way in which you are resolved and determined to disgrace us on all occasions, is really infamous. You bad little thing!" (Little Dorrit 417)

One may object to Fanny's accusations of Amy's disgracing all Dorrits by stating that Amy does not have nor want a public image that may be endangered by her appearance with Mr. Nandy. However, Amy certainly wants her own desires, in this case her desire to please Mr. Nandy, to be shared by her family. Thus she has threatened her own positive face in this situation. At the same time she has (as Fanny explicitly states) disregarded her family's pretentious but nevertheless maintained public image of gentility. These two conflicting obligations put Amy in an awkward situation.

Fanny's treatment of Amy is intimidating, not only by the nature of the accusations but also by the language she uses for her sister. "Mean little thing," "bad little thing," (Little Dorrit 417, 418) and later "common-minded little Amy," "complete prison-child" and "prevaricating little piece of goods" (417, 419<) are discouragingly accusing and belittling. Frightened and upset, Amy cannot even suggest that there is no essential difference in "social worth" between the Dorrits and Mr. Nandy. Instead, she is "wounded and astonished" (417, 418<), "pale and trembling" and remorseful (417, 419). All these symptoms suggest that she is afraid of keeping in line with her conduct. Thus she tries to make up for the harm she has done to her family face and apologises.

Although Fanny's furious reaction to Amy's offence is disproportionate with the supposed crime, it is not totally unjustified; Fanny has, in fact, lost face : her public image has been threatened by Amy's action. Instead of the more expected reactions of intimidation and embarrassment, this face threat gives rise to a "burning indignation" in Fanny. As Christopher Ricks indicates, "Indignation stands interestingly to embarrassment; the one hot flush drives out the other, as fire fire, so that a common way of staving off embarrassment one would otherwise feel is by inciting oneself to indignation" (3). Thus, consciously or unconsciously, Fanny deals with her embarrassment by translating her upset emotional state from embarrassment to anger. As Ricks observes, indignation also attracts enough public attention to justify the attempts to heal the damage of the face threat just experienced (3). In this case, too, Fanny's behaviour provokes Mr. Dorrit's own embarrassment and he therefore accuses Amy of humiliating him. After Amy's apology, however, Fanny's indignation is replaced by embarrassment once again, this time for her own harsh attitude towards her little sister, and Fanny begins to cry "with a partly angry and partly repentant sob" (417, 420).

Amy is intimidated and confused not only by Fanny's cruel words but also by her father's gently expressed disappointment in her. Mr. Dorrit's claim that Amy has humiliated him is a threat to Amy's desire to be a perfect daughter. She is embarrassed for two reasons which may seem contradictory at first: for one, she is embarrassed at being the black sheep of the family and threatening the family's public image. But she is also obviously embarrassed by that pretentious public image of gentility as well. Therefore her first apology is for whatever she may have unintentionally done that has offended her family (Little Dorrit 417, 419). After Mr. Dorrit explains the nature of her offence, she attempts to explain her behaviour:

I don't justify myself for having wounded your dear heart .... I do nothing but beg and pray you be comforted and overlook it. But if I had not known that you were kind to the old man yourself, and took much notice of him, and were always glad to see him, I would not have come here with him, father, I would not indeed. 417, 420)

This humble apology indicates that as much as she is sorry for what she has done, she is embarrassed and confused by the inconsistency in the family's relationship with Mr. Nandy.

Fanny's impoliteness obviously plays an important role in intimidating Amy; however, politeness itself may have similar consequences. Mrs. Quilp's tea party portrays a very polite Quilp who nevertheless intimidates his mother-in-law. Everyone with whom Quilp interacts is intimidated by his verbal or physical threats; on the other hand, his politeness is so obviously exaggerated and out of his public image that it is hard for Mrs. Jiniwin to cope with this new image as well. His politeness makes it necessary for everyone to adjust their attitude towards him although they know that his politeness is not genuine.

Mrs. Jiniwin has been discussing Quilp's rudeness and tyranny for some time when the man himself shows up as a "gentleman" to contradict her claims. Aware of Quilp's dislike for visitors, Mrs. Jiniwin tries to justify her daughter's tea party, and to her great surprise Quilp seems to agree with everything she says. Although Quilp does not explicitly intimidate her, to have to deal with a Quilp so out of face makes Mrs. Jiniwin uncomfortable. She starts "trembling, partly with anger and partly with a secret fear of her impish son-in-law" (Old Curiosity Shop 80). As in the case of Fanny Dorrit, Mrs. Jiniwin's indignation is the replacement for her embarrassment. Quilp has threatened her dignified mother-in-law image by contradicting her observations about his tyranny. He makes fun of her by being out of face, thus threatening the offensive stand she has taken against him.

The social interactions studied so far involve face threats posed unintentionally, as in the case of Little Dorrit's offence to her family's public image, intentionally due to justifiable (like Fanny's intimidating anger directed toward Amy) or unjustifiable reasons (such as Quilp's verbal harassment and intimidation of Nell). The examples of conversation studied in this paper are too few to offer a thorough analysis of the many ways characters intimidate and embarrass others or eliminate those feelings in Dickens' novels . Regardless of the nature or manner of these violations or threats of face, they all carry with them a vitality that enlivens the scene and provide extra tension for the reader. As a master of handling tension, Dickens no doubt benefits from these scenes and uses them as yet another trademark of his mastery.

Works Cited

Brown, Penelope, and Stephen Levinson, "Universals in Language Use: Politeness Phenomena." Questions and Politeness. ed. Esther Goody, Cambridge Papers in Social Anthropology 8. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978. 56-290.

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Middlesex and New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

---. The Old Curiosity Shop. Middlesex and New York: Penguin Books, 1980.

---. The Personal History of David Copperfield. Middlesex and New York: Penguin Books, 1975.

---. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Middlesex and New York: Penguin Books, 1982.

Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Ricks, Christopher. Keats and Embarrassment. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

Other materials from the March 1998 6th METU British Novelists Seminar

Last modified 2000