We are so much in the habit of allowing impressions to be made upon us by external objects, which should be produced by refection alone, but which, without such visible aids, often escape us, that I am not sure I should have been so thoroughly possessed by this one subject, but for the heaps of fantastic things I had seen huddled together in the curiosity-dealer's warehouse. These, crowding on my mind, in connection with the child, and gathering round her, as it were, brought her condition palpably before me. — The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapter One
In Bleak House, I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things. — Bleak House, Preface
The whole idea of the story is sufficiently difficult to require the most exact truth and the greatest knowledge and skill in the colouring throughout.... the little subtle touches of description which, by making the country house and the general scene real, would give an air of reality to the people (much to be desired ), are altogether wanting. The more you set yourself to the illustration of your heroine's passionate nature, the more indispensable this attendant atmosphere of truth becomes. It would . . . oblige the reader to believe in her. Whereas, for ever exploding like a, great firework without any background, she glares and wheels and hisses, and goes out, and has lighted nothing. — Letter from Charles Dickens to Emily Jolly, May 30, 1857
etting is an inseperable component of Dickens' narrative artistry and of his methods of characterization. Indeed, the most lastingly memorable quality of the novels may well be their atmospheric density, wrought from the stylistic brilliance of the descriptive writing. Chesterton believed it "characteristic of Dickens that his atmospheres are more important than his stories." Speaking of the "atmosphere of mystery and wrong . . . which gathers round Mrs. Clenham, rigid in her chair, or old Miss Havisham, ironically robed as a bride," the same critic concludes that it altogether eclipses the story which often seems disappointing in comparison.'9 The mere enumeration of the great dramatic scenes in Dickens conjures up the places where they occur with all the attendant circumstances. Many actions which would otherwise seem outrageously melodramatic command a "willing suspension of disbelief," so sharp i s the author's eye for the relevant detail and so tangible is its rendering. The point may be exemplified by any of the passages showing characters in headlong flight — one of Dickens' favorite methods of bringing his stories to a climax. Examples are Sikes' wanderings [147/148] after the murder of Nancy, Nell's evasion of Quilp, Carker's departure from Dijon, David's escape from London to Dover, Lady Dedlock's disappearance, Pip's journey down the Thames with Magwitch. Slight but telltale descriptive touches impart conviction to each of these episodes: as when Sikes finds momentary respite from guilt in fighting the fire, or Nell is succored by the stoker, or the beggars solicit Carker, or David lurks timorously outside the den of the ogrelike clothing dealer, or Bucket furtively consults the Thames police, or Pip is alerted to Compeyson's pursuit by the "Jack" of the causeway. With regard to this passage in Great Expectations Forster relates an informative anecdote, indicative of the novelist's scrupulous attention to factual accuracy:
At the opening of the story there had been an exciting scene of the wretched man's chase and recapture among the marshes, and this has its parallel at the close in his chase and recapture on the river while poor Pip is helping to get him off. To make himself sure of the actual course of a boat in such circumstances, and what possible incidents the adventure might have, Dickens hired a steamer for the day from Blackwall to Southend. Eight or nine friends and three or four members of his family were on board, and he seemed to have no care, the whole of that summer day (22nd of May, 1861), except to enjoy their enJoyment and entertain them with his own in shape of a thousand whims and fancies; but his sleepless observation was at work all the time, and nothing had escaped his keen vision on either side of the river.
Dickens habitually relies on setting to convey truths which the conventions of the time debarred him from expressing more openly by means of narrative and dialogue. Gissing observed that "London as a place of squalid mystery and terror, of the grimly grotesque, of labyrinthine obscurity and lurid fascination [148/149] is Dickens's own...." With Oliver Twist the writer set out, in declared opposition to the romanticizing proclivities of Harrison Ainsworth and others of the so-called "Newgate" writers, to portray the criminal underworld of St. Giles and Saffron Hill in all its unspeakable degradtion. The 1841 Preface explicitly sets forth his intent:
I had read of thieves by scores — seductive fellows (amiable for the most part), faultless in dress, plump in pocket, choice in horseflesh, bold in bearing, fortunate in gallantry, great at a song, a bottle, pack of cards or dice-box, and fit companions for the bravest. But I had never met except in HOGARTH) with the miserable reality. It appeared to me that to draw a knot of such associates in crime as really do exist; to paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid poverty of their lives; to shew them as they really are, for ever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life, with the great, black, ghastly gallows closing up their prospect, turn them where they may; it appeared to me that to do this, would be to attempt a something which was greatly needed, and which would be a service to society. And therefore I did it as I best could . . . What manner of life is that which is described in these pages, as the every-day existence of a Thief? What charms has it for the young and ill-disposed, what allurements for the most jolter-headed of juveniles? Here are no canterings on moonlit heaths, no merry-makings in the snuggest of all possible caverns, none of the attractions of dress, no embroidery no lace, no jack-boots, no crimson coats and ruffles, none of the dash and freedom with which 'the road' has been, time out of mind, invested. The cold, wet, shelterless midnight streets of London; the foul and frowsy dens, where vice is closely packed and lacks the room to turn; the haunts of hunger and disease; the shabby rags that scarcely hold together: where are the attractions of these things?
If, without offending the sensibilities of Victorian readers by the language and doings of his thieves and [149/150] whores, Dickens was yet so largely successful in his determination not to "abate one hole in the Dodger's coat or one scrap of curl-paper in Nancy's dishevelled hair," this achievement must be laid to the suggestive power of the setting. Dickens knew that if the background of his story was sketched in convincingly enough, the rest might be left to inference. Again it IS Gissing who perceives what the novelist is about: "The point to be kept in view regarding these ideal characters is that, however little their speech and conduct may smack of earth, their worldly surroundings are shown with marvelous fidelity." Often it is impossible to imagine characters outside the milieus which they seem to have spun about themselves like cocoons. This holds especially for the great eccentrics; so that, for example, Mrs. Jarley is unimaginable apart from her caravan, or Captain Cuttle from the Wooden Midshipman, or Venus from his gallery of stuffed horrors With major figures, however, environment becomes a means not only for emphasizing individuality, but also for determining motive and act. Dickens rivals Balzac in his capacity to describe dwellings every facet of which is revelatory of the inhabitants' lives. Wonderfully discriminated are Chesney Wold, Mrs. Clenham's home, and Satis House, all decaying and each the habitat of a doomed woman immured with her dark secret. The residences of Dombey, Gradgrind, Merdle, Podsnap, and the Veneerings through their physical properties alone arraign the qualities that Dickens reprehended in their owners. All disclose the same attachment to material well-being evidenced by the tastelessly over-furnished rooms, the lavishly indigestible meals, the pompous routine of joyless entertainments. Yet each has its own personality, mirroring the variation from type of its inmate. There is no [150/151] confusing Merdle's Chief Butler with the Analytical Chemist who presides over Veneering's table, so sensitively is the brand of servile snobbery flaunted by each in tune with the social pretentions of the establishment in which he is employed. At a deeper level of apprehension, Florence Dombey, Louisa Gradgrind, Amy Dorrit (in Venice and Rome), and Georgiana Podsnap suffer intolerable loneliness in homes which seem to them actual physical extensions of the different shades of neglect inflicted by their fathers.#
A distinguishing characteristic of Dickens' descriptions is their fanciful mingling of the animate and inanimate, as if to imply that a reciprocal relationship exists between beings and their surroundings. This
Because of the close collaboration between writer and artist, the illustrations of the works repay close study as indices of Dickens' dependence on the visual response of readers to his settings. His constant instructions to the various illustrators attest the novelist's concern that the graphic representations of scenes absolutely conform to his conceptions. In criticism of the initial sketch depicting the parlor in which Mrs. Corney entertains Bumble, he wrote to Cruikshank: "I have described a small kettle for one on the fire — a small black teapot on the table with a little tray & so forth — and a two ounce tin tea cannister. Also a shawl hanging up — and the cat and kittens before the fire.-' And to Forster he forcibly voiced his dissatisfaction with Hablot Browne's treatment of a scene from Dombey and Son: "I am really distressed by the illustration of Mrs. Pipchin and Paul. It is so frightfully and wildly wide of the mark. Good Heaven! in the commonest and most literal construction of the text, it is all wrong. She is described as an old lady, and Paul's 'miniature armchair' is mentioned more than once. He ought to be sitting in a little arm-chair down in the corner of the fireplace, staring up at her. I can't say what pain and vexation it is to be so utterly misrepresented. I would cheerfully have given a hundred pounds to have kept this illustration out of the book. He could never have got that idea of Mrs. Pipchin if he had attended to the text." A good example of the fidelity of the line drawing to the written word is provided by Browne's plate made to accompany the description of Mrs. Gamp's lodging in Chapter 49 of Martin Chuzzlewit. [149/150]
This practice, of course, owes much to fairy-tales and folklore which traditionally assume an animistic universe. The novelist frequently caricatures humorous eccentricities of appearance through their analogy with physical phenomena. Thus, for example, Gradgrind's drily positive manner is emphasized by his "hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside." Conversely, more especially in the early writings, objects are endowed with human attributes. Gride's residence in Nicholas Nickeleby is personified in the following terms:
In an old house, dismal dark and dusty, which seemed to have withered, like himself, and to have grown yellow and shrivelled in hoarding him from the light of day, as he had, in hoarding his money, lived Arthur Grid. Meagre old chairs and tables, of spare and bony make, and hard and cold as misers' hearts, were ranged in grim array against the gloomy walls; attenuated presses, grown lank and lantern-~awed in guarding the treasures they inclosed, and tottering, as though from constant fear and dread of thieves, shrunk up in dark corners, whence they cast no shadows on the ground, and seemed to hide and cower from observation. A tall grim clock upon the stairs, with long lean hands and famished face, ticked in cautious whispers; and when it struck the time, in thin and piping sounds like an old man's voice, it rattled, as if it were pinched with hunger.
No fireside couch was there, to invite repose and comfort. Elbow-chairs there were, but they looked uneasy in their minds, cocked their arms suspiciously and timidly, and kept on their guard. Others, were fantastically grim and gaunt, as having drawn themselves up to their utmost height, and put on their fiercest looks to stare all comers out of countenance. Others, again, knocked up against their neighbours, or leaned for support against the wall — somewhat ostentatiously, as if to call all men to witness [141/152] that they were not worth the taking. The dark square lumbering bedsteads seemed built for restless dreams. The musty hangings seemed to creep in scanty folds together, whispering among themselves, when rustled by the wind, their trembling knowledge of the tempting wares that lurked within the dark and tight-locked closets.
As the recurrent phrases "as if," "as though," "seemed," "looked," "like" testify, there is here no pretense of literal realism; rather the yoking of discrepant images so associates the old miser with his possessions that they mirror his character and way of life.
In the novels of his maturity Dickens tended to abandon the use of animistic detail for a more poetic handling of the pathetic fallacy. Increasingly, the natural world is pictured as embodying principles of moral order which do not so much reflect as stand in judgment on human activities. In the remarkable description of the landscape through which he passes on his way to murder Tigg, Jonas Chuzzlewit is subjected to the mute but unwavering scrutiny of trees, likened to "sentinels of God":
The fishes slumbered in the cold, bright, glistening streams and rivers, perhaps; and the birds roosted on the branches of the trees; and in their stalls and pastures beasts were quiet- and human creatures-slept. But what of that, when the solemn night was watching, when it never winked, when its darkness watched no less than its light! The stately trees, the moon and shining stars, the softly-stirring wind, the over-shadowed lane, the broad, bright countryside, they all kept watch. There was not a blade of growing grass or corn, but watched; and the quieter it was, the more intent and fixed its watch upon him seemed to be.
The glow of the evening sky takes on a symbolic hue, as Riderhood watches Bradley Headstone stalk Eugene Wrayburn: [153/154] The boat went on, under the arching trees, and over their tranquil shadows in the water. The bargeman, skulking on the opposite bank of the stream, went on after it. Sparkles , of light showed Riderhood when and where the rower > dipped his blades, until, even as he stood idly watching, the sun went down and the landscape was dyed red. And then the red had the appearance of fading out of it and mounting up to Heaven, as we say that blood, guiltily shed, does.
Significant in the present connection are the violent which so often herald climactic events in the later novels. Like the tempests in Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and King Lear, which also portend retribution, these seem to express nature's revulsion at man's inhumanity. The full scope of the novelist's pictorial imagination is elicited in the intensely dramatic rendering of the natural disturbances which are the prelude to Steerforth's drowning, Magwitch's return, and the murderous deeds of Bradley Headstone and John Jasper. In contrast, nature, represented in her most benign aspect, irradiates the settings for the pathetic deaths of such characters as Smike, Nell, Paul Dombey, Stephen Blackpool, and Betty Higden.
Whether the characters be virtuous or evil, their deaths are always for Dickens a solemn matter, and he sets the stage with corresponding care. As has been earlier pointed out, although the villains of the stories more often than not die by apparent accident, the natural forces which destroy them appear as the instruments of an avenging destiny. A number of such deaths occur by water. Quilp's drowning, while the knocking at the gate he has barred sounds in his ears, is a fittingly sardonic close to his cruel career. Of his body, flung by the tide on a swamp where pirates were once gibbeted, Dickens writes:
And there it lay, alone. The sky was red with flame, and the water that bore it there had been tinged with the sullen light as it flowed along. The place the deserted carcase had left so recently, a living man, was now a blazing ruin. There was something of the glare upon its face. The hair, stirred by the damp breeze, played in a kind of mockery of death — such mockery as the dead man himself would have delighted in when alive about its head, Land its dress fluttered idly in the night wind.
Both Gaffer Hexam and Rogue Riderhood are drawn down into the river from which they derived their ghoulish livelihood, and the same end lies in store for Steerforth, Compeyson, and Bradley Headstone. Although the means are different, the violent deaths of Carker and Blandois come on them with like inevitability; the locomotive which tears the one to pieces and the house which crushes the other seem by foreordination only to have been awaiting the appointed time. The opening scenes off many of Dickens' mature novels present different but no less conclusive evidence of his mastery over the uses to which setting can be put. All of the works prior to Dombey and Son begin on a tentative and irresolute note, indicative of the author's uncertainty about what was to come. The leisurely start of Nicholas Nickleby is typical in its irrelevance: [155/156]
There once lived, in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr. Godfrey Nickleby: a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason. Thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.
In contrast, Dombey and Son plunges in medias res; the introductory description not only leads straight into the story, but ironically forecasts its principal thematic concern:
Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.
The exigencies of space in the shorter novels written for weekly serialization required that the writer exercise the strictest economy in getting his initial effects. A good example is the description of the schoolroom which is the setting for Gradgrind's inquisition at the beginning of Hard Times:
The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely whitewashed room, irradiated Sissy. For, the boys and girls sat on the face of the inclined plane in two compact bodies, divided up the centre by a narrow interval; and Sissy, being at the corner of a row on the sunny side, came in for the beginning of a sunbeam, of which Bitzer, being at the corner of a row on the other side, a few rows in advance, caught the end. [156/157]
But, whereas the girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive a deeper and more lustrous colour from the sun, when it shone upon her, the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed. His cold eyes would hardly have been eyes, but for the short ends of lashes which, by bringing them into immediate contrast with something paler than themselves, expressed their form. His short-cropped hair might have been a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face. His skin w-as so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white.
The contents of this paragraph are conveyed exclusively in visual terms. The eye, following the sunray, perceives what it sequentially discloses. The distinguishing characteristics of Sissy and Bitzer are clearly established by their appearances; and the surface contrast thus brought out prepares for the conflict between the opposing wisdoms of the heart and head which will shape the ensuing action. In both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations the narrative focus is similarly restricted at the outset to a single point of view, responsive to the pictorial aspects of the enveloping situation. In the former novel the reader nervously travels by the night mail to Dover in company with a mysterious passenger, who remains nameless for several pages; and in Great Expectations he shares Pip's uncomprehending terror at encountering Magwitch on the marshes.
Dickens' continuing preference for the full-scale novel in twenty monthly parts was prompted by the ampler scope it allowed for his descriptive talents, as well as for the multiplication of episodes and characters. In addition to supplying a suitably full context for the action, setting in the later novels is increasingly invested with thematic connotations. The introductory [157/158] chapters of Bleak House and Little Dorrit, one evoking a foggy November day in London, the other a blazing August day in Marseilles, concentrate on the atmospheric properties of the mis-en-scene. Like a carnera lens, the author's vision begins by "panning" with impersonal curiosity over a wide prospect, registering in rapid succession a selection of apparently random and discrete "shots" which gradually coalesce into coherent patterns. In the following passage from Bleak House the abrupt juxtaposition of prepositional, participial, and adverbial phrases in place of normal syntactic sentences contributes to the montage effect:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green hills and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great ( and dirty ) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs, fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.
The mode of access is penetrative. Attention is drawn steadily insvard, converging and finally coming to rest on a central scene to which all of the antecedent impressions have been leading up. And this scene, the High Court of Chancery in Bleak House, the dungeon in Little Dorrit, not only provides the point of departure for the story but also defines its mood or tone. [158/159] Consistent with their beginnings, both Bleak House and Little Dorrit are spatially organized primarily in terms of settings, although in the first novel these are presented extensively, and in the second intensively. The homogeneity of the social world in Bleak House is to a large extent conveyed by the interdependence of the localities which define its boundaries. Thus, the transition from the Court of Chancery in the first chapter to Chesney Wold in the second is achieved through this paragraph:
It is but a glimpse of the world of fashion that we want on this same miry afternoon. It is not so unlike the Court of Chancery, but that w-e may pass from one scene to the other, as the crow flies. Both the world of fashion and the Court of Chancery are things of precedent and usage; oversleeping Rip Van Winkles, who have played at strange games through a deal of thundery weather; sleeping beauties, whom the Knight will wake one day, when all the stopped spits in the kitchen shall begin to turn prodigiously!
In Chapter 5 the locale shifts to Krook's Rag and Bottle Warehouse, adjacent to the Court of Chancery and mockingly called by the same name, as another repository of litter and outmoded rubbish. And Chapters 1l and 16 describe the noisome slum Tom-all-Alone's which is the physical counterpart of the moral contamination stemming from the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. "What connexion," asks the author,
can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabouts of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have nevertheless, been very curiously brought together! [158/159]
It is not true, as is often stated, that the fog associated with the obscurantism of the law court in the opening of Bleak House metaphorically embraces the entire novel. Each setting has its analogous atmosphere; rain at Chesney Wold, soot in Krook's establishment, dust in the law chambers of Tulkinghorn and Vholes. More pervasive than all is the pestilence that emanates from the burial ground where Captain Hawdon lies and of which Jo is the emissary. Of this personified plague spot, festering at the heart of the novel, Dickens writes:
But he has his revenge. Even the winds are his messengers, and they serve him in these hours of darkness. There is not a drop of Tom's corrupted blood but propagates infection and contagion everywhere. It shall pollute, this very night, the choice stream (in which chemists on analysis would find the genuine nobility) of a Norman house, and his Grace shall nor be able say Nay to the infamous alliance. There is not an atom of Tom's slime, not a cubic inch of any pestilential gas in which he lives, not one obscenity or degradation about him, not an ignorance, not a wickedness, not a brutality of his committing, but shall work its retribution, through every order of society, up to the proudest of the proud, and to the highest of the high. Verily, what with tainting, plundering, and spoiling, Tom has his revenge.
In Little Dorrit, as in Bleak House, the settings are so arranged as to interlock the strands of the narrative. In the later novel, however, the author's moral indignation more insistently goes beyond social evils w excoriate the stupidity of mind and the hardness of heart which are their breeding ground; and as a result the physical circumstances of environment are more closely identified with their spiritual effects. Little Dorrit is a novel of imprisoning interiors. The gaol at Marseilles where the story commences is structurally [160/161] balanced by the Grande Chartreuse in which the characters are assembled at the beginning of the second book. The impression that society is made up of institutions which hold their inmates in bondage, whether forced or voluntary, is cumulatively intensified by one setting after another: the quarantine station, the Marshalsea the Circumlocution Office, Bleeding Heart Yard, even "that dreary red-brick dungeon at Hampton Court" where Mrs. Gowan resides. But individuals are not less hermetically sealed off in their private prisons; for in this book even those who are nominally at liberty have out of covert guilt passed sentence on themselves. Mrs. Clenham, shut up in a falling house, thinks of herself as "in prison, and in bonds...." Arthur, visiting Casby's residence, steps into a "sober, silent, air-tight house — one might have fancied it to have been stifled by mutes in the Eastern manner — and the door, closing again, seemed to shut out sound and motion." There are as well Merdle's gloomy mansion, w here the parrot screeches derisively from his golden cage; the dreary hiding places in which Miss Wade secretes herself and Tattycoram; the tomblike palaces which William Dorrit rents in Venice and Rome. Of his heroine's response to her existence in Italy, Dickens writes:
It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this same society in which they lived, greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea. Numbers of people seemed to come abroad, pretty much as people had come into the prison; through debt, through idleness, relationship, curiosity, and general unfitness for getting on at home.... They had precisely the same incapacity for setting down to anything, as the prisoners used to have; they rather deteriorated one another, as the prisoners used to do; and they wore untidy dresses, and fell into a slouching way of life: still, always like the people in the Marshalsea. [161/162]
On his first arrival in London at the beginnings of Chapter 3, Arthur is greeted by the pall of gloom which lies over the city on Sundays:
It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close and stale. Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick-and-mortar echoes hideous. Melancholy streets in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency. In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round. Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people. No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world — all taboo with that enlightened strictness that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again. Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up. Nothing for the spent toiler to do, but to compare the monotony of his seventh day with the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it — or the worst, according to the probabilities.
The desolating perspective thus implanted widens until it ultimately encompasses all humanity. For Clenham, self-incarcerated in the Marshalsea, comes to think his condition emblematic of the human lot, so that to his watching eyes the rays of the sun rising over London appear to be "bars of the prison of this lower world." And, as has been suggested, it is into a world so conceived that he and Amy, emancipated only because of their love for each other, step forth at the end of the novel. In Our Mutual Friend each of the parallel plots [162/163] is initially identified with a specific setting, appropriate to its development. The first chapter is set on the Thames, whose waters will eventually wash away the barrier in rank between Eugene and Lizzie. The second chapter, describing the Veneerings' dinner party, introduces through discussion of old Harmon's legacy the different kind of social distinction based on material wealth which Rokesmith and Bella must surmount. At a deeper level of significance, however, the river and the dust-mounds polarize values whose interplay sets up a field of symbolic action. The two are equated by their common elements of filth, the detritus of a sordidly defiled society. Both incorporate decay and death; but the flowing waters, in contrast to the inert mass of the mounds, also hold forth the possibility of spiritual rebirth, like the Thames in Eliot's The Waste Land. Riderhood, "baptized unto death," comes back from immersion unregenerate and so is doomed to death by drowning, as are Gaffer Hexam and Bradley Headstone. On the other hand, Rokesmith and Eugene find the river life-giving, and dying unto themselves, are reborn with cleansed hearts and spirits redirected to the good of others. Dickens, however, never allows the symbolic overtones adducible from the settings of his later novels to obscure their literal immediacy in furthering the narrative, illuminating character, or focusing social criticism. Tom-all-Alone's tangibly exhales an atmosphere of corruption; William Dorrit is visibly marked with the taint of the Marshalsea; and the Thames in its windings through Our Mutual Friend links many of the pivotal events in the novel. A memorandum for the first number states: "Open between the bridges"; and the opening riverscape precisely locates the place "between Southwark Bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone." [163/164] Dickens' continuing exploration of his artistic resources in The Mystery of Edwin Drood is immediately evident in the extraordinary handling of the novel's introductory scene. Setting is evoked entirely through the drugged perceptions of John Jasper, as he lies in an opium den in the London dock area:
An ancient English Cathedral Tower? How can the ancient English Cathedral Tower be here! The wellknown massive gray square tower of its old Cathedral? How can that be here! There is no spike of rusty iron in the air, between the eye and it, from any point of the real prospect. What is the spike that intervenes, and who has set it up? Maybe it is set up by the Sultan's orders for the impaling of a horde of Turkish robbers, one by one. It is so, for cymbals clash, and the Sultan goes by to his palace in long procession. Ten thousand scimitars flash in the sunlight, and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Then, follow white elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colours, and infinite in number and attendants. Still the Cathedral Tower rises in the background, where it cannot be, and still no writhing figure is on the grim spike. Stay! Is the spike so low a thing as the rusty spike on the top of a post of an old bedstead that has tumbled all awry? Some vague period of drowsy laughter must be devoted to the consideration of this possibility.
Even in its truncated state, this last story progressed far enough to expand many of the hints which lurk m the foregoing paragraph. The chaotic impressions streaming through Jasper's mind mingle in inextricable confusion the two worlds which he inhabits, the nether depths of London and the cathedral city of Cloisterham, also mined with corruption under its decorous surface; while the crazy visions of Oriental revelry which bedazzle his senses seem, in addition, to foreshadow the exotic eastern strain so mysteriously woven throughout the texture of the existing narrative. [164/165]
These settings are not only correlative with the opposing sides of Jasper's dual nature; they also determine his actions and provide almost all the available clues for resolving the mystery. Dickens claimed that he had "a very curious and new idea for my new story"; and Forster wrote that its originality "was to consist in the review of the murderer's career by himself at the close, when its temptations were to be dwelt upon as if, not he the culprit, but some other man, were the tempted. The last chapters were to be written in the condemned cell, to which his wickedness, all elaborately elicited from him as if told of another, had brought him." Both assertions are substantiated by the technique of the novel's opening scene, which graphically projects the paysage interieur of schizophrenia. Setting could yield no richer harvest of implication.
Last Modified January 2000