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Charles Dickens and the Image of Women

David Holbrook
Copyright Date: 1993
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qg5v3
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  • Book Info
    Charles Dickens and the Image of Women
    Book Description:

    How successful is Dickens in his portrayal of women? Dickens has been represented (along with William Blake and D.H. Lawrence) as one who championed the life of the emotions often associated with the "feminine." Yet some of his most important heroines are totally submissive and docile. Dickens, of course, had to accept the conventions of his time. It is obvious, argues Holbrook, that Dickens idealized the father-daughter relationship, and indeed, any such relationship that was unsexual, like that of Tom Pinch and his sister - but why? Why, for example, is the image of woman so often associated with death, as in Great Expectations? Dickens's own struggles over relationships with women have been documented, but much less has been said about the unconscious elements behind these problems. Using recent developements in psychoanalytic object-relations theory, David Holbrook offers new insight into the way in which the novels of Dickens - particularly Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Great Expectations - both uphold emotional needs and at the same time represent the limits of his view of women and that of his time.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4487-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[x])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [xi]-[xiv])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    In previous studies I have dealt with the image of woman as she haunts the work of creative writers—Sir James Barrie, Shakespeare, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and D. H. Lawrence. With these I found, as I supposed, that insights from psychoanalysis help us to understand the most baffling meanings. In applying these insights I was not trying to reduce the symbolism of art to some economic theory of the psyche, based (like Freud’s theory) on instincts, the death instinct or the sexual instinct or whatever, but to apply phenomenological disciplines in the search for understanding.

    Since Freud, psychotherapy...

  4. CHAPTER ONE Bleak House: The Dead Baby and the Psychic Inheritance
    (pp. 27-54)

    Bleak Houseis in one perspective a thriller, a detective story; but its special power to grip us and move us derives from its deeper content, which has to do with a central theme in Dickens—that of inheritance—the inheritance of each being.

    It is highly significant, in the symbolism of the novel, that Esther, who is a kind of orphan, gives her handkerchief to Jenny, the poor woman who lives in the brick kilns, to cover her dead baby, and that later, when Esther is thought to be dying, Lady Dedlock brings the handkerchief from the woman. Later,...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Religion, Sin, and Shame
    (pp. 55-69)

    We need now to turn back to the sexual theme, for we cannot discuss love without discussing problems of sexuality, marriage, and procreation, and woman as the focus of these.

    What was Dickens’s position in relation to the sense of sin and shame that centered on illegitimacy? This problem is of great relevance toBleak Houseand the later novels.

    There seem to be two conflicting attitudes in the texts of religious authority in the Christian tradition. One is that the sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children. The other is revealed in those words that Esther...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Little Dorrit; Little Doormat
    (pp. 70-82)

    Little Dorritwhich was published in 1856, is another novel about inneritance with illegitimacy in the background. Once again, an illegitimate infant is brought up by a harsh mother substitute who inflicts on the child a fierce and punitive religious vengeance the justification for which is supposed to be in the Old Testament. Dickens wishes to champion the approach of the New.

    It is also about father-daughter relationships, and about love and duty. F. R. Leavis saw it as the greatest of Dickens’s novels, but I have serious doubts about it, which I want to pursue, invoking for my purposes...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR At the Heart of the Marshalsea
    (pp. 83-125)

    One of the crucial scenes inLittle Dorritis that between Little Dorrit and her father in chapter 19, book 1. The chapter provides a clue to the symbolism of the Marshalsea: like the Court of Chancery and the Jarndyce case, it is the embodiment of a structure that falsifies the true self. We find similar structures elsewhere: Pip, for instance, is caught up in one, a false inheritance, Estella is caught up in the strange fabric of Miss Havisham’s establishment; Dombey is caught up in his business house; Gradgrind, in his educational system; Bounderby, in his melancholy elephants, the...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Great Expectations: A Radical Ambiguity about What One May Expect
    (pp. 126-146)

    I found myself startled, when I came to work on this book, to discoverGreat Expectationscoming so late in the Dickens canon. I suppose because of its similarity in some respects toDavid Copperfield,I had assumed it to be an earlier work. Dickens himself readDavid Copperfieidbefore embarking onGreat Expectations,to avoid “unconscious repetition,” and he reported to Forster that he was affected by it “to a degree you would hardly believe.” But on reflection,Great Expectationsseems a work of maturity, and it is, as Mrs. Q. D. Leavis saw, a very great novel.

    The...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Finding One Another’s Reality: Lizzie Hexam and Her Love Story in Our Mutual Friend
    (pp. 147-163)

    It was a remark of Merryn Williams’s that sent me back toOur Mutual Friend,to appreciate the great strength of Dickens’s portrayal of Lizzie Hexam: “Lizzie Hexam and Helena Landless are both strong, responsible women … with no charm or playfulness” (87). I had always been fascinated by the portrayal of Bradley Headstone, the compulsively jealous idolizer of Lizzie, as an acute psychological study. But I have always found the James Harmon/Rokesmith plot daunting, the transformations of Boffin incredible, and the Wegg business unreadable. More recently, I found Ian Robinson’s comments on the meaning of Eugene Wrayburn’s violation fascinating...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Dickens’s Own Relationships with Women
    (pp. 164-176)

    Toward the end of his life, Dickens was a rich man: he left some ninety-three thousand pounds.* His worldwide reputation was secure. He had difficulties with his children, and his marriage had been at an end for some time (“That figure is out of my life for evermore [except to darken it]”). He had the clandestine relationship with Ellen Ternan, and seems to have kept this secret from his adoring public. Some people who knew him well knew of his worst offenses; for instance, when one of his sons died he did not even write to his estranged wife, and...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 177-180)
  12. Index
    (pp. 181-194)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 195-195)