An essay on the construction of the ideal reading position and the subject within ideology with reference to Charles Dickens, "A Visit To Newgate"
The Reading Position
The narrator in "A Visit To Newgate" constructs for the reader an ideal reading position. This reading position excludes other positions, which are not the "ideal," and the excluded become the "other." Realism functions to tell people how to live within the dominant ideology. Charles Dickens "A Visit To Newgate" constructs the reader as a subject in order to reaffirm the ideal subject position within the dominant ideology of capitalism.
The narrator, the implied reading position, the ideal subject within capitalist ideology, and the "other"
The reader has access to the story only as it is presented to the reader through the narrator, who describes the events of the story. As the reader relies upon the narrator for the movement of the narrative towards the end of the text, and the moment of disclosure (Belsey 55), the narratorial stance becomes a position of authority, the “arbiter of truth” within the narrative. In order to easily understand the story, the reader must be interpellated into the position that the narrator is addressing. This reading position that the narrator of A Visit To Newgate constructs, is the ideal subject position within the bourgeois ideology of the time – that of the middle class male. The working-class and poor are not addressed, and therefore a poor or working-class reading position within the text is not constructed. The working-class and poor are seen only from the outside, as objects rather than subjects, represented as the “other.”
The girl belonged to a class – unhappily but too extensive – the very existence of which should make men’s hearts bleed [. . .] Tell them of hunger and the streets, beggary and stripes, the gin-shop, the station- house and the pawn broker’s, and they will understand you. (Dickens 117)
Here the narrator interpellates the reader into the subject position of middle-class and male by representing the female prisoner as the object – assuming that the reader is male and does not belong to the same class as the prisoner. The text addresses a middle-class reading position directly as “you” whereas the poor are “they,” and tells readers that if they really fit the ideal subject-position, they will pity this woman. The reading position is constructed as the most natural, ideal position to be in. The interpellation of the reader makes the “other” of the prisoners pitiable, and therefore encourages the reader to see that their own lives “could be worse,” that is, the reader should work hard and be a good citizen in order to become (or remain in), and accept the position of the ideal reader, so that they are not the pitied ones. In this way the construction of an ideal reading position reinforces the “naturalness” and desirability of the ideal subject within capitalist ideology.
The narrator not only constructs an ideal reading position, but also implies how the reader who takes up that reading position, should react to the information that the narrator imparts. The narrator attempts to fulfil his promise to illuminate for the reader what it is like to be on death row, by speculating on the feelings and dreams experienced by a prisoner with only hours left to live. Geoffrey Gorer describes death as that “aspect of human experience which is treated as inherently shameful and abhorrent [. . .] and experience of it tends to be clandestine and accompanied by feelings of guilt and unworthiness” (Bauman: 1992, 134). The narrator describes such feelings of guilt and unworthiness, and a shameful state of powerlessness in the prisoner:
Now that his fears of death amount almost to madness, and an overwhelming sense of his helpless, hopeless state rushes upon him, he is lost and stupefied. (Dickens 124)
For the narrator, the position of the prisoner is “hopeless,” and from the narrator’s position of power as a “free” man, the prisoner’s lack of freedom is humiliating. The narrator imposes his own feelings of guilt and unworthiness onto the prisoner – whose true feelings he could not possibly know. This manner of dealing with the death of others is a common cultural “truism”; people who are dying “should” feel helpless and ashamed, because the people (ideal subjects) who are “going to live” also feel guilty, helpless and ashamed. This imposing of those feelings onto the prisoner helps a situation that cannot be real (the narrator knowing the thoughts and dreams of a character) seem realistic because it is represented as the logical, or most likely, reaction of the prisoner to his own death. Also, projecting the narrator’s fears of death onto the prisoner, is fundamental in the “othering” of the prisoners, for the implied readers are supposed to assume that death and its ugly characteristics are a feature of the criminals’ lives, and not their own. The narrator does not tell of the actual death (which remains “clandestine”) of the prisoner, as it stays behind “one particular angle of the massive wall” of Newgate Prison (Dickens 113), presumably too shameful and abhorrent an event for the implied reader who is not expected to share the experience of the “other” in its entirety.
The story is set up as a look at the differences between the “free” narrator and implied reader, and the “bound” prisoners. The text tries to come to terms with the free and not free by employing two contrary myths, and eventually compromising, coming to the conclusion that it is probably, “a bit of both.” The first myth is of the individual who is free to make their own choices, and that the prisoners have turned to crime by “giving in” to bad character traits. John Kucich describes “Dickens’ ultimate lesson [. . .] to recognise the fundamental sameness of all fallen humanity” (Kucich 8). This myth represents giving in to crime as merely a character flaw, and can be seen where the narrator’s conceived man on death row feels that “vice had changed his nature” (Dickens 125). The second myth is part of the conscious project of the narrator – to expose how class imposes restrictions on an individual’s freedom, constructing by this process, “freedom” as the natural state (which both the narrator and implied reader share). Zygmunt Bauman describes the development of concepts like class as, “the idea of an external pressure which sets limits to individual will” (Bauman: 1998, 5). This compromise, which states that there is neither pure individual will, nor a total class-induced situation of forced criminality, but both playing a part, is expressed by Geoffrey Thurley who says of the villains in Dickens’s work, that “Dickens presents them as essentially wicked men who have learnt from hardship to pursue evil rather than to co-operate with their fellow men” (Thurley 153). The focus on class, and the insistence by the narrator that conditions in the prison should be improved, is cultural vraisemblance that is presented as natural. To call upon the virtues of “the increased spirit of civilization and humanity” (Dickens 121), creates a “natural” world order, and implies that the advancement of civilization means progress, and that to progress the “community of man” (Kucich 8) has to help the poor to rise to the ideal subject position of middle-class. In this way, the text construct the illusion of the real by claiming to expose inequality and suggest that there is “a better state” of being that modern people can strive for.
The characters in A Visit To Newgate are presented as thought they are being described by the narrator objectively, but are constructed to position the reader where they can judge the characters within the ideological institutions it is assumed the reader will share. The narrator himself is not described, but his personality is defined by the way he interacts with the people and places in the prison. Thurley points out the there is:
An extraordinary disparity between the absorption with which we follow the adventures of Dickens’s heroes and heroines and the relative uninterestingness of their personalities. (Thurley 13)
This “relative uninterestingness” of the narrator of A Visit To Newgate, draws attention away from the fact that a character that has personal opinions is narrating it. Therefore, when the narrator describes another character, it feels like objective description; but it is not, the descriptions are a series of signs that the implied reader should decode in a certain way, and make certain judgements based on those signs. Thurley tells us that “what we have in Dickens’s unforgettable portrayals is not what people look like, but what they are like” (Thurley 11). This is seen most dramatically when the narrator states that the “faces of the two notorious murderers, Bishop and Williams; the former, in particular, exhibiting a style of head and set of features, which might have afforded sufficient moral grounds for his instant execution at any time, even had there been no other evidence against him” (Dickens 114). The description of one young female prisoner appears more objective than that of the murderer’s heads – but it invites the implied reader to judge the prisoner by her actions and appearance:
The girl was a good-looking robust female, with a profusion of hair streaming about in the wind – for she had no bonnet on – and a man’s silk pocket-handkerchief loosely thrown over a most ample pair of shoulders [. . .] The girl was perfectly unmoved. Hardened beyond all hope of redemption, she listened to her mother’s entreaties [. . .] eagerly catching at the few halfpence her miserable parent had brought her. (Dickens 115)
Here, the description of the “robust” woman, with her hair “streaming about in the wind” and the man’s handkerchief suggests that she is sexually “promiscuous” and has the “emotional hardness” of a man. She inflicts pain on her mother through her apparent lack of feelings and cold demeanour. Her life, far from the acceptable selflessness of her mother, is dominated by selfishness. She has rejected her “proper” role as the loving daughter who cares for her family when her mother gets old. The implied reader is supposed to judge this woman in respect to the ideological institution of what constitutes a “good” family, and the woman’s place in it. More, the current state of the woman (in prison, a criminal) is implied to be a direct result of this “failed” family structure. The implied reader is lead to think about what else is “wrong” in that family. Where is her father? Did he leave, did he die, was he too weak to control the daughter or too controlling and violent? This character-traiting assumes that the reader will be able to decode the signs that make up the character, and that they will know the natural “order” of things, such as family structure within the dominant ideology. Hence the character-traiting reinforces the primacy of the ideal subject position within the dominant ideology.
The narrative positions of narrator and implied reader function with A Visit To Newgate to tell us how to live within ideology. The implied reading position in A Visit To Newgate is an extremely powerful reading position, as the “other” of the text, criminals, were presented as being in a particularly intolerable state.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.
- - - , Freedom. Milton Keynes, England: Open UP, 1988.
Belsey, Catherine. “Constructing the Subject: Deconstructing the Text,” Feminist Criticism and Social Change. Ed. Newton and Deborah Rosenfell. London: Methuen, 1985.
Dickens, Charles. “A Visit To Newgate,” Charles Dickens: Selected Short Fiction. London: Penguin, 1985.
Grant, Allen. A Preface To Dickens. Essex: Longman, 1984.
Kucich, John. Excess and Restraint in the novels of Charles Dickens. Athens, Georgia: Georgia UP, 1981.
Thurley, Geoffrey. The Dickens Myth: Its Genesis and Struture. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1976.
Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Typology of Detective Fiction,” Modern Criticism and Theory. Ed David Lodge. London: Longman, 1988.
Although most readers associate his name with novels rather than short pieces, Charles Dickens began his literary career with short fiction, and he never entirely grew away from it. In Sketches by Boz, the collection of his first literary work, readers find sketches and short stories that braid together the realism and fancy that mingle more naturally in Hard Times, Little Dorrit (1855-1857), and Great Expectations (1860-1861). The sketches, such as “Seven Dials,” “The Election for Beadle,” and “A Visit to Newgate,” offer a subjectively perceived picture of real people, places, and events: As Dickens informs his reader in the last of these three pieces, “We took no notes, made no memoranda, measured none of the yards. ” Instead, “We saw the prison, and saw the prisoners, and what we did see, and what we thought, we will tell at once in our own way.” Thus, the sketches offer readers reality filtered through a consciousness that a reader of the novels will identify at once as distinctively Dickensian. In contrast, the short stories, such as the melodramatic “A Black Veil,” are imitations and read like what they are, an apprentice writer’s attempt to purvey the gothic eeriness and jailyard gloom that proved eminently marketable in the 1820’s and 1830’s.
When the astonishing success of the Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) launched Dickens as a novelist, he was still relying heavily on the tactics of short fiction. The adventures of Mr. Pickwick and his friends might almost be seen as a loosely joined series of short stories; and Dickens repeatedly interrupts the main action of the novel with “interpolated tales,” most of them somber or supernatural such as those found in Sketches by Boz. In the Pickwick Papers, however, the tales of melancholy, deprivation, and loneliness do more than accommodate the tastes of the audience; they counterpoise the generally cheerful, comfortable, sociable climate of Mr. Pickwick’s world.
For example, the story of the “Queer Client,” related by an old frequenter of the Inns of Court, connects the worlds of innocence and guilt by showing the naïve Mr. Pickwick how little he knows of the sorrows these ancient legal chambers have witnessed: “the waiting—the hope—the disappointment—the fear—the misery—the poverty.” The tale begins in the Marshalsea, where Heyling, a young man cruelly forsaken by his prosperous father and yet more cruelly prosecuted by his father-in-law, has been imprisoned for debt, as Dickens’s father had been. In the dark, unwholesome prison, Heyling watches first his infant son and then his wife weaken and die. When, through ironic fate, he inherits the paternal fortune that has been withheld during his father’s lifetime, Heyling leaves the prison, but the prison does not leave him. Prematurely aged and consumed from within by a passion for revenge, he devotes all his energies to making his father-in-law pay for his former brutality. Chance brings Heyling to a deserted beach where the old man’s son is drowning, and, by withholding aid, Heyling achieves half his revenge. Then, with the help of an attorney “well known as a man of no great nicety in his professional dealings,” Heyling gradually buys up the loans his father-in-law has taken out and at last confronts the old man with the same fate his daughter had suffered: “Tonight I consign you to the living death to which you devoted her—a hopeless prison.” This vengeance, however, loses some of its sweetness when the victim, hounded beyond endurance, dies on the spot.
The tale of the Queer Client is in a number of ways typical of its author. In the story we see Dickens’s characteristic dislike for the legal system, which he repeatedly portrayed as a pernicious and parasitic institution that corrupted lawyers while it ruined clients, and his indignation at the inhumanity of the prisons, of debtors’ prisons in particular. Like so many of Dickens’s short pieces, the story of the Queer Client involves improbable if not downright supernatural happenings, and, like the other tales in the Pickwick Papers, it serves as a kind of gloss to the comic action in the main plot. Heyling, imprisoned and warped by his imprisonment, both resembles and differs from Pickwick, who is unfairly jailed for breach of promise but does not permit himself the perverse self-indulgence of revenging himself on those who have wronged him. Both the parallels and the contrasts prove significant here. By including the tale of the Queer Client in his novel, Dickens shows that the Pickwickian idyll is precarious—a subtle shift of circumstances could easily swing Mr. Pickwick’s plight from comedy to tragedy—but, by making the short tale extraneous to the main plot, he undercuts this very point. Pickwick and Heyling, although they endure the same wrong, inhabit different worlds.
Thus, Pickwick Papers contains short tales at least in part because the young Dickens found in them an ingenious if obviously mechanical means of bringing the darker realities into the charmed lives of his characters. With experience he learned to weave darkness more naturally into the texture of the worlds he fashioned; in Little Dorrit, written some twenty years after Pickwick Papers, he uses the interpolated tale in a more sophisticated way. The caustic Miss Wade’s autobiographical manuscript, “The History of a Self-Tormentor,” gains a measure of sympathy for a previously unsympathetic character by letting the reader see how the embittered woman views herself and others and hence understand, though not excuse, her actions.
Although Dickens used first-person narration only occasionally in his novels, many of his short pieces are related from this point of view. In the collaborative sequences of tales that make up the special Christmas numbers of Household Words (1850-1859) and All the Year Round (1859-1870), the comments of individuated narrators such as Charley at the Holly Tree Inn, Dr. Marigold, Mrs. Lirriper, and the Boy at Mugby Junction frame and connect the tales. In many of the independent short pieces, the first-person narration proves yet more important, for it permits Dickens to offer his reader, as he does in “The History of a Self-Tormentor,” a glimpse into an unconventional consciousness. Perhaps the most subtle of these psychological experiments, and the piece of short fiction that has most intrigued Dickens’s critics, is George Silverman’s Explanation.
George Silverman’s Explanation
George Silverman begins his tale as many a storyteller has done: “It happened in this wise,” but he breaks off directly, as if unsure whether he has hit on the right words to explain his explanation. He resumes with the same phrase and again pauses, tentative, tongue-tied—a clumsy start, the reader might conclude, but after finishing the narrative he may be more likely to see the opening passage as an artful affectation of artlessness. For once George Silverman launches in earnest into his narrative, he uses language shrewdly and skillfully to gain sympathy and approval for a code of behavior that is more than a little curious.
Born in abject poverty, George is from infancy abused as a “worldly little devil” for desiring and demanding the necessities of life: food, drink, warmth. Bent by his early experience, he goes through life continually trying to demonstrate his unworldliness but continually failing to do so. Convalescing at a farmhouse, the recently orphaned George shrinks away from the young girl who lives there. His motives, as he presents them, are noble—he fears that he will infect young Sylvia with the disease that killed his parents—but his actions make the household consider him sullen and solitary.
Later in his career, George exonerates the pious hypocrite of a guardian who has very clearly swindled him out of his inheritance. His reward is to be denounced as a worldly sinner by the old fraud he has shielded and his whole Evangelical congregation. Having gained a university education, George accepts a meager post as clergyman from the tightfisted Lady Fareway, who shamelessly takes advantage of his unworldliness by making him her unpaid secretary and her daughter’s unpaid tutor. Miss Fareway, who turns out to be beautiful, good, and intelligent, comes to love her tutor, who cherishes a secret love for her. Rather than accept the gift that fortune has presented, however, Silverman high-mindedly contrives to transfer Miss Fareway’s love to a “more worthy” object, his student, Mr. Wharton. Silverman, as self-denying as William Makepeace Thackeray’s Captain Dobbin or Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano, marries the woman he loves to the man he has caused her to love, and, for his disinterestedness, loses his job and his reputation since the vindictive Lady Fareway charges him with accepting a bribe to snare her daughter for Wharton.
On first reading, George Silverman’s Explanation seems a plausible account. We accept Silverman as what he claims to be, a selfless, unworldly soul victimized by others. It is well to remember, however, that the story we have before us is of Silverman’s own telling. When we separate the actual events from the subjective interpretations accorded them by the narrator, Silverman’s merits seem less certain. Might not his perennial self-sacrifice be an inverted form of selfishness? In keeping the world at arm’s length and in refusing the blessing of love, wealth, and companionship, is not Silverman showing himself to be more concerned with his private code than with his fellow men? Can we admire such a sterile ethic? Ultimately George Silverman’s Explanation makes very little clear. The narrator’s plight is undeniably pathetic, but his true character remains an enigma.
The Christmas Books
If Dickens’s reasons for writing George Silverman’s Explanation are uncertain, he left no doubt as to his objectives for his five Christmas books, which appeared between 1843 and 1848. “My purpose,” Dickens wrote of these short books, “was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good humor of the season justified, to waken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land.” Christmas as Dickens describes it, with its feasting and dancing, its cozy firesides and frosty landscapes, is more a secular than a religious celebration. The message that his Christmas books convey is likewise a human rather than a divine one: good will to humans.
This recurrent moral is stated at its simplest in a Christmas tale from the Pickwick Papers, “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” in which Gabriel Grub, a morose gravedigger who scoffs at humanity, is carried off by the Goblins on Christmas Eve, shown many a scene of mortal joy and sorrow, and thus taught to sympathize with his fellow humans. The most sophisticated rendition of the idea occurs in the last of the Christmas books, The Haunted Man, in which Redlaw the chemist, a memory-plagued solitary with much wisdom of the head but little of the heart, gains the power to take away people’s remembrances but renounces it when he learns the Christmas lesson that recollection of good and bad experiences alike is what binds humans to humans. However, the best-loved variation on the theme is A Christmas Carol, the short piece that is probably Dickens’s most widely known work.
A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol begins, naturally enough, on Christmas Eve, as the miserly misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge repeatedly demonstrates to his nephew, his poor clerk Bob Crachit, and other holiday-makers that Yuletide cheer is, to him, “humbug.” At home in his gloomy chambers, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, who has been dead seven years to the very day. Encumbered by a chain of cash boxes, padlocks, keys, and purses, Marley explains to Scrooge that he wears a chain he had forged in his own lifetime and that he now walks abroad because in life his soul had never ventured beyond the limits of their counting house. Before departing, Marley urges Scrooge to avoid the same sort of fate and tells him that for his future good he will be haunted by three spirits.
The first of these, the Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge back to earlier Christmases in his life. The miser’s leathery old heart begins to soften as he feels the sadness of being a small boy left behind at school, the conviviality of a holiday dance at old Fezziwig’s, where the young Scrooge had been an apprentice, and the shame of being set free by the gentle girl who knew that her suitor’s heart had come to have room for but one ideal—“the master-passion, Gain.” The lusty Ghost of Christmas Present escorts Scrooge through London and shows him the domestic felicity that Yuletide celebrations confer on humble households and prosperous ones, on the Crachits and his nephew’s family. Finally, the shrouded specter of Christmas Yet To Come presents the future that lies ahead if Scrooge fails to open his heart and mend his ways. The Crachits will grow yet poorer, and their lame Tiny Tim will die; Scrooge himself will pass unlamented from the scene, and the charwoman, the laundress, and the undertaker’s man will divide his possessions.
The story ends on Christmas Day, when Scrooge ventures forth a changed man. Having learned to look beyond himself, Scrooge now understands how to keep Christmas. He gives generously of his wealth and himself to his fellow men. This conversion story, a timely one for the smug and prosperous Victorian middle class, has continued to speak to Dickens’s readers, who find in A Christmas Carol a very clear version of a point that Dickens makes in most of his writings. Perhaps the one great gift that his fiction offers people is the encouragement not to conform to any particular standard to perfect themselves but to savor the diverse spectacle of humanity and to play their own parts in the pageant with compassion and good cheer.