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Mind reflected on paper : Dickens, Victorian psychology, and the first-person novel Stolte, Tyson Michael

Abstract

"Mind Reflected on Paper" explores the interrelations of Charles Dickens's first-person novels and mid-century psychological debates about the immateriality of the mind and immortality of the soul. Recent studies of the connections between Victorian psychology and the novel have tended to overlook the centrality of Christianity to nineteenth-century mental science; I address this oversight by examining the powerful shaping force exerted on Victorian psychology by widely felt religious anxieties about the threat of materialism. I restore Dickens's work to the midst of the controversy such fears aroused by reading his novels alongside popular and specialist nineteenth-century writings on the mind, and by charting Dickens's own often-overlooked interest in the psychological theorizing of his contemporaries. To be precise, I analyze both Dickens's deployment of the discourse of nineteenth-century psychology and his use of the first-person form as efforts to resist the encroachment of a scientific, physiological model of the mind. Yet I argue that since the key terms of nineteenth-century psychological discourse—mind, soul, consciousness, and so forth—were variously defined, Dickens's attempts to avoid the implications of reductionist mental science are undermined by the meanings accumulated by the psychological terminology on which his novels draw. Furthermore, because introspection remained the primary method of mental research at mid-century, making the first-person perspective the means by which theorists positioned themselves in psychology's battle of philosophies, I contend that even first-person narration carried with it the traces of such debate and meanings inimical to the model of the mind Dickens sought to endorse. In large part, then, it is precisely the confused and confusing way Dickens employs mental science in his fiction that makes his work such a valuable instance of how the mind was popularly constructed during the nineteenth century. "Mind Reflected on Paper" therefore reveals both what was at stake for most readers and writers in Victorian psychological debate—the possibility of immortality and the validity of religious belief—and the discursive means by which a mental science whose terms many worried were incommensurate with an afterlife was nevertheless able to rise to dominance in the period.

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