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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The anatomy of Charles Dickens: a study of bodily vulnerability in his novels Gavin, Adrienne Elizabeth


This thesis examines the pervasive presence of the vulnerability of the human body in Charles Dickens’s writing. It demonstrates, through a collection and discussion of bodily references drawn from the range of Dickens’s novels, that the the body’s vulnerability is, in conjunction with the use of humour and the literalizing of metaphorical references to the body, a crucial and fundamental element of both Dickens’s distinctive style and of his enduring literary popularity. Chapter one provides evidence for the contention that a sense of physical vulnerability was particularly intense in the Victorian era and that Dickens shared this awareness as his social and humanitarian interests and activities illustrate. The following chapter focuses on Dickens’s more private concerns with the body, particularly upon his personal physical fears and experiences, the public attention given to his body as a result of fame, his continual denial of his own physical frailties, and the interplay between his body and his writing all of which provided impetus to his literature. Chapters three, four, and five examine consecutively the ways in which physical vulnerability—to damage, disease, and death, but most importantly to dismemberment— function in the novels. They do so on three broad levels: Character, Conversation, and Expression which depict in ascending order increasing bodily insecurity in Dickens’s texts. The Character level concerns the bodily forms and fates of Dickens’s characters. We see here that the more a player’s body is described the more vulnerable it will become, thus good-hearted heroes are virtually “bodiless” and suffer little physical pain while evil characters are described in great anatomical detail and come to bodily harm. Dickens metes out “bodily justice” on this level in that he ensures that characters who have transgressed the rules of good conduct in his fictional world are physically punished for their misdeeds and that bodily punishment is in direct proportion to the “crime” committed. On the Conversational level Dickens depicts extreme physical horrors by expressing these things humorously, by putting descriptions of them in mouths variously and interestingly accented, and, most significantly, by playing on the dual literal and metaphorical meanings of bodily references. Most of this anatomical dialogue is anecdotal and therefore unverifiable, hypothetical and therefore unlikely to happen, or professional, i.e., spoken by “bodily experts” such as doctors or undertakers, and therefore irrefutable. Here exaggeration and extremes attract readers who are simultaneously fascinated and repelled by what characters say of the body. Dickens’s methods of Expression reflect physical reality—all bodies are vulnerable to sudden damage just as Dickens can dismember a body suddenly either with the stroke of a pen or by delaying its complete description. We see that on this level the body is at it most vulnerable and is damaged by methods of expression rather than by narrative. Dickens here plays most intensively with the literalization of metaphor, linguistically insisting that if a head appears around a doorway we can no longer assume that a body will follow. The novels are filled with dictionally decapitated heads and severed limbs, but through the use of humour and by reanimating these members Dickens ensures that his style elicits not simply a reaction of horror in his readers but elicits a response to the grotesque—a strong instinctual attraction to his work which is rooted in the body, not in the intellect. This dissertation concludes that the body’s vulnerability is not only a continual presence in Dickens’s novels but is an under-examined yet fundamental element in what makes his writing style distinctive and what makes his work continually popular.

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