A Fairly Honourable Defeat
In 1855, Charles Dickens criticized a short story by his friend W. H. Wills, sub-editor of Household Words: the story
is all working machinery, and the people are not alive…. It is very difficult to explain how this is, because it is a matter of intuitive perception and feeling; but perhaps I may give two slight examples. If the scene, where the woman who dies is lying in bed, were truly done, the conversation between the heroine and the boy would belong to it—could do no violence to it—and whatever it might be about, would inevitably associate itself in the reader’s mind with the figure on the bed, and would lead up to the catastrophe that soon happens. If the boy on the outside of the Coach were naturally done, his illness would be a natural thing and one would receive it accordingly. Now, the conversation by the bed is an interruption to the idea of the dying woman, and the dying woman is an interruption to the conversation, and they don’t fit. And it is plain that you, the author, make the boy ill because you want him to be ill—for, if the few closing lines of the chapter, referring to him, were taken away, the reader would have no reason whatever to suppose that anything was the matter with him.
Dickens here seized two related points which are still of fundamental importance, and still obstinately unamenable. To say of the characters in fiction that they “are not alive” is to register a crucial protest which no amount of exculpatory explication or signification can overrule. For the nuances and significances which we rightly prize in fiction can be said genuinely to exist (as art rather than as aspiration) only if they are livingly embodied in the characters of fiction.
Dickens, notably, does not here use the word characters; his insistence that “the people are not alive” offers less room for sophisticated evasion than does our usual uninsistent word. But what Henry James said of naïveté in art might be said of all significances in art: “He noted that the water-colours on the walls of the room she sat in had mainly the quality of being naïve, and reflected that naïveté in art is like a zero in a number: its importance depends on the figure it is united with.” Significance in art—and especially that penetrating significance which we exalt as symbolism—depends for its importance on the figure it is united with. Or the figure it is embodied in.
Yet “the people are not alive” is the register of a protest rather than the mounting of a critical argument. Dickens, not obliged to earn his living as a critic, could afford to come more clean than critics do, could point to something crucial which he yet considered hardly accessible to giving good reasons: “It is very difficult to explain how this is, because it is a matter of intuitive perception and feeling.” Not just that it begins…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.