The Novel As Vanishing Point: Fiction As Epistemology In "Little Dorrit"

Jayne Lewis
Although at least as much has been written about the aesthetic features of Dickensfs novels as about the moral vision they embrace, the relation between art and ethos in the Dickensian imagination has received comparatively little critical attention. Yet the work at the very heart of the Dickens canon, Little Dorrit, demands to be read in terms of its broad structural and thematic concern not only with the idea of fiction as an equally moral and aesthetic system but, more precisely, with the
more » ... a of fiction as a form of mediation between a public, literal world and a private and imaginative one. Such an idea governs the novel on at least two levels, each worthy of the comprehensive examination the present thesis attempts to afford. In the first place, characters in Little Dorrit so consistently orient themselves to social, psychological, and.even spiritual realities by translating them into equivalent fictions that virtually everyone in the novel emerges as a kind of amateur novelist. By testing what amounts to an epistemology of imagination -in which what is known is known largely through acts of fancy -Dickens reflects the nineteenth-century impulse to respond to life in the fictional mode, an impulse that can be seen as clearly in the novelistic prose of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Newman as in the Victorian novel itself. 4 . I n *Why, will you pretend for to say,1 returned the Captain, *that they don't distinguish the old from the young there as well as here?1 •They don11 make no distinguishments at all,1 said she. •They*re vastly too polite.1" -Fanny Burney, Evelina Although an underlying conception of fiction as epistemology discloses itself to even a casual survey of the text, few studies of Little Dorrit have acknowledged the sheer ubiquitousness of the fictions it encompasses, let alone their efficacy to the consciousnesses which generate them. Nor has any study taken the prevalence of fiction as a point of origin for a comprehensive consideration of the novel 4 as a work of and "about the moral imagination." Janice M. Carlisle concludes that Little Dorrit concerns "the moral limits of the c imagination,"-' but alludes only to the limitations that ultimately incomprehensible life imposes upon the novelist who attempts to record it accurately. In short, a puzzling critical myopia has pre cluded thorough analysis not just of the nature and function of fiction in the novel but, further, of the extent to which Dickens's conception of fictive imagination qualifies Little Dorrit*s moral, social* and psychological design. Certainly the novel*s preoccupation with "genteel fictions" has always intrigued scholars. Yet of recent critics only Carlisle has confronted the active role "good" characters play in upholding the illusions of gentility generally associated with odious Society. Other examinations of the imaginative lives of characters in the novel usually assume, with Peter Christmas, a false polarity in which reality equals absence of fiction equals truth equals goodness, and appearance equals fiction equals fictive gentility equals evil* John Holloway, for example, declares emphatically that in Little Dorrit "seeming imprisons reality,*1^ and Roger Lund decides that the novel's concern with fiction extends only to 1 1 a fictional examination of an entire society built upon sands of hypocrisy, sham, and affectation.1 1 ? By the same token, interpretations like Carlisle's make too few distinctions among the kinds of fictionalization Little Dorrit illustrates. Carlisle absolves Amy Dorrit of her prevarications on the marshy grounds that, given verisimilitude and mimesis as artistic ideals, the ambiguous and fundamentally amoral nature of reality necessitates the abandonment of 1 1 a straightforward and conventionally 'moral* Q posture" in favor of a more ambivalent one. Elaine Showalter and Janet Larson assume that since Dickens was a fictionist his attitude toward anything created by the imagination could not have been other than inconclusive; like Carlisle, both critics do perceive the possibility that fictions can be useful as well as detrimental to the psyche, or to the society, that generates them. But also like Carlisle, neither Showalter nor Larson recognizes the extent to which Dickens vindicates fictionalization not only as a primary but also as a primarily moral act of mind, Showalter, for example, concedes that "in order to preserve minimal self-esteem, [Marshalsea] inmates construct protective fictions, 'sad tales,' and false histories which allow self-pity to dominate their relationships with others,and even sees Dickens himself to employ certain tactful and circumlocutory narrative devices (e.g., the use of doubles) in
doi:10.21220/s2-adpp-f376 fatcat:zf7apz65kfep3okytc6t3woic4