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Dickens and the Politics of the Family.

Dickens and the Politics of the Family. By CATHERINE WATERS. Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 1997. xi + 233 pp. 35 [pounds sterling]; $54.95.

Catherine Waters's Dickens and the Politics of the Family proposes an examination of the family as that institution is represented in Dickens's fiction. Waters argues that the creation of the family in its modern form is a function of nineteenth-century social control, specifically of the intersection of capitalism with middle-class empowerment and with the normalization, driven by middle-class discourses mediating the vexed relationship between the state and the individual, of patriarchal nuclear families. Bringing together the variables of relatedness and cohabitation for the first time in the nineteenth century, Waters notes, Western European society invests the word and the structure 'family' with its modern meaning, to the end of creating a structure of social control whereby the capitalist and quasi-democratic state can exercise the force of normalization upon the individual through the family.

Dickens's fiction, Waters argues, enforces the normative and socially constructive 'ideal' family by erasing it in many fictional families and by highlighting the erasure of the normative with the presence of grotesque representations: anti-females like Mrs Joe; anti-fathers like Mr Dombey. But it does more than enforce, she argues; it creates, is 'symbolically productive in the formation of middle-class cultural authority' (p. 27): which is to say, along with Foucault to whom she looks for theoretical authority, the discourse of 'the family' prescribes (in the same moment it describes, and, in the case of Dickens, in the same moment it erases) the patriarchal nuclear family, the capitalist model of the family characterized by ownership of females and offspring and martialled in the service of the capitalist state to regulate individual behaviour and to prescribe/describe the private/public-female/male dyad.

Waters's argument engages, of course, the critical discomfort with the disjunction between the unhappy private life Dickens led and the persona he cultivated as the prophet of the middle-class family, a disjunction and a discomfort that have been critical currency since 1941. That Waters addresses her always thoughtful and provocative study to this very disjunction proves the importance and the profundity of the original insight by Edmund Wilson (The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature (Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1941)). Her work provides a thorough and useful survey of the complex domesticities of Dickens's major novels, and seeks to establish a believable linkage between these fictive representations and his personal desire, on the one hand, to participate in the discursive production of a domestic ideal and his failure, on the other hand, to experience (or contribute to) such an ideal at home. The disjunction between what Dickens may intend and what he produces, fictively and domestically, is the very disjunction, or dysfunction, that Waters seeks to mend.

Waters argues that Dickens's inescapable tendency to fill his novels with less than ideal family circles evokes the very ideal that is all but absent from his oeuvre. The negative response he clearly expects from his reader to abusive, neglectful, and exploitative parents depends, in Waters's view, upon the cachet of the middle-class ideal of the nurturing, nuclear, patriarchal family:

This ideal is almost everywhere implied as the standard against which the families portrayed in the novels are evaluated, and herein lies the explanation for the paradox involved in the apparent disjunction between Dickens's reputation as the celebrant of domestic bliss and his fictional interest in fractured families. (p. 27)

This social-constructivist and deconstructionist reading of domesticity in Dickens supports the idea of the novelist's self-creation as the apologist of the nuclear patriarchal family. But it may not account for the pervasiveness in Dickens's fiction of non-'ideal' domesticities. The terms of the ideal that Waters suggests hold Dickens's allegiance are nowhere to be found in his work; instead, we find alternative ideals, positive domestic arrangements that are emotionally satisfying, morally elevating, and transformative to their participants. Waters seems unable to separate the domestic bliss Dickens does celebrate from the domestic model or ideal in which such bliss is rarely, if ever, found in his fiction. Such a separation leads, almost inevitably, to the corollary that he is in fact suspicious of the middle-class ideal and of its potential for producing satisfying domesticities, rather than uncritical in his endorsement of them.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Leger, J. Michael
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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