Language in Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend

How much of the massive stylistic complexity of Dickens’ later novels was already present in the early stages of his career? Much Dickens criticism has been devoted to recording configurations within his successive novels, and it is tacitly assumed that along with other progressions in Dickens’ novel-writing techniques there were developments in his use of language and rhetoric. If this is so, very little has been said about the nature of these changes. Sylvère Monod comments that in his later novels Dickens becomes progressively “more of a fastidious stylist”, more “mannered”, and more given to “lyricism”[1] than he was in his earlier one, and the only dissertation abstract treating style in Dickens contains, amid much obfuscating critical jargon, the statement that Dickens’ style becomes progressively more “highly suggestive” and “almost poetic”.[2] These opinions raise more questions than they answer, since there are almost as many ways of being “mannered” as there are of being “highly suggestive”. Worse, to dismiss prose effects as “poetic”, at least in Dickens, is to open a rat’s nest of questions about the relationship of poetic and prose rhythms and effects – all of which seem to be alternately defined in terms and by contrast with each other, depending upon whether a comparison or a contrast is momentarily needed. What do these critics mean by a “poetical” prose and does Dickens in fact progress in this direction? What are the chief stylistic differences between Dickens’ early and later works, and to what extent can his later works be seen merely as the full development of techniques used extensively early in his career? Could there perhaps have been some overemphasis upon the changes in Dickens’ style, and too little emphasis upon the fullness of his early development?

The greatest contract between Dickens’ early and later use of language might be provided by a comparison of Sketches by Boz or Pickwick Papers with his last full novel, Our Mutual Friend. Also Dickens’ development in the use of language between Pickwick and Oliver Twist is very great, and many generalizations concerning Dickens’ “later style” might also be said to apply to novels as early as Oliver. It is of little meaning to chronicle obvious differences between Dickens’ earliest and latest works, if the greater part of these changes occur in the construction of his first carefully plotted novel. I have chosen to contrast Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend as I think they provide a more ambiguous and less self-evident contrast between the ways in which Dickens chose to write in his earlier and later periods. Also the two novels have some common characteristics – the use of a sentimental plot with one dealing with the underworld, the presentation of near death-bed scenes and the deaths of poor characters, and the portrayal of a crime followed by the criminal’s foredoomed attempt to escape – which present good opportunities for comparing Dickens’ use of language in each novel.

One of the chief characteristics of Oliver Twist is the presence of different types of writing within the novel, each serving its own function. Of course there are many examples of “overlap”, and it would be misleading to assume that most passages could be fitted easily into only one category. Still I have found generally four types of effects which are created, each with its characteristic language pattern.

The most easily identifiable passages are those of narration and conversation. The narrative passages are usually simple and direct, with little imagery. They constitute at least half the book and are often interposed between successive portions of a conversation.

Master Bates nodded assent, and would have spoken; but the recollection of Oliver’s flight came so suddenly upon him, that the smoke was inhaling got entangled with a laugh, and went up into his head, and down into his throat: and brought on a fit of coughing and stamping about five minutes long.[3]

Mr. Giles, as he spoke, looked at Brittles; but that young man, being naturally modest, probably considered himself nobody, and so held that the inquiry could not have any application to him; at all events, he tendered no reply. Mr. Giles directed an appealing glance at the tinker but he had suddenly fallen asleep. The women were out of the question.[4]

Both of these two passages are descriptions either of action of conversation; there are few descriptions of places or scenery in the earlier part of Oliver Twist which are not worked into the description of someone’s activities or thoughts. The few passages of isolated description which exist, for example, the long paragraphs describing Fagin’s den and Saffron Hill[5], have an immediate psychological significance, since they reflect the hero’s fortunes as well as external phenomena.

There are several traits common to most of the narrative passages. The chief binding devices seem to be parallelism and the juxtaposition of short and long phrasing. Parallelism and contrast are the chief structural devices possible in prose, so that Dickens’ extensive use of them is hardly noteworthy. However he seems to compose his long grammatical structures of extremely short ones, so that a comic sense of anti-climax  and suspense is produced. The first passage cited can be arranged:

- - - -,
and - - -;
but - - - - - - - - - - - - -,
that - - - - - - - - - - - -,
and - - - - -,
and - - - -:
and - - - - - - and - ,
about five minutes long.

Master Bates’ extreme overreaction to poor Oliver is thus left to the end, where it suddenly caps the sentence. The shortness of the individual clauses provides for easy parallelism, and also creates a certain singsong effect. Moreover Dickens thrives on what psychologists call “the completion urge”. If something goes up, it must come down. A minor examples is in Bates’ smoke, which “went up into his head, and down into his throat.” The same impulse causes Dickens to break up each action or situation into a series of concrete particles so  that he can run them together again and form a completed series; Bates’ reaction has been carefully divided up with each trivial portion of his response given a new clause, and Mr. Giles’ failure to receive information is prolonged into a statement that no, Brittles wouldn’t give information, no, nor would the tinker, no, nor could the women. The use of a series is relatively minor here in comparison with its later use in Our Mutual Friend, but it still binds paragraphs together internally and enables the neat parallelism of one action/one paragraph to be often apparent. Notice that in the second paragraph cited there are only three sentences, two of which begin with the same name,  a frequent paralleling device throughout Dickens. The third sentence, “The women were out of the question”, is short and satiric, dismissing this paragraph also with a neat “tying up” motion. The individual unit of attention in Oliver Twist seems often to be the paragraph, and Dickens’ ability to terminate a long series of short clauses with a sudden contrastive clause contributes to the distinctness of each paragraph.

There are other narrative devices common to these two paragraphs and to most of narrative portions of Oliver Twist. The circumlocutory and elevated style not only provides a comic contrast with the low-life and inelegant subject matter, but also creates a certain distancing and protective effect for the “genteel reader”. He does not really have to descend into Fagin’s den. It is not without significance that circumlocutory devices abound throughout the book; Fagin becomes “the old gentleman” and “the amiable Jew”, while the younger criminals are often given their full titles – Mister Charles Bates[6], Mr. Crackit, Miss Nancy. When Bet and Nancy stop in to see Charlie and the Artful Dodger, “a couple of young ladies called to see the young gentlemen”, etc[7]. In especially dangers situations these euphemisms become sardonic, but on most occasions they serve to insulate the reader from the story and protect him through irony from any odium of identification. In the two paragraphs quoted there are several examples of this ironic genteelism. The entire description of Bates’ action abounds in inelegancies and archaism of phraseology. He is described as “Master Bates”, and the words “assent”, “recollection”, “flight”, and “inhaling” add a dignity to his perceptions inconsonant with the simple action of a thief coughing; the use of “upon” for “on”, “into” for “in”, and the complex sentence construction create a sense of formal archaism which is in humorous contrast to the theme. The second paragraph contains a similar elevated phraseology – “that young man”, “modest”, “inquiry”, “application”, “tendered”, “question”. Thus through circumlocution and archaism, as well as through manipulation of short sentence-fragments into a series, Dickens is not only able to provide action in simple concrete segments, but to provide detachment and protective humor.

Only one other type of narrative passage deserves mention, the description of scenery infused with psychological meaning. As Sikes flees from capture and from his own obsessed visions, he sees a fire whose violent destructiveness parallels the passion of his own thoughts:

The broad sky seemed on fire. Rising into the air with shower of sparks, and rolling one above the other, were sheets of flame, lighting the atmosphere for miles round, and driving clouds of smoke in the direction where he stood. The shouts grew louder as new voices swelled the roar, and he could hear the cry of Fire! Mingle,  with the ringing of an alarm-bell, the fall of heavy bodies, and the crackling of flames as they twined round some new obstacle, and shot aloft as though refreshed by food. The noise increased as he looked. There were people there – men and women – light, bustle. It was like new life to him. He darted onward -- straight, headlong – dashing through brier and brake, and leaping gate and fence as madly as his dog, who careered with loud and sounding bark before him.[8]

The same piling on of brief quantized particles of syntax is noticeable, but the increased seriousness of this passage is shown by the comparative absence of archaism and circumlocution. The opening sentence is simple and stark, “The broad sky seem on fire.” The language is elevated through simplicity, not through a latinate genteelism of diction. The parallelisms are not created through an apparatus of conjunctions; rather participles, gerunds, and verbal adjectives are piled up – “Rising”, “rolling”, “lighting”, “driving”, “mingled”, “ringing”, “crackling”, “dashing”, “leaping”, “sounding”. In this one paragraph there are four dashes and an exclamation point. Clearly, then, as emotion intensifies Dickens’ narrative passages seem to omit most grammatical connectives except those of simple conjunction, and even frequently to omit those, implying narrative sequence merely through the juxtaposition of sentences on the page. Notice also how frequently words are linked in sequences of two: "men and women", "briar and brake", "gate and fence", "loud and sounding bark", "light, bustle", "straight, headlong". Usually the second item in the sequence is partially redundant; again Dickens forms a verbal series out of a single unit to create rhythm, but here the rhythm created is not the singsong rhythm of humor but a serious rhythm of ritual emphasis. The techniques in this passage are especially important as they are the beginning of a series of devices which Dickens will further develop in Our Mutual Friend.

The second kind of writing in Oliver Twist is the transcription of conversation. There are only a few special characteristics of Dickens' creation of conversation, and these are clear-cut.

"You don't mean to deny that, I suppose?" said the doctor, laying Oliver gently down again.
"It was all done for the -- for the best, sir?" answered Giles. "I am sure I thought it was the boy, or I wouldn't have meddled with him. I am not of a inhuman disposition, sir."
"Thought it was what boy?" inquired the senior officer.
"The housebreaker's boy, sir!" replied Giles. "They -- they certainly had a boy."
"Well? Do you think so now?" inquired Blathers.
"Think what, now?" replied Giles, looking vacantly at his questioner.
"Think it's the same boy, Stupid-head?" rejoined Blathers, impatiently.
"I don't know; I really don't know," said Giles, with rueful countenance. "I couldn't swear to him."
"What do you think?" asked Mr. Blathers.
"I don't know what to think," replied poor Giles.
"I don't think it is the boy; indeed, I'm almost certain that it isn't. You know it can't be."
"Has this man been a-drinking, sir?" inquired Blathers, turning to the doctor.
"What a precious muddled-headed chap you are!" said Duff, addressing Mr. Giles with extreme contempt.[9]

This is a reasonably typical conversation, lasting about half a page. I have underlined the phrases and significant words which are repeated. The conversation is a series of very short individual statements, each composted in turn of extremely short and simple phrases. They are arranged together not so much to treat one idea but to turn all the changes on one word or series of words – know, think, don't know, don't think. The novel's conversations are bound together by their almost mindless repetitions of the same words, even (or especially) in disagreement. Within the same person's speech repetitions occur, as when Giles repeats, "I don't know what to think...I don't think...." Also the same person, from speech to speech, will continue alternating the same phrases. Thus all the components of one conversation are bound together by certain repetitions or "tags", and the conversation forms a concrete unit. In this way it resembles Dickens' creation of narrative paragraphs, each bound distinctly together. Also the absence of grammatical complexities or connectives and the use of simple juxtaposition and contrast--

"Do you think so now? …"
"Think what, now?"….--

create an emotional starkness and simple sequence similar to that found in the more emotionally charged descriptions of Oliver Twist. In this passage of course brevity is used for humor, but as in the descriptions, it can have also a soberly reinforcing effect. On London Bridge Nancy gives up her last chance for life, saying,

"I must go home."
"Home!" Repeated the young lady, with great stress upon the word.
"Home, lady," rejoined the girl. "To such a home as I have raised for myself..."[10]

The conversations, then, seem to carry the techniques of the descriptions to a further extreme of simple contrast and reinforcement of minute units. Also, their rapidity and brevity contrasts with the more turgid piling up of short phrases and clauses which compose the descriptive and narrative passages.

A third form of writing in Oliver Twist  is the authorial interjection, highly charged with sentimental emotion. Such passages form a direct contrast to the brief and rapid descriptions of action. Unlike the archaic and circumlocutory forms of elevation, they attempt to draw the reader close to the emotion rather than to separate him from it. These passages are extremely frequent, and occur most often associated with the Brownlow-Rose Maylie portion of the plot. They are an attempt to provide in the scenes of Oliver's comparative ease and happiness some of the same intensities of emotion provided automatically by the horrors of Fagin's den. I am writing them in blank verse, not because they are greatly more rhythmical than other passages in the book, but because their subject matter is more conventionally "poetic":

Alas! How few of Nature's faces are left alone
To gladden us with their beauty!
The case, and sorrows, and hungerings of the world,
Change them as they change hearts;
And it is only when those passions sleep,
And have lost their hold forever,
That the troubled clouds pas off,
And leave Heaven's surface clear.
So calm, so peaceful, do they grow again,
That those who knew them in their happy childhood,
Kneel by the coffin's side in awe,
And see the Angel even upon earth.[11]
(Capitalization at the beginnings of lines mine.)

...There lingers, in the least reflective mind,
A vague and half-formed consciousness
Of having felt such feelings long before,
In some remote and distant time,
Which calls up solemn thoughts of distant times to come.
And bends down pride and worldliness beneath it.[12]
(capitalization mine)

Of all the bad deeds that,
Under cover of darkness,
Had been committed within wide London's bounds
Since night hung over it,
That was the worst.

Of all the horrors that rose
With an ill scent
Upon the morning air,
That was the foulest
And most cruel.[13]  (capitalization mine)

The second example is perfectly regular iambic, with the last beat a concluding spondee. The first two examples are "poetic" in that they use vague and shifting images to describe an abstract idea, whereas in most of the novel verbal imagery is infrequent. The passages are lyrically direct in emotion, and describe with conventional sadness and sentimentality a common theme. The images, such as "clouds", are designed to be soporific; they blanket any thought which might contradict the central assertion. (One also remembers G.M. Hopkins; comment, "I think angels are the very cheapest things in literature."[14]) The third passage perhaps appeals more to modern taste; it has a Shakespearean gloom and a roughness of rhythm appropriate to its subject matter. If Dickens was "poetic" in style, he was "poetic" right from the beginning, but some of these clearly lyrical passages are much worse examples of writing than his rhythmical prose. They are "poetic" by virtue of a convention which equates a calm monotony of inditement with poetry – the iambic pentameter school. I believe Dickens became less poetical in this sense as he grew more mature, and in Our Mutual Friend  produces effects too roughly metrical and exact in reference to be mistaken for sentimental lyric verse, but like the last passage quoted, they achieve an appropriate effect of their own.

Whatever the poetic content and metrical quality of these authorial asides, they are important to the stylistic construction of the novel. The underworld plot concentrates on a very narrow and enclosed portion of life, and the descriptions, as we have seen, are often semi-ironical and contrived with dissociating artifice. Emotionally Dickens felt a need for counterbalance, some portion of the novel where he could speak with direct and personal feeling to his audience. These passages, with their vague, sometimes embarrassing insistence, were his attempt to compensate for stretches of brittle humor. Sometimes the shifts from humor to pathos are too severe, and the reader wonders if he is supposed to be smiling or weeping – or both, often a difficult congruence of the facial muscles. It will be interesting to see if in Our Mutual Friend a similar pattern, irony followed by authorial emotional commentary, is preserved.

One further type of writing exists in Oliver Twist. As with the other forms of writing, it is hard to distinguish it from its neighbors – sometimes it spreads over into narrative description, at other times it has traits in common with the author's personal statements of emotion. It is a further means of authorial intervention, that which describes how the novel shifts from describing one scene to another:

Oliver knew not the cause of this sudden exclamation; for, not being strong enough to bear the start it gave him, he fainted away. A weakness on his part, which affords the narrative an opportunity of relieving the reader from suspense, in behalf of the two young pupils of the Merry Old Gentlemen; and of recording -- ....[15]

Upon the night when Nancy, having lulled Mr. Sikes to sleep, hurried on her self-imposed mission to Rose Maylie, there advanced towards London, by the Great North Road, two persons, upon whom it is expedient that this history should bestow some attention. [16]

(I am quoting only part of the next sentence, since it fills 16+ lines)
As it would be, by no means, seemly in a humble author to keep so mighty a personage as a beadle waiting...the historian whose pen traces these words...hastens to pay them that respect which their position demands...[17](followed by another 16 line sentence in the same manner)

Clearly these general authorial interventions are used primarily for transitions. As such they are mere machinery, but machinery in a novel where the machinery of a tightly-bound plot is expected to be admired as an asset. The first example quoted is an awkward transition, and exists merely because Dickens ran out of material for one serial publication and had quickly to run the next portion together into it.[18]  The second illustration, however, shows the authorial intervention interfering to create suspense and attract an attention toward the journey of Noah and Charlotte which it might not otherwise seem to deserve. The suggestion that their journey is somehow "expedient" to consider will be confirmed by the plot, since Noah's arrival in London leads to his spying on Nancy and therefore directly to her murder. The third passage reveals that the author's discussion of his own behavior may be used for highly ironical and arch effects – the elaborate satiric elegance is all the more telling since the author is condescending to make his compliments/insults in the first person. These mannerisms again provide the reader with further reassurance of detachment and conscious control, both of which protect him from complete identification with the characters throughout portions of the novel. This is not to imply a negative value-judgment, or to condemn "eighteenth century" aspects of Dickens' art as opposed to more "modern" aspects. A form of suspense is created through watching the consciously articulated drawing-together of scenes by the author – somewhat as the motions of a master chess player might hypnotize by their very self-consciousness and evidence of calculation. At any rate the conscious articulation of transitions and authorial attitudes serves some of the same function in relation to Oliver Twist  as the individual archaisms and elevated mannerism do within discrete sentences – they separate the reader from the subject matter but in return divert his attention to author's mind and manipulation, a source of interest and complexity in its own right.

Oliver Twist, then, is characterized by internal differences in style which together form a complex pattern in style which together form a complex pattern. All sentences are built of very small units arranged to parallel each other, but arranged for different purposes. Most of the descriptions are of actions; they are rapid and clear although frequently combined with irony. Linkages and series abound; many things are described in pairs. Since the series often coexists with the paragraph, it forms a convenient structural unit, with the last member creating a sudden contrast or conclusion to the main series of events. When the description is of a scene of great emotional seriousness, the archaism and mock-elevations disappear, and the repetition creates a sonorous and emotionally turgid effect. Two types of authorial intrusion occur – one a choral function to convey extreme and direct emotion, and the other a sometimes ironic and highly stylized explication of the author's movement from one portion of the plot to another. All of these different types of writing create a great variety in the prose of Oliver Twist, whose successively experienced effects are designed to counterbalance each other in the reader's mind.

In what way does  Our Mutual Friend  differ in its language from Oliver Twist? One way of comparing the two novels is to see if any of the four styles of writing more or less present in Oliver Twist  exist also in Our Mutual Friend, and if so, how they have been metamorphosized in the interim.

There are many descriptions of action in Our Mutual Friend, although they seem to be directed exclusively towards actions less significant for themselves than for their revelation of character:

Again the Secretary bowed. His manner was uneasy and astonished, and showed a sense of humiliation.[19]The Secretary rose, gathered up his papers, and withdrew. Bella's eyes followed him to the door, lighted on Mr Boffin complacently thrown back in his easy chair, and drooped over her book.[20]
Now, the bad child having been strictly charged by his parent to remain at home in her absence, of course went out; and, being in the very last stage of mental decrepitude, went out with two objects; firstly, to establish a claim he conceived himself to have upon any licensed victualler living, to be supplied with threepennyworth of rum for nothing; and secondly, to bestow some maudlin remorse on Mr Eugene Wrayburn, and see what profit came of it.[21]
The case was made interesting to the public, by Mr Mortimer Lightwood's evidence touching the circumstances under which the deceased, Mr John Harmon, had returned to England; exclusive private proprietorship in which circumstances was set up at dinner-tables for several days, by Veneering, Twemlow, Podsnap, and all the Buffers: who all related them irreconcilably with one another, and contradicted themselves.[22]

The simplicity and economy of the first descriptive passages are apparent. Brief clause follows from brief clause in a simple sequence.

Again - - verb.
- - - and -,
and - - - - -.

Secretary verb, verb, and verb.
Bella's eyes verb, verb, and verb.

There is much less emphasis on action and much more on psychological development – each of the four passages cited is designed chiefly to reveal the character and manner of John, Bella, Mr. Cleaver, and the Veneering set respectively. No wonder that although many actions are described in Our Mutual Friend  the plot is less easy to keep distinctly in mind than that of Oliver Twist, whereas some of the psychological nuances are easier to remember. The quotation concerning Jenny Wren's father reveals Dickens' sarcasm used in a different way than was generally revealed in Oliver Twist. The same circumlocutory devices and archaisms are used as in the former novel -- "bad child" for Mr. Cleaver, "firstly", "secondly", "bestow', -- but the irony is not channeled as much into satiric euphemisms of the man's actions as into an attempt to describe his mental processes. The pathos is therefor more direct; there is less sense that the educated author and educated reader are laughing together at the cleverness of describing low-life as though it were not low-life, or unelevated actions as though they were genteel – the joke is less verbal, the more psychological. There is some sarcasm at the expense of Mr. Cleaver's thought patterns, but little against him personally or his external manner, and whatever elevations there are are immediately undercut, even within the same clause:

three penny-worth of rum  for nothing...
to bestow some maudlin remorse...
    (undercutting words underlined)

The fourth passage is more distantly ironic; it too satirizes psychological pretensions, but theuse of extremely formal language -- "evidence", "circumstance", "deceased", "proprietorship", "circumstances", "irreconcilably", "contradicted" -- maintains the irony at a more distant level. There are many of these passages throughout Our Mutual Friend, but proportionately they occur with less frequency than in Oliver Twist . As in Oliver  they are an indication that the reader's emotions may remain less involved than in more direct renditions. Since most of the narrations carry with them by direct implication the psychological significance of what they describe, there is less frequently a need for such authorial irony and mock elevation to clarify Dickens' opinion.

In some of the descriptive writing of Oliver Twist it was evident that many items came in series and pairs. This seems even more frequently noticeable in the descriptive passages of Our Mutual Friend. Almost every long descriptive paragraph contains an extensive series:

At the man's were a Member, an Engineer, a Payer-off of the National Debt, a Poem on Shakespeare, a Grievance, and a Public Office, who all seemed to be utter strangers to Veneering.[23]

The use of series becomes even more noticeable when the articles are dropped, as Dickens does constantly throughout Our Mutual Friend. Previously Dickens had a tendency to repeat names for a rhythmical and singsong effect. Here without an article or title attached the repetition of names can become a dominating features of style:

Sometimes, the table consisted of Twemlow and half-a-dozen leaves;
sometimes, of Twemlow and a dozen leaves;
sometimes, Twemlow was pulled out to his utmost extent of twenty leaves.[24]

Countless names are repeated in this way, each forming an artificial series of its own. In Oliver Twist  different names and expressions had also been used for the same person, as "Merry Old Gentleman" for Fagin. Here alternate names are also employed frequently, but they bear a closer psychological relation to the character named than merely presenting the opposite of the truth. Podsnap is "the large man", the Veneering's butler is "the melancholy retainer", and Jenny's father is "the bad child", a term describing his only important relationship in life. Of course there are some epithets closer to the older manner, as when the Inspector is described as "Abbot of the Monastery", although here too some strainedly thematic connection might be drawn.

The repetition of word patterns, which in Oliver Twist  was sometimes present in descriptions but more extensively in conversation, is more omnipresent in Our Mutual Friend, partially obscuring the verbal distinctions between narration and conversation:

…Mr. Rokesmith...looked at her...He looked at the pretty figure...He looked at the beautiful brown hair...he looked at the free dash of the signature...and then they looked at one another.[25]

The dependence on series and repetitions for a narrative decide automatically lessens the need for other conjunctive devices besides mere juxtaposition. It is not surprising that an entire type of writing in Oliver Twist, the authorial intervention to tie together different scenes, simply does not exist in Our Mutual Friend. Scenes are merely concatenated. Since each of the individual components of the scenes – narration, description, conversation – is similarly constituted of small juxtaposed parts, the larger effect of all the scenes together seems merely an extension of these smaller additive effects. Again this affects the nature of the plot, and since it is easier to remember causality than sequence, it is sometimes hard in Our Mutual Friend to understand the rationale for the following of one part upon another.

What are the characteristics of the conversational passages of Our Mutual Friend? In Oliver Twist  repetition and verbal plays had formed the structure of most of them, and this process continues in even exaggerated effect here:

(Lizzie to Gaffer) "No, no, father!  No!  I can't  indeed. Father!  I cannot  sit so near it!"
"None, none. But I cannot  bear it."
"It's my belief you hate the sight of the very river."
"I—I  do not like it, father."
"As if it wasn't  your living! As if it wasn't  meat and drink to you!"[26]
   (echoes underlined)

Many conversations are amazing compressions of the method:

"At Snigsworthy Park?" Veneering inquires.
"At Snigsworthy," Twemlow rejoins.[27]

Also there is the conversational series, as "Mr. Aggs, Mr. Baggs, Mr. Caggs, Mr. Daggs, Mr. Faggs, Mr. Gaggs, Mr. Boffin."[28] More frequently than in Oliver Twist, Dickens permits a character to expand lengthily in speech and take over some of the character of a narrator. The familiar "Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery-dust, tough dust, and sifted dust -- all manner of Dust..."[29] passage is not from the narrator's description but from Lightwood's. Similarly even such a character as Gaffer Hexam is permitted occasionally to expand his monosyllables into an almost choral function:

"Has a dead man any use for money? Is it possible for a dead man to have money? What world does a dead man belong to? T'other world. What world does money belong to? This world. How can money be a corpse's? Can a corpse own it, want it, spend it, claim it, miss it?"[30]

The using of conversation to fulfill descriptive and evaluative functions serves two purposes – it creates less need for authorial intervention and it forms another similarity between descriptive and conversational passages.

Another device which binds together different passages in Our Mutual Friend is the use of the "anonymity joke" -- the changes and counterchanges constructed around the use of nobody, anybody, somebody, body, anything, everything, no one, any one, man, another, other, etc. These occur throughout the novel, in conversation and narration alike. The embryonic forms of this joke had also been present in Oliver Twist (eg. Brittles considers himself nobody) but here it blossoms forth into a constant verbal device, and is psychologically associated with other stylistic devices, such as the omission of subjects, verbs, and articles from the series, the use of indirect discourse, and the reduction to categories:

"The pecuniary resources of Another were, as they usually are, of a very limited nature."[31]

"Man's drowned."[32]

For, it is a remarkable fact in genealogy that no De Any ones ever came over with Anybody else.[33]

Here of course the reduction to category provides an ironic reference to a convention, social attitude, or puffery. It is an instantaneous verbal device which abbreviates some of the evaluations which in Oliver Twist  were produced by a more elaborate irony of artificial diction.

Since overt authorial intervention in plot manipulation does not exist in Our Mutual Friend, what about the authorial emotional statements that had helped balance the verbal structure of Oliver Twist? Without the one there would seem to be less need of the other, and this is indeed the case. There are very few passages where Dickens breaks into the narrative in his own persona. One of these occurs directly before the death of Betty Higden – Dickens is always at his most directly emotional when approaching a death scene:

My lords and gentlemen and honourable boards, when you in the course of your dust-shovelling and cinder-raking have piled up a mountain of pretentious failure, you must off with your honourable coats for the removal of it, and fall to the work with the power of all the queen's horses and all the queen's men, or it will come rushing down and bury us alive.
Yes, verily, my lords and gentlemen and honourable boards...[34]

Notice that this is not a direct exclamation addressed to the reader as in Oliver Twist, but a formal rhetorical address to a certain class of persons, not necessarily co-extensive with the readers of his novel. Also he is not telling us what we should feel, but instead denouncing policy and inaction – a slightly more external topic for discourse. Dickens is here simultaneously at his sarcastic and his emotional best; irony reinforces emotion rather than being temporarily suspended for its sake. Perhaps Dickens has both mastered the authorial intervention and decided to use it more sparingly. Also his uses his characters to show us private emotion – more aware that it is easier for the reader to sympathize in private with a man who weeps, and in public with a man who voices righteous indignation. Another authorial interventon, also at a near death-scene, shows how with greater brevity and less vagueness he is able to express some of the personal emotion which intruded into Oliver Twist:

And yet – like us all, when we swoon – like us all, every day of our lives when we wake – he is instinctively unwilling to be restored to the consciousness of this existence, and would be left dormant, if he could.[35]

The commentary on "us all every day of our lives" is localized by the direct comparison with a specific man, and more particularly, a riverside villain. The self-pity becomes more controlled, and is only permitted to dominate a portion of the sentence. To me this sentence is an indication of Dickens' progression since Oliver Twist  -- there is less generalized verbal reference to emotion, and yet in its greater precision the language conveys a greater depth of feeling.

How similar then are the kinds of writing used in Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend? We have seen that the same verbal devices and effects – irony, authorial presence, use of wordplays, repetitions, fineness of partition of the grammar and syntax, parallels, juxtapositions forming the structure of conversations, etc. -- which are often considered the basic components of Dickens' later works are also present in Oliver Twist. Yet they are organized differently in the earlier novel; there is more separation between different kinds of language and different desired effects. The ironical passages use more archaisms and circumlocutory phraseology; the sentimental passages seem more direct. The shifts from the simplicities of conversation to the more complex styles of authorial irony and description is more apparent, and the occasional entry of the "historian" to guide shifts in action underlines the significance of plot to the novel. There are many verbal binding devices in Oliver Twist, and it would be false to deny that the basic unit of construction is the scene as well as the paragraph, yet the paragraph, associated with the beginning and completion of a particular action, is much more important than it will be later. Dickens maintains throughout the novel a careful balance between the more formal style of narration and the directness of conversation, the formality of plot transitions and the immediacy of simple actions, and the alternations of authorial irony and sentimental lyric. These oppositions are scarcely present in Our Mutual Friend. What are its corresponding patterns of organization?

Since in Our Mutual Friend  the distinctions between conversation and narration, author and personae, have been greatly lessened, the necessity of increased verbal binding devices is created. Repetition and verbal plays become not only the basis for structuring individual passages and conversations but for binding entire scenes and even portions of the book together. I have mentioned the motif of nobody-somebody-anybody; such patterns recur in all forms of address and help to make the novel more verbally homogeneous, even while we sense that something which we once called "plot" is seeping away into the crevices between scenes. What happens in the novel is mainly psychological; the vents which occur – Harmon's death, John Harmon's supposed murder, Rokesmith's agreement with the Boffins -- mostly occur offstage – or, as in the death of Bradley and Riderhood, are treated very briefly in comparison with the preceding psychological dissection. Sikes' attempt to escape death is psychological, of course, but also very physical; we follow in detail his circular wanderings away from and to London again. Bradley also flees physically but the emphasis is almost completely on his own emotion and pain – the exact route he travels is of less importance. Thus the central emphasis is on scenes as separate psychological experiences, and not on any actions which may bind them together; they become set-pieces rather than vehicles for important action. Even the novel's humor is chiefly in verbal developments rather than in active encounters – the beating of Wegg, if it was meant to be humorous, is an anomaly. In such a situation the similarities between and within scenes become increasingly important – the endless series and similar devices of diction, "tags", rotation of epithets. Often the scenes are designed like one of Dickens' sentences; they are long passages of very short units, ended with a surprise or pointing of the meaning. As conversation is bound to narration and both to other conversations and narrations the novel becomes a "unity" in a different way than does Oliver Twist.

"Verbal rhythm", cry the critics. "It must be poetry!" And so of course it is, if poetry is any language bound together by verbal parallelisms. Actually there is nothing more poetical than prosaic about the creation of such rhythms, however, as rhetoric and common speech depend upon the the emphasis of repetitive devices. There is a certain primitiveness in extensive verbal patterning, of course, but also a systematized realism – more than most persons would like to admit: conversations chiefly consist of repeated simple assertions with proof by emphasis, and human response to environment is the result of untold and unrecognized daily repetition. Dickens was formalizing his reaction to this particular truth of human behavior, not only to create a literary effect but to establish his own pattern of verisimilitude. In line with this was his use of strong rhythmical emphases – not necessarily poetic ones but simply the rhythms of emphatic speech. His later rhythms are rough and uneven for greater power; his more smoothly lyrical stage came, surprisingly, in selected passages closer to the beginning of his career/ Ultimately all discussion of poetry in nineteenth century prose is defective, since after Wordsworth's Preface the best poetry has been stated to be that which conforms to common speech patterns and common rhythms, heightened and emphasized. That is, the best poetry is indistinguishable from the best dramatic prose. Dickens certainly heightens the rhythms of common speech, more so in his later than in his earlier writing, but he does not oversimplify the definition of "heightening" to mean "smoothing". His later works do not become more poetical, or even more stylized, but simply graduate to comparisons with a different kind of poetry, and to a new style. The artifice is not so much distinguished by being more in evidence, but by being of a different type. The basic units and mannerisms of Oliver Twist  and Our Mutual Friend  are very similar, and no major effects or binding device used in Our Mutual Friend is absent from Oliver Twist. Yet whereas is Oliver the divisions between different stylistic mannerisms and between individual portions of the action are more apparent, in Our Mutual Friend  these binding devices exist in near isolation and to the exclusion of much else. The language of Our Mutual Friend  becomes less suitable for the presentation of both direct authorial sentiment  and of complex activity and grammatical contrast, but more suitable for the presentation of actions which demonstrate the internal emotion of the personae. In some sense Dickens' language becomes, not more complex, but more simple; it drops some of the artifice of literary speech and attains a more dramatically immediate verisimilitude. It could be argued that in Our Mutual Friend  the language partially becomes the plot, at least creates it, in a way that in Oliver Twist  it was not intended to do; if manner and matter are not exactly the same they at least share the process of repetitious, slow, and organic development. In Oliver Twist  there was often a carefully constructed contrast between subject matter and style; in Our Mutual Friend  Dickens seeks more for a felt comparison between the two.



Barnard, Robert. "The Choral Symphony: 'Our Mutual Friend'". REL, II, no. 3, 89-99.

Boll, Ernest. "The Plotting of 'Our Mutual Friend'". MP, XLII (1944), 96-122.

Brook, G. L. "Dickens as a Literary Craftsman." BJRL, XLVII (1964), 32-48.

---------. "The Language of Dickens." BJRL, XLVII (1964), 32-48.

Brown, Edward Killorn. Rhythm in the Novel. Toronto, 1950.

Chesterton, G. K. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens. New York, 1961.

Cockshut, A.O.J. The Imagination of Charles Dickens. New York, 1961.

Davis, Earle. The Flint and the Flame: The Artistry of Charles and Dickens. Columbia, Mo., 1963.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist, intro. Humphry House. London, 1949.

--------. Our Mutual Friend, intro. E. Salter Davies. London, 1952.

Engel, Monroe. The Maturity of Dickens. Cambridge, Mass., 1959.

Fielding, K.J. Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction. Boston, 1965.

Gissing, George. Charles Dickens. Port Waashington, New York, 1966. (orig. 1924)

Gross, John and Gabriel Pearson, eds. Dickens and the Twentieth Century. London, 1963.

Honan, Park. "Metrical Prose in Dickens." VN, No. 28 (1965), 1-3.

Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. London, 1952.

Kaplan, Fred. "The Development of Dickens' Style." DA,  XXVII 747A-748A.

Lodge, David. The Rhetoric of Fiction. London, 1966.

Marcus, Stephen. From Pickwick to Dombey. London, 1965.

Miller, Joseph Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of his Novels. Cambridge, Mass., 1958.

Monod, Sylvere. Dickens the Novelist. Norman, Okla., 1968.

Muir, Kenneth. "Images and Structure in 'Our Mutual Friend'". E & S, XIX, Ser. 2 (1966), 92-105.

Nisbet, Ada. "Charles Dickens" in Victorian Fiction, ed. Lionel Stevenson. Cambridge, Mass., 1966, 44-153.

Quirk, Randolph. Charles Dickens and Appropriate Language. Durham, 1959.

--------. "Some Observations on the Language of Dickens." REL, vol. II, no. 3, 19-28.

Shea, Frances X., S.J. "The Text of 'Our Mutual Friend'". DA, XXII (1961), 2007.

Tillotson, Kathleen, ed. Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. Oxford, 1966.

--------. "Oliver Twist". E & S, XII (1959), 87-105.

Winter, Warrington. "Dickens and the Psychology of Dreams." PMLA, LXIII, 984-1006.


[1] Sylvere Monod, Dickens the Novelist. Noman, Okla., 1968, 404, 405.

[2] Fred Kaplan, "The Developent of Dickens' Style," DA, XXVII (1966), 747-A, 748-A. He seems to have a different conception of the word "style" than I do, and writes so generally that one can scarcely tell what he thinks happens to Dickens' language. A sample stylistic comment reads: "The further plunge into 'darkness', the movement from acceptance to rebellion, from innocence to guilt, from a state of timeless euphoria to a state of history-ridden pain, from the past to the present, from a god-oriented universe to a man-oriented universe, that characterizes the thematic movement from Martin Chuzzlewit  to Little Dorrit  is paralleled by a stylistic movement from devices that emphasize rhetorical and religious emotionalism towards techniques that emphasize the concreteness and the rhythm of a highly suggestive, almost poetic prose. Inherent within the prose style of Little Dorrit  is an emphasis on the primacy and the self-sufficiency of human experience, limited to its secular context and taking its strength from a commitment, guided by loyalty and live, to make oneself a satisfactory present and future world."

[3] Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, London, 1949, 131.

[4] Ibid., 209.

[5] Ibid., 55-57.

[6] Ibid., 61.

[7] Ibid., 62.

[8] Ibid., 369.

[9] Ibid., 229, 230.

[10] Ibid., 354.

[11] Ibid., 172.

[12] Ibid., 237.

[13] Ibid., 363.

[14] G.M. Hopkins, The Correspondences of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott, London, 1955, 77.

[15]  Dickens, Oliver Twist, 81, 82.

[16] Ibid., 317.

[17] Ibid., 196.

[18] Monod, Dickens the Novelist, 118. Still, why didn't he change it in one of his numerous revisions?

[19] Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, London, 1952, 463.

[20] Monod, Dickens the Novelist, 118. Still, why didn't he change it in one of his numerous revisions?

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 30.

[23] Ibid., 7.

[24] Ibid., 6.

[25] Ibid., 39.

[26] Ibid., 3.

[27] Ibid., 9.

[28] Ibid., 86.

[29] Ibid., 13.

[30] Ibid., 4.

[31] Ibid., 14.

[32] Ibid., 17.

[33] Ibid., 32.

[34] Ibid., 502.

[35] Ibid., 444.

Florence Boos, 1966