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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Rebuttal to George Eliot

In contrast to Eliot's assertion (quoted in the previous post) that Dickens rarely gives an internal examination of his characters to the extent that he illustrates external traits, Alan Palmer, in Social Minds in the Novel, explains in a chapter on Little Dorrit that Dickens' examination of the private thoughts of his characters is more subtle but not absent.  Dickens uses the external perspective to explore the internal workings of the mind.  Palmer uses examples of facial expression and nonverbal communication to show how the thoughts of characters are perceived by others.

Palmer uses the term "visible thought" to characterized one way in which a character's thoughts are discerned by those around him.  Palmer uses the example of Merdle's worrying, stating "Even a solipsistic character such as Mr. Dorrit is able to notice when Merdle is out of sorts" (108).  The reticent Merdle is one character about whom the reader learns more from other characters than from himself.  Facial expressions often offer opportunity to see these "visible thoughts, such as the "shade of disappointment" Clennam sees on Mrs. Plornish's face.  For this reason, many characters (e.g. Miss Wade) adopt stolid expressions to avoid detection of their thoughts.  Palmer uses this outward display of the inner life to refute claims of a lack of internal examination by Dickens.

Nonverbal communication between characters who know each other well provides an opportunity to know the thoughts of others.  For example, Fanny gives Amy a warning frown that stops Amy from speaking.  Palmer also gives examples of how just a look from different characters can communicate different things.  The look is used to give or get info, as a warning, to intimidate, and to thank someone, all of which communicate ideas with words.

Ultimately, I think Eliot wins the argument, though Palmer makes valid points.  Dickens does not make a psychological approach to his characters in Little Dorrit, which is, essentially, Eliot's contention.  Knowing the thoughts of a character does give an internal view, though only in a limited way.  Eliot, however, would want to know, not just the thoughts, but also exactly how one's mind works.

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