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Пятница, 18.08.2017
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Portrayal of Madness In Dickens’s Early Fiction

Author: Vasilieva Anastasia, BDPU


Vasilieva Anastasia. Portrayal of madness in Dickens’s early fiction.

The paper deals with the Dickens’s portrayal of madness in his early fiction («Sketches by Boz», «Pickwick Papers», «Oliver Twist» and «Nicholas Nickleby»). The article gives a detailed analysis of the author’s attitude towards madness and his use of literary traditions. An examination of certain key novels, in which Dickens experimented with various forms in portraying madness, will reveal the extensive use he made of this theme, and the ways in which his early exploration of madness as an expression of moral failure was later followed by experimentation with insane figures as victims of circumstance or as catalysts in his plots, and by his portrayal of insanity as an expression of human frailty.

Key words: Dickens’s writing, portrayal of madness, moral failure, human frailty, treatment.


Васильєва Анастасія. Зображення божевілля у ранній творчості Ч. Діккенса.

У статті зосереджена увага на зображенні божевілля у ранній творчості Діккенса («Нариси Боза», «Записки Піквікського клубу», «Олівер Твіст» і «Ніколас Ніклбі»). У роботі аналізується відношення автора до божевілля і використання ним медичних творів та літературної традиції. Дослідження деяких ранніх романів, в яких Ч. Діккенс присутні різні форми безумства, відкриє широке використання ним цієї теми як виразу моральної недостатності, що дало йому можливість експериментувати з безумними образами, як жертвами обставин або такими, які, виражали людську слабкість.

Ключові слова: творчість Діккенса, зображення божевілля, моральне падіння, людські слабкості, лікування.


Madness was to be a subject which Dickens explored through a range of themes and characters over a period of many years. He does not merely use insanity as a literary device; his powerful descriptions conveying the effects of deranged behaviour illustrate the way in which this subject gripped his imagination.

As for the Dickens’s novels they are remarkable for their wide array of characters experiencing brief or prolonged periods of insanity. Such his creations are used as a means of moral or social comment, as comic relief, as indicators, touchstones, mirrors or catalysts, often providing insight into other characters and events. His description of maddened scenes of wild crowd violence offer further illustrations of his fascination with the impact of irrationality.

In setting out to examine the forms and literary purposes of Dickens’s varied treatment of madness, which was unparalleled in contemporary literature, this study will examine the reasons why insanity was a source of topical interest at certain key points during Dickens’s writing career.

An examination of some of his novels, in which he experimented with various forms in portraying madness, will reveal the extensive use he made of this theme, and the ways in which his early exploration of madness as an expression of moral failure was later followed by experimentation with insane figures as victims of circumstance or as catalysts in his plots, and by his portrayal of insanity as an expression of human frailty, which became interwoven with themes of redemption (in «A Tale of Two Cities» [6]).

We will examine the early exploration of the theme of madness in  «Sketches by Boz» [15], «Pickwick Papers» [16], «Oliver Twist» [14] and «Nicholas Nickleby» [13], highlighting his early use of dramatic devices in portraying madness as one of the effects of moral failure.

Dickens was unique as a nineteenth-century novelist because of his varied representation of the cause and effects of insanity, discovering in his treatment of the subject one means of exposing hidden springs of emotion in a range of his creations. He also explored its use as a plot device, and, amongst other purposes, experimented with a portrayal of madness as one outcome of moral failure in individuals and also as the result of injustice in the legal system. In later novels he was to explore insanity as an expression of human frailty together with its restorative potential.

In depicting the cause and effects of many forms of insanity, Dickens drew from a wide range of literary sources. His novels mark his own development as a writer experimenting with different aspects of his representation of insanity, together with his attempts to overcome some technical problems inherent in any sustained portrait of madness.

Dickens chose to portray characters who were not merely motivated by the potential to explore the more «dreadful» effects of irrationality in its many forms. Some of his insane creations were to provide him with the opportunity of highlighting emotional extremes, often cast into relief by the effective use of contrast.

It will become apparent that as Dickens explored the subterranean world of insanity in his novels, he used the state of madness as one means of challenging the effects of conventional norms and expectations. Although he had noted that insanity was a «dreadful visitation» during his visit to the asylum, it was to provide him with invaluable resources in incisively exposing hidden layers of meaning in his novel-writing.

Madness is manifested in Dickens’s novels in wild, extravagant delusions or mania, and in the expression of ungovernable emotional manifestations, whether conveyed in anger, deep despair, rage or fury by individuals or by groups. There is often a fine line of distinction between the bizarre behaviour of some of Dickens’s eccentric creations and the characteristics of insanity displayed in other characters. Both eccentric and insane characters may experience isolation, when Dickens portrays their inability to relate to social groups, while they may also share bizarre compulsions. It has been observed that the criterion by which a person in any society is judged to be mentally ill is not primarily the presence of certain unvarying and universally occurring symptoms. It depends rather on whether the affected individual is capable of some minimum of adaptation and social functioning within his society, or whether the psychological change has progressed to such an extent that he has become an outcast in his society.

In madness, Dickens had chosen a subject of topical interest, for, during the period in which he was writing, a number of eminent medical writers were entering into public debate about the nature of the condition, its cause and effect, whilst recommending a wide variety of treatments. Dickens’s reading public would have been aware of aspects of public debate concerning the incidence, cause and treatment of insanity, including the use of the asylum system.

As Dickens was writing during the period in which legislative reforms reflecting a change in public attitudes towards mental derangement were being implemented, insanity would have been a subject of topical interest. While Dickens may have chosen to focus on several aspects of this theme, he had clearly found, in madness, a subject which would capture his readers’ attention.

He was writing at a time when some writers had come to regard aspects of insanity as a national characteristic. Since the eighteenth century, literary and medical texts had examined links between the national’s cultural habits and symptoms of a condition which curiously became known as the «English Malady».

The eighteenth and nineteenth century medical writers spent a good deal of time and effort trying «to define true madness» is borne out in the widely divergent views held by a number of these writers.

One of the most influential writers for Dickens was the eminent Victorian physician, John Conolly (1794-1866), a pioneer in the humane treatment of the insane. Conolly, an inspecting physician in lunatic houses, was a friend of Dickens, and would undoubtedly have kept Dickens abreast with contemporary developments in the care of the insane. He believed that public interest in the effects of insanity was heightened by the awareness that «no man confidently reckon on the continuance of his perfect reason. Disease may weaken, accident may disturb, anxiety may impair it, and if every departure from sound mind may subject the person so affected to an indiscriminate treatment… no man can be sure that he may not pass his melancholy days among the idiotic and mad» [23, p.8]. He was critical of the view that madness was «an impairment of the judging faculty», noting that «this was only a substitution of another name for the same thing» [23]. Conolly’s definition of madness may provide some insight into Dickens’s understanding of insanity: whilst exploring the inequalities and weaknesses and peculiarities of the human understanding which do not amount to insanity, Conolly observed that madness consists of a loss or impairment of one or more of the mental faculties, accompanied by the loss of comparison, citing various examples of cases which illustrate his point. Conolly’s viewpoint may have been taken up by Dickens. For several characters in Dickens’s novels exhibit the symptoms of monomania described by Conolly, including Mr Dick, Miss Flite and Miss Havisham. The hallmark of many of Dickens’s mad creations is a tendency to become self-absorbed, and to adopt a highly subjective view of their personal circumstances, illustrating one respect in which he shared Conolly’s understanding.

The shifting focus of public attitudes towards mental derangement in the nineteenth century was reflected not only in contemporary legislative reforms, but also in a variety of publications, highlighting widespread public interest in the incidence, cause, effect and treatment of insanity.

Some of Dickens’s readership may have been concerned about the prevalence of insanity, anxious that groups such as the insane could undermine nineteenth-century values, in his novels, Dickens was inclined to depict individual portraits of insanity, rather than groups of the insane figures. He may not have chosen to portray insanity as a widespread social malaise, he explored its use in subverting conventions and challenging expectations in certain specific situations, highlighted, for example, in the scene in «Little Dorrit» [12] in which Mr Dorrit’s mental collapse illuminates the superficiality of the response from other guests.

Dickens was highly selective when describing the care of the insane in his writing. In his novels, the insane (including such figures as Barnaby Rudge or Mr Dick) are most commonly cared for by a close relative (although reference is occasionaly made to the use of asylums), while some of Dickens’s mad creations are left entirely to the insane, when there had been no widespread attempt to segregate them from the rest of society, prior to the introduction of asylums. Although Dickens makes passing reference to aspects of treating the insane, it was clearly not his intention to provide an accurate record of contemporary practices. Dickens’s reasons for avoiding the portrayal of some disturbing implications of insanity are discussed elsewhere; his selection of material was not only shaped by his artistic and moral purposes, but also his concern about its effect upon readership. He was more inclined to explore this aspect of the treatment of the insane in articles and notes, exemplified by his «American Notes» [7] or his «Curious Dance».

Dickens was aware of changing contemporary attitudes towards the insane, he was also conscious when exploring this theme, of its potential effect upon his readership. He noted, for example, that the subject of hereditary madness would cause some of his readers to experience grave alarm, also recognising the potential impact upon sales if his readers found aspects of this theme unsavoury – amply demonstrated by the effect of Charles Reade’s handling of this theme. While it gradually became accepted in the nineteenth century that the care of the insane was a public responsibility, it is not surprising that in Dickens’s novels, the care of mentally deranged characters tends to be undertaken by individuals, for Dickens’s treatment of insanity reflects more of his own philosophy than contemporary practice, as he focuses on the responsibility of individuals.

For Dickens’s treatment of madness was an integral part of a wider moral vision reflecting a range of literary traditions. In some of the literary sources from which Dickens has grown, insanity was portrayed as a means of punishment, or as an expression of human frailty in several forms, or as a means of restoration – uses explored by Dickens during various periods in his writing career for different purposes. Early Dickens’s novels explored a range of causes of insanity in which madness is perceived as a form of punishment, his personal attitude towards the treatment of insane members of society is expressed in his «American Notes» [7].

In his early novels insanity was portrayed as an outcome of the Fall, with emphasis on madness as a moral punishment or warning. The ways in which Dickens depicted certain insane creations as victims of circumstance, or experimented with madness as an expression of human frailty, later exploring the potential of restoration from insanity, may have found roots in a range of literary traditions. Dickens would almost certainly have been aware that, in some earlier literary conventions, the onset of madness had been portrayed as a punishment for a variety of human misdeeds, reflecting the fallen nature of man, which thus became associated with sin and guilt.

In his later novels, Dickens was to explore the interrelationship between moral issues and the state of insanity with increasing subtlety, in both theme and character, while his experimentation with a character’s potential restoration from insanity was to provide him with a range of uses in the plot of «A Tale of Two Cities» [6].

Dickens’s exploration of madness as a moral warning is displayed in his «The Drunkard’s Death» or «The Stroller’s Tale» in which his portrayal of insanity draws upon earlier dramatic traditions. In his narrative discourse, he has «access to novelistic means of interiorizing the emotions and passions», enabling him, for example, to explore the inner world of the troubled character of Ralph Nickleby as he nears his death. This is one feature of Dickens’s novel-writing which is lost in the televisation of his novels, as, in conveying the internal conflicts and contradictions experienced by a range of his mentally unstable creations. Dickens permits the reader not only to observe, but to comprehend the nature of the dilemma in which the characters find themselves.

In depicting the effects of insanity as a result of moral failure, Dickens provides startling insight, on occasion, into the inner world of characters such as Sikes or Ralph Nickleby. He also makes use of stock theatrical devices, whereby, as in the tradition of melodrama, his villains meet an early death (experiencing despair at the very least), illustrated by the plight of Fagin, who suffers a period of derangement in the process of his ultimate collapse.

In some of his novels writing techniques were influenced by contemporary theatrical practices, a tendency still apparent in the latter part of his writing career. Dickens was a keen theatre-goer, acquainted with the work of a number of dramatists, and enjoying a wide range of contemporary theatrical productions, including pantomime, with its «curious amalgam of fantasy, realism, topicality, anachronism, grotesquerie, burlesque, spectacle, music, verse, dance, and a serious story» [2, p. 20], although farces, operas and burlesques were also popular in the nineteenth century. Dickens was also influenced by the characteristic style of some contemporary actors.

In his portrayal of insanity, Dickens was indebted in some respects, to another literary tradition with a strong, dramatic element: the Gothic novel, in which madness was a recurrent motif, used as a plot device to convey heightened emotional reactions from shock, grief or guilt. The influence of this tradition upon Dickens’s novel-writing has been widely remarked. In the world of the Gothic novel, characterized by its «chronic sense of apprehension» and the «premonition of impending but unidentified disaster», appearances frequently prove deceptive, and characters are often overwhelmed by passions: it has been remarked that it represents a «fallen world particularly without hope» in which characters survive in fear and alienation [27, p. 3]. There are many undistinguished novels in the Gothic tradition, in which insanity is a recurrent theme, often used to create starling effects, yet Dickens was wont to employ some of these methods (particularly in episodes in his earlier novels).

Dickens was acquainted with some of Maturin’s earliest drama («Melmoth the Wanderer» [5]). Maturin uses madness for a sensational purpose when crudely describing a bride’s death, together with her father’s reaction when he failed to recover his reason after her death, keeping silent until midnight, when he would cry with a «frightfully piercing» voice. With sickening detail he describes the reaction of a woman who has lost her husband and family in the fire of London. Insanity, it seems is all the fashion in Maturin’s tale: Stanton (finally released from an asylum) later suffers a period of insanity experiencing famine, persecution and delirium in a monastery and later concludes: «It is better to be mad at once, than to believe that all the world is sworn to think and make you to be so, in spite of your own consciousness of your sanity» [5, p. 82].

In many Gothic novels, the reaction of characters experiencing insanity as the result of shock is commonly conveyed in highly visual symptoms, and often in dramatic, incoherent speech. Gothic writers used insanity to create effect’s sake.

Some Gothic writers were portraying madness as the result of shock in the 1830’s when Dickens’s earliest writing was being published, and although his familiarity with individual novels is uncertain, he would undoubtedly have been aware of such uses of the theme.

We’d like to add that Dickens’s library contained the works of Sir Walter Scott. He has not replicated the details of Scott’s characterization in any of his own mad creations. While familiar with the characterization of Ophelia and Lucy Ashton, Dickens experimented in the portrayal of victims of circumstance when he produced the contrasting figures of the harmless Miss Flite and the malign Miss Havisham. Young women in Dickens’s novels who sink, like little Nell, under overwhelming pressure in various forms, are more likely to experience physical illness or death than, like Ophelia or Lucy Ashton, the effects of madness. However, Miss Flite and Miss Havisham both experience the long-term consequences of insanity, for Miss Flite is mentally confused throughout her appearance in the novel, while Miss Havisham too suffers the persistent symptoms of monomania.

In Dickens’s varied treatment of madness, he was to explore its potential use in contrasting the nature of wisdom and folly. While the portrayal of folly has often served different literary eses from those of insanity, Dickens draws upon earlier conventions in their treatment of the fool, when depicting some of his insane creations. Dickens reflects certain Pauline teachings, where paradoxically, foolish things of the world are seen to confound the wise.

For Dickens madness often symbolized the effects of human frailty and brokenness. He was aware of the ironic potential of insanity, drawing upon earlier traditions in which madness is used in ironically highlighting the nature of wisdom and folly, and apparent in his characterization of such heroes as Barnaby Rudge and Mr Dick.

Dickens, while aware of medical debate about the treatment of insanity, and acquainted with a variety of literature in which this subject was portrayed, tended to adopt a broadly moral framework when depicting the theme of madness, particularly in his early novels. The tone of Dickens’s writing when expressing his viewpoint about these issues, underscores the nature of his understanding about the moral aspects relating to the cause and treatment of insanity: that inconsequent foolishness is very like lunacy, and that every man must be up and doing.

So we could see that Dickens was interested in madness and described it in his literary works. In his early fiction, Dickens commonly portrayed insanity as the consequence of villainy and of various forms of moral failure, using a range of dramatic devices drawn from farce, comedy, melodrama and the Gothic tradition. As he matured, it will be seen that he experimented with other uses of the theme, but in the 1830, his treatment of madness was often characterised by a fairly crude, rough-hewn dramatic representation which indirectly highlights the significance of certain moral values, including family loyalty and duty. Dickens’s early portrayal of madness in «Sketches by Boz», «Pickwick Papers», «Oliver Twist» and «Nicholas Nickleby» starkly illustrates the effects of various forms of mismanagement, drunkenness, selfishness, and criminal activity (also describing a murderer’s tormented reaction to his crime) amongst other vices, though Dickens briefly depicts too one form of insanity which is the result of a hereditary condition. He chose to portray madness as one effect of moral failure, at the beginning of his writing career. While he depicted a range of causes of insanity (including mismanagement), exploring too its effect as a consequence of the actions of other people, it will become apparent that Dickens was also aware of the comic potential of insanity and its use in capturing his readers’ interest, at an early stage in his career as an author. «Sketches by Boz» [15], «Pickwick Papers» [16], «Oliver Twist» [14] and «Nicholas Nickleby» [13] were all written during the 1830s and are the examples of Dickens’s early treatment of insanity.

The theme of insanity resurfaced in Dickens’s novel «Pickwick Papers». The «Pickwick Papers» was a work comprised of a series of sketches. While Dickens himself admitted the haphazard origin of this novel in its preface, at least one critic has noted how quickly Dickens set about establishing his artistic authority over the direction the book was to take, finding evidence of his «deliberate artistic integrity» and «conscious sense of responsibility» [25]. This novel, taking the form of a loosely structured series of events described in the Picaresque tradition, begins rather shakily with its rather dull first chapter, although later developing a stronger sense of plot and purpose [18]. Its treatment of insanity provides a marked contrast with comical scenes portrayed in this novel: Dickens noted in  Pickwick’s closing chapter that «There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in contrast» [28]. Such shades of darkness are particularly evident in Pickwick’s sombre, interpolated tales and their vivid treatment of insanity.

In his early novels, he associates use of motif of staring eyes with the theme of death. However, Dickens’s early association between staring eyes and death indicates his fascination with the theme of madness. In an inset tale of Pickwick, there is for example, a repellent description of «hideous crawling things with eyes that stared» [16, p. 110] amidst the hallucinatory nightmares of the dying clown. Perhaps, for Dickens, the specific detail of unresponsive eyes may hint at a (not uncommon) fear of mortal decay.

Dickens’s exploration of madness as moral failure was a recurrent theme in «Sketches by Boz», «Pickwick Papers», «Oliver Twist» and «Nicholas Nickleby». In these early examples of his fiction, he portrayed the effects of various forms of mismanagement, exemplified in his «Sketches» where he has briefly depicted the mental collapse of one impoverished figure «with small earnings and a large family». In this lightly sketched tale, Dickens uses madness as a device to illustrate the ultimate fate of one unnamed representative of the poor as he deteriorates into a harmless, babbling idiot in the parish asylum, because of the inadequacies in the Parish welfare system, with its «еxcellent institutions and gentle, kind-hearted men». Dickens was, evidently, keenly aware of the destructive effects of urban poverty at an early stage in his writing career: while some of his «Sketches» may celebrate the teeming variety of urban life, others prefigure the way in which he later explored the forbidding aspects of urban existence and its warping effects upon individuals – a subject of public concern during the nineteenth century.

His use of insanity highlighted the nature of the warping effects. In depicting a range of individuals whose mental infirmities are intimately connected with their experience of city dwelling, Dickens highlights its destructive potential in his early fiction. His representation in «Oliver Twist» of a widower’s distracted state of mind at Oliver’s initiatory experience of «Going to a Funeral for the First Time» (ch. 5) is, for example, intertwined with his portrayal of urban squalor. Here, Dickens’s description of city life is overtly used to convey social comment. In this novel, designed to highlight the sufferings and plight of the poor, Dickens expresses sustained concern about the effects of a slum environment. Hence, Dickens sets the scene of a pauper woman’s death in a «dirty and miserable» part of town which is decaying and mouldering, where the «kennel was stagnant and filthy», while its human inhabitants exist like its local vermin: «The very rats, which here and there lay putrefying in its rottenness, were hideous with famine» [14, p. 81]. The similarity is underscored by the rat-like appearance of an elderly couple seated in a cold room by an empty hearth – the man with thin, pale face, grizzly hair and bloodshot eyes, the old woman with wrinkled face, teeth protruding over her underlip, and «bright and piercing» eyes. Dickens’s means of portraying the emotional reaction of the widower and his mother indicates his early fascination with theatrical tradition. Dickens’s interest in theatre is also evident when he provides dramatic visual interest as the undertaker measures the body. The widower is used as a narrator to describe circumstances surrounding his wife’s death, while Dickens portrays the form of the widower’s mental collapse as a stereotypical reaction to shock and grief expressed elsewhere in Gothic and sensation literature.

Highlighting the effects of urban existence, Dickens's early writing also illustrates the view that domestic mismanagement compounds the downfall of some characters, shown when he crudely traces in his sketches the plight of a woman maddened by poverty.

«The Drunkard’s Death» is a brief tale outlining the consequences of selfishness and drunkenness. Dickens’s handling of this drunkard’s «moral madness» is notable because it highlights some of Dickens’s values at the beginning of his career. Here, Dickens divides alcoholics into two categories: those «madmen» whose misery and misfortune have driven them «wild», and those who have wilfully and knowingly «plunged into the gulf» in which they sink beyond recovery. The sketch depicts the plight of one such stereotypical representative as Dickens crudely describes the circumstances resulting in a man’s mental breakdown and suicide, «The Drunkard’s Death» illustrating an interrelationship between one form of moral weakness and mental aberration.

The mental decline of Dickens’s anti-father figure in «The Drunkard’s Death» is portrayed as the result of his own selfishness: for Dickens, he represents the «hideous spectacle of madmen» hurried «madly on to degradation and death», while his children are better off without him. The plight of this doomed figure inversely demonstrates for the reader the importance of family responsibilities and loyalty. Elsewhere, Dickens has claimed that harrowing death scenes could only be justified if used to support a positive moral or philosophical viewpoint, and, in this sketch, he starkly illustrates the implications of alcoholism. Its arresting description of the drunkard’s mental state as he meets his death conveys Dickens’s interest in describing one form of mental aberration. Dickens further explores the disastrous effects of alcoholism on family life in «Pickwick Papers», when portraying the mental collapse of another alcoholic in «The Stroller's Tale», one of three inset tales describing extreme emotional states of mind. While the novel’s main narrative exposes the discrepancy between sight and insight, between outer appearance and inner reality [2], these inset tales illuminate the way in which, as Axton remarks, certain mental conditions reshape the experience of reality, and reform it at will, thus inverting the relation between appearance and reality developed in the main body of the text [2, p. 78]. While «The Stroller’s Tale» is framed within an episode of situation comedy, its singular narrator, Dismal Jemmy, underlines the significance of contrasts between appearance and reality («Ah!b poetry makes life, what lights and music do the stage» (p. 104)), a point heavily laboured with reference to the theatre: «To be before the footlights.., is like sitting at a grand, court show» (p. 104). If the strongly moral position taken up by the dismal raconteur contrasts with his Bohemian appearance, the reader is all the more aware of his creator’s intentions in revealing the «besetting sin» of alcoholism and its consequences.

Dickens has conveyed the dire consequences of moral failure in his treatment of mismanagement or drunkenness, in his early writing he also began to explore the comic uses of this theme. The humorous potential of the theme of madness and moral failure is nowhere more evident than in his portrayal of one of his most memorable madmen, Mrs. Nickleby’s suitor. This crazed figure has a disquieting effect on all the characters he meets, but one of the keenest effects of this madman (the «cruellest, wickedest, out-and-outerest old flint that ever drawed breath» according to his keeper, is in highlighting Mrs. Nickleby’s lack of insight, for she persists in the belief that «there’s a great deal too much method in hil  madness». His highly comical false perception of reality, and bizarre association of particularised, unconnected events – a characteristic later reflected in Little Dorrit’s portrait of another memorable mad creation – challenges the assumptions of other characters in the novel. In this way, Dickens uses Mrs. Nickleby’s mad neighbour as a touchstone, (a purpose later explored in Barnaby Rudge, amongst others), his role highlighting her own moral failure, for «she had a weak head and a vain one» (p. 570). Dickens’s comical portrayal of this crazed figure is highly effective, a detailed examination of the techniques he employed in describing such a character casting light on his early methods of craftsmanship.

The role of this character highlights Mrs. Nickleby’s moral weakness and also her naivety in several ways: she misjudges his manners and appearance («he does wear smalls and grey worsted stockings. Dickens portrays Mrs. Nickleby as a «myopic character», «vain and garrulous, self-centred and self-satisfied».

Dickens explored the comic potential of moral failure in his early fiction. In his «Sketches», he has notably explored the effects of selfishness in causing intense emotional suffering which may become interlinked with the experience of insanity. The model of Ophelia as victim may have very broadly inspired Dickens’s experimentation in his early portrayal of one cause of insanity, where, in the case of «The Black Veil» in his «Sketches», he has, for example, used madness as a crude device conveying the plight of a mother who has finally deteriorated into a «harmless madwoman» because of the selfishness of her son, the consequence of his moral shortcomings. While his choice of the tale’s title is reminiscent of Ann Radcliffe’s use of this device in «The Mysteries of Udolpho» (in which the black veil is a Gothic accessory), other aspects bear some resemblance to Samuel Warren’s Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician [26]. This melodramatic tale, though crude in its execution, and lacking in subtlety in its exploration of the mother’s mental torment, demonstrates the way in which Dickens used contrast as a means of arresting the reader’s attention – a technique later used with great effect throughout many of his novels – at an early point in his writing career. It also illuminates the means he used to create suspense and mystery, while reflecting his ability to create atmospheres conveying mental decay and deterioration, a theme more fully explored in later novels. His experimentation with his victim of circumstance in his early fiction prefigured his later exploration of the subject.

Besides highlighting the potentially adverse effects of one character’s actions upon the welfare of another, not an uncommon literary theme, Dickens further underlines the effects of moral degeneracy in the memorable inset tale, «A Madman’s Manuscript». Here he experiments, in «Pickwick Papers» with the potential use of insanity, evident in other literary sources, to capture the reader’s  interest. This tale, containing a «melancholy instance» of the «baneful results» of the «energies» of a man «misdirected in early life» due to «thoughtless riot, dissipation, and debauchery» trails off into a heavily moralistic conclusion: It is only matter of wonder to those who were acquainted with the vices of his early career, that his passions, when no longer controlled by reason, did not lead him to the commission of still more frightful deeds (pp. 226-227).

This is a tale which is clearly designed to shock its reader, and Dickens dramatically conveys its author’s experiences as if in soliloquy, to heighten the impact of the tale upon his audience. His opening line («Yes – a madman’s! How that word would have struck to my heart, many years ago!») consciously highlights the reader’s response to this tale’s odd title, as if its mad author were conversing with his audience. Yet his reason for recounting his experience is rather vague, while it is also unclear for whom the manuscript was originally intended. Dickens’s purpose in including this excursive tale in his narrative (reminiscent of a convention in some Gothic fiction) seems to be in testing out – in a contained form – the sensational potential of one form of insanity. This madman represents the fierce, violent potential in one representation of madness at an early point in Dickens’s writing career.

Dickens’s arresting portrayal of the madman’s experiences is enhanced by the dramatic style of this character’s speech, and by the madman’s awareness of his potential power, while the manuscript’s account of life in a madhouse would have held a certain fascination for Dickens’s readership. Yet it is as an early exploration of the effects of hereditary madness («mixed up with my very blood and the marrow of my bones») that this tale holds a particular interest. Dickens’s portrayal of insanity as a blighting condition caused by an external force outside the control of this crazed figure, prefigures his later description of madness as an «awful visitation».

While Dickens uses this mad creation to highlight the nature of human greed and folly (the way in which he inherits wealth and marries a young woman from an

impoverished, scheming family highlighting the folly of marriages contracted for merely financial advantage), Dickens needs to convince the reader that the mad

protagonist could have rationally related such a narrative. While Dickens generally

distinguishes between two very different modes of discourse – between this protagonist’s theatrical speech actions, and the choric function of a narrator in recounting a sequential, coherent narrative, he sidesteps on one notable occasion when the madman remarks: «If I had not been mad – for though we madmen are sharp-witted enough, we get bewildered sometimes – I should have known...» (p. 221).

Despite inherent technical difficulties in the form of narrative Dickens has chosen in this inset tale, he has successfully used it to describe a range of highly sensational, visually evocative effects. It has aptly been remarked that, in this tale, Dickens was «performing a literary sleight of hand, whereby the reader had two thrills for the price of one; the shocking horror of madness, and the «prim gratification that in fact it was all the man’s own fault, and if he had lived a Christian God-fearing life no part of his illness need have happened» [1]. Here Dickens may have hinted at two possible causes for this madman’s condition, but it is the dramatic effects he has created which are highly memorable.

Dickens does not only use the example of this striking figure of a madman in «A Madman’s Manuscript» to highlight the effects of moral degeneracy, for, in graphically illustrating the ultimate fate of the characters of Fagin, Sikes and Ralph Nickleby, he underlines the dire consequences of moral failure. In the case of these three characters, Dickens closely observes their reactions as they suffer different forms of acute mental anguish prior to their death. Although an association between death and madness was not uncommon in Gothic fiction, Dickens has memorably conveyed the way in which these three characters are mentally and physically affected by their own actions. Interestingly, Dickens’s earliest writing did not include a detailed exploration of the cause or effects of insanity in a female creation (other than the sketchy figure of the mother in «The Black Veil»), though he later portrayed a monomaniac in Miss Havisham, amongst other mad female characters. In Fagin, Sikes and Ralph Nickleby, however, he notably explored the dire effects of moral failure.

Dickens’s exploration of the interrelationship between insanity (and associated states of heightened or extreme emotional reactions) and moral failure, furthermore finds a striking form of expression in his description of Ralph Nickleby’s mental turmoil, prior to his suicide, in «Nicholas Nickleby» [13]. In  Nickleby, Dickens traces the consequences of Ralph's villainous existence. Ralph mentally and physically destroys himself. He is portrayed as a character who has chosen a lonely, isolated style of life – an important indicator in Dickens's novels, and, as in the case of some of his predecessors, a state of extreme isolation precedes this character’s mental collapse.

In the «Madman’s Manuscript» [16], Dickens explored a character’s insane desire for power, an urge reminiscent of that experienced by Nebuchadnezzar, in  Nickleby,  he describes Ralph’s belief that he can achieve power through the act of suicide. Ralph is a villain maddened by his own intemperate reaction. Dickens carefully prepares the reader for Ralph’s final act of self-destruction, dramatically conveying the means of his death as had been the case in his portrayal of Sikes’s death. Dickens evocatively reflects the dismal nature of Ralph’s situation in his descriptions of the weather – not an untypical characteristic of his descriptive writing – finally interpreting the impact of Ralph’s suicide by reference to an inanimate object, with a masterly stroke. Dickens underlines Ralph’s isolation by contrasting a description of Ralph’s hanged body with the «knot of men» gathering outside his house, as Sikes’s isolation had been contrasted by the crowded scene surrounding his lonely death. In such use of visual contrast, Dickens evocatively depicts the effects of moral failure and immorality.

In his еarly novels, Dickens not only explored the effects of moral failure in his portrayal of individuals, he also used crowd scenes as the means to interpret and reflect heightened emotional states experienced by individual characters. The disorderly, «infuriated throng» in «Oliver Twist» reflects, for example, something of Sikes’s own anguished state, and Dickens uses nature imagery to convey the effect of their wild activities. Dickens’s description of the turmoil caused by this crowd’s maddened behaviour illuminates his fascination with its anarchic potentia1. In «Oliver Twist» [14], Jacob’s island not only provides an admirably evocative setting for the squalid downfall and death of Sikes, but also for the violent actions of a discontented mob, for it is a filthy, tainted, slimy, part of London.

While Dickens experimented with the uses of this theme in «Sketches by Boz», «Pickwick Papers», «Oliver Twist» and «Nicholas Nickleby», examples of early fiction in which he conveyed the dire consequences of moral failure, he also began to explore the theme's comic potential, and its sensational value too in adding spice and interest to the plots of his novels. Insane characters, he discovered, could create some interesting, dislocating effects, stripping away conventional expectations, and also illuminating the unreasoning, often hypocritical, reactions of other characters (evident in the part played by the madman in «A Madman’s Manuscript»). His early portrayal of madness inversely highlighted the significance of the values of loyalty, family responsibilities and common decency, although in his later exploration of insanity, Dickens was to experiment with other uses, for reasons which will become apparent, whilst also building upon foundations established in his earliest writing. In «Barnaby Rudge», «David Copperfield» and «Great Expectations», novels spanning twenty years of writing, Dickens’s intentions in portraying a range of insane characters including Barnaby Rudge, Mr Dick and Miss Havisham, indicate the nature of his experimentation with some specific uses of insanity. He not only explored the potential of such creations as unfortunate victims of circumstance, but also as catalysts in the plots of his novels, with varying degrees of success.



1. Angus Easson, Dickens, Household Words, and a Double Standard, The Dickensian, 60 (1964), 106.

2. Axton William F., Circle of Fire: Dickens' Vision and Style and the Popular Victorian Theater. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966.

3. Barbara Hardy,  Forms of Feelling in Victorian Fiction  (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 46.

4. Charles Robert Maturin, The Milesian Chief (London: Henry Colburn, 1812).

5. Charles Robert Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer, A Tale. 4 vols. (Edinburgh:

Constable; London: Hurst & Robinson, 1820).

6. Dickens Charles,  A  Tale of Two Cities, ed. George Woodcock. Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1971.

7. Dickens Charles,  American Notes, (ed.), Arnold Goldman and John Whitley,

Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1985.

8. Dickens Charles,  Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty. London: Oxford University Press (New Oxford Illustrated Edition), 1954.

9. Dickens Charles,  Bleak House, (ed.), Norman Page, Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1986.

10. Dickens Charles,  David Copperfield, ed. Trevor Blount, Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1986.

11. Dickens Charles,  Great Expectations, (ed.), Angus Calder, Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1972 .

12. Dickens Charles,  Little Dorrit, (ed.), John Holloway, Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1973.

13. Dickens Charles,  Nicholas Nickleby, (ed.), Michael Slater, Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1986.

14. Dickens Charles,  Oliver Twist, (ed.), Angus Wilson, Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1972.

15. Dickens Charles,  Sketches by Boz, (ed.), Thea Holme, Oxford: Oxford University Press (The Oxford Illustrated Dickens), 1991. Middx: Penguin, 1987.

16. Dickens Charles, The Pickwick Papers, (ed.), Robert L Patten, Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1987.

17. Erwin H. Ackerknecht, trans. Sula Wolff: A Short History of  Psychiatry (New York and London: Hafner,  1968), p. 3.

18. Flint Kate, Dickens. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1986.

19. Heather A Pike «The Most Dreadful Visitation»: An Examination of Dickens’s Treatment of Madness in his Novels. A thesis submitted for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy Department of English,  April 1995,  University of Salford.

20. Jones Kathleen, A History of the Mental Health Services. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

21. Jones Kathleen, Lunacy, Law and Conscience 1744-1845. The Social History of the Care at the Insane. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955.

22. Jones Kathleen, Mental Health and Social Policy. 1845-1959. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960.

23. John Conolly, An Inquiry Concerning the Indications of Insanity, with Suggestions for the Better Protection and Care of the Insanaondon: Taylor, 1830, p. 8.

24. M. G. Lewis, The Isle of Devils – An Historical Tale, founded on an Anecdote in the Annals of Portugal (Kingston: Jamaica, privately printed at the Advertiser office, 1827).

25. H.P. Sucksmith, The Narrative Art of Charles Dickens (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 10.

26. H.P. Sucksmith, «Nineteenth-Century Fiction», 26 (1971-2), pp. 145-157.

27. Tracy, Ann B., The Gothic Novel 1790-1830: Plot Summaries and Index to Motifs, Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1981.

28. Wilson, Angus, The World of Charles Dickens. London: Secker & Warburg, 1970, p. 119.

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