Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens


This collection of "sketches" was first organized into two volumes in 1836. Prior to that, the sketches were published separately in a variety of newspapers and periodicals between 1833-1836. For more details on the publication history of each, see: Schlicke, Paul. "'Risen Like a Rocket': The Impact of Sketches by Boz."Dickens Quarterly 22:1 (Mar 2005). 3-20. The subheadings below are part of a reorganization scheme in the volume collections. 


I. Our Parish
The section begins with a chapter on "The Beadle, The Parish Engine, and The Schoolmaster." The parish beadle is presented as a particularly officious and grave character, whose gravity is only interrupted by the commotion of when a parish engine was needed. The schoolmaster is described as a mild-mannered man who has been struck, time and again, by misfortune, but who very much accepts his station, living humbly off of parochial relief.

The story of "The Four Sisters" tells how four Miss Willises took over a property and gave every indication that they would "winter through life together," when it was given that one was to be married. Oddly enough, Mr. Robinson seems to marry all of them, and the neighbors are very curious as to who was actually Mr. Robinson's wife. When it is finally found out that it is the eldest Miss Willis who has delivered a child, the narrative describes how quickly interest dissipates.

"Our Next Door Neighbor" is a sketch which famously narrates the ways in which we can speculate about people's characters based on the appearance of their door knockers. After offering some lengthy reflections on this, the narrative goes through the history of a house without a knocker: first occupied by a single gentleman who entertained friends throughout the night, then a serious gentleman who soon mysteriously disappeared, and finally, by a poor widow and her son of eighteen or nineteen who eventually falls ill and dies. We are "actuated, we hope, by a higher feeling than mere curiosity," the narrative remarks, foregrounding the problematic nature of being curious about human suffering.

II. Scenes:

This section begins with two chapters - "The Streets--Morning," and "The Streets--Night." The narration lingers on the changes, hour by hour, and the gradual awakening of people and commerce in the morning until "we come to the heat, bustle, and activity of Noon." "The Streets--Night" is similarly narrated in real time, focusing a large range of characters from theater goers to lingering street vendors and homeless women and children. At the end of this chapter, Dickens makes one of the first of many references to the scenes which he narrates as a sort of theater, contending that he "drop[s] the curtain" to close.

For the most part, "scenes" seems hardly different from any of the other sections and isn't focused on setting especially. Places like "Scotland Yard" are merely the occasion of sketching the life of memorable characters like a miserable old man who seems to remain exactly the same amidst other "change, restlessness, and innovation." "Hackney Coach Stands" capitalizes on the slow speed of hackney coaches and the drama which boarding them produces to tell stories of amusing, old world gentility. Despite the journalistic "we," Boz has been critiqued by contemporaries for his sense of apartness from the scenes he describes; "The River" is a good example in which Boz finds it most fun to look upon people and boaters rather than to participate in their amusements. Most of the sketches are like "The River" in that they describe lively scenes and anecdotes--some form of the word "amuse" comes up frequently in "London Recreations," "Astley's," "Greenwich Fair," or "Vauxhall by Day." Other sketches are more biting: "Parliamentary Sketch" critiques parliamentary procedures as boring and empty, "Public Dinners"and "Criminal Courts" satirizes people's interest in performing social roles and viewing other people's lives like drama or theater. 

The section closes with a heartbreaking sketch entitled "A Visit to Newgate" which deliberately leaves out statistics to narrate anecdotes, ending with an extended and sympathetic imagining of a criminal's consciousness during his last night on earth.
III. Characters: 

Again, since the collection of sketches under headings was a later move, these sketches don't necessarily seem that different from the rest or particularly focused on character. The section leads with "Thoughts about People," which offers short anecdotes on various types of people including a clerk who is too officious and precise to enjoy life, an old, disgruntled misanthrope, and a group of young London apprentices "looking easy and unconcerned." 

"A Christmas Dinner" is one of the more sentimental sketches, in which Dickens describes how people set aside petty differences during Christmas. In particular, he includes an affecting scene in which an old mother and father embrace their estranged daughter who has married below her class. For Dickens, however, it seems that the keys to Christmas's efficacy in bringing people together are ritual and tradition, rather than religion or spirituality.

"The Hospital Patient" and "The Prisoner's Van" tell stories of anguish amongst the poor and destitute--the former tells the story of a dying girl who vindicates the "brute" her hurt her on her death bed, and the latter of two sisters in a prisoner's van whose criminality Dickens ascribes to their unpitied, friendless upbringing. In such stories, Dickens stresses that though he only gives individual scenes for their affect, such scenes are a dime a dozen and very real. 

Besides powerfully upbeat and powerfully tragic sketches, the section also include a number of stories which read like cautionary tales against foolish decisions. In particular, in "The Misplaced Attachment of Mr. John Dounce," an "old boy" mistakenly thinks that he has attracted the attention of a young lady, and Boz directs this as "a living warning to all uxorious old boys." In "The Mistaken Milliner," whose vanity overtakes her when she agrees to sing for a wedding-dinner, resulting in a disastrous revelation of her limited abilities. Similarly, in "The Dancing Academy,"one Mr. Augustus Cooper gets carried away by ambition while being introduced to good company at a Dancing Academy, only to be tricked out of his money by the dancing instructor and his daughter. Finally, "Making a Night of It" is a humorous tale of two men who spend their money "making a night of it," only to be kicked out of the theater for their drunken behavior. All of these tales seem cautionary, in particular, against "misjudging" one's place or station, whether with respect to marriage, talent, social class, or means. 
IV. Tales: 

Sketches gathered under this section are often slightly lengthier stories, including the two-chaptered "The Boarding House" which chronicles two sets of boarders at the house of one Mrs. Tibbs and her miserable husband whom she bosses around. This sketch, though lengthier than many of the others, makes explicit references to the fact that it is not a novel, and consciously speeds through the ending of each chapter in a summary/epilogue-like fashion. 

Here, again, cautionary tales abound. In "Mr. Minns and his Cousin," one Mr. Budden zealously tries to win the affection of his solitary bachelor cousin Mr. Minns in hopes to advance his own son's fortunes. Mr. Minns, not used to social niceties, leaves the Budden's dinner party, and proceeds to purposefully exclude them from his will. "The Tuggses at Ramsgate," like "The Dancing Academy," or "Making a Night of It" cautions against the vanity of those who come quickly upon money, as it is just as quickly and easily spent. 

The more lighthearted stories are balanced by deeply dark ones such as "The Black Veil," which tells the mysterious story of a woman who oddly appeals to a doctor about someone dear to her about to die, but tells the doctor that he may not attend to him. The reader and the doctor both find out at the end that the woman speaks of her son who has, during the course of the narrative, been executed. "Tales" concludes with the grim story, "The Drunkard's Death," whose poverty leads him to neglect his children, and ultimately after his children blame him for their own misfortunes and misadventures, he drowns himself in the river. Like many of the other grim stories of poverty and destitution, Boz makes the point that this is just one out of many such stories that he could have told. 


There has been much difficulty as to how to characterize the sketches generically:are they fiction, or are they journalism? Literary critics tend to read Dickens's sketches as early precursors of Dickens's realist novels, since predictably, perhaps, since Dickens is most famous for his novels. J. Hillis Miller contends that Dickens's volume reorganization of his various pieces shows a progression from journalisticsketch to tale which signals the development of Dickens's realist, metonymic mode of storytelling throughout. Amanpal Garcha, more recently, attempts to explain how the "sketch" is of its own genre and moment, but still back-reads elements of the novel into Dickens's sketches. Danielle Coriale also emphasizes Dickens's anxious, retroactive privileging of narrative design in his volume reorganization. 

However, I think we ought to give greater consideration to the sketches in their original publications, thinking about what purposes they served, generically, before they were collected into volume form. We might think of them as "literary journalism," a hybrid genre which captures the dual labors of storytelling and reporting. These dual labors in concert, I argue, are what enable the unusually affective urgencies of the text which make sense in the context of Dickens's passionate ideas specifically on reform in the 1830s.  See my paper for more. 

No comments: