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In Pursuit of Pickwick's Hat: Dickens and the Epistemology of Utilitarianism

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Hats often serve as a comic prop in Dickens's novels, but they are mentioned with unusual frequency in Pickwick Papers. The reason has as much to do with the evolution of Dickens's social philosophy as it does with the devices of his humor. As the quixotic leader of a club modeled partly on the utilitarian Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Pickwick is a mind seeking to know the world. The hat is both an object-in-the-world and a natural metonym for the perceiving mind. In Pickwick, it participates in a play of signifiers—including heads, feet, boots, and spectacles—through which Dickens discredits utilitarian assumptions about the relationship between mind and world. To this exposure of utilitarianism's misguided epistemology, Oliver Twist would add a retort to its reductive psychology and Hard Times an assault on its impoverished moral calculus. Thus, to pursue the hats of Pickwick is to better understand the intellectual continuity that runs through these three novels. It is also to confront the contradictions that inhabit that continuity and bedevil Dickens's politics.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: June 1, 2009

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  • Founded in 1970, the centennial anniversary of Dickens's death, DSA has been published since 1980 by AMS Press in cooperation with the Ph.D. program in English of the City University of New York and in association with the Graduate Center, CUNY and Queens College, CUNY. Besides presenting articles exploring the wide range of Dickens''s interests and talents, DSA also includes essays on other mid- and late- nineteenth-century authors and on the history and aesthetics of the period's fiction. In addition, each volume contains a substantial review article examining a prior year's scholarship on Dickens, and DSA occasionally publishes surveys of work on other Victorian writers, as well as review essays considering specialized studies of subjects in Victorian fiction. The editors seek to offer essays of "the most diverse kinds," those employing innovative as well as traditional approaches.
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