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“What Might Have Been Is Not What Is”: Dickens's Narrative Refusals

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Abstract:

Looking at “narrative refusals” gives us a glimpse at a previously unrecognized facet of the complexities that form Dickens's style, allowing us to see differently what is there by turning our attention to what is marked as explicitly not-there. This essay outlines the pervasive uses of unnarration (when a narrator says he or she will not tell something) and disnarration (when a narrator tells something that did not happen in place of telling what did) in such Dickens novels as Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and Dombey and Son, then turns to an earlier work, Nicholas Nickleby, where narrative refusals are already incipient, though more rare than in middle and later Dickens. When narrative refusal is present in Dickens, the figure takes one of at least three different forms: negation of action or situation (“it was not . . . not . . . not”), misattribution of characters' feelings and agency to a fictitious “Nobody“ (as in Little Dorrit), and subjunctive narration detailing what might have happened, but does not. I concentrate on negated and subjunctive disnarration of “what might have been” but “is not what is,” to quote what R. Wilfer says about the counterfactual in Our Mutual Friend.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: https://doi.org/10.7756/dsa.041.003.45-59

Publication date: 2010-06-01

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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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