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Reading, Sympathy, and the Bodies of Bleak House

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Abstract:

Within Bleak House Dickens suggests that reading is fundamentally based on the senses of hearing and seeing, and that to read accurately involves both the body and the mind, or, perception and apprehension. The novelist calls for a return to physicality—albeit a physicality mediated by language—to better see and hear others. More provocatively, Dickens proposes that novels can provide a corrective lens through which to view the world rather than that offered by the texts of more socially regulated institutions—religious, political, juridical—ostensibly concerned with the social good as well; Bleak House as primer reveals that empathy is rooted in our physical sensibility: if we learn to see, to listen, and to understand, then we become ideal readers, aware of our connections to others and the brevity of our lives. In this essay, I discuss several acts of misreading within Bleak House, followed by an analysis of a few traumatic moments within the text, and conclude with a look at the characters who serve as ideal readers and ethical role models. Novels can teach us to read—to understand, to see, to hear, and to feel—and thus to empathize, to act, and to live in the world.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7756/dsa.041.010.237-263

Publication date: June 1, 2010

More about this publication?
  • 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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