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Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, and the Aesthetics of Dust

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In this essay, I argue that dust functions as a central image in Dickens's work, its content illuminating Victorian concerns about the fragmentations of body and mind produced by industrial urbanization (including the problems of epidemic disease and the disposal of waste matter), even as its structure offers a novel way to think about and express modernity. Borrowing from postcolonial readings of dust, which affirm psychological shattering as a basic principle of modern identity, I interpret Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend as novels that call on images of excess, miscellany, and material entropy to register epistemological fractures in narrative realism, a genre torn between its impulse, at once, to depict the chaotic energies of a world constantly subject to upheaval and change and to give that chaos order. In his fiction, I suggest, Dickens makes way for a modernist aesthetic that both acknowledges and validates narrative disjunctions between content and form as themselves representative of newly emerging perceptions of the postindustrial world.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2011-06-01

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