In what way  did Dickens novel Dombey & Son contribute to the debate about the 'The Art of Fiction'

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that one way in which Dickens's work contributes to James's debate about "The Art of Fiction" is to embody many of the points made in the essay. One such example would be how Dickens is able to richly develop characterizations.  James suggests that true literature embraces the idea that "nothing is lost" and everything can enter one's mind in the form of composition and literature.  Dickens does this through developing characters that embody much of their time period.  Dickens captures the joys of life, as seen in Dombey in the birth of his son, as well as its pain, such as when Dombey's heart is broken and when he abuses his daughter, Florence.  James's idea of "nothing is lost" is evident in the way that Dickens' creates subtleties in characterization where emotional experience is vital to understanding both the narrative and the roles they play in it.  In this way, Dickens's work makes a contribution to James's ideas about the art of fiction.

James's idea that the artist has complete freedom to enter worlds that might not be their own is another element that Dickens's work embraces.  James suggested that the artist does not have solely write about that which they know.  In contrast, good writing can be composed in a world that exists outside of the individual:

The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military. Greater miracles have been seen than that, imagination assisting, she should speak the truth about some of these gentlemen.

For James, "the only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel... is that it be interesting."  Dickens is able to write from different points of view in Dombey and Son.  He might not be a woman, but Dickens can write what a woman experiences.  He might not be of a lower class, but he is able to empathize and write about such a narrative.  Dickens embodies what James suggests in the debate about the nature of fiction in only enabling the imagination of the artist to expand in order to connect with the reader.

Dickens writes with a “conscious moral purpose."  In the ending of the narrative, Dombey is redeemed by his daughter's love and restored through her grace.  The "conscious moral purpose" here is for literature to be deliberate in its moral intent, another key element out of James's understanding regarding the art of fiction.  At the same time, Dickens is able to embrace what James would call "the colour of life," filled with the varying and dizzying hues of joy, pain, sorrow, and restoration.  In creating a narrative like this, Dickens supports what James saw as the basis of fiction in his essay.

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Dombey and Son

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