Death in Nineteenth-Century British Literature

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8640

Fred Kaplan (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Are You Sentimental?" in Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature, Princeton University Press, 1987, pp.39-70.

[In the excerpt below, Kaplan contends that Charles Dickens' depictions of death were deliberately sentimental so as to arouse and encourage the public's sense of morality.]

.. . In his depiction of the deaths of Little Nell and Paul Dombey, Dickens dramatizes his belief in the innate moral sentiments and in sentimentality as morally instructive. "Yet nothing teacheth like death," one of Dickens' predecessors, whose works he owned, preached. William Dodd's widely read Reflections on Death (1763) is representative of hundreds of similar volumes whose depiction and evaluation of death the Victorians read. Dickens would have agreed with Dodd that

it is too commonly found, that a familiarity with death, and a frequent recurrency of funerals, graces, and church-yards, serve to harden rather than humanize the mind, and deaden rather than excite those becoming reflections which such objects seem calculated to produce. Hence the physician enters, without the least emotion, the gloomy chambers of expiring life; the undertaker handles, without concern, the clay-cold limbs; and the sexton whistles unappalled, while the spade casts forth from the earth the mingled bones and dust of his fellow creatures.9

In Oliver Twist, Dickens contrasts the easy familiarity and insensitivity toward death of Noah Claypool with Oliver's alertness to the inherent moral lessons in the coffin and the tomb. Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, and Martin Chuzzlewit also contain effective dramatizations of the moral significance of death, vivid embodiments of the Victorian concern with the potential devitalization of that powerful teacher of moral lessons and Christian virtues. To Dickens and his contemporaries, strong emotional response to death seemed more desirable than the all-too-common callousness, the kind of hardening of the feelings, that Dodd warns against. In a scene in Reflections on Death, which may have directly influenced Dickens' depiction of the death of Little Nell, Dodd dramatizes the death of a paragon of Christian virtue, a young mother who on her deathbed consoles her own parents, claiming that she is "wholly resigned" to God's will.

"I am on the brink of eternity, and now see clearly the importance of it—Remember, oh remember, that every thing in time is insignificant to the awful concerns of—" Eternity, she would have said; but her breath failed; she fainted a second time; and when all our labours to recover her, seemed just effectual, and she appeared returning to life, a deep sob alarmed us—and the lovely body was left untenanted by its immortal inhabitant! NOW SHE IS NUMBER'D AMONG THE CHILDREN OF GOD, AND HER LOT IS AMONG THE SAINTS.10

For her mourners, Nell provides a similar example of the lesson that death is a reminder to the living to allow their innate moral sentiments to flourish. To linger with expressive sentiment over the deathbeds or the graves of the departing or departed is to stand, even if prematurely, at the portals of paradise, being reminded that death is not only the mother of beauty but also that the moral sentiments that death evokes are the fountainhead of our feelings about the soul and about eternity. Dickens lingers for some time over Nell's deathbed, partly to affirm his commitment to Dodd's "important truth: The abuse of life proceeds from the forgetfulness of death." "Oh thank God, all who see it," Dickens writes of Paul Dombey's death, "for that older fashion yet, of Immortality! And look upon us, angels of young children, with Regards not quite estranged, when the swift river bears us to the ocean" ([Dombey and Son], chap. 16). Though some modern readers may be uncomfortable with the emotional intensity and the rhetoric with which Dickens describes such dyings, and may elevate discomfort and misunderstanding into an accusation of insincerity, Dickens is attempting purposely to arouse his readers' innate moral sentiments, reminding them that the more emotionally sensitive they are to death the more morally attentive they will be to the values of life. In the early stages of his career, Dickens felt optimistic that such dramatizations would stir the world's conscience as well as its fears. The suppressed and the exploited would benefit. He believed that fictional presentations of the deaths of children had extraordinary corrective potential. Such deaths appealed powerfully to the moral sentiments both because they seem against "nature" and "human nature" and because children are more vulnerable than adults. Intensely aware of children dead and dying, Dickens and many of his contemporaries thought it impossible to be excessively feeling or "sentimental" in any pejorative way about such losses. Attempts to curb the expression of such feeling denied human nature and human need. . . .

Carol Hanbery MacKay (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Controlling Death and Sex: Magnification v. the Rhetoric of Rules in Dickens and Thackeray," in Sex and Death in Victorian Literature, edited by Regina Barreca, The Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1990, pp. 120-39.

[In the following essay, MacKay explores the strong erotic elements in depictions of death found in particular works of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and William Makepeace Thackeray.]

Shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorrèd monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?

(Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 5.3.102-5)1

He held her, almost as if she were sanctified to him by death, and kissed her, once, almost as he might have kissed the dead. (Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, p. 764)

Perhaps because sex and death involve such intense, primal emotions, the rhetoric of each often comes to resemble that of the other—that is, an intense poetic rendering of death may assume an erotic cast, while a rhetorical amplification of sexual desire frequently evokes images of death and dying. From Cupid's arrow to the Elizabethan slang term for sexual climax, 'to die', we witness this melding. My point here is primarily a rhetorical one, borne out especially well by Victorian fiction, but we can recognise a similar psychological tension existing in both desire and death—the tension between attenuation and completion—and presume that rhetoric, faced with the problem of expressing such opposite extremes in human experience, might be forced to conflate the two. Georges Bataille pursues the connection one step further in his basic formulation: 'eroticism is assenting to life even in the face of death' (Bataille, p. 11). By eroticising death, an author makes of death not an ending but something that is a part of the life process, itself endlessly repeated. And when death is rendered at moments which otherwise impose closure, this strategy becomes especially tempting, for it permits an author to resist an ending that implies the 'death' of his or her connection with the reading audience; in effect, this treatment allows the author to seduce the reader into a living, ongoing relationship.

But the desire to embellish death also presented a challenge to Victorian novelists, who—on some level of consciousness—sought to make death an aesthetic act without giving free rein to its erotic component. Garrett Stewart's full-length study of death scenes in British fiction confirms this concern with 'styles of dying'—or dying 'aestheticized'—while John Kucich's close analysis of Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop points equally well to how 'the eroticizing of death' can establish a conjunction that still keeps sexuality in check (Kucich, 1980, p. 64). Thus, our goal is to be alert to forms of control or distancing of death in Victorian fiction. Note, for example, how often Victorian novels focus on childhood mortality or death in old age. Even when these deaths are introduced primarily for mimetic purposes, they also provide Victorian novelists with a relative degree of asexuality or, at the very least, with a way of apparently introducing eroticism more safely.2

The favoured method for attempting this de-eroticisation involved a manipulation of time, which could reduce the tension between attenuation and completion. Besides making the victim very old or very young, the novelist could attenuate death in such a manner that the sexual element apparently disappears—as is the case in Dickens' Great Expectations with Miss Havisham, who seems to be living a perpetual, attenuated death-in-life, its erotic component buried in the dust and decay of time. Of course, to twentieth-century minds—aware of unconscious psychological mechanisms such as transferrai, sublimation and repression—these efforts may sometimes seem less than wholly successful.3 At the same time, however, such efforts and our attention to them can equally well remind us of our continuity with our Victorian predecessors regarding both obsession with and repression of sexuality, as the work of Michel Foucault and the recent collections edited by Martha Vicinus, Donald Cox, and Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur have attested.

Through Miss Havisham we can also read another major means of restraining the sexual aspect of death, often employed in conjunction with manipulations of time: the use of social rules and boundaries—power and powerlessness—to pre-empt the erotic through depersonalisation, isolation, and the dampening effect of ethical considerations or religious language.4 One can try to lose the sexual element of death either through the powerlessness of the masses or through the extreme isolation of status, both of which are depersonalising. Specifically, Miss Havisham's powerlessness—her isolation and position as a social outcast—denies her sexual possibilities. At the same time, however, she exercises power by perpetuating through Estella her death-in-life, transferring the contained erotic component so effectively that Estella becomes the cold-hearted temptress, who in turn manipulates social rules and boundaries to self-destructive ends.

Social boundaries likewise de-eroticise death in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure and Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers. In Hardy's novel, eroticism is dispersed: Little Father Time commits murder and suicide 'because we are too menny' (Hardy, p. 266). And in Trollope's text, Bishop Grantly's all-too-unique social status dilutes the emotional component of his death by blending it with power machinations, as his son tries not to hope too fervently for the old man's timely demise (Trollope, pp. 1-9). Here we can recognise another example of eroticism transferred. Although the son's emotional intensity almost parallels the energy of sexual desire, his emotions are confused, ambivalent, and ultimately denied. Both of these cases also convey strong moral or ethical considerations—variations on the theme of social power—whose presence tends to defuse erotic potential.

With George Eliot and the ending of The Mill on the Floss, we witness a typically aesthetic treatment of death that reveals an almost overwhelming erotic component. Up until this point in the novel, the erotic has been kept fairly well in check, emerging briefly in the imagery of the Red Deeps and in Maggie Tulliver's 'electrical' response to Stephen Guest. Only at the moment of closure is the erotic allowed to dominate—in this case in an image of dissolved boundaries, of brother and sister dying in each other's arms. Maggie and Tom Tulliver are at the mercy of the raging flood-waters of the river Floss, its fatal vehicle inevitably 'hurrying on in hideous triumph'. Suffused with foreboding, the scene is rife with erotic overtones, which Eliot tries to control:

They sat mutely gazing at each other: Maggie with eyes of intense life looking out from a weary beaten face—Tom pale with a certain awe and humiliation. Thought was busy though the lips were silent: and though he could ask no question, he guessed a story of almost miraculous divinely-protected effort. But at last a mist gathered over the blue-gray eyes, and the lips found a word they could utter: the old childish—'Magsie!' (Eliot, pp. 455-6)

At this intimate moment, Eliot evokes the power of time to contain the erotic element. Maggie's 'weary beaten face' and the reversion to childhood both offset the building intensity, while 'awe and humilation' suggest a degree of social and religious distancing. The erotic bursts forth in the line, 'Maggie could make no answer but a long deep sob of that mysterious wondrous happiness that is one with pain', but it is immediately suppressed by her invocation of duty: ' "We will go to Lucy, Tom" ' she says; ' "we'll go and see if she is safe, and then we can help the rest." ' The wooden machinery, 'clinging together in fatal fellowship', also serves as a social image, pointing back toward the social boundaries that constrain Maggie and limit Tom's capacity to accept her freely.

The sexual implications of this scene are so strong that Eliot's rhetorical attempts at control barely restrain them. Even Victorians had to bow to the conflation of the rhetorics of sex and death during times of great emotional intensity, as in the flood scene, or when the moment of death itself was at hand and needed to be given a full poetic treatment. One solution to this dilemma seemed to involve the use of religious language and imagery, in which the sensual qualities were sanctioned—'de-psychologized', as it were—by time and longstanding tradition. Eliot seeks to control the flow of eroticism by a sustained use of this Victorian technique of last resort:

[The full meaning of what had happened to Tom and Maggie] came with so overpowering a force—it was a new revelation to his spirit of the depths in life, that had lain beyond his vision which he had fancied so keen and clear—that he was unable to ask a question.

Ultimately, this technique depicts brother and sister reliving together 'one supreme moment', their tandem death transforming the physicality of 'two bodies that were found in close embrace' into the transcendent epitaph: 'In their death they were not divided' (p. 457).5

As might be expected, we find some of the most intriguing examples of rhetorical attempts to control sex and death in the work of the two leading male novelists of the Victorian era, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Whereas Dickens magnifies and then tries to de-eroticise death through extreme attenuation, displacement and isolation—of either character or psychological conflict—Thackeray puts boundaries between sex and death from the outset by setting up ironic parallels between them. In this manner, he plays on the social rules and power relationships themselves, employing them as a form of parodic negation. In particular, Thackeray replaces the usual rhapsodic rhetoric of death with the rhetoric of his own rules, which allow him to 'put away' his puppets and draw lines between layers of the text.


Dickens typically magnifies death through an extreme attenuation of time, only to de-eroticise it through a process of rhetorical or psychological dispersal, which separates and isolates the erotic elements. Dombey and Son enacts for young Paul a very sensual death, its attenuation emblematic of erotic death in literature—making it an especially fitting climax to Dickens' public reading, 'The Story of Little Dombey'. In fact, this reading so condenses the rendition of Paul's death as to make it appear even more erotic than it seems to be in the novel. In this case, Dickens could perhaps be adjudged a fairly conscious manipulator of his elements, for we know how carefully he revised and shaped his public readings from their published originals. And in this respect, he was already building on what many readers of his letters have concluded was a highly calculated incident: in Dombey and Son, with the death of Little Dombey, Dickens was attempting a 'repeat performance' of the 'popular' death of Little Nell. As George Ford observes, elements of Dickens the rhetorician blend with those of Dickens the artist in the conscious manipulation of this death scene.6

Through Paul's impressionistic view of time slowly passing, Dickens renders his death attractive, even beautiful. Spatial configurations and posture set up and frame the erotic imagery, which pours in just before the moment of death:

Sister and brother wound their arms around each other, and the golden light came streaming in, and fell upon them, locked together.

'How fast the river runs, between its green banks and the rushes, Floy! But it's very near the sea. I hear the waves! They always said so!' (Dombey and Son, p. 297)

Here Dickens reaches the height of sensuality, his rhetorical energy infused by typical erotic imagery in the conjunction of rhythmic waves, rocking boat, and golden light. Thus, we should not be surprised to discover that when a popular song of the day, 'What Are the Wild Waves Saying', drew upon this imagery, its lyricist was quick to counter the eroticism with his own brand of religiosity in the refrain: 'The voice of the great Creator/Dwells in that mighty tone!' (Glover, p. 9) And as Alexander Welsh notes about Florence Dombey's role in this intimate scene, it too creates an antithetical effect: Dickens has been grooming her to be one of his 'Angels of Death'.7

But most significantly, extreme attenuation in this version of death enables Dickens to disperse the sensual elements, temporally and spatially (in effect, Paul can be said to be 'dying' over the space of some 100 pages.) If we take key words and phrases from a single extended passage towards the end of this process—about two pages of the text—we can see the erotic element only too clearly: 'quivered', 'rolled', 'resistless, he cried out!', 'leaning his poor head upon her breast', 'rising up', 'reviving, waking, starting into life once more', 'glistening as it rolled', 'roused', 'the flush', 'again the golden water would be dancing on the wall' (Dombey and Son, pp. 292-4). Yet Dickens not only dissipates these sensual terms over time; he also shunts them aside by making them poetic descriptions of the environment as the boy perceives it. All the while, death is spoken of and treated as part of nature, implying the conjoinment of sensual and morbid qualities, despite their rhetorical dispersal. At the same time, the isolation of Paul reveals Dickens' characteristic use of psychological and social isolation to de-eroticise his scenes. When death finally does arrive, it comes to the old-young boy who epitomises—through the aesthetic power of repeated parallelism—the 'old old fashion—Death!'8

Any discussion of death in Dickens' fiction must eventually address his presentation of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop and the immense interest her death has generated—in both the author and his reading public. Little Nell's death also disperses and displaces the erotic—this time into both the framing narration and her grandfather's romantic rhetoric, which dramatises the lover's insistence that he is not separated from his beloved:

'You plot among you to wean my heart from her. You never will do that—never while I have life. I have no relative or friend but her—I never had—I never will have. She is all in all to me. It is too late to part us now.' (The Old Curiosity Shop, p. 652)

These words asserting love's union occur in the context of a novel which has portrayed the villainous Quilp as relentlessly pursuing Nell—the eroticism of his pursuit barely concealed—and they were written by an author who admitted to the childhood desire of wanting to marry Little Red Riding Hood when he grew up.9 Trying to deny fourteen-year-old Nell's sexuality by direct ascription throughout the novel, Dickens finally protests too much. At this point, it is impossible to resist the temptation to read into this scene some of Dickens's own biography. Writing to John Forster about the difficulty of performing what he would two months later call his 'Nellicide', he comments, 'Dear Mary died yesterday when I think of this sad story' (Letters, vol. 2, pp. 228 and 182).10 Mary is, of course, Mary Hogarth, Dickens' teenaged sister-in-law who died in his arms in 1837; not only did he wear her ring for the rest of his life, but he hoped to be buried next to her as well. Given this insight, we would not be amiss to read into the rhetoric of Nell's grandfather some of Dickens' own sentiments.

As Dickens approaches Nell's death—not something absolutely demanded by the plot—he succumbs to another form of rhetorical attentuation and temporal avoidance: he presents her death after the fact. Nonetheless, the surrounding rhetoric of the characters extols and glorifies Nell, each character jealously vying with her grandfather to apotheosise her the more. Finally, based on Dickens' explicit instructions, George Cattermole's illustration presents us with the pubescent 'bride' on her death-'bed': 'upon her breast, and pillow, and about her bed, there may be slips of holly, and berries, and such free green things' (Letters, p. 172). Flirting with necrophilia as he earlier has with paedophilia, Dickens' interest here may seem inappropriate to our twentieth-century readership, but it did not seem so to his Victorian audience, for many of whom personal connotations (and perhaps suppressed eroticism) were released. While we might expect such a popular incident to result in one of Dickens' public reading texts, we can also recognise that—for both author and auditor—the emotional intensity might well have been excessive."11

But Dickens also tries to delimit the erotic element by setting Nell's grandfather in conflict with other characters and isolating him through his apparent insanity. Her grandfather's denial of death—'She is sleeping soundly' (The Old Curiosity Shop, p. 648)—is further contradicted by the narrator's litany, 'She was dead. . . . She was dead' (pp. 652-4). Moreover, we can actually see the physical separation of the fulminating old man and Nell herself during the height of his rhetoric: not only is she already dead, but she is also sealed off in another room. Once again, Dickens illustrates for us the twin motifs of excess and restraint that Kucich has so appropriately employed in his full-length study to characterise the opposing forces of Dickensian energy.

In Oliver Twist, with the overt sexual overtones of Sikes killing Nancy, we uncover a treatment of death which is strikingly atypical for Dickens. A violent murder leaves no scope for languid attenuation or sentimentalisation of death. Victorian authors generally favoured the erotic over the merely lustful side of sexuality, and the spiritual over the violent aspect of death—but here those preferences cannot hold sway. At the same time, Sikes's murder of Nancy employs in concentrated form some of the same rhetorical techniques we have recognised in other fictional scenes of death. This passage gains its phenomenal intensity precisely because of the pressure it places on the very Victorian desire to keep things discrete. The rhetorical tools used to offset the sex-death conflation must be economical and powerful, eschewing the sort of slow dispersal that Dickens generally espoused.

Although time is limited, Dickens still tries to keep his characters' sexuality in complete isolation—from one another as much as possible, and from the Victorian reader as well. Note, for example, that the violent death itself occurs between two members of the lower classes, to some degree isolating it from its presumed Victorian audience. The graphic description of Sikes as he blindly rushes home to do the deed—with his blood-engorged muscles fairly bursting through his skin—presents a rare glimpse of murderous lust:

Without one pause, or moment's consideration; without once turning his head to the right or left, or raising his eyes to the sky, or lowering them to the ground, but looking straight before him with savage resolution: his teeth so tightly compressed that the strained jaw seemed starting through his skin; the robber held on his headlong course, nor muttered a word, nor relaxed a muscle, until he reached the door. (Oliver Twist, p. 421)

But this vividness is altered when Sikes comes upon Nancy and their physical separateness ends. The descriptions of Sikes are greatly reduced and depersonalised. He douses the only candle in the room and prevents Nancy from opening the curtain on the faint light of day, and what we see of him from then on are murky glimpses of hands and arms committing the murder. He is depersonalised—referred to as 'the man' and 'the housebreaker'—while Nancy's words enhance the negative quality, as she cries, 'You cannot have the heart to kill me. .. . I will not loose my hold, you cannot throw me off (p. 422).

The murder itself is rife with forms of isolation. Sikes and Nancy speak in ways that indicate their contrasting perceptions—like a meeting of two opposite worlds—the social and perceptual boundaries rendered all the more emphatic because they are not dispersed or attenuated. Once these separate beings begin to talk and interact, Nancy's words take on some of the spiritual or aesthetic quality we have witnessed in more typical death scenes, but her attempts to 'aestheticise' the scene only isolate her further. The rhetoric negates light and time, typical aesthetic images and motifs of natural death. Knocking down the candle, Sikes denies even its faint light. Time, too, is negated—an inversion of Dickens's usual technique to de-eroticise death—as Nancy helplessly pleads for time: 'It's never too late to repent. . . . We must have time—a little, little time!' Finally, Dickens completes this complex and difficult isolation of murderer from victim as Nancy breathes 'one prayer for mercy to her Maker!' (p. 423)—so that Sikes becomes the profane representative of death, Nancy the transcendent victim.

Yet this is not the final word on this infamous murder, for Dickens resurrected it for his reading audiences. Recast as 'Sikes and Nancy', the reading text develops through a series of parallel structures, thus attempting to highlight the aesthetic as a counter to its eventual acts of violence. Then, as he begins to recount the murder scene, Dickens almost reproduces it from the novel exactly. This in itself is unusual, for it points to the highly condensed nature of the original—creating the intensity that has already challenged the author to offset it. But Dickens also performs several key acts of omission, which force us to return to the novel and to read its murder more as an implicit rape. Unlike the reading text, the novel's text continues to affirm Nancy's sexuality as it describes her greeting Bill 'with an expression of pleasure at his return' (p. 421).12 The novel further provides Nancy with the very words a rape victim might utter to pacify her attacker: 'I—I won't scream or cry—not once—hear me—speak to me—tell me what I have done!' (p. 422) Deleting these sexual overtones from his reading text hardly left Dickens with an expurgated passage, but he did reduce some of its over-charged nature. There would be difficulty enough in his repeatedly performing the roles of murderer and victim—the very performance which from most reports constituted his self-murder.13


Dealing more overtly with the erotic than Dickens, Thackeray in Vanity Fair draws a satiric contrast between the rigidified, death-oriented (i.e. military and legal) rules of male society and the diffuse, unspoken rules of the suppressed subculture of women. Here the parallels between sex and death are consciously depicted and constitute part of the novel's structure, yet the very highlighting of the parallels emphasises their separateness and distinction. Thackeray recognises that he cannot talk about either male or female sexuality directly, so his viewpoint is distanced, avoiding, by and large, aestheticisation. In the preface to his next novel, Pendennis, he would make his famous pronouncement on the limits dictated by middle-class morality: 'Since the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN' (Pendennis, p. xi). Thackeray tends to be blunt about death—recall the sudden, anti-erotic revelation of George Osborne 'lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart' (Vanity Fair, p. 315)—and ambivalent about sex, rather than engaging in the rapturous time-dilation and dissolution of boundaries that we encounter in Eliot, Dickens and many other Victorian novelists. We do not, in other words, uncover in Thackeray a rhetorical struggle against the conflation of sex and death, but rather an intellectual acknowledgement and manipulation of their parallels. Instead of invoking rhetorical forms of isolation, Thackeray depi ts the two elements as occurring in different spheres and according to different rules from the outset: isolation exists as the fabric of his fictional world.

When Becky Sharp appears in the charade as Clytemnestra, Thackeray seems willing to concede the connection between sex and death, but he carefully encapsulates the scene, almost parodying his own aestheticising of it: it is a tableau—outside the temporal flow of the plot and with no causal relationship to the rest of the story:

Aegisthus steals in pale and on tiptoe. What is that ghastly face looking out balefully after him from behind the arras? He raises his dagger to strike the sleeper [Agamemnon, played by Rawdon Crawley, Becky's husband], who turns in his bed, and opens his broad chest as if for the blow. He cannot strike the noble slumbering chieftan. Clytemnestra glides swiftly into the room like an apparition—her arms are bare and white,—her tawny hair floats down her shoulders,—her face is deadly pale,—and her eyes are lighted up with a smile so ghastly, that people quake as they look at her. (p. 494)

At the height of the murderous illusion, someone shouts out his recognition that Clytemnestra is indeed Becky, and then 'scornfully she snatches the dagger out of Aegisthus's hand, and advances to the bed'. The scene has sensational power—'a thrill of terror and delight runs through the assembly' (p. 492)—but we end up feeling that Thackeray, as usual, remains relatively free of these disturbing forces and is using them intellectually as a discrete comment on his text, rather than as a symbolic statement of what really goes on at the heart of his novel.14 This scene is to Vanity Fair what Sikes killing Nancy is to Oliver Twist: in Dickens, the result is shattering, a release of repressed emotional power; in Thackeray, it is an entertainment, once again deliberately highlighting the boundaries that keep sex and death separate in his world. This is Thackeray's intellectual means of isolating these elements. Cooler and more distanced than Dickens in his approach, he draws parallels and keeps his forces—like puppets—under control.

Thackeray can even be blunt about death when he chooses to attenuate its presentation. Chapter 61 of Vanity Fair—'In Which Two Lights Are Put Out'—juxtaposes the deaths of the two patriarchs, Mr Sedley and Mr Osborne.15 In the first case, a dissolution of old emotional boundaries and an expansion of time occur, as they frequently do in Dickens. But when death finally comes, the sexual angle is more anti-erotic than anything else, for Thackeray treats death almost wholly in terms of satiric negation—i.e. by the setting up of ironic parallels:

So there came one morning and sunrise, when all the world got up and set about its various works and pleasures, with the exception of old John Sedley, who was not to fight with fortune, or to hope or scheme any more: but to go and take up a quiet and utterly unknown residence in a churchyard at Brompton by the side of his old wife. (p. 587)

Moreover, as Mr Osborne's death is compared with Mr Sedley's—and we realise that there will never be a reconciliation between the two former friends—we recognise that Thackeray has consciously set up this contrast, again maintaining his intellectual control: 'One day when he should have come down to breakfast, his servant, missing him went into his dressing-room, and found him lying at the foot of the dressing-table, in a fit' (p. 591). Indeed, Thackeray's use of parallelism could be said to constitute his rhetorical manipulation of time—his technique for allaying the sex-death conflation.

Elsewhere in Thackeray's canon, when he magnifies death, as in the case of Helen Pendennis or Colonel Newcome, he continues to exert his control through satirical framing or drawing an actual line between death and imaginary sexual fulfilment. For example, as Helen's impending death leads to a mother-son reconciliation, the narration leaps ahead in time to observe, in the context of religious discourse, that ever after, in his best moments and worst trials, Pen would know that 'his mother's face looked down upon him, and blessed him with its gaze of pity and purity' (Pendennis, p. 213). Time also stretches backwards, to encompass Pen's youthful repetition of his 'Our Father', recited 'at his mother's sacred knees' (p. 214). On the one hand, when this earlier period is recalled, the alert reader can hardly deny the incestuous overtones at both periods, for Helen has ever desired of Pen that she be 'his all in all' (p. 196). On the other hand, these overtones also provoke a more incisive narrative commentary that undermines both Helen's death scene and the sexual connotations of her 'poor' individual story.16 In the chapter immediately preceding the one that narrates her death, Helen's 'devouring care' prompts the narrator to turn her into a representative 'type', who perpetuates—in co-conspiracy with her male partner—the tyranny of gendered role differentiation:

Is it not your nature [Delia] to creep about his feet and kiss them, to twine round his trunk and hang there; and Damon's to stand like a British man with his hands in his breeches pocket, while the pretty fond parasite clings round him? (p. 197)

In many ways, Colonel Newcome's death recalls Little Nell's: it is Thackeray's old-age counterpart to Dickens' treatment of death claiming the innocence of youth.17 In fact, when the Colonel becomes a poor brother at Grey Friars, time expands to encompass him as both 'a youth all love and hope' and 'a stricken old man, with a beard as white as snow covering the noble care-worn face' (The Newcomes, p. 443). But any sexuality raised by his excited, romantic rhetoric is displaced by Thackeray's rhetorical handling of the attenuated death scene: the Colonel's age and delirium isolate him from the other characters (as they do Nell's grandfather); his repeated reunions with Madame de Florac recall only unfulfilled love; and we are further distanced from his courtly discourse because it is not directly quoted. Moreover, the conclusion itself cuts both ways:

And just as the last bell struck, a peculiar sweet smile shone over his face, and he lifted up his head a little, and quickly said, 'Adsum!' and fell back. It was the word we used at school, when names were called; and lo, he, whose heart was as that of a little child, had answered to his name, and stood in the presence of The Master, (pp. 444-5)

Here we can recognise emotional magnification as time expands to convey the old man once again as a young boy. Yet 'Adsum' also recalls rules, and 'Master' implies hierarchies. Then the 'real' conclusion appears as Thackeray draws a literal line across his text, thereby foregrounding his own artistry and reminding us that he can make his own rules: now we are in the author's, not the narrator's, time frame, where the fulfilment of erotic passions is merely a speculative venture—'for you, dear friend, it is as you like' (p. 446).

Such boundarylines and rule-making return us to Vanity Fair, where we can note that even when Becky is depicted as a mermaid—as a death-in-life siren—and Thackeray evokes some of the disturbing, unconscious disgust at the conjunction of death and sexuality, his whole rhetorical approach involves drawing ironic parallels, playing on the dividing line that the water makes—and on his intention to keep clear of it:

Those who like may peep down under waves that are pretty transparent, and see [the monster's tail] writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curling round corpses; but above the water line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish immoralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie? (Vanity Fair, p. 617)

The passage that follows continues to deliver negations. Whenever Thackeray touches on this sort of charged material, he launches into either controlled, intellectual parallels or else a series of parodic denials: now we learn that 'we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling and feasting on their wretched pickled victims'. Cannibalism combines with sexuality to suggest all the attendant horrors of vampirism raised by Nina Auerbach in Woman and the Demon, yet Thackeray still maintains 'the laws of politeness' and invokes the power of his own negating rhetoric.18

Given his usual separation of death and sex, it is intriguing to note that in order to illustrate how Becky refuses to confront the implications of her own sexuality, Thackeray uses a metaphor of death: 'But,—just as the children of Queen's Crawley went round the room where the body of their father lay;—if ever Becky had these thoughts [of leading a straightforward life], she was accustomed to walk round them, and not look in' (pp. 410-11). In fact, she pointedly avoids examining thoughts about an alternative existence: 'She eluded them, and despised them—or at least she was committed to the other path from which retreat was now impossible.' But Becky circling round a corpse at a great distance is equally an appropriate symbol for the author's own reluctance to confront death or sex, his distanced, manipulative treatment of both contrasting with Dickens' tendency to immerse himself in the magnification of death, while concurrently trying to de-eroticise the subject. Thackeray's enforced 'bachelorhood' due to his wife's mental illness, and Dickens' attraction to younger women, made sexuality a highly charged subject for both of them—and hence something they were more comfortable positing in their female characters. In this respect, both also evince a fear of female sexuality. Yet while Dickens kills off or deports a number of his most erotic female characters, Thackeray persists in examining Becky Sharp—his epitome of female eroticism—from the admittedly safe distance implied by ironic parallels with death and destruction.

Finally, at the end of Vanity Fair, death once more occurs within a context that seems to invoke sexuality. In stark terms, Jos Sedley is reported to have died. But instead of learning any details about his demise, we are confronted with speculation, innuendo, and insurance companies—death and sex completely bureaucratised, which at the same time might be considered as the most extreme form of dispassionate separation. In the midst of this controversy, Thackeray makes it clear that the insurance companies are very suspicious about the cause of Joseph's death, with foul play on Becky's part being the implication. On this occasion, for such a specific insinuation about sex and death, Thackeray employs some of his most powerful negating rhetoric: 'it was the blackest case'; Becky's lawyers, 'of Thaives Inn', are named after three notorious murderers; and they in turn declare her 'the object of an infamous conspiracy' (pp. 664-6). Yet Thackeray does not stop with the power of language: he carries his argument into the visual arts, where his accompanying illustration depicts Becky lurking behind a curtain while Jos pleads with Dobbin not to reveal his intention of leaving her. Entitled 'Becky's second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra', this illustration is teasingly ambiguous: does Becky hold a knife in her hand, or is that just a trick of the light? Thackeray obviously intends this ambivalence to extend to her sexual power over Jos as well: she may be using her (and his) sexuality to bring about his death, but we will never know for certain since she is always allowed to operate 'below the water line'.

The whole subject of rules, especially social and artistic ones, is central to this topic. Victorians were very involved with social regulations—particularly those involving sex and death—yet the foregrounding of either sex or death tends also to involve a questioning or loosening of rules. This condition created another link (besides what I have been calling 'aestheticisation') between the rhetorics of sex and death. It provided Thackeray with a perfect fulcrum for dealing with both sex and death, not in terms of the usual rapturous rhetoric, but in terms of artistic rules—disposing of puppets ('Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out', p. 666) and drawing lines between layers of the text. And Becky Sharp works in the limbo between these two realms (which may be the true import of the mermaid symbol, a sexually enticing yet sexually censored figuration) as does the novelist himself. If neither Dickens nor Thackeray could articulate sexuality without invoking controls (after all, neither could transcend both personal and societally imposed proscriptions), Thackeray's artistry was the more daring, allowing him to layer private and public sublimation in ways that are particularly amenable to twentieth-century narrative analysis. Ultimately, it is Thackeray's use of his own artistic rules to explore societal rules that makes Vanity Fair one of the most innovative Victorian novels on the twin subjects of sex and death.


1 All references given in the text are to titles and editions given in the Bibliography following these Notes.

2 Kucich's article provides a good introduction to how the literature of the period reflected the Victorian 'climate' of death (see especially pp. 58-9), while Kincaid's paper, as well as his work in progress on paedophilia, alerts us to how Victorian discourse on child sexuality operates within and exposes models of play and power.

3 For example, David Lean's film of Great Expectations (1946) justifies its 'happy ending' by having Pip save Estella—who has just been jilted by Bentley Drummle in the rewritten script—from becoming another Miss Havisham. Polhemus develops his argument by concentrating on Pip's symbolic 'rape' of Miss Havisham, finding in it 'the tension and energy latent in the nineteenth-century drive to reconcile the desire and the prohibition [against incest] without diminishing the power of either' (Polhemus, p. 1). And Eigner's study demonstrates how David Copperfield's suppression of both death and sex results in the formulation of his doubles, Steerforth and Heep.

4 The contributors to the collection of Gallagher and Laqueur, originally published as Representations, No. 14 (1986), build especially on the work of Foucault to illustrate how Victorian agencies of power began to redirect their energies to evidence concern about and then control of various aspects of sexual behaviour.

5 Stewart's book is certainly required reading for anyone studying about death in Victorian fiction, while his article is of particular interest on the subject of death by drowning.

6 Ford continues: 'Even on Dickens' own terms, there was an ironical aftermath to his bid for favor. . . . After the death of Paul, the later numbers of Dombey seemed anti-climactic' (Ford, p. 59).

7 In his chapter, 'Two Angels of Death' (Welsh, pp. 180-95), Welsh presents Florence Dombey and Agnes Wickfield in the context of nineteenth-century allegorical representations of the female angel of death. This presentation is a prelude to the argument that 'sexuality in a heroine biologically implies the hero's death as an individual' (p. 210). Thus, the strategy of Dickens and his contemporaries was 'to domesticate death, to wrest it from the city and take it in by the fireside' (p. 212). As a result, Welsh concludes, 'the institution of marriage and the institution of the novel deserve credit for so adroitly converting the sexual relation that implies death into a relation that saves from death' (p. 228). Of course, Florence as a representative of woman's regenerative power can produce another Little Paul; in Bataille's terms, 'Reproduction leads to the discontinuity of beings, but brings into play their continuity; that is to say, it is intimately linked with death' (Bataille, p. 13).

8 As I argue in my article on the rhetoric of soliloquy, Dickens is particularly adept at utilising structural and imagistic parallelism at moments that transcend closure. The concluding words of A Tale of Two Cities speak this point eloquently, creating foreshadowing that crosses the boundaries of time and consciousness: 'It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known' (A Tale of Two Cities, p. 403).

9 Kucich cites the Little Red Riding Hood anecdote as taken from Dickens' short story, 'A Christmas Tree' (Kucich, 'Death Worship', p. 71 note 20). He goes on to discuss The Old Curiosity Shop's 'explicit experience of violence' as a project that dramatises violation as eroticised death (p. 68). Mark Spilka, on the other hand, reads the text as releasing 'neurotic rather than erotic violation'. 'How else', he argues, 'can we explain such related phenomena as the cult called Love of Little Girls .. . or the increased popularity of child-prostitutes . . . ?' (See p. 175 of his article, 'On the Enrichment of Poor Monkeys by Myth and Dream; or, How Dickens Rousseauisticized and Pre-Freudianized Victorian Views of Childhood', in Cox, pp. 161-79.)

10 Letters to and from Dickens during the months preceding and following Nell's death confirm his shared preoccupation with the death of this girl-child. Ford devotes an entire chapter to the Nell phenomenon, 'Little Nell: The Limits of Explanatory Criticism' (Ford, pp. 55-71).

11 William Macready's letter of 25 January 1841 may be representative of this degree of feeling: 'This beautiful fiction comes too close upon what is miserably real to me [the death of his own daughter two months earlier] to enable me to taste that portion of pleasure, which we can often extract (and you so beautifully do) from reasoning on the effect of pain, when we feel it through the sufferings of others' (Letters, p. 193). Weinstein picks up on the recurrence of father-daughter relations in Dickens within a context of illicit sexuality (Weinstein, p. 32), noting that he is 'unable to abandon or endorse this fantasy-desire [of father/husbands]' (p. 39).

12 Langbauer's article demonstrates that Dickens grounds erotics in woman—making her the seductress.

13 Collins' introduction to 'Sikes and Nancy' describes how Dickens developed this last addition to his repertoire—now he revelled in its horror, passion and drama. His friends and family found such 'outright histrionic violence disquieting'—and he went on to become obsessed by it, to the point of jeopardising his health (Dickens, The Public Readings, pp. 465-71). We must not forget, either, that the murder of Nancy serves as a prelude to the pursuit and death of Sikes, rendered subjectively in the rewritten version. Thus, Dickens' most dramatic tie with his living audiences was also intimately linked on multiple levels with acts of dying.

14 Of course, the charade does provoke Lord Steyne's intense admiration of Becky and foreshadows elements of the triangular confrontation scene that follows their interlude. DiBattista also argues persuasively that the Clytemnestra myth 'serves as a psychological and historical commentary on the unexamined delusions of the Victorian's sexual ideology' (DiBattista, p. 833). But both points simply confirm my assertion that Thackeray has moved our considerations to an intellectual plane.

15 Another old patriarch's death deserves comparison here because it is so totally negated and anti-eroticised: Thackeray completely elides the death of Sir Pitt Crawley; it apparently occurs within the interstices of the text: 'there was a great hurry and bustle'; 'lights went about'; 'a boy on a pony went galloping off'—and then the Bute Crawleys arrive to ascertain that no one falsely lay claim to family property (Vanity Fair, pp. 390-1).

16 Bledsoe's article makes a good case for the novel's careful balancing between 'Helen the self-styled middle-aged martyr' and 'Helen the sympathetic young wife' (Bledsoe, pp. 871-2), but she finally devolves into an embodiment of all pure but possessive women (p. 875). In this respect, she rather accurately reflects Thackeray's intense ambivalence about his mother. In contrast, Dickens tends to create split characters to represent his mother, e.g. Mrs Micawber and Miss Murdstone.

17 Stewart's discussion of Colonel Newcome's death also suggests its affinities with Dickensian death scenes by raising the issue of sentimentality but then qualifying it with reference to contrivance and irony (Stewart, p. 132); in general, Stewart's study demonstrates how much less sentimental both of their death scenes are than is usually presumed. In this respect, Barickman et al. have not analysed the specific conjunction of death and the erotic when they too easily generalise about 'the eroticism that is diluted into sentimental rhetoric in Dickens' (Barickman et al., p. 93).

18 Mermaids and serpent-women, vampires and monsters blend angel and demon in Auerbach's discussion of characters like Becky Sharp and Beatrix Castlewood (from Thackeray's Henry Esmond); see Woman and the Demon, especially pp. 88-101. The figures of angel and demon inform Auerbach's earlier studies of Florence Dombey and Maggie Tulliver as well; see her reprinted essays in Romantic Imprisonment, pp. 107-29 and 230-49. For his last completed novel, Philip, Thackeray was prepared to conjoin motherhood, self-sacrifice, and cannibalism within his opening pages (Philip, p. 106).

Works Cited

Auerbach, Nina, Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

Auerbach, Nina, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982).

Barickman, Richard, Susan MacDonald, and Myra Stark, Corrupt Relations: Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Collins and the Victorian Sexual System (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

Bataille, Georges, Death and Sensuality (New York: Walker, 1965).

Bledsoe, Robert, 'Pendennis and the Power of Sentimentality: A Study of Motherly Love', PMLA, vol. 91 (1976) pp. 871-83.

Cox, Don Richard (ed.) Sexuality and Victorian Literature. Tennessee Studies in Literature, vol. 27 (1984).

DiBattista, Maria, 'The Triumph of Clytemnestra: The Charades in Vanity Fair', PMLA, vol. 95 (1980) pp. 827-37.

Dickens, Charles, Dombey and Son, introduction by Raymond Williams (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970).

Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations, edited by Angus Calder (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965).

Dickens, Charles, The Letters of Charles Dickens, edited by Madeline House and Graham Storey, vol. 2: 1840-1841 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

Dickens, Charles, The Old Curiosity Shop, introduced by Malcolm Andrews (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).

Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist, introduced by Angus Wilson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966).

Dickens, Charles, Our Mutual Friend, edited by Stephen Gill (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971).

Dickens, Charles, The Public Readings, edited by Philip Collins (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).

Dickens, Charles, A Tale of Two Cities, edited by George Woodcock (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970).

Eigner, Edwin, 'Death and the Gentleman: Charles Dickens as Elegiac Romancer', unpublished essay, 1985.

Eliot, George, The Mill on the Floss, edited by Gordon Haight (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961).

Ford, George, Dickens and His Readers: Aspects of Novel-Criticism Since 1836 (New York: Norton, 1965).

Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1978).

Gallagher, Catherine, and Thomas Laqueur (eds) The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

Glover, Stephen, 'What Are the Wild Waves Saying'. Lyrics by Joseph Edwards Carpenter (London: Robert Cocks, [1850]).

Hardy, Thomas, Jude the Obscure, edited by Irving Howe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).

Kincaid, James, 'Dickens, Discourse Analysis, and the Sexuality of the Child', MLA Convention, Chicago, 30 December 1985.

Kucich, John, 'Death Worship among the Victorians: The Old Curiosity Shop', PMLA, vol. 95 (1980) pp. 58-72.

Kucich, John, Excess and Restraint in the Novels of Dickens (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981).

Langbauer, Laurie, 'Dickens's Streetwalkers: Women and the Forms of Romance', English Literary History, vol. 53 (1986) pp. 411-31.

MacKay, Carol Hanbery, 'The Rhetoric of Soliloquy in The French Revolution and A Tale of Two Cities', Dickens Studies Annual, vol. 12 (1983) pp. 197-207.

Polhemus, Robert. 'The Burning of Miss Havisham: The Oedipal Dickens and the Victorian Incestual Bias.' MLA Convention. New York, 29 Dec. 1986.

Shakespeare, William, Romeo and Juliet, in John E. Hankins (ed.) The Complete Works (New York: Viking, 1969) pp. 855-94.

Stewart, Garrett, Death Sentences: Styles of Dying in British Fiction (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984).

Stewart, Garrett, 'The Secret Life of Death in Dickens', Dickens Studies Annual, vol. 11 (1983) pp. 177-207.

Thackeray, William Makepeace, Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, edited by Geoffrey and Kathleen Tillotson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963).

Thackeray, William Makepeace, The Newcomes (London: Smith, Elder, 1878).

Thackeray, William Makepeace, Pendennis (London: Smith, Elder, 1878).

Thackeray, William Makepeace, Philip (London: Smith, Elder, 1879).

Trollope, Anthony, Barchester Towers, introduced by Robin Gilmour (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983).

Vicinus, Martha (ed.) A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977).

Weinstein, Philip M., The Semantics of Desire: Changing Models of Identity from Dickens to Joyce (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Welsh, Alexander The City of Dickens (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

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