David Sweeney Coombs: Dickens’ Resonance

An 1853 illustration for Bleak House

by David Sweeney Coombs

This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.

Within the lexicon of contemporary criticism, “resonance” is a term that is often marshaled to designate a loose, heuristic sort of presentism. For an example, look no further than the critical blurbs promoting recent editions of Bleak House, where A. A. Gill declares the novel “one of the few [Dickens] stories that has modern resonance: the tale of a never-ending court case can be seen—if you squint—as the precursor of Kafka and Orwell.”[i] We don’t need to agree with this judgment to note how the acoustic register of resonance gives way to the visual here at just the moment that the sentence moves from the airy declaration that Bleak House is still relevant to the specification of a literary genealogy to substantiate that claim. The virtue of resonance is typically understood to lie in that airiness. We use the term to posit unspecified or as yet mostly speculative connections between apparently very different objects—like an 1853 novel and the legal black sites of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Resonance, that is, lets us say that we feel the reverberations when we still can’t say exactly why. Hence the term appears rarely in articles and monographs, which aspire to rigor and precision, but frequently in the more informal discussions at scholarly conferences. Despite its informality, resonance, I want to suggest, offers us a potentially precise way of thinking about the form of Bleak House and the way the novel and our readings of it fold together different temporalities.

Bleak House famously combines antithetical narrative modes, most signally by alternating between third-person narration in the present tense and first-person narration in the past tense.[ii] One of the effects is a torsion between the formal boundedness of Esther’s first-person narrative, centered in a single character retrospectively relating the events that shaped her life’s development (and thus the process by which she came into being as narrator), and the open-endedness of the third-person narration, which jumps from place to place and character to character in a present tense filled with all the present’s sense of ongoing possibilities.[iii] With uncanny prescience, Bleak House in this way overlays two theories of the novel: the (then still soon-to-emerge) Victorian physiological novel theory described by Nicholas Dames, which conceived of the novel as a temporal unfolding akin to music; and the Jamesian novel theory of Percy Lubbock and the New Critics, which understood the novel instead as a sculptured, well-wrought whole. While Bleak House’s third-person narrator unfolds a stream of events, Esther’s task as narrator is to sort and arrange her own fugitive impressions retrospectively in a way that strikingly resembles the work of Lubbock’s critical reader, who, having finished reading a novel, must similarly put together a stable, clearly outlined form out of the “moving stream of impressions, paid out of the volume in a slender thread as we turn the pages” (1921: 14).

Esther, Lubbock might say, has to turn music into sculpture, but Bleak House figures Esther’s activity and its own formal division using a different analogy: the acoustics of houses. Consider the description of Lady Dedlock’s reaction to the news that Esther, her secret illegitimate daughter taken away at birth, is still alive. Shouldn’t her anguished cry rock the foundations of the Dedlock estate, Chesney Wold, the novel melodramatically asks before concluding, “No. Words, sobs, and cries, are but air; and air is so shut in and shut out throughout the house in town, that sounds need be uttered trumpet-tongued indeed by my Lady in her chamber, to carry any faint vibration to Sir Leicester’s ears; and yet this cry is in the house, going upward from a wild figure on its knees” (1996: 433). Here, aerial waves carry Lady Dedlock’s words, but the wave-form carries Dickens’ words too. Published and read in installments, the form of Dickens’ novel is, like a wave, defined by sequence and periodicity.[iv] In Bleak House, however, the wave-form’s diffusive circulation also takes on a more ominous quality, operating as a pattern of dispersal in the disclosure of Lady Dedlock’s secret and the confusion and entropic disorder propagated by Chancery, including the miasmic spread of disease (likewise through the air). Houses, on the other hand, can shut in and shut out waves more or less artfully, and the novel’s canniest household artist is its signature domestic woman, Esther, who is not only an angel but also an actual housekeeper. As her jingling keys continually remind us, Esther the housekeeper regulates flows within Bleak House like a veritable Maxwell’s Demon. What if we understood Esther’s narration in a similar way, not as transforming a music-like sequence of events into a static visual form, but as a kind of acoustic sorting that amplifies and silences (shutting in and shutting out) by turns?

Among other things, we might then pick up on the ways that Bleak House resonates with a major scientific reassessment of the nature of musical tones then underway, one that complicates Dames’ (2007: 10-11) suggestion that physiological criticism understood the novel exclusively in terms of musical sequence, of melody or rhythm as opposed to harmony. In the early 1830s, Gustav Hällstrom began experiments with a siren, a new instrument emitting pulses of air through a series of holes on a rotating disk. While each pulse is separately audible when the disk is rotating slowly, at increased speeds the pulsations run together into a continuous tone. Hällstrom’s work led scientists to reduce tones to pure periodicity—pure sequence—but by the time Bleak House appeared, this theory was on the verge of being demolished by Hermann von Helmholtz in the single most influential scientific text on music in the nineteenth century, On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music. Helmholtz was convinced that the particular quality of a tone (its timbre) is determined by the superposition of several soundwaves with different frequencies. Starting in 1855, he had devised a series of special resonators that vibrated with just one frequency of a tone, prolonging that one particular wave in a compound wave-form while silencing the others. In this way, Helmholtz’s resonators made it possible for him to perform a fine-grained analysis of sound. “Resonance,” Stephan Vogel (1993:281) notes, “became the fundamental concept in Helmholtz’s research program.”[v] His experiments with resonators, including, evocatively, the human mouth as a resonant cavity, led him to his famous resonance theory of hearing, which conceived of hearing as the result of thousands of platelets in the ear each vibrating in response to one frequency across the spectrum of audible sound. Both an experimental method and an explanatory theory, resonance shifted the science of acoustics from melody to harmony, from a theory of music as periodic succession—one damn pulse after another—towards a theory of music as constituted by the layering of different temporalities.

Bleak House layers temporalities in a way that is attuned with the temporal complexity of resonance. Helmholtz’s resonators revealed the complexity of tones by isolating one part of it, extending that one wave while letting the rest fall silent. His resonators thus functioned very much like the musical technique of suspension, where one note in a chord is prolonged into the next chord of a piece’s harmonic development. The resonance of Bleak House asks us to do something similar—to mark through our own reverberations the continuity as well as the discontinuity between past and present. Dickens’ resonance, that is to say, invites us to read as strategic presentists.


Agathocleous, Tanya. Urban Realism and the Cosmopolitan Imagination in the Nineteenth Century. 2011. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dames, Nicholas. The Physiology of the Novel. 2007. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1996. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. 2015. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lubbock, Percy. The Craft of Fiction. 1921. London: Jonathan Cape.

MacDuffie, Allen. Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination. 2014. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Picker, John. Victorian Soundscapes. 2003. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vogel, Stephen. 1993. “Sensations of Tone, Perceptions of Sound, and Empiricism.” In Hermann von Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth-Century Science, edited by David Cahan, 259-287. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Von Helmholtz, Hermann. 1954. On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music. Translated by Alexander J. Ellis. New York: Dover.


[i] Gill’s blurb appears in several different online iterations of promotional materials for the novel. For one example, see “Bleak House Editorial Reviews.” Random House Books Australia. http://www.randomhouse.com.au/books/charles-dickens/bleak-house-9780099511458.aspx (accessed February 10, 2016).

[ii] But this is not the only way it does so. Tanya Agathocleous, for instance, observes that the novel combines the techniques of the panorama with those of the sketch to present a “kind of time-elapsed panorama,” an overview of Victorian London accumulated through momentary glimpses rather than seen instantaneously (2011: 111).

[iii] This torsion goes some way towards explaining the divided critical opinions on the coherence of Bleak House, which tend to see the novel as either ultimately formally bounded and enclosed or impossibly diffusive. In a recent instance, we can see readings of the novel by Caroline Levine and Allen MacDuffie fall out on this question even as both conceptualize the novel as a network. Levine (2015: 130) reads Bleak House as embodying all the radical open-endedness of the network-form while MacDuffie, reading the eventual emergence of the network-form over the course of the novel as a conservative retreat from the scathing environmental critique that opens it, remarks disappointedly that “what initially looked like an overwhelming sea of people turns out to be a large, but manageable network” (2014: 112).

[iv] Further, Dickens had a lifelong interest in Charles Babbage’s theories of sound waves as circulating endlessly through the air, which, John Picker (2003: 15-40) suggests, promised Dickens a kind of indefinite circulation for his own authorial voice.



David Sweeney Coombs is assistant professor of English at Clemson University. He is currently at work on a book examining the Victorian literary response to the distinction drawn between sensation and perception by the nineteenth-century human sciences. 




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