Emily Steinlight: Untimely Dickens

An 1853 illustration to Bleak House

by Emily Steinlight

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

I’m taking “Bleak House Today” as an invitation to think about the place of the present both in Victorian studies and in the peculiar form of Dickens’s novel: the ways in which Bleak House calls on a sense of contemporaneity, partly though a narrative structure where historical time is always out of joint, past and present tenses taking turns but keeping their distance. This novel’s mode of occupying and refracting the present has often tempted readers to resituate its today-ness in another historical conjuncture or another art form. I’m thinking, for example, of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic essay, “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” which in 1944 brought Dickens into a different present than our own by crediting him with inventing montage (1977: 195-255). By juxtaposing non-contiguous spaces in narrative and thus shattering the frame of a discreet spatiotemporal situation, the argument runs, Dickens’s technique made modern cinema possible—from D. W. Griffith to the experiments of a Soviet avant-garde, including Dziga Vertov and Eisenstein himself. With V21 in mind, this intentionally anachronistic claim makes me wonder whether Dickens’s novel, which seems so consummately of its time, might lend itself to anachronism, or even to an engagement with the untimely—and, if so, what that untimeliness can do for us. In considering this novel’s untimeliness, I’m of course channeling Nietzsche’s definition: “acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come” (Nietzsche 1997 [1874]: 60).

For now, I’ll turn to just one register of that untimeliness: the novel’s split narration, divided between Esther’s personal voice, recounting past experience from a safe biographical distance, and the impersonal narrative, with its polyphonic mix of styles and tempos, panning across the city in the present tense to map a far larger social world than Esther or any individual can grasp, and shifting focalization away from the protagonist. I’d like to consider the political logic of what this form does, first, to the organization of time on which plot and history alike rely, and second, to the function of character. With regard to time, the tense shifts between past and present have an estranging effect on narrative as well as historical process. The present in which Dickens drops us is both deeply mired in natural-historical time and explosively out of time. The novel’s classic opening gives us a street scene we can very roughly date by the industrial soot half-illuminated by gas lamps, but all its chronotopes summon the pre- and post-historical: on the one hand, geological strata of a ground formed by human movement and struggle in urban space, layers of mud mimicking the process of capital accumulation (building up “at compound interest”), yet apparently primeval, as if “the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth”; on the other, smoky darkness evoking “the death of the sun” and the thermodynamic end of the solar system (Dickens 2003 [1852-53]: 13). I’m curious how this consciousness of a vast temporal scale beyond human history, yet rendered in the present tense, would line up with Frederic Jameson’s account of the narrative reflux in realist fiction between two distinct orders of temporality: the time of the event—the chronological succession of past-present-future—and the time of affect, linked to a suspended, impersonal present. (Surprisingly, given his focus on tenses and temporality in Antinomies of Realism, Jameson doesn’t discuss the present-tense narration in Bleak House when the text comes up in passing.) What makes realism dialectical, he suggests, is the gap between those orders of time, and the consequent standoff between “destiny” and “the eternal present” (Jameson 2015: 18). The novel form falls apart if this tension gets resolved. Perhaps serial fiction holds open this space in a distinctive way, since on first reading, the future is literally unwritten.

It sounds, initially, like that suspended present is where freedom from determinacy becomes possible. But fiction’s will to inhabit present time reappears as a problem for Jameson. The realist novel’s presentism, he suggests, inheres in its commitment to the exposition of the contemporary, which reveals the form’s ideological character: realism “requires a conviction as to the massive weight and persistence of the present as such, and an aesthetic need to avoid recognition of deep structural social change … and contradictory tendencies within the social order” (145). Antinomies is a fascinating book, but I’m not so sure about this claim. It flows from a critical model that charges realism with rationalizing a new status quo by denying historical change. As against that model, I want to stress the political dynamism of the world Dickens’s narrative constructs. At the level of material description, Bleak House offers up a stratigraphic record of deep structural change in process; at the level of form, its plot mobilizes a set of contrary political demands, which collide and throw off sparks as they do.

This dynamism relies on the way the novel’s two narrative systems mediate between character-subject and social order. Critics have often seen in the dualistic structure of Bleak House a certain ideology of form. For Audrey Jaffe, in Vanishing Points, omniscient narration is the novel’s Lacanian Big Other, a site for the fantasy of total knowledge; for D.A. Miller, it’s the literary equivalent of surveillance (Jaffe 1991, Miller 1988). There’s a word I’m struck by, though, in Miller’s book: speaking of another realist novel in the introduction to The Novel and the Police, he writes that its narrator’s sympathy for the suffering it inflicts on characters is credible “only in an arrangement that keeps the function of narration separate from the casualties operating in the narrative” (1988: 25). “Casualties” is an apt term precisely because it pinpoints what’s missing from Miller’s model. The form of power that disavows agency for its “casualties” isn’t surveillance at all; it’s more like laissez-faire. In Bleak House, the prevailing forms of governance operate less by a totalized and invasive disciplinary gaze than by programmatic inaction: letting things happen as though their causes were past the reach of human agency. The constable who repeatedly orders Jo to “move on,” when asked where exactly the homeless boy should move to, replies, “my instructions don’t go to that” (Dickens 2003: 308). Even in its direct, law-enforcing forms, policing intervenes by enacting a broader policy of non-intervention: vagrancy isn’t allowed here, go continue your vagrancy elsewhere. This may be one of the reasons Bleak House resonates with us today—why it evokes the Malthusian austerity policies we’ve seen (again) since the 2008 crash, the dismantling of welfare systems for several decades prior, and perhaps what Zygmunt Bauman unsettlingly describes as the irony of modernization: that the production of wealth in capitalist societies entails the global mass production of what appears as “‘human waste,’ or more correctly, wasted humans” (2004: 5).

Giving a figure like Jo a name and narrative space doesn’t remove him from what Malthus called surplus population—but this surplus, strangely, comes closer to capturing the novel’s subject than any individual character. For all Esther’s insistence on evaluating fellow characters as individuals linked by personal obligation, the other narrative compulsively generates scores of figures, mass bodies, abstract numbers that don’t sustain characterization. The first human subjects we encounter, preceded by muddy dogs and horses, are just pedestrians in general, like “tens of thousands” before them; “chance people on the bridges” lost in fog (Dickens 2003: 13); in Chancery, “eighteen of Mr. Tangle’s learned friends,” each with eighteen hundred pages of legal briefs (18); the population of Tom-all-Alone’s infesting London “in maggot numbers” (256); crowds flashing by Snagsby “like a dream of horrible faces” (358)—everywhere, more life than Dickens has time to characterize, count, or name. (Alex Woloch’s work is important here in stressing the saturation of character-space, which in his reading yields unequal divisions of attention and human complexity.) This is why, looking at the digital character maps created at Franco Moretti’s Stanford Literary Lab, I’m not sure whether such infographics capture a network of relationships in the text or just affirm what’s already taken as given: that character is a consistent unit, analogous to the individual person. There’s a distinct too-muchness at work in Dickens’s writing that makes characterization complicit in the process of crowding rather than a means of setting individuals apart from masses. Bleak House turns that demographic excess into a political force: something like what Jacques Rancière would call the count of the uncounted, a throwing off of the proportion between subjects and social places that politics requires. I suspect that the dizzying scalar shifts within this novel between a materially accumulating present, multiple historical pasts, and signs of geological and planetary time contribute pretty centrally to this disproportioning—but we can leave that for discussion.


Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts. Cambridge: Polity.

Dickens, Charles. 2003 [1852-53]. Bleak House. Edited by Nicola Bradbury. London: Penguin.

Eisenstein, Sergei. 1977 [1944]. “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today.” In Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, edited and translated by Jay Leyda, 195-255. San Diego: Harcourt.

Jaffe, Audrey. 1991. Vanishing Points: Dickens, Narrative, and the Subject of Omniscience. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 2015. The Antinomies of Realism. London: Verso.

Miller, D. A. 1988. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1997 [1874]. “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” In Untimely Meditations, edited by Daniel Breazeale, translated by R. J. Hollingdale, 59-123. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woloch, Alex. 2003. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.



Emily Steinlight is Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.  She recently completed a manuscript, The Biopolitical Imagination: Literary Form and the Politics of Population.


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