Brianna Beehler: Dickens, Remixed
It comes as no surprise that the V21 collective would turn to Dickens, one of the great formal experimenters, to discuss formal experimentation; nor that of Dickens’s works, the members would select Bleak House––as Alex Woloch writes in “Bleak House: 19, 20, 21,” the “text’s singularity is remarkable.” But how, exactly, we come to recognize that singularity is less to be taken for granted. As Woloch points out, Victorian critics did not comment upon the form that is so remarkable to us now. How and when, then, Elaine Hadley asks in her closing remarks, might we know that something is experimental?: “Experimentation is good. But what is experimental? Is something experimental only in retrospect, as with Bleak House’s double narrative, or necessarily of the moment, achieved by declaration?” I find Hadley’s question provocative and vitally important, but am unconvinced by the two possible responses she gives to her own question. I would here pose a third line of reasoning: we can recognize the experimental at any time by juxtaposing it with the forms that came before. We are limited not by time but by knowledge of what these forms are pushing against and responding to.
Tellingly, the organizers and presenters at the V21 symposium considered familiar forms (such as the novel) and texts (such as Bleak House) in opening a discussion on the experimental. Rather than reading this as a reluctance to engage with something truly new, I see this as a productive methodology. In returning to conventional forms, these scholars are attempting to identify the places where these forms struggle, fail, break down––and occasionally, as in Bleak House, produce something unexpected.
Indeed, it is in recycling and returning to the old that we are finally able to move beyond these forms. Moreover, I would argue that this is exactly what Dickens was doing in his own work––reworking and rearranging previous forms in hopes of creating something better. As we can see from the echoing of John Harmon and Bella Wilfer’s engagement in that of Edwin Drood and Rosa Bud’s and the self-destructive obsession of Bradley Headstone in John Jasper, Dickens is an author famous for his narrative experimentation as well as his repetitions, both within texts and across them. But the repetition, rather than indicating stagnation, is exactly what makes Dickens’ experiments so visible. Dickens repeated and reformed his earlier work, playing upon old forms, characters, and plots, and it is the places where we see the remixing of formal elements where something new is occurring, as Dickens is trying to work out a way of conveying something radically different, but does not quite yet have the correct form to do so. In these places, we see Dickens returning to familiar plots and characters and rethinking previous forms in pursuit of novelty.
And so, this is why I am hesitant to adopt Woloch’s conclusion that perhaps the best way to become less “restrained in demarcating where form might end” is to become blind to where it begins. Following this argument through implies that the “utopian” experiment would be performed without a control group, leaving the experimenter with no way of interpreting her results. If we do not see the beginning, or what has become conventional, then we cannot see where the changes or disruptions occur. The place where content and form struggle against each other––where traditional forms have become insufficient for what they are trying to represent––is where we may expect to find the most revolutionary literary techniques emerging.
None of this is to say that I do not agree with Hadley––and many other of the V21 contributors––in thinking that we might (or even should) move beyond Dickens, or the novel, to discuss form. However, I do think that we might begin with Dickens to see what other forms––or metaphors, analogies, comparisons, etc.––we can set against it (and how Dickens set those own forms against himself). For Dickens, like the woman who sells Jasper his opium in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, has “the true secret of mixing,” one that reshuffles and unsettles our assumptions, using the familiar to draw our attention to something new that is emerging (5). Perhaps then we can begin to think about how these forms appropriated, remixed, and, eventually, reformed into something new.
University of Southern California
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House: An Authoritative and Annotated Text, Illustrations, a Note on the
Text, Genesis and Composition, Backgrounds, Criticism. Ed. George Ford and Sylvère Monod. New York: W.W. Norton & Norton, 1977.
––––––. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Ed. Steven Connor. Rutland, VT: Everyman, 1996.
––––––. Our Mutual Friend. Ed. Adrian Poole. London: Penguin, 1997.
Hadley, Elaine. “Closing Remarks.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016,
http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/elaine-hadley-closing-remarks/. Accessed 19 Dec. 2016.
Woloch, Alex. “Bleak House: 19, 20, 21.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016,
http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/alex-woloch-bleak-house-19-20-21/. Accessed 19 Dec. 2016.