“The Romantic Side of Familiar Things”

At the end of the Preface to Bleak House, Dickens writes a statement that I believe is the key to how we talk about representation and realism in his work: “In Bleak House I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things” (emphasis added). This statement becomes more interesting when taken in the entire context of the preface. For several paragraphs, Dickens has just vehemently defended his narrative choices, arguing that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce is an accurate representation of real cases that have embroiled the Court of Chancery, writing that “everything set forth in these pages concerning the Court of Chancery is substantially true, and within the truth.” The second detail that Dickens defends is the spontaneous combustion of Mr. Krook, which George Lewes had criticized as unrealistic. He writes, “I have no need to observe that I do not willfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject,” and then cites a handful of documented examples, including a woman who died in France and an alcoholic man who died in Columbus, Ohio.

I am curious about why Dickens decided to defend these two elements of his narrative above all else. Was it simply because others criticized these parts of his story as unrealistic? Why not defend other, more fantastic parts of the narrative, like the character of Miss Flite and her garret of caged birds? And why, indeed, worry about “truth” in a work of fiction at all?

But, judging by the way he defends his story, Dickens is indeed concerned that his story be “substantially true, and within the truth”– or, at least, that readers perceive it that way. He writes that he doesn’t willfully mislead us, the readers, while at the same time writing over 800 pages of events that didn’t really happen. We know they didn’t happen, Dickens knows they didn’t really happen, but for those 800 pages, we like to play along in our imaginations and pretend they did. In the end, however, the novel form itself is one big deception. So what kind of representational truth is Dickens hoping to achieve?

One obvious answer, judging by Dickens’ research of deaths similar to Krook’s, is that he wanted to limit his story to the realm of things that possibly could happen, or things that are like events that really did happen. Of course, we will never meet Esther Summerson walking down the street (even if time travel to Victorian England were possible), but as we read her narrative, we buy into the fiction and believe that she really could exist, and that we could meet her, if only we could step through the looking-glass. This is the beauty and magic of fiction, that for a moment allows us to buy into Esther’s character, to believe what she tells us, and to gain a new way of looking at the world.

This brings us back to Dickens’ closing statement: “the romantic side of familiar things.” One of the tactics that his fiction employs is defamiliarization: the act of presenting situations like our own in a completely different context, to break down our pre-formed conclusions and encourage us to rethink our established ideas. In the pages of Bleak House, we may laugh at Harold Skimpole or the ridiculous Mr. Guppy, but then we return to our world to find people who, in certain moments, remind us of Harold Skimpole or Mr. Guppy (or, worse yet, discover that we ourselves share some of their unfortunate characteristics!). Dickens’ reader may come away with a critical suspicion of the real Court of Chancery, or a wariness of the overwhelming allure of an uncertain fortune. Though the novel events are romantic– exaggerated, even– the events in our world are not, which (perhaps) prevents us from seeing them as clearly as Dickens would like us to. Thus, while the truth Dickens tries to present is not exactly representational, it allows us to better interpret and represent our own world within the space of our minds.

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