"Wondrous secrets of Nature" and uncanny ones: "Macbeth" as a context for sexual identity in the novels of Charles Dickens

Nancy Agnes Dillon, Fordham University


This study examines nine of Dickens's novels--Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood--to consider his use of grotesque imagery to create characters that are more relational than individual. The characters are related not only to each other but also to their world. Dickens adapts his grotesque images in part from the world of pantomime, a form of theater with close connections to the Renaissance carnival experience Mikhail Bakhtin discusses in Rabelais and His World. Using tropes like personification and metaphor to render animate objects inanimate, and inanimate objects animate, Dickens translates transformations common in pantomime into fictional prose. In both pantomime and carnival, boundaries between people and the rest of the world do not exist. Freud discusses the effects of blurring the boundaries between animate and inanimate objects in his essay "The Uncanny." He dismisses the findings of his predecessor Jentsch that uncanny feelings are caused by intellectual uncertainty as to whether objects are animate or inanimate, claiming instead that these feelings of terror are caused mainly by the fear of castration and the related fear of blindness. Freud discusses other experiences that produce uncanny feelings. These include the double, the image of Medusa, death, and pregnancy. Dickens uses images of the uncanny extensively in his novels. One way he does so is through allusions to Macbeth, a play that Marjorie Garber calls the most uncanny work in the canon because Freud discusses each of the major themes of Macbeth in his essay. The allusions Dickens makes to Macbeth can be read in terms of the sexual identity of the characters to whom they refer. For example, in Chapter One, I discuss Ralph Nickleby's allusion to one of many scenes in which Macbeth defends his manhood. Dickens uses Macbeth, a play largely about transgressing boundaries, to explore rigid dualist categories like animate/inanimate, male/female, real/imagined, life/death, sleep/waking, sanity/insanity, and self/other. Dickens dramatizes something like the terror of the uncanny by blurring the distinctions between what seem to be definitive categories. By alluding to Macbeth, to other plays, and to other forms of theater like pantomime, Dickens also emphasizes the interrelatedness and materiality of actors who play characters on the stage. Interrelatedness and materiality are important components in Mikhail Bakhtin's discussion of grotesque imagery. For Bakhtin, "the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is ... unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits" (26). Dickens's novels contain elements related to the uncanny and the world of carnival that subvert belief in the possibility of such a definable entity as the self.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Dillon, Nancy Agnes, ""Wondrous secrets of Nature" and uncanny ones: "Macbeth" as a context for sexual identity in the novels of Charles Dickens" (1996). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9628331.