Dickensian Existentialism

Dickensian Existentialism January 27, 2016

In one of the great essays on Great Expectations, J. Hillis Miller claims that Pip exemplifies a consistent view expressed in Dickens’s hero, which is equally a philosophical view of identity that tends toward existentialism and a closely related view of modern social order:

“Dickens’s heroes and heroines have never experienced perfect security. Each becomes aware of himself as isolated from all that is outside of himself. The Dickensian hero is separated from nature. The world appears to him as cold and unfriendly, as a ‘wilderness’ or a graveyard. In Dickens there is no Wordsworthian theory of a child’s filial bond with nature. There is no moment of primitive or infantile identification of subject and object, self and world, followed by a ‘fall’ into the cruel realm of time and division. The self is not initially the plenitude of a union with the entire universe, but is already narrowed down to the ‘small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry.’ The Dickensian hero is also alienated from the human community. He has no familial tie. He is an orphan, or illegitimate, or both. He has no status in the community, no inherited role which he can accept with dignity. He is characterized by desire, rather than by possession. His spiritual state is one of an expectation founded on a present consciousness of lack, of deprivation. He is, in Wallace Stevens’s phrase, ‘an emptiness that would be filled.’”

Thus, “Since the Dickensian hero has initially no real role, any status he attains in the world will be the result of his own efforts. He will be responsible, himself, for any identity he achieves, and thus ‘guilty’ in the sense of being the source of his own values. He has no hope of ever being justified by any external approval. He will be, whatever he does, a ‘self-made man,’ a man who has made himself his own goal and end. This will be true in spite of any efforts on his part to escape his superfluity. The world has simply refused to give him any assigned place, and any place he gets will have to be seized.”

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