The most dreadful visitation: an examination of Dickens' treatment of madness in his novels
, PhD thesis, University of Salford.
Dickens's portrayal of madness in his novels was to some extent influenced by
earlier literary conventions. The third chapter broadly considers his writing within the
context of a range of literary traditions, indicating ways in which the subject of insanity
was handled in a variety of genres with which he was familiar. The chapter highlights
themes of madness as a punishment for human misdeeds: the use of insane characters as
victims of circumstance, and the restorative effects of insanity. This study will,
however reveal, that although Dickens's writing draws upon a wide range of literary
traditions, his novels bear his own individual stamp.
Chapter Four considers ways in which Dickens was influenced by his own firsthand knowledge of madness, as experienced by people known to him, or visited by him. It
highlights his attitudes towards those who were mentally afflicted, and illuminates the
nature of his strongly-held views on this subject, as author and as editor.
In the ensuing chapters, several key novels have been selected for a detailed
consideration of ways in which Dickens's handling of madness shifted in focus as he
matured as a writer. Chapter Five compares and contrasts his early treatment of this
theme in Sketches by Boz, Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, novels
in which he explored the potential of madness as an expression of moral failure. The
sixth chapter, whilst drawing upon some themes from The Old Curiosity Shop, highlights
his experimentation with an insane central character in Barnaby Rudge. It also notes the
significant contribution of the minor character, Mr Dick, within the framework of David
Copperfield, contrasting the role of this benign madman with that of the deranged, malign
figure of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, characters exemplifying his portrayal of
insanity in victims of circumstance, whilst also illustrating their potential effect upon
other characters. The treatment of insanity in Bleak House and Little Dorrit is examined
in the seventh chapter, which highlights Dickens's experimentation with insanity as an
expression of human frailty and concludes with a study of A Tale of Two Cities, a novel
marking the height of Dickens's achievement in his arresting portrayal of madness in
both theme and character.
The final chapter evaluates the significant role of madness in Dickens's novels, and
draws conclusions about the reasons why he chose to describe insanity in so many forms.
Whilst illuminating ways in which his portrayal of this subject shifted in focus as he
mastered new technical skills, it highlights the changing uses Dickens made of insanity.
Far from being a "dreadful visitation" in its literary representation, Dickens discovered
that madness, a subject which fascinated him, provided him with a wealth of
possibilities in exposing hidden depths of meaning in his novels, highlighting too the
ways in which his own creative vision changed in its emphasis as he matured as a writer
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