Preferred Citation: Jaffe, Audrey. Vanishing Points: Dickens, Narrative, and the Subject of Omniscience. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

Boz and the Business of Narration

1. Boz and the Business of Narration

Dickens’s narrative persona in the Sketches resembles his later conception for the “Shadow” behind Household Words, and the term “shadow” serves as a useful metaphor for both. That figure was intended to link the disparate topics with which the journal dealt, “to bind them all together” yet remain vague enough so that “any of the writers” might “maintain it without difficulty.” Equipped, unlike Boz, with a personal history and family, the Shadow would also “loom as a fanciful thing all over London…a sort of semi-omniscient, omnipresent, intangible creature” (Forster, II: 419). As I have suggested, “semi-omniscience” describes the ambivalent form Dickens’s narrators take. The narrator provides a focus for the readers’ perceptions—we see “with” him—but remains invisible, moving among characters without becoming one himself. But the phrase also points to the tension this activity involves, for the observation of others puts the personified narrator in a dubious position. What is his purpose? What is his relation to those he observes, what the nature of his curiosity about them? What, indeed, is semi-omniscience? The narrator who is also a character cannot be omniscient, since he is a part of the scene he observes. Yet by positioning himself as observer he asserts his distance and difference from those he describes.

If we consider Roland Barthes’s formulation that character may be located at the convergence of semes which fasten onto a name, whereupon “the name becomes a subject,” we might consider the difficulty of accumulating semes to link with the name “Boz,” and, furthermore, the deliberate playfulness and unreality of the name itself, which calls attention to its fictionality.[1] While we can attribute various attitudes to the narrator, we have little in the way of personal reflections to establish a character “Boz” whose particularities and idiosyncrasies are commensurate with those of the characters he describes. Idiosyncrasy, in fact, is precisely what Boz avoids, purchasing his freedom precisely at the expense of character, of identity insofar as the Sketches define it. “Boz” points away from the identity of author and narrator toward that of character; “character” appears as something the narrator locates elsewhere, something he can perceive clearly because he does not inhabit it. Thus even as the narrator’s use of the third-person plural makes a gesture toward inclusion, inviting identification, it also marks the speaker’s perspective as distinct and superior.[2]

The Sketches are subtitled “Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People.” Rendering the “every-day,” however, the narrator inevitably separates himself from it, inhabiting, as he does, the perceptual space from which to see it. The sketch form itself, as Richard Stein points out, suggests both a lack of attention and a superiority to its subject matter. It displays the narrator’s mobility as he passes from subject to subject, creating a sense of fragmentation which conveys not the narrator’s concession to the overwhelming scope of his task, but rather his ability to rise above it.[3] And that sense of mobility is heightened by the constraints that define the lives of many of the Sketches’ characters. Where they are fixed in character and routine, Boz is mobile; where they are limited by social and economic circumstances, the narrator seems to have risen above such circumstances.

The Sketches articulate an incommensurability of subject and object which recurs throughout Dickens’s work. Boz establishes his narrative position by seeing what characters fail to see, which includes not only, in the descriptive sketches, the city of London, but, in the stories, the inevitable failure of many characters’ projects, particularly those involving social ambition. Organization and identity are external matters; characters are caught within structures they cannot perceive from the outside. And character is both a metaphor for such structures and the primary means by which they are articulated. Boz’s knowledge thus reveals itself to be dependent upon the construction of a particularly constrained fictional universe. Just as, in G. K. Chesterton’s image, Dickensian coziness is grounded in the discomfort surrounding it, so too is the narrator’s omniscience founded on the opposition between characterological limitation and narratological knowledge.[4] In order to be omniscient, the narrator must have something to be omniscient about; he must define himself in opposition to those more limited than himself. In effect, he must create limited subjects. The Sketches afford us an early look at the production of the Dickensian subject and of a narrative presence whose business is to evade, and avoid, subjection.

The narratological and epistemological difference between subject and object in the Sketches is also a social one. Indeed, as Boz articulates them, these categories are indistinguishable from one another. As many readers have pointed out, Boz is a flâneur, a connoisseur of street life, and the flâneur is an ambivalent figure, one whose “paradoxical street activity” lies between “the purposive and the non-purposive.”[5] In order to observe, writes Walter Benjamin, the flâneur must be in his primary place, the street, and yet he is inherently out of place there. “Let the many attend to their daily affairs…the man of leisure can indulge in the perambulations only if as such he is already out of place.” Drawn to the crowd only to turn his back on it, he “becomes deeply involved with them, only to relegate them to oblivion with a single glance of contempt.”[6] The difference between “purposive” and “non-purposive” activity is suggestive, for the sketch narrator’s purpose lies in his apparent non-purposiveness. What is an unavoidable fact of daily life for others—participation in public life in the city—is the focus of his interest. Lewis Mumford has argued that the urban aggregation characteristic of nineteenth-century cities was, in part, typified by “the atomic individual,” a figure for whom “to guard his property, to protect his rights, to ensure his freedom of choice and freedom of enterprise, was the whole duty of government.”[7] In what Mumford calls the “new capitalist city,” each individual’s primary concern is the development of his own interest, each “enterprising man” is in fact a kind of despot, presiding over his own little kingdom—an idea that Mumford refers to as “the myth of the untrammeled individual.” But as the Sketches make abundantly clear, none are more trammeled than these “men of habit” who trudge, heads bowed, to and from their city offices each morning, their freedom—if such is their fantasy—in abeyance. It is Boz, rather, who enacts the fantasy of the untrammeled individual for his readers, finding interest in what the man on his way to business cannot take the time to see. He is the man whose business is his pleasure—one who finds his capital in what must be, for others, incidental: in the interstices of their lives.

As he turns the seemingly inconsequential material of daily life into capital, then, the sketch narrator’s business absorbs what business itself has left out of its domain. In fact, by the time of—and in the figure of—the Uncommercial Traveller, Dickens has thoroughly thematized the way in which literary sketching makes what appears to be idleness issue into labor.[8] If nothing escapes Boz’s or the Uncommercial’s eye, it is because everything can be turned to account. In making use of material the man of business ignores, Dickens’s sketch narrators thus prove their business ability. And what remains implicit in the Sketches becomes, in the later work, the narrator’s persona: “Figuratively speaking, I travel for the great firm of Human Interest Brothers, and have rather a large connection in the fancy goods way. Literally speaking, I am always wandering here and there…seeing many little things, which, because they interest me, I think may interest others” (UT, 1–2).

As an “amateur observer,” whose livelihood depends on not seeing in a habitual way, the Uncommercial is an apt figure for the sketch narrator. The idea of “uncommercial travelling” is wonderfully disingenuous, for, while not selling to those he encounters in the course of his travels, the narrator’s intent is rather to sell what he can make of his interest in them—to sell them. Uncommercial traveling provides the justification lacking in the Sketches, but it is a strained one, suggesting by negation what is in fact truly the case: that uncommercial traveling is indeed commercial. “Business” is a pretense that enables observation, a pretense that Dickens himself used. (“In 1867, he told an interviewer that while walking he often resorted to disguise, or would act like a rent collector, or other person on business, to avoid attracting notice.”[9]) Both the “human interest” passage and the Uncommercial’s persona may be said to register an awareness of the inherently ambivalent nature of the project of making money by putting human interest into circulation. At the same time, the project represents an attempt to overcome that ambivalence.

Boz and the Uncommercial comment in various ways on their own apparent idleness, which contrasts so sharply with the street life that provides their subject, and both collections register the omnipresence of business in Mumford’s new capitalist city. Indeed, the tension between the busy and the idle sometimes becomes the narrator’s explicit focus. Both narrators are fascinated by places where business is conducted at times when it usually is not (what the Uncommercial calls “the hushed resorts of business”). In “Making a Night of It,” idleness is reckoned in business terms. “Making a night of it” means “the borrowing of several hours from tomorrow morning and adding them to the night before, and manufacturing a compound night of the whole” (267). And as a last touch, “London Recreations” glances at the waiters who, having supplied “Sunday-pleasurers” with tea, “count their glasses and their gains” (96).

Making their own curiosity an explicit concern, Boz and the Uncommercial comment on the way in which their observation seems unconnected to any business, and therefore, even to them, strange. In the absence of any other motivation, Boz cites “curiosity.” “We felt an irrepressible curiosity to witness this interview, although it is hard to tell why,” he writes of witnessing a young woman’s meeting with her assailant in “The Hospital Patient” (241). “Actuated, we hope, by a higher feeling than mere curiosity,” he attempts to befriend a woman and her dying son in order to hear their story (45). He observes as if compelled—“We could not help stopping and observing them” (197)—even though compulsion is the term he usually reserves for the behavior of others. (The “man of habit” in the sketch “Thoughts About People” “walks up and down…not as if he were doing it for pleasure and recreation, but as if it were a matter of compulsion” [216].) And the Uncommercial, whose very title captures the ambivalence of business that does not appear to be business, similarly foregrounds his “idle employment” (UT, 309). The status of the non-participant observer is repeatedly questioned, the ambiguity of his position brought to the fore. But that ambiguity, while pointing to the true unease of making human interest into business, also serves a purpose. As the narrator displays his desire to sympathize, he registers his epistemological and social difference from his ostensible objects of sympathy.

Both collections of sketches thematize the difference between the narrator’s perceptions and those of others, a difference which depends upon the difference between his business and theirs. In such sketches as “The Streets—Morning” or “The Streets—Night” the sketch narrator is situated where he would not be were he a costermonger, a servant, or a man of business on his way to the office. His typical strategy is to define and describe what he sees to an imagined, “bewildered” observer, who can’t make sense of what he sees, or to a habitual city-dweller, who—according to Boz—doesn’t see at all. The sketch then proceeds to point out the difference between that observer’s perception and the narrator’s. Boz sees what goes unseen by those who “brush quickly by you, steadily plodding on to business” (59), “mere passive creatures of habit and endurance” (215), and what is for the imagined stranger “a maze of streets, courts, lanes, and alleys” (69) is ordered by the narrator’s perception. In “Seven Dials,” “[T]he peculiar character of these streets, and the close resemblance each one bears to his neighbour, by no means tends to decrease the bewilderment in which the unexperienced wayfarer through ‘the Dials’ finds himself involved” (71). At the mercy of his surroundings, the observer “stands Belzoni-like, at the entrance of seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take” (69). Boz asserts coherence in opposition to the idea of incoherence, illegibility, or simply the failure or inability to pay attention, as exemplified by an observer created for the purpose of this opposition: one who avoids seeing, has no time to look, or perceives only a confused and fragmentary reality.

But Boz himself encompasses his subject by breaking it up into fragments—manageable pieces—as well as by using “types” representative of what he calls “classes.” “Our parish” stands for any parish; the “man of habit” is merely “one of this class” (214). Telescoping the city and its inhabitants, the narrator effectively contains the city’s multiplicity by shrinking or reducing it. The contrast between the narrator’s freedom and his subjects’ constraint thus depends in part upon Boz’s characters being themselves marked, shrunken in spirit and size, as many of their names—“Tibbs,” “Tuggs,” “Minns,” “Watkins Tottle”—suggest. Appropriately, the sketch that opens the collection, “Our Parish,” alludes to this encapsulating technique: “How much is contained in those two short words—‘The Parish!’ ” (1). “How much” is contained, or would be contained, by the narrator himself.

Particularity is sacrificed to an idea of order which flattens out differences. Thus in “Seven Dials,” “Every room has its separate tenant, and every tenant is, by the same mysterious dispensation which causes a country curate to ‘increase and multiply’ most marvellously, generally the head of a numerous family” (72). “The man in the shop, perhaps, is in the baked ‘jemmy’ line, or the fire-wood and hearth-stone line.…Then there is an Irish labourer and his family in the back kitchen, and a jobbing man—carpet-beater and so forth—with his family in the front one” (72). These accounts are finally as structured by the habitual as the perceptions of those men of habit Boz rejects. The narrator need not see because he already knows—as, he presumes, do his readers (“and so forth”). Order turns out to mean sameness and repetition; the narrator’s rhetoric betrays his distance from those he would describe. Boz “sees” only what he can easily contain, and his descriptions bear the signs of that containment.

Classifications regularize what might otherwise seem an incomprehensible multiplicity of individuals: the individual is replaced by the group and the group replaces the individual. The principle of the “Character” sketches is accordingly one of likeness. Mr. John Dounce is one of a class of “old boys”; “shabby-genteel people” are represented by one shabby-genteel man (262); Mr. Bung in “The Broker’s Man” is “one of the careless, good-for-nothing, happy fellows, who float, cork-like, on the surface, for the world to play at hockey with” (25). “A numerous race are these red-faced men.…So, just to hold a pattern up to know the others by, we took his likeness at once, and put him in here” (239). “If we had to make a classification of society, there are a particular kind of men who we should immediately set down under the head of ‘Old Boys’ ” (244).

Characters are further identified by their repetitive, compulsive behavior, which Boz sometimes recounts in the present tense (as in the first quotation) to suggest its habitual nature.

The old lady sees scarcely any company, except the little girls before noticed, each of whom has always a regular fixed day for a periodical tea-drinking with her.…Her name always heads the list of any benevolent subscriptions.…Her entrance into church on Sundays is always the signal for a little bustle in the side aisle.…Thus, with the annual variation of a trip to some quiet place on the sea-coast, passes the old lady’s life. (10–11)

They always sat, in the same places, doing precisely the same things at the same hour. The eldest Miss Willis used to knit, the second to draw, the two others to play duet on the piano. They seemed to have no separate existence, but to have made up their minds to winter through life together.

There was something in the man’s manner and appearance which told us, we fancied, his whole life, or rather his whole day, for a man of this sort has no variety of days. (216)

The idea of the habitual makes it possible to represent an entire life in sketch form since one day is the same as every other. Yet it seems to be the case in the Sketches not only that particular characters are creatures of habit, but that character itself depends upon the idea of repetition. Indeed, character in the Sketches is a reductive version of what is generally considered constitutive of character in the traditional novel. “The main principles of cohesion…are repetition, similarity, contrast, and implication…the repetition of the same character trait ‘invites’ labelling it as a character-trait.”[10] And, relying as they do on the idea of sameness and duplication, the stories and descriptive sketches reveal a disturbing subtext in which individual identity dissolves in a mélange of likenesses. Characters are frequently described as copies of one another. Miss Charlotte Tuggs is “fast ripening” into an image of her mother (335); Miss Malderton “looked like her daughter multiplied by two” (357); the Misses Crumpton dress “like twins” (323); and the four Miss Willises throw the neighborhood into consternation by announcing that “We are going to marry Mr. Robinson” (15). Two or more turnkeys “look like multiplications of the first one” (197). Rather than simply being referred to others for the purpose of elaborating a description, these characters are already likenesses, copies of one another.

The idea of likeness filters into Boz’s language in terms which suggest both the encapsulation the sketch form tries to achieve and the individuality it necessarily leaves out in doing so. The brevity of the Sketches seems to acknowledge the hurriedness of city life, which requires a contracted account and the use of a language of repetition. “Mr. Thomas Potter…was a clerk in the city, and Mr. Robert Smithers was a ditto in the same” (266). “The Miss Maldertons were dressed in skyblue satin trimmed with artificial flowers; and Mrs. M.…in ditto ditto” (357). Again, Boz relies on the reader—the habitual reader—to fill in the blanks, encapsulating what has already been said or what the reader may be expected to know.

The Sketches’ emphasis on similarity and repetition is balanced by their interest in the peculiar. Even the most ordinary characters seem pathological in their ordinariness, as if ordinariness were a disease the narrator is fortunate to have escaped. When Boz announces that, given only six “parochial sketches,” he will select for character description “the most peculiar” (13), he points toward a principle of selection that has, oddly, received less attention than the idea that the Sketches are “realistic.”[11] Yet the peculiar and the ordinary, or typical, are not so far apart. The type is, after all, a kind of caricature, a fiction supposed to represent the lowest common denominator. And, as in the following description of London apprentices, the typical and the peculiar can merge: “Each of the gentlemen carried a thick stick, with a large tassel at the top, which he occasionally twirled gracefully round; and the whole four, by way of looking easy and unconcerned, were walking with a paralytic swagger irresistibly ludicrous” (219). The four become one in description: distinguished by the details of their clothing and their “ludicrous” manner, they are a single body, a group become an individual.

Georg Simmel writes that the city gives rise to an emphasis on difference and a tendency toward eccentricity as a necessary means of expressing individuality.

There is the difficulty of giving one’s own personality a certain status within the framework of metropolitan life.…This leads ultimately to the strangest eccentricities, to specifically metropolitan extravagances of self-distanciation, of caprice, of fastidiousness, the meaning of which is no longer to be found in the content of such activity itself but rather in its being a form of “being different”—of making oneself noticeable.[12]

Yet such efforts can result in a uniformity of eccentricity. A form of “being different” is, after all, a form, and even while attempting to differentiate themselves from one another, individuals may resemble one another in their common attempts at difference. In the Sketches, distinct as individual characters may be, they are alike in the form their difference from the narrator takes.

But the tension between the typical and the peculiar, or the general and the idiosyncratic—the two poles by which character in the Sketches is articulated—might also be understood by asking what Dickens’s narrator and readers could have at stake in such representations. While Boz’s vagueness as a character seems to open up a space for readerly identification, his goal—the illustration of “every-day” life—implicitly makes his readers the objects of his observation. The idiosyncratic comes to stand for and signify character, that which narrator and readers may define themselves against. But, as we have seen, the narrator also defines himself in opposition to the ordinary, the common, the habitual. While the typical may allow readers to see themselves reflected in what they read (Boz’s allusions to what readers presumably already know certainly do so), both the typical and the idiosyncratic also leave room for readers to inhabit a space outside character, since what is represented is always defined by its difference from the perceiver. The term “peculiar” means characteristic as well as strange, and Boz’s mode of representation allows readers to define the peculiar and the ordinary as familiar and yet as other.

Boz’s voyeurism is frequently directed toward those lower on the social scale than himself. In an early preface to the Sketches, Dickens compares the book to an ascending balloon which bears aloft “not only himself, but all his hopes of future fame, and all his chances of future success.”[13] This image of soaring ambition contrasts strikingly with the frequent depiction, within the Sketches, of downward movement. Boz is pervasively concerned with the representation of poverty and distress and, in particular, with the process of decline—in London, London’s shops, and London’s inhabitants. He often speaks from the perspective of an unspecified earlier time, a bygone era of gentility, in comparison with which the present represents a falling away, thereby distinguishing his perspective temporally from that of his characters, who live in, and thus cannot really see, the world they inhabit. In “Scotland Yard,” change equals loss: “how have its old customs changed; and how has the ancient simplicity of its inhabitants faded away!” (67). “The First of May” tells, from the perspective of “our young days,” about the “decay” of May-Day; a hackney-coach is “a remnant of past gentility” (85). And “The Parish” traces the decline of the Pauper Schoolmaster, whom “it would be difficult” for his former acquaintances to recognize (6).

Boz’s interest in the shabby-genteel, or in brokers’ shops, resembles fascination rather than sympathy. He is amused and excited, as if decay and decline were mere abstractions, far from possessing any human significance. In “Shops and Their Tenants,” he is intrigued by signs of deterioration in one shop after another. “We were somewhat curious to ascertain what would be the next stage—for that the place had no chance of surviving, was perfectly clear.…We were in a fever of expectation: we exhausted conjecture” (62). The world Boz represents is governed by a relentless pull downward, even though the details of individual stories easily go without saying: “A prison, and the sentence—banishment or the gallows.…We had no clue to the end of the tale; but it was easy to guess its termination” (78). His interest in decline is an extension of his general interest in the downtrodden, the representation of which seems intended to arouse sympathy in his readers. But the idea of sympathy conflicts with the narrator’s evident difference and distance from those he observes. The desire to look is at odds with anxiety about what is being looked at.[14]

One of the Sketches’ critics has argued that the collection includes essentially two kinds of narratives: descriptive sketches, the purpose of which is to elicit the readers’ sympathy, and satiric stories, usually concerned with a failed attempt at social advancement. Virgil Grillo makes the case that these two kinds of sketches should be ascribed to two distinctly different narrators: a sympathetic sketch narrator, and an ironic story narrator.[15] But while such a division proves useful for discussing the attributes of each, it obscures the sense in which sympathy and irony are the two contradictory poles of omniscience, representing the desire to participate—to see from the inside—as well as to remain unconstrained by circumstances and hence outside character. It also obscures the fact that Dickens used only a single narrator, attempting to join these contradictory impulses in and by means of a single consciousness. But the impulses behind sympathy and irony are finally not so different from one another. By positing a specific individual or group as a subject for investigation, both promote a sense of estrangement from the other being investigated. Though sympathy supposedly transcends difference, it in fact depends on establishing the difference it proposes to transcend. And comedy, as René Girard writes, depends on an underlying anxiety about similarity.

The man who laughs is just about to be enveloped into the pattern of which his victim is already a part; as he laughs he both welcomes and rejects the perception of the structure into which the object of his laughter is already caught; he welcomes it insofar as it is someone else who is caught in it and he tries to keep it away from himself.…As an assertion of superiority, in the more intellectual forms of the comic, laughter really means a denial of reciprocity.[16]

In fact, the ironic stories and the sympathetic sketches are more closely related than Grillo thinks. On the one hand, the sketches promote the idea of sympathy for the poor and downtrodden; on the other, the stories, by satirizing attempts at social mobility, implicitly argue for the fixedness and distinctness of social classes. The impulse behind the sympathetic sketches seems to be a fear of falling which has as its counterpart the stories’ anxiety about social mobility. Both the sympathetic sketches and the satiric stories provide ways to entertain and contain potentially threatening material, and the tension between sympathy and irony leaves an undefined middle space—what we might call an undefined middle-class space—which the narrator implicitly inhabits. As the stories tacitly warn against attempting to rise in society and the sketches depict the dangers of the social fall, the mobile narrator insists upon his subjects’ immobility.

Boz’s own mobility depends on rigidly fixed boundaries which allow for no uncertainty or transgression on the part of those who inhabit them. The tales are largely warnings against transgression, accounts of characters whose attempts to break out of rigidly patterned, habitual lives inevitably fail, returning them to situations the same or worse than before. The stories regularly tell of an individual, such as John Dounce, whose life takes a form something like the following:

Regular as clockwork—breakfast at nine—dress and tittivate a little—down to the Sir Somebody’s Head—a glass of ale and the paper—come back again, and take daughters out for a walk—dinner at three—glass of grog and a pipe—nap—tea—little walk—Sir Somebody’s Head again—capital house—delightful evenings. (245)

The insignificance of Dounce’s activities is relayed by the encapsulated, telegraphic description; the terms “capital” and “delightful” have an edge to them, suggesting the littleness of Dounce’s aspirations. The story tells of only a small desire—Dounce falls in love with the oyster woman—but even that ambition, which disrupts Dounce’s normal routine, proves too great for Boz. The lady refuses him, Dounce “rendered himself ridiculous to everybody,” and the story ends up being “a warning to all uxorious old boys” (249). This type of warning against ambition is characteristic of the Sketches. Horatio Sparkins pretends to be “above” his business (365); the mistake of “The Mistaken Milliner” is that she forgets to live “on her business and not above it” (250). Mr. Augustus Cooper, similarly, ends by “losing his ambition for society” (261) after that ambition leads to embarrassment and failure. Tuggs, in “The Tuggses at Ramsgate,” is a grocer, Sparkins an assistant at a cheap shop: their stories also tell of the failure of their social ambitions.

Thus, even though the stories are generally considered attacks on hypocrisy and pretension, one can easily perceive in them a concern with and anxiety about social mobility. Characters inevitably give their “true” class away. “The Mistaken Milliner” is mistaken to think she can “come out” in society, and her inability to sing sends her back in again. Horatio Sparkins, through a series of mishaps, reveals himself to be not a young gentleman “about to be called,” but “the junior partner in a slippery firm of some three weeks’ existence” (369). These stories are all lessons in not living “above one’s business.” In them, social position is inscribed in, and fixed as, character. Boz’s characters simply cannot escape the social positions in which he finds them. But the transgression Boz refuses his characters he nevertheless enacts in his sketching. Depicting the “every-day” for those middle-class readers who might not see it with their own eyes, Boz provides a justification for his own transgression of social boundaries. And his interest in social ambition reveals his anxiety about it, telling us that those “others” he sketches represent a possible future for himself.

The “sympathetic” sketches deal not so much with attempts to rise socially as with what Boz presents as an inevitable process of decline. And what attracts him is not so much the opportunity to sympathize as the public nature of decline itself. Boz is fascinated less by the shabby-genteel man as sympathetic object, for instance, than by shabby-gentility as a public exhibition of decline. These sketches emphasize their subjects’ awareness of, and shame about, falling from middle- class respectability, and the narrator’s invisibility reinforces his imputations that decline—whether it takes place in the street or behind the closed door of the pawnbroker’s shop—is always a public process.

Shabby-gentility is by definition public, since it refers to the way clothing reflects economic and social conditions. It identifies clothing, condition, and person: “[H]e grew more and more shabby-genteel every day.…At length, one of the buttons on the back of his coat fell off, and then the man himself disappeared, and we thought he was dead” (264). The shabby-genteel man “is” his clothing. “The truth flashed suddenly upon us: they [his clothes] had been ‘revived.’ It is a deceitful liquid that black and blue reviver; we have watched its effects on many a shabby-genteel man” (264). And Boz’s attribution of shame to the shabby-genteel man—his publicizing not just the man’s condition, but his shame about it—makes that awareness a central part of this sketch’s appeal to their readers. What makes the shabby-genteel man pitiable is that he “feels his poverty and vainly strives to conceal it” (265). Significantly, he is afflicted not just by poverty, but by “conscious poverty” (263). His attempts at concealment, of course, only increase Boz’s interest in him. Following his subjects into places in which they wish to remain unobserved, such as the pawnbroker’s shop, the narrator presents decline as both shameful and impossible to hide. Further, the technique emphasizes the internalization of social shame. Even while the narrator must be present in order to describe, what he essentially describes is his own superfluity. Observed or not, the shabby-genteel man will feel and display his shame.

“The Pawnbroker’s Shop” depicts four women in varying stages of decline: a woman and her daughter, relative newcomers to the shop; a gaudily dressed woman; and a fourth described as “the lowest of the low; dirty, unbonneted, flaunting, and slovenly.” These figures exist only as illustrations of decline. Thus the gaudily dressed woman’s daub of rouge “only serves as an index to the ravages of squandered health never to be regained, and lost happiness never to be restored” (194). She observes the mother and daughter:

There is something in the glimpse she has just caught of her young neighbour, and in the sight of the little trinkets she has offered in pawn, that seems to have awakened in this woman’s mind some slumbering recollection.…Her first hasty impulse was to bend forward as if to scan more minutely the appearance of her half-concealed companions; her next, on seeing them involuntarily shrink from her, to retreat to the back of the box, cover her face with her hands, and burst into tears. (194)

The slovenly woman also watches the pair. “Her curiosity was first attracted by the little she could see of the group; then her attention. The half-intoxicated leer changed to an expression of something like interest, and a feeling similar to that we have described, appeared for a moment, and only a moment, to extend itself even to her bosom” (194–95).

The “feeling similar to that we have described” is presumably sympathy (the running title in the Oxford edition, added by the editors, is “Feelings of Sympathy”), though no feeling has actually been described. And yet while seeming to invite sympathy, the sketch in fact displaces it, making sympathy its object and representing it in a series of actions: bending forward, becoming self-conscious and retreating, bursting into tears. Feeling is what the narrator regards rather than what he expresses or, rather, what he might seem to express—to sympathize with—simply because he represents it. The actions represented further suggest that sympathy is the same as, and emerges from, a recognition of self in another. What the two observing women seem to see in the daughter—particularly in her trinkets—is a representation of their past selves. For the daughter, similarly, the two women represent a possible future. And this is precisely Boz’s point: “Who shall say,” he writes, “how soon these women may change places? The last has but two more stages—the hospital and the grave. How many females situated as her two companions are, and as she may have been once, have terminated in the same wretched course” (195). The purpose of the sketch, writes Boz at its beginning, is the drawing of distinctions—“distinctions must be observed even in poverty”—but the function of these distinctions is the imagined collapse of these disparate figures, and innumerable others like them, into one (188).

The mother and daughter are oblivious both to their observation by the other women and to the shame which, the narrator tells us, invariably accompanies respectable individuals’ visits to the pawnbroker’s shop. The hardness of their lives, we are told, has “obliterated” in them the consciousness of “self-humiliation.” As a result of watching the mother and daughter, however, the other women do display such humiliation. In fact, what the discovery of the past self signifies here—what sympathy turns out to be—is the recognition of the self as a figure of decline. What each woman sees in the other is her own shame, which manifests itself visibly and must be hidden, even though there is no one present to see it. It is, precisely, self-humiliation. The shop itself, with its booths hiding the more respectable clients from one another but remaining open to the reader’s view, resembles, as Cruikshank’s illustration suggests, Bentham’s Panopticon. Shame, substituting for the booths, keeps these women isolated from one another even as they reveal their feelings to the reader.

These women make sympathy visible; they register it in their bodies. The narrator, having no body with which to display such feeling, watches them watch. By doing so, and by describing their responses, he provides an image of what he cannot show in himself: what it would be like truly to sympathize with, because one truly resembled, the objects of one’s contemplation. Using these women as mediators for his observational activity—indeed, bestowing on them the terms (“attention,” “curiosity,” “interest”) he uses elsewhere to describe his own activity—the narrator suggests the untowardness of his very presence in the pawnbroker’s shop, his violation of the privacy those who go there seek. His invisibility signifies his safety, but also his anxiety. Like Perseus viewing the Medusa’s reflection in his shield, the narrator deflects any potential reciprocity between himself and his objects, keeping himself outside any exchange of identities. While presumably inviting sympathy, then, the sketch also indicates the hazards of sympathy, defined here as what one feels if one is already like, or in danger of becoming like, what one observes.


But the reader is invited to sympathize—not exactly with these women, but with their sympathy. Sympathy is what is not fallen about them: it is the lingering sign of humanity that appears “for a moment, and only for a moment” to extend itself “even” to the bosom of the woman called “the lowest of the low.” “There are strange chords in the human heart,” the sketch reads, “which will lie dormant through years of depravity and wickedness, but which will vibrate at last to some slight circumstance…connected by some undefined and indistinct association with past days that can never be recalled, and with bitter recollections from which even the most degraded creature in existence can never escape” (194). Situating and defining these women, the sketch also situates and defines its readers, for these women are both subjects and objects for readers. On the one hand, as subjects they provide a model: sympathy is presented as a sign of humanity, and readers are encouraged to find that humanity within themselves. On the other hand, sympathy is provoked by similarity, by the recognition of the self in the other: the women’s sympathy is the same as their shame. The figure deserving of sympathy is thus she who recognizes herself as having fallen away from middle-class respectability. That consciousness registers, for the reader, the inscription of social position within the self as a constituent of character, affirming at the same time the middle-class reader’s values, values from which these women have fallen and for which they evidently long. Inscribing social position, and self-consciousness about social position, as integral, internal aspects of self, the sketch displays for the reader a shame which seems natural: something readers might imagine recognizing in themselves and potentially revealing, even if no one is present to watch.

The progression from “curiosity” to “interest” to “sympathy” characterizes Boz’s narrative strategy throughout the Sketches, differentiating him from the man of habit, whose face looks “as if it were incapable of bearing the expression of curiosity or interest” (215). Attention—“notice”—should lead to sympathy: “It is strange with how little notice, good, bad, or indifferent, a man may live and die in London. He awakens no sympathy in the breast of any single person; his existence is a matter of interest to no one save himself” (215). And much of what Boz notices is the presence or absence of sympathy in others:

Curiosity has occasionally led us into both Courts at the Old Bailey. Nothing is so likely to strike the person who enters them for the first time, as the calm indifference with which the proceedings are conducted; every trial seems a mere matter of business. There is a great deal of form, but no compassion; considerable interest, but no sympathy. (198)

What catches the narrator’s attention gradually leads him into speculation; the logical end of the process, it seems, should be sympathetic identification. But as “The Pawnbroker’s Shop” demonstrates, the Sketches typically stop short of that final step, allowing the narrator room to differentiate himself from the objects of his description. Accordingly, what seems offered as sympathy often amounts to pointing out the absence of sympathy in others or representing sympathy in others. Individual sympathy is encouraged but also evaded. This problematization of sympathy may be said to reflect the transformation of sympathy into business so characteristic of charitable movements, reform societies, and governmental institutions in the nineteenth century. Where the eighteenth century imagines and repeatedly represents charity as the product of a face-to-face encounter between an observer and a figure in distress, the nineteenth century marks a transition to charity as an impersonal, administrative process, one which groups individual sufferers into classes and treats multiple bodies as one. Indeed, Boz and the Uncommercial often seek out their objects of sympathy in institutions—hospitals, prisons, courtrooms. Where the benevolent gentleman of an earlier age offered sympathy and coin, the sketch narrator simply reports. Seeking out in order to sympathize, he provides a model for a sympathy that intervenes, if at all, only from a distance.

In fact, Boz’s ambivalence about his observational activity may express a tension between two cultural models of the middle-class subject’s relationship to the poor. In Dickens’s Sketches, that is, we might say that eighteenth-century benevolence encounters both nineteenth-century anxiety about social mobility and a nineteenth-century perception of the poor as requiring governmental scrutiny and regulation.[17] For it should be clear by now that those “others” Boz seeks out and describes—who wish to remain unseen or lie invisible behind the walls of prisons or hospitals—are not merely, or even primarily, objects of sympathy. Rather, they are figures of “interest” and “curiosity”: “What London pedestrian is there who has not, at some time or other, cast a hurried glance through the wicket at which prisoners are admitted into this gloomy mansion, and surveyed the few objects he could discern, with an indescribable feeling of curiosity?” (196). At stake in that “hurried glance” is a displacement of sympathy by curiosity and interest—a displacement traceable, at least in part, to the institutionalization and bureaucratization of the poor discussed above. But the wall between observer and observed signifies not just the institution, but also the barrier erected and transgressed by the nineteenth-century middle-class observer, whose gaze inevitably wanders in the direction of what it defines as other to itself. The “indescribable” feeling one might have, walking past Newgate, thus remains undescribed; “curiosity” fills the place of that unspecified feeling. And yet curiosity situates its owner as much as it does those toward whom his gaze is directed.


1. Barthes, S/Z, pp. 190–91.

2. Angus Easson touches on these points in “Who is Boz? Dickens and his Sketches,” Dickensian 81 (1985): 13–21, though he claims that Boz’s use of the third person plural reinforces his “kinship” with his subject.

3. Richard Stein writes that the word “sketch…connotes effortlessness, and thus the work of a genteel amateur…the observer can remain interested but detached because of a portraiture that does not pass beyond certain limits of scope and specificity.” See Victoria’s Year: English Literature and Culture, 1837–1838 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 27.

4. G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens (New York: Schocken, 1965), p. 164.

5. Michael Hollington, “Dickens the Flâneur,” Dickensian 77 (1981): 78.

6. Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 172.

7. Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), p. 145.

8. While critics tend to emphasize the difference between Boz and the Uncommercial, I see the latter figure as a more explicit version of the former one, displaying the same tendency to turn human interest into business. For another perspective, see Rosalind Vallance, “From Boz to the Uncommercial,” Dickensian 63 (1966): 27–33.

9. F. S. Schwarzbach, Dickens and the City (London: Athlone Press, 1979), p. 236.

10. Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction, p. 39.

11. For example, Gissing writes: “Veracity I take to be the high merit of these sketches” (Charles Dickens: A Critical Study [New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1924], p. 43). On the other hand, for Michael Hollington, “there is no question, in these early works, of ‘realistic’ character portrayal”: Dickens and the Grotesque (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1984), p. 40. See this work for a discussion of Dickens’s “peculiar” characters.

12. Georg Simmel, On Individuality and Social Forms, ed. Donald N. Levine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 336.

13. Quoted by Ellen Moers in The Dandy (London: Secker and Warburg, 1960), p. 219.

14. According to J. Hillis Miller, the deterministic vision of the Sketches is directly related to their metonymic method. See “The Fiction of Realism: Sketches by Boz, Oliver Twist, and Cruikshank’s Illustrations,” in Ada Nisbet and Blake Nevius, eds., Dickens Centennial Essays (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), pp. 101–2.

15. Virgil Grillo, Charles Dickens’sSketches by Boz: End in the Beginning” (Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1974).

16. René Girard, “Perilous Balance: A Comic Hypothesis,” in “To Double Business Bound”: Essays on Literature, Mimesis, Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), pp. 127–28.

17. Interestingly, in the Sketches the wandering that in earlier literature characterized both observer and suffering object—Wordsworth’s narrators and vagrants, for instance—generally belongs to the observer alone, signifying his freedom.

Boz and the Business of Narration

Preferred Citation: Jaffe, Audrey. Vanishing Points: Dickens, Narrative, and the Subject of Omniscience. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.