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

Our Mutual Friend

5. Our Mutual Friend

On Taking the Reader by Surprise

Our Mutual Friend is generally regarded as the most modern of Dickens’s works because of the absence of a prominent omniscient voice and a clear omniscient perspective—the kind of voice and perspective we are told we find in earlier novels such as Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Presumably, in Our Mutual Friend, one never knows exactly where the novelist stands because he always stands partly inside his characters. As J. Hillis Miller has put it, “he can only see the world [of the novel] as it appears from the perspective of some particular personage or group of personages who are not, as he is, mere spectators, but are actively engaged in the world.”[1] Without such an external view, connections remain unstated and problems unresolved, resulting in the fragmentation and confusion which have earned for the novel the name “modern.”

Yet as we have seen, if the Dickens narrator lets his omniscience go without saying, he by no means lets it go without being felt. Here, as everywhere in Dickens, omniscience is an active force which makes characters and readers aware of its presence. It is precisely the sense of being “inside” character— encouraging in readers an illusion of being “inside”—that allows the narrator of Our Mutual Friend to demonstrate his omniscience.

The problematic of omniscience as surprise in Our Mutual Friend is foregrounded in Bleak House. One of the peculiarities of Esther Summerson’s narratorial role, as we saw in the previous chapter, is that her narrative always knows more than she does. Readers are provided with clues enabling them to understand more than they could from the information she provides, or professes to be aware of. What Esther says, that is, often matters less than the fact that she talks a great deal, or blushes, or claims to have nothing to say. When Jarndyce suggests retaining Mrs. Woodcourt at Bleak House, for example, Esther feels uneasy, but refuses to investigate the source of her feeling: “I had nothing to say,” she says. “At least I had nothing in my mind that I could say. I had an undefined impression that it might have been better if we had had some other inmate, but I could hardly have explained why, even to myself” (871). The reader, of course, could easily offer an explanation. Although we might expect a first-person narrative to create in the reader a sense of affinity or identity with its speaker, Esther’s narrative encourages a sense of omniscience with respect to her. Readers pursue a system of signs that define Esther as a character who does not know herself, even at the very end of her narrative, when all she knows has presumably been revealed.

What seems to be a deliberate pitting of one level of knowledge against another occurs elsewhere in the novel, as various characters demonstrate to one another their possession of knowledge. In one scene, for example, Tulkinghorn, who knows Lady Dedlock’s history, tells what he knows to an audience consisting of Lady Dedlock, Sir Leicester, and Cousin Volumnia. The subject of the story, however, remains anonymous.

[T]his lady preserved a secret under all her greatness, which she had preserved for many years.…a train of circumstances with which I need not trouble you, led to discovery. As I received the story, they began in an imprudence on her part one day, when she was taken by surprise; which shows how difficult it is for the firmest of us (she was very firm) to be always guarded. (629)

Tulkinghorn’s purpose in relating his narrative in this way is to let Lady Dedlock know that he knows her story. Like many other moments in Bleak House, it reveals more than it explicitly tells, relying on readers’ and listeners’ knowledge to supplement its meaning. The scene provides two distinct possibilities for readerly identification. While sharing in Tulkinghorn’s knowledge, we also participate in Lady Dedlock’s sudden apprehension of being discovered. This combination of knowledge and lack of knowledge manifests itself over and over again in Bleak House, most obviously, as I have shown, in the novel’s narrative structure, which similarly divides readerly identification.

Lady Dedlock’s “start” visibly manifests both knowledge and a failure of knowledge: by revealing that she knows something, she endangers what she knows. The rupture in her typically bored demeanor makes her vulnerable to the lawyer’s gaze; the visible sign—her movement or expression of surprise—reveals depth where there had previously been only surface. The novel stresses the implacability of those characters exceptional for the knowledge they possess. There is never “a ruffle on the surface” of Tulkinghorn’s “unfathomable depths” (363); Bucket can “dip down to the bottom of his mind” (362) while his expression remains unchanged. Bucket’s implacability is in fact defined as his ability not to be surprised: “There’s not a move on the board that would surprise me” (782), he claims. In the rhetoric of Dickensian character, then, surprise—the capacity to be surprised—is a measure of permeability and vulnerability.

The “earlier imprudence” to which Tulkinghorn refers is another moment at which Lady Dedlock was taken by surprise: that moment at which she catches a glimpse of a law clerk’s familiar handwriting, thus alerting the lawyer (sensitive to every movement) to the existence of a mystery—signalling the existence of something he doesn’t know. As Tulkinghorn’s narrative points out, this is in a sense the novel’s originating moment, the moment which prompts the uncovering of Lady Dedlock’s history. Surprise operates as both beginning and ending, provoking the opening up of a dormant past, the reinterpretation of an already established narrative in the context of a new ending. To begin a novel with a moment of surprise is to begin what must be a retrospective account, a retracing of the past in terms of that moment. To end a novel with one, especially as complete a surprise as Dickens engineers for Our Mutual Friend, is also to require a turning back, or peripety, engendering in the reader a double sense of the text and of him or herself.

The moment of surprise doubles and reverses the self, producing a self that knows and a self that only thought it knew. There are several possible accounts of this effect. On the one hand, we have the idea that surprise provides a moment of recognition and hence a pleasant experience: “True enough! And I never thought of it,” goes one translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. “When we see the veiled meaning, we are conscious of our success in learning.”[2] Robert Caserio, however, cites Aristotle as implying, by peripety, “the terrible, untrustworthy mutability of experience,” but proceeds to argue that sense of instability away, declaring that surprise finally reassures us: “[R]ecognition scenes in Dickens make the reader grasp the unity and relatedness of all human experience.”[3]

The preceding quotations suggest that surprise always provides a satisfying recognition, a reawakening of knowledge already possessed. And Tulkinghorn’s narrative does call Lady Dedlock’s attention to her own history. But these discussions fail to consider the sense of exposure and vulnerability that accompanies Lady Dedlock’s discovery that she has been discovered. Surprise here involves not only a recognition of previous knowledge but the opening up of a danger zone: an awareness that her personal history has become the property of others.

Caserio connects the characters’ experience of surprise to that of the readers: Dickens’s “plots create recognition scenes for the reader that are only secondarily the discovery of the literal relations among persons in the story” (72). To the extent that a reader expects, somewhere during the course of a novel, the solution to a mystery, Caserio seems correct. Surprise at the solution may be experienced as recognition, and may be pleasant or satisfying. But if the reader, like Lady Dedlock, is not expecting to be surprised—is not even aware, like the reader of Our Mutual Friend, that there is a mystery to be solved—then surprise operates in a much less reassuring manner: as the novel’s exposure of vulnerability and lack of knowledge in its readers. Peripety is first destabilizing, and only later reassuring, once the reader—the object of surprise—has had the opportunity to reconstruct the narrative, recasting the moment of surprise as its proper ending.

In my reading of The Old Curiosity Shop, I pointed to a series of scenes in which characters suddenly become aware of an observer’s presence. Each moment of surprise marks a displacement of narratorial power, a shift in narratorial position. Each moment, I noted, has a distancing effect on the reader, who is moved from presumably unselfconscious involvement in a scene to a position framing that scene. That movement in turn reveals the possibility of reversibility on which, I have argued, narrator-character relationships in Dickens are based. As a result of this shift, the reader, previously involved only with the focal character, experiences an immediate awareness of his or her observational limitations. While identification, then—the movement of sympathy—can give the reader narratorial insight, it can also make him or her vulnerable to the same failures of vision that accompany the character’s position. Inherent in these moments of surprise, then, is a principle of reversibility: the reversibility of “I” and “you.” And this alteration in the reader’s position betrays the narrator’s awareness of his own potential vulnerability.

Often, as in Bleak House, such surprises do not bear directly on a novel’s plot. A narrator or character simply seems to take pleasure in the ability to control a flow of information, measuring that ability by the force of the shock produced. Narrative in Bleak House is frequently used by one character to surprise and upset another. Bucket tells the story of his “beautiful case” to Sir Leicester, saying “a gentleman can bear a shock, when it must come, boldly and steadily” (781); at the end of the narrative, as we know, Sir Leicester collapses. And when Jarndyce reveals to Esther his plot to marry her to Woodcourt, he engages her in a competition for knowledge which seems at odds with the confidence that supposedly exists between them. Having earlier possessed and then revealed Esther’s personal history to her, Jarndyce now constructs a personal history for her. Taking her to see the new Bleak House, he pretends that it is meant for Woodcourt alone. And as Esther begins to laugh and cry, Jarndyce makes light of her assertion that she has known all along.

“Well, well,” said he, “I am delighted that you approve. I thought you would. I meant it as a pleasant surprise for the little mistress of Bleak House.”

I kissed him, and dried my eyes. “I know now!” said I. “I have seen this in your face a long while.”

“No; have you really, my dear?” said he. “What a Dame Durden it is to read a face!” (911)

Esther has, of course, misread Jarndyce’s face all along, as has the reader, who shares her surprise. And Jarndyce’s explanation for withholding the plot is simply a narrator’s pleasure in keeping a secret: “When Allan Woodcourt spoke to you, my dear, he spoke with my knowledge and consent—but I gave him no encouragement, not I, for these surprises were my great reward, and I was too miserly to part with a scrap of it” (914).[4]

In both examples, the telling of narrative is aesthetically pleasing for the teller but at the same time unleashes more hostile force than circumstances would seem to warrant. In both, narrative appears to be a form of action, albeit a weak one.[5] The title of the Bucket chapter is, appropriately, “Springing a Mine.” Using a violent metaphor, Dickens acknowledges the violence implicit in the act of revelation: surprise as a demonstration of power or force. At least one critic has noted class antagonism in Bucket’s destructive storytelling (“a gentleman can bear a shock”).[6] And what Jarndyce is really being miserly about, we might argue, is the time left during which he and Esther are, at least at the level of fantasy (his fantasy), intended for one another. Taking her by surprise, he takes her at the same time that he gives her up.

If narrative in these texts is a form of action, knowledge is its object. In Our Mutual Friend, the concealment and revelation of knowledge—often knowledge invented solely for the purpose of possessing something no one else possesses—frequently constitutes the characters’ main activity. Of John Harmon, alias John Rokesmith, employed as Boffin’s secretary, Dickens writes:

[T]he Secretary was discerning, discreet, and silent, though as zealous as if the affairs [Boffin’s] had been his own. He showed no love of patronage or the command of money, but distinctly preferred resigning both to Mr. Boffin. If, in his limited sphere, he sought power, it was the power of knowledge; the power derivable from a perfect comprehension of his business. (241)

But to whom, we might wonder, does that last “his” refer? Harmon’s chief activity is narratorial. In disguise, taken into the Wilfer and Boffin households, he succeeds in acquiring knowledge and thereby taking in other characters. And while he is ostensibly collecting knowledge toward some end—the evaluation of Bella Wilfer’s character—for most characters in the novel the pursuit of knowledge serves no purpose other than deception. The desire to hide something, to engineer a surprise, is throughout the novel stronger and more significant than the content of the surprise. (We might simply consider the weakness of the novel’s central notion, the testing of Bella Wilfer.) Surprises take on a life of their own, diverging from the requirements of plot.[7] And knowledge serves no practical function and has no special power, unless power is defined as the creation of a perceptible gap between one character’s knowledge and another’s, a gap measured, finally, by its potential to surprise.

The frequent use of disguise and deception in the novel substantiates what we already know about the Dickens narrator: that he has not disappeared so much as gone into hiding. While J. Hillis Miller asserts that the novel never gives an unqualified “inside” view, Bakhtin’s discussion of the relation between narratorial and characterological voices in Little Dorrit asserts the impossibility of firmly separating the two. “Another’s speech,” Bakhtin writes, “whether as storytelling, as mimicking, as the display of a thing in light of a particular point of view…is at none of these points clearly separated from authorial speech: the boundaries are deliberately flexible and ambiguous.”[8] Yet as if to counter this idea of the inseparability of narrator and character, Our Mutual Friend traces a pattern of epistemological one-upmanship. Characters not only busy themselves finding out all they can about one another, but they invent their own plots, entrapping others in schemes the point of which is often merely to entrap. It is not that there is one body of knowledge that each character can only know partially, as other accounts of omniscience would have it. Rather, plots do not exist until a character invents them, and they can be invented and put into practice at any time. Knowledge thus exists only by invention, so that no character and no narrator can ever be certain of possessing it in its entirety. It is, therefore, something every character is appropriately anxious about. For one character’s plotting leads to another’s in a potentially endless reciprocity. As the Lammles say, “we owe all other people the grudge of wishing them to be taken in, as we ourselves have been taken in” (173).

In short, in this novel supposedly wonderful for the relativity of its truths, for the absence of a fixed center or omniscient overseer, each character is anxiously striving to be the director of his own plot, the omniscient narrator of his own fiction—the possessor of knowledge he has invented yet can require other characters to know. The easily identifiable omniscient voice may have disappeared, but concern with omniscience has not. Though we may not be able to locate it in a single, unifying point of view, we cannot miss it in the narrative’s structure or in the force of the surprise Dickens engineers for his readers. “Taking in” is thus a narrative project as well as a thematic one. Indeed, it blurs the distinction between theme and structure, narrator and character, in what, borrowing a phrase from Paul de Man, we might call a“rhetorical strategy…hidden behind the seductive powers of identification.”[9] To be taken in, according to Our Mutual Friend, is to become a participant in someone else’s plot, the object of someone else’s agency, and the target of the narrator’s inevitable assertion of omniscience. It is, in short, to be something like a character in a Dickens novel.

Our Mutual Friend keeps its readers on the narratorial side of things, aware of disguises and deceptions as they occur. Taken behind the scenes, the reader sees what “nobody” sees.

Charming to see Mr. and Mrs. Lammle taking leave so gracefully, and going down the stairs so lovingly and sweetly. Not quite so charming to see their smiling faces fall and brood as they dropped moodily into separate corners of their little carriage. But to be sure that was a sight behind the scenes, which nobody saw, and which nobody was meant to see. (189)

While refusing a single, distinct external perspective, the novel remains obsessively concerned with insides and outsides, and its logic of uncovering the hidden—in the river, the dustheaps, or the Lammles’ carriage—leads the reader to believe in distinctions between deceitful surfaces and underlying truths. Readers know how the Veneerings deceive the Lammles, and the Lammles Georgina; we hear Fledgby and the Lammles plan their trickery. We know, or so we are led to believe, what lies behind the “disinterested” surface: that of the secretary, the servant, the Inspector who “mustn’t look like business” (206). But it is knowledge of John Harmon’s plotting in particular that convinces readers of the novel’s shared omniscience.

The novel provides both negative and positive versions of the Asmodean figure. Silas Wegg, for instance, has a fantasy of knowledge and possession about the house on the corner—“Our House,” he calls it—inventing for his own satisfaction its fixtures and inhabitants. But the novel never deceives us about the status of Wegg’s fantasies. He is properly disappointed, when allowed to enter the house, at its failure to meet his expectations. And Wegg’s attitude toward Boffin displays the same falsely grounded sense of knowledge and power.

Silas Wegg felt it to be quite out of the question that he could lay his head upon his pillow in peace, without first hovering over Mr. Boffin’s house in the superior character of its Evil Genius. Power…has ever the greatest attraction for the lowest natures; and the mere defiance of the unconscious house-front, with his power to strip the roof off the inhabiting family like the roof of a house of cards, was a treat which had a charm for Silas Wegg. (564)

In the novel’s terms, the ability to interpret houses correctly, and to get inside them, is analogous to the ability to find one’s way behind the facade of character, gaining access to the truth behind surfaces. As Wegg notes bitterly, Boffin’s preference for Rokesmith over himself as a confidential servant is marked by Rokesmith’s free access to the house: “[T]he house is as free to him as if it was his.…I am banished to the Bower” (353).

If Wegg is the negative version of the omniscient fantasy, his speculations exposed as mere speculation, Harmon represents the unproblematic, unquestioned embodiment of that fantasy. Inventing and surviving his own fictitious death, he remains present yet invisible, observing and judging, hearing himself spoken about as he plots his life. And nowhere does the novel suggest that there is anything fantastic about this scenario. As “the man from Somewhere,” Harmon can choose any identity he likes, and the one he chooses enables him to move freely between establishments, getting to know other people’s business without revealing his own. A character who is also an agent of narrative, whose business it is to conceal his own interests in his interest in others, Harmon is a direct descendant of Boz, Humphrey, and the Uncommercial Traveller.

Harmon’s experience of the attack on George Radfoot, who is dressed in Harmon’s clothes, is one of negative capability—a loss of self in the imagining of the other—analogous to the novelist’s imagining of character. If the omniscient fantasy is a fantasy of taking a position outside the self, Harmon achieves it here by identifying the other as himself, transcending his own boundaries by imagining himself dead. But this moment also dramatizes the imaginist’s inability to absent himself from his own creation, even after creating a second self in character. Harmon finds himself unable to construct the narrative of his death without “using the word I,” even though, as he says, “there was no such thing as I, within my knowledge” (426). At the moment of its own disappearance, then, the self remains to witness the death of what, once detached, becomes another self. As Garrett Stewart writes, death in the novel is always death by displacement, the death of the other.[10]

But most significant about Harmon’s extended interior monologue is the sense of transcending boundaries it conveys, the way it seems to extend the experience of omniscience to the reader. There is no deeper level of character than thought itself, particularly the thoughts of a character exploring the dimensions of character, deciding, in effect, what character to be—for then the reader is seemingly in on the shaping of the novel itself. Dickens thus uses the character of John Harmon to create the illusion that the reader participates in the very formation of character and plot. And throughout the novel, the act of reading about fantasies of omniscience—Wegg’s, Fledgeby’s, Harmon’s—subtly but inevitably invites the reader to assume that he or she is not fantasizing. In order to perceive another’s fantasy, one must, after all, be outside of it oneself.

Of Pickwick’s innocence and gullibility, G. K. Chesterton has written: “To be taken in everywhere is to see the inside of everything.”[11] The reader privileged to be taken behind the scenes of Our Mutual Friend is taken in in another sense as well. I refer, of course, to Boffin’s supposed transformation: the miserliness which has actually been a pretense intended to demonstrate to Bella Wilfer the evils of loving money. Like Fledgeby, Harmon, and the Lammles, Boffin speaks confidentiality to the reader. Unlike them, however, he remains in disguise while doing so.

“Now, I wonder,” he meditated as he went along, nursing his stick, “whether it can be, that Venus is setting himself to get the better of Wegg? Whether it can be, that he means, when I have bought Wegg out, to have me all to himself and to pick me clean to the bones!”

It was a cunning and suspicious idea, quite in the way of his school of Misers, and he looked very cunning and suspicious as he went jogging through the streets. More than once or twice, more than twice or thrice, say half a dozen times, he took his stick from the arm on which he nursed it, and hit a straight sharp rap at the air with its head. Possibly the wooden countenance of Mr. Silas Wegg was incorporeally before him at those moments, for he hit with intense satisfaction. (650)

The words “looked” and “possibly” might allow us to perceive Boffin’s deception; certainly we can see this in retrospect.[12] But finally the question of how well the deception is hidden matters less than the idea of using character itself as a trap, as Dickens does throughout the novel. Indeed, having Boffin read books about misers, Dickens relies on the idea of readerly identification as a further means of taking his readers in.

“The reader…yearns for a friendly narrator to order his experience,” writes U. C. Knoepflmacher; “he feels threatened by a novelist who may be his and the characters’ mutual enemy.” Knoepflmacher finally claims, however, that surprise makes us feel good: “When Boffin reveals that his ‘change’ was feigned, that he has actually been ‘playing a part,’ we are elated.…Our security is restored.”[13] On the contrary, and as I have been suggesting, it is precisely at the moment of surprise, when we become aware of how misled we have been, that we glimpse the potential depth of our insecurity: the possible existence, always, of knowledge we haven’t got. Our Mutual Friend depends upon and encourages a sense of omniscience in those it means to surprise. Those plotted against remain ignorant of plots, while in general readers are in on the plotting. Yet when Fledgeby states his purpose as “to work a lot of power over you and you not know it, knowing as you think yourselves” (492), his “you” describes the reader as well, for what is hidden from readers is not simply the solution to a mystery but the existence of one, and the established triadic structure—plotter, victim, and eavesdropping reader—keeps readers thinking they know. Revelation, then, comes with a double force, the force not just of a solution but of one’s own epistemological limitations—of having completely and seriously misread. As Wegg says to Venus, “If you was to have a sap-ur-ize, it should be a complete one!” (556).

Part of the difficulty readers have with Boffin’s deception lies, I would argue, in the novel’s use of deception for both good and bad ends. To deceive is to be a “mutual friend,” a morally ambiguous creature. To be everyone’s friend, as Twemlow discovers early in the book, is to be no one’s in particular. More seriously, to define oneself as someone’s friend is often to remain unidentified for a secret purpose of one’s own, as Radfoot and Riderhood do when they deceive John Harmon. The words “friendly” and “mutual” become downright sinister, in fact, when used to describe Wegg and Venus’s pact, for their “friendly move” is a plot against Boffin. Similarly, the Lammles seal their marriage, a “mutual understanding,” on the basis of getting back at the Veneerings. “Mutuality” thus seems inherently antagonistic to everything outside the mutual bond, but, more than that, “mutual friend” seems only another name for double agent. Venus, who betrays Wegg by working for Boffin, has good intentions, as does Harmon, but the idea of duplicity still makes one uncomfortable. It is as if duplicity is supposed to be morally neutral, suitable for purposes both good and bad. And the novel itself, giving away the Harmon/Rokesmith plot while keeping Boffin’s ruse a secret, mirrors its characters’ mutuality. Supposedly neutral, dialogically divided among his characters, the narrator plays his cards close to the vest.

It is the sense of having been taken in by the novel that accounts most of all for critics’ unhappiness with its ending. Objections to Dickens’s handling of the ending, based on a sense of having been unfairly treated, have prompted such responses as F. X. Shea’s “No Change of Intention in Our Mutual Friend,” which argues that Dickens did not change his mind about the plot at the very last minute. And after establishing intentionality, critics have proceeded to recuperate both the novel and themselves as readers. Robert Newsom, for example, shows how Boffin’s fraud builds upon notions of fancy and authenticity in the novel, while Rosemary Mundhenk argues that Boffin’s deception educates the reader.[14] Such readings, however, elide the emotional response which provoked them in the first place. Critics in general have either evaded or admitted failure in accounting for their feeling of having been wronged by the text. As Mundhenk writes of her own discussion:

This argument…does not account for the reader’s emotional reaction, his sense of being ‘tricked.’ There is a serious problem in the rather simple psychology of the ‘pious fraud’: having been shown his error, one is supposed to reform or convert. This strategy works with Bella, but it may not be so effective with a sophisticated reader. (50)

But it is the “sophisticated reader” that the novel both creates and undoes. Readers often characterize their response to the novel’s ending as “disappointment,” as in Grahame Smith’s well-known remark: “One of the biggest disappointments in literature occurs in Our Mutual Friend at the moment when we discover that Boffin’s moral degeneration has been nothing but a well-intentioned sham.”[15] As a critical response, disappointment confuses self and text. Are we disappointed in the novel for misleading us, or in ourselves as readers for failing to perceive its design? The reader here bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Wegg, disappointed that “Our House” fails to match his idea of it. As I have shown, the moment of surprise engenders exactly this kind of confusion, revealing readers to have been inside what they thought they stood outside. And recuperative readings further ground the reader’s narratorial, or “outside,” position: in many cases critics discover, not very surprisingly, that they have “known” all along. Yet critical disappointment is grounded, or foregrounded, in the novel in ways which recall the notion of readerly identification Dickens so shrewdly invokes in Boffin’s case.

For Our Mutual Friend establishes disappointment as an appropriate response to being misled. Indeed, the novel proposes misleading as an activity specifically designed for the purpose of disappointing. Disappointment, for example, is Silas Wegg’s punishment for having plotted against Boffin:

“Now, scoundrel,” said John Harmon, “. . . I shall make two more short speeches to you, because I hope they will torment you.…you may know we knew enough of you to persuade Mr. Boffin to let us lead you on, deluded, to the last possible moment, in order that your disappointment might be the heaviest possible disappointment.” (859–60)

And “disappointment” is the term the Lammles use when they discover after their marriage that—in Alfred Lammle’s words—“We have both been deceiving, and we have both been deceived” (172).

But most significant, Dickens uses the physical representation of misleading to dramatize Eugene Wrayburn’s knowledge of and power over Bradley Headstone. When, toward the end of the novel, Headstone takes to watching Wrayburn and following him at night in an attempt to discover Lizzie’s whereabouts, Wrayburn, aware of Headstone’s watching, watches him, and thus knows when he is being followed. He then leads Headstone on aimless, frustrating chases.

Having made sure of his watching me, I tempt him on, all over London. One night I go east, another night north, in a few nights I go all round the compass.…I study and get up abstruse No Thoroughfares in the course of the day. With Venetian mystery I seek those No Thoroughfares at night, glide into them by means of dark courts, tempt the schoolmaster to follow, turn suddenly, and catch him before he can retreat. Then we face one another, and I pass him as unaware of his existence, and he undergoes grinding torments.…Night after night his disappointment is acute, but hope springs eternal in the scholastic breast, and he follows me again to-morrow. (606)

Wrayburn here deliberately both invites and evades what might be a moment of recognition. But the reversal he has already staged, with the reader’s knowledge, and his toying here with reversal underscore the potential reversibility of narrator-character positions. Headstone, who begins as the leader, ends up the follower. Wrayburn, whom Headstone imagines to be a character in his narrative, has made Headstone a character in his. The scene dramatizes the moment of surprise as a demonstration of knowledge by means of peripety, or reversibility. In so doing, it dramatizes as well the moment at which the text turns on its reader—or, we might say, looks at its reader, taking him or her by surprise—and readers who have considered themselves omniscient find that they have been misled, exposed, and taken in.


1. J. Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 292. See also Ermarth’s idea of omniscience as “collective consciousness” in Realism and Consensus in the English Novel.

2. Lane Cooper, ed., The Rhetoric of Aristotle (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1960), pp. 212–13.

3. Robert Caserio, Plot, Story, and the Novel (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 57.

4. Jarndyce here resembles Tulkinghorn, whose “calling is the acquisition of secrets, and the holding possession of such power as they give him” (567).

5. On narrative as action, see A. J. Greimas and J. Courtes, “The Cognitive Dimension of Narrative Discourse,” New Literary History 7 (1976): 433–47.

6. P. J. M. Scott, Reality and Comic Confidence in the Novels of Charles Dickens (London: Macmillan, 1979), p. 71.

7. Jonathan Arac distinguishes surprises, by definition, from plot: “[S]uch a shock…has only symbolic bearing on the action because it surprises us. Inevitability is the characteristic of plot in the sense that I am using the term. The plot is the ground from which the book’s events spring and in which their roots can be traced”: Commissioned Spirits, p. 164.

8. M. M. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 308.

9. Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. ix.

10. Garrett Stewart, Death Sentences (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), pp. 17, 19: “a death by displacement—by which I am suggesting a death undergone by proxy so that it can be overseen by a surviving protagonist—that serves to defray the psychic expenditure of an equivalent fatality in the onlooking consciousness”; “death from the security of aesthetic distance.”

11. G. K. Chesterton, “The Pickwick Papers,” in George H. Ford and Lauriat Lane, Jr., eds., The Dickens Critics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966), p. 121.

12. See Rosemary Mundhenk, “The Education of the Reader in Our Mutual Friend,” Nineteenth Century Fiction 34 (1979): 48.

13. U.C. Knoepflmacher, Laughter and Despair (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), p. 140 and pp. 163–64.

14. Frances X. Shea, “No Change of Intention in Our Mutual Friend,” Dickensian 63 (1967): 37–40; Robert Newsom, “ ‘To Scatter Dust’: Fancy and Authenticity in Our Mutual Friend,” Dickens Studies Annual 8 (1980): 39–60.

15. Grahame Smith, Dickens, Money, and Society (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968) p. 182.

Our Mutual Friend

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