The most dreadful visitation : an examination of Dickens' treatment of madness in his novels
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.