In 1848, Dickens published the last of his Christmas books, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. Much as in A Christmas Carol, the protagonist of The Haunted Man, a chemist named Mr. Redlaw, finds himself confronted by a ghostly figure on Christmas Eve. Here, however, the similarities end. Where Marley encourages Scrooge to reflect upon his life and live for the better, the Phantom of The Haunted Man offers Redlaw a reprieve from such reflections. Redlaw has long been haunted by grief and anger: his best friend had led his beloved sister to believe he intended to marry her; instead, he married Redlaw’s intended, and Redlaw’s sister dies soon after. “I bear within me a Sorrow and a Wrong,” Redlaw tells the Phantom, and continues, “Thus, memory is my curse; and if I could forget my sorrow and my wrong, I would!” (342). What the Phantom offers to “cancel” (Christmas 343) are his memories of sorrow and wrong; “to leave,” he explains, “but very faint, confused traces of them, that will die out soon” (343). Redlaw knows enough of sentimental philosophy to object that he “would not deprive myself of any kindly recollection, or any sympathy that is good for me, or others” (343). The Phantom assures him that he will lose “no knowledge; no result of study; nothing but the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependent on, and nourished by, the banished recollections” (343). This phrase, later repurposed in Great Expectations to describe Pip’s more problematic emotional and subjective development, indicates the tale’s narrative trajectory. In The Haunted Man, the Phantom has trapped Redlaw in a kind of Faustian bargain: the elimination of the felt chain of associations with sorrow and wrong quickly empties Redlaw of anything approaching human sympathy. However, because he can still recall the existence of sympathy, he knows enough to mourn its loss, and, as one of the conditions of his bargain was that he would communicate his loss of memory to anyone he encounters, he quickly retreats from human contact. The one exception is that of a street urchin, described as “a creature more like a young wild beast than a young child, shivering upon a door-step” (338). Only the child can withstand Redlaw’s presence, the Phantom explains, because he is barely a person at all; he
is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up. No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast. All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness. All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness. Woe to such a man! Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands! (387)
To some degree, one might interpret the child here as the human reduced to the animal. Yet this is not quite right. The absence of softening memories does not render the child an animal but rather, in the Phantom’s words, abandons him “to a worsecondition than the beasts.” Indeed, tropes of animality attach themselves to the child and to Redlaw to demarcate a monstrosity produced by a particular kind of hedonic neglect. This feral child, then, is another of Dickens’s critiques of the Benthamite understanding of humanity as driven wholly by self-interest. Without humanizing memories, the child and Redlaw are always, as Fagin would put it, looking out for “object number one” (43:348). The tale’s goal is to confront Redlaw with such an emotionally impoverished humanity that he accepts the necessity of his sorrows and wrongs as opportunities, the saintly figure of Milly informs us, to “forgive” (Christmas404). It is this Christian sentiment that gives the tale its moral unity, one that Dickens encapsulates with the recurrent phrase “Lord, keep my memory green” (408).
To my mind, the tale’s loosely Christian moral is not so much suggestive of a particular religious key in Dickens’s work—Dickens was certainly loose in his religious thinking, frequenting Unitarian churches but baptizing his children in the Church of England—than of a way of thinking about what it means to be human, in particular how memory and emotion interact to produce the contrasts and humanizing touches of individual character. In what follows, I explore the ways in which the feral child of The Haunted Man reveals a fracture in Dickens’s thought of what it means to be human. This is a consequence of the way in which the becoming-animal that both the child and Redlaw experience includes and excludes them from the human and the animal, and of Dickens’s entwining of sentimentality and analytic psychology. I would suggest that the ways in which Dickens describes this loss of memory and feeling, in particular the metaphoric entanglements of the animal and wilderness, indicates the extent to which Dickens’s work gestures toward the human as constructed, while nonetheless warding off the ramifications of such a view by creating a sentimentality of mental association.
The associationist bent of Victorian analytic psychology offers a point of entry for this view of the human as constructed through the ramification of one’s experiences and their resulting associations. Nicholas Dames has demonstrated analytic psychology’s influence Dickens’s David Copperfield, just two years later, and again with an emphasis on mental representation. For Dames, the midcentury saw “a sustained cultural interest in autobiographical memory” (127); psychological notions of association gave novelists the tools, in Dames’s words, “to plot the mind, and to plot memory, in such a way as to ensure a newly coherent, newly organized psyche” that would create a “cleansed, organized mind free of … uncategorizable detail” (128). For Dames, this is a result of the threat of delirium that the association of images raises and that modernism will later indulge. From that perspective, one might argue that in The Haunted Man, the need to retain memories of sorrow and wrong reflects this urgent desire to narrate the self as a set of sensible and connected associations.
Yet I think that such a reading would miss the moral of the tale. On its face, Dickens becomes Nietzschean here, and Nietzsche comes to seem more Victorian than he would like. More than that, however, it is clear from the tale that Redlaw and those he infects remain coherent as individuals even without these chains of association. In fact, rather than losing their senses of self, they become unshakablyfocused on the self. Association here is not about making or maintaining a coherent self so much as it is about the creation of an affective landscape for the human, an escape from that artificially produced “wilderness” in the boy and in Redlaw. Rooting out one’s sorrows and wrongs encourages either what the Phantom calls the boy, “the growth of man’s indifference”, or what he calls Redlaw, “the growth of man’s presumption” (Christmas 388). These vegetal metaphors leave one with the sense of the self as a kind of cottage garden. One tends not by weeding but through interplanting, since without these memories, one presumes that one needs no one else, and others merely induce indifference.
In effect, by privileging these notions of sense and affect, the tale follows their centrality in eighteenth-century moral philosophy but makes the case that such experiences reinforce or refine that inborn moral sense.In this respect, Dickens differs from moral sentiments philosophers such as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume. For them, the judgments of moral sense may be led astray by ignorance, but reasoned debate and reflection may correct them.[i]Dickens, by contrast, makes this correction one of feeling rather than reason. Moreover, the terrain of Dickens’s argument offers some key distinctions from the moral sentiments. Redlaw’s situation recalls the scene at the heart of moral sentiments philosophy, a spectator confronted by a sufferer. The best instance of this approach appears in Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments, and Smith argues there that the situation demands affective regulation on the part of both spectator and sufferer (see Smith 1.4.7:26-7). Redlaw experiences a problem of self-regulation. In Smith’s theory, he should spectate his own suffering, and regulate it according to the reactions of his imagined impersonal spectator. Dickens seems well in on this idea: after all, he gives Redlaw a Phantom in his own image in order to comment on his experience of suffering. Yet it is the Phantom who offers him false absolution in his forgetfulness. Self-regulation, it seems, is not enough.
Here it may be useful to reframe the problem in terms of literary sentimentality and dramatic spectatorship. One of the distinct shifts in sentimental literature of the Victorian period, as scholars such as Miriam Bailin, Michael Bell, and Audrey Jaffe note, is that the role of the spectator has been pushed outside the diegesis. Readers, who before were asked to align themselves with an embedded spectator, take on the spectatorial role directly. Dickens is in part using this shift in literary form with this tale. After all, like all the Christmas tale, it too was effectively shaped around a series of scenes made for the mid-Victorian stage, a result of Dickens’s desire to control stage adaptations of his Christmas books beginning with The Chimes. The Haunted Man perhaps bears more markers of Dickens’s focus on the stage than any of the other books, however. Chapters rarely shift locations, and characters move within these limited spaces in melodramatic ways, from the overly talkative servants bringing in their family members for exposition to Redlaw hiding in a closet so that he—and the audience—may overhear the conversation. Dickens licensed the story to the Adelphi Theatre in 1848, and the playbill neatly encapsulates each of these locales: The Chemist’s Chamber, Tetteryby’s Palour, A Room in Tetterby’s, Outside of Redlaw’s Dwelling, A Ruinous Street, A Room in an Old House, The Ruinous Street (again), and so on. From a theatrical perspective, the stage makes spectatorship a directly embodied question. It also, I would suggest, pushes Dickens’s presentation of sentimentality outside the bounds of the individual.
For this reason, I want to return to analytic psychology, not as an answer to the problem but as a deepening of it. Popularizations of analytic psychology at this time raised two issues that inflect Dickens’s tale, the importance of emotion to association and of associational contrasts. In John Abercrombie’s popular work on the subject, first published in 1830 and running through nineteen subsequent editions, Abercrombie emphasized that “the strength of the association is generally in proportion to the intensity of the mental emotion; and is likewise in a great measure regulated by the length of time, or the number of times in which the facts have been contemplated in this connexion” (emphasis added; 77). For Abercrombie, associations transpire between “facts or thoughts” (ibid.), that is between what philosophy would term images or representations. Subsequent work in analytic psychology will focus on associations as part of organic processes, but that turn comes after Dickens’s engagement here. (Hartley’s discussion of mental vibrations and connections between the nerves and the brain notwithstanding, or rather, perhaps avoided for the reasons that Coleridge raises against him.) Abercrombie also notes that associations also operate by suggested contrasts: “the sight of a remarkably fat man may recall to us the thought of another man we had lately seen, who was equally remarkable for his leanness” (77).
One might understand Dickens’s deployment of both analytic psychology and the moral sentiments as producing a kind of sentimentality of mental association. Associations in and of themselves are not enough to make the self but need a particular set of contrasts to produce the “humanizing touch” that the Phantom says the feral child lacks. This understanding of the mind and memory leaps between discourses: we begin in analytic psychology with the notion of contrast raising the possibility of an internal division within mental associations but then shift to the moral sentiments as this divisions seems to allow for a more properly Smithian spectator to issue judgments. Sorrows and happiness produce an imagined internal distancing for the individual: hence Redlaw can realize his mistake because he can recall happiness, not because he understands the loss of his sorrows (and only transcends his mistake and regains his memory with the further step of forgiveness).
What might this say about other feral children in Dickens? I am thinking in particular of his two most famous vagabonds, Oliver Twist and Jo the crossing sweeper of Bleak House. Of all the qualities that make them distinct, the one that stands out to me is that one knows how to pray and one does not. Prayer is an odd problem in Oliver Twist. Initially, the narrator tells us “It would have been very like a Christian, and a marvelously good Christian too, if Oliver had prayed for the people who fed and took care of him. But he hadn’t, because nobody had taught him” (2:10). Yet once he’s taken into Mr Brownlow’s house, we are told “The darkness and the deep stillness of [his] room were very solemn; as they brought into the boy’s mind the thought that death had been hovering there, for many days and nights, and might yet fill it with the gloom and dread of his awful presence, he turned his face upon the pillow, and fervently prayed to Heaven” (12:85). Did he learn this from the prayer book that Mrs Bedwin takes in with her when she sits with him? It is unclear. Yet from this point on, Oliver prays, and, specifically, he prays for others: for his benefactors (31:247), for Rose when she is sick the Maylies (33:262), and for a condemned Fagin: “Let me say one prayer. Say only one, upon your knees, with me” (52:435). Jo, by contrast, remains in the state in which we initially discovered Oliver, oblivious to prayer, a turn that the narrator puts to most effective use in the scene of his death. It is useful to see, however, that this lack of knowledge seems inextricable with the narrator’s representation of Jo as a kind of beast, in particular a dog. Wandering through London, the narrator describes how “Jo and the other lower animals get on in the unintelligible mess as they can” (16:237). In effect, Jo is the child of The Haunted Man given more depth of characterization and narrative meaning, yet with much the same substantive view of the human. When Allan asks Jo “Did you ever know a prayer?”, their conversation reveals something about the direction of prayer and its relation to emotion, association, memory, and the self:
“Never knowd nothink, sir.”
“Not so much as one short prayer?”
“No, sir. Nothink at all. Mr. Chadbands he wos a-prayin wunst at Mr. Sangsby’s and I heerd him, but he sounded as if he wos a-speakin to hisself, and not to me. He prayed a lot, but I couldn’t make out nothink on it. Different times there was other genlmen come down Tom-all-Alone’s a-prayin, but they all mostly sed as the t’other ‘wuns prayed wrong, and all mostly sounded to be a-talking to theirselves, or a-passing blame on the t’others, and not a-talkin to us. WE never knowd nothink. I never knowd what it wos all about.” (47:676)
The Christian moral of The Haunted Man and the role of prayer in Oliver Twist and Bleak House operate as enthymemes: the audience supplies the premise “forgiveness is good” or “children should know how to pray.” Yet these unstated but culturally necessary premises obscure formal connections. Prayer is an appeal to the transcendent, a plea directed to a big Other and beyond the self. Dickens offers a view of the human throughout these texts not merely as constructed through emotionally differentiated mental associations, and as potentially deformed by active forgetting, excision, and social indifference. He also suggests that those constructions and distinctions are a result of encounters with something outside the self. Sentimentality’s displacement of the spectator into the reader or spectator becomes something else again here, an off-loading of sympathetic identification into others more generally in order to create internally coherent and emotionally-aware human beings, and, to a degree, of language as a technology for creating those being. What these feral children reveal in Dickens, then, is a strain of thinking of the creation of the human beyond the human.
Abercrombie, John. “Philosophical, Local, and Arbitrary Association.” Embodied Selves, edited by Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth. Oxford UP, 1998, pp. 76-79.
Bailin, Miriam. “Dismal Pleasure”: Victorian Sentimentality and the Pathos of the Parvenu,” ELH 66, no. 4 (Winter 1999), 1015-1032.
Bell, Michael. Sentimentalism, Ethics, and the Culture of Feeling. Houndsmills: Palgrave, 2000.
Boltanski, Luc. Distant Suffering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Dames, Nicholas. Amnesiac Selves. Oxford UP, 2003.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books, edited by Robert Douglas Fairhurst.Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.
—. Bleak House, edited by Stephen Gill. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008
—. Oliver Twist, edited by Stephen Gill. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008
Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Jaffe, Audrey. Scenes of Sympathy: Identity and Representation in Victorian Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Knut Haakonssen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
[i]See Bell 11-46, Boltanski 77-95, Eagleton 31-69.