The city is a key motif in literature. Numerous novels and poem have reflected ways in which cities generate states of shock, exhilaration, alienation, anonymity, misperception or thrill. The idea of the metropolis, questioning the perception of industrial London is a subject famously explored by the 19th century British novelist Charles Dickens. Dickens characterization of the Metropolis throughout a majority of his novels plays a fundamental role. The way he depicts the city, the atmospheric conditions he builds portray a vivid representation of the city, whether it is one of subjectivity, it is a perception that is familiar to all and ultimately contributes to our visualisation and knowledge of what the city is.
Part 1 – Oliver twist and his introduction the city – The greater picture.
During the early nineteenth century, notions concerning the nature of vision and observation where drastically changing. The introduction to a new age of discoveries had spurred vast experiments into the nature of human sensation, which concluded that vision was not just a simple imitation of the external world but a complex process of physiology, involving both internal and external stimuli. An example of this observation is one shown best in Dickens novel of Oliver twist. Through careful consideration of lexis dickens depicts a scene in which Oliver enters the city. Oliver’s first sight of London.
Oliver’s first preconceived assumptions of the city begin seventy miles from London, as thoughts influenced by his previous masters enter his mind “It was the very place for a homeless boy, who must die in the streets unless someone helped him.”1. on the grand scheme, what dickens insinuates is a statement that creates an image in the reader’s mind, the use of emotive lexis and exaggerated terminology only help but represent the city in the darkest way. He suggests how life in the city is not one for the weak minded, he also refers prior to the quote, this disposition of being ‘bred up in country parts’2 and how having an origin of such decreases your suitability in a city. Furthermore, the flaneur continues his observation in the same brutal outlook which causes his attention to move swiftly from one thing to another, rather than lingering on each object.
As Oliver approaches the city his interaction with London as depicted by the flaneur is one which corresponds with his preconceived thoughts. “Some few stopped to gaze at Oliver for a moment or two, they hurried by; but none relieved him, or suggested how he came there.”3. The reaction to Oliver in this situation represents the social psychological mind-set of 19th century London. As suggested in the book ‘The metropolis and mental life’, George Schimmel describes this notion “this incapacity to react to new stimulations with the required amount of energy constitutes in fact that blasé attitude which every child of a large city evinces…”4. Here he looks at how the factors of the city life affect the individual. The blasé attitude employed by many city dwellers is possibly what makes them more intellectual, more civilised than most. As depicted in this scene, residents simply pass Oliver without a care, Dickens represents the city as a callous place where citizens are unconcerned of each other with the immediate focus being themselves. With hindsight, London is a very busy place and there is so much going on in a city at one time, that people eventually shut down and ultimately begin to ignore everything that is happening around in order for them to stay sane in their environment.
This outlook is essentially a manifestation within the metropolis which can be constituted to the many aforementioned factors. Along with this you also have this factor of money, which also plays a role in this. London being a wealthy and economically enriched city at the time can only reinforce these attitudes. It has been money economy which has thus filled the daily life of so many people with the reduction of qualitative values to quantities terms. Thus the mind-set of many in a city is similar in that it is obsessed with excessiveness of city pleasures over humanity and decency. This shows the nature of companionship within the modern city; it is rather short-lived and shocking rather than lasting and fulfilled which is what Dickens as the flaneur describes to this point.
Part 2 – The streets
The shift in representation from the external too internal is an observation that can only be made possible by the position of being within the city. Charles dickens depiction of London persist throughout Oliver twist, in attempt to paint the perpetually evolving picture of London and life within the metropolis. This is a busy time for England, seeing the momentum of the Industrial Revolution (and the invention of things like the steam engine and light bulb) as well as the abolishment of slavery in the British colonies in 1834.
London is a thriving metropolis, and England is a powerful, wealthy, global giant. But Dickens’ depiction of London, however, doesn’t exactly fall in line with this notion of England as all-powerful, rich, and healthy. The portrayal of London streets shows us a great deal about how spaces, when inhabited become a potentiality for drama to occur.
An instance of this inhabitation first takes place in a small town a few miles from the city called Barnet. “He had been crouching on the step for some time: wondering at the great number of public-houses (every other house in Barnet was a tavern, large or small “5. His first real interaction with the city is one of anticipation and longing. The steps being the first space in which he inhabits. Dickens representation of the city at this point already depicts a lot about society at the time, for example he states the fact of every other house being a tavern, a place typically connoted with the consumption of alcohol, automatically this advocates the social norms of the area, he continues to represent the city in a similar manner.
The character Oliver then insinuates interaction with a boy who induces him into the city and offers a place of refuge. “it was nearly eleven o’clock when they reached the turnpike at Islington. struck down the small street then to Sadler’s Wells Theatre; through Exmouth…and so into Saffron Hill the Great”6. In this depiction of their commute to the city Dickens describe the itinerary in which Twist and his newly met companion undertake, as you can envisage these streets being narrow, minimally lit and tightly compacted as represented in the syntactical structure. He almost purposely lists the names in this manner, Dickens builds an image directly through the structural organisation of words thus creating a physical conception of the streets. The atmosphere shifts at this point. “A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours.”7. Upon entering the city, Dickens doesn’t refrain in setting the scene in the rawest way possible. He represents the city being this unfathomable place far from the normal perception of London. The atmosphere he builds in this scene gives us an insight into the harsh reality of city life at the time. His Hyperbolic choice of lexis such as ‘Dirtier’ and the phrase “wretched place he had never seen”8, the effect in which this produces summons the mind into visualising the architecture in the most vivid of ways.
Part 3 City Culture
Dickens sought to express his energy in his novels through the raw description of the ever changing surface appearances which encompasses the whole visual palette rather than focussing on the separate entities. Therefore, when depicting the scene, he describes what is seen through the eyes of the character bringing to life the details of the London city night. “There were a good many small shops; the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside.”9 Here he suggests the cultural activity which occurs during nightfall. What you visualise from his observations is how he describes what he sees with minimal detail yet creating a great overall picture, you can see how he talks of these spaces such as the shops or the streetscape itself. Places such as doorways and shops which you would expect to be quiet are everything but that, as soon as they become inhabited they become a potentiality for drama to occur and this is exactly what he depicts. To further add to the description of the city night life Dickens goes on to narrate additional scenes, covered ways and yards here and there where drunken men and women positively wallowing in filth. The representation of city culture is expressed intensely, what the flaneur observes is an observation which could only be made from walking down this street at this time of the night, details such as men and women wallowing in filth. What this suggests about city culture and 19th century attitudes are that it was one of great misconception, the gory details in this chapter show how unconcerned people where with hygiene and how children were naturally exposed to vices such as alcohol, drugs and sexuality. All of which is the reality in comparison to the Glamourized conceptions of London at the time.
The dark and ‘dangerous’ portrayal of the London underworld is sharply contrasted with Emphasis on the objects of observation is placed greatly by Charles Dickens, however he also places great emphasis on the manner of this observation. “The coach rattled away, over nearly the same ground as that which Oliver had traversed when he first entered London… stopped at length before a neat house, in a quite shady 2street”10., the change in atmosphere is dramatic, Dickens portray Oliver’s commute to a more prestigious part of the city, the shift in wealth is depicted through his chosen lexis. For example, words such as neat and quiet suggest a place of serenity and cleanliness this immediately represents the differences in classes amongst the city. Dickens view of society portrays people in his day trapped in their socioeconomic situations. So, using the city as a microcosm of society- since it typically has all levels in it. 3
Dickens portrays London in a similar light in his novel ‘The Great expectation’. Great Expectations takes place in 19th century England. Pip is born in the early 1800s, and our narrator is telling his story in 1860. “while I was scared by the immensity of London, I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty”11 it is clear to see dickens observation is consistent throughout his novels, he similarly sheds the same austerity in depicting the city, staying true to his beliefs and notions of the metropolis. Dickens shows this representation again but this time in a more pragmatical sense, 12″The city has a vast number of people, who seem not to possess a single friend, and nobody cares for. In the first instance, they have resorted to London in search of employment and subsistence” this reputation is expressed both in ‘Oliver twist’ and the ‘Sketches of Boz’ the theme in relation to the metropolis suggests the lack of concern for one another or boredom (the blasé outlook). In the same way Oliver resorts to the city for an enhanced standard of living Dickens depicts this notion in sketches of boz. It is common theme throughout Dickens novels thus is an observation which he feels is a true representation of the metropolis.
So What makes the city such a powerful character in his novels?
The are many contributing factors which make London the powerful character in the way it is presented throughout Dickens novel. For one, the city holds more than just a backdrop to the novel, it is instrumental in its role, the city becomes a fascinating evolving character that provokes drama to occur within it through inhabitation. In the same way dickens builds up characters such Oliver The city is gradually built up in the same manor with expectations and the pre conceived stereotypes, creating this purposeful character which not only plays a part to the story but dictates what happens throughout. This is seen in the aforementioned scenes; Dickens personifies the city giving it human like qualities this exemplifies the importance of the role of the city in his novel.
Conclusively, can you say how this representation of the metropolis contributes or distorts visual intelligibility impacting perception outside of the fictional realm?
The notion of visual objectivity through the art of literature has moulded our understanding of visual imagery. Dickens looked at London in a very original way, the places he portrays resemble in many ways the urban life we know today – crammed with people from different backgrounds and classes, but this modern perception only came into existence in the early 19th century, his work was entirely new in both subject and sensibility. But what we learn from this study is how art forms such as this and the various aforementioned factors depict a scenario that ultimately contributes to our understanding of a place, architecture is embedded in imagination and representation through literature, cinema, art etc. capturing the narrative of the metropolis, these art forms thus as a collective manifest in the mind and constitutes to a pre conceived conception of the city. The city ultimately has this perception of being full of opportunities, an almost distorted view, and what dickens shows as a flaneur is a personal expression of optical experiences which he then represents through literature, he records the then atmosphere of London shabbiness quite credibly along with his description of the London underworld on the basis of the events he witnessed personally, read about and heard of.
1-3Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist ; Or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (Leipzig: Frederick Fleischer, 1839).
4George Simmel, Metropolis And Mental Life.
5-10Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist ; Or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (Leipzig: Frederick Fleischer, 1839).
11Great Expectations (Place of publication not identified: California Commission on the Status of Women, 1974).
12Charles Dickens, Sketches By Boz (New York: P.F. Collier, 1911).