Nancy Sikes Murder

Of all of the Dickens scenes that we read this semester, one in particular stands out—Nancy Sikes death scene.  In fact, in all of the subsequent works by Dickens, there was never anything quite as shocking or grotesquely, vividly depicted as that particular murder.  As Bill confronts Nancy, his blood is boiling.  Her blood runs cold.  She pleads against his anger for her life—but he simply bludgeons her. Again. And again. And again.  And as the sun rises to reveal the horror of Bill’s actions—the blood of death drips from the ceiling, sunlight dancing as it reflects and refracts.


But why?  What is the point of such vivid horror?  Theories abound on the internet that it was modeled after an actual murder, and Dickens himself loved the scene so much that he often acted it out on stage with so much energy that his close friends blamed it for his early death.  It is perhaps most interesting, because 19th century England did not have the same sort of fascination with violence and murder that a modern audience would. We spend our time watching CSI and Law and Order re-runs—or even the serial-killing work of Dexter—soaking up the blood like sponges, reveling in both justice well served, and crime well committed.  But why would Dickens have felt compelled to include such a scene in his own novel? I won’t pretend to have an answer to that question, but it’s interesting to think about all of the ways in which Dickens was ahead of his time—perhaps his bloodlust was too.



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Dickens’ Christmas Impact

What would Christmas be today had Dickens never intervened? According to a Blog Post by David Parker on a UC Santa Cruz website, Christmas was actually in quite the decline at the time of Dickens’ writing. For although the poor continued to enjoy the company of family and attend to the merriment of fireside gathering in celebration of the birth of Christ, Christmas had actually become a rather unfashionable holiday for the wealthier in England. Upperclass individuals and gentry across England had throughout the Middle Ages and into the Commonwealth Era celebrated Christmas quite boisterously—with the slaughtering of livestock, alcoholic drinks, and large parties. However, by the time of Dickens, the gentry had gone through so many conservative religious movements and severe instances of illness (think Black death), that these types of social gatherings were at that time frowned upon.

Yet the poor persisted. They were undeterred by these changes, because their conception of Christmas had never been one of riotous exuberance, but rather simplicity and humility. Dickens, in portraying this form of Christmas to the upperclass in a way that they could still celebrate in capitalist grandeur (so much food), actually began to shape their opinion of Christmas and act more as their lower class counterparts did—with the humility and simplicity of the man they were supposed to be celebrating.

Unfortunately, Dickens may have had a bit too much of an impact on Christmas, because look at what we’ve come to. But it’s interesting to think that Christmas may not be a Western holiday at all had he not intervened.

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Modern Dickens at Work in Film and Media Culture

When Dickens wrote “A Walk in a Workhouse,” he was attempting a behind-the-scenes view at a life that many people in his age did not live. He provided a depiction of “the other side”—a look at “the dropped child [that] seemed too … poor … for death” and “the groves of lunatics; jungles of men.” In essence, Dickens was asserting an emotional plea at its highest level—in an attempt to sicken and anger his reader, and to instill within them a sense of action. People cannot fix what they cannot understand and have not seen, and thus his social commentary was generated as a realistically visual impetus for change. A documentary-style writing that actually reads as if a film.

In a modern context, these documentaries, films and tv shows are all around us. We watch 60-minutes and Dateline, Bridezillas and Cat Fish, and even prison and racial reform documentaries. This media exists out of a desire to understand—a desire to see the world through the eyes of the other, to sympathize and and question society. We are angered, saddened, annoyed and even amused at the sights that we see, by the social norms and institutions that lie on the other side of the gate, but the fact remains that these films exist because artists and producers know they will be watched. We, as humans, maintain an innate desire to understand ourselves from all angles, even those angles that we don’t have personal experience in.

In this way, Dickens was actually quite ahead of his time. He understood the fluidity of his medium and the power of his pen—he could create vivid visual experiences out of mere scratches on paper, and these visuals had the power to capture and to shape the minds of those who dared to see. We are all shaped by the people we meet and the experiences that we have—writing and film are just another means to an end of understanding.

“A Walk in a Workhouse” (1850). Web. 11 Dec. 2015. .

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Dickens’ Capitalist Legacy

Dickens and Gaskell set the stage in texts such as A Christmas Carol and Mary Barton to consider food as a capitalist commodity, as they depict it in a style likened to contemporary and modern advertisements. Food becomes a symbol of class status—no longer the simple sustenance provider that our bodies biologically consider it to be. High class food—expensive meats, cheeses and wines—have the same physiological impact on the body as less expensive foods, much as less expensive clothes provide the same function as more expensive clothes, and less expensive smartphones utilize the same internet and wireless technology as more expensive smartphones. But that is the role and work of commoditization. Capitalism thrives off of classism and separatism—producing the maximum amount of profit from each level of society, as the “basic needs” are increased in price to represent the theoretical spending power of those who purchase them. Thus it is that entire holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, are generated to test that very theoretical spending limit—to truly assert class structure within the domestic space by pitting families against each other to see who can have the most elaborate meal and presentation.
But while this sort of classism strategy has reduced pre-existing holidays to mere shows of capitalist strength—businesses have banded together in solidarity in recent years to create their own holidays in the most institutionally appropriate way possible: Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And while most would argue that these aren’t holidays in the classic sense of family value or religious meaning—they work squarely within the modern context of “holiday” to achieve name recognition, particular cultural habits, and spending power. They actually function no differently from any other holiday within a capitalist consideration—and ironically they exist as a means to prepare for the ultimate capitalist holiday: Christmas. And while Dickens and Gaskell represent a time in history in which the financial strength of a family could not be demonstrated at the materialist degree that it can today—they did their part to instigate a sort of thought process where commoditized items, like food, represent the holidays through spending capability. And they did so while professing to critique the very systems that they fed into.

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Dickens and Social Media–A Match Made in Heaven

Social media, particularly that of Twitter and Facebook, is known for the speed with which it transmits ideas from one individual to global awareness. Moreover, social media is characterized by the way in which it allows each of its users to be heard by a multitude—every person has an audience who will read and listen, regardless of their desire and of the content. In creating Household Words and All the Year Round, Dickens, in essence, generated a proto-social media form for the spreading of his and his associates thoughts. Suddenly, through the use of his magazines, Dickens had the capacity to be heard and felt in the within the physical, domestic space of each member of his audience. And although he lacked the rapidity of thought felt on social media, the monthly nature of his magazines was revolutionary in its reach and ubiquity.
Thus, it’s not a far cry to consider a modern Dickens utilizing social media. He was a man that wanted to be heard and taken seriously. He felt his ideas to be socially constructive, and he used his art and business skills to assert them on all who could afford a shilling and half per month to purchase them. Furthermore, like the celebrity culture amassed across the faces of Twitter and Facebook, Dickens utilized a well-thought balance between his work, his thoughts, self-promotion and the promotion of other’s work and ideas. Household Words reads like a long-winded Twitter feed—begging its audience to absorb opinions, narratives and promotions. And not unlike other forms of social media—like YouTube and Instagram—there is a perhaps unhealthy dose of advertisement strewn across its pages, laid gently and beautifully between texts, characters and plot-lines. The beginning of the inundation of material we neither desire nor need.
In this sense, Dickens would not have needed social media except for greater promotion and reach. He was already adored in his time, and his thoughts were universally known and felt. He impacted his culture and society through the reach of his language, and as such foregrounded the sort of celebrity culture we see today.

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The Black Female Voice

Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White opens with the line, “this is the story of what a woman’s patience can endure, and what a man’s resolution can achieve” (Pg 3). Yet, this is only the beginning of a novel problematic though-and-through with its depiction of women. Throughout the novel, women’s thoughts and words are empty in light of their appearance, “she looked so irresistibly beautiful as she said those brave words that no man alive could steel his heart against her” (pg. 64); they are easily manipulatable, “they cannot resist a man’s tongue when he knows how to talk to them” (pg. 36); and they are woefully unreasonable, “no sensible man ever engages, unprepared, in a fencing match of words with a woman” (pg. 43). But perhaps most importantly, true women are silent. For although receiving a few lines scattered throughout the text, Laura Fairly and Anne Catherick aren’t given the chance to speak in a novel entirely designed around voices. Only Marian speaks, and she herself resembles a man in words, actions and appearance—she’s not a true woman at all, at least not to Collins.
But while we discussed the problem of femininity in this novel extensively in class, what we were not able to truly consider is the whiteness of the woman in white—a whiteness that is referred to 157 times throughout the text. With blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin and white clothes, Laura is the perfect, silent woman. She exists not to achieve anything, but rather only to survive and be objectified—and even her survival is questionable in light of a consideration of social death. Yet, Laura’s whiteness is perhaps more important in her characterization than her womanhood, for it is her whiteness as a woman that is more telling of her role in society than any other quality. In fact, there is not a single man or woman of color in the text—with only a scant mentioning and plot point around Italian foreigners, and even this is still a European consideration. While white women spend the whole text passively accepting erasure in a man’s world, black women don’t exist in the first place.
Yet, this is not an issue that exists only in the Victorian time period. Far from it. Black women struggle daily to be seen and to be heard in a modern context. White feminism and black liberation movements alike silence the black and the woman, respectively—never allowing the intersectional to speak on behalf of the full self. Even in the black radical movements of today, the black women struggles to fight against the black, heterosexual male for a place at the podium to speak. On the Black Lives Matter website, one of the founders, Alicia Garza, speaks of the deep issues in black movements that “keep straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans fold take up roles in the background or not at all.” Black women fight every single day just to have a voice to use, let alone a voice that is heard.
Thus, Wilkie Collins’s insistence on the whiteness of his woman in white cannot be something that we simply gloss over as modern readers. It is the very foundation of a system of hegemony that has existed for far too long. A feminist reading of Collins is simply incomplete without a consideration of race as a dominant factor.

Collins, Wilkie, and Julian Symons. The Woman in White. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974. Print.

“HerstoryBlack Lives Matter.” Black Lives Matter RSS2. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

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What Marx Couldn’t See

At the beginning of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels famously wrote, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” (pg. 9) They went on to argue that, “society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps” (pg. 9) and that because of the inherent imbalance in the system of capitalism, the creation of these two camps, the “bourgeoisie therefore produce, above all, its own grave diggers” (pg. 21). Perhaps most interesting about Marx and Engels writings is their own inability to recognize the ideological apparatuses that they themselves were trapped within—the class-reductivist standpoint that although salient today, fails to capture the whole of the institutional issues that plague our modern society and their own contemporary one.

Following the shooting death of Michael Brown in June of 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement grew to a behemoth in national media standards. Their words, activism, peaceful protests and occasionally violent riots have since come to dominate Twitter and Facebook, in addition to dominating other media outlets, as police brutality and covert and institutional racism continue to be made clearer and clearer to a hungry and angry audience. Disparity in economics, although of primary concern to Marx/Engels and Dickens alike, is increasingly viewed as merely a symptom of ideologies of hegemony and hierarchy—a mere facet of the sexist, racist and capitalist society so conceived by traditional, westernized Christian thought.

Thus, the “history of all hitherto existing society” is indeed founded in struggle. But to insinuate that this is merely economically true is an insult and a dangerous grievance to the billions of individuals who live on Earth under the tyranny of systems of privilege and repression—that the genocide, war, and violent physical and psychological oppression that occur daily are unimportant. Marx was revolutionary in his ability to look beyond the curtain at the effects of the system so produced—but his ideas were only the beginning of an interconnected larger picture. Hegemony exists in many forms, but perhaps the repressive systems of today—compounded by the speed, vitality and unforgiving nature of social media—will begin to crumble into their own self-dug graves.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party,. New York: International, 1948. Print.

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Dickens and Kanye

“I didn’t want my shoes to be limited or cost $300 … that was a decision by the company … I just want people to have what I make. I think in clothing right now there is a real separatism. There are $500 sweatshirts that people show up to the club in … we need to be spending that money on our families. So what I’m doing in clothing right now is taking the talent. I know what my generation wants.”
-Kanye West Interview, February 20, 2015

In the above quote from an interview conducted by the Breakfast Club, Kanye West describes his vision for the upcoming release of his clothing line. What he is speaking of is a sort of classism in clothing—a classism that is undeniable as entire weeks of the year (Paris fashion week, etc.) are dedicated to the idea that one’s existence should be based around the quality, price and trendiness of the textiles that cover our bodies. In addition, he speaks of himself as the artist—both in music and his new clothing ventures—with the express goal of generating the largest consumer audience for his art. In digitized music, it is incredibly easy to distribute the fruit of artistic labor through $1.29 songs on iTunes (although the album as art has been under attack in this model, but that is an altogether different topic). It is quite another challenge to achieve that same sort of distribution with clothing. The desirability of clothing is entirely intertwined with the perception of the brand—not necessarily of the artist creating it. This perception is achieved by a certain enigmatic quality—enigma generated through high price and low stock. People generally want most what they cannot have—clothing does not function like music or technology. The more ubiquitous it is, the less desirable and less artistic it becomes.

This is interesting food for thought from a Dickensian point of view. Like Kanye today, Dickens simply wanted his art distributed. He criticized the classism of the contemporary novel, and sought to find a way to break that classism down—to make more available the art that he was producing. The introduction of the serial novel made the cost of a novel less drastic—as the novel could be purchased across installments as they were written during the year and half of monthly publishing. Thus, Dickens disrupted the classic structure of a novel in order to reap the benefit of having his art more attainable. But did this disrupt his legacy as artist? Dickens’s novels, although canonical and relevant even today, have never had the distinction of “high art.” The novel’s ease of access disrupted the very structures that supposedly gives art its transcendent nature. The questions being asked of artists in Dickens’s time are then not so different from those being asked today.

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Dickens World

For my last post, I wanted to reflect on how we continue to pay tribute to the overall legacy of Charles Dickens, and in looking up how people remember him, I discovered, to my surprise, that Dickens is actually the centerpiece of a theme park in Kent, England, called Dickens World. I grew up (and still live) 20 minutes away from Disneyland, so theme parks were an essential part of my childhood. I found it really interesting that out of all the authors that have ever existed, Dickens is the one that people chose to recreate into a theme park, especially because his books (unlike, say, Harry Potter) are not inherently magical or necessarily optimistic.

This discovery led me to this article from the New York Times, published a few years ago. Dickens World has now fallen on, pardon the pun, hard times. Upon visiting the theme park, the author of the article and Dickens enthusiast, Sam Anderson, realized he didn’t feel that it was necessarily satisfying, nor did he get what he was hoping to get out of it. Anderson says, “The park doesn’t fail because it’s too commercial — it fails because it’s too reverent, and reverent about the wrong things. It treats Dickens as an institution, when what we want is what is gone, or what survives only in the texts: the energy, the aura, the spirit.”

Thinking about commemorating Dickens in the form of a theme park is so strange to me. When I think about theme parks, there is a certain level of feeling engulfed in escapism, fantasy, and childhood nostalgia. I’m not sure when others first became exposed to Dickens, but I don’t believe he writes about issues that inspire escapism to Victorian England or nostalgia for Dickensian social conditions. Like Anderson says, it feels quite odd to treat the Dickensian world as a institution to revere.

I am reminded of a recent interview that featured Trevor Noah, the new host of The Daily Show. He talked about his dislike for exposed brick as a design choice. When he first moved into Jon Stewart’s office, he had others cover up the exposed brick in the office. Because he grew up poor, exposed brick was never a style choice; it was just what everyone had because they couldn’t afford to plaster the walls. He found it odd that rich people purposely choose to expose brick, as it was such a significant marker of poverty for him.

Thus, I bring this back to Dickens World, in connecting the idea of paying to experience stylized poverty. It is truly baffling the longer I think about it. It makes sense to pay for an experience of fantasy and imagination like we do for Disneyland, but for Dickens to be an author that people find so powerful that they want to pay to experience poverty in Victorian England…Well, that is just something else. On the one hand, I can sympathize with desiring to feel physically and visually connected to the world of our favorite authors. On the other hand, I don’t think I’d choose to volutarily experience Oliver Twist’s life growing up. The theme park is an incredible testament to Dickens’s continued popularity though.

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Product Placement: Modern and Victorian

At this point, product placement as an advertisement method is an idea firmly embedded into the media psyche. Quite famously, films like E.T. have incorporated real-life products into their plots, while others mention products in passing or have them visible in the background. Considering the massive commercialization that exists today, this concept is not hard to too grasp, but it’s harder to imagine it dating back to time periods before such widespread capitalism. So, while this practice is fairly common now, just how far back does it date?

Well, I recently came across an interesting article concerning Charles Dickens and this common phenomenon. Apparently, Dickens’ friend Edmund Yates once claimed that Dickens had refused an offer from Holloway’s Pills and Ointments to include a line in one of his stories that complimented the product in exchange for money. In its heyday, Holloway’s Pills and Ointments was one of the most lucrative businesses of its kind, and its proprietor Thomas Holloway was one of the richest men in England. So, to refuse an offer like this, especially since Dickens seems to be quite interested in the financial benefits of advertising, is quite interesting. Perhaps Dickens felt that his written works were above the lesser-art of advertising. Though many people speculate that Yates’ story might not actually be true, it is still very fascinating to consider the possible motives that Dickens would have to refuse such an offer. Additionally, the fact that product placement was a phenomenon that existed back in mid-19th-century Victorian England is fun to think about. Perhaps the advertising methods of Dickens day and our current advertising methods are not so different after all.

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