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1. Dickensian Prospects / Perspectives Dickensiennes
II/ Reframing Dickens

The Shop in Dickens’s Fiction

Maria Teresa CHIALANT


À l’unanimité, les lecteurs de Dickens se disent frappés par la présence de magasins dans son œuvre, que ce soit ceux figurant dans les quatre « Scènes » de Sketches by Boz, ou ceux, plus connus, tels que l’endroit éponyme de The Old Curiosity Shop et la boutique d’instruments de navigation de Sol Gills dans Dombey and Son, le dépôt de Krook dans Bleak House ou encore le laboratoire de M. Venus dans Our Mutual Friend, ou enfin les magasins figurant dans Household Words. Partant du constat que des magasins sont soit des bâtiments et pièces où l’on vend biens et services, soit des espaces garnis de marchandises à vendre, cet article s’intéresse à cette dernière fonction dans la fiction de Dickens. Le propos ici est double : d’une part, attirer l’attention du lecteur sur leur récurrence en tant que conteneurs d’objets (ce qui permet à l’auteur de satisfaire son besoin obsessionnel de nommer les choses et d’adopter le procédé stylistique de la liste), d’autre part, examiner les liens entre le magasin et la page, afin d’illustrer la rhétorique de « l’excès » mise en œuvre par Dickens.

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1In the myriads of things that stack up in piles of overstocked paragraphs, Dickens seems to be trying to name all things, and to leave no thing lying around unconnected. His perfect novel might be like the shop of the ship’s instrument maker Sol Gills in Dombey and Son. (Freedgood, The Ideas in Things 103)

2Dickens delighted in incongruous medleys of objects of the sort that might be found in salerooms or antique shops, as well as in the often banal if poignant décor of the fairly recent past. (Penny 27)

1. Dickensian Shops

3The passages quoted above are the starting point for my reflections on the narrative function and meaning of the shop in Dickens’s fiction. All readers can easily agree that its presence is very striking in his work. The first examples, in chronological order, are the shops that give the titles to four of the “Scenes” in Sketches by Boz (1836): “Shops and Their Tenants,” “Brokers’ and Marine-store Shops,” “Gin-shops” and “The Pawnbroker’s Shop.” The important thing to notice is the early appearance of this narrative theme in Dickens’s whole œuvre—which is not surprising, as it is acknowledged that much of the future writer can be anticipated in the Sketches.

4The first important (and most obvious) instance occurs in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840). The place through which Master Humphrey makes his way, led by Little Nell, is introduced in the first chapter as “one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in old corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust” (OCS 47). The next example is Solomon Gills’s shop of nautical instruments in Dombey and Son (1846); advertised by the picturesque effigy of a timber midshipman in “obsolete naval uniform” (DS 88), its stock-in-trade is minutely and fondly described in Chapter 4 of the novel. While this shop is bright and full of life, Mr. Krook’s, in Bleak House (1852), is dark and dreary; “krook, rag and bottle warehouse”, “krook, dealer in marine stores” (BH 98–99), which Esther visits in Chapter 5, is explicitly—and ironically—associated to one of the main themes of the novel: the lack of justice and the corrupt administration of the law in “this boastful island” that is England. Another shopkeeper who, like Sol Gills, proves to be Krook’s opposite is Mr. Venus in Our Mutual Friend (1864). This genial taxidermist and articulator of skeletons by trade collects human and animal fragments in what is the most bizarre among Dickensian shops, which appears from the outside as a “dark shop-window with a tallow candle dimly burning in it, surrounded by a muddle of objects vaguely resembling pieces of leather and dry stick, but among which nothing is resolvable into anything distinct, save the candle itself in its old tin candlestick, and two preserved frogs fighting a small-sword duel” (122).

5The closing words of the last quotation bring to mind what Dickens’s son-in-law Charles Collins had written, shortly after the writer’s death, in order to describe The Empty Chair (1870), a sketch by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes of “the Inimitable’s” writing-desk and vacant chair. John Forster reports those words in his Life of Charles Dickens: “Ranged in front of, and round about him, were always a variety of objects for his eye to rest on in the intervals of actual writing, and any one of which he would have instantly missed had it been removed. There was a French bronze group representing a duel with swords, fought by a couple of very fat toads…” (211, 225n). This writing desk is, by the way, a sort of miniature shop. This image is also conveyed by an unfinished painting by R. W. Buss entitled Dickens’ Dream (1872), showing the writer in his study at Gad’s Hill Place, surrounded by creatures of his imagination which appear under his mind’s eye: a display of figures and objects inhabiting the metaphorical shop of Dickens’s writing.

2. Lists, Catalogues and Inventories

6Generally speaking, a shop is a building or room where goods and services are sold. What defines this function is the exchange of items for money; so, a relationship—however brief and superficial—is established between two individuals: the shop’s owner (or shop assistant) and the customer. But a shop is also a space stocked with merchandise for sale, a place in which to store goods, to hoard and amass them. In this case, if a shop appears in a novel, its author usually fills it with products of one kind or another, and names each of them—which is what happens with Dickens, who was obsessed with the naming of things. Dorothy Van Ghent was probably the first critic to point out this aspect of Dickens’s writing:

Everything has to be mentioned […] for, assuming that there is coherence in a world visibly disintegrated into things, one way to find it is to mention everything. Hence the indefatigable attention to detail. No thing must be lost, as it is doubtless essential to the mysterious organization of the system. (29)

7More recently, Elaine Freedgood has called attention to Dickens’s adoption of the list as a stylistic device through which to express his almost fetishistic fascination with the mention of things: “lists, catalogs, reports, inventories, and descriptions are so excessive as to be hilarious.” Behind this, there would be Dickens’s attempt “to create a text that in its intense plenitude could not become the least bit writerly even in the hands of the most unruly reader.” In fact, “[t]he metonymic sublime produced by such compactly stored things means that no further metonymic wandering can be undertaken by the reader” (The Ideas in Things 103, 104).

  • 1 My page reference is to the Italian edition.

8Description in literature and the visual arts has often taken the form of lists, catalogues and inventories, presenting people, objects and places by the rhetorical figure of enumeration; the various types of lists come under the category of accumulation, that is, the sequence or juxtaposition of terms which belong to the same semantic cluster. They all satisfy the artist’s pathological need to mention and include everything in his/her text. If a writer or an artist chooses the list, this is due to his/her fear of ineffability when confronted with an infinity of words as well as of things. Umberto Eco, in his attractive book-catalogue The Infinity of Lists, speaks, significantly, of the list’s avidity and its vertigo (137).1

9If it is the fear of not being able to name everything that induces Dickens to pack his novels with massive collections of objects, some of his lists are drawn out of sheer zest for enumeration, as in the case of Mr. Crisparkle’s two closets in The Mystery of Edwin Drood: the dining-room close—a minute catalogue of all that is contained there: “pickle-jars, jam-pots, tin canisters, spice boxes” and “vessels” of “preserved tamarinds and ginger”—and the less appealing medicinal herb-closet, with a variety of infusions, dried leaves and “botanical blotches” (123–24). These closets are arranged like the shelves of a shop, with several lockers and sliding surfaces, while each jar, or pot or box has its own label on it, as if it were on display, in order to be sold.

10As for ‘real’ shops in Dickens’s fiction, a case in point is represented by the one in The Old Curiosity Shop, which is not only the physical point of departure and closure of the story, but also the novel’s recurrent leitmotif. Master Humphrey’s description of the shop in the first chapter reverberates, in fact, in the odd objects amassed in the village church which Little Nell visits towards the end of her life:

There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour here and there, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kinds, distorted figures in china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams. The haggard aspect of the little old man [Little Nell’s grandfather] was wonderfully suited to the place; he might have groped among old churches and tombs and deserted houses and gathered all the spoils with his own hands. (47)

Some part of the edifice had been a baronial chapel, and here were effigies of warriors stretched upon their beds of stone with folded hands, cross-legged […] girded with their swords, and cased in armour as they had lived. Some of these knights had their own weapons, helmets, coats of mail, hanging upon the walls hard by, and dangling from rusty hooks. (494)

11The contents of the shop are explicitly mirrored in those of the baronial chapel, which are meticulously listed, and yet, neither space seems to be real: both belong to a sort of allegory, like Little Nell herself. In Master Humphrey’s words, “the heaps of fantastic things I had seen huddled together in the curiosity-dealer’s warehouse” seem to be Nell’s natural and most appropriate habitat: “As it was, she seemed to exist in a kind of allegory” (56). It is no coincidence that both the shop where the girl lies sleeping at the beginning of the novel and the chapel where she lies dead upon her bier resemble each other. The fact that our first and last view of her have so many points in common perfectly renders the circular structure of the text (the narrative starts and ends in London) and of Nell’s story in particular, but it also raises a problem. As James Buzard points out,

[t]he uncanny sameness-and-difference of these two well-known illustrations, the seemingly typological relationship in which the former appears inevitably to forecast the latter, threatens to reduce ‘reading’ this novel to the act of flipping back and forth between the two framing, static images, and to evacuate all significance from the in-between. (193–94)

12Actually, in this novel there exists a tension between the protagonist’s inertia and the energetic comings and goings of most of the other characters (Quilp, Swiveller, Kit); between Nell’s immobility and the plot itself, which unfolds through a series of physical and geographical shifts in location from London to the industrial town, thence to various country villages and back to London, with the last scene in which Kit takes his family to the spot where the shop had once been; between Nell’s very stillness and her centre-to-periphery itinerary, which draws her from the capital of the nation to a Shropshire hamlet, from the old curiosity shop to the grave. So, this shop becomes the crucial narrative motif of the novel, not only because it marks both its beginning and its end in terms of space, but also because Nell’s own life seems to be inscribed in it.

13The Old Curiosity Shop is also interesting from a ‘thingly’ perspective and, therefore, relevant in the present context—for its having been serialized in the weekly miscellany Master Humphrey’s Clock. This relatively neglected text presents perhaps “Dickens’s most thorough object lesson in the joys of ‘thing’ loving,” and “has a lot to tell us about Dickens’s investment in the imaginative, emotional and erotic appeal of objects” (Furneaux 47). The clock is, obviously, the crucial narrative element around which a whole set of desires cluster and develop: its main attraction “springs from the sense of emotional fellowship that it offers its owner,” and its animation is typical of Dickens’s “fascination with the inanimate made animate and vice versa” (48–49). Similarly, Michael Hollington (quoted by Furneaux) writes that the malevolence of objects is a fundamental feature of The Old Curiosity Shop in its analysis of nineteenth-century capitalism: “it depicts a society where people treat other people and even themselves as things to be bought and sold” (Hollington 1); on the other hand, “elsewhere […] objects are represented as faithful companions who share and sympathise with the lives of their owners” (4).

14In his later fiction, Dickens represents shops of very different kinds, and the enumeration of the items they contain fulfils different stylistic functions. Some inventories seem to possess a specific phonic dimension, as in the description of Sol Gills’s shop in Dombey and Son, whose contents are meticulously listed for two reasons: because they are the tools of a nautical instrument maker, and because of an assonance between such words as “barometers” and “chronometers,” “sextants” and “quadrants,” “brass” and “glass.” The passage deserves to be quoted in full:

The stock in trade of this old gentleman comprised chronometers, barometers, telescopes, compasses, charts, maps, sextants, quadrants, and specimens of every kind of instrument used in the working of a ship’s course, or the keeping of a ship’s reckoning, or the prosecuting of a ship’s discoveries. Objects in brass and glass were in his drawers and on his shelves. […] Everything was jammed into the tightest cases, fitted into the narrowest corners, fenced up behind the most impertinent cushions, and screwed into the acutest angles, to prevent its philosophical composure from being disturbed by the rolling of the sea. Such extraordinary precautions were taken in every instance to save room, and keep the thing compact; and so much practical navigation was fitted, and cushioned, and screwed, into every box […] that the shop itself, partaking of the general infection, seemed almost to become a snug, sea-going, ship-shape concern, wanting only good sea-room, in the event of an unexpected launch, to work its way securely, to any desert island in the world. (88–89)

15Freedgood remarks that the ship’s instruments by which one finds one’s way in the world are set, here, in such a manner as to leave no room for interpolation: “the shop, like the Dickens description, keeps its things […] so close together that no more things (it would seem) can be added or fitted between them” (The Ideas in Things 104). The compactness and neatness in which things are arranged has a further meaning in relation to Sol; as a sort of surrogate father to Walter and Florence (Waters, “Gender, family, and domestic ideology” 128), his role in the novel is well rendered by the comfortable warmth of his shop which provides a refuge for Florence when she flees there after her father strikes her. And this sense of protection is conveyed by the very tightness and tidiness with which the marine tools are stored and put in proper order by its owner. Kate Flint writes that the Midshipman’s associations with the sea “help make a deliberately potent figurative connection between meteorological and emotional storms, and the need of a stable and loving centre if one is to have any chance of weathering either.” Moreover—she adds—the choice of a commercial establishment to suggest such a centre “signifies that while Dickens attacks some of the worst effects of a soul-destroying preoccupation with money, he is hardly anti-capitalist, or anti-imperialist” (41–42).

16To corroborate Flint’s argument about Dickens’s enthusiasm for mercantile expansiveness (although informed by a moral conscience), it may not be irrelevant to remark that the ship’s chronometer which appears in the description of Sol’s shop is also included in A History of the World in 100 Objects as one of the most important inventions in nineteenth-century Britain:

Why does the whole world measure its time and define its position in relation to the Greenwich Meridian, a line passing through a spot on the banks of the Thames in south-east London? The story begins with the invention in London of a sea-going clock that allowed sailors to find their longitude. […] Harrison’s chronometers were pioneering, high-precision instruments made in tiny numbers and affordable only to the Admiralty. […] This particular chronometer […] is famous because in 1831 it was issued to HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his great voyage to South America, the Galapagos Islands and on around the world, which ultimately led to his theory of evolution and his great work On the Origin of Species.” (MacGregor 503, 504, 505)

17The mention of the ship’s chronometer in Dombey and Son may consequently also be read as the writer’s celebration of Victorian England’s scientific and technical power.

18Other inventories of items contained in a Dickensian shop juxtapose disparate elements by association, analogy or contrast. A good example is Mr. Krook’s sordid warehouse in Bleak House, which displays such different articles as paper, bones, iron and clothes, but also a whole range of bottles containing different fluids:

[Esther] had stopped at a shop, over which was written, krook, rag and bottle warehouse. Also, in long thin letters, krook, dealer in marine stores. In one part of the window […] was the inscription, bones bought. In another, kitchen-stuff bought. In another, old iron bought. In another, waste paper bought. In another, ladies’ and gentlemen’s wardrobes bought. Everything seemed to be bought, and nothing to be sold there. In all parts of the window were quantities of dirty bottles: blacking bottles, medicine bottles, ginger-beer and soda-water bottles, pickle bottles, wine bottles, ink bottles. […] There were a great many ink bottles. (98–99)

19Since Krook is “the illiterate parody-Chancellor” (Storey 28) —he is actually called Chancery’s “brother” (101) —the metonymic sequence of objects, with the hammering repetition of the word “bottles,” unequivocally connects his shop to the Court of Chancery, where gallons of ink are used for legal documents: the filth and chaos of the former echo the moral corruption of the latter. In order to make this connection clearer to the reader, the narrator notices: “A little way within the shop-door, lay heaps of old crackled parchment scrolls, and discoloured and dog’s-eared law-papers” (99). In this case, the rhetorical figure of enumeration is used not only to condemn the British legal system outright, but also to strengthen the general structure of the text, which is based on inner echoes and correspondences between “the high” and “the low” of society, and in which everything is connected with everything else.

20The most unusual shop of Dickens’s novels is probably Mr. Venus’s in Our Mutual Friend, which is enveloped in a surreal atmosphere because of the eerie objects it contains. “Preserver of Animals and Birds”, “Articulator of human bones” (128), Mr. Venus describes the items stored in his establishment to Mr. Wegg with words that are hardly intelligible:

“You’re casting your eye round the shop, Mr. Wegg. Let me show you a light. My working bench. My young man’s bench. A Wice. Tools. Bones, warious. Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Bottled preparations. Warious. Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Bottled preparations, warious. […] Say, human warious. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird. Dried cuticle, warious. Oh, dear me! That’s the general panoramic view.” (126)

21These words are followed by the omniscient narrator’s comment “all these heterogeneous objects seemed to come forward obediently when they were named, and then retire again” (126): a case of anthropomorphism that is typical of Dickens’s writing.

22But the writer resorts to the device of pathetic fallacy in Our Mutual Friend at a more complex level: this novel represents, in fact, a unique example as regards the process of commodification not only of objects but also of human beings, who are reified into mere objects. Several critics have commented on this. John Carey writes that, on Dickens’s part, it is a “deeply ingrained imaginative habit to see bits of people’s bodies as if they had come adrift from the rest, or to make them handle parts of themselves as if they belonged to someone else,” and adds: “His imagination […] pulls apart human bodies like dolls, and grasps at amputated members” (94, 96). The representation of a fragmented reality is often conveyed by Dickens through his regular use of the synecdoche “in a way which tends to dismember any sense of human wholeness and to offer a world composed of detachable organs” (Baldick 108). Andrew Miller, taking his clue from the sentence “Lizzie took her right hand from the scull it held” (OMF 46) —in the scene in which the girl is rowing on the Thames—remarks: “As this phrasing recurs in the novel, the use of body parts as objects slides from the syntactic to the ontological: people act on their own bodies as if these bodies were objects” (150).

23Fragmentation manifests itself, in Our Mutual Friend, not only through such characters as Jenny Wren (the dolls’ dress-maker), Silas Wegg (the man with a wooden leg) and Mr. Venus himsel—who all deal with/in bits and pieces of things—but also by the very structure of the text. Fragmentation and (supposed) lack of unity are, of course, recognized as Dickens’s conscious narrative strategies, and not as structural weaknesses. This is the case with this novel, in particular, of which an influential critic has written that it “might be compared to cubist collage. Its structure is formed by the juxtaposition of incompatible fragments in a pattern of disharmony or mutual contradiction” (Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens 284). What an anonymous reviewer of this novel had written in the Westminster Review, as early as April 1866, might indeed have referred to its apparently disjointed structure: “As it is impossible for us here to analyse the whole work [Our Mutual Friend], we must content ourselves with a chapter. […] But Mr Dickens does not suffer by the process. He is seen to the best advantage in detached pieces” (qtd. in Collins 474).

24From what we have seen in Dombey and Son, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, one could argue that shops are relegated to the periphery of the texts, as none of their owners is a main character of these novels. And yet, each of them plays an important role in the general structure of the narrative. Sol Gills constitutes “a stable and loving centre” in a novel which, through Mr. Dombey, presents a negative image of the Victorian home: “the most comforting domestic space is not inhabited by a conventional family, but is the parlour of the Wooden Midshipman” (Flint 41). Mr. Krook, owing to his ‘kinship’ with the Lord Chancellor and his connection with the anonymous copy-writer Nemo (Esther’s father), has a symbolic function that is explicitly rendered by his death by “spontaneous combustion,” which may be read as destruction of the System from within and by itself: “it is the same death eternally—inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupt humours of the vicious body itself, and that only—Spontaneous Combustion, and none other of all deaths that can be died” (511–12). Mr. Venus (together with another apparently marginal character, Jenny Wren) is the artist who tries to classify, fix and bring fragments back to life in his shop, creating unity out of separate parts, and order out of chaos; as such, he has a clear metaliterary dimension to the point that his shop can be read as a sort of mise en abyme of the novel itself.

25A comparison of the four novels I have been considering suggests a further remark. The old curiosity shop and Krook’s junkshop are places where objects are stored but never sold: the former consists of an accumulation of old things, which were “wonderfully suited” to Little Nell’s grandfather—“There was nothing in the whole collection but was in keeping with himself; nothing that looked older or more worn than he” (OCS 47)—; the latter, of an accumulation of disparate objects, as the narrator plainly remarks: “Everything seemed to be bought, and nothing to be sold there” (99). These warehouses convey a sense of lethargy as they lack the movement that is implied in the commercial exchange of items for money; this inertia mirrors their owners’ identities. Indeed, although old Mr. Trent is not as negative a character as Mr. Krook, they are both connected to paralysis, corruption and death: Nell’s grandfather is described as “haggard,” Mr. Krook as “cadaverous, and withered” (99); the former is associated to old churches and tombs, the latter to a horrible death.

26On the contrary, Sol Gills’s and Mr. Venus’s shops are places where very lively relationships between individuals are established: old Sol lives there, “in skipper-like state,” with his nephew Walter, “a boy of fourteen who looked quite enough like a midshipman, to carry out the prevailing idea” (89); and Mr. Venus entertains a fruitful and warm exchange (human as well as commercial) with his customer Silas Wegg, with whom we see him “partaking” of his tea and muffin (123).

27Something more can be read into all these shops’ different functions. Mere hoarding of goods suggests greed, fetishism and selfishness, while the ability to circulate commodities is not only a sign of mercantile skill but also of openness to the world and one’s neighbours. In narrative terms, these spaces of commerce serve to assign further elements of characterization to their respective proprietors.

3. Fantasies of Consumption: The Great Exhibition and Household Words

28Shops obviously have to do with goods as well as with fantasies of consumption. Judith Flanders has devoted two chapters of her Consuming Passions. Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain to retail trade as part of the birth and development of a growing consumer world. Flanders points out that, with the opening of the Metropolitan Railway in 1863 (running from Paddington to Farringdon, and then to St Pancras in 1868), and with the extension of the Underground to Kensington and Victoria, “the influx of suburban shoppers to the West End became a reality,” but she also remarks that “the sumptuousness, the brightness, the richness—above all, the sheer up-to-dateness—of shops had been commented on by visitors for a hundred years” (100). On the other hand, throughout the nineteenth century, important changes take place in the field of commerce: the opening of new bazaars, such as the Royal London Bazaar and the Pantheon, where other activities, like concerts and exhibitions, also took place, as if to confirm that “shopping was, and had long been, a branch of entertainment”; and their transformation into something else: “As the Exeter Change turned into a show, other bazaars were developing in ways which would turn them into department stores” (107, 108).

29In a similar vein, Andrew Miller, in Novels behind Glass. Commodity Culture and Victorian Narrative, identifies the connection among apparently disparate elements as expressions of a common historical and cultural phenomenon: new glass-making technology in the mid-1830s in England, with the mass production of glass sheets of unparalleled size; their use for the display windows where goods were exhibited and which “radically transfigured the experience of walking through commercial sections of London, fashioning the streets into gas-lit spaces of utopian splendour” (1); and the fantasies of consumption they encouraged:

The display windows in this nation of shopkeepers thus served as emblems of an economic dynamic which was also and simultaneously libidinal (producing desire and disenchantment), epistemological (concerning the representation of falsehood and truth), and social (marking individual isolation and the possibilities of communal relations). (5)

30Miller points out the Victorian novelists’ responses to the possibilities and dangers of commodification, and, in particular, “the possibilities and dangers of conceiving literary products as commodities—during the period when material culture was becoming a dominant cultural force” (13). Against such a background, the recurrence of shops in Dickens’s work is significantly connected, at both historical and metaphorical level, to the description of Great Britain as “the workshop of the world” (Hudson).

31Within this context, the Great Exhibition of 1851 plays a special role in defining the image of a country which is characterized not only by the quantity of goods being sold, but also by the sheer abundance of things being displayed. Since the Exhibition marked the apotheosis of material artefacts, it represented Britain’s power as the producer of a large variety of objects: it was “the first outburst of the phantasmagoria of commodity culture. It inaugurated a way of seeing things that marked indelibly the cultural and commercial life of Victorian England” (Richards 18).

  • 2 On this debate see Chialant 31-34.

32Indeed, according to Elaine Freedgood, the Great Exhibition might be imagined as “an epic face-off” between thing culture and commodity culture (The Ideas in Things 143). She argues, throughout her book, for the existence of a ‘thing culture’, a form of object relations that preceded commodity culture. In a subsequent essay, unequivocally entitled “Commodity Criticism and Victorian Thing Culture: The Case of Dickens,” Freedgood returns to this querelle and maintains that our intense focus on the totalizing character of the commodity culture of Victorian Britain “has perhaps occluded our ability to appreciate other kinds of object relations that may have preceded and survived it” (153).2 The Modernist intellectual tendency, derived from Marx’s description of the commodity fetish—in which the commodity becomes a “false representation”—has led us to equate things and commodities. Dickens’s fiction, in particular, has been involved in this misconception; what Freedgood contends, here, is that “it is the criticism of the Dickens novel rather than anything inherent in his novels themselves that has convinced us that their thingfulness is first and foremost a representation of commodity culture” (153). The same misinterpretation concerns the Great Exhibition, which has been usually (and erroneously) understood as “the crystallization […] of the triumph of commodity culture” (154).

33On the other hand, Catherine Waters has suggested an analogy between the Exhibition and Dickens’s weekly journal Household Words. Starting from the premise that the periodical as such is “the most prolific and ubiquitous of Victorian commodities”, she refers to the well-known eighteenth-century magazine The Spectator, which seems to foreshadow some of the strategies of Household Words’s writing on the city as commodity spectacle, with its “effect of a cornucopia” created by the catalogue of worldly goods (Waters, Commodity Culture in Dickens’s “Household Words” 6, 8). Some articles in the periodical present, in fact, cases of inventories, such as the well-ordered, extensive classification of the merchandise contained in a Manchester warehouse, defined by James Lowe “a little Great Exhibition” (112), and the “confused and motley” collection of wares in the Colombo bazaar of a Moorman trader, described by John Capper (113). Other articles also introduce new kinds of shopping areas, the London “arcades”—“plate-glass-adorned and nick-nack-crowded covered thoroughfares”—which had spread from Paris to Milan, Florence, Vienna and, finally, London, as George Sala wrote in his “Arcadia,” and which would provide for the Benjamin of The Arcades Project “a paradigm for the fragmentary nature of modernity in the arbitrary profusion of their commodity displays” (76).

34Not only the subject and content of some of the articles, but also the style of writing and the specific techniques employed by Dickens in Household Words contribute to the imaginative effects of the journal and to the cultural significance of the representation of commodities. Waters writes:

The breathless listing of randomly juxtaposed goods is an important topos in this regard. Like a miniature Great Exhibition, these exuberant catalogues encapsulate a central point in my argument about the paradoxical nature of commodification, for they simultaneously enhance the exciting variety of things listed, and seek to suppress it by implying their interchangeability or exchangeability. (15–16)

35As the Great Exhibition was an extraordinary and immense shop in itself, so Dickens’s journal, with its reports of that event, was an exceptional shop-window for displaying those commodities. But the interest in goods is a distinctive and constant feature of both Household Words and All the Year Round; both magazines play a promotional role in various ways: by referring to specific “brand names”—such as Fortnum and Mason, Moses and Son, Vegetable Pills–as well as by advertising Dickens’s own novels which were published in the journals themselves: “The serial instalments […] carried copious and varied advertisements for a host of commodities. […] These appeared in supplements, named after the serial novel (such as the ‘Bleak House Advertiser’), inside the green paper wrappers that became a familiar distinguishing feature of the monthly shilling parts—a form of branding that is still employed by modern journals devoted to Dickens studies” (20).

36In the end, the reason for associating Household Words to the Great Exhibition and the display of products is the very idea of commerce: it is not only goods and Dickens’s novels that are advertised in the journal, but also London itself, which is represented as a commodity to put on show: “Capitalism was now consolidating its hold over England not only economically but semiotically. The era of spectacle had begun” (Richards 3).

4. London “Scenes”

37Dickens’s interest in the city—and particularly in London—does not need to be underlined, of course; but this brings me back to the first representations of the shop in his fiction, and precisely to the four “Scenes” in Sketches by Boz which offer the reader a polychrome of the city. Dickens’s sketches were, and still are, admired for the way he faithfully “rendered the sights and sounds of ordinary daily life in the street of London” (Slater 1, xiii): they are “a representation in words of scenes, people, and ways of living which really existed in London in the eighteen-thirties” (Hillis Miller, “Sketches by Boz, Oliver Twist, and Cruikshank Illustrations” 2). What is especially important in the present context is the fact that they were “saturated in topical detail, some—such as streets, buildings, vehicles and clothing—instantly recognizable, other—characters in plays, events barely hinted at—virtually incomprehensible today” (Schlicke and Long 12).

38As the incipit of “Shops and Their Tenants” reads, “What inexhaustible food for speculation, do the streets of London afford!” (SB 80), and, one could add, what a variety of human and social types do their shops provide. In fact, in this very “Sketch,” the narrator displays a series of different shops (with their tenants) that quickly follow one another on the same premises owing to the ups and downs of commerce: “One of our principal amusements is to watch the gradual progress—the rise or fall—of particular shops. [...] They are never inhabited for more than two months consecutively, and, we verily believe, have witnessed every retail trade in the directory” (81).

39An incredibly large variety of objects fill up the “brokers’ and marine-stores shops” of the eponymous “Sketch” (and almost a whole page of the Penguin edition), giving a wonderful example of Dickens’s use of the list. The narrator himself speaks, here, of “the heterogeneous mixture of things which we have attempted to describe”, adding that “it is curious to observe how truly and accurately some of the minor articles which are exposed for sale […] mark the character of the neighbourhood” (211). This remark is followed by two long descriptions: first, of Drury-lane and Covent-garden, that has to do with what he loved most, the theatre; then, of a very different quarter, Ratcliffe-highway, which foreshadows the marine-store dealer’s shop that Dickens would later develop with Solomon Gills’s in Dombey and Son.

40In “Gin-shops,” the explosion of this kind of trade in London is compared to the outbreak of a contagious disease which spreads quickly like an epidemic, rushing “to every part of town, knocking down all the old public-houses, and depositing splendid mansions, stone balustrades, rose-wood fittings, immense lamps, and illuminated clocks, at the corner of every street” (216). The narrator, however, cannot help but point out that these places, “invariably numerous and splendid,” are “in precise proportion with the dirt and poverty of the surrounding neighbourhood” (217). His discriminating gaze lingers on the inequalities between these parts of London (in and around Drury-lane, Holborn, St Giles’s, Covent-garden and Clare-market) and its better quarters, concluding that “Gin-drinking is a great vice in England, but poverty is a greater” (220).

41Pawnbroker’s shops, those “receptacles for misery and distress with which the streets of London unhappily abound,” offer a similar image of vice and poverty. In “The Pawnbroker’s shop,” the narrator chooses to select one of the most humble money-lenders’ establishments in Drury-lane, making a detailed list of articles of stock, ”displayed in some profusion in the window” (223), and musing on the degradation and unfortunate fate of its customers. These sketches of shops thus give Dickens the opportunity to offer the reader an overview of London life and a comment on social inequalities.

42To return to the beginning of my article, the analogy between a shop replete with objects and a page full of words evoked by the first epigraph describes very effectively Dickens’s rhetoric of “excess” as one of his crucial literary strategies. On this aspect, John Kucich has written a seminal essay in which he reads this author’s whole work through the tension between excess and restraint, economy and expenditure (recalling the trope of dépense in Georges Bataille’s theory), order and chaos (11–12). He argues that Dickens’s characters, plots and scenes all spring from his creative energy which he manages to liberate in a variety of ways; an energy that manifests itself in a special tension in his style through such figures of speech as synecdoche and metonymy, as well as in the “blend of prodigal energy and systematic discipline” in his method of publication (203).

43To conclude, the Dickensian shop is the container and expression of both energy and discipline, as it implies both the amassment/accumulation of objects and their orderly arrangement; as such, it is—I believe—a good metaphor of this author’s way of writing.

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1 My page reference is to the Italian edition.

2 On this debate see Chialant 31-34.

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Maria Teresa CHIALANT, « The Shop in Dickens’s Fiction », E-rea [En ligne], 13.2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2016, consulté le 26 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Maria Teresa CHIALANT

University of Salerno (Italy)
M. T. Chialant was Professor of English Literature at the University of Salerno, Italy. Her main fields of research are the Victorian novel, Gender Studies and Object Studies. She has written extensively on Dickens, Gissing and H. G. Wells, and published essays on Conrad, E. M. Forster and Rebecca West.

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