Looking at what I call “narrative refusals” gives us a glimpse at a previously unrecognized facet of the complexities that form Dickens’s style, allowing us to see differently what is there by turning our attention to what is marked as explicitly not-there. The paper outlines the pervasive uses of unnarration (when a narrator says he or she will not tell something) and disnarration (when a narrator tells something that did not happen in place of telling what did) in such Dickens novels as Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, andDombey and Son, then turns to an earlier work, Nicholas Nickleby, where narrative refusals are already incipient, though more rare than in middle and later Dickens. When narrative refusal is present in Dickens, the figure takes one of at least three different forms: negation of action or situation (“it was not. . . not. . . not”), misattribution of characters’ feelings and agency to a fictitious “Nobody” (as in Little Dorrit) and subjunctive narration detailing what might have happened, but does not. I will concentrate in this paper on negated and subjunctive disnarration of “what might have been” but “is not what is,” to quote what R. Wilfer says about the counterfactual in Our Mutual Friend.
Negative and subjunctive narrative refusals work in Dickens to create a shadow world repressed, as it were, from the main narrative, as well as to enhance the effect of character depth. At their most interesting, they outline a narrative unconscious for each of Dickens’s texts, more painstakingly worked out than the representation of the psychology of any of the characters. It is not a collective unconscious, but rather a collection of specific possibilities and details the text presents in order to leave out, while not altogether forgetting, what I call the “shadow narrative.” When the shadow narrative emerges through narrative refusals, the “repressed” of the text returns, not quite not-there.