Robyn Warhol-Down: “Not Quite Not-There: Dickens’s Narrative Refusals” (11/18)

Robyn Warhol-Down, University of Vermont. 
311 Denney Hall, 164 W. 17th Ave. 
Tuesday, Nov 18, 3:30 PM
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 ExpectationsOur 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.

4 responses to “Robyn Warhol-Down: “Not Quite Not-There: Dickens’s Narrative Refusals” (11/18)

  1. Perhaps the shadow narrative lies behind expressions that serve to patch up, as it were, the narrative – phrasings like ‘for the rest of the day we kept to ourself and didn’t say much.’ These kinds of expressions occur especially often in travel literature, I believe, in which space and time are closely conflated. Expressions like, ‘for the rest of the day we marched in silence’ and ‘nothing extraordinary happened until we arrived in…” seem to bridge not only a gap in time (the rest of the day, the time it takes to go to X), but also gaps in the geography of the text.

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  3. It’s now more than one year since there’s been any movement on this blog. I think this should give us food for though (I almost said pause, but one year’s pause is more than enough!). Is there any way the administrators of Project Narrative could open the blog to members of the Narrative list, or could somehow liven up participation, by commissioning posts, or something? It is a pity that many discussions which might benefit from the blog format may not be taking place through this blog, which ought ho hold such a central place. There are no major narratology blogs that I can think of. Why shouldn’t this one become the first? It’s in an excellent position to do so, but something is missing. Why are narrative theory people so averse or indifferent to the blog format? Or perhaps there is some problem with access, usability, etc.? If there were too many potential writers, some control would be in order; as it is, I think that the blog needs some livening up—perhaps, it would be my suggestion, through a closer interaction with the Narrative-L distribution list. I am sending this comment to the list as well.

  4. Dear Jose Angel,

    Thanks for raising the issue. I’m all in favor of this blog become the first major narratology/narrative theory blog. In the morning I’m heading out of town for a week, but shortly after I return I’ll be back on here with some suggestions for moving things along.

    Thanks again!

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