Freud Meets Dickens

I know you’ve all been waiting for the big set model demonstration video, and believe me when I tell you – me too! Unfortunately, the technical gods (or demons) have decided it is not meant to be this week. It simply refuses to upload, so we’re back to the drawing board for today!

However, all is not lost. Below you will find a fascinating piece from our dramaturg, Anthony Fichera on Dickensian psychology. For those unfamiliar with the role of a dramaturg, he or she is usually a theatre scholar who assists the director, designers and cast in understanding the elements of a text. Anthony offers invaluable insight into why certain characters might react the way they do, background on the playwright/author, etc. He also gives the script historical context, as he does here.


In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens’s “psychology,” his strategies for presenting human behavior, stands on the dividing line between the worlds of Austen, Richardson and other 18th Century authors and the world of the 19th century. The heart and the head war; in Dickens, the heart frequently comes out the winner.

Dickens took from the 18th century its growing insistence on the primacy of feeling, of emotion (the “sensibility” of Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”). The heart as an independent organ, literally or metaphorically, emerges from the shadow of both Elizabethan rhetorical convention (where feeling–all of it, from Othello’s raging jealousy to Romeo’s passionate love–is expressed in often complex, rhetorically saturated language) and the subsequent Restoration emphasis on sharply, logically constructed rational discourse of action and motivation, to find itself as a player in its own right. Through the 18th century, character in literature and drama becomes a mediation between reflection and emotion. By Dickens’s time, one side of the argument is starting to predominate.

The defining characteristic of the central trio in Nicholas Nickleby (Nicholas, Kate and Mrs. Nickleby) is one of feeling. For Nicholas, his rash temper and impetuous gestures for and against the people around him, his sister’s virtue-or-death stance and Mrs. Nickleby’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings on seemingly unrelated topics lie the emergent melodrama’s preference for idea of “pure” and “unreflected” emotional being. (The recognition of Nicholas and Smike–who surely, in Dotheboy Hall’s atmosphere of damaged children is hardly unique–relates entirely to the 19th century melodrama’s notion of the “voix du sang”–the “voice of the blood”–by which characters unknowingly related to one another nonetheless form deep, profound and often instantaneous connections. Readers of Pixerecourt’s immensely influential “Coelina; or, The Child of Mystery” will certainly not be surprised by this moment!)

This trio is opposed, principally, by characters whose calculating, dispassionate and unappealing intellectualizing mark them as quintessentially “cold-hearted” characters. The grasping, scheming greed of Ralph Nickleby, the callousness of Mr. and Mrs. Squeers; the brutal, methodical predation of Sir Mulberry Hawk: the triumph of “thought” (qualities which, in earlier periods of English literature might be the accepted–and acceptable–markers of behavior have now become the indices of true villainy). (Though, honestly, can one really imagine a character such as Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet having even the slightest difficulty identifying and dealing with the likes of Ralph Nickleby or Sir Mulberry?: such are the perils of the ideational limits of sentimental characterization in Dickens…)

The war of heart and head, of feeling and thought would, of course, continue throughout the 19th century. Complexities of behavior and “depth psychology” the growing distance between the stated and conscious desires of characters and their private, unacknowledged motivations find their expression in the novels of George Eliot, Henry James and the plays pf Ibsen and Chekhov and Strindberg (Hedda Gabbler and Miss Julie are particularly noteworthy examples of characters whose multiple and conflicting motivations nearly swamp the narratives they inhabit). It would be the purpose of 20th century writers such Stein, Joyce and Beckett to “kill the 19th century” by developing literary strategies which bypassed or completely undercut the kind of psychological underpinnings which Dickens and his ancestors/descendants worked so hard to create.