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date: 03 December 2020

Abstract and Keywords

Dickens’s celebration of other-worldly or childlike femininity, with its corollary anathema of ‘fallen’ women, has often seemed the quintessence of a fabled Victorian repression, which obscures or radically simplifies the unsettling energies of erotic life. Yet Dickens’s fiction acknowledges the power of those energies in its incessant preoccupation with the management of sexual desire. Gender norms in Dickens’s world are largely articulated through the management of desire, which also underwrites moral hierarchies that are frequently aligned with hierarchies of social class. But there is a powerful, gendered asymmetry in Dickens’s representation of sexual discipline. Inverting long-standing gender norms, the idealized woman of Victorian domestic ideology is a figure of selfless, nurturing sympathy, whose instinctive modesty and restraint are a foil to more aggressive, self-interested masculine desire, which must be controlled by strength of will. Thus while representations of femininity in Dickens tend to be shaped by stark sexual dichotomies—the virtuous and the ‘fallen’—masculinity depends on self-discipline that is articulated through a variety of psychic regimens, which are inflected by, and in turn articulate, more intricate social hierarchies. This chapter focuses on three novels from different stages of Dickens’s career—The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, and Our Mutual Friend—to bring home something of the range in his characterization of sexuality and sexual discipline, but also the consistency with which masculine self-discipline serves as a marker of class standing. That standing is ratified in the relative assurance with which a character masters his unruly desires—desires thrown into relief by contrasting models of femininity.

Keywords: sexuality, gender, masculinity, femininity, desire, repression, class, homoeroticism

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