Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 21 September 2019

Dickens and the Environment

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses Dickens’s response to the environmental catastrophe brought about by nineteenth-century industrial modernity, focusing on the ways in which his departures from realism might register the arrival of what would become known as the ‘Anthropocene’. It assesses his place in the short history of eco-criticism, and his importance to recent eco-critical scholarship. It also attempts to take stock of the limits of Dickens’s environmental vision, including his occasional celebrations of the utopic promise of industrial technology; his tendency to blur the distinction between the moral and material valences of terms and concepts like ‘pollution’, and ‘corruption’, and his tendency to locate the solution to systemic ecological problems in individual moral behaviour.

Keywords: Dickens, environmental, environment, ecological, ecology, Anthropocene, industrial, pollution, eco-criticism

What kind of environmental thinker was Dickens, and how might we read his novels as contributions to a nineteenth-century environmental imaginary? On one hand, he is perhaps the most famous chronicler of the eco-catastrophe that unfolded in English cities in the nineteenth century. Like no writer before or since, Dickens makes palpable the oppressive feel of life lived in intimate contact with various forms of toxic waste:

Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither. … Even in the surrounding country it was a foggy day, but there the fog was grey, whereas in London it was, at about the boundary line, dark yellow, and a little within it brown, and then browner, and then browner, until at the heart of the City—which call Saint Mary Axe—it was rusty-black.1

Indeed, so memorably did Dickens describe the ‘London particular’—the dense, stifling smog often misleadingly called ‘fog’—that his name almost inevitably arises in discussions of nineteenth-century air pollution. He was, as Christine Corton writes, ‘in a sense, the creator of London fog in the popular consciousness’.2 Somewhat less famously, but no less vividly, Dickens also frequently describes the contamination of English waterways, most notably the Thames, which had by mid-century become a ‘deadly sewer’ (as he writes in Little Dorrit) of human and animal waste, industrial (p. 567) effluents, corpses, and other discarded materials.3 Take, for example, this passage from David Copperfield:

Slimy gaps and causeways, winding among old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to the latter, like green hair, and the rags of last year's handbills offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark, led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb tide. There was a story that one of the pits dug for the dead in the time of the Great Plague was hereabout; and a blighting influence seemed to have proceeded from it over the whole place. Or else it looked as if it had gradually decomposed into that nightmare condition, out of the overflowings of the polluted stream.4

It is thanks to such passages that the adjective ‘Dickensian’ has come to signify, among other things, a kind of overwhelming, almost dystopic, spectacle of urban disorder.

Dickens was also a vociferous supporter of the urban sanitary reform movement, which was rooted in the work of James Kay-Shuttleworth, Southwood Smith, Edwin Chadwick, and other Victorian reformers who strove to reveal the radiating financial, moral, medical, and political consequences of environmental degradation. In a speech delivered to the Metropolitan Sanitary Association in 1851, Dickens indicates the extent to which environmental redress is at the root of his overall social vision: ‘I can honestly declare tonight … that all the information I have since been able to acquire through any of my senses, has strengthened me in the conviction that Searching Sanitary Reform must precede all other social remedies.’5 Chadwick and other sanitarians were technocrats, and their quasi-utopic belief in the power of technology was problematic in many ways. As historian Bill Luckin argues, for example, massive public works projects like the Embankment of the Thames, which dramatically cleaned up the portion of the river that ran through the city, served as potent symbols of imperial control and technological mastery.6 But sanitary discourse also helped establish what we call an ‘ecological’ understanding of both the individual human body and the collective ‘social body’ as open systems in an ongoing, dynamic interchange with the environment.7 As Jules Law argues, a project like the Embankment partly came about because of the way the sanitarians helped show how the Thames was ‘symbiotically connected to the domestic lives and bodies of ordinary Londoners’.8

(p. 568) On the other hand, we don’t tend to think of Dickens as an ‘environmental writer’, precisely because of his almost exclusive focus on social organization and the built, human-made world. Or, as Robert Patten puts it: ‘Nature does not play a large part in his novels, nor in critics’ discussions of them. There are, to be sure, moments when Dickens pays tribute to the phenomena of Nature, the almost obligatory set-pieces such as high summer at the Maylies’ cottage in Oliver Twist, or the countryside around Tong church in The Old Curiosity Shop, or the surprisingly lovely appearance of the land around the forge that Pip observes toward the end of Great Expectations.’ But such scenes, Patten argues, ‘are not particularly carefully observed or differentiated’.9 Rosemarie Bodenheimer makes a similar point, noting that Dickens’s ‘visual imagination seems to have been fully engaged only by the artifacts of the city’.10 In short, Dickens seems to be missing that quality we often associate with ‘green’ writers like Thoreau or Wordsworth—an inclination to appreciate, or defend, or simply describe, the non-human world on its own terms and for its own sake.

Instead, Dickens almost always stylizes non-human nature, either by representing it by way of conventional tropes, as Patten notes, or by thoroughly humanizing it through his powerful anthropomorphic imagination. Take the following three examples, from David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and Martin Chuzzlewit, respectively, all of which, in slightly different ways, make the power of the natural world less alien or threatening by lending it familiar human shape, emotion, and personality:

[T]he elms bent to one another, like giants who were whispering secrets, and after a few seconds of such repose, fell into a violent flurry, tossing their wild arms about, as if their late confidences were really too wicked for their peace of mind. (DC 1, 5)

The beach was a desert of heaps of sea and stones tumbling wildly about, and the sea did what it liked and what it liked was destruction. It thundered at the town, and thundered at the cliffs, and brought the coast down, madly.11

[T]he wind … slammed the front-door against Mr. Pecksniff who was at that moment entering, with such violence, that in the twinkling of an eye he lay on his back at the bottom of the steps. Being by this time weary of such trifling performances, the boisterous rover hurried away rejoicing, roaring over moor and meadow, hill and flat, until it got out to sea, where it met with other winds similarly disposed, and made a night of it.12

The first passage perfectly captures (to my mind) something of the strange, arrhythmic motion of trees in strong gusts of wind; but it functions primarily to evoke the state of (p. 569) David’s mind as a child, and his perception of the adult world as collusive, fantastical, and larger-than-life. In the second passage, the beach at Dover doesn’t call to mind the chaos of an atomistic universe (as it does for Matthew Arnold), but rather, when read in context, a Carlylean vision of the destructive energies of the revolutionary mob. The winds of history are metaphorically roiling the waters across the channel. And if the comedy in the last passage arises, in part, from the contrast between Pecksniff’s overdeveloped sense of personal importance and the wind’s rowdy indifference to it, the point is that it delivers to this specific character a small but richly deserved comeuppance. The wind may be unmindful of Pecksniff, but it still moves according to the moral weather patterns of Dickens’s universe.

For this reason, perhaps, the so-called first wave of eco-critical scholarship, invested as it was in ‘eco-mimesis’ (the realistic representation of non-human phenomena), had little time for Dickens. Instead, eco-criticism took as its point of departure literature that was interested in either decentring the human from its place of metaphysical centrality, or offering detailed, precisely rendered encounters with the non-human, or making arguments for the protection of wild spaces: texts like Thoreau’s Walden, Wordsworth’s The Prelude and “Tintern Abbey”, John Clare’s lyrics, Ruskin’s essays, and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems. Jonathan Bate’s foundational Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (1991) argued against what he saw as a prevailing New-Historical tendency to read all representations of natural phenomena ideologically, as discursive constructs that find their meaning almost exclusively with reference to human cultural and political concerns. Bate’s straightforward but useful intervention was to read nature as nature in these texts, and to locate in nineteenth-century British writers like Wordsworth and Ruskin an attempt to approach non-human nature on its own terms: ‘this book is dedicated to the proposition that the way in which William Wordsworth sought to enable his readers better to enjoy or endure life was by teaching them to look at and dwell in the natural world’.13 There is not a word about Dickens in Bate’s book, and he merits only a brief mention in that other foundational eco-critical text, Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (1995). In his discussion of how an ‘environmentally oriented work’ might be defined, Buell uses Dickens primarily to illustrate what such a work does not look like. If, Buell argues, one of the definitional criteria is that human history ought to be represented as inescapably entwined with environmental history, then we should be sceptical of a novel like Martin Chuzzlewit, where, he notes, the American West is turned into ‘little more than a backdrop for Martin’s picaresque misadventures’.14 Dickens is also (almost) nowhere to be found in other major early eco-critical works: neither Karl Kroeber’s Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind (1994), nor Glen A. Love’s Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, (p. 570) Biology, and the Environment (2003) mentions him at all, while three important early essay collections, Ecocriticism: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (1996), The Green Studies Reader (2000), and Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism (2001) each include only one passing reference.

But, in a way, Buell’s critique also holds the clue to the recent turn towards Dickens in eco-critical scholarship. For even if we concede the (debatable) point that Martin Chuzzlewit imagines the American wilderness as a kind of inert background for the staging of Martin’s story, it is certainly not the case that Dickens failed to recognize the complex, mutually defining enmeshment of characters and their non-human surroundings. We need only think of the famous opening of Bleak House (which has become, as we shall see, a touchstone for eco-critical readings of Dickens) in which smoke, fog, mud, people, horses, dogs, umbrellas, streets, and paving stones have become, in his word, ‘indistinguishable’, while characters like Krook, Vholes, and Phil Squod appear to be indelibly shaped by their toxically compromised surroundings. Or we might think of the dust heaps, the central symbol of Our Mutual Friend, which derive much of their strange power through the way they conspicuously blend the organic and inorganic, the biological and the industrial, the human body and the larger life-world in which it is enmeshed.

The strange sense of a dynamic interchange between the realms of the human and non-human is of course also not new to Dickens’s readers and critics. Dorothy van Ghent, for example, in her famous 1950 essay ‘A View from Todgers’s’ wrote about the ‘transposition of attributes’ that is ‘the principle of relationship between things and people in the novels of Dickens’.15 But this ‘transposition’ has taken on a new resonance in recent years from environmentally minded critics interested in exploring the ways that the breakdown of seemingly distinct realms or categories (nature and culture, human and non-human, person and thing, subject and object) can help us think past the kind of binary logic that imagines nature as vaguely ‘out there’, distinct from the human world. The book that perhaps did the most to critique this binary is Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without Nature (2007), which argues that the tendency to imagine ‘nature’ as a separate realm is precisely what allows human beings to continue to treat the non-human as an object to be managed and dominated. The perverse result is that what might seem like very different inclinations—the desire to exploit and control the natural world and the desire to protect and appreciate it—actually arise from the same metaphysical assumption of human exceptionalism.

Roughly coincident with Morton’s work has been a surge of critical interest in the ‘Anthropocene’, a stratigraphical category defining the current geological epoch as one shaped by human activity. Timothy Clark argues that it is ‘a name for that moment in the history of the earth at which humanity’s material impact and numbers become such that the set of discrete and once unconnected individual acts across the globe transmogrifies (p. 571) itself into an entity that is also geological and climatological, transgressing given distinctions of human and inhuman’.16 Climate change is, of course, the best-known hallmark of the Anthropocene, but it also includes related but distinct phenomena like the acidification of the oceans, the extinction of myriad plant and animal species, and the accumulation of synthetic substances in the soil and groundwater. If Morton’s argument is focused on subverting the subject/object dichotomy of Western metaphysics in the name of a more rigorous kind of ecological thinking, the Anthropocene tracks the historical shift through which ‘the environment’ actually became, to some degree, a human production. Although dating the commencement of this epoch has been a subject of much debate—many would put the pin in the late eighteenth century, with the invention of James Watt’s steam engine, while others would go much further back—its effects, most agree, become broadly observable and theorizable during the Victorian period. Indeed, the scientific paper most responsible for popularizing the term, Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer’s 2001 essay ‘The Anthropocene’, references the nineteenth-century scientists George Perkins Marsh and Antonio Stoppani, and their dawning awareness that a new epoch was coming into being.17 Others have added the Victorian physicist John Tyndall and his work on what would become known as ‘the greenhouse effect’ to this list of early Anthropocene theorists.18

With the contemporary critical emphasis on attending to various violations of the conventional divisions between human and non-human, Dickens’s conspicuous anthropomorphism might begin to take on a new kind of expressive significance. That is, if there is a human-centric bias to be found in an imagination that consistently imprints the human upon the non-human, there is also potentially a kind of insight in it as well, if understood as part of a broader cultural moment when the human actually was materially imprinting itself upon the non-human world in strange and powerful new ways. Which is not to say that every instance of personification in Dickens’s fiction attests to his prescient awareness of the Anthropocene, but that his vivid and transgressive metaphorical imagination may reveal something newly uncertain about the relationship of humans and the non-human world.

Dickens, indeed, seems at times to reveal something of the disturbing, almost occult power of collective human industry to wield forces hitherto only found in (for lack of a better word) ‘nature’. Take, for example, our introduction to Staggs’s Gardens, home of Polly Toodle, in Dombey and Son:

The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug (p. 572) in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond.19

It is not, of course, an earthquake that has created this chaos; Dickens here temporarily inhabits the perspective of someone unaware that he is coming upon an urban railway construction site. It’s the point of view of an outsider—an outsider to the neighbourhood, of course, but also, in a sense, an outsider to modernity itself, someone who cannot imagine that this chaos could have a human origin. To understand this landscape as the result of a natural disaster is to make a literal miscategorization that functions, in a sense, as an entirely proper moral categorization. It suggests that only natural forces should be able to inflict this kind of damage upon the world. The ingénue’s perspective focuses our attention on the plain fact, rather than the ultimate purpose, of the upheaval, refusing to privilege (at least for this moment) the steamrolling telos over the chaos it creates. In the category confusion, we get a picture of human industry not only as a geologic force, but a frighteningly unwitting one that reshapes the landscape in unintended ways. The construction doesn’t make ‘a pond’, but, more ambiguously and indirectly, ‘something that had accidentally become a pond’. Dickens’s language throughout the passage conveys something of the paradoxical conditions of the Anthropocene through verb forms that suggest a strange and uncertainly distributed agency. For van Ghent, the ‘transposition of attributes’ expresses ‘a world undergoing a gruesome spiritual transformation.’ If she and other critics have understood such a transformation primarily through Marxist categories, the Anthropocene concept can now help us see it in historically grounded ecological terms as well. The transformation might now be seen as both the gruesome changes being materially visited upon the external world, and the strange new epistemological ambiguities about the scope and character of human agency.

Thus, where an earlier generation of eco-critics may have passed Dickens by for the lack of ‘eco-mimetic’ depictions of the natural world, more recent critics see in his very departures from realism one of the keys to his value and interest. As Jesse Oak Taylor writes in his dazzling recent eco-critical reading of Bleak House:

The problem is that Dickens’s novel seems so resolutely unreal, so strangely, abnaturally real, thus suggesting a reverse trajectory, whereby the novel questions the nature of the real in the city itself. Indeed, the principal effect of the climate of smog seems to be a breakdown in both the real and our perception of it.20

(p. 573) The smog in the opening of Bleak House functions both as a blind and a window, disrupting ordinary perception, but enabling forms of what we might think of as ecological insight, including a recognition of the elemental connectedness of humans and non-humans, and even the very existence of something called a ‘climate’. That last is Taylor’s focus, as he discusses the way Dickens’s emphasis on mediation helps make apprehensible environmental phenomena like climate, which cannot be directly experienced by the senses:

Dickens’s fiction abounds with textured materiality such that the imagined reality exceeds any grounding in mimetic accuracy … Rather than distancing us from the realities of climate change, mediation and modeling provide our only evidence of its existence.21

Recent eco-critics also see Dickens’s importance as a ‘green’ writer because of what John Parham terms (following Timothy Clark) his ‘ecological imaginary’—his interest in representing a complexly interdependent world.22 This intermeshment makes its presence felt on both micro- and macro-levels. It appears, of course, on the level of plot, where many of his novels famously work to reveal hitherto unseen or unrecognized connections between people and locations. As Tristan Sipley argues: ‘the value of Dickens lies precisely in the way his sprawling fictions avoid fixating on any space in isolation, and instead map the structural relations between spaces, tracing the flow of energy and natural resources as well as the flow of commodities and the circulation of capital over the English landscape’.23 It also appears on the level of language, where Dickens’s vivid metaphors often highlight the kinds of exchange and transformation (monetary, biological, elemental) that define the city environment. For Karen Chase and Michael Levenson, the London of Bleak House offers us a vision of the city as a medium; it is, in their striking phrase, a ‘liquid universe’, a place defined by a thick, mingled, and mingling atmosphere of gas, oil, mud, grease, smoke, and slime: the ‘foetid effluvia’, the ‘thick nauseous pool[s]’, the ‘smears, like black fat’, that stick and bind bodies, commodities, and dwelling places.24 This is much more than a rhetorical emphasis on pollution; it is, as they show, a landmark in environmental representation, the beginning of Dickens’s social-cum-environmental consciousness about the city as a single integrated ecology: ‘a universe of fluids and gases is one that cannot protect (p. 574) itself with the older barriers of streets, walls, police, and politicians. Contagion can leak through stone’.25

Chase and Levenson contextualize Dickens’s mid-career turn towards a more systematic mode of ecological thought, which they first mark in the later numbers of Dombey and argue finds full expression in Bleak House. In his essay ‘Early Dickens and Ecocriticism’, Troy Boone moves in the opposite chronological direction, attending to the representation of the non-human world in the novels leading up to Martin Chuzzlewit, and arguing for Dickens’s sensitivity to the non-human, including (and especially) non-human animals.26 While Dickens’s mid- to late-career novels (especially Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend) have thus far drawn the most attention from environmentally minded critics, the early works hold promising possibilities for further study, especially as our definition of what might count as an ecologically significant textual moment continues to broaden.

Dickens’s response to the Anthropocene is interesting in part because of how uniquely positioned he was (historically, culturally, and imaginatively) to connect the regional and the global through the city of London. ‘The environment’ is always at once a local, bodily experienced material habitation, and a larger and more abstract set of interrelated forces and conditions. Dickens’s novels often put these two perspectives together stereoscopically, as it were, by focusing on the lived texture of specific city places, while also imagining those places as expressions of much wider economic, demographic, material, and political trends and pressures. Tom-all-Alone’s may be peculiarly itself in its look and feel and smell, but it is also the physical manifestation of financial and legal decisions (or indecisions) originating elsewhere. Thus London as it appears in Dickens’s later fiction especially can feel simultaneously parochial and planetary, with the exquisitely rendered byways and inns and shops often put in relation to a more totalizing idea of the city as a boundaryless, encompassing, even inescapable global system. Even when Sir Leicester retreats to Lincolnshire, he’s still, in some sense, in London, just as Mr Dorrit remains trapped in the Marshalsea while roaming the Swiss countryside. The scale and pace and sheer transformational power of industrial development was making it possible to imagine a world in which any kind of truly alternative pastoral space would either entirely disappear from the face of the earth, or exist only as fantasy. The idea of an entirely urbanized planet is a staple of the contemporary environmental imaginary, whether in works of dystopian science fiction like Blade Runner, or in non-fiction texts like Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, but we see it first coming into being in Dickens’s fiction.

(p. 575) The scale and pace of industrial development was also such that the industrially advanced nations had not yet learned how to conceal the pollution they were creating, much less remove it from their own immediate environs. Smog, soot, dust, and refuse were unavoidable and deadly hazards of city experience; they pressed upon the senses and the skin in ways many present-day city-dwellers in the global north simply have never experienced. As the historian Erik Loomis argues, the early twentieth century saw a massive, coordinated campaign of outsourcing pollution to the so-called third world as well as to the poorer regions of the first, thus effectively ‘sever[ing] knowledge of the cost of industrialization from their comparatively rich consumers’.27 Today, climate change seems to be altering this ability to outsource both consequences and awareness, as the deleterious effects of our carbon-intensive economy become, if not exactly more visible, then at least more detectable by those who live far from smoke stacks and dumping grounds. Although it’s true that the worst effects of drought, rising seas, and so-called ‘superstorms’ have been and will continue to be visited disproportionately upon vulnerable countries and communities, there is also a dawning sense that no region on earth will be safe from the climate catastrophe. In other words, Dickens’s environmental critique of the epicentre of nineteenth-century modernity may resonate with twenty-first-century readers who are becoming increasingly aware of how vulnerable centres of power and capital are now to the chaotic after-effects of ‘progress’. The flooding of Wall Street during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is just one richly symbolic example. Those toxic things that would be buried, or ignored, or pushed out of sight do tend, inevitably, to make their return. As any good reader of Dickens could have told you.

But if we’re going to celebrate Dickens for his prescient environmental vision, it is perhaps only fair to point out the limitations and inconsistencies of that vision as well. Consider, for example, the seemingly contradictory positions on industrial technology taken in adjacent novels, Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1857). The former reads like a work of dystopian science fiction, so scathing is its depiction of human life subjected to the ruthless logic of mechanization and efficiency. The famous ‘melancholy mad elephants’28 in Hard Times are a frightening vision of the way an energy-intensive industrial regime levels the distinctions between the organic and inorganic, the biological and the technological, by reducing both to mere quantities of motive power. Yet what to do, then, with the heroic inventor Daniel Doyce in Dickens’s next novel, Little Dorrit, ‘a smith and engineer … a very ingenious man’ who ‘perfects an invention (involving a very curious secret process) of great importance to his country and his fellow creatures’ (LD I:10, 113)? Doyce describes this mysterious device as ‘a great saving and a great improvement’ that, we understand, could transform the world were it not for the obstructive Circumlocution Office (LD I:10, 114). In other words, Hard (p. 576) Times decries the dehumanizing logic of efficiency embodied in the technology of a rising industrial modernity, while Little Dorrit pins its hopes on technological redress, suggesting the problem is with a dehumanizing inefficiency and the sclerotic institutions that stifle innovation. If only technology could be unshackled from the restraints of intrusive government agencies, we might get a city that looked like—well actually, it might look something like Coketown.

Similarly, the railroad construction that wreaked such havoc upon Staggs’s Gardens in the early part of Dombey and Son appears later in that novel as a benevolently transformative agency, bringing order and affluence to the neighbourhood: ‘The old by-streets now swarmed with passengers and vehicles of every kind; the new streets that had stopped disheartened in the mud and wagon-ruts, formed towns within themselves, originating wholesome comforts and conveniences belonging to themselves, and never tried or thought of until they sprung into existence. Bridges that had led to nothing, led to villas, gardens, churches, healthy public walks’ (DS 15, 218). Whereas, in the first description of this scene, the uninitiated’s point of view provided a means through which Dickens critically defamiliarized urban construction, here that point of view is recast as hopelessly naive and unimaginative. The telos of the project, obscured by the misprision of the initial description, now wholly dominates the scene, seemingly justifying whatever chaos came before. The split vision is striking, and suggests a utopian strain in Dickens’s thinking in which environmental damage is not an intrinsic part of industrial development, but merely a temporary, intermediate stage.

This ambivalence towards industrial modernity perhaps can be seen most vividly and perplexingly in the representation of the Court of Chancery in Bleak House. On the one hand, the Court is an outmoded, medieval institution that is clearly an impediment to progress. On the other hand, the Court and the case are also persistently linked to the kinds of widespread environmental hazards that are already being produced by this new age—most notably the thick smog pervading the atmosphere. Air pollution pre-dates the nineteenth century of course, but Dickens presents it with such apocalyptic intensity that we cannot help but connect it to specifically nineteenth-century concerns about population pressures, resource exhaustion, and atmospheric changes. In other words, in his depiction of the Court there is a deep tension between what we might think of as a ‘realist’, historically grounded satire of a specific old-fashioned institution, and a symbolically charged, hyperrealist use of that institution to represent the entropic forces of the present and future.

To point out these tensions or inconsistencies is not to condemn Dickens for being environmentally blinkered, but rather to suggest that his response to industrial technology is often caught uncertainly between its dystopic effects, and its utopic promise. The promise, indeed, to remediate fully its own dystopic effects. In this, I would argue, he is decidedly our contemporary. Consider the extent to which current discussions of the climate crisis so often involve both scathing condemnations of our fossil-fuel-intensive economic order, and hopeful accounts of the various ‘curious secret processes’—carbon sequestration, nuclear fusion, geo-engineering—that would allow us to recover what has been wasted, fix what has been damaged, and save (p. 577) capitalism from itself. Which is not to say such technological remedies are foolhardy or pointless or doomed to failure; it is only that, like Dickens, we have still not figured out whether the optimistic story we are telling ourselves about technological progress is a sustainable one.

Any consideration of technology in Dickens, I would add, edges us toward a long-standing, but potent, critique of his work: namely, his tendency to eschew a systemic or structural diagnosis in favour of moral critique. As George Orwell puts it:

It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system … Bounderby is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough—that, all through, is the implication.29

Like the kind of structural social and economic inequalities Orwell is interested in, environmental crises do not always neatly submit to conventional moral categories, nor can they be confined to the behaviour of specific malignant individuals. They are, instead, the products and unintended byproducts of an entire order, including its patterns of consumption and waste generation; its distribution of wealth and political power; its mechanisms of control over natural resources; its prevailing beliefs about the purpose and value of the non-human; its ethos of conservation, convenience, disposability, instrumentality, and productivity. The climate crisis is happening, in part, because of millions of ordinary acts (lighting a lamp, running an engine) that seem innocuous enough on their own, but have enormous consequences when aggregated across a population and over decades. As the eco-critic Joseph Meeker puts it: ‘Environmental guilt is collective, distributed unevenly among the people now living, and those who have lived before. Without a personality to focus upon, ecological crisis presents merely a spectacle of catastrophe.’30

Dickens was a master at depicting catastrophic environmental spectacles, but the difficulty with such descriptions, as Meeker suggests, resides in their uneasy relationship to narrative. The passage from David Copperfield quoted above doesn’t simply describe a toxic landscape; it focuses on items that were once narratively meaningful—the ‘rags of last year’s handbills offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark’—and are now mere detritus. Whatever the stories behind these handbills—the circumstances of each individual drowning, the concerns and motivations of those offering the reward—they are on the verge of becoming altogether illegible and lost in the ooze. Indeed, the history of the locale itself is becoming hopelessly muddled and obscure: ‘There was a story that one of the pits dug for the dead in the time of the Great Plague was hereabout; and a blighting influence seemed to have proceeded from it over the whole place. Or else it looked as if it had gradually decomposed into that nightmare condition, out of the overflowings of the polluted stream.’ It is a nightmare of personal and historical narrative oblivion as much as it is a nightmare of material rot and decay. (p. 578) And all of this matters to the plot of David Copperfield, since the very reason David and Mr Peggotty are in this neighbourhood is to follow the prostitute Martha so she can lead them to the wayward Little Emily. David describes Martha this way: ‘As if she were a part of the refuse it had cast out, and left to corruption and decay, the girl we had followed strayed down to the river’s brink, and stood in the midst of this night-picture, lonely and still, looking at the water’ (DC 47, 580). It is an arresting image, suggesting Martha paradoxically finds her own reflection in the very opacity of the wastewater. As sympathetic as Dickens is to her plight, the association of her ‘polluted’ state with the polluted river, the mixing of the moral and material valences of ‘corruption’, carries with it the implication that she is not so much the victim of this degraded environment, as the embodiment of it. The construction ‘as if’ tellingly makes such an implication and plausibly denies it in one stroke.

Emily’s story—the fallen woman about to descend into prostitution—verges on becoming essentially the same as Martha’s, and thus just more undifferentiated refuse in the river. To pull her out of this mess before she plunges in irreversibly is to restore integrity to her story in both senses: she will be saved from depravity, and endowed once again with a distinct, narratable future history. It is no accident that Dickens ultimately ships her off with the Micawbers to Australia, where the cultural mythos of the ‘virgin continent’ (as it was commonly referred to in the period) once again confounds both the moral and the material, associating the integrity of the person with that of the ‘unspoiled’ and ‘untouched’ environment.

The problems with such associations are not hard to see. By playing on the dual moral/material valence of terms like ‘pollution’, ‘corruption’, and ‘decay’, Dickens occludes the actual material problem with the environment, suggesting it is a question of personal rectitude. One can escape being a part of this ‘degraded’ world by avoiding the kinds of ‘degraded’ actions that both figuratively and literally lead one there. And by ‘being a part’ I mean both complicity and identification. After all, we might consider that what is most terrifying about the association of human life with waste is not so much the idea that everyone is responsible for producing it, but that everyone is, at heart, made of the same elemental stuff as the refuse in the river and destined, one day, to join it. This is getting us close to what Morton calls ‘the ecological thought’ in his book of that name: the perhaps unsettling notion that an individual is not a self-bounded entity, but an open system enmeshed entirely and indissociably with its larger life-world. As he puts it: ‘since everything is interconnected, there is no definite background and therefore no definite foreground … [but] if there is no background and therefore no foreground, then where are we? We orient ourselves according to backgrounds against which we stand out’.31 Like Martha, Emily is on the verge of not standing out against this polluted background, of becoming part of it; but to suggest that such is the condition of the prostitute might distract us from the more disturbing notion that such might actually be the inescapable condition of all human beings.

(p. 579) The prostitute or would-be prostitute’s story is an extreme case, but we can see the tension between the threat of pollution’s elemental entropy and narrative’s ordered differentiation in other places in Dickens’s fiction as well. One way of thinking about the Jarndyce lawsuit in Bleak House, for example, is that it reduces almost all individual life stories to the same entropic plot of expectation, frustration, madness, and death. By endlessly demanding to tell his story, The Man from Shropshire embodies this fate in the very act of trying to escape it (a dynamic played out, in more tragic terms, by Richard Carstone). This obscurity is materialized in the famous opening scene, where the masses of waste-producing passers-by in the streets, undifferentiated in the mud and smoke, have their individual life stories and motivations rendered illegible and irrelevant in a grim Malthusian spectacle. But this is the first page, and, as I have argued elsewhere, the novel strives to pull from this mess legible life histories and stories of moral courage, just as it puts The Man from Shropshire into narrative focus as a character with a name (Gridley) and comprehensible motivations and emotions.32 Where Chancery produces waste, obscurity, and anonymity, the narrative of Bleak House produces order, legibility, and individuation; in this way, pollution appears in the novel not just as a material problem but as a ‘toxic’ way of seeing other people.

Like the representation of Chancery itself, this is a complicated environmental vision. On the one hand, Dickens wanted to oppose both the institutional structures and the utilitarian (Benthamite and Malthusian) frameworks that would treat people as massed units of breeding, consumption, and energy expenditure. This is an especially important stance at a moment when the blame for overcrowding, disease, and food scarcity was squarely pinned on the poor, who were often imagined as one giant, fecund, wasteful collective. Resisting Malthusianism is then, in this sense, resisting a specific environmental vision that came laden with a noxious, victim-blaming political ideology. It’s easy to appreciate Dickens’s position, and the politically significant urge to differentiate and individuate through narrative. On the other hand, though, as we have noted, environmental problems like smog, water pollution, or unsustainable resource consumption are not entirely comprehensible without an impersonal, aggregative approach. Chadwick, after all, did as much as anyone to improve sanitary conditions in Victorian London, and he was a thoroughgoing Benthamite whose approach depended upon thinking of people as units of energy expenditure. As with Little Emily in David Copperfield, Dickens’s individuating narratives in Bleak House often work to separate out the pure characters—Esther, Ada, Charley—from the impure Vholes, Smallweed, Skimpole. These latter characters are painted vividly and unmistakably as parasites, drains on the world’s resources; as such, they may keep us from noticing the ways that resource consumption and waste is a systemic, statistical problem, shared by everyone. No one can escape the effects of Chancery altogether in this novel, but Dickens suggests there are ways in which one can rise above it and avoid complicity and blame. Esther the (p. 580) housekeeper helps clean up the waste, and gets smudged by it, as it were, but she doesn’t herself seem to produce it. The metaphorical quarantining effect we noted with Martha in David Copperfield is here worked out more in literal ways, as Esther actually checks the spread of disease by containing it within her own body.

I point all this out not to blame Dickens for some perceived lack of environmental awareness, but to suggest how his work can help us see both the possibilities and the obstacles for environmental thought in the nineteenth century. Dickens approached the early stages of the Anthropocene with a startling and unmatched imaginative openness and creative flexibility. His language renders not only the disorienting experience of toxic environments, but, even more fundamentally, the unprecedented, grotesque transformations being visited upon the world through the rise of industrial modernity. His is a metamorphic vision suited to metamorphic times. But Dickens was also a man of his era, and however much we might want to praise the power and reach of his vision, we also must acknowledge the intellectual and ideological conditions through which that vision was shaped.

Further Reading

Karen Chase and Michael Levenson, ‘Green Dickens’, in Eileen Gillooly and Deirdre David (eds), Contemporary Dickens (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009), 131–51Find this resource:

Laurence Coupe (ed.), The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (Howe: Psychology Press, 2000)Find this resource:

Karl Kroeber, Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994)Find this resource:

Glen A. Love, Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology, and the Environment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003)Find this resource:

Benjamin Morgan, ‘Fin du Globe: On Decadent Planets’, Victorian Studies 58, 4 (Summer 2016): 609–35Find this resource:

John Plotz, ‘The Victorian Anthropocene: George Marsh and the Tangled Bank of Darwinian Environmentalism’, Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology 4 (2015): 52–64Find this resource:

Patricia Yaeger, ‘Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources’, PMLA 126, 2 (2011): 305–10Find this resource:


(1) Our Mutual Friend, ed. Michael Cotsell (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2009), Book III, chapter 1, page 420.

(2) Christine L. Corton, London Fog: The Biography (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2015), 37.

(3) Little Dorrit, ed. Harvey Peter Sucksmith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), Book I, chapter 3, page 29. Subsequent references are inserted parenthetically in the text by LD book:chapter, page.

(4) David Copperfield, ed. Nina Burgis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), chapter 47, page 580. Subsequent references are inserted parenthetically in the text by DC, chapter, page.

(5) Dickens, ‘Metropolitan Sanitary Association: 10 May 1851’, in The Speeches of Charles Dickens, ed. K. J. Fielding (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), 144.

(6) Bill Luckin, Pollution and Control: A Social History of the Thames in the Nineteenth Century (Bristol: A. Hilger, 1986), 17–18.

(7) Mary Poovey, Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830–1864 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 41 and passim.

(8) Jules Law, The Social Life of Fluids: Blood, Milk, and Water in the Victorian Novel (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 50.

(9) Robert L. Patten, ‘ “A Surprising Transformation”: Dickens and the Hearth’, in U. C. Knoepflmacher and George Tennyson (eds), Nature and the Victorian Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 153–4.

(10) Rosemarie Bodenheimer, ‘Dickens and the Art of the Pastoral’, The Centennial Review 23, 4 (Fall 1979): 452.

(11) A Tale of Two Cities, ed. Andrew Sanders (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), Book I, chapter 4, page 22.

(12) Martin Chuzzlewit, ed. Margaret Cardwell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), chapter 2, page 9.

(13) Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (London: Routledge, 1991), 4.

(14) Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 7.

(15) Dorothy van Ghent, ‘The Dickens World: A View from Todgers’s’, The Sewanee Review 58, 3 (July–September 1950): 419.

(16) Timothy Clark, ‘What on World is the Earth? The Anthropocene and Fictions of the World’, The Oxford Literary Review 35, 1 (2013): 5.

(17) Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, ‘The Anthropocene’, IGBP Newsletter 41 (May 2000): 17–18.

(18) Stephanie Pain, ‘Before it was Famous: 150 Years of the Greenhouse Effect’, New Scientist 202, 2708 (13 May 2009): 46–7.

(19) Dombey and Son, ed. Alan Horsman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), chapter 6, page 65. Subsequent references are inserted parenthetically in the text by DS chapter, page.

(20) Jesse Oak Taylor, ‘The Novel as Climate Model: Realism and the Greenhouse Effect in Bleak House’, Novel 46, 1 (2013): 20.

(21) Taylor, The Sky of our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016), 28.

(22) John Parham, ‘Dickens in the City: Science, Technology, Ecology in the Novels of Charles Dickens’, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 10 (2010). DOI: (accessed 2 June 2016).

(23) Tristan Sipley, ‘The Revenge of Swamp Thing: Wetlands, Industrial Capitalism, and the Ideological Contradictions of Great Expectations’, The Journal of Ecocriticism 3, 1 (January 2011): 18.

(24) Bleak House, ed. George Ford and Sylvère Monod, Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton), chapter 33, page 404; chapter 32, pages 402, 398.

(25) Karen Chase and Michael Levenson, ‘Bleak House, Liquid City: Climate to Climax in Dickens’, in Louise Westling and John Parham (eds), A Global History of Literature and the Environment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 214.

(26) Troy Boone ‘Early Dickens and Ecocriticism: The Social Novelist and the Nonhuman’, in Ronald D. Morrison and Laurence Mazzeno (eds), Victorians and the Environment: Ecocritical Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2017), 97–113.

(27) Erik Loomis, Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe (New York: The New Press, 2015), 85.

(28) Hard Times, ed. Fred Kaplan, 4th edn, Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017), Book I, chapter 2, page 60. Also, II:1, 93; III:5, 203.

(29) George Orwell, ‘Charles Dickens’, in A Collection of Essays (New York: Harvest, 1970), 52.

(30) Joseph Meeker, The Comedy of Survival (New York: Scribner, 1974), 58.

(31) Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 28–30.

(32) Allen MacDuffie, Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 113–14.