Saturday 14 September 2013

A Dickensian Master Class in Repetition

Following the popularity of a previous post on writing first person narrative, I’m bringing you another Dickensian ‘master class’ in English prose.

Title page for The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain
Charles Dickens is still praised and imitated for the wonderfully memorable rhetorical openings of his novels. Along with a wide range of other techniques, one thing these passages often have in common is a high level of repetition – of individual words or phrases (around 20 instances of ‘fog’ and cognates in the opening sentences of Bleak House (1852-3)) and of grammatical structures (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…’ etc., A Tale of Two Cities (1859)). Dickens’s lesser-read 1848 novella The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain has a similarly stylised opening.

This takes the form of increasingly lengthy rhetorical questions beginning ‘Who could have…’ and ending with a reference to ‘a haunted man’. The first reads as follows:

‘Who could have seen his hollow cheek; his sunken brilliant eye; his black-attired figure, indefinably grim, although well-knit and well-proportioned; his grizzled hair hanging, like tangled sea-weed, about his face, - as if he had been, through his whole life, a lonely mark for the chafing and beating of the great deep of humanity, - but might have said he looked like a haunted man?’

The next two open and end in the same way:

‘Who could have observed his manner, taciturn, thoughtful, gloomy, shadowed by habitual reserve, retiring always and jocund never, with a distraught air of reverting to a bygone place and time, or of listening to some old echoes in his mind, but might have said it was the manner of a haunted man?

Who could have heard his voice, slow-speaking, deep, and grave, with a natural fullness and melody in it which he seemed to set himself against and stop, but might have said it was the voice of a haunted man?’

The repetition serves to reinforce Dickens’s point and to give the narrator’s voice rhetorical power and gravitas but it also makes variations, when they come, all the more pointed and effective. The progression above from ‘Who could have seen’ to ‘Who could have observed’ to ‘Who could have seen’ brings the reader deeper and deeper into the scene described, locating him/her firmly in the room as an observer, attentive with all senses. The repetition continues, but variations develop even further now. The next question is longer, giving even more detail, but what is asked shifts slightly to convey a further idea (i.e. beyond the idea that this man seems haunted):

‘Who could have….would not have said that the man seemed haunted and the chamber too?’ [emphasis mine]

This structure is abandoned and after a few transitional lines another form of repetition takes its place – eight paragraphs beginning with the word ‘When’ help us anticipate the moment of action. Dickens gives us every detail of the scene, every feeling it evokes, and keeps us in suspense until:

‘When a knock came at his door, in short, as he was sitting so, and roused him.’

Repetition then in this opening creates suspense, conveys mood and introduces a key theme in the novel – the haunting quality of recalling and repeating the past. But throughout the novella, repetition is used in other ways to create a variety of effects:

1. Repetition to emphasise an image: Dickens describes the child Milly takes off the street as a baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of man, but who, within, would live and perish a mere beast.The repetition here highlights the paradoxical image of a ‘baby savage’, who is a ‘child who had never been a child’ (i.e. not a child at all). Each variation on the idea intensifies but also adds something new – the child goes from an uncivilised human (a ‘savage’) to something which isn't human at all (a ‘monster’); then Dickens moves on to what the child will become and, finally, how it may die.

2. Repetition to create character: Mr Swidger Senior’s age, forgetfulness and affection for his family is indicated powerfully by his repeated question Where’s my son William?’, which is interspersed throughout his conversation. Mr Tetterby’s repeated references to his wife as ‘my little woman’, despite her large size, similarly inform of us of his affection for her , as well as giving us an instant familiarity with the family – within a few lines we recognise their verbal ticks and habits.

3. Repetition to convey internal conflict: The phantom picks up the hero Redlaw’s words and parrots them back to him with a twisted meaning, mimicking internal conflict, in a technique that recalls the refrains and repetition of pastoral poetry. Examples:

“Here again!” he said.
“Here again,” replied the Phantom.

“I come as I am called,” replied the Ghost.
“No.  Unbidden,” exclaimed the Chemist.
“Unbidden be it,” said the Spectre.  “It is enough.  I am here."

4. Repetition to suggest monotony and suffering: Although Dickens’s final moral is that remembrance of suffering is preferable to oblivion, repetition also serves to indicate the pain which his characters suffer again and again. Redlaw’s questions about the Christmases the others have passed suggest is incredulity that others can have been happy:

“Merry and happy, was it?” asked the Chemist in a low voice.  “Merry and happy, old man?

Mrs Tetterby turns and turns her wedding ring when unhappy at her lot. The put-upon child Johnny Tetterby struggles repeatedly under the weight (physical and emotional) of caring for his younger sister, who he must allow the rest of his family to kiss, but the effect for the reader is also humorous:

‘Johnny having complied, and gone back to his stool, and again crushed himself, Master Adolphus Tetterby, who had by this time unwound his torso out of a prismatic comforter, apparently interminable, requested the same favour.  Johnny having again complied, and again gone back to his stool, and again crushed himself, Mr. Tetterby, struck by a sudden thought, preferred the same claim on his own parental part.  The satisfaction of this third desire completely exhausted the sacrifice, who had hardly breath enough left to get back to his stool, crush himself again, and pant at his relations.’

Dickens’s ability to repeat without boring – to delight, scare and amuse with his choice repetitions – marks him out as a fine writer. The techniques he employs in The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (even if the work is not one of his triumphs) are definitely good objects of imitation for writers of prose.

Any ideas for what I should discuss next? Let me know here, on Facebook or on Twitter (@SVictorianist). 


  1. hello, Secret Victorianist. Have just found your blogsite and am reading through some posts. I'm loving it already. I am a Dickens fan and will enjoy reading your posts on his work. He is the master of repetition as you say, where other authors just could not pull off
    those kind of sentences. Will be making many returns to your site, and getting alot of tips on future reading. Thanks. Hazel

    1. Thanks Hazel - that's so lovely to hear. It's always nice to get feedback. I'm sure I'll have some more Dickens for you soon. (At least there's more than enough material there for me!!)