Sunday 24 March 2024

A Dickensian Master Class in Epiphanies

Welcome back to my master class blog series, where I dissect passages by famous nineteenth-century authors to inspire writers today. 

This is the fifth time I’m taking cues from Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Previously, I used his novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859) to talk about powerful openings, his novella The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848) to talk about repetition, and his short stories ‘The Seven Poor Travelers’ (1854) and ‘Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings’ (1863) to talk about storytelling technique and first-person narration

Today, I’m diving into his 1843-1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit to discuss character epiphanies.

There are plenty of potential pitfalls for the writer who approaches a scene in which a character comes to a major realization. These chapters could be too internal and, therefore, lacking in action and interest. Alternatively, in a desire to maintain momentum, an author might make the mistake of not probing a character’s psyche enough at one of these pivotal moments, leaving readers with the impression of an under-reaction. If the revelation is also a revelation to readers, they may feel blindsided or tricked (for good or ill). If it is not, they may roll their eyes and find the character stupid. 

In an important scene in Martin Chuzzlewit, the character Tom Pinch realizes what readers have known from early in the book—that he has been entirely misguided in assessing the character of his mentor, employer, and erstwhile hero, the architect Mr. Pecksniff. 

The vehicle Dickens uses to bring about this epiphany is dialogue. Early in the scene, Tom shares the world view he has held up until now, telling the character Mary Graham, “[Pecksniff]’s the best of men. The more at ease you were, the happier he would be. Oh dear, you needn’t be afraid of Pecksniff. He is not a spy.”

It is up to Mary to deliver the blow, in dialogue that’s striking and unusual in a Dickens novel for its brevity: “You mistake him.” 

After some back and forth between Mary and Tom, Dickens then moves from dialogue to narrative summary, avoiding the sort of tired repetition that can come about in scenes where a character discovers information readers already have: When she was more composed, she impressed upon Tom that this man she had described, was Pecksniff in his real colors; and word by word and phrase by phrase, as well as she remembered it, related what had passed between them in the wood.

It’s only when he has played out these plot points and given Tom all the information he needs to know, that Dickens can get to work on the true heart of an epiphany scene—the emotional fallout. Mary exits and Dickens’s omniscient narrator becomes a close third point of view, bringing us directly into Tom’s thoughts and feelings.

And now the full agitation and misery of the disclosure came rushing upon Tom indeed. The star of his whole life from boyhood had become, in a moment, putrid vapor. It was not that Pecksniff, Tom’s Pecksniff, had ceased to exist, but that he never had existed. In his death Tom would have had the comfort of remembering what he used to be, but in this discovery, he had the anguish of recollecting what he never was. For, as Tom’s blindness in this matter had been total and not partial, so was his restored sight. His Pecksniff could never have worked the wickedness of which he had just now heard, but any other Pecksniff could; and the Pecksniff who could do that could do anything, and no doubt had been doing anything and everything except the right thing, all through his career. 

This is an interesting mixture of direct “telling,” as Dickens describes Tom’s “agitation” and “misery,” with “showing” via metaphor. Pecksniff was a “star” to Tom. Now he is “putrid vapor.” Grieving Pecksniff’s death would have provided Tom with moments of “comfort,” when he remembered the past. But now, every memory Tom has is colored by this revelation. Dickens also taps into the idea of sight vs. blindness, which has been part of the Western literary tradition surrounding epiphanies since the myth of Oedipus, giving us the sort of dramatic revelation that makes for compelling storytelling.

Earlier in the book, the character of Tom Pinch is used for comedic effect, and readers laugh at his ignorance about Pecksniff, but in this chapter, Dickens packs an emotional punch, layering on further metaphors and making it is hard not to feel for him: it was not [Pecksniff] who suffered; it was Tom. His compass was broken, his chart destroyed, his chronometer had stopped, his masts were gone by the board; his anchor was adrift, ten thousand leagues away.

Finally, he makes Tom’s internal epiphany external again via an unlikely, if dramatically satisfying, monologue, which adds to the feeling that we’re watching a scene play out on stage: “I wouldn’t have cared…I wouldn’t have cared for anything he might have done to Me, for I have tried his patience often, and have lived upon his sufferance and have never been the help to him that others could have been. I wouldn’t have minded, Pecksniff,…if you had done Me any wrong; I could have found plenty of excuses for that; and though you might have hurt me, could have still gone on respecting you. But why did you ever fall so low as this in my esteem! Oh Pecksniff, Pecksniff, there is nothing I would not have given, to have had you deserve my old opinion of you; nothing!”

For writers approaching their own epiphany scene, I think there are a few important lessons we can take from Dickens here: limit repetition for readers to maintain their interest; make the dramatic reveal as short as possible but give yourself space, and word count, to explore the emotional aftermath; and consider carefully what you make internal vs. external in your scene. 

What do you think of this important scene from one of Dickens’s less loved novels? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want monthly updates from me sent straight to your inbox? Subscribe here

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