Tag Archives: Victorian

Charles Dickens was a Psychologist

27 Oct

Charles Dickens explored an age-old debate in Dombey and Son as to whether or not humans are inherently bad or if the negative constitution of certain individuals is the result of imposed influences. Essentially, Dickens is investigating the Nature vs. Nurture debate. I aver that Dickens is in accordance with the side of Nurture; it is our surroundings, and our traditions, that create who we are. Mr. Dombey is a victim of his environment, doomed to repeat the patterns of the prior generations which demand a vigilant stifling of natural tendencies.

The passage selected to illustrate this point begins just as the human constitution created by nurture does; free of inherent tendencies. “It was as blank a house inside as outside” illustrates the essence of tabula rasa, or the blank slate thesis that contends that human knowledge and behavior is collected from direct experience. Mr. Dombeys’ experience has been shaped by the conventions of his ancestors. “The house had been inhabited for years by his father,” and Dombey has been nurtured in a way that demands an ever-vigilant command of one’s surroundings and desires.

This element of constrain and control is evident as Dombey creates his own prison. He relegates himself to three rooms within the entire estate, fashioning a cage out of the surroundings. The very air of the house seems to crave escape, “being always drawn by some invisible attraction to the threshold […].” Tellingly, there is an absent mention of any form of bed in Dombey’s self-fashioned quarters. Just as a caged bird will not sleep unless provided with privacy, Mr. Dombey is eternally without rest, simply waiting in his sitting room for the next phase of his day to begin.

The cage that Dombey has created also serves as a fish-bowl made of glass with which to contain the specimens that he controls. While Mr. Dombey sees his son and his wet-nurse as the ones existing in his looking glass, he has no conception that it is actually the other way around. The natural tendencies that Dombey constrains against manifest in the form of nourishment; sustenance is essential to survival, and because this inherent behavior cannot be completely controlled, it is instead relegated. The wet-nurse, controlled by Dombey through her title, serves as a natural form of nourishment for his son, too innocent still to be taught the Dombey conventions. This element of control is reflected with the “commanding” view of the trees which suggests the extent of expected compliance to Mr. Dombey’s bidding. Indeed, it is only during Mr. Dombey’s own feeding times that the child and the mother-figure are brought out into the courtyard, so that the father can crouch amidst the “dark heavy furniture” like a predator hidden in the forest.

The constraint and limitations that are Mr. Dombey’s inheritance are supported again by the imagery of outlines, framing, and bandages. These images serve the purpose of creating an environment of borders and constraint in the Dombey household, with the intent of preservation. The covering of furniture, to protect the items for the future of the Dombey line, supports the attempted intervention on the natural order for the purpose of “preservation for the son.”

By replicating his inheritance of constraint, Mr. Dombey perpetuates the only behavior he knows; the behavior of control and constraint against nature. It is the very act of caging himself in that exposes the victimization of Mr. Dombey. He is a product of society and convention, a fact which is emphasized by the lack Mr. Dombeys’ voice in the passage. The removal of internal thought and voice of Mr. Dombey is a confirmation of his imposed imprisonment by the framework that he exists in.

For final proof that Dickens positioned himself on the side of nurture, one only need look at Florence. The young Dombey proves not to be an exception to the rule; she is evidence of the truth of the rule. It is as a direct result of Mr. Dombeys’ neglect, that Florence was denied the “nurturing” aspect of the Dombey family’s inheritance of constraint. By ignoring her, Mr. Dombey freed Florence from the conventional aspects of his nurturing, and it is through this freedom that Florence is able to thrive.

While Dickens has not put the entire scope of the Nature versus Nurture debate to rest, it is clear that he has an opinion on the matter. Mr. Dombey is Dickens’s proof positive illustration of the influence of one’s upbringing; if the shadows are the only reality an individual is shown, they become a product of that dark, utterly unaware of the light.

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