An essay on the construction of the ideal reading position and the subject within ideology with reference to Charles Dickens, "A Visit To Newgate"
The Reading Position
The narrator in "A Visit To Newgate" constructs for the reader an ideal reading position. This reading position excludes other positions, which are not the "ideal," and the excluded become the "other." Realism functions to tell people how to live within the dominant ideology. Charles Dickens "A Visit To Newgate" constructs the reader as a subject in order to reaffirm the ideal subject position within the dominant ideology of capitalism.
The narrator, the implied reading position, the ideal subject within capitalist ideology, and the "other"
The reader has access to the story only as it is presented to the reader through the narrator, who describes the events of the story. As the reader relies upon the narrator for the movement of the narrative towards the end of the text, and the moment of disclosure (Belsey 55), the narratorial stance becomes a position of authority, the “arbiter of truth” within the narrative. In order to easily understand the story, the reader must be interpellated into the position that the narrator is addressing. This reading position that the narrator of A Visit To Newgate constructs, is the ideal subject position within the bourgeois ideology of the time – that of the middle class male. The working-class and poor are not addressed, and therefore a poor or working-class reading position within the text is not constructed. The working-class and poor are seen only from the outside, as objects rather than subjects, represented as the “other.”
The girl belonged to a class – unhappily but too extensive – the very existence of which should make men’s hearts bleed [. . .] Tell them of hunger and the streets, beggary and stripes, the gin-shop, the station- house and the pawn broker’s, and they will understand you. (Dickens 117)
Here the narrator interpellates the reader into the subject position of middle-class and male by representing the female prisoner as the object – assuming that the reader is male and does not belong to the same class as the prisoner. The text addresses a middle-class reading position directly as “you” whereas the poor are “they,” and tells readers that if they really fit the ideal subject-position, they will pity this woman. The reading position is constructed as the most natural, ideal position to be in. The interpellation of the reader makes the “other” of the prisoners pitiable, and therefore encourages the reader to see that their own lives “could be worse,” that is, the reader should work hard and be a good citizen in order to become (or remain in), and accept the position of the ideal reader, so that they are not the pitied ones. In this way the construction of an ideal reading position reinforces the “naturalness” and desirability of the ideal subject within capitalist ideology.
The narrator not only constructs an ideal reading position, but also implies how the reader who takes up that reading position, should react to the information that the narrator imparts. The narrator attempts to fulfil his promise to illuminate for the reader what it is like to be on death row, by speculating on the feelings and dreams experienced by a prisoner with only hours left to live. Geoffrey Gorer describes death as that “aspect of human experience which is treated as inherently shameful and abhorrent [. . .] and experience of it tends to be clandestine and accompanied by feelings of guilt and unworthiness” (Bauman: 1992, 134). The narrator describes such feelings of guilt and unworthiness, and a shameful state of powerlessness in the prisoner:
Now that his fears of death amount almost to madness, and an overwhelming sense of his helpless, hopeless state rushes upon him, he is lost and stupefied. (Dickens 124)
For the narrator, the position of the prisoner is “hopeless,” and from the narrator’s position of power as a “free” man, the prisoner’s lack of freedom is humiliating. The narrator imposes his own feelings of guilt and unworthiness onto the prisoner – whose true feelings he could not possibly know. This manner of dealing with the death of others is a common cultural “truism”; people who are dying “should” feel helpless and ashamed, because the people (ideal subjects) who are “going to live” also feel guilty, helpless and ashamed. This imposing of those feelings onto the prisoner helps a situation that cannot be real (the narrator knowing the thoughts and dreams of a character) seem realistic because it is represented as the logical, or most likely, reaction of the prisoner to his own death. Also, projecting the narrator’s fears of death onto the prisoner, is fundamental in the “othering” of the prisoners, for the implied readers are supposed to assume that death and its ugly characteristics are a feature of the criminals’ lives, and not their own. The narrator does not tell of the actual death (which remains “clandestine”) of the prisoner, as it stays behind “one particular angle of the massive wall” of Newgate Prison (Dickens 113), presumably too shameful and abhorrent an event for the implied reader who is not expected to share the experience of the “other” in its entirety.
The story is set up as a look at the differences between the “free” narrator and implied reader, and the “bound” prisoners. The text tries to come to terms with the free and not free by employing two contrary myths, and eventually compromising, coming to the conclusion that it is probably, “a bit of both.” The first myth is of the individual who is free to make their own choices, and that the prisoners have turned to crime by “giving in” to bad character traits. John Kucich describes “Dickens’ ultimate lesson [. . .] to recognise the fundamental sameness of all fallen humanity” (Kucich 8). This myth represents giving in to crime as merely a character flaw, and can be seen where the narrator’s conceived man on death row feels that “vice had changed his nature” (Dickens 125). The second myth is part of the conscious project of the narrator – to expose how class imposes restrictions on an individual’s freedom, constructing by this process, “freedom” as the natural state (which both the narrator and implied reader share). Zygmunt Bauman describes the development of concepts like class as, “the idea of an external pressure which sets limits to individual will” (Bauman: 1998, 5). This compromise, which states that there is neither pure individual will, nor a total class-induced situation of forced criminality, but both playing a part, is expressed by Geoffrey Thurley who says of the villains in Dickens’s work, that “Dickens presents them as essentially wicked men who have learnt from hardship to pursue evil rather than to co-operate with their fellow men” (Thurley 153). The focus on class, and the insistence by the narrator that conditions in the prison should be improved, is cultural vraisemblance that is presented as natural. To call upon the virtues of “the increased spirit of civilization and humanity” (Dickens 121), creates a “natural” world order, and implies that the advancement of civilization means progress, and that to progress the “community of man” (Kucich 8) has to help the poor to rise to the ideal subject position of middle-class. In this way, the text construct the illusion of the real by claiming to expose inequality and suggest that there is “a better state” of being that modern people can strive for.
The characters in A Visit To Newgate are presented as thought they are being described by the narrator objectively, but are constructed to position the reader where they can judge the characters within the ideological institutions it is assumed the reader will share. The narrator himself is not described, but his personality is defined by the way he interacts with the people and places in the prison. Thurley points out the there is:
An extraordinary disparity between the absorption with which we follow the adventures of Dickens’s heroes and heroines and the relative uninterestingness of their personalities. (Thurley 13)
This “relative uninterestingness” of the narrator of A Visit To Newgate, draws attention away from the fact that a character that has personal opinions is narrating it. Therefore, when the narrator describes another character, it feels like objective description; but it is not, the descriptions are a series of signs that the implied reader should decode in a certain way, and make certain judgements based on those signs. Thurley tells us that “what we have in Dickens’s unforgettable portrayals is not what people look like, but what they are like” (Thurley 11). This is seen most dramatically when the narrator states that the “faces of the two notorious murderers, Bishop and Williams; the former, in particular, exhibiting a style of head and set of features, which might have afforded sufficient moral grounds for his instant execution at any time, even had there been no other evidence against him” (Dickens 114). The description of one young female prisoner appears more objective than that of the murderer’s heads – but it invites the implied reader to judge the prisoner by her actions and appearance:
The girl was a good-looking robust female, with a profusion of hair streaming about in the wind – for she had no bonnet on – and a man’s silk pocket-handkerchief loosely thrown over a most ample pair of shoulders [. . .] The girl was perfectly unmoved. Hardened beyond all hope of redemption, she listened to her mother’s entreaties [. . .] eagerly catching at the few halfpence her miserable parent had brought her. (Dickens 115)
Here, the description of the “robust” woman, with her hair “streaming about in the wind” and the man’s handkerchief suggests that she is sexually “promiscuous” and has the “emotional hardness” of a man. She inflicts pain on her mother through her apparent lack of feelings and cold demeanour. Her life, far from the acceptable selflessness of her mother, is dominated by selfishness. She has rejected her “proper” role as the loving daughter who cares for her family when her mother gets old. The implied reader is supposed to judge this woman in respect to the ideological institution of what constitutes a “good” family, and the woman’s place in it. More, the current state of the woman (in prison, a criminal) is implied to be a direct result of this “failed” family structure. The implied reader is lead to think about what else is “wrong” in that family. Where is her father? Did he leave, did he die, was he too weak to control the daughter or too controlling and violent? This character-traiting assumes that the reader will be able to decode the signs that make up the character, and that they will know the natural “order” of things, such as family structure within the dominant ideology. Hence the character-traiting reinforces the primacy of the ideal subject position within the dominant ideology.
The narrative positions of narrator and implied reader function with A Visit To Newgate to tell us how to live within ideology. The implied reading position in A Visit To Newgate is an extremely powerful reading position, as the “other” of the text, criminals, were presented as being in a particularly intolerable state.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.
- - - , Freedom. Milton Keynes, England: Open UP, 1988.
Belsey, Catherine. “Constructing the Subject: Deconstructing the Text,” Feminist Criticism and Social Change. Ed. Newton and Deborah Rosenfell. London: Methuen, 1985.
Dickens, Charles. “A Visit To Newgate,” Charles Dickens: Selected Short Fiction. London: Penguin, 1985.
Grant, Allen. A Preface To Dickens. Essex: Longman, 1984.
Kucich, John. Excess and Restraint in the novels of Charles Dickens. Athens, Georgia: Georgia UP, 1981.
Thurley, Geoffrey. The Dickens Myth: Its Genesis and Struture. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1976.
Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Typology of Detective Fiction,” Modern Criticism and Theory. Ed David Lodge. London: Longman, 1988.