Victoria Wiet, “Dickens’s Tableaux: Melodrama and Sexual Opacity in David Copperfield and Bleak House” (pp. 167–198)
This essay examines the features and function of tableaux in two novels by Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850) and Bleak House (1853), in order to rethink the influence of melodramatic conventions on the form of narrative fiction, particularly the understanding of female sexuality that melodrama afforded novelists. Taking Dickens as an important example, literary critics have typically associated melodrama with ostentatious legibility, but recent scholarship on the theatrical tableau has illuminated the complex ways the melodramatic stage both produced and occluded revelation. Drawing on this work, I demonstrate that the adaptation of the tableau into the novel form increases the possibility of illegibility because readers necessarily rely on the narrator’s description and interpretation of the material world. In David Copperfield and Bleak House, this remediation has particularly significant consequences for the representation of sexually compromised women. By inadequately revealing the sexual histories of suspected “fallen women,” densely visual but opaque scenes featuring Annie Strong, Martha Endell, and Honoria Dedlock defer judgment on their characters, with Lady Dedlock’s protracted illegibility preventing her plot from culminating in a decisive narrative or moral conclusion. Because the narrators of both novels depict these female characters as deliberately making themselves illegible, the novel tableau becomes an important way for Dickens to dramatize the fallibility of the omniscient and quasi-omniscient narrators of realist fiction.