Spinsters and bachelors in Dicken's novels: from the ridiculous to the sublime

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University of New Brunswick


This project explores spinster and bachelor characters in Charles Dickens’s novels as an element of his fictional practice; it also enlarges our understanding of gender roles and characteristics as they played out in Victorian culture. Such figures are rooted in comedy where the laughter evoked through the images of the “desiring undesirable” and the “un-desiring desirable” confirms the hegemonic values of Victorian society even as it provides a platform for change. Questions surrounding the self and its need for validation are further examined through the discussion of those unmarried men and women who desire love and are rejected. Indeed, the marriage-plot in Dickens’s novels is often sidelined by a rejected lover plot, as the characters negotiate a response to rejection which provides an opportunity for growth or for decline. The later chapters focus on spinsters and bachelors who wish to remain unmarried, thereby drawing attention to the constructed nature of gender roles. Successful bachelors, fully immersed in a domestic ideology which they bring to their places of work, demonstrate that domesticity is often found outside of a conventional family setting. Dickens abandons the conduct manuals of his contemporaries that encourage division between the sexes and grants a voice to the marginalized thus allowing the complexity of the characters and of their situations to be revealed. Despite the constraints of society and the dismissive laughter directed at them, Dickens demonstrates that there are many unmarried women and men who live full lives and, in doing so, offer new possibilities: a bachelor can be an “angel of the house” and, using Nina Auerbach’s words, a spinster can have a “splendid identity.”