This article reads Dickens's fascination with rotting bodily matter in Bleak House as a response to mid-Victorian psychological debates about the nature of mind and the possibility of immortality. Critics have tended to treat the novel's fixation on such matter as primarily a product of Dickens's concern with London's dangerously overcrowded graveyards, but by the 1840s and 1850s the fate of the corpse had also become a key point of contention in the struggle between an orthodox Christian dualism and an emergent psycho-physiology, the latter of which defended itself against charges of atheism by insisting that our bodies would rise again on the Day of Judgment. In both Bleak House and his journalism, Dickens charts the circulation of atomic matter through a variety of bodily forms in order to insist on the immateriality of the soul: if our decomposing bodies are eventually reconstituted into the bodies of others, then the physical resurrection, materialist psychology's answer to the charge of irreligion, must be an impossibility. But Bleak House also registers the different ways that the corpse was figured by those with concerns other than psychological controversy—including Dickens himself, in his simultaneous insistence on the need for burial reform. It is ultimately those meanings attached to putrefaction by sanitary reformers, this essay suggests, that prove the most serious barrier to Dickens's efforts to defend an embattled Christian psychology.
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Tyson Stolte; “Putrefaction Generally”: Bleak House, Victorian Psychology, and the Question of Bodily Matter. Novel 1 November 2011; 44 (3): 402–423. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-1381303
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