115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Medical Vision in Sketches by Boz: Dissecting the Capitalist Disease

Soyoung Jo, Ewha Womans University, South Korea

This paper explores Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz (1836) by focusing on its conspicuous medical vision that dissects the social ills of the urban space. With an anatomizing gaze, the flâneur-narrator Boz reads the emerging power of capitalism, which turns the Victorian urban space into a site of unchanging changefulness. I argue that Sketches possesses its distinctive mode of vision that captures a peculiar double temporality of the capitalist urban terrain: its changeability and stasis.


This paper aims to explore the hitherto neglected modernist sensibility in Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz (1836). In the discourse of modernism, Dickens has been considered a fundamental “realist” writer, incapable of capturing such modern experiences as rapidity, fragmentation, and simultaneity. With this stereotype applied, his earliest work Sketches has long been dismissed as a naïve reportage of urbanscape rather than appreciated as an autonomous artwork deserving thorough examination. In this context, this paper attempts to reevaluate the artistic value of Dickens’ writing in terms of its capacity to embody the modernity of Victorian London which exists as an intriguing concoction of kaleidoscopic spatial simultaneity and timeless repetition of everyday life. In this paper, I investigate the ways in which Dickens epitomizes this ironic coexistence of changeability and timeless stasis in his Sketches by exploiting the formalistic features of the literary sketch.  

    By using sketch-form, Dickens encapsulates certain moments into separate spatial-temporal units and scatters them without any sense of coherence. This act of encapsulating and scattering allows Dickens to not only capture the frantic modern simultaneity with multi-perspectivism but ensnares London inhabitants in perpetual stasis during which everything repeats itself in vain. Firstly, the form of sketch enables Dickens to deploy different focalizations in each sketch, creating a dizzying multi-focalization within the work. Thus, a flaneur-narrator Boz brings us to different moments in each chapter, introducing every corner of Dickensian London. It is in my view that this impression of contraction embodies the epistemological experience of modern urbanites residing in the site of frantic spatial simultaneity, which David Harvey has termed as "time-space compression." Thus, I argue that Dickens' Sketches, both due to its content and form, skillfully embodies one of the most conspicuous dimension of Victorian modernity—spatial simultaneity and unstable changeability.

    Secondly, however, due to its own generic feature, the sketch-form always depicts certain moments without any plot. This plotlessness results in highly intriguing sense of time met with Dickens' particular interests on the lower class everyday life. The author brilliantly expresses the dismal life of the working class people in which everything repeats itself in vain. Moreover, thanks to Dickens' journalistic descriptions that scrutinize each moment, his sketches are full of minute details that protracts the narrative time near to the state of narrative stasis. Thus, the sketch-form, again, becomes the apt literary vehicle to embody the modernity of Victorian London—vain repetition and perpetual stasis.

    As a result, Dickens’ Sketches becomes a miniature of London, where its inhabitants experience both turbulent changeability and timeless stasis. By analyzing how Dickens uses the form of literary sketch to embody the temporal-spatial dimension of Victorian modernity, this paper will shed new light on the modernist aesthetics betrayed in Dickensian London.