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In his new book, "Sensation and Sublimation in Charles Dickens," English professor John Gordon adds a new perspective to theories on Dickensian psychology. Many scholars have used Dickens' work as a framework for studying psychology, but Gordon, a specialist in modern British literature who joined Connecticut College in 1980, criticizes his predecessors for reading Freudian theory into Dickens' novels.
"Too many of them, I think, have been tautologically arguing that Dickens was a Freudian avant la lettre, and that the way we can know that is that so much of Freud seems like Dickens après la lettre," he said.
Gordon explores the psychology of characters in three Dickens novels - "Oliver Twist," "Dombey and Son" and "Bleak House" - as well as that of the legendary author himself, and frames his analysis through the lens of pre-Freudian psychology. Dickensian psychology, Gordon argues, is really a "subdivision of physiology."
"The body comes first," he said. "Every Dickens dream is a function of internal and external events which, before it gets to the sleeping brain, have registered in the body containing the brain."
Gordon, who is teaching a senior seminar on Dickens this semester, is confident that his interpretation of Dickensian psychology will surprise even the most avid of Dickens' readers.
"I like to think … that anyone who has, for example, read 'Bleak House' several times and studied it backwards and forwards can still learn something new from my chapter on that book," he said. Gordon's previous work has primarily focused on James Joyce, but he noted the odd similarities between Joyce and his new subject, Dickens.
"I consider them the two great masters of English prose," he said. "Dickens, arguably, wrote too much and should have revised more; Joyce, arguably, should have been less obsessive about revising and re-revising. Opposites in that way, but these are the two writers of English prose I most look forward to re-reading. Well, except for P. G. Wodehouse."