I read My Brilliant Friend over the holidays, and just now (thanks to my brilliant friend) finished The Story of a New Name. I love the novels–especially the first one because of the way it juxtaposes the structures of school with the unstructured ways of trying to create historical change through education, individually defined. The Story of a New Name shows just how difficult change is–characters who seem ready to define the world in their own terms emerge as repetitions of their parents, and economic growth decays into poverty and hardship once more.
These novels capture the ways in which realism is about social categories. Elena bristles against the role she is assigned by her friend:
“Lila was sure I would never quit school. She had assigned me the role of the friend with glasses and pimples, always bent over her books, smart in school, and she couldn’t even imagine that I might change. But I didn’t want that role anymore” (46).
And yet, throughout the novel, this role also gives Elena comfort, even stability. For if Lila assigns social roles, her own character is defined through the way she always exceeds her role. Elena, however, needs the role for her dreams to become real. This tension–between the stability of roles and the instability of character, between repetition and historical change–is only amplified by the narrative structure where Elena narrates the story but Lila is its driving force.
In Martin Chuzzelwit, the titular character responds to a zealous American accusing him of hating American institutions by declaring, “You can make anything an Institution if you like” (461). Through this statement, Martin insists that the American fails to locate his true dislike (Martin dislikes him, as a person) while also questioning the unruly form of American institutionality (where individual people function as institutions). By contrast, in Britain, “the greater part of these things are one Institution with us, and we call it by the generic name of Old Bailey” (461)! The one (Old Bailey) and the many (American institutionality).
For D. A. Miller, the “one” is a way of obscuring the importance of the many (networks of disciplinary power). He suggests that the novel functions much more like American institutionality–through circuits and relations and micropowers rather than unified state power. Certainly, the novel’s circuits and relations are important; and they never quite unify into “one Institution.” So, why does Dickens assert the importance of the “one” here? After all, it could be argued that the fact all things are “one Insitution with us” is the precise problem that Bleak House and Hard Times address.
If Dickens is quite good at representing the many (people that statistics don’t want to see), he also has great fear that this diversity will make it impossible to have a shared community–a nation. This tension makes him criticize American institutionality not simply because of its unruly form, but also because it is “American.” While his novels of social reform in England criticize British institutions, whenever he leaves England he associates these very British institutions with home. Having things be “one Institution with us” enables him to equate that Institution with home.