Dickens’s Ghosts: An Altered Perspective

“Marley’s ghost bothered him exceedingly. Every time he resolved within himself, after mature enquiry, that it was all a dream, his mind flew back again, like a strong spring released, to its first position, and presented the same problem to be worked all through, ‘Was it a dream or not?.” Scrooge’s internal debate accurately reflects the mid-Victorian dichotomy on Spiritualism, mesmerism and the supernatural. Claire Horton, of Loughborough University, explains how in Dickens’s time the ability to see ghosts was linked to mesmerism, a practice that fired the imagination of the Victorians.

Change is, and always has been, an inevitable consequence of life and was arguably at its greatest during the long Victorian era which saw major industrial, technological, social and scientific developments, particularly in the field of Victorian mental science. Before the nineteenth century, the mind had been viewed positively, as a faculty which strengthened an individual’s identity and contributed to defining a sense of self. But, by the 1830s, this viewpoint had begun to change with the emergence of mesmerism, first brought to England by Franz Anton Mesmer. Its popularity spanned the entire social spectrum and, as Alison Winter has successfully argued, effectively changed Victorian culture by becoming one of its central preoccupations.

Some of the reputed side-effects of mesmerism included ‘ghost-seeing’ which was often discussed in medical circles, especially in relation to involuntary functions of the mind including dreaming, somnambulism, reverie, hallucination and mental derangement. Such psychological states had previously been little understood but advancements in mental science and the publication of Samuel Hibbert’s Sketches of the Philosophy of Apparitions (1824) and David Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic (1832) linked these conditions not only to the mind but to memory itself. Such theories attracted the attention of many novelists including Charles Dickens who explored their implications via his fiction. However, this aspect of Dickens’ work has received relatively little critical attention despite the fact that Dickens displayed many pre-Freudian ideas in his work, especially where his ghost stories are concerned. To demonstrate, this paper will focus on two of Dickens’ works including A Christmas Carol (1843) and ‘The Signal-Man (1866)’, both of which may be read literally or as psychological explanations for ‘ghost-seeing’.

This podcast was recorded during the series Late Summer Lectures in 2017. Listen to other lectures from the series here:

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