This essay addresses the paradox of Dickens as an urban writer through exploration of his narrative space. On the one hand, like Mayhew, Engels, and other Victorian urban explorers, Dickens is a fierce critic of the social ills of the industrial metropolis. On the other hand, Dickens is ranked alongside Baudelaire and Benjamin as the creator of a new vocabulary for urban pleasures, such as flânerie, consumption, visual distraction, and psychological stimulation.
This ambiguity of Dickens’ urban attitudes is encapsulated in the doubleness of his urban chronotope. The city of Dickens is often imaged in vertical terms as the dichotomously divided space of the rich and the poor. But equally often, it is structured horizontally as a maze, network, or ring of contagion that unites all the city dwellers in a complex ecology of mutual interdependence. These two axes of representation correspond to the two types of urban involvement, that of the reformer and of the flâneur. In Bleak House they are epitomized by the omniscient narrator's “bird’s eye” view of society and Esther’s “street level” vision of it.
The essay explores the tension and interaction between the detached aesthetics of flânerie and the passionate involvement of social reform in the narrative fabric of Dickens’s world. It analyzes the narrative architecture of Bleak House by focusing on the techniques of vision and focalization rather than on the novel’s thematic concerns and/or characters’ actions.