Dickens and the Excrement Product

Freud’s claim that excrement is ailment makes a tidy frame for the familiar portrait of Victorian London, or what Dickens in Bleak House calls a “filthy wilderness.” Excrement, defined in the OED as “that which remains after a process of sifting or refining,” emerges from a laborious and sometimes painful process of internalization and elimination that is both visceral and psychological. To excrete is to rid the body of what was once inside it, creating a product with pungent olfactory properties.  Andrea Tanner has explained that as an affront to civilized society, just the smell of excrement was believed by Victorians to carry disease. The correlation between smell and disease prompted upper class Victorians to demand that the metropolitan local government install a program for waste removal, which created a new class of manual laborers to fill the urban streets.  Dirt sweepers and dustmen were employed to help dispel the threat that excrement (and especially horse manure, of which each horse produced between 15-30 pounds daily) posed to both the upper class body and its material possessions. These laborers may have given the upper class peace of mind but at a high price, as sweeping streets and emptying dustbins also acquainted laborers with a more epicurean lifestyle.  The popular “Educated Dustman” figure was held in contempt yet grudgingly admired by some upper class Victorians.  Engaging in self-improvement through reading, challenging the status quo, and acting as “heroic warriors” in the battle for social progress, the Educated Dustmen of London posed a threat to rigidly defined borders of rich and poor.  Because sanitation issues were connected to the poor, the dirty body came to symbolize a social discourse obsessed with sanitation.  The excrement product — dirt, dust, and waste that has material value — suggests a breakdown of social hierarchy. This excrement product has material value, first, in its contribution to creating the liminal spaces of public and private life.  Secondly, the excrement product has social weight as capital.  Finally, the excrement product itself produces social identity by engendering the racially transgressive body, providing a basis for colonialism and constructing theories of reality in the nineteenth century.

Because excrement is ailment, it embodies human struggle.  As one of the most universal sources of human struggle, the private/public divide is marked by the excrement product.  During the sixteenth-century, French edict required that human waste be kept in the home rather than thrown into the street.  Fecal waste became an excrement product that had value in its very social uncouthness; it was an unsavory product that must be restricted to the home.  As Dominique LaPorte argues, “As a ‘private’ thing […] shit becomes a political object through its constitution as the dialectical other of the ‘public.’”  Women, described by Ruskin in Sesame and Lilies as “rulers” of the private sphere during the Victorian period, were expected to tend to this political object (shit).  Both women and their private sphere provided ways to measure the “health” of the nation.  Poor reports of sanitation in the city lent health reporters to blame female labor, especially in factories, that took women out of the home, for not only urban sanitation problems but also for moral pollution (see Marjorie Levine-Clark’s Beyond the Reproductive Body).  This political objectification of the excrement product helped mark the home as a distinctly “private” sphere capable of pollution, denoting the “private” as a place to hide dirty possessions and immoral habits.

As a symbol of feces for Freud, gold and money are “brought into the most intimate relationship with dirt.”  The tendency of the rich to hoard money away in private easily lends itself to a relationship with excrement.  For example, Norman Brown asserts that a child in the anal stage “holds dear his excrement so he can share it with others.” However, through acculturation the child must learn to repress his desire to publicize his excrement product (or wealth) which, according to Brown’s theory, indicates that the privatization of the excrement product is somewhat responsible for miserliness. Wealth becomes, like excrement, aversive and repressive.  And like the word “shyte” in Thomas Elyot’s 1538 Dictionary, excrement has social value in its aversive qualities (while other “dirty” words, like “cunt,” have no social value – Melissa Mohr’s “Defining Dirt” is a useful article to note here).  Moreover, becoming wealthy and maintaining wealth is a process of subordination.  As Ruskin argues in Unto This Last, “the art of making yourself rich […] is equally and necessarily the art of making your neighbor poor.” More money leads to further consumption, which creates more waste.  Wealth births poverty, and poverty births excremental dirt; therefore, riches are excrement (Christopher Herbert makes this point in his article “Filthy Lucre”).  Just as prevalent a theme in Victorian fiction as the public/private divide, social class is a driving force in fictional representations of excrement. Indeed, as Natalka Freeland posits, “social problem fiction is defined by its dirtiness.”  As William Cohen’s description in Filth conveys, wealth can be read as both a “dystopic pollution and utopian resource.”  Victorians renounced their attraction to/relationship with the excrement product, replacing that satisfaction with the private hoarding of capital.  Hoarded capital, or what Catherine Gallagher terms “illth,” is a life-sucking possession capable of causing bodily harm (such as the spontaneous combustion splattering the pages of Bleak House).  Like the blood that bubbles from Richard Carstone’s lips after he loses the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, capital infects people from the inside, inviting vampires like Mr. Vholes to suck them dry.  If we read “illth” as a kind of excrement product then those most associated with capital are interpolated as “dirty,” and capable of contamination and harm.

Despite the possible associations between excrement and wealth, contamination was often synonymous with poverty.  Ironically, the disposal of waste was cheaper for the rich.  As a leading fear in the aristocracy, threats of contamination from the poor were personified by a rising middle class and increasingly visible lower class.  Dirt and dust evidenced the dreaded economic and social invasion of the poor.  Like poverty, dirt is a byproduct of industrialization. Dirt and poverty demarcate obscenity, immorality, and death.  To be aware of dirt and poverty is to acknowledge the existence of a system that creates dirt and poverty.  But dirt also indicates a breakdown of that system. The excrement product, then, is a product of civilization; it is a product that marks the body.  Dirt epitomizes social identity through its markings of the body and the body’s relationship to it.  No body wears the markings of dirt more than the impoverished body.  Using the body as a medium, the markings of excrement (ailment) visibly move in and out of the impoverished body.  Disease, odor, dirty clothing, unsanitary living situations, and emaciated flesh mark the lower classes as a kind of excrement product that should be avoided in the public sphere.  If dirt indicates a breakdown of a system then dirt may also indicate the breakdown of a body.  Psychoanalytic discussions of the “dirty” posit the body, and especially the maternal body, as an abject figure susceptible to excretions.  In her Powers of Horror, Kristeva suggests that society is “horrified” by the breakdown of meaning that the abject maternal figure presents because the “dirty” body relates a breakdown between subject/object or self/other which disrupts order.

Powerful because of its intimacy with the body and its ability to deconstruct order, then, the dirty, impoverished body threatened aristocratic stability.  Cleanliness was the difference between order and disorder. Moreover, as Anne McClintock explains, dirt disrupts “the domestic fantasy of cleanliness depended upon by an empire that worked to clean up colonies that were dirty.”  Because many of the theories concerning race, gender, and difference during the nineteenth century relied upon a language of cleanliness and purity, racial hybridity and trangressive women were markers of contamination.  English colonization was partially enabled through the dichotomy of the dirty and clean, equating cleanliness with Christian ideals of purity (think Leviticus).  The fear of dirt sanctioned English government to take control not only of other countries, but also of England itself.  The Victorians’ desire to avoid dirt (and the poverty it symbolized) authorized English law to infringe upon certain human rights.

The establishment of the law, championed by the aristocracy, not only attempted to make the impoverished body invisible, but also to make the workings of its own institution invisible.  This is nowhere more evident than in Dickens’ Bleak House.  The shroud of suffocating fog that permeates “the dirtiest streets” of London at the opening of Bleak House finds its way into every crevice of modern life, from Tom-all-Alone’s to the Dedlock estate.  The “undrained, unventilated, deep black mud and corrupt water”of Tom-all-Alone’s invades even Chesney Wold where “the little church in the park is mouldy, the oaken pulpit breaks into a cold sweat; and there is a general smell and taste as of the ancient Dedlocks in their graves.”  The excrement product in Bleak House is inescapable: Esther wears the markings of social infection on her face, Lady Deadlock’s mildewed hair prevents immediate identification, the thick humidity that “breaks out like a disease” transforms London into an “ocean,” the stench of corpses remain in Jobling’s apartment, Ghost’s Walk, and the graveyard, Peepy’s dirty body makes everything wet, Jo’s tears are dirty, Phil Squad is a “dirty little man,” Chadband has a dirty thumbnail, Young Turveydrop’s apprentices wear dirty gauze dresses.  But over all this dirt looms the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, which touches every character of the novel.  The finger of the law is dirtiest of all.  It, like Dickens, shines light into all corners of London to reveal the dank and dirty conditions of modern life.  Krook, who incarnates the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, spontaneously combusts.  His body “smears like black fat” on Guppy’s sleeve, like the fog of London that persists with its “smouldering, suffocating substance vapour.” The excrement of a body possessed by the law revolts against the body itself.  Among other things, Dickens uses excrement product to highlight the fear that that which does not belong will find its way in, and destroy order.  Like Dracula who Leila May argues is the “emblem of the nineteenth-century horror of disease,” excrement enters through the private quarters, contaminating women first; social “others” and the poor follow.

Although excrement is ailment, Freud upholds in his Letters that it is also “unavoidable and asks to be treated humanely.”  The excrement product is a materialization of the social, sexual, political, and economical issues of Victorian England.  These elements combine to illustrate what Dickens describes in Oliver Twist as his objective in novels to portray “miserable reality” by focusing on the “squalid…dirtiest paths of life.” For Dickens, the excrement product provides the necessary tool to create realism.  The realism that Dickens portrays reflects concerns with the health of modern society.  Like the world he depicts, it is a kind of realism that “ought to clean itself up.”  Realism and the excrement product are inseparable; they are both the truth and the repression of the truth.   As Jo indicates in Bleak House, all people do is die.  Dickens connects the impoverished and the cadaverous body to show the excrement product as the final form of reality as the body decays, becomes part of the earth, and provides the sheets of dust on streets and belongings. The body becomes the excrement product, wearing its poverty even after (and perhaps especially) in death.  As the ultimate symbol of excrement, then, the body leaves its mark on all classes as the flakes of flesh that continue to invade civilized life, despite death.

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