“So Frail a Machine” and “The Carnivalesque City”

I offer two articles for your reading pleasure that I feel enhance and add depth to the Sketches and Dickens’s/Boz’s accomplishment.

“Sketches by Boz, ‘So Frail a Machine’”

by Danielle Coriale

This article speaks to the nature of the collection itself – “a text so radically hybrid that its only unifying force is Boz” (801) – and explores the strengths and weaknesses of such “an uneasy amalgam of short tales” (802). Coriale argues that because of the very nature of the sketches in terms of their original design and publication, the “miscellany defied any movement toward a linear, narrative progression”. (803) Dickens’s efforts to “impose a narrative structure on writing that was fundamentally resistant to it” (808) by regrouping the sketches with each new edition, ultimately failed to “erase the disruptive effects of the hybridity of ‘Sketches by Boz’ as a whole; rather [he] condensed and magnified those effects” (809), thus creating “a new kind of realism”. (809) “The montage Dickens accidentally produced” as a result “reveal[ed] what was ordinarily invisible to the human eye” and thereby “seemed patently realistic to many contemporary reviewers.” (810 And so, though he failed to actually bring order to the sketches, he did enhance their effect as “Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People”.

“Performance and Control: The Carnivalesque City and Its People in Charles Dickens’s ‘Sketches by Boz’”

by Ian Wilkinson

SPOILER ALERT – this article contains discussion of sketches we have not yet read. Here, in part, is the abstract:

“The essay argues that Dickens uses his sketches to show Londoners at play, when the streets take on a carnivalesque atmosphere and the street characters emerge as strongly delineated types who counter the adversity found in their lives with a resilience that generates comedy and the spirit of the carnival. Through an exploration of Dickens’s portrayal of the popular entertainment offered by the city, the essay shows that . . . the lower middle classes, display an anxiety . . . that leads to their self-exclusion from this carnivalesque world . . . [and] locating Boz’s sympathies with those who feel the force of increasing regulation in their lives.”


  1. Interesting in the Corial article, about the possible sources for the Sketches, particularly Washington Irving’s work. Also fascinating that the Sketches are (or rather, were) considered by some to have hurt his literary prospects ~ beginning his career in a newspaper. But isn’t that so Dickensian? What we see in the Sketches, and in Pickwick following, is that gift of making the common uncommon; lifting the relatable life, things, even common periodicals, into something that we see with new eyes…for the sake of humor, or pathos, or call to change…or simply renewed awareness.

    The author says that the Sketches were talked about more than the first few numbers of Pickwick. (And I add: that is only natural because SAM WELLER didn’t make an appearance until #4!!!!!!!)

    I’d read this before, about Dickens having “expressed his anxieties about launching his literary career with a radically hybrid text that resisted narrative design.” But again, I think we’re trying to impose a structure on something that is, by its nature, resistant to it. These are “sketches,” vignettes, snapshots of London life. Taken together, they give us a “portrait” of London, insofar as we can have a portrait of something so vast, wild, colorful, random…yes, that’s it. Trying to impose a narrative structure on the Sketches would be like trying to arbitrarily impose a narrative structure on a day in London itself.

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  2. A few quote highlights I found especially interesting in the Wilkinson:

    “The sense of performance invades every area of the sketches, from the descriptions to the narrator’s character’s habit of at once describing and appearing in the scenes, and it seems, in this, that Boz is no different from the majority of Londoners, many of whom were willing to pay for the privilege of setting foot on stage. […] Boz’s London, it seems, is full of would-be performers, from the drunken clerks in ‘Making a Night of It’ who heckle the actors at the City Theatre, to the ‘persons in the humbler classes of life’ in ‘London Recreations,’ who ‘ape them.’”

    “It is essential that Dickens presents his reader with types who lead trapped lives in order for the carnivalesque to operate in the sketches. The sense of oppression is created by descriptions of the social functions performed by these types, functions which are usually linked to their work, or their status in society, and it is these labels of identity that they leave behind when they enter into the alternative reality of the carnival.”

    “Dickens depicts a wide range of London life in his sketches, and he displays the city in its very many moods. He uses comedy and the carnivalesque to lampoon and undermine the behavior of the pompous, but most of all he depicts Londoners performing their parts in life.”

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  3. The “imposition of order” on orderless sketches is interesting to me because it speaks to the orderless-ness of the city itself. Boz, via the sketches, provides or suggests some order by delineating “types” (the Shabby-genteel, the Old Boys, the Beadle, the Broker’s Man, etc.). And the carnivalesque lends itself to the “all the world’s a stage” aspect which Dickens/Boz very much captures.

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