Corners in Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend
Princeton University Princeton, New Jersey, USA
Corners in Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend. Friedman, Joanna . Lethbridge Undergraduate Research Journal. Volume 1 Number 2. 2007.
The word “corner(s)” occurs no less than 130 times in Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend (1864-5). The adage that “when it rains, it pours” certainly holds true with respect to this seven letter string. In some passages, as if Dickens sought to hammer the phonemes into our brains, the word occurs a half a dozen times in the span of an equal number of sentences. The obvious question is why, out of all the words in the English lexicon, does Dickens employ this particular term so profusely? On one level, we do not have to search very hard for a suitable answer. Our Mutual Friend is a novel, first and foremost, about “dust” – a euphemism for all varieties of waste – and what treasures and curses individuals can find in these piles and how their lives are dictated by such pursuits. Indeed, one of the principal characters is referred to as “the golden dustman.” With respect to corners – as anyone who has ever attempted house-cleaning knows – these are zones where dust settles and collects. As hard to reach and often missed places, corners are a hotbed for dust-mites that sully what could otherwise be a spotless room. Despite the striking abundance of this single term, the recurrence of corners invariably goes unnoticed. This paper argues that such oversight is problematic because it neglects a crucial motif that Dickens employs throughout every stage of his novel. More specifically, I propose that corners serve as an extended trope that works not only on a purely linguistic and denotative level, but also in terms of spatial dimensions. The images of corners, usually through their specific alignment, become symbols that elucidate various themes. The crucial and perhaps surprising component of their usage is not necessarily that corners reflect events and individuals in the novel, but that they unfailingly (though not always) operate on account of their three-dimensional qualities despite the obvious limitations of a two-dimensional page. That is to say, when Dickens utilizes corners he applies them to the situation with consideration of their actual physical dimensions and it is the very space they embody in relation to individuals that yields and reinforces the deeper meanings Dickens wishes to convey.
Briefly, I must note that although there are many references to corners, for an exposition of this nature, it is neither practical nor necessary to describe each instance. One does not need to read about every application in order to fully appreciate the recurring patterns that develop as the novel progresses. For the sake of simplification and to prevent a project of this nature from becoming too unwieldy, I divide the sections according to character groups. In doing so, certain claims may reappear in discussions from character to character (although each section mostly advances an independent argument linked to the greater whole) but this fault can hopefully be forgiven as I endeavor to look at the multiplicity of corners from all possible angles (pun intended).
I. The Lammles
The story of how Mr. and Mrs. Lammle came together will never be featured in a volume entitled “Romantic Love Tales.” The two married one another solely because each party was under the impression that the other was an affluent, well-connected member of high society. Little did Mr. and Mrs. Lammle know that their future significant other was only pretending to be rich. Needless to say, they were shocked and disappointed to learn that they had fallen victim to their own scam and that their spouse was simply another gold-digging manipulative upstart. Subsequently, Mr. and Mrs. Lammle spend their energy living beyond their means and attempting to come into more funds by taking advantage of well-to-do individuals.
The Lammles' connection to corners teems with sinister overtones. As one might expect, they use corners as places to trap potential victims in the same way that a spider lures insects to its web. With respect to these two scoundrels, the treatment of corners suggests conscious and active undertakings. For example, Mrs. Lammle deliberately positions herself within corners and then goes to great pains to move others into the corner with her.
The foundation of the effort to situate oneself in a corner is simply the desire to conduct “business” in concealed and shadowy spots – precisely how Mrs. Lammle operates. Early in the novel, she is “overjoyed to escape into a corner for a little quiet talk” with the gullible Miss Podsnap (I.xi.139) whom Lammle wishes to befriend for ulterior motives. It is impossible to ignore the menace that Mr. and Mrs. Lammle pose considering such lines as: “Lammle stands with folded arms, Mephistophelean in a corner” (II.xvi.408). The reader automatically envisages Satan who is commonly depicted hiding behind trees or lurking in the shadows as he waits to ambush his next victim.
The Lammles are by no means as evil as the devil, but they are similar in the sense that they coax others into yielding to temptations, most noticeably the sin of vanity. On account of her “giddy vanity”, Bella, who is unquestionably a bright young woman, falls prey to Mrs. Lammle because she cannot resist gossiping and telling Mrs. Lammle secrets. Even though Bella “mistrusted” both individuals, she “squeezed the mistrust away into a corner of her mind” and proceeded to divulge that Rokesmith made romantic overtures. Though not quite as severe as signing a pact with the devil, Bella's conversation with Mrs. Lammle does return to haunt her. Naturally, the Lammles fully intend to use the information to their advantage and gain money in the process. Mrs. Lammle follows Mr. Boffin (Bella's de facto guardian) until he comes to the “corner of his own street”. She then pulls next to him in her carriage and motions for Boffin to come inside. After she explains that they cannot be seen in public, Boffin agrees to enter the shadowy confines of her carriage (III.xiv.573).
For all of their efforts to swindle people, Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are ultimately unsuccessful and are forced to leave England in shame. Their association with corners stays with them until the bitter end. As they prepare for their so-called “dignified departure”, the narrator states that “in turning the street corner they might have turned out of this world” (IV.ii.637). For Mrs. and Mrs. Lammle, there was never a question that corners represented much more than the mere union of physical planes; they were tools to achieve desired ends. Thus, their finale is fitting because Dickens' use of corners repays them in kind (and then some). Like a game of poker, the hyperbolic analogy sees their conception of corners and dramatically raises the stakes. The seemingly trivial act of turning a corner now signifies a departure from the entire world; thereby suggesting a kind of death or, perhaps, Lucifer's fall from heaven.
The Lammles' relationship to corners is also significant because it demonstrates the way that corners literally demarcate dichotomies among individuals. To form a corner, one needs two lines that are perpendicular to one another and intersect. The lines are literally “at odds” and Dickens frequently transmutes this detail in order to indicate an absence of harmony. Even though the Lammles decide to work in cahoots to dupe other people, they certainly do not like each other because they are resentful of the position in which they find themselves. Divorces were uncommon and difficult to obtain (and could create considerable scandal) so Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are stuck together. 1 The tension and emotional distance that arises from this union manifests itself explicitly and visibly in the physical positions they adopt, which are repeatedly described through corners. When they appear in public, Mr. and Mrs. Lammle act like happy newlyweds but, as soon as they depart from the scene, they retreat “moodily into separate corners of their little carriage” (I.xi.16). This is the reality that no one sees on account of the façade they present. Mr. and Mrs. Lammle forever remain “in their opposite corners” and, to remind us of the inherent gloominess of these places, the narrator stresses that these are “dark corners” (I.xi.146). Thus, being in “opposite corners” suggests irreconcilable differences and a dearth of warmth. Additionally, one is likely to picture two boxers standing at opposite corners of the ring. Most people experience occasions when they are so infuriated with someone that they must physically distance themselves from the source of anger. Lamentably, this is how the Lammles live on a day-to-day basis. Whenever others are not watching, they slide into their respective corners and this movement only serves to underscore the rift that exists in their ill-fated marriage.
II. The Poor
A class of people frequently tied to corners is the poor – the refuse of society. For these hapless souls, corners are places of death and decay. Sometimes this link is unequivocal, as in the case of Betty Higden who we find living “in a corner below the mangle” (I.xvi.196) and finally, after she passes away, her “ashes [lie] in a corner of a churchyard” (III.ix.507). Impoverished individuals are simultaneously trapped and condemned to corners. On one level, their placement highlights the fact that their world is largely hidden from society's elite. Those who are not destitute can actively utilize corners for benevolent or malevolent reasons, but what options do the poor have? Someone like Betty was willing to choose death over the poor-house. Hence, the angular spaces that the poor inhabit are indicative of the oppressive and limiting forces that dictate their lives. They do not choose to live in corners; rather, they passively wind up in such places – even in death.
From the novel's onset, death is an inescapable feature of the many “obscure corners” that dot the poverty-stricken landscape. When Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn travel to the slums to see the body of the supposedly deceased John Harmon, they are taken to a “dark corner” that is “confoundedly out of the way.” Moreover, to arrive at the location, they must “turn the corner sharp” (I.iii.36). The appeal in using corners as spaces that pertain to death partly lies in Lightwood's stunned reaction with respect to how far away the corner is located. From a spatial perspective, corners are comparable to vanishing points – places where all lines converge at a distant point that seems to recede into an invisible infinity. The metaphorical implication is that corners represent points where entities disappear or cease to exist – in short, pass on to the eternity that exists beyond life. It is no wonder then that Dickens employs corners as an extended trope for the impending threat of death. Similarly, “turning the corner sharp” at once draws our attention to the harshness of the world the poor inhabit and the frequently violent nature of death. For instance, Harmon recalls that his assailant reminded him of a “wood cutter and his axe” (II.xii.56) – an unambiguous sign of the sharpness associated with the brutal murder on which the novel centers.
When Lightwood and Wrayburn enter the building they spot a “wooden bunk or berth in a corner, and in another corner a wooden stair” (I.iii.30). The adjective “wooden” evokes the idiom “stiff as a board”, which pertains to the cold, lifeless body before them. However, more significant is the sense that the corners are enveloping them. A clearly uneasy Lightwood glances “rather shrinkingly towards the bunk” and asks “is [the body] here” (I.iii.30)? Finally, “arriving at the last corner” (II.iii.36), they find the body lying on a bunk. We normally imagine beds as comfortable places to rest, but Dickens' does not grant us such a luxury. He forces us to reevaluate our assumptions, especially with respect to the lower-class quality of life, and tweaks the notion of beds as resting places by converting the piece of furniture into the final resting place for individuals.
Given that both beds and corners are associated with death, it comes as no surprise that these images crisscross at different points in the novel. Occasionally, corners even become beds. Lizzie Hexam tells her brother Charley, “sometimes we are sleepy and fall asleep together in a corner, sometimes we are very hungry, sometimes we are a little frightened, but what is oftenest hard upon us is the cold” (I.iii.37). Lizzie's words undeniably connote a miserable and possibly even fatal existence, e.g. hungry, frightened, hard, and cold. Truly, it can prove difficult to idealize a space consisting of two walls against one another and it is harder still knowing that corners do not necessarily offer protection since one half of the formation may be completely unsheltered. Though a corner is the final resting place for Betty Higden, Lizzie desperately wants her brother to have a better life then the one their current status affords. She espies him sleeping “in the bunk in the corner” (I.vi.77) shortly before she urges him to leave and improve his schooling despite their father's objections. Given the blatant connection between bunks and death, it is clear that Charley needs to escape. He does not have many options to succeed in this society and Lizzie understands that he can either stay “sleeping” in corners, leading a desolate existence, or try to remove himself from places that necessarily hold him captive.
Finally, corners can be used to demean the poor insofar as the more affluent members of society call attention to the fact that certain individuals are relegated to measly crevices. For instance, Wrayburn sardonically calls Riderhood “our friend of the perspiring brow at the far corner” (I.xiii.168). Riderhood is an absolute villain, so it seems logical that he should lurk in far corners. Yet, to speak of someone as though they were located in a “far corner” when, in actuality, the location is not particularly remote, entails an active attempt to relegate the person to such a place. In other words, Wrayburn's superfluous comment subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) degrades Riderhood by publicizing that he is situated in an undesirable position. By vocalizing his thoughts, Wrayburn puts Riderhood in his place by stressing the distance that exists between himself and this lowly individual whom he wants to keep as far away as possible.
III. Venus and Wegg
In a novel suffused with references to corners, it seems inevitable that some characters represent what we might call effective “corner-dwellers.” In other words, certain individuals invariably reside in these crooked places. We are all familiar with the term “bottom-dwellers”, which, in a scientific context, denotes creatures that live at the bottom of the ocean subsisting on waste that falls to the sea floor. This supposedly revolting (by human standards) feeding habit was reconfigured to refer to people who behave in a questionable manner, (also known as “lowlifes”). Dickens uses the concept of “corner-dwellers” in a way that is similar to our understanding of society's bottom-dwellers. Those who inhabit corners are not necessarily people like the Lammles who use corners as tools for nefarious purposes. Even though the Lammles frequently end up in corners, they do so consciously. Corner-dwellers are of a separate variety; crooked spaces become their niches whether they realize it or not.
One such individual is Silas Wegg – “Wegg” being a comic pronunciation that underscores his “wooden leg” through alliteration (he is even referred to as “wooden Wegg” at one point in the novel). Dickens relishes giving his characters transparent names (e.g. the Veneerings) but frankly, he could just as easily have called Wegg, “Mr. Corner” because those are the only places we ever find him. It cannot be overestimated the extent to which Wegg is connected to corners. Indeed, most of the paragraphs that exhibit an abundance of the term pertain directly to Wegg or, in some instances, to his ostensible partner in crime, the articulator of bones, Mr. Venus. Between the two men, corners appear ad nauseam. In our first introduction to Wegg, we immediately discern that he is a creature who stirs among these regions:
Over against a London house, a corner house not far from Cavendish Square, a man with a wooden leg had sat for some years, with his remaining foot in a basket in cold weather, picking up a living on this wise: Every morning at eight o'clock, he stumped to the corner, carrying a chair, a clothes-horse, a pair of trestles, a board, a basket, and an umbrella, all strapped together… He had established his right to the corner, by imperceptible prescription. He had never varied his ground an inch, but had in the beginning diffidently taken the corner upon which the side of the house gave. A howling corner in the winter time, a dusty corner in the summer time, an undesirable corner at the best of times. Shelterless fragments of straw and paper got up revolving storms there, when the main street was at peace; and the water-cart, as if it were drunk or short-sighted, came blundering and jolting round it, making it muddy when all else was clean. [emphasis added] (I.v.52)
Wegg has a recurring tendency to appropriate a corner and emphasize that it belongs to him. In this case, he “established his right to the corner.” It should seem a little ridiculous to claim privilege to a single “shelterless fragment” of a usually much larger (in terms of relative proportion) whole. And yet, this is often human nature. How often do children whine and pout if someone “steals” their space? Certainly, individuals are entitled to their niche, but the language makes it clear that Wegg's existence in corners is pathetic. He wakes up every morning, leaves his “corner house” only to “stump” to another bent edge. “Stumping” is no easy task as the verb implies an uncomfortable strain on the individual's motion. Hence, it is all the more absurd for Wegg to put so much effort only to terminate in the same type of location. This truth suggests complacency in the sense that Wegg, whether on a conscious level or not, is perfectly fine existing in corners. They are the hollows that he has carved for himself and he is destined to remain there despite the fact that these corners are dreary and unprotected regardless of the time of year. Even though Wegg assumes he has all of his bases covered, the portrayal of corners as exposed and vulnerable spaces suggests otherwise. Wegg simply cannot win in any sense. The wind relentlessly blows into the corner and thus stirs up the dust, but the same wind only deposits more filth into his alcove.
Being the fiend that he is, Wegg's corners are naturally treacherous places. The innocent Mr. Boffin “comically ambles toward [Wegg's] corner” not realizing that he is strolling into dangerous territory. But Wegg is far from invincible. If there is one person who “has his number”, it is Mr. Venus (although Wegg fails to realize this until the novel's conclusion). Their unequal relationship is reflected in the fact that Venus literally has Wegg “out-cornered.” Venus is largely defined by his bizarre shop where he sells various curiosities including bones, fetuses in formaldehyde type compounds, and preserved animals. But his strange “little shop that is so excessively dark” is also noteworthy for the proliferation of corners within its bounds. The store is “stuck so full of black shelves and brackets and nooks and corners” that Wegg can barely find the cup and saucer before his eyes (I.vii.84). Venus is hospitable enough, offering Wegg muffins and tea, but “as the muffins disappear, little by little, the… nooks and corners begin to appear” (I.vii.84). That corners surface once the food supply dwindles suggests that these empty voids are ominous portents that remain concealed so long as everything seems fine. Wegg perceives that the corners reveal “hindoo babies in bottles”; thereby emphasizing anew the link between these spaces and death.
Mr. Venus is not a bad person, however, so whenever Dickens mentions the corners in his store, he does so in conjunction with another word, e.g. “nooks.” Such pairings force the reader to weigh the terms being compared and question the difference(s) between them. “Nooks” generally carry a positive connotation because they are perceived as cozy locations. Thus, it seems that Dickens qualifies and balances the occurrences of Venusian corners in a way that minimizes their intrinsic “sharpness.” Additionally, it is important to realize that corners are external to Mr. Venus. While it is true that he seems to spend his life in the shop and is defined by his queer profession, we must remember that the corners are a product of the objects in the shop. Venus' store is like “Corners R Us” because as he keeps filling the room with more and more oddities, the store becomes a breeding ground for corners. It is simply unavoidable that crevices should multiply amid the countless items because, logically, the more packed the space, the greater the probability for lines to intersect and planes to stack against one another. The broader implication is that the corners associated with Venus develop naturally and are therefore considerably less malignant then those belonging to Wegg.
Wegg is quite keen to bring Venus into his “corner.” (I use the expression both in the sense of persuading someone to join a side and in terms of literal/spatial movement.) He tells Venus to “take a seat in the chimney-corner” (II.vii.296). Chimneys are places where ash and dust collect so Wegg's command should alert the listener to potential risk since such particles could evoke death (e.g. bones that turn to dust, ashes in an urn, etc.). As much as Wegg believes that his blackmail scheme will succeed and he will be filthy rich as a result, the corner imagery tells a different story. Like other odd couples in Our Mutual Friend, Wegg and Venus align themselves in different corners and this configuration implies that their interests are actually diametrically opposed. Wegg desires to hoodwink Boffin but when the former visits Venus in order to discuss their plans, he does not realize that Venus has his own agenda and instructed Mr. Boffin to hide “behind the young alligator in the corner, and judge [Wegg] for yourself” (III.xiv.567). Venus produces the testament to extort money from Boffin but, when he exposes the document, he “holds on to it by his usual corner” and Wegg “holds on by the opposite corner.” Like the Lammles, the implication is that Wegg and Venus are literally (and spatially) at odds with one another. Even before this incident, Dickens goes into great detail about how the two men clutch the will:
Wegg opened the hat-box and revealed the cash-box, opened the cash-box and revealed the will. He held a corner of it tight, while Venus, taking hold of another corner, searchingly and attentively read it. ‘Was I correct in my account of it, partner?’ said Mr. Wegg at length. ‘Partner, you were,’ said Mr. Venus. Mr. Wegg thereupon made an easy, graceful movement, as though he would fold it up; but Mr. Venus held on by his corner. [emphasis added] (III.vii.488)
The sense of opposition is transparent, particularly since Venus refuses to relinquish the document. In effect, they are engaged in a proverbial tug-of-war. But what is truly brilliant about this moment is that like a number of other incidents in the novel, the verbal implies one scenario (e.g. Venus referring to Wegg as “partner”) but the reader can deduce an opposite conclusion by examining the corner motif. During this same visit to Venus's shop, “Mr. Wegg impelled himself with his hands towards a chair in a corner of the room, and there… attained a perpendicular position. Mr. Venus… rose” (III.vii.485). Within the verb used to describe Wegg's movement lies the latent word “imp”, which evokes a connection to wicked creatures that live in shadowy corners, chiefly surfacing to inflict harm on humans. However, more significant is the detail that Wegg “attained a perpendicular position” while Venus “rose.” The two men are essentially cast as two lines on a geometric plane. Once again, the spatial significance of corners is used as a metaphor to imply that like two lines crashing into one another, the interactions between Venus and Wegg are ultimately discordant.
Wegg's final exit leaves him exactly where we first met him, i.e. in a corner. But shortly before the dénouement, Wegg, who does not have the foggiest idea that his plans are on the verge of unraveling, pays one last visit to Venus' shop:
So weazen and yellow is the kivering upon your bones, that one might almost fancy you had come to give a look-in upon the French gentleman in the corner, instead of me. Mr. Wegg, glancing in great dudgeon towards the French gentleman's corner, seemed to notice something new there, which induced him to glance at the opposite corner, and then to put on his glasses and stare at all the nooks and corners of the dim shop in succession. ‘Why, you've been having the place cleaned up!’ he exclaimed. ‘Yes, Mr Wegg. By the hand of adorable woman.’ [emphasis added] (IV.xiv.761)
The conversation reveals that Wegg is only capable of seeing corners. He no longer mentions the “hindoo babies” or other specific objects. His eyes simply dart from corner to corner and, because Wegg is so jaded, he cannot view situations from a normal, let alone, objective, stance. His bitterness induces him to focus on sharp, piercing structures, thereby missing the “big picture.” The narrator may remark that he stares at the corners “in succession” but, truly, their angular nature and the fact that they are scattered in random order would make it very difficult to trace them in a linear fashion. Thus, one would infer that glancing from corner to corner leaves Wegg cross-eyed and unable to grasp the implications of what he observes. The unexpected presence of the “adorable woman” (for which Boffin is responsible) is a clue that something is amiss and Venus is not on his side. Wegg, however, cannot perceive the straightforward evidence in front of him. Once Wegg finally grasps that the jig is up, all he can do is physically rescind to a corner. Except in the end, he is forcibly moved there and “shoved back” by Harmon who “holds him in his corner at arms' length” as Wegg “staggers into a corner” (IV.xiv.767). Like the Lammles who eventually realize that they are “hemmed into a corner”, Wegg sees that he is trapped and at the mercy of those whom he intended to blackmail. Our last image of Wegg is Sloppy dropping him into a trash filled cart that “happened to be standing unattended at the corner” (IV.xv.770). Like bottom-dwelling creatures that subsist on rubbish, Wegg must return to his place among the heaps of dust and garbage.
IV. The Wilfers
There is one other individual who Dickens unfailingly mentions with the requisite corresponding corner – Mrs. Wilfer. She too lives in cavities – a detail that Dickens garners considerable mileage from because it allows him to poke fun at her character. In our first encounter with Mrs. Wilfer, the narrator informs us that “she always got into stately corners” (I.iv.46). He is not exaggerating because, throughout the novel, very little changes in this respect. Every time she opens her mouth or is in the vicinity, she is located in a corner. Some six hundred pages later, we find a vexed Mrs. Wilfer speaking “from her stately corner” (IV.v.657), telling her husband that he “has no daughter” on account of Bella and Harmon's elopement. Mr. Wilfer feigns surprise upon hearing this discovery – much to the reader's amusement – since he played a crucial role in arranging the marriage. Mrs. Wilfer drones on in a “holier than thou” tone “making deep proclamation from her corner” (IV.v.660). The situation is humorous for a number of reasons including the fact that a person normally makes “deep proclamations” from a pedestal or, as the saying goes, by “getting on a soapbox.” In other words, the proper spatial image involves someone standing on top of a box, not inside one. Mrs. Wilfer delivers her decree according to the latter technique because she speaks from a physical location that is tantamount to standing inside one angle of a larger cube. Even though Mrs. Wilfer thinks she is always right and acts very “stately”, in reality, she comes across as a comically small figure shackled to a corner inside a bigger structure. Moreover, because she never veers from this position, the corner operates as a symbol of her obstinate and often close-minded nature.
Although the Wilfers are nothing like the conniving Lammles, they too are depicted as existing in different corners, which underscores their strikingly different personalities. Bella comments to her sister that her mother is “sitting there bold upright in a corner” and, in the same breath, adds that she imagines her “poor pa” sitting “bolt upright in another corner” (III.iv448). It is clear from Bella's mental picture that she puts her parents on different planes given that her father is unceasingly warm and is often referred to as the “cherub” by the narrator. R. Wilfer stands in stark contrast to his wife who incessantly nags and is rarely pleasant. Mr. Wilfer's benevolent character is made explicit through his association with corners and, thus, the reader begins to perceive the way in which corners can represent places that entail positive qualities. Through Bella's father, we uncover yet another dimension of the space between walls – namely, that a corner can be a cozy and secluded location to find reprieve. Of course, this portrayal depends entirely on what a person makes of his corner. In Wilfer's case, he has “special corners reserved just for him” (IV.v.667). As the following conversation with his daughter illustrates, corners are indeed very special in his mind:
Bella kissed him. ‘And it is in this dark dingy place of captivity, poor dear, that you pass all the hours of your life when you are not at home?’ ‘Not at home, or not on the road there, or on the road here, my love. Yes. You see that little desk in the corner?’ ‘In the dark corner, furthest both from the light and from the fireplace? The shabbiest desk of all the desks?’ ‘Now, does it really strike you in that point of view, my dear?’ said her father, surveying it artistically with his head on one side: ‘that's mine. That's called Rumty's Perch.’ ‘Whose Perch?’ asked Bella with great indignation. ‘Rumty's. You see, being rather high and up two steps they call it a Perch. And they call ME Rumty.’ [emphasis added] (III.xvi.591)
This exchange, which occurs soon after Bella leaves the Boffin's home because she realizes that money is not everything, presents another important lesson for the young woman. In calling attention to Bella's “point of view” (with a quiescent meaning pertaining to the pointedness of corners – zones where an endless number of points converge along the fold) and questioning its correctness, her father suggests that a different attitude can be beneficial because life is what you make of it. Hence, he takes his nickname in stride and as a matter of fun while Bella is needlessly indignant by the appellation. Wilfer does not box himself in; rather, he uses his corner as a “perch”, which suggests a lookout post that grants him improved sight. It is this perceptiveness that permits him to see all angles and, thus, he recognizes that the optimal outcome is for Bella to marry Harmon.
When Wilfer and his daughter are eating lunch, he insists that she “must have her own loaf and penn'orth” so he instructs her to wait because “the Dairy is just over the way and round the corner” (III.xvi.590). It is no coincidence that while other characters “turn corners” or appear in relation to sharp, jagged edges, Wilfer's language softens the visual severity and angularity of a corner by using the word “round”, which evokes a circle, i.e. the one shape that lacks corners due to its recursive contour. Moreover, the reference to the dairy as the ultimate destination beyond the corner suggests anew that corners generate comfortable, even nourishing results. Other characters enter corners to engage in sinister deeds, but the innocent R. Wilfer simply wants to procure sustenance for his daughter. Through the character of R. Wilfer, Dickens turns our understanding of corners upside-down and redefines the space entirely as a means of reinforcing broader thematic concerns. Indeed, one wonders if the repetition of R. Wilfer having “special corners” serves as a pun on the word “spatial” in order to invite the reader to reconsider the physical characteristics that delineate the niche.
The treatment of corners as applied to Bella presents what is arguably the most unique method of utilization yet. When corners appear, they serve as a mirror because they reflect the strength of her character but the mirror simile is also apt because corners highlight the pride and beauty of this (at least initially) vain creature. The first mention of corners in relation to Bella occurs when she is “bending down over the paper” she must sign when Harmon arrives. She asks “where am I to [sign], pa? Here in this corner?” (I.iv.47). As she bends over the desk, Harmon notices her “beautiful brown hair” and “coquettish face.” In this situation, the corner is utterly subordinate to Bella. The corner does not define her; rather she defines it by marking her signature on the blank corner (and it is a “bold” signature at that). The emphasis is entirely on Bella and, throughout the novel, corners manage to accentuate her person in some form or fashion, e.g. the concrete presentation of her name in writing. Additionally, the act of writing her name grants Harmon the ability to consider her physical attractiveness from an entirely different angle. However, beauty can sometimes engender vanity and inordinate concern with the superficial, e.g. money (which, as a “mercenary”, Bella is guilty of). Later in the novel, as Bella is browsing through Harmon's belongings, she spots a picture of “a graceful head on a pretty woman, elegantly framed, hanging in the corner” (III.iv.446). She claims that the image irks her and states, “oh, indeed sir! I fancy I can guess whom you think that's like. But I'll tell you what's it much more like – you're impudence!” Putting aside the peculiarity of hanging a portrait in the corner portion of a wall (again, suggesting that Dickens employs the motif consciously at key moments), the implication of Bella's remark is that she believes the painting looks like her. Whether or not her impression is correct, it is evident that corners offer a reaffirmation of Bella's self.
Given the considerable attention that is bestowed upon Bella for her beauty, it is only logical that illumination should enter into the picture as a way to make her features more visible. On those occasions when we do find Bella physically in a corner, the narrator includes a detail about the lighting. For example, “Bella took her book to a chair in the fireside corner” (III.v.456) or, later on when she sits with Harmon in a carriage, “she took her opposite place in the carriage corner, the brightness in her face was so charming to behold” (III.ix.251) It is impossible to ignore that she situates herself in an opposite corner but, of course, this incident occurs after Bella “rejects” Harmon so it is clear that she wishes to keep an appropriate level of distance. By sitting at the opposite end where presumably there is a window, Bella's face is illuminated and she becomes more radiant. Harmon, who sits on the other side, can admire her as the light hits her face from another direction, almost as if Bella were an objet d'art sitting in the corner of a gallery with its own source of lighting. In the “worst” case scenario, corners operate as locations where Bella is put on display but, by and large, she controls these spaces that heighten her innate gifts.
One of the most enthralling scenes in the novel is when Bella confronts Harmon about his interest in her and flatly rejects him. As expected, corners seep into the discourse during this incident as well. When the conversation commences, Bella is “taking up her [needle]work and inspecting it all round the corners.” As with her father, a seemingly contradictory/paradoxical roundedness is associated with corners. But unlike her father, Bella's relationship to corners yields productive results, whether it be increased attention to her features or, as in this instance, the creation of a tangible article that she herself produces. Because corners are entities over which Bella wields control, it comes as no surprise that she cannot stand being cornered by others. She angrily tells Harmon, “you must excuse me if I decline to be cross-examined” (II.xiii.368). Her statement takes on added significance if we consider not only the strict denotation of the word, but analyze its spatial implications. The cross (X) embodies the maximum number of corners one can produce with two lines. Two lines could result in one corner (L) when they terminate at the point of intersection. However, with a cross, Bella is squarely trapped in Harmon's line of sight – a target for all intents and purposes. Bella plainly feels uncomfortable being put on the spot, especially in a manner that figuratively and literally pins her through the use of tight and constrained spaces.
V. John Harmon
No exposition of this sort would be complete without addressing “our mutual friend” – the protagonist of the novel, John Harmon. Harmon unwittingly finds himself in a bizarre and thorny predicament when everyone assumes that the body found in the Thames is his. His world is turned upside-down and he decides to adopt the alias “John Rokesmith” in order to observe Bella, the woman he does not know but to whom he was betrothed because marrying her was the only way to receive his inheritance. When Harmon visits the Wilfers' home to sign the lease for his room, he is described as “the gentlemen laying a hesitating hand on the corner of the table” (I.iv.46). His hesitation in this slight movement parallels the larger apprehension and uncertainty that afflicts his mind on account of his new life, which may or may not turn out well. The corner itself suggests stability because it serves a necessary and functional purpose. Each corner of a table provides a leg of support and when one is removed, the entire structure falls. Thus, even this minute detail is quite telling about Harmon's position because, although he will ultimately provide Bella with stability, his current circumstance is somewhat precarious.
Harmon exists at the crossroads between life and death. Everyone familiar with his situation assumes he is dead, so his very existence affords him the status of a living ghost. Given that Harmon is someone who undergoes a dramatic change – he is effectively brought back from the dead – it is only natural that his association with corners should waver between the living and the dead and shift over time. For example, when Harmon peers into his childhood room, his “eyes rest on a side door in a corner” (I.xi.185). Mr. Boffin explains that the door opens a staircase leading into the yard. It is a poignant yet eerie scene as Harmon looks at the room of his former self – a self presumed to be dead. However, the corner he sees potentially offers an outlet rather than an enclosed space. Incidentally, at the beginning of the novel, when Lightwood and Wrayburn examine the body, Dickens mentions a corner with a wooden staircase. The image of the yard suggests a potential rebirth, like a dormant garden that could bloom if properly cultivated. At the same time, however, a yard can simply refer to an enclosed space or, in some instances (especially in the 1800s), a graveyard. 2 It is unclear which direction the staircase will take Harmon and the ambiguity underscores his location in a virtual state of limbo.
Possibly the most horrific incident that involves a corner is the brutal murder of the man people presume is Harmon. The real John Harmon was “dragged by the neck into a corner” (II.xiii.364) and from there he witnessed the assailants attack his “double.” Once again, we revisit the obvious metaphorical significance of corners: death and decay. Harmon, though far more fortunate than his companion, was essentially left there to die. His body was discarded in the corner in a manner reminiscent of the poor, who grapple with death on a regular basis, which society consigns to corners. Only a few lines later, Harmon invokes penury and solidifies the connection between death and poverty by remarking that Bella would just as soon love him “for [his] own sake, as she would love the beggar at the corner” (II.xiii.366).
Bella, of course, does fall in love with the ostensibly poor Harmon despite her former avaricious nature and she comes to terms with her feelings at the moment when “Rokesmith” seems to suffer his worst blow because Boffin pinned him “into a corner” (III.xv.578) using the information Mrs. Lammle disclosed. Boffin (who is actually putting on a show) lambastes Harmon for having the audacity to think that he could stand a chance with Bella. Boffin works himself into a terrible fit and “winkles his face into a very map of curves and corners” (III.xv.578). Much as when Dickens dulls the roughness of corners that appear with Bella and R. Wilfer by using “rounded” language, the “curves” in his face imply that perhaps Boffin is not as malicious as he purports to be. The distortion of his countenance reveals another key aspect of corners. In effect, a corner could be formed by contorting a straight line. This loss of smoothness corresponds well to situations where individuals are worked up and, in effect, bent out of shape.
Dickens refers to corners until the very end of the novel. The way in which he applies these spaces as the story concludes suggests a deliberate attempt to use them metaphorically in relation to the promise of a new life. The immediate catalyst that precipitates the resolution is Harmon's inadvertent encounter with Mortimer Lightwood whom he has been avoiding because Lightwood would instantly discern that something suppositious is afoot. Lightwood knew Harmon even before he became Rokesmith. He met him when Harmon claimed to be “Julius Handford”, i.e. the murdered man with whom he traded clothes. As his name suggests, Lightwood is able to shed light on the mystery. Lightwood and Harmon come face-to-face when the latter “turn[s] a corner” (IV.xii.737). The description might evoke a slightly more popular turn-of-phrase (pun intended) because in “turning the corner”, Harmon and Bella turn over a new leaf. Moreover, “turning a corner” is an important action because it literally entails a rearrangement of a space that is sharp, dusty, dark, and hidden, as well as a vanishing point, an enclosure, etc. In other words, to turn a corner is to rotate the shape such that the smooth, linear surface is once again in view.
It is no coincidence that shortly thereafter, Dickens writes “they alighted at last at the corner of a court, where there was a building with a bright lamp” (IV.xii.743). This blatantly recalls the language at the beginning of the novel when Wrayburn and Lightwood arrived “at the last corner” to find a mangled corpse. Though the language is slightly inverted, we gain a sense of closure because Harmon and Bella have reached the last corner and obstacle before the truth is fully revealed. Moreover, whereas corners were previously explicitly “dark” and dreary, the narrator now suffuses his depictions with words pertaining to light: bright, lamp, and even alighted, which holds the latent word “light” inside. Thus, in “turning the corner” not only do their lives undergo a remarkable transformation, but even the use of corners is thoroughly transformed to parallel the situation and bright future.
VI. Jenny Wren
I now want to shift to the secondary, but nonetheless equally substantive, plot that centers on the love triangle between Lizzie Hexam, Eugene Wrayburn, and Bradley Headstone. Jenny Wren, the doll's dressmaker, plays an important role in the action as she is Lizzie's close friend and is well aware of the romantic attention she receives. Like Wegg and Mrs. Wilfer, Jenny's appearances in the novel are invariably tied to corners. However, the type of corner she is primarily associated with is of a markedly different variety. Whereas others inhabit the physical space between dimensions of walls, Jenny's corners are the “corners of her eyes.” Whenever visitors enter her store, she “glances at them out of the corners of her grey eyes with a look that out sharpened all her other sharpness” (II.i.223). Although sharpness is frequently a negative attribute in relation to the corners, it is hard to maintain that having sharp eyesight is detrimental. Indeed, someone like Wegg would greatly benefit from internalizing the sharpness that he perpetually sees in external objects and converting it into improved foresight. The use of corners in this fashion presents a noticeable departure from previous applications of the motif. The closest example is perhaps R. Wilfer since he uses his corner as a perch but, even so, does not actively concern himself with discerning the nature of others. Moreover, in Wilfer's case, the corner's edge was consistently softened to suggest comfort. For Jenny, a poor and physically handicapped woman, the harsh severity of life is unavoidable. Every day she struggles to care for her elderly father whom she regards as a misbehaving child. On countless occasions, Jenny commands her father to “get into [his] corner” (II.ii.239). Indeed, she uses the word “corner” every time. In another instance she says, “now you prodigal old son, you sit there till I come back. You dare to move out of your corner for a single instant while I'm gone and I'll know the reason why” (III.x.524). Jenny's active employment of corners as a means of punishment again reinforces their less than pleasant qualities. Furthermore, her overt biblical allusion complements the Mephistopheles reference insofar as the characters of this novel need to be cautious and weary of these architectural forms.
On one occasion when Charley and Headstone come searching for Lizzie, Jenny “gave a weird little laugh and gave them another look out of the corners of her eyes. She had an elfin chin that was capable of great expression” (II.i.224). The reference to her elf-like chin is curious in light of the apparent portrayal of Wegg as an imp. Both creatures usually stay hidden but while imps are still considered wicked creatures, the connotation of “elf” is by no means exclusively negative and, indeed, has only improved through the centuries. Additionally, “elf” can function as a verb that means to twist hair, which fits Jenny well because she plays with her long her and, toward the end of the novel, she asks Sloppy what he thinks about her hair. Without question, Jenny is astute and highly observant. She is the person who “discovers a word” and realizes that Wrayburn wants to marry Lizzie. Her perspicacity is only magnified and brought to the forefront through repeated citation of her “eye's corner.” In a broader sense, Dickens' handling of corners in relation to Jenny entails what is arguably the most typical and standard representation of a corner. That is to say, there is nothing unusual or suspicious about corners as places to send a troublesome child. Nor is the idiomatic expression “out of the corner of one's eye” an obscure or easily misunderstood phrase. This direct and straightforward application of the motif parallels Jenny's frank nature. She is an honest person who does not put on any pretences – what you see is what you get and thus the same is true of the use of corners in her life.
VII. Wrayburn and Headstone
Lastly, I turn to a pair of individuals who are undoubtedly the most “at odds” in the novel: Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone who both vie for the affections of Lizzie Hexam. When Headstone first visits Lizzie, he and Charley walk along a street “in the centre of which last retreat is a very hideous church with four towers at the four corners, generally resembling some petrified monster, frightful and gigantic, on its back with its legs in the air” (II.i.221). The ensuing line is “they found a tree near by in a corner” as if to emphasize Headstone's potential for skulking and stalking. The description of the church is nothing short of bizarre. The image of the towers sticking up from the flat base is the antithesis of the description of Harmon placing his hands on the corner of the table. With the church, the image is inverted, like an upside-down table with legs jutting into the air. Whereas placing a hand on a corner suggests that the region can be mastered by one man, the gigantic and unwieldy structure that completely dwarfs Headstone foreshadows his inability to control others around him, or even himself. Further, the description of the church as a “petrified monster… on its back with its legs in the air” evokes a dead animal since petrified objects by definition, were once alive. Again, this presents an early indication of Headstone's eventual descent into crazed and virtually inhuman behavior. The corners that Headstone passes on his way to meet Lizzie can arguably be interpreted as non-corners because, in reality, what he sees are four columns or parallel lines positioned vertically in space. This visual distortion of our conception of corners complements the grotesque qualities of the church and, by extension, Headstone, whose nature will soon be distorted in hideous and frightening ways.
Wrayburn, meanwhile, also pays Lizzie a visit. He belongs to a much higher social class than Lizzie and thus he struggles with his newfound feelings of affection and is unsure of what he should do. As Wrayburn makes his way to Lizzie's home, he stands “at the corner of the street, stopping to light another cigar, and possibly to ask himself what he was doing otherwise” (II.ii.239). It is quite evident that the intersection of the streets serves as a literal manifestation of Wrayburn's oscillation. He stands at a crossroads and it seems that he must choose between his desire to see Lizzie and adhering to the expectations of “society.”
When Headstone decides to propose to Lizzie, the narrator states that it was “an evening… when the fallen leaves of the few unhappy city trees grind down in corners under wheels of wind” (II.xv.386). The language, brimming with words containing negative connotations, does not bode well for a marriage proposal. But the situation deteriorates further as we see Headstone “lurking at a corner, waiting or her to appear.” Dickens rightly observes that the “best looking among us will not look very well lurking at a corner, and Bradley came out of that disadvantage very poorly indeed” (II.xv.386). In truth, he could scarcely be more explicit in the use of corners as places where sinister individuals lie in wait. As soon as Lizzie rejects his offer of marriage, Headstone's disturbing traits rush to the vanguard. Headstone becomes insanely jealous of and obsessed with Wrayburn. He starts stalking him every night and Wrayburn, who is aware of Headstone's activity, decides to “goad the schoolmaster to madness” (III.x.533). He makes the chase very frustrating for Headstone by zigzagging all over the place:
I tempt him on, all over London. One night I go east, another night north, in a few nights I go all round the compass. Sometimes, I walk; sometimes, I proceed in cabs, draining the pocket of the schoolmaster who then follows in cabs. I study and get up abstruse No Thoroughfares in the course of the day. With Venetian mystery I seek those No Thoroughfares at night, glide into them by means of dark courts, tempt the schoolmaster to follow, turn suddenly, and catch him before he can retreat. Then we face one another, and I pass him as unaware of his existence, and he undergoes grinding torments. Similarly, I walk at a great pace down a short street, rapidly turn the corner, and, getting out of his view, as rapidly turn back. I catch him coming on post, again pass him as unaware of his existence, and again he undergoes grinding torments. Night after night his disappointment is acute, but hope springs eternal in the scholastic breast, and he follows me again to-morrow. (III.x.533)
Nowhere is the importance of corners and their spatial implications more evident than in this section. By traveling in every direction possible, Wrayburn creates a series of angles; in effect, he increases the number of corners involved in this pursuit and drives his adversary mad by leading him along a progressively more complicated route. Like Venus' shop, corners multiply exponentially because Wrayburn keeps “turning suddenly.” As they engage in this ridiculous game of cat and mouse, Wrayburn and Headstone are reduced to lines on the city's vast plane and the suspense comes from how and when they will finally intersect. The situation is not unlike the movie and computer game “Tron” where the two players stationed on the x-y coordinate grid perpetually turn their vehicles and create walls in an effort to thwart the opponent by leaving him no room to move. Although we normally imagine and define corners by ninety degrees since right angles occur far more frequently in manmade constructions, corners do not have to take the same amplitude every time. Wrayburn's reference to Headstone's “disappointment” becoming “acute” stresses his tortured mental state while blatantly evoking the sharpness and jagged nature of an acute angle as the sides squeeze and apply pressure on Headstone. In effect, Wrayburn's tactic of repetitively “turning corners” serves to encase Headstone because with every corner that he turns, he creates a new metaphoric wall that seems to lock Headstone as if he were a caged animal.
Although Wrayburn enjoys toying with Headstone, ultimately Riderhood proves the far greater and deadlier enemy. Riderhood is well aware of the escalating tensions between Wrayburn and Headstone and plans to use this knowledge to procure money from Headstone in exchange for information about Wrayburn's movements. Like the Lammles, Riderhood attempts to trap someone in his web:
‘You know her well, by sight?’ ‘I should think I did! No one better.’ ‘And you know him as well?’ ‘Who's him?’ asked Riderhood, taking off his hat and rubbing his forehead, as he directed a dull look at his questioner. ‘Curse the name! Is it so agreeable to you that you want to hear it again?’ ‘Oh! HIM!’ said Riderhood, who had craftily worked the schoolmaster into this corner, that he might again take note of his face under its evil possession. ‘I'd know HIM among a thousand.’ ‘Did you' – Bradley tried to ask it quietly; but, do what he might with his voice, he could not subdue his face; – ‘did you ever see them together?’ (The Rogue had got the clue in both hands now.) [emphasis added] (III.xi.542)
At this point, Headstone has only the vaguest sense that Riderhood is literally cornering him and that walls are closing in around his being. To intensify the sense of foreboding, Dickens revisits the connection between corners and beds. Not long before Headstone brutally attacks Wrayburn, Riderhood offers him a place to rest for a couple of hours. The “honest creature” says “when you're ready for your snooze, chuck yourself on my bed in the corner” (IV.i.624). In addition to the (by now) obvious warning sign of a “bed in the corner”, the verb “chuck” deliberately invokes an image of Headstone's body being thrown about, much like the treatment Harmon received when he was assailed in the night. It is acceptable to chuck a piece of garbage, but never a living person.
Headstone's attempt to murder Wrayburn proves a failure and, unfortunately for him, the attack only brings Lizzie and Wrayburn closer together since she was the one who saved him and because, in confronting death, Wrayburn's prior irresolution vanishes. Headstone suffers his worst blow after being “moved by another door to a corner without, where there was more shadow than light” (IV.xi.730). The quantifiable comparison between the two shapeless entities and passive structure reveals that Headstone is closer to death the life. He encounters the man who is on his way to perform the marriage ceremony for Lizzie and Wrayburn and this bit of news absolutely shocks Headstone and leaves him standing “quite ill.” Unsurprisingly, his end is now in sight and Riderhood “observing [Headstone] out of the corners of his eyes” (IV.xv.774) is determined to plague him for the rest of his days. Although Headstone previously followed Wrayburn, in an ironic twist of fate, now Headstone is the individual being pursued and it is this frightening revelation that forces Headstone to admit the horrifying reality of his existence.
The final appearance of corners comes when Lightwood inquires about Wrayburn's intentions with respect to “society's” oppressive judgment, which will inevitably surface due to his marriage to a working-class girl. Wrayburn forces Lightwood to promise that if he ever tries to “hide [Lizzie]… in a hole or a corner”, Lightwood should contemptuously remind him that Lizzie “should have done well to turn [Wrayburn] over with her foot that night when [he] lay bleeding to death, and spat in [his] dastard face” (IV.xvi.791). The beauty of this emotive scene is that both Lizzie and Wrayburn could have ended up corners but instead, are saved by their shared love. For so long, Wrayburn remained at the brink of death and all he could do was stay in bed as his life seemed to dwindle away. Similarly, the marriage offers Lizzie a release from the torment of poverty. The use of the word “hole” – a void that usually appears in the ground – suggests a grave and, more broadly, the close association between corners and death. Ultimately, one has to face the reality that a corner is simply an odd architectural space. Like a hole, it is virtually immaterial and empty. A corner is defined only by what it is not in the same way that a hole is not the ground but can only exist in relation to the “other”, i.e. the substantive. In the end, we again see corners visualized as places of punishment and imprisonment. An inescapable feature of Wrayburn's statement is that he considers the space directly in relation to its potential to hold a human being. Consistently, corners serve as places where people could end up, and often do. However, for the first time in the novel, an individual simultaneously displays a conscious awareness of the spatial dimensions of corners and explicitly articulates a determination not to let another human being exist in such a place.
1. Allen Horstman, Victorian Divorce (St. Martin's Press, 1985) 38-39.
2. "yard." Oxford English Dictionary. 2006 online ed.
Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. New York, NY: Penguin, 1997.
Horstman, Allen. Victorian Divorce. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1985.
Oxford English Dictionary. 2006 online edition.