This essay argues that Charles Dickens’s imaginative interest in barriers to knowledge and perception throughout Bleak House (1852–53) amplifies and attunes us to the reader’s position of exteriority with respect to the implied fictional world. Whereas novel readers readily describe the act of reading in terms of metaphoric transport to a fictional world, Dickens refuses to obscure the ever-present divide between readers and the absent objects of their sustained attention. In particular, he exposes the reader’s surprisingly limited ability to “fill in” components of the fictional world that the text leaves underspecified. While these areas of indeterminacy do not deter readers from claiming to enjoy intimate access to fictional persons and scenes, they nonetheless lay bare the underacknowledged constraints upon that access. By self-referentially dramatizing the reader’s position as an outsider even as he undertakes to draw readers into his story, Dickens brings us face-to-face with a more intricate phenomenology of reading.
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