Student Realizations: Pedagogy, Performance, and Illustrated Fiction

In this post I describe an exercise that helps students connect words and illustrations. I used it this semester in my “Disney’s Victorians” course, and it has a historical frame that is particularly appropriate for teaching a Victorian novel (especially Dickens). But it might be useful if you’re teaching any text that combines words and images — especially one that usually privileges the words.

The idea is a simple one: students, in small groups, stage a reading of a scene that corresponds to an illustration. They choose an appropriate moment in the passage, and when they get to that moment they “realize” the illustration, posing as the characters are posed and holding the pose for 30 seconds or so.

As I explain below, the idea came from a workshop with John Glavin, who has really interesting ideas about performance as interpretation. What students get from this exercise depends a lot on how you set it up, and so below I discuss some backgrounds and practicalities before getting to the payoffs.

Background: Pedagogy and Performance

New Royal Theatre 1858

The New Royal Theatre in 1858. From Wikimedia Commons.

Last summer I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar, “Performing Dickens,” led by Sharon Weltman and joined by a series of distinguished visiting faculty. Tracy Davis and Carolyn Williams shared their research on melodrama and some historical contexts for Victorian theatrical adaptations. When Jacky Bratton and Gilli Bush-Bailey visited, we staged a reading of a short scene from Dickens’s The Battle of Life. We tried it several different ways, and the experience helped put into practice some of the theoretical ideas Davis and Williams had introduced.

That focus on staging and embodied performance continued with John Glavin’s visit, which totally changed things for me. Glavin is interested in performance and adaptation as pedagogical and interpretive tools, as he discusses in After Dickens. During his visit, after a series of theatrical warm-ups and voice and body exercises, we engaged in the kind of performance he envisions. We each chose a minor character from Great Expectations, and then came up with different ways of “staging” the scene of Pip’s near-drowning, as the characters from Pip’s life flash before his eyes. We lay on our backs and passed “Pip” over our hands (as in, physically moved a body over our heads) as we each recited a line spoken by our chosen character; then we stood in a circle around “Pip,” moving back and forth and changing elevations to mimic the rocking of the waves as the submerged Pip is bombarded with lines he’d heard earlier in the novel.

If you know Great Expectations well, you can probably locate the scene of Pip’s near-drowning, as he attempts to escape with Magwitch and is overtaken by Compeyson. Here is how Dickens writes the scene:

“I had had to feel my way back among the shipping” by F. A. Fraser. Illustration for Great Expectations. Via Victorian Web.

In the same moment, I saw the steersman of the galley lay his hand on his prisoner’s shoulder, and saw that both boats were swinging round with the force of the tide, and saw that all hands on board the steamer were running forward quite frantically. Still in the same moment I saw the prisoner start up, lean across his captor, and pull the cloak from the neck of the shrinking sitter in the galley. Still in the same moment, I saw that the face disclosed, was the face of the other convict of long ago. Still in the same moment, I saw the face tilt backward with a white terror on it that I shall never forget, and heard a great cry on board the steamer and a loud splash in the water, and felt the boat sink from under me.

It was but for an instant that I seemed to struggle with a thousand mill-weirs and a thousand flashes of light; that instant past, I was taken on board the galley.

Where does it say Pip’s life flashed before his eyes, you ask? Well, it doesn’t. Or at least, we need some interpretive work: the exercise, having minor characters in the novel each speak a line, is an interpretation of those “thousand flashes of light.” It’s one that gives voice to minor characters, building on Alex Woloch’s The One vs. the Many (a title Glavin credited). And that’s the point — performance is a way of interpreting the novel that differs from, and complements, discussion.

Glavin calls After Dickens “a playwright’s book” (8), and I’m providing here an admittedly oversimplified version of what he has in mind: After Dickens builds on Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre to unpack the interplay between affect and critique, and the first part of the book contextualizes Dickens’s “refusal” of the stage. But I hope I’ve convinced you — as Glavin convinced me — of a basic point: the pedagogical possibilities of performance as an avenue for textual analysis.

Background: Melodrama, Serial Fiction, and Illustration

My “Disney’s Victorians” course is about adaptation: we spent the first five weeks on Oliver Twist, looking at stage and film versions alongside the novel. By the time we got to Disney’s Oliver & Company, students had a range of other adaptations with which to compare it, and some historical contexts for thinking about those adaptations.

Playbill from May 21, 1838. From the British Library. Public domain.

Oliver Twist, of course, was published in monthly parts, in Bentley’s Miscellany. Michael Lund and Leigha McReynolds, among others, have written about the pedagogical possibilities for reading periodicals and serial fiction, and I took some advantage of the serial form to make a historical point. I assigned the novel through the May, 1838 installment, and then we read a theatrical adaptation from that month. Performed before the novel was finished, the play gave us a chance to talk about Victorian copyright law and adaptations, and Dickens’s discomfort seeing his unfinished novels on stage. As Forster writes, “in the middle of the first scene [Dickens] laid himself down in a corner of the box and never rose from it until the drop-scene fell” (152).

I also used this stage version to introduce some genre conventions, and for that I assigned portions of Carolyn Williams’s wonderful essay on “Melodrama,” from the Cambridge History of Victorian Literature. “In its most literal definition,” Williams writes, “melodrama consists of a combination of music and drama in which passages of music either alternate with passages of dramatic speech or subtend them almost continuously and in which speech and action are interrupted by moments of static pictorial composition, the tableaux” (193). The music prepared students for some later adaptations, but it was the tableaux on which we focused. In particular, I introduced them to the “realization,” the tableau that reproduces, on stage, a recognizable painting or illustration. As Martin Meisel notes, actors often “realized” the illustrations that accompanied the novel they were adapting. The theatrical adaptation of Oliver Twist in particular “capitalizes thoroughly on the vividness and familiarity of the plates” (253). By recreating these historical conventions, students link text to play to illustration, and develop a sense of how the Victorians experienced Oliver Twist.


George Cruikshank Oliver TwistThe exercise is fairly self-explanatory, but as with anything, an example never hurts. I chose the book’s most famous scene, Oliver asking for more, and Cruikshank’s accompanying illustration. I asked for a few volunteers, and assigned each a character. They read the character’s dialogue (I read the narration), and posed them as they are positioned in the image. Once students had seen what they would be doing, I split them into groups and assigned passages and illustrations. I wanted to be prescriptive: rather than letting them choose a scene and illustration, I told them which paragraph to start with, and where to end. For me, it was important that they pick a precise moment to stop speaking and hold the tableau. Choosing that moment was part of the interpretation, and I wanted to give them a finite set of paragraphs to choose from.

I had assigned the Norton edition, which includes some but not all of Cruikshank’s illustrations. To make up for this, I printed out the images I assigned to each group and distributed them in class. During their “performance,” I projected the image onto the screen in class, so that the “audience” could see the illustration next to the realization, and compare.

The Writings of Charles Dickens v4 p370 (engraving)We did this in class, as essentially a discussion activity. It takes enough time that a full class session could be devoted to it (our class meets just once a week, so this took up only a portion of our time). The paper assignment that followed asked students to write about a specific scene from Oliver Twist and an adaptation of that scene. Some students chose a Cruikshank illustration, and incorporated their conclusions from this exercise into their paper. Depending on your goals for the course, you might require students to do this, or use the activity simply to spark discussion.

I designed this exercise for Dickens, but it could certainly be used with other authors. It makes the most sense for illustrated novels, but needn’t be limited to them. When teaching classical texts, one might choose famous paintings. Historical texts might realize photographs. And for any book, students could consider book covers or movie posters that refer to particular scenes. Depending on your class, you might even take this further: a colleague suggested mixing media by having students take a picture of their realization, and even aging it with an Instagram filter.


As Meisel puts it, “The reading experience assumed in most of the serial fiction produced in the middle decades of the century was discontinuous … To read was to experience both picture and text” (53). The realizations exercise helps students recreate this experience, giving them a better understanding not only of Victorian theatrical convention but also the oft-ignored illustrations. It forces them to think about the act of transferring their attention from word to image.

The Writings of Charles Dickens v4 p114 (engraving)Embodying the text also helps students consider movement and stasis, physical relationships between characters, and details in the text they might not otherwise notice. In the picture to the right, for example, Nancy and Sikes kidnap Oliver as he tries to return Mr. Brownlow’s books. Sikes is grabbing the books from Oliver’s hands, and the illustration emphasizes the crowd of people at the scene: performing it requires giving the women in that crowd a voice, highlighting the public nature of the scene that might get overshadowed by a focus on just Sikes, Nancy, and Oliver.

As the semester progressed we continued our discussion of which scenes are illustrated, and the fact that an illustrated scene is more likely to appear in later adaptations. After this exercise, students were more willing to go back and forth between the text and the image, and prepared for texts like Alice in Wonderland, which explicitly tells the reader, “look at the picture.”

Have you had students perform scenes in this manner? How do you encourage them to go back and forth between text and illustration? Do you have other ways to re-create for students a historically distant reading practice? Tell me about it!

Works Cited

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1980. 2 volumes.

Glavin, John. After Dickens: Reading, Adaptation, and Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Lund, Michael and Leigha McReynolds. “The Class as Periodical: A Contemporary ‘Humanities Lab.'” Pedagogy 9.2 (2009): 289-313.

Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. Princeton University Press, 1983.

Williams, Carolyn. “Melodrama.”  The Cambridge History of Victorian Literature. Kate Flint, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 193-219.

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