“Making a Rosebud of her Mouth”: Erotics, Semiotics and Agency in the Dickensian Female Mouth

Colette Ramuz

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In Dickens scholarship, while there is no shortage of work on women as sexual objects, there is little on female sexual agency. The indistinct Dickensian female body is often considered a stereotype and his women appear to lack autonomy and certainly sexual agency. But if we evaluate Dickens’ female characters through a realist lens, it does not take account of the semiotics and erotics of the Dickensian body, in particular those of the mouth. The mouth has a long history as a visual and textual metaphor of incorporation, particularly sexual incorporation. Lips, tongue and teeth constitute the meeting point between erotic corporeality and language yet, critically, the mouth in nineteenth-century literature has often been overlooked in favour of the ocular. I argue that mouths in general, and female mouths in particular, deserve more attention as viable hermeneutic signs of female sexuality in Dickens’ work. In reobserving Dickens’ women, I show how sexual agency is legible through the erotics and semiotics of the female mouth and draw out the ways in which the mouth is a crucial signifier: linguistically, metaphorically, sexually, and psychically. This means that while a Dickensian mouth is sometimes just a mouth, it can also function as a powerful system of signs. In paying attention to these signs and poetics, Dickens’ “rosy lips” and “feline jaws” are then perceived strikingly afresh: from the rose/rosebud figures which function as metonyms for female sexual anatomy and the blooming of sexuality, to the feline signifiers, “Pussy” and “tigress”, as a well-known anatomical reference, and as Victorian symbolism for promiscuous female sexuality and lustful appetites. This chapter will show that taking account of Dickens’ oral imagination offers a new reading of Dickens’ women; it will reveal how in recalibrating rose and feline metaphors, he transforms the female sexual object into sexual agent.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDickens and Women Reobserved
EditorsEdward Guiliano
Place of PublicationBrighton, England
PublisherEdward Everett Root Publishers Co. Ltd.
ISBN (Print)1913087204
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2020

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