In discussing Charles Dickens’ mature novels, James M. Brown writes, “His social criticism is embodied in a vision of social experience in its generality-the essential quality of everyday social relations throughout the system, and the general possiblities for a fulfilling social life” (14). This seems to me a very apt and succinct description of the themes of Bleak House. Though tremendously dense in plot and varied in character, the novel is remarkably unified in vision and theme. Brown’s characterization also points to the novel’s unique structure of a double narrative.
Though the narratives overlap at times, social and public concerns tend to be related by the third-person narrator, while private and domestic life, and the possibilities for fulfillment, are the prime subjects of Esther Summerson’s narrative. Still, Bleak House is much too complex a work to be dealt with fully in hundreds of pages, let alone in fifteen written by a Dickens neophyte such as myself. It has been hard work to simply narrow my analysis approropriately but the double narrative provides an obvious guide.
The third-person narration contains the themes of economic interconnectedness and social criticism while Esther’s narration emphasizes moral connectedness and individual responsibility. My analysis will explore the parallel narratives and their themetic spheres. Though I’m not sure about Joseph I. Fradin’s assertion that the double narrative of Bleak House is “a metaphor of the divided modern consciousness,” I agree with his suggestion that the technique “carries the dialectic between self and society” in its expression of both Esther’s subjective perception and the third person’s objective and ironic social analysis (41).
The suggestion of synthesis is intriguing and I will conclude with a speculative look at what the novel has to say about ‘life as a mystery that must be discovered’, the function of revelation in the text, and the possibility of either social or individual transformation within this fictional world. The tone of the impersonal third-person narrator is variously ironic, urbane, familiar, detached, witty, and, at times, expressive of real anger. The reader can easily detect the bitter irony in many narrative remarks such as the description of “One ruined suitor… who can by no means be made to understand that the Chancellor is egally ignorant of his existence after making it desolate for a quarter of a century” (7), but also enjoy the humorous portrayals of characters like Mr. Chadband who has “a fat smile, and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system” (235). The narrator wittily describes Sir Leicester, “He would on the whole admit Nature to be a good idea (a little low, perhaps, when not enclosed with a park fence)… ” (12), yet outrage and anger are clear in the announcement of Jo’s death, “Dead, your Majesty… And dying thus around us every day” (572).
The narrative is in the present tense and the style is often cinematic, functioning like a roving camera that can sweep over a scene as when London is introduced in the opening chapter or that can zoom in on the details of a character like Mr. Tulkinghorn in the second chapter. The narrator also sometimes resorts to a journalistic style, employing clipped sentences and sentence fragments, as in the novel’s opening paragraphs which contain sentences like “Fog everywhere” (5), or when relating the events surrounding the discovery of Nemo’s body, “Public loses interest, and undergoes reaction” (131).
These passages convey a sense of objectivity and detachment, often serving to introduce the reader to a new setting or perspective, thus reasserting one of the third-person narrator’s functions in Bleak House: “to constantly remind us of the great scheme of things” (Smith, Charles Dickens: Bleak House, 11). Yet I agree with the critics who maintain that this narrator is only relatively omniscient. There are many instances in which the third-person narrator steps back and pleads ignorance.
Speaking of Miss Flite: “Some say she really is, or was, a party to a suit; but no one knows for certain” (7) and in chapter 18, the narrator reports the rumors of Lady Dedlock’s flight rather than the actual details (690-1). Jeremy Hawthorn argues that this lack of omniscience in the third-person narrative, or in the combined narratives, makes the reader active in trying to determine the moral conclusions of the novel and that this strategy serves the sense of mystery that pervades the novel (61). I agree and will return to this issue.
Most of the impersonal narrator’s commentary concerns the public sphere, especially the three areas of Bleak House society that are central to the plot: Chancery, the aristocracy, and urban poverty as represented by the slum of Tom-all-Alone’s. Chancery is introduced in the first chapter and from the opening sentences the Court is linked with the symbols of fog and mud: “Never can there come a fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery… holds, this day” (6).
But the Court is not just blind and inefficient, its work is much more sinister: “This is the Court of Chancery… which gives to monied might, the means of abundantly wearying out the right; which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope; so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart; that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give-the warning, ‘Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here! ‘” (6-7). Obviously this Court has little to do with justice. Rather, “The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself.
There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings” (482). As Graham Storey asserts regarding the Court of Chancery, “[it is] presented as corrupt and life-destroying, a ghastly parody of a Court founded to administer justice and equity” (18). The second chapter, ‘In Fashion,’ introduces the aristocracy in general and the Dedlocks and their place in Lincolnshire, Chesney Wold, in particular. Yet the narrator makes clear that the world of fashion is not unlike the Court of Chancery. Both the world of fashion and the Court of Chancery are things of precedent and usage” (10); “It is a deadened world” and Chesney Wold is “stagnant,” “murky,” and “muddy” (11-13).
But these links are not only symbolic since Lady Dedlock, who is “at the top of the fashionable tree” (12), is a party to the quintessential Chancery suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Thus the two worlds are connected concretely through plot as well as through symbols and descriptive language. Similarly, it is revealed that the notorious slum, Tom-all-Alone’s, “a ruinous place… swarm of misery [where] decay is far advanced” (197) is also a property in Chancery, part of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, and indeed the narrator claims the suit itself “had laid the street waste” (198). Thus, the heart of the Jarndyce case which is the heart of Chancery is Tom-All-Alone’s, a site of decay, misery, and disease. The third-person narrator skillfully links these three worlds through plot and complex language early on and continues to intensify these connections throughout the work, reinforcing one of the novel’s major themes, the interconnectedness of everyone and everthing in Bleak House’s world.
The links established between these various public spheres can best be understood through the symbolic significance of Chancery as representative of the entire society. After all, a Chancery suit is, as Sir Leicester reflects, “a slow, expensive, British, constitutional kind of thing” (15). Likewise Mr. Kenge declares of Chancery, “This is a great system… and would you wish a great country to have a little system? Now, really, really! ” (741). Yet the nature of Chancery, its methods and effects, like those of Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, is to stifle, bemuse, and consume all who come in contact with it.
The lawyers of Chancery, like the Barnacles of the Circumlocution Office, work exclusively in their own self-interest and the Court “is simply a socially condoned form of parasitism_as is graphically confirmed by the eventual lot of the Jarndyce estate, which is eaten up in costs” (Daleski, 20). Just as a biological parasite will eventually weaken and destroy its host, the parasitical corruption of a national institution will eventually weaken and destroy the rest of society.
Thus, the primary symbol of Chancery and its effect on the society is that of disease resulting from moral corruption and social parasitism with death looming behind. The infectious disease of Chancery becomes the practical way in which Chancery connects the spheres of law, politics, and the high and low classes. Richard Carstone withers away from the moral corruption of Chancery while the disease bred in Nemo’s burial ground and Tom-all-Alone’s infects Jo, then Charley and Esther, and probably contributes to Lady Dedlock’s demise.
As Jeremy Hawthorn writes, “Disease is such a powerful symbol for Dickens in Bleak House because it involves different kinds of expressive connections: it arises from specific, concrete and material living conditions, living-conditions which are themselves the cause of particular social realities, and it also links the poor with those rich who wish to disclaim any relationship with or responibility for them” (67). The social and physical disease created and spread by Chancery becomes a metaphor for the corruption of the entire society.
The deadening effects of the corruption and disease that infect Bleak House society can be seen most vividly in the portrayals of various key characters. The descriptions of Krook and his Rag and Bottle Shop are meant to function as a grim moral parallel with the Lord Chancellor and Chancery. Mr. Krook attests, “I have so many old parchmentses and papers in my stock. And I have a liking for rust and must and cobwebs… And I can’t bear to part with anything once I lay hold of or to alter anything, or to have any sweeping, nor scouring, nor cleaning… that’s why I’ve got the ill name of Chancery.
I go to see my… brother pretty well every day, when he sits in the Inn… There’s no great odds betwixt us. We both grub on in a muddle” (50-1). Krook’s shop, in its filth and horror, exemplifies in a concrete, physical way the true moral nature of the Court. Likewise, the lives of those who work within the Court like Mr. Tulkinghorn and Mr. Vholes have been infected with spiritual decay but of a predatory kind. Tulkinghorn is “a dark, cold object” (508) and “like a machine” (512) who jealously guards aristocratic family secrets and has become rich administering marriage settlements and wills (13).
Mr. Vholes looks at Richard “as if he were making a lingering meal of him with his eyes as well as with his professional appetite” (485). This inhuman parasitism extends out through the society to characters like the Smallweeds whose “God was Compound Interest. [Their patriarch] lived for it, married it, died of it” and who are also variously described as animals of prey such as “a money-getting species of spider, who spun webs to catch unwary flies” (257).
The link between lawyers of Chancery and the Smallweeds as social parasites is rendered exact by the analogy of “lawyers [who] lie like maggots in nuts” (119) and Mr. Smallweed’s grandfather who valued only “grubs” and “never bred a single butterfly” (257). The corruption of Chancery is mirrored in another institution, the hilarous parody of politicians in Parliament. Rather than properly exercising the duties of their offices, the politicians, like the lawyers, are concerned exclusively with either dividing power among themselves (145) or winning elections through bribery (502).
Sir Leicester, as representative of the aristocratic class, sanctions such corruption when he contributes money he knows will be used for bribery to the campaign (501) but he would not think of reforming any national institution for this “would encourage some person in the lower classes to rise up somewhere” (16). The Dedlock political satire serves to emphasize “the close fit between the class system and the political system” (Brown, 69). The two parasitical systems reinforce each other resulting in the same deadness that pervades Chancery.
Lady Dedlock is usually “bored to death,” the Dedlocks are childless, and Chesney Wold is “a deadened world” (11). Such a pervasive system of disease, decay and death cannot be without its victims. Miss Flite, Gridley and Richard form the inner circle that demonstrates “the human waste and suffering generated by the Court” (Smith, Dickens, Money and Society,131). But Jo is also a victim of both Chancery and of the society at large. Of these four, only Miss Flite is still alive at the novel’s end, her insanity providing an ironic protection from the greater insanity of Chancery.
But her caged birds, symbolizing the victims of Chancery, and her many prescient comments serve as omens of Richard’s fate. And her concern with the “Great Seal” suggests that in this society true justice may only be had in the after-life. The same is true of Gridley who indignantly rails against “the system” of Chancery and vows “I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar” (193). Yet Gridley’s impotent rage only hastens his death. The deaths of Richard and Jo are strangely counterpointed in that both are essentially born and bred in Chancery.
But Richard’s abilities and advantages are not enough to save him. Though Woodcourt diagnoses that Richard’s illness is not physical, he still “consumes himself with the care and suspense and distrust and doubt engendered by Chancery” (Daleski, 31). At the other end of the social spectrum, Jo is a victim from the start. Dreadfully poor and uneducated, he can only react to his circumstances in this parasitic society. But the disease that is bred in Tom-all-Alone’s, the ultimate effect of society’s corruption and neglect of the most unprotected, both causes and revenges Jo’s suffering and death, thus exacting justice of a different order.
The third-person narrator makes this clear: “There is not an atom of Tom’s slime… not one obscenity or degradation about him, not an ignorance, not a wickedness… but shall work its retribution, through every order of society, up to the proudest of the proud, and to the highest of the high” (553). Though the biblical overtones of this passage suggest Miss Flite’s pronouncements, Tom’s Revenge does not wait until the next life. In introducing Jo to the reader, and of course through Jo’s subsequent fate, the third-person narrator makes explicit one of the major themes of the novel.
He asks, “What connection can there be between the place in Lincolnshire… and the whereabouts of Jo the outlaw?… What connection can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together? ” (197). The ultimate answer is that we are all part of the human family, but in the world of Bleak House, where many labor under the delusion that their lives and destinies are separate from each other, this point must be reiterated through plot, symbolism, parody, and imagery.
Yet what links everyone in the society of Bleak House are just those things that shouldn’t: greed, corruption, disease, and death. The law as represented by Chancery, “which gives monied might, the means of abundantly wearing out the right” (6), “is the visible symbol behind which lurk the forces of greed and privilege spinning their labyrinthine webs of corruption” (Johnson, 24) and these threads extend out to the rest of society.
Chancery represents the twin evils of dehumanizing bureaucratization and the power of money with its attendant vices of greed and self-interest since a large part of its business has to do with wills and wills are about money. Brown believes this increasing commodification, “this shrinking of the whole of life to be encompassed in a narrow, sterile, business mould is seen by Dickens as unforgivable” (26). In tandem with this process of rapid industrialization and the growth of cities, 19th century British society also increasingly organized into bureaucratic structures.
Smith contends that Dickens’ “continuing concern was with the ways in which these bureaucratic structures, despite the best of motives, obscure face to face contact between individual human beings” (Charles Dickens: Bleak House, 45). The dehumanization of so many of Bleak House’s characters and their portrayals as various animals, indicating they have regressed to a more bestial or selfish nature, supports the views of both critics.
Indeed, Bleak House insightfully explores one of the paradoxes of modern life in an industrialized economy; as economic centralization proceeds and people become more economically interdependent, they also become morally and spiritually isolated and disconnected from each other as every aspect of their lives tends to become absorbed into “the system. ” But though the system may indeed be dehumanizing at best, evil at worst, the individuals who give in to and/or endorse the system contribute to that evil through abdication of personal responsibility.
From the High Court of Chancery, which does not take responsibility for dealing adequately with the cases brought before it, to the Parliament’s laxity in dealing with urban poverty, to Mr. Smallweed’s cruelty at the behest of his fictitious “friend in the city,” the public world of finance and power claims either ‘no one’ or ‘someone else’ is to blame. But these institutions are composed of individuals who unfortunately “participate willingly in their own human impairment” (Smith, Dickens, Money, and Society, 29).
This seems to me the deeper issue that Bleak House raises, that regardless of how monolithic the system, individuals can still choose how to live and react within its strictures. One needs to remember that the Chancery cases of Bleak House “have all originated in family quarrels-the Jarndyces’, Miss Flite’s, Gridley’s” (Scott, 109). As Esther’s parallel narrative indicates, “The struggle of the individual against that system, the vital being against the debilitating machine, is the protest of life against death” (Manning, 106) and is the struggle every person in Bleak House must undertake to be fully human.
Esther Summerson’s first-person narrative begins in the third chapter, composes approximately half of the novel, and concludes the book. It is her personal account of her own life related in the past tense from her present point as a happy wife and mother. Compared to the tone of the anonymous narrator, Esther’s tone “is uniformly delicate, self-disparaging, often painfully hypersensitive” (Storey, 21) and her opening sentence sets this tone, “I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever” (17).
Esther’s narrative tone counterpoints that of the third-person narrator in that her voice is subjective, optimistic, and sympathetic in contrast to his objective, intellectual, and ironic voice, and her concerns are primarily personal and domestic whereas his are public and social. However, as Jacob Korg points out, the general opinions of the two narrators are similar: “Both sympathize with the poor and helpless, oppose burdensome traditions, and favor benevolence over abstract humanitarianism as a means of solving social problems” (15). I think it’s clear that Esther is also the moral center of the Bleak House.
Her conduct, reactions, and ultimate fate function as a standard of morality in an overwhelmingly corrupt and diseased world. Besides being a narrator, Esther is also a character in the novel and her story, especially the discovery of her parentage, is central to the plot. Further, she “supplies the central observation point, because relations are measured according to their nearness or farness from her” (Donovan, 39). Though many have criticized her character as too idealized and her narrative as dull, I agree with Robert Donovan that her sensibility is due partly to he demands on her as a narrator: She must be simplistic, even transparent, so the reader trusts her judgments and doesn’t feel her impressions are colored too much by her own personality (44). Other critics claim that Esther does not develop at all but that she is consistently “static, passive… and good” (Harvey, 149). I disagree, and think that Esther does grow and develop in awareness and maturity, but her experiences do not make her bitter or cynical. Rather, they reinforce her commitments to those she loves.
Indeed, her “progress” towards full maturity, which includes both harsh experience and surprising discoveries, comprises most of the vital action of the novel; the larger society of the third-person narration is much more static and timeless. And her journey towards self-definition and discovery ties many of Bleak House’s themes together in both illustrating how people are damaged by a corrupt society and how they can live successfully in spite of it. The reader learns from the outset that Esther has endured a cold and emotionally deprived childhood.
Told by her godmother from her earliest memories that she has a blight on her existence, that she “is set apart” from other children (19), she finds her only comfort is her doll. As she reflects, “my disposition is very affectionate” (18) and she would confess to her doll, “I would try, as hard as ever I could, to repair the fault I had been born with (of which I confusedly felt guilty and yet innocent), and would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted, and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could” (20).
Because of her childhood vows, Esther is zealous in her loyalty, affections, and duty but she also has difficulty in believing in her own lovability. Thus, Esther’s constant harping on her own deficiences and the goodness of others in attributing virtue to her, as well as the strong need to give and receive love, grows “organically out of Esther’s upbringing” (Smith, Charles Dickens: Bleak House,18). Consequently, much of Esther’s psychological development in the novel centers around the issues of identity and self-definition. Joseph I.
Fradin explores this aspect and points to two nightmares that Esther has in which she feels her sense of identity is in peril (61-2). The first is when she falls asleep at the Jellybys’ with Caddy’s head in her lap, “I began to lose the identity of the sleeper resting on me… Lastly, it was no one and I was no one” (45). The second is when she is blind and ill with fever, “Dare I hint at the worse time when, strung together somewhere in great black space, there was a flaming necklace, or ring, or starry circle of some kind, of which I was one of the beads” (432).
Fradin argues that these two examples of Esther’s inner landscape “confirms her need to define her relationship to herself and to the community, to establish her identity,” in order to act not just out of instinctive goodness but with knowledge about herself and others (61). Her illness proves a turning point for Esther. Not only do the pock-scars resulting from her illness help Esther learn that she is still loveable though she no longer feels “outwardly lovely,” but while recovering in Lincolnshire she learns that Lady Dedlock is her mother and she begins to redefine herself with knowledge instead of from ignorance.
She reaffirms her sense of innocence and independence; “I saw very well how many things had worked together, for my welfare… I knew I was as innocent of my birth as a queen of hers… I renewed my resolutions… feeling that the darkness of the morning was passing away” (454-5). Esther is only one of several orphans in the book and this fact reinforces one of the novel’s major themes, the abandonment of parental responsibility, a theme that is analogous to that of the third-person narrative, the institutional abandonment of social responsibility.
In different ways Jo, Esther, Charley, Richard, and Ada are abandoned children. Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, Harold Skimpole, and even Mr. Turveydrop also abandon their children in some sense. Thus, just as Chancery is at the center of the third-person narrative, the central problem of Esther’s story is that of an absent or lost parent. The chaos, disorder, and disease in society are reflected in the domestic sphere by broken families, neglectful parents, and the loss of love, nurturance, and security.
Or, as Andrew Sanders puts it, Dickens “allows us to appreciate that an avoidance of due responsibility, in whatever sphere men and women act, is a threat to the well-being of society, and a general symptom of a general moral and social decay” (141). Esther is the main connecting point between the public and private worlds but they are connected themetically and rhetorically as well as in this passage from the first chapter: “Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it.
Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit” (8). Also, since the Court of Chancery serves as guardian for Richard and Ada, it too can be viewed as a bad parent (Hawthorn, 36). Indeed, since Chancery is responsible for the ruin of Tom-all-Alone’s, and Jo was “bred” by the “ruined shelters,” Jo can also be considered a ward of Chancery.
The overall impression that emerges from those parts of Esther’s narrative that recount her personal interaction with children and the victims of Chancery is that there are overwhelming private consequences for public inaction that extend all the way through the society to the most helpless. As a result, everyone is damaged by this society. Esther witnesses the plights of Miss Flite and Gridley, unsuccessfully tries to help Jo, and cannot prevent Richard’s decline. Mr. Jarndyce does manage to help Charley and her siblings but this is fairly exceptional.
And indeed the damage to individual lives engendered by social conditions extends to the next generation. Caddy and Prince Turveydrop’s child is deaf and dumb, and Ada and Richard’s child will be raised without a father. The connection betwen the two narrative spheres is clear: “The system which destroys families is run by people who belong to unhappy families themselves: the system reproduces itself by means of the miseries it creates” (Hawthorn, 70). Abandoned and neglected children are necessarily the result of absent or neglectful parents.
And not surprisingly, most of the novel’s neglectful parents seem to be infected by the same socially pervasive disease of parasitism. Harold Skimpole is perhaps the clearest example of this. Continually portraying himself as an “eternal child,” he both escapes the responsiblities of adulthood and parenthood but also does a tremendous disservice to the real children around him. The prime example of this behavior is his betrayal of Jo for a bribe. Regarding the incident he protests to Esther, “You know I don’t pretend to be responsible. I never could do it.
Responsibility is a thing that has always been above me… ” (727). Yet Mr. Bucket’s insight about Skimpole is more to the point; “Now, Miss Summerson, I’ll give you a piece of advice… Whenever a person says to you that they are as innocent as lambs in all concerning money, look well after your own money, for they are dead certain to collar it… ” (682). Skimpole’s willingness to betray his relationships for money and material pleasures differs little in essence from Vholes’ predatory intentions toward Richard, who was introduced to Vholes by Skimpole for a five-pound note!
Likewise, Mr. Turveydrop, who has for years been supported by his wife and then by his son, extends this arrangement to include Caddy as Prince’s wife. Yet, neither Caddy nor Prince had healthy relationships with their parents in which they were allowed to enjoy their childhoods, so when Mr Turveydrop consents to their marriage, Caddy and Prince “were as much overcome with thankfulness as if, instead of quartering himself upon them for the rest of his life, he were making some munificent sacrifice in their favour” (294).
Finally, both Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle, in their misguided schemes of philanthropy, not only myopically overlook such needy orphans as Jo who is right under their noses and “is not one of Mrs. Pardiggle’s Tockahoopo Indians, [or] one of Mrs. Jellyby’s lambs, being wholly unconnected with Borrioboola-Gha” (564), but alienate and neglect their own children. Yet though their motives may be pure but misguided, their methods indicate they are also infected by the greater society’s concern with money and business. “Mrs.
Jellyby, always ‘full of business,’ treats her daughter, Caddy, as a clerk or employee, and makes her home into an office” (Brown, 63) and she simply ignores her husband and her other children. Mrs. Pardiggle is noted for her “rapacious benevolence” (93) and demonstrates a “mechanical way of taking possession of people” (99) yet also demands charitable contributions from her “weazened and shrivelled” children (94). Through their blindness and neglect and failure to understand that ‘charity begins at home,’ both women help insure that their children will be among another ‘damaged’ generation.
There are some characters who do exhibit a sense of reponsibility towards children and each other. The Bagnets are perhaps the only intact and happy family yet they are also willing to help their friend George when he needs them. Mr. Jarndyce benevolently takes in Richard, Ada, and Esther, and rescues Charley Neckett and her younger brother and sister. Yet Esther as the “little woman” and “Dame Durden” best represents the novel’s ideal of responsible womanhood as exhibited through efficiency, nurturing, and tenderness.
Even Skimpole tells her, “You appear to me to be the very touchstone of responsibility. When I see you, my dear Miss Summerson, intent upon the perfect working of the whole little orderly system of which you are at the centre, I feel inclined to say to myself… that’s responsibility” (468). From the outset, children are naturally attracted to her. Esther’s early days at Greenleaf (27) her first meeting with Peepy Jellyby (40), Caddy’s inclinations to place her in the role of a mother (167), and Jo’s instinctive devotion (383) are only a few of the instances in which young people are drawn to her.
In all cases she responds with sincere interest and loving compassion. Her unpretentious concern with others’ welfare contrasts sharply with the self-serving benevolence of a Mrs. Pardiggle and with the parasitical, calculating attitude of the many characters who reduce people to monetary objects. Esther’s motherly warmth finds an echo in Mrs. Bagnet’s stout devotion to her family, Mrs. Rouncewell’s concern for her son George, and even Lady Dedlock evinces a motherly impulse that, though long-suppressed, still emerges in her attachment to her maid, Rosa.
As Sylvia Bank Manning argues, “The characters in Bleak House who engage our sympathy are those who fight against becoming inhuman and rigid” (121-2) and the majority of these figures happen to be women. Mr. Jarndyce, Mr. Boythorn, and Mr. Woodcourt are the notable exceptions yet their best qualities are also those of compassion and service that are not inharmonious with the traditional “feminine” virtues. Thus, the themes of Esther’s narrative are not unrelated to those of the third-person narrative but are simply many of the same issues viewed from a different perspective.
The effect is to perhaps underscore the novel’s most significant theme of all, the interconnectedness and interdependence of all persons in society, regardless of geography, class, or profession. As the reader goes back and forth between the narratives, observing and experiencing the various characters and locations from various viewpoints, the realization is forced on one’s consciousness that the public and private worlds are, in essence, two sides of the same world. At base, they are indivisible.
Yet, at the same time, Esther’s “progress” of self-discovery and her search for meaning and fulfillment emphasize how incumbent it is for each individual to be as fully human as they can be, to choose and to act as much as possible according to their highest aspirations and ideals regardless of the values and tendencies of the larger society. Bleak House powerfully asserts through Esther’s example that the struggle to live even within an atmosphere of death is still a worthwhile and noble struggle.
Bleak House shares a number of structural elements common to the mystery novel genre, a fact noted by many literary critics. These include the obvious importance to the plot of the facts and connections that are revealed and/or discovered. In Bleak House, discoveries occur either through individual efforts, as in the cases of Mr. Tulkinghorn, Mr. Guppy, or Mr. Bucket, or they occur by chance. In most instances, revelation comes about through a combination of both. Yet through the process of reading, the reader also participates in the unraveling of Bleak House ‘s mysteries.
Thus in this highly complex and multi-faceted novel, many reader response critcs have pointed out another layer of meaning, one that highlights some of the novel’s existential implications. For myself, as a reader and a critic, many of these implications underlie what the text has to say about the need for, and the possibilities of, transformation in both the novel’s public and private worlds. Jeremy Hawthorn credits Dickens’ double narrative technique with causing the reader to “continually ‘reset’ his or her attitude to what is depicted… s we shift from the anonymous narrator to Esther, and back again, we keep being faced with problems of reconciling their viewpoints and values, and this makes the reader an active searcher after meaning rather than the merely passive recipient of an authorial or narrative ‘truth'” (60). One result of this process can be that the reader comes to recognize the deeper ways in which mystery and chance are endemic to the human condition. This is another reason why it is essential the reader sympathize with Esther.
As she explores her world and her discoveries justify her innocence, her commitments to those she loves increase and she leads the reader as far from the influences of the bleak world around her as she can (Sanders, 43). And the reader both explores with Esther and is privy to knowledge that she isn’t through the third-person narrator. Thus the larger point is made about the real world: it is both causal and random, connected and contigent, and we are both free and determined beings (Harvey, 155).
Yet Hawthorn makes the important distinction between being a first-time reader for whom the mysteries of the novel are new, and a second or third-time reader in which we can more easily see the well-crafted “connections, parallels, [and] patterns” (54). In these cases one reads more critically and the world that is revealed, for Esther and the reader, is indeed a “bleak” one. By the novel’s conclusion, Chancery, the political and class systems, and urban poverty continue, these conditions seem to be in the very nature of Bleak House society.
What possiblities for transformation exist in such a singularly life-denying world? Of course, there are the obvious examples of Esther and her small circle but the text also points to two other possibilites within the public sphere, social revolution and the rise of an industrial middle-class as represented by Rouncewell. The references to social revolution in the novel are numerous. One of Sir Leicester’s recurrent and secret fears is that the lower classes will again rise up somewhere led by a “Wat Tyler,” leader of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 (16).
An analogy between disease and revolution is suggested in a description of Tom-All-Alone’s, “Verily, what with tainting, plundering and spoiling, Tom has his revenge” (553). Brown points out that this theme is related to a pattern of imagery, “the image of the springing or exploding of a mine or bomb” (71). In another passage describing Tom’s, ” Twice, lately, there has been a crash and a cloud of dust, like the springing of a mine, in Tom-All-Alone’s; and, each time, a house has fallen… the next crash in Tom-All-Alone’s may be expected to be a good one” (197-8) the possibility of social upheaval is implied.
And the effect of a revolution on the upper classes is likened to the effect the truth about Lady Dedlock has on Sir Leicester when Bucket reveals it in the chapter titled “Springing a Mine. ” The Victorian fear of revolution and the horror with which the British viewed the French Revolution is alluded to when Hortense, Lady Dedlock’s French maid, is described as “a bodily spring” (517) and she appears to Esther like “some woman from the streets of Paris in the reign of terror” (286). Yet the most imaginative image of revolution is Krook’s death by spontaneous combustion.
In his identification with the Lord Chancellor of the High Court, Krook dies “the death of all… authorities in all places under all names soever, where false pretences are made, and where injustice is done… it is the same death eternally-inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself” (403). By analogy, the warning is clear. If things do not change, if society does not address the suffering and needs of its citizens, the society will explode in revolt. Rouncewell’s success in business and politics is presented as a viable and desirable alternative to revolution.
He is a self-made man who has both educated himself and built up a business that provides jobs and opportunities for others in his class. He successfully runs for Parliament and aims to educate his daughters so that they are “worthy of any station” (353). Compared to the Dedlock class which is “in decline,” Mr. Rouncewell represents a new spirit in the land in which “many great undertakings are in progress” (351). The Dedlocks have no heir whereas Rouncewell does have a son and heir , indicating where the future of Britain lies.
That Rouncewell’s class will eventually predominate over Sir Leicester’s is brought home by the fact that Rouncewell’s son is named “Watt,” recalling Wat Tyler and his revolt. But the transfer of power and money from the landed classes to the industrial classes has been proven by historical hindsight to be peaceful and productive, probably because it was a gradual process that extended hope for a better life to those who were willing to work hard in the new industries and it was an increasingly prevalent alternative to violent change.
In the private sphere, Esther’s move up north with her loved ones provides the moral analogy to Rouncewell’s successful ironworks and illustrates the possibilities for personal transformation. That salvation is possible is suggested at Jo’s deathbed where, led by Woodcourt in prayer, Jo finds a light “upon the dark benighted way” (572). As the ultimate victim in the novel, surrounded by disease, ignorance, and death, Jo receives a final comfort through Mr. Woodcourt’s compassion.
After her bout of illness and her discovery of her birthright, Esther too is resurrected or transformed through her reaffirmation of her innocence and of her commitment to those she loves. She and Allan marry and have children, they share a home with Ada and her son, and they all gladden the old age of Mr. Jarndyce. But Esther and Allan do not forget the needy around, they minister to those in pain and suffering (769). Woodcourt is a doctor for the poor in the industrial north, and “his capacity to communicate with members of the working class… mplies that not only will he improve the quality of life for working men in that area but will also help to break down the ‘iron barrier’ between classes” (Brown, 81). As a helpmate to Allan, Esther also brings to bear her understanding of the interconnectedness of her life with those around her and asserts that what shall connect them is love and mutual responsibility, not the default links of money, tradition, and self-interest.
That this view is meant to be the moral message of the novel is suggested by the structure in which the reader must follow Esther as she negotiates her way through the dark maze of Bleak House society to emerge in a place where she at last creates a happy life that is yet very connected to the lives around her. Many critics have viewed Esther’s establishment as the mistress of the new ‘Bleak House’ as an unconvincing escape out of the dark world of the novel from which the reader is yet constantly reminded that there is no escape.
Brown argues, as do many critics, that this is “a basic contradiction within the structure of the novel” (65), but I disagree. Bearing in mind that all of the Bleak House characters are surrounded and shaped by social, political, and economic forces, that everyone in this world is both determined and free, Esther’s life is clearly not idealized. She suffers as an illegitimate orphan, is marred by smallpox, and must construct both an identity and a life for herself that has meaning and purpose. Total success in Bleak House is impossible and Esther is far from completely successful in her aims and hopes.
She and Mr. Jarndyce fail to save Richard and spare Ada a life as a single parent. She tries but cannot help Jo and she can do little to ease the hardships of the bricklayers’ lives. She cannot save Caddy Jellyby from a marriage that brings with it much sacrifice on Caddy’s part. She fights the battle of affirming life within a world of death but it is an uphill battle. Esther’s triumph and that of those whom she loves, is that she can still perceive the possiblities of life within death and allow them to change and transform her.
In this respect, she can be said to escape in a spiritual sense since she does not become entrapped like other characters in rigid ways of living and rigid states-of-mind but I would not characterize her move north as an escape. She bears the marks of past suffering and is still involved with those in her greater community. Yet those who do who characterize the conclusion of Bleak House as an unrealistic escape from the all-encompassing world Dickens has taken such pains to construct are, I think, operating from certain assumptions about what a novel of “social criticism” should do or advocate.
Certainly it’s natural to want to see a corrupt system overthrown, if not in real life then in one’s fiction, but it is a tribute to Dickens’ commitment to his style of realism that he doesn’t do this in Bleak House. Esther’s fate may be an example of a “romantic side of familiar things,” but Esther’s predicament is indeed “the predicament of [human beings] in modern industrial society” and the novel expresses the result of this predicament, “the fragmented individual” (Harvey, 156).
All we can do, like Esther, is perform our duty, and a certain amount of personal freedom lies in the recognition of that necessity. And contrary to the views of some, Esther’s destiny is not without political import. Rather than dealing with a powerful and corrupt system head-on, sometimes the smartest (or only) thing people can do is to start changing conditions and relationships in their local communities. Such an approach is the least centralized form of democratic action and it helps people reclaim those aspects of their lives that they can control.
This can also reconnect people in more genuine human relationships, the lack of which so outraged Bleak House’s third-person narrator. One should not underestimate the potential of this approach. Esther’s life in the new ‘Bleak House’ “opens up a promise for the future which lightens the encircling gloom” (Sanders, 164), and since all things are connected, perhaps Esther’s solution can also spread and transform the world.
Cite this Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Bleak House by Charles Dickens. (2016, Oct 16). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/bleak-house/