“Insanity and Injustice”: Why the Good Go Mad

I believe Dickens is suggesting that the only way to keep one’s sanity during injustice, is to willingly let some sanity go. The only sane characters in the Chancery Court are cruel at worst, coldly unfeeling at best. Mr. Tulkinghorn is the primary example of the cruelty, Ms. Flite of the sort of insanity that preserves human kindness in the fog of Chancery. Most of the other characters involved in the Chancery case fit one of these two extremes. Mr. Jarndyce is a “a little M, you know!” as Ms. Flite likes to call Mr. Krook. But his panic about gratitude and his obsession with the easterly winds makes him merely eccentric and more kindly.  We feel about him much as we feel about Ms. Flite. The response toward cruelty is usually reserved for the lawyers, but Guppy is an exception.  He is also “a little M,” though.  Two characters attempt to battle the insanity and injustice of Chancery with reason, but they fail.

Gridley and Richard are two who do not elect either gentle insanity or utter cruelty.  Gridley defends his angry, insistent approach to Chancery so: “if I took my wrongs in any other way, I should be driven mad!  It is only by resenting them, and by revenging them in my mind, and by angrily demanding the justice I never get, that I am able to keep my wits together.  It is only that!” (4884). Notice that Gridley cares much more about “keeping his wits” than Ms. Flite or Mr. Jarndyce.  Richard too, is not willing to let “reason and justice” go, though Mr. Jarndyce laments that Chancery is, “Unreason and injustice at the top, unreason and injustice at the heart and at the bottom, unreason and injustice from beginning to end…” (18376). If one is to encounter injustice, one must do it with a modified unreason, apparently.

A possible cause for this lies in this cryptic riddle from the narrator: “Injustice breeds injustice; the fighting with shadows and being defeated by them necessitates the setting up of substances to combat” (12552). The injustices of chancery have been weaving such a fog of shadows for so long a time, that the fog is all that’s left.  To take a solid reason and corporeal justice into this fog can only be fatal for those who maintain their reason.  Gridley and Richard do not survive the novel because they demand justice from shadows, and when the case simply evaporates in the end, Richard senses a loss not just of the money and the inheritance, but also the sort of loss that Don Quixote would experience were he to come to his senses in the middle of battling windmills.  It is the loss of an ideal that never existed.

But Ms. Flite is able to release her birds because she has responded to shadows by becoming a shadow of her former self.  While she releases her reason, she maintains her kindness and good humor – possibly the best parts of her humanity. Jarndyce and Jarndyce are no more, but Ms. Flite and Mr. Jarndyce remain.

The Sensational Mr. Dickens

I am torn as to how to read Dickens’ Bleak House. Throughout the semester we have been discussing the realism of our author’s texts and how they represent the realities of life. However, while Dickens represents the tragedy of the impoverished and the dying poor, his narrative seems more sensational than realistic.

What leads me on this path of thinking is Dickens’ strong friendship with Wilkie Collins, who is one of the most well known sensational novelist. In fact, Collins’ The Woman in White was published in Dickens’ paper at the same time as Dickens’ own Great Expectations. The influence of Collins’ sensationalism on Dickens’ can be seen through the women in white, both ghostly figures who offer a sense of foreboding and mystery. This sensational female is seen in Bleak House as well with Lady Dedlock as the woman in black. Her image haunts Jo like a specter, in both illness and health: “The boy staggered up instantly, and stared at me with a remarkable expression of surprise and terror…’I won’t go no more to the berryin ground,’ muttered the boy; ‘I ain’t a-going there'”. The illness linked madness also relates back to Wilkie Collins and The Woman in White.

This is not the only sensational element present in Bleak House, there are also mystery’s of birth, an abyss of a court case, strange unexplainable deaths, etc. All of these elements are worthy of the sensation novel.

However, I am hesitant in other ways to say that Bleak House completely falls into this category. The sensation novel is called that because not only is it ‘sensational,’ but it causes the sensations of the characters to be transmitted to the reader: when they are afraid we are afraid, when their hearts are beating fast so are ours. Sensation novels tend to withhold information from the reader in order to increase that immediate feeling, the feeling of discovery. That can be seen in Bleak House in the scene where Jo takes ‘the lady’ to the burial ground. He doesn’t know who she is and neither do we, though we have suspicions. Also, as Mr. Krook’s border dies, we are left wondering, like the rest of the characters, if his death was intentional or accidental. And there are many more of these moments worthy of inspection, but there is no time at the present to do them justice.

Where the problem comes is in the moments where we know more than the narrator/characters. We are told mid-way through the book that Lady Dedlock is Esther’s mother, so while we discover that information along with Lady Dedlock, we know more than Esther when we return to her narration.

So what does all this mean? It means that Bleak House moves beyond the realism boundaries, at least in terms of how we have been discussing it. Dickens’ seems to blend realism with the poverty of the time, with the sensationalism successes of his friend Collins.

A Matter of Trust

There’s a lot of pressure in choosing a topic for the last blog post of the semester, and choosing from the many crazy and brilliant scenes/characters of Bleak House doesn’t make it any easier. There’s Mr. Guppy—the man who can’t stop (won’t stop) proposing, Mrs. Flite and her creepy collection of birds, and Mr. Bucket, the detective at the center of the first ever police procedural in literature (or so the internet tells me). So, out of all these characters, I have chosen to write about the narrator. Writing about the narrator is basically like choosing vanilla ice cream when you could have chosen, well, anything else, but here it goes anyway.

I believe narrators, especially third-person omniscient narrators. They speak with authority, and I totally buy into it. Maybe it’s because I like George Eliot. Maybe it’s because I’m traditional by nature. But whatever the cause, I tend to trust narrators until they give me a very specific reason not to, and the third-person narrator in Bleak House is no exception.

In the opening chapter, the narrator vividly describes the fog that permeates London, seeping into every nook and cranny, enveloping rich and poor alike. The chapter implies that the narrator, much like the fog, is everywhere. He (we’ll call him a “he”) is aware of the movements of every character and can perceive their inner motives and their darkest secrets. Although the narrator doesn’t let us in on every detail of every character from the beginning—if he did, there wouldn’t be a novel—his descriptions of each person we meet in the novel reveal quite a lot about character. When we first meet Mr. Tulkinghorn, the narrator tells us that he is “surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences” and that “there are noble Mausoleums rooted for centuries in the retired glades of parks . . . which perhaps hold fewer oble secrets that walk abroad among men, shut up in the breast of Mr. Tulkinghorn” (23). He is immediately associated with secrecy, but not in a positive way. The association with mausoleums makes the reader skeptical of his character and the nature of the secrets he keeps. And we should be skeptical. The narrator gives us fair warning that Mr. Tulkinghorn might not be the most trustworthy.

However, there is one character description that makes me question my trust in the narrator—that of Sir Leicester Deadlock. By the end of the novel, I felt I had been led astray in my perception of Sir Leicester. I had been led to think poorly of him, to see little depth in his character, and while I was pleasantly surprised to learn of his genuine love for his wife, I couldn’t help but feel I had been set up.

When we first meet Sir Leicester, we are told, with a clear tone of irony, that “there is no mightier baronet that he.” The narrator states, “He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Deadlocks” (21). In summary, “He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man” (22). From this description, I fully expected Sir Leicester to be a flat character designed to point to the absurdities of the aristocracy. He seems unfeeling and full of himself. And this depiction carries for almost the entire novel as he proves his “might” in ridiculous squabbles with his neighbor. However, when he learns of Lady Deadlock’s past, a past that should be (in Victorian society, at least) a disgrace to him, he does not think at all of himself, his position, or his legacy; he can think only of her and her suffering. At this point in the novel, the narrator reveals, “It is she who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love.” He is “oblivious of his own suffering” and feels only compassion for her (838).

To a certain extent, I don’t mind that I was misled. Sir Leicester’s compassion is more moving because it is unexpected. However, I feel guilty because I have judged him so harshly, but it was the narrator who guided me to that judgement. He wanted me to think the worst of Sir Leicester so that I could feel all the right emotions when his love is revealed. This is clear emotional manipulation, and ultimately, it makes me wonder if I have been too trusting.

Adultish Children and Childish Adults: Maturity in Bleak House

Last week, Chris posted on “Childhood and Childishness” in Bleak House, noting, “It is filled with adults that act like children (Richard, Ada, Skimpole, Lady Deadlock, Guppy, Chadband, Mr. Turveydrop, Mrs. Jellyby, Mr. Smallweed …), and children that act like adults (Charley, Jo, Prince, Judy). Yet, Esther ‘acts her age’, and is nearly the only character that does so.” I would like to probe that idea further, challenging the idea that Esther “acts her age,” and suggest that she, like the other adultish children in the novel, is forced to grow up too soon.

First, what makes adults childish? The main characteristic is dependence: Harold Skimpole, for example, is “a child” because he is utterly dependent on Mr. Jarndyce. Rick is also described as “an Infant” by the Chancery when he desires to select a career in the army; the Court perhaps enjoys having him completely dependent on its “parental” power (387). Mr. Turveydrop likewise enjoys his dependence on Prince and Caddy (who, regrettably, trades one unfortunate parent for another when she marries Prince). In addition to dependence, we also see these childish adults unaware of the world outside themselves, of the effects that their actions have on others. Take Richard’s obsession with Jarndyce, for example, or Harold’s neglect of his children, or Mrs. Jellyby’s inability to see her own children living in squalor while she feeds her ego on charitable projects. I believe Inspector Bucket has it right when he says,

“Whenever a person says to you that they are as innocent as can be in all concerning money, look well after your own money, for they are dead certain to collar it if they can. Whenever a person proclaims to you ‘In worldly matters I’m a child,’ you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One” (875).

Rather than condemning certain childish individuals, this problem is endemic enough for Dickens to condemn an entire generation– his generation– of abdicating its responsibilities and forcing its children to take on a premature role.

Esther is the chief casualty of the abandonment of the older generation. Her own mother has never played an active role in her upbringing, and her cold aunt never let her be a little girl, saddling her with the guilt of adult actions. As a result, she skips the stage of the young woman entirely, becoming “Dame Durden” and “little old woman.”

This abdication of young womanhood and the absence of adult guidance in Esther’s life is symbolized by the doll that she cherishes as a child. When Esther buries her doll in the garden, it is more than her acceptance of maturation. The doll represented the adult presence and guidance that Esther never had; she tells it all her secrets, looks to it for the emotional support she would have received from her mother. This is why, when Lady Dedlock and Esther first catch each other’s eye in the church, the doll reappears:

And, very strangely, there was something quickened within me, associated with the lonely days at my godmother’s; yes, away even to the days when I had stood on tiptoe to dress myself at my little glass after dressing my doll.

The doll also reappears in Esther’s life as a symbol of young womanhood. Esther’s sped-up development has forced her to skip the stages of young courtship, to go straight to old-maidhood. While Ada and Rick experience the joy of young love, Esther is the one they come to for advice– despite the fact that she has never had this kind of experience. The description Dickens gives of young Charley’s care for her siblings could just as easily have described the unnatural responsibility Esther is saddled with, mothering both Ada and Rick:  “It was a thing to look at. The three children close together, and two of them relying solely on the third, and the third so young and yet with an air of age and steadiness that sat so strangely on the childish figure.” Like the doll, Esther has also buried her youth, taking on an adult role that is unnatural for her stage in life. This is why, when Guppy proposes, Esther again references the doll: the young woman buried within her has begun to awaken. “In short, I was in a flutter for a little while and felt as if an old chord had been more coarsely touched than it ever had been since the days of the dear old doll, long buried in the garden.”

It is only through her illness that Esther is able to reconcile all of her life stages, and to accept the one that is appropriate for her real age. She writes, “At once a child, an elder girl, and the little woman I had been so happy as, I was not only oppressed by cares and difficulties adapted to each station, but by the great perplexity of endlessly trying to reconcile them” (555). With the first glimpse that she gets of herself in the looking-glass after the illness, she is able to come to a greater level of self-knowledge and acceptance, to “begin afresh.” Like the smallpox scars, her lost young womanhood will always be with her. Yet her resilience allows her to reclaim some of what has been lost, when she becomes a mother herself: her children will not have to face the abandonment of the adult generation.

“Bucket is so deep”


Does Mr. Bucket actually conceal more than he reveals?

Bleak House is not simply a novel in which mysterious events take place, but a novel in which EVERY event is cloaked in mystery. From the opening pages, we understand that everything is covered in a fog – not just the thick London fog, but a moral fog and darkness that permeates the entire life of the novel, emanating from the Courts and the Aristocracy. There is not just one character that holds a secret – all the characters do. With such a backdrop, one would assume that the character of a detective would aid in clearing the fog – “solving the mystery” – but Mr. Bucket seems to not bring truth to light, but only further conceal it.

The name of the detective himself, perhaps the most clearly metaphorical name in the novel, speaks not only of ‘depth’, but of ‘concealment’. Just as Tulkinghorn is a repository of the secrets of the landed gentry, Bucket conceals in his ‘depths’ the secrets of the City of London itself – and seemingly, all who inhabit it. He goes into those places – Tom-All-Alone’s and the poorer areas of London such as the Shooting Gallery – where Tulkinghorn will not go. Bucket is able to go into these secret places because, unlike a man with Tulkinghorn’s status, he will not be seen. More importantly, he will not be recognized.

If Bucket is a master of concealment, the thing he conceals most effectively is himself. When we first meet him, it is as if he has simply appeared in the room: “standing with an attentive face between himself and the lawyer, at a little distance from the table, a person with a hat and stick in his hand who was not there when he himself came in, and has not since entered by the door or by either of the windows” (355). It is not surprising that the darkness of the ‘inner city’ streets of London at night is where Bucket is most at home, as Dickens based the character on a real detective, Charles Fielding, with whom he took many night patrols along London streets. Add to this the fact that, like a real-life Sherlock Holmes, Dickens had the layout of city of London practically memorized.
Bucket conceals himself, but also his motives. Whenever he ‘questions a suspect’ or hopes to draw information from a source, he does so in the most strangely conversational and non-combative of ways. The most interesting (and simply enjoyable to read) example of this is when he gathers information from one of the Dedlock servants, moving from ‘small talk’ about the servant’s height to direct questioning:

“’You’re so well put together that I shouldn’t have thought it. But the household troops, though considered fine men, are built so straggling. – Walks by night, does she? When it’s moonlight, though?’
O yes. When it’s moonlight! Of course. O, of course! Conversational and acquiescent on both sides” (814).

Even when questioning / gathering information, Bucket not only conceals his motives but his methods. He questions without questioning, making direct statements when he has a suspicion (i.e. “Your name, old gentleman, is Smallweed; that’s what your name is; I know it well”). Again, a great example of this is when he ‘questions’ the servant, providing an alibi for Lady Dedlock’s innocence based on a suspicion:
“’To be sure,’ says Mr. Bucket. ‘That makes a difference. Now I think of it,’ says Mr. Bucket, warming his hands, and looking pleasantly at the blaze, ‘she went out walking, the very night of this business.’
‘To be sure she did! I let her in the garden over the way.’
‘And left her there. Certainly you did. I saw you doing it.’
‘I didn’t see you,’ says Mercury.
‘I was rather in a hurry,’ returns Mr Bucket” (814).

Bucket conceals himself, his motives, and even his solutions. In a trope that will become a staple of the detective genre, Bucket does not reveal the solution until the end. As Agatha Christie will make famous with her own detective, Hercule Poirot, Bucket gathers all suspects into the ‘accusing parlor’ and only reveals the murderess at the very end:
“’The party to be apprehended is now in this house,’ proceeds Mr Bucket, putting up his watch with a steady hand, and with rising spirits, ‘and I’m about to take her into custody in your presence’” (829). Even near the end of the novel, Bucket does not reveal to Esther that she is actually looking at the body of her mother but urges her to ‘think a moment’ (914).

At the end of the novel, it is not even Bucket the detective that can solve the mystery. He is too much a part of the mysterious world and can only further conceal. Ultimately, it takes the “Summer sun” to clear away the fog from Bleak House.

A Face to Love: The Problem of Female Relationships in Bleak House

Victorian woman sketch 3

“My God!”

Mr. Guppy stares. My Lady Dedlock sits before him, looking him through, with the same dark shade upon her face, in the same attitude even to the holding of the screen, with her lips a little apart, her brow a little contracted, but, for the moment dead. (430; ch. 29)


If readers had been bored to death with Lady Dedlock’s character before this scene, we are not yawning during our visits to Chesney Wold any longer! After over 400 pages of Lady Dedlock’s boredom, my lady’s uncharacteristically sudden exclamation jolts us out of the mental dead-lock we were trapped in whenever she deigned to make an appearance on the page. Readers knew several pages before this moment that Lady Dedlock is not as two-dimensional as she at first appears. But until this scene, my lady had not publicly broken rank and disturbed the perfect ladylike placidity befitting her aristocratic station:


He sees her consciousness return, sees a tremor pass across her frame like a ripped over water, sees her lips shake, sees her compose them by a great effort, sees her force herself back to the knowledge of his presence, and of what he has said. All this, so quickly, that her exclamation and her dead condition seem to have passed away like the features of those long-preserved dead bodies sometimes opened up in tombs, which struck by the air like lightning, vanish in a breath. (430; ch. 29)


Mr. Guppy’s speculations about a distant connection between Esther Summerson (actually Esther Hawdon) and the illustrious Dedlock family tree have exhumed my lady from her grave existence. Dickens illustrates the shock she feels primarily through the change in her typically expressionless face. She has lost her grip on the immovable, marbleized expression usually locked onto her face, the same face that first pricked Mr. Guppy’s suspicions. In fact, it is only by the resemblance between the face of Lady Dedlock and the face of Esther Summerson that Mr. Guppy suspects a connection. There seems little else to link the two of them – their social classes are far apart and Dickens does not merge their daily worlds – and we as readers are left to wonder if their connection is only skin-deep.


Are Lady Dedlock and Esther Summerson only linked by their similar physical features? Does their potential reconnection depend solely on the appearance of their face? Throughout Bleak House Lady Dedlock’s refined beauty recurs in the story as a representative of her fashionable life, while Esther Summerson is plain Dame Durden next to the golden Ada. Nevertheless, Mr. Guppy has recognized the similarity between the two, but their similarity cannot reunite them in a happy future. As the only link between this ill-fated mother and daughter pair, their faces become a danger to them and expose the deeper problem facing women in Bleak House who struggle to form more than surface-level relationships.


When Esther and Lady Dedlock encounter one another for the first time as mother and daughter, it is something in Lady Dedlock’s face that resonates with Esther: “I was rendered motionless. Not so much by her hurried gesture of entreaty . . . as by a something in her face that I had pined for and dreamed of when I was a little child” (536; ch. 36). In this moment as in so many others, it is Lady Dedlock’s face that speaks with a louder voice than any words she says. Esther is overcome with her emotions and the disconcerting display of turmoil from Lady Dedlock, but once Lady Dedlock falls to the ground, entreating Esther to forgive her, Esther’s thoughts turn from Lady Dedlock’s face to her own:


. . . when I saw her at my feet on the bare earth in her great agony of mind, I felt, through all my tumult of emotion, a burst of gratitude to the providence of God that I was so changed as that I never could disgrace her by any trace of likeness; as that nobody could ever now look at me, and look at her, and remotely think any near tie between us. (537; ch. 36)


Esther has already passed through her battle with smallpox, but has not emerged unscathed. Her face is drastically altered, so much so that when Mr. Guppy sees her after her illness, he hastily and insultingly insists that she recognize he cannot ever renew his proposal of marriage to her. Esther does not express any indignation or pain towards Mr. Guppy’s indecent behavior, and in this encounter with Lady Dedlock, she characteristically finds the silver lining, thanking God that her scars will prevent her mother from experiencing any future shame on her account. As Lady Dedlock tells Esther of her pain and despair, she covers her face with her hands and mourns the miserable bonds of her position that make any public reunion between them impossible. In this scene, Dickens’s narrative emphasizes the cruel reality that bonds between mothers and daughters are only as strong as the circumstances surrounding them.


Throughout her narrative, Dickens continually describes Lady Dedlock as a woman behind a veil; in this encounter with Esther, Lady Dedlock discards her veil of “proud indifference” for a brief moment but cannot linger in exposed freedom from her past sins. Even Esther must don a veil to hide her marked visage from the gaze of the world. Esther’s literal veil and Lady Dedlock’s figurative veil indicate a larger problem of establishing relationships and connections for women. In Dickens’s world, where propriety required the proper dress, the proper manners, and the proper expressions, communication for women becomes closely tied to the nonverbal, to the appearance of faces. If faces become obscured, then the means of connection are lost in the fogs of circumstance and secrecy. Through the women of Bleak House, Dickens asks us as readers to consider the inaudible power of faces and the grave injustices that arise when women are both voiceless and faceless.

Dick Knows a Thing or Two About Marriage!!!

“It is such weary, weary work!”

He was leaning on his arm…and looking at the ground, when my darling rose, put off her bonnet, kneeled down beside him with her golden hair falling like sunlight on is head, clasped her two arms round his neck, and turned her face to me. O, what a loving and devoted face I saw!

‘Esther, dear,’ she said very quietly, ‘I am not going home again…Never any more.’


That’s right. Ada’s  not going home anymore. At least, not until she has a baby and her husband dies. Because that is what Dickens sees for poor couples. Destitution and distress. Well, not entirely. Scenes such as the above, when Esther discovers Ada and Richard’s marriage, remind us that Dickens is not a total douche when it comes to depicting marriage. He gets it — sometimes, at least. Just like the bricklayer and his wife, Ada and Richard are in for difficult times. In both homes, Dickens seems desirous of portraying the Selfish Husband as a perpetrator of discontent. However, Dickens is also sensitive to the Victorian man’s drive to provide, and the subsequent stress, emotional abuse, and health issues resulting from a man’s inability to provide for wife and child.

What is fascinating in this portrayal is Richard’s complete apathy towards Ada. She drapes herself over him, she places his head on her chest, she comes to his apartments, and she remains with him…nowhere do we see Richard’s active involvement towards her, though perhaps we are to read his obsession with the Jarndyce case as a wish to provide for her. Unsurprisingly, he does not see Ada as a real person anymore than readers of Bleak House do. Ada remains a decoration and a beam of sunlight to all but Esther and her guardian, to whom she is a real person.

This is only one example of Dickens’ stunning portrayals of marriage, both cynical and uplifting. The Dedlocks, Jellybys, Ada and Richard, and the Buckets provide a wide and fairly nuanced idea of what marriages can be (though exaggerated for drama) and the very real problems faced by young couples overwhelmed by money problems and self-absorption, old couples wearied by time, middle-aged couples distracted by the outside world, and happy, energetic, and relaxed couples understanding one another’s vision and desirous of one another’s company. Unfortunately, youth does not seem a marital virtue in Dickens’ book, and from the first instance Ada tells Esther she is not returning “home,” we know that her and Rick are doomed. That staying with her emaciated and grungy husband in a place she does not consider “home,” to nurse him in his selfish obsessions, is to dim Dickens’ superficial little sunbeam. But the one who waits, the marred one, the childless, under-appreciated Esther? She is destined for happiness. Not the little sunbeam.

Take that, Victorian patriarchy, and kudos to you, Dick.


The Meaning of Esther’s Illness

Ironically, sickness seems vital to many of the Victorian novels we’ve read thus far. When characters get sick—and especially when they are gravely ill—insights are likely to occur. Not only do the ill characters themselves encounter that sharp divide between life and death, but so does the surrounding community; everyone is forced to grapple with the concept of mortality and by extension to define their relationships and reconsider their decisions. Think of Mr. Hope’s sickness in Deerbrook, or Mr. Casaubon’s in Middlemarch. Sickness is vital to the stories and the characters—it shapes and defines them, and, perhaps most importantly, it exists outside them…they have little control over it, so their reactions are what end up mattering.

Esther’s smallpox epidemic in nearly the exact center of Bleak House is no exception. Not only is it a plot device, but a primary way that Dickens shows character development. Most obviously, Esther’s sickness allows us insight into how other characters conceive of her. Their reactions to her disfigurement (initially but also ultimately) allow readers to understand their true characters. And Esther’s understanding of their reactions—what she attributes their actions to—is equally telling. Her illness becomes a litmus test for shallowness, a way of continually testing everything.

More importantly though, Esther’s sickness also allows us to understand her more deeply, especially her thwarted sense of identity. When she is sick, she can no longer do housework. Her work ethic, and the tasks that she so happily completes upon arriving at Mr. Jarndyce’s home, have largely defined her to others: they are what drive her to be called “Old Woman,” despite her young age. But throughout her sickness, she has to stop understanding herself primarily through this role: as she explains, she was “at once a child, an elder girl, and the little woman” (555). But instead of understanding the fullness of her many roles, Esther is confused by them: “I was not only oppressed by cares and difficulties adapted to each station, but by the endless perplexity of trying to reconcile them” (555). Because of her smallpox, Esther literally cannot see—she is blind for a time—but she also cannot see herself as she used to. Her long-suppressed emotions about her past come to surface at this time. In her sickness, Esther seems to feel the weight of her childhood in a way that she will not allow herself to feel as an adult. She uses an image of a “flaming necklace or ring” with herself being one bead to show how she desires her own removal from the systems she is part of by asking if she dares hint at “when my only prayer was to be taken off the rest, and when it was such inexplicable agony and misery to be part of the dreadful thing?” (556). This seems telling for it allows us as readers to see some of the trauma that Esther won’t mention in her letters. She can blame it on her delusional state in her sickness, but her confusion here actually reveals the traumatic effect of never talking about her childhood, not acknowledging who she has become (or who she ever really was) up to this point.

Sick Body, Sick Society

As I read this second half of Dickens’ hefty tome my mind kept returning to the illness that is sprinkled—often quite liberally—throughout the novel. Certainly anyone familiar with his works isn’t surprised to see suffering characters, particularly the poor, but I was curious to determine how illness was functioning in Bleak House in particular.

In this half of the novel, the illness begins with poor Jo. This particular instance seems to be primarily to create drama and pull on readers’ heartstrings. Jo is a sympathetic character that we love, which makes his death even more devastating. Also implicit in his suffering is the suffering of the poor as a whole. When fever runs rampant in the slums, the poor are not safe. Certainly with Jo’s fever and ultimate death, we see Dickens’ familiar transparent social criticism. In this case, illness very much functions as a physical manifestation and as well as consequence of social malady.

However, as we consider the other prominent cases of ailment in this second half, it would seem that Dickens is doing something more. Illness is also something that does not respect class divides. Charley catches Jo’s illness, which is then passed on to Esther. In this communication we can see the Victorian anxiety about disease. No one is quite sure about its potential contagious nature. But further, we also see Dickens’ suggestion that across the social strata people are just as vulnerable. Even in the clean rooms of Bleak House, they are frightened that Esther won’t survive. 

Thus, this seems to be one of the reasons that Esther becomes ill, but there also seems to be something more to her ailment. Why smallpox (a diagnosis I’m guessing)? Clearly the most apparent consequence of this illness is scarring of the skin. Is Dickens simply using it to garner more sympathy for Esther? But, if I remember correctly, Esther’s appearance was never presented as one of her strengths—particularly next to the darling Ada. Did she really need another means for self-deprecation? On a more positive note, we could read her illness as yet another difficulty that she successfully overcomes in a life stacked against her. Further, Dickens may be critiquing the premium placed on women’s beauty—but I hesitate to give him too much credit, as the drama of the whole scenario seems to take center stage. Take Esther’s fleeting blindness for example. We hardly see the consequences of this brief symptom, and it reads more like a cliffhanger for Dickens’ serial audience. Ultimately it seems that like Jo, Esther’s illness highlights her as a victim of circumstance.

These are only two primary examples from the text, but certainly there are notable others. Richard comes to mind, as he seems to slowly deteriorates from the poison that is the Jarndyce case. Miss Flite warns against the dangers, but Richard doesn’t heed them and falls victim as many do before him. In Richard’s case, as with Jo’s, Dickens uses bodily illness to critique social ills, here the absurdities of the legal system. Thus on one hand, illness seems to be functioning as a physical manifestation of the social evils and dangers that Dickens is attempting to critique. But it also seems to function as a means to garner sympathy as Dickensian descriptions tug on our heartstrings. Further, I don’t think we can ignore the problematic way that these illnesses also seem to afflict the powerless—the poor, children, and women—with Richard being the exception. Even as Dickens draws on sympathy to craft these critiques, he further disempowers the powerless for the sake of entertainment.

The Fall of the Moon Out of the Sky: Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn

Chapter 41 of Bleak House shows what is certainly one of the novel’s key scenes: a riveting power struggle between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn, after he has revealed that he know Lady Dedlock’s guilty past. Why is the tension between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn so compelling? It has something to do with these two figures’ power and restraint, but also with their hidden vulnerability. Lady Dedlock is a powerful personality, who governs her small world by a distant grandeur that impresses her superiority upon those around her. Tulkinghorn is a powerful holder of secrets, who, like a spider quietly spinning a web, wields the secrets to entrap an increasing number of individuals into his control. Each shows a remarkable ability to restrain emotion—these two are unflappable, distant, reserved. Nothing can touch them; one can hardly imagine either one breaking down.

The pair’s evenly matched superiority and self-control raise the level of tension in this scene—raise it through the roof, so to speak. The interview’s rooftop location, with the balcony in view of the night sky, refers pointedly to the distant grandeur of both Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn: Lady Dedlock, the “star” of the aristocracy and, Tulkinghorn, the calculating observer (and downfall?) of such stars. But the emotionless Tulkinghorn, pacing on the balcony, may have met his match in Lady Dedlock: “As he paces the leads, with his eyes most probably as high above his thoughts as they are high above the earth, he is suddenly stopped in passing the window by two eyes that meet his own.” When he sees the lady’s eyes so suddenly, he—the immovable Tulkinghorn—has a visceral reaction:

The blood has not flushed into his face so suddenly and redly for many a long year, as when he recognises Lady Dedlock.

Lady Dedlock, by surprising him in this way, gains subtle but significant power over him; even in her hemmed-in situation, she is able to bring her force to bear upon her persecutor. Startled and intimidated by her gaze, this imperturbable man flushes uncontrollably, revealing vulnerability for the first time in the novel.

Tulkinghorn fears Lady Dedlock.

He, who knows her secret, cannot yet wield its power because he cannot read the lady herself:

There is a wild disturbance—is it fear or anger?—in her eyes. In her carriage and all else, she looks as she looked down-stairs two hours ago. Is it fear, or is it anger, now? He cannot be sure.

The two study one another, mentally circling each other like wild animals. Move and countermove. They fight with words, while each maintaining an almost perfect self-control, a cool reserve and immoveable carriage.

As the lady turns to leave, intending to have her way and leave Chesney Wold, Tulkinghorn quietly and politely deals the final blow:

‘Lady Dedlock, have the goodness to stop and hear me, or before you reach the staircase I shall ring the alarm-bell and raise the house. And then I must speak out, before every guest and servant, every man and woman, in it.’ He has conquered her. She falters trembles, and puts her hand confusedly to her head.

By threatening to tell her guilt to her husband’s household, he has exposed Lady Dedlock’s own vulnerability: her loyalty to her husband Sir Leicester.

As Tulkinghorn assures her, “the fall of the moon out of the sky, would not amaze him more than your fall from your high position as his wife.” Tulkinghorn’s power prevails: he compels Lady Dedlock to stay…for now. By causing her downfall, though, Tulkinghorn prepares his own fall. He also has met his match: this lady, when caught in his web, dissolves it entirely.

What was Lost has been Found

Throughout Bleak House, we encounter images of the lost and the found.  The resolution of Jarndyce and Jarndyce centers around the finding of a lost will.  Inspector Bucket’s investigation, as investigations tend to go, relies on finding the right people and clues.  Our protagonist and sometimes-narrator, Esther, is one such image – orphaned, lost from family without a clear identity.  Such an emphasis on the restoration of that which was lost also evoke images from familiar parables, such as the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18), the Lost Coin, or the Lost Son (Luke 15).  We see each of these stories emerge in Bleak House, though perhaps arranged a little differently and without the ending we expect.


“See that you don’t look down on one of these little ones” because I tell you that in heaven their angels continually view the face of My Father in heaven.”  Matthew 18


Esther herself has probably the most satisfying of the resolutions we are given.  Through her story, we see the “little one” who has been quite alone in life, while still comforting and kind to others, finally and securely restored (“Full seven happy years I have been the mistress of Bleak House”) to the fold – to the happiness of family and marriage with the man she truly loves (CH. 67).


 “Or what woman who has 10 silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”  Luke 15




Through the Dedlock’s story (”Lady Dedlock is sought in all directions, but not found”),  we learn that haughty Lady Dedlock is actually quite dear to Sir Leicester,  and we see the pain that her disappearance and eventual death brings him (“…and all the living languages, and all the dead, are as one to him”) (Ch. 61).  They bring us to a true tragedy or loss in a story that has great potential for restoration.  While Lady Dedlock believes her now-revealed secrets to be unforgivable, Sir Leicester longs for her to return, shocked by the revelations but nevertheless devoted to his love.  While there are multiple other examples of death in the book,  Lady Dedlock’s is especially heartbreaking because of Sir Leicester’s love for her and because, unlike a lost coin, she departs on her two feet, fleeing his assumed wrath without giving him the chance to forgive her.


“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”  Luke 15


Finally, George emerges as the prodigal son; he has left his family and not returned, ashamed of his wayward actions.  Yet, once again, a character is provided with the restoration for which we hope.  While George does not know what welcome he will received (“I never could have thought you would have been half so glad to see me as all this”).  In contrast to the elder brother in the parable, George’s brother welcomes him with open arms and is the one to propose a celebration of their reunion (“We make a feast of the event, and you will be made the hero of it”) (Ch. 63).



In each of these instances, it is important to question why such images are invoked.  In the cases of Esther and George, their restoration is possible because of their openness to others and acceptance of relationships.  Despite her background, Esther is by nature a trusting person, and her relationships with and care for others opens the door to Jarndyce’s reciprocal care and eventual recognition of that which will make her most happy – marriage to Woodcourt.  George, while his initial reunion with his mother is instigated by a third party, seeks out the reunion with his brother and is thus rewarded.  Meanwhile, Lady Dedlock has kept herself aloof from forming close bonds; despite her husband’s love for her, she fundamentally misunderstands that this love will persist despite knowledge of her past.  While we sympathize with her, her flight and death is a result or her cutting herself off from the relationships that could lead to her restoration.  Ultimately, the lost becoming the found relies upon human connections to each other.

Who is Esther Summerson?

Last week in class we had a rather heated discussion about Esther Summerson. Esther as narrator. Esther as character. Esther as Dickens’ ideal woman. Esther as abused child. Esther as an example of Dickens’ inability to write believable women.

It is this last characterization that I wish to consider in this blog post. My knee-jerk reaction to such accusations of both Dickens and the characters in his novels is to fiercely defend them. Of course Dickens knew how to write believable women! And, as a woman character that Dickens wrote, of course Esther is believable!

But is she?

If I am honest with myself, even in my fierce defense of Bleak House’s first-person narrator, I am compelled to admit that there is something unsatisfying in the “happily ever after” that Esther receives. On the one hand, she seems to have been given freedom from the trails of her past. She is happily married to the man she loves, while still maintaining the place of honor at the side of her old guardian. She rejoices over the fact that Mr. Jarndyce continues to call her by her pet names, “Dame Trot, Dame Durden, Little Woman!—all just the same as ever,” and that she can still “answer, Yes, dear guardian! just the same as ever” (769). She seems to have moved on from the abuse and trauma of her past, to believe at last that she is loved, to at last to have accepted that “I was as innocent of my birth as a queen of hers; and that before my Heavenly Father I should not be punished for birth, nor a queen rewarded for it” (454-55).

On the other hand, Esther seems nearly as bent on pleasing others and thereby gaining their approval at the end of the novel as she was at the beginning. She continues to conform herself to the Victorian (Dickensian?) model of ideal femininity in order to avoid bringing any further accusations of unworthiness upon herself. Even her joy over being called “Dame Trot, Dame Durden, Little Woman” seems to show that Esther and her companions are still identifying her by what she does—by the way that she conforms herself to Victorian ideals to obviate her non-ideal birth. Though Dickens seems to be trying to give her freedom from her past and identity outside of the circumstances of her birth, the identity that he gives her is itself restrictive and unrealistic.

Because that is the case, I am tempted to agree that Esther is in fact an unconvincing character, merely representing Dickens’ feminine ideal. My classmates are right: Dickens doesn’t know how to write women.

And yet…

And yet Esther still seems to be trying to break free from her past, free from her attempt to achieve perfection, free from the new restrictive identity that she has taken in place of the old. Though she has not yet achieved this freedom at the end of the novel (and perhaps never will), the final lines of the novel yet give us hope that perhaps she will at last believe that she has been given a new identity, that she is loved in spite of what she does:

I did not know that [I was prettier than I ever was]; I am not certain that I know it now. But I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent fact the ever was seen; and that they can very well do without much beauty in me—even supposing— (770)

Are You Bored to Death?



 “My Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in the early twilight from her boudoir at a keeper’s lodge, and seeing the light of a fire upon the latticed panes, and smoke rising from the chimney, and a child, chased by a woman, running out into the rain to meet the shining figure of a wrapped-up man coming through the gate, has been put quite out of temper. My Lady Dedlock says she has been ‘bored to death.’” (9; ch. 2)


Lady Dedlock is bored with the rain, bored with Chesney Wold, bored with the fashionable society, and basically just bored with her entire existence. And so are we! If any Victorian author could manage to merge the attention span of a two year old with the disdainful elegance of a lady, Dickens is the man who could and who did. The life Lady Dedlock leads is full of nothing but the uninteresting and unimportant, and Dickens does not pass up any opportunity to highlight her dreary days: “Concert, assembly, opera, theatre, drive, nothing is new to my Lady, under the worn-out heavens” (161; ch. 12). In the world of Bleak House, Lady Dedlock’s lethargic life contrasts sharply with the care-worn days of those who are indefinitely caught in the unending cycle of appeals in the Court of Chancery, even though she too is involved in the infamous Jarndyce & Jarndyce case. Dickens clearly critiques the fashionable, upper-class through Lady Dedlock’s days of frivolity and selfishness.


But as Dickens depicts Lady Dedlock in all her vanity and carelessness, I wonder if Lady Dedlock could be anything more than just a spoiled social-lite? Does she serve any function in Bleak House beyond enabling Dickens to lower a social critique upon the life of the upper-class? As the fog over-saturates the streets of London and the rain over-saturates the grounds of Chesney Wold, Lady Dedlock is so over-saturated with lethargic boredom that Dickens reduces her to little more than a caricature. Crafting one female character, or even a few, as over-blown caricatures is not a crime, and certainly Dickens often creates caricatures in order to address larger issues through his work. However, can we as readers identify any woman in Bleak House who is a fully formed, three-dimensional character? Are Dickensian women merely reduced to either their foibles or their virtues in order to advance the social agenda of Bleak House?


So many of Dickens’s female characters are larger-than-life, but perhaps the two that rise to the foreground are Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle. Like Lady Dedlock, they are defined by their idiosyncrasies. We are introduced to Mrs. Jellyby as the last reservoir of peace amidst her chaotic family and home: “Mrs. Jellyby whose face reflected none of the uneasiness which we could not help showing in our own faces . . . received us with perfect equanimity. She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman, of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if – I am quoting Richard again – they could see nothing nearer than Africa!” (38; ch. 4). Mrs. Jellyby is so consumed by her pet-project of charity to African people that she grossly neglects her home and children. In her negligence, Dickens critiques the kind of missionary fervor that supersedes the duties and calls of a woman in her household. Mrs. Pardiggle appears in the story as another means for Dickens to make the same critique but through a contrasting angle.


Mrs. Pardiggle’s charitable projects do not prevent her from shirking her familial duties, but instead they engulf her children into the inexorable perseverance which she applies to her work. Mrs. Pardiggle proudly declares to Esther and Ada, “But they [her children] are my companions everywhere; and by these means they acquire that knowledge of the poor, and that capacity of doing charitable business in general – in short, that taste for the sort of thing – which will render them in after life a service to their neighbours, and a satisfaction to themselves” (108; ch. 8). Although Mrs. Pardiggle spends her time far more actively than Lady Dedlock, Dickens critique is implicit in Esther’s observation that she, Ada, and Richard had never met such wretched children before as Mrs. Pardiggle’s children: “We had never seen such dissatisfied children. It was not merely that they were weazened and shriveled – though they were certainly that too – but they looked absolutely ferocious with discontent” (107; ch. 8). In Dickens’s following depiction of Mrs. Pardiggle’s trip to the brickmaker’s house, Mrs. Pardiggle’s over-zealous evangelicalism is exposed as an egregious flaw rather than a Christian virtue. Like Mrs. Jellyby, she is reduced to a comical tool for Dickens to condemn Christian charity which does more harm than good.


Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle are plainly secondary characters to the story of Bleak House, and it would not be fair to judge Dickens’s portrayal of women solely through them. However, even the principle female characters – Esther Summerson and Ada Clare – are characterized as limited, feminine types. Esther is dubbed “Dame Durden” and becomes the trope of the maternal care-giver, while Ada is the young, golden-haired angel who is cast as the virtuous and demure bride for the dashing Richard. Esther and Ada have more dimensions than Mrs. Jellyby or Mrs. Pardiggle, but their world seems to be just as narrow as Lady Dedlock’s world, although perhaps less boring than hers. They lead a happy life at Bleak House, but is it only a happy life because Dickens did not give them the complexity to desire a life different than the one readily available to them?


The humor and variety of Bleak Houses’s characters make them memorable and justify the popularity of Dickens’s novel. However, if we look to Bleak House for depictions of female characters that push the boundaries of stereotypical nineteenth-century women, then we may simply be bored to death.

Dickens, the Homoerotic, and Misogyny

“and this time my dear girl confidently answered “No,” too, and shook the lovely head which, with its blooming flowers against the golden hair, was like the very Spring. “Much you know of East winds, my ugly darling,” said I, kissing her in my admiration — I couldn’t help it.

Bitches & Chivalry Dickens: Giving Bitches Chivalry Since 1852

Dickens is damn difficult to pin down. His charisma and energy shout at readers from the page; of all the Victorian writers to whom I have been exposed, it is Dickens whose tone escapes the weighted wordiness of Victorian writing and achieves the lightness, the verve, and the sprightliness that highlights (for me, at least) Victorian comedy in the novel.

And yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, there are thematic elements of Dickens’ prose that are shockingly mature, that — perhaps — only modern audiences can appreciate fully (largely because we are so intent on finding all that is salacious in those prudish Victorians).

One of the first elements that defies the lightness of Dickens’ prose is the heavy homoerotic element between Esther and Ada. Esther’s amorous attentions to Ada — kissing her because she couldn’t help it! — are elsewhere only seen between men and women. Ada herself is never described in particularity. Rather, Esther consistently refers to her darling, and assures, “I knew my loving girl would be changed by no change in my looks.” This is the talk of lovers, not of gal pals, and Dickens rests creepily on the repeated embraces of his young heroines.

The second element of Bleak House that kills me is Dickens misogyny. Now, this is complicated, because Dickens also takes great pains to depict women, and complex women, too. It is Dickens’ women characters that give many Victorian women the verve, independence, psychological distress, and fun that inspired and infused later writers — which Western writer hasn’t been influenced by The Great Dick? However, Dickens’ depiction of Mrs. Jellyby is horrifying. Esther records, “Mrs. Jellyby had very good hair, but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it. The shawl in which she had been loosely muffled, dropped on to her chair…and as she turned to resume her seat, we could nto help noticing that her dress didn’t nearly meet up the back, and that the open space was railed across with a lattice-work of stay-lace — like a summerhouse” — this unflattering portrayal is only superseded by Mrs. Jellyby’s neglected household, her pretty  and abused daughter, the endearingly grimy Peepy, and the lost teakettle. A Victorian woman so consumed with global affairs, and shown to be so superficially and ignorantly charitable and socially-minded, is shown to be the ruin of a household. The conundrum of the house-bound woman and her social work is also shown, for Mrs. Jellyby, though out and about, is still a domestic creature (albeit a bad one). Dickens is too heavy-handed with her, I think, especially when he is so erotically charitable to Esther and Ada.

Dickens is damn difficult to pin down. He spends time to write his women characters with love — even the ones he critiques — and yet his critiques are too hard, to traditional, too misogynistic, too biting, too homoerotic. However, the vivacity of his prose and the careful attention he seemed to pay — on occasion — to real women makes me wonder if he simply was incapable — as Eliot was often capable — of imagining a full woman, one found between Victorian social norms and modern individuality.

A Good Woman Is Hard to Write

I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation of any length with anyone about Dickens without discussing his characterization. It is, after all, what he is probably most famous for. There are those who prefer the realist genre who are annoyed by Dickens’ two-dimensional characters who seem to learn nothing throughout is exceedingly long novels. Then, of course, there are those who consider Fagin, Uriah Heep, and Vincent Crummles to be among the most interesting and entertaining literary characters of all time. Though my loyalties lie with Eliot and other realists, I tend to love the eccentric casts of Dickens’ novels . . . with one major exception, the heroines.

To be fair, I often like the heroines, too, but I find their goodness tiresome. This is especially true with Esther in Bleak House. Frankly, Esther deserves more personality than she gets in the novel. In the preface to the Penguin edition, Terry Eagleton writes, “In a society for which goodness has come to mean thrift, prudence, meekness, self-denial and sexual propriety, the devil is bound to have all the best tunes” (vii). This sums up exactly my dissatisfaction.

If we stop to think about it, Esther is a pretty great woman. It is Esther who “writes” some of the most interesting parts of the novel. She is the one who takes us into the bizarre household of the Jellybys. She is one who narrates the trips with Mrs. Pardiggle to visit the poor. She introduces us Harold Skimpole. Esther is clever and funny, and she is a great writer. But, instead of allowing her to simply be wonderful and demonstrate her character through her actions, Dickens forces her to tell us how wonderful she is.

Periodically throughout the novel, Dickens compels us to remember that Esther is the epitome of Victorian virtue. Every now and then, he reminds us, or has her remind us, that her goodness comes, as Eagleton suggests, from her “prudence, meekness, [and] self-denial.” This is the part I find so annoying. Why can’t Dickens give us a smart, confident heroine? Instead, her “goodness” requires that she question her own intellect and her competence as an author.

When we are first introduced to Esther, we get a whole page on how she is neither clever nor charming. She opens the first section of her narrative with the line, “I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever” (27). She then proceeds to describe childhood conversations where she attempted to convince her doll of this fact, just in case she got the wrong idea. And if that is not enough, she even inserts parenthetical comments allowing for the possibility that she is actually quite vain, although she doesn’t suspect it, simply because she acknowledges that her “comprehension is quickened when [her] affection is” (29). All of these statements reinforce the worst gender stereotypes of the Victorian period. A woman is supposed to be a paragon of virtue whose worth is in her capacity for feeling, not for thought.

As I mentioned above, Esther deserves better than this. I don’t totally fault Dickens for writing her this way because I imagine it would have been difficult for him to conceive of anything else. Still, though, Esther demonstrates throughout the novel that she is indeed clever and insightful and funny and, in general, a wonderfully well-rounded woman. Why is that so difficult to write?