Childhood and Childishness

Why does Esther bury her doll in the first chapter of her narrative?

In the third chapter of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, we are first introduced to Esther Summerson, the character who can be said to be the heroine of the novel – though quite an untraditional one. When Esther’s godmother dies suddenly, before she is moved to Greenleaf, the young girl does something that is never fully explained. She takes her doll, which she would talk and cry to as a means of working out her own trauma, and buries it in the house’s garden: “A day or two before, I had wrapped the dear old doll in her own shawl, and quietly laid her – I am half ashamed to tell it – in the garden-earth, under the tree that shaded my old window” (36). Why does Esther feel compelled to perform this action? The incident is mentioned at the end of a paragraph where Esther details the selling of the property of her old house. One explanation could be that she simply did not want the doll sold or lost in the move. At fourteen, she had outgrown the doll, but why not keep it with her and give it to a child at the boarding school? Or, if she has truly lost interest, why does she not just throw the doll away rather than giving it this strange, formal burial? Esther’s own phrase “I am half ashamed to tell it” suggests that she herself did not truly know or understand fully why this action was performed.

Without knowing it, Esther is making a formal declaration of her own maturation process. She is signaling to herself and the readers of the novel that she has made the choice to move from childhood to adulthood. Throughout the novel, there is a very clear distinction drawn between what does and does not constitute ‘childishness’. 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. Once arrived at Bleak House, her maturation is in a sense ‘rewarded’ by being made not only Ada’s companion, but caretaker of the entire house: “ … a maid … brought a basket into my room with two bunches of keys in it, all labeled
‘For you miss, if you please,’ said she” (88).

Esther’s acceptance of the keys and her oft-repeated phrase: “Duty Esther, duty!” is a reminder of the promise she made to her doll just before parting – like a child promising parents he or she will do their best and make them proud. Work itself is one mark Dickens uses to distinguish between child and adult in the novel (Richard cannot, Turveydrop will not, etc.). The other marker is empathy. Esther always thinks of the care of others – at the Jellyby’s, at Bleak House, in the home of the bricklayer, and in Bell Yard – while other characters work (or choose not to work) only for themselves, many simply waiting for the return from the Jarndyce case. But Esther cares nothing for personal fortune, and is happy only to have a home with her new surrogate family. It is a place where she can care for others, and she takes on this role so well that the members of her family begin to refer to her by names of iconic matrons from fairy tales (Mother Hubbard, Dame Durden …). With the world crumbling around them, it is Esther that keeps Bleak House together. Something that she could not have done if she did not choose, at the right time, to grow up.

4 thoughts on “Childhood and Childishness

  1. I was happy to find this article. I’m re-reading Bleak House and, as is often the case with a re-read, new questions arise. I like the article’s idea that Esther buried the doll to mark her transition to adulthood. True enough that the novel presents adults acting as children and vice-versa.

  2. distinction drawn between what does and does not constitute ‘childishness’. It is filled with adults that act like children (Richard, Ada, Skimpole, Lady Deadlock, Guppy, Chadband, Mr. Turveydrop, Mrs. Jellyby, Mr. Smallweed

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