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 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)