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.

2 thoughts on “Adultish Children and Childish Adults: Maturity in Bleak House

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *