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.