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.