Be a man, Scrooge.

We are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge in the early pages of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on a particularly cold day, made all the colder by the man himself. Scrooge’s internal chill is a defining feature of Dicken’s description:

The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas. (40)

This description dramatically illustrates Scrooge’s lack of human warmth and is emphasized repeatedly by the hearths in his rooms, lit poorly—or rather, miserly—wherever he goes. Scrooge is a cold man, within and without.

Shortly after this litany of chills, we meet Scrooge’s nephew, who had “so heated himself…that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again” (41). This nephew is able to turn even the chill of a late December morning into an opportunity for warmth. He is a good man, appearing on the scene with a cheerful “merry Christmas” and “God save you” for the uncle who gives him no greeting or blessing in return. And from the consistency of Dickens’ descriptions, we would know him to be a good man from his self-creating warmth alone. Cold defines the miser, after all, not the generous.

There seems to be something to this description that goes beyond obvious associations with cold-heartedness and warm-heartedness, however. After all, Scrooge is actually cold. His resistance to warm fires in his office suggests that he pursues cold. He even “had a cold in his head” (49). And one of the clearest signs of his transformation at the end of the story is that he tells Bob Cratchit to “Make up the fires, and buy another coal-shuttle before you dot another i” (123).

I suspect Scrooge’s physical coldness says something about his refusal to recognize himself as an embodied participant in the life of the world around him, and that his transformation from a cold miser to a warm man occurs through an encounter with disembodiment—the shifting forms of the spirits—and embodiment—his own dead body.

The early descriptions of Scrooge might as well be of a dead man, or worse, a spirit. He goes unacknowledged in the streets, except to be feared (40). Even his own sense of self is disembodied, as he refuses to trust his senses when Marley’s ghost comes to him in sight and sound. When Marley asks, “Why do you doubt your senses?” his response is that “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats” (52). Here is a man who would do away with the limitations of his flesh if he could.

Small surprise, then, that the only way for him to see the world—and himself—with any clarity is through the guidance of tenuously embodied spirits. Marley’s body is transparent. The first ghost’s figure is particularly changeable:

The figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. (62)

The second ghost seems physically substantial, perhaps the most richly embodied and particular character in the story up to this point with his bare chest and feet, dark brown curls, and rusty, empty scabbard. But his embodiment is also unstable: “notwithstanding his gigantic size, he could accommodate himself to any place with ease” (85), and by the end of his tour with Scrooge, in the space of a single night, he grows old (99). The last of the spirits is so insubstantial we can’t even see his face under the shroud. Besides these disembodied spirits, Scrooge himself becomes as disembodied as he would have liked it to be in his actual life, unseen by the figures in his visions, the “shadows” of things that were, are, and could be. It is beside the last spirit, that formless figure, that Scrooge is faced with his own dead body.

Scrooge’s first introduction to his death is actually quite disembodied to begin with. He hears about it from his business acquaintances, and then watches his charwoman, laundress, and undertaker’s man hock his belongings—some stolen right off of his dead body. Their conversation about his body is telling, as they make a direct association between his miserly character and the absence of anyone attending to him in his dying and death. If he’d been “natural in his lifetime,” then there would have been “somebody to look after him” (107). As a result, his body is pillaged and abandoned. Scrooge cannot even bear to look on his own face under the sheet. Having his death confirmed is as horrifying as the possibility of staring at the truth of himself. After all, what the spirit is essentially showing him is that the dead face of Scrooge is the real face of Scrooge.

Of course, Dickens prepares Scrooge for this epiphany through the previous spirits. The second spirit in particular clarifies for both Scrooge and the reader just what’s at stake, even in his first line: “Come in! and know me better, man!” Three times in this spirit’s encounter with Scrooge, he refers to the miser by the simple address of “man.” To begin with, it sounds merely stylistic. But the second use shows it to be intentional: “‘Man,’ said the Ghost, ‘if man you be in heart, not adamant’” (89). What is ultimately at stake here isn’t Scrooge’s life or death, but his humanity.

What will it take for Scrooge to be a man? The spirit’s last commandment clarifies this: “Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” (99, italics mine). Simultaneously, the ghost speaks to Scrooge as representative humanity and as a particular man, commanding him to look. No wonder, then, that the defining feature of the newly transformed Scrooge in the final pages of the story is that he does just that—he looks at his bedcurtains, out the window, at every passerby along the road. He has become, like his nephew, a good man. Scrooge’s transformation suggests that to be a good human being is to be aware of yourself as an embodied participant humanity, to look at those around you—and to look at yourself.

The Epistemology of Hospitality in A Christmas Carol

          “Bah! Humbug” has come to be one of the most recognizable and frequently uttered literary allusions, especially around the Christmas season, expressing an often ironical disillusionment with the holiday foofaraw. It is originally, of course, the catch-phrase of the inimitable Ebenezer Scrooge, and it is employed by that gentleman in Dickens’s classic tale most famously to deny the worth of Christmas and his nephew’s Christmas blessing. It is also used later on, however, when Scrooge denies the appearance of Jacob Marley in Jacob’s erstwhile doorknocker. Having double-locked himself into his chamber after this alarming encounter, Scrooge reflects upon the experience with the singular exclamation: “Humbug!” He denies the reality, even the possibility, of what he has witnessed, and this recalcitrance to believe in the reality of his strange spectral visitors persists in Scrooge for a strikingly long time. Indeed, a key part of Scrooge’s dramatic personal transformation could be described as epistemological. He incrementally learns new ways to know and to believe through his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas, gradually accepting the reality of what he at first denied. In such a tightly woven tale as Dickens’s, this element of Scrooge’s change is unlikely to be disconnected from his broader transformation, and so we might wonder how Scrooge’s evolving epistemological position on spooks and spirits facilitates his newfound commitment to loving and caring for others?

We can begin seeking an answer to this question by considering more closely how Scrooge’s ability or willingness to believe in the supernatural alters throughout the story. Scrooge’s initial resistance to believing in the real existence of the spirits is shown clearly in his engagement with Marley’s specter. When Marley’s ghost enters the room and comes into Scrooge’s view, Dickens writes, “the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, ‘I know him! Marley’s ghost!’ and fell again” (51). Contrary to the fire’s epistemological certainty, Scrooge has just before this once again declared humbug of all the ghostly sounds approaching him and even after witnessing and speaking with the ghost, Scrooge is unconvinced. Marley states: “You don’t believe in me” (52), and Scrooge affirms this fact, explaining his disavowal of his own senses’ report by asserting “a little thing affects them…There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” (52). Scrooge recognizes that he is seeing something, but he calls into question what that something is. Strikingly, he denies the strangeness of the ghost by reducing it not only from the supernatural to the natural but from the natural particularly to the psychological. Scrooge attempts to render the ghost as nothing but an extension of himself. He attempts in this encounter to obliterate the other altogether.

This denial becomes increasingly difficult for Scrooge to maintain and quite quickly becomes impossible altogether. Indeed, while waiting for the arrival of the first spirit, Scrooge attempts to convince himself that the ordeal with Marley was mere nonsense, but he is unable to do so fully, such that when the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives Scrooge seems to more or less accept its reality. The supernatural being of the ghost is quickly made apparent through its time-travelling tendencies, and Scrooge’s resistance shifts to an attempt to deny the truth that the ghost reveals rather than an attempt to deny the ghost itself.

Even before the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge then has come to recognize the reality of an other and not just any other but a supernatural spirit. Ebenezer has jumped right into the deep end of the otherness pool, moving from an unwillingness to acknowledge being beyond himself to affirming the stark reality of a strangeness transcending the traditional bounds of reality itself.

Scrooge’s epistemological journey is not complete yet, however, as revealed in the invitation proffered by the Ghost of Christmas Present: “Come in! and know me better, man!” (80). Here, the ghost demonstrates to Scrooge the hospitality that he has persisted throughout most of his life in refusing to practice. Although the Spirit is in fact visiting Scrooge’s apartments, he invites Scrooge into Scrooge’s own rooms and into fuller knowledge of himself. With the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge only needed to recognize the ghost’s existence. The knowledge that ghost imparted to Scrooge was knowledge of Scrooge himself. But the Ghost of Christmas Present challenges Scrooge to go a step further, beckoning him to not merely recognize the existence of the stranger but to actively seek knowledge of the stranger. For this reason, the second ghost leads Scrooge not to scenes of his own life but rather to scenes of others’ lives. Indeed, “Stave Three” emphasizes the wide variety of households that Scrooge visits with the spirit, beginning with others with whom Scrooge is at least acquainted such as his nephew and Bob Cratchit but proceeding to others of whom Scrooge has no knowledge at all, even sweeping beyond Britain and across the sea. Thus, coming to know Christmas is parallel, if not synonymous, with coming to understand others and otherness.

All of this begins to suggest how Scrooge’s burgeoning ability to believe in the ghosts is essential to his transformation into a loving and generous man. The spirits are, in a sense, the ultimate strangers, and they invite themselves into Scrooge’s house. They enter his home as if they are guests, although in fact they have come for Scrooge’s benefit and are truly the ones offering him an invitation, thus exemplifying the mutual exchange of love and hospitality which Scrooge has for so long denied himself. By the time, Scrooge encounters the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come he is ready to greet that ghost with gratitude, even in spite of the fact that that ghost is the strangest and most frightening specter by far! Scrooge has learned to accept the reality of the other and actively seek understanding of that other.

To confirm our suspicion that Scrooge’s decision to practice charity and hospitality was predicated on his epistemological alteration, we can look back to an early incident in the first stave. When Scrooge has uttered his notoriously Malthusian recommendation that the death of the destitute might decrease the surplus population, he then remarks, “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that” (45). It might at first seem as if Scrooge is denying his pseudo-eugenicist remark, but the gentleman collecting charity retorts: “But you might know it” (45). It seems that Scrooge is denying knowledge of the kinds of suffering and ways of thinking about suffering his interlocutor had described. In response, Scrooge insists that such efforts of knowing are not his concern. His business is with himself and himself alone. This is what Scrooge must grow past. Before he can overcome his selfishness and his greed, he must learn to see others as others and accept that his knowledge of himself and his own experience cannot explain them.

Indeed, we might even read Scrooge’s education in Christmas love as a partial repudiation of the doctrine of sympathy. Scrooge at first tries to reduce the ghostly other to a projection of his own digestion-muddled mind, and similarly he refuses to extend charity because his own self-knowledge does not enable him to know the reality of the sufferings the charitable gentleman describes. Scrooge grows in the tale not so much by recognizing the sameness of himself and others as by embracing others in their otherness. He could hardly have come to accept the Ghosts of Christmas by virtue of the humanity he shares with them, since they are not, in fact, human. Rather, they are just about as strange as a stranger can come and it is in learning to see and seek them as such that Scrooge becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew” (123).

 

Gentelman Pip

The societal class of a gentleman is a controversial topic at the time Dickens writes Great Expectations. So, how does the filtered voice of Pip show the conundrum people made of the matter? A major study beyond the scope of this post might explore how we are to see the stakes presented in Great Expectations. Alternatively, on a minute scale, the text gives plenty of context and contrast to make this argument of what beholds a gentleman come to life. Through the bias of the author’s desire to be called a gentleman, Pip is a true captain of the vessel.

The craft of writing a gentlemanly character probably came second nature to Dickens due to his own chronological placement in history. Attributes that Pip displays, his personal knowledge of his societal placement by birth, the environmental conditions and social inadequacies are put on full display for the reader to understand the intentional starkness of separation.

An example, [“Whom have we here?” (Jaggers) … “A boy,” said Estella. “Boy of the neighborhood? Hey” said he. … “Well! Behave yourself.” (p. 117)] The answer given by Estella is a degradation of personage given on the heels of another social slight by the adults in attendance, “…they all looked at me with the utmost contempt,” (p. 116). The address given by Jaggers is equally degrading as he infers that ‘boys of the neighborhood’ do not know how to behave properly in the society of the higher classes.

In the third volume, Dickens presents the wonderment of Pip as an unobserved reaction when Magwitch presents himself as Pip’s benefactor. In the historical context of the novel, Magwitch being unobserving of Pip’s trembling at his presence may well be intentional by Dickens. The purpose of the omission shows how a gentleman is known to show true sensitivities, hence Magwitch’s lack of reaction. In the Broadview appendix C, a gentleman of pure breeding is arguably superior in sensitivity to those of mixed heritage. “…fineness of structure in the body, which renders it capable of the most delicate, sympathies” (p. 565).

Dickens shows the contrast between the higher class and common folk as given great weight by one’s actions rather than breeding. The images of Mrs. Havisham’s actions are far from a sensitive nature. Dickens gives Pip equality to the higher class in this, and many other, ways. An example of Mrs. Havisham’s character, “But perhaps you can never believe, now, that there is anything human in my heart?” (p. 419)

Therefore, the image of Pip is elevated as one of a gentleman in the end of the novel when Dickens has Pip and Estella meet in the dilapidated garden of the old house. Estella is an heiress of familial fortune, though, it is known now that she is not of a higher society’s definition of pure bred. Pip is not wealthy, a working man, a noble endeavor to not be an idle person of wealth, as is the ‘code’ of a true gentleman. In this way, I believe, Dickens intends to show that the Estella and Pip can be elevated with her wealth and there gentile manners to that of higher society as defined by those outside of a pure bred culture.

Gentleman, Pip.

From Coals to Ashes

There is a waning of conditions for Pip in London. Whatever could be imagined as high society, London is made out to be quite the opposite. With great labor the reader is enticed to believe all the hubbub of wealth and living arrangements are laid out before Pip in a straight fashion; the money flashed at Joe as a gift and given to Pip for new clothes, the great house of Miss Havisham, and promise of a tutor in the manners to be displayed by a gentleman.

The interesting descriptions of the Havisham estate are puzzling at first. The purpose is unclear as to why the Lady of the estate has such a fancy to bring Pip to ‘play’ there. When Miss Havisham says things to Estella like, “You will break his heart,” one can gain a perspective of evil contrivance. Then, she takes a liking to Pip. Though the circumstance might seem to have changed, as if Pip had fallen into favor with Miss Havisham, the grimness of her awful smile as he kissed her hand lies tales of another sort.

The bumbling awkwardness of giving a shake to Pip for his good fortune and new position was beyond any over indulgence than I could ever imagine. Giving Pip the ‘boot,’ as he left, Joe and Biddy surely gave him the cheerful remembrance of a true nature, though he showed disdain at the time, thankful that the display did not happen at the coach house.

All in all, the deathly state of affairs is portrayed when Pip arrived at his new abode. The author describes the place in terms of graveyard, and other unlikeable things in any way that does not persuade one to believe that good should come of it. The banishment of hope for the truth in the endeavor to becoming a gentleman is what I discerned from it. Pip thought he wanted to be greater than a blacksmith among coals, but comes into the rubbish heap of London and the ashes of dreams.

Eeneagram Aid

By and large, one predominate tension within Great Expectations proves Pip’s attachment to Estella, despite the irrationality of his affection. Subdued by her beauty, Pip dismisses Estella’s cruelty, contempt, and conceit. He sets aside her “air of inaccessibility” and her statement that she possesses no softness, no sympathy, and no sentiment. He knows that she has given him no hint of a reciprocated fondness. He perceives Mrs. Havisham’s encouragement to love Estella resembles a curse more than a blessing. However, for Pip, Estella’s beauty eclipses every omen.

After seeing Estella for the first time in years, Pip publicizes his passion for her to an already knowing Herbert. Their conversation that evening illustrates the absurdity of Pip’s attachment, for Herbert points out that Pip has no reason to believe that his expectations include Estella, nor would she necessarily prove a pleasant prize. Herbert challenges him to “think of what she is herself” and thus take caution, warning Pip that his obsession with a girl of her disposition “may lead to miserable things” (279). Though in agreement, Pip admits himself unable to upbraid his devotion, declaring the idea of detaching himself from her as” impossible” (279). Thus, Pip exemplifies the irrational hope and “wonderful inconsistency into which the best and wisest men fall every day” (161).

To reference the enneagram— a tool that collectively describes the way in which certain personality types react to themselves, others, and the world— I would submit that Pip’s disposition as a Type 4, namely an “individualist” or “romantic”, adequately explains his behavior here. Though sensitive and self-aware, as Pip’s childhood has proven him to be, Type 4s typically operate out of a basic fear that they have no identity of personal significance. In response to these worries, Type 4’s envision a perfect self, whom they aspire to become. Several statements from Pip in previous chapters bolster this designation of him as a 4. Pip attributes his reason for wanting to become a gentleman as self-dissatisfaction, a discontent elicited by Estella calling him a commoner. His self-indignation derives from being looked down upon my Estella, and his self-aspirations spring out of a desire to win her approval. Type 4s also often seek to attract “a rescuer”, someone who they believe can redeem them. Pip, thus, envisions his redemption in life as Estella herself, whom he expects to attain through self-improvement. If personal significance and worth had not been so elusive for Pip, perhaps his affection for Estella would not have proved as strong. On the night of his departure for London, it seems a lack of self-approval proves the root of Pip’s sorrow, for he notes, “dissatisfied with my fortune, of course I could not be; but it is possible that I may have been, without quite knowing it, dissatisfied with myself” (176).

Just as Pip’s gloom often has to do with self-frustration, his aspirations typically revolve around his ideal self. For Pip, that ideal self and Estella’s approval are inseparable entities. He becomes so attached to this fantasy self that he accedes it impossible for him “to separate her, in the past or in the present, from the innermost life of my life” (265). His ideal self has become so entrenched in winning Estella that not only does he find all personal significance in her, but “all of [his] expectations [and happiness] depend” on her as well (277). Thus, we thank the enneagram for helping us understand the seeming absurdity of Pip’s devotion.

Growing Older but not Wiser

 

During chapters 14 – 19 the reader begins to see Pip grow older and transition from a child into an adolescent. As he grows older the way Dickens describes him changes as well. Before Pip always looked at things with a child’s perspective. Pip was small and confused, but now he is older and begins to notice the emotional and moral implications of his decisions. One example is his guilt over the convict resurfacing. “I became aware of my sister – lying without sense or movement on the bare boards where she had been knocked down by a tremendous blow on the back of her head, dealt by some unknown hand when her face was turned towards the fire”. This is the scene where Pip finds out his sister has been attacked and he later find out they think the convict he previously helped is the attacker and he feels guilty. “With my head full of George Barnwell, I was at first disposed to believe that I must have had some hand in the attack on my sister, or at all the events near relation, popularly known to be under obligations to her, I was a more legitimate object of suspicion than any one else.” Pip immediately begins to overanalyze, and blame himself. He honestly does not really have any reason to assume that this attack is in anyway his fault or connected to him whatsoever and yet he immediately assumes he has a hand in the attack. He obviously had no hand in the attack since he didn’t attack her and he knows he didn’t and he knows logically this is in no way connected to him but he is showing some true narcissistic characteristics here. Pip continues to grow older but it is obvious he is not growing out of his childish behaviors and emotions yet.

Don’t you know, Pip?

The wonder of a boy at an early age is a wonderful thing. Charles Dickens captures a magical and dangerous tale in a Walt Disney fashion; actually, the fashion of Disney was influenced by writers such as Dickens. The best parts of any story are the ones that catch the reader by surprise, though it was no surprise to the reader when Joe posed the question titling this post.

When the boy, Pip, goes along his way, the world comes alive and animated in his imagination with talking cows, personified noises, and vivid characters. While I read, it was a marvelous adventure to see what would happen next. The writing style is masterful with multi-syllable words that require a dictionary for the average modern reading level of sixth grade. But even so, they seem to fit well enough for anyone to imagine the meaning.

The consciousness of Pip’s tale generates a comical read and one that inspires me to think of careful ways to engage the reader as a wordsmith.

Realistic (and other) Elements of Great Expectations

Great Expectations is overall a realist novel. It focuses on the internal state of Pip and shows moral ambiguity throughout the novel. However, it also contains gothic descriptions and sensational elements.

One of the biggest characteristics that defines Great Expectations as a realist novel is the exploration of the character’s internal states, specifically Pip. We see Pip struggle internally throughout the novel. Pip feels guilt throughout the novel. From the beginning, he wants more from life and more than what he has. He feels guilty that he is ashamed of his home: “It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home” (v. 1 ch. 14). He even knows that the working life he was born into may be better, and it “had nothing to be ashamed of, but offered me sufficient means of self-respect and happiness” (v. 1 ch. 17). However, we see him change once he has the opportunity for more and to become a gentlemen, He notes, “As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me” (v. 2 ch. 15). Pip’s internal struggle of how gaining expectations has changed him throughout the novel demonstrates the realistic characteristic.

Another major factor is the complicated and ambiguous nature of this novel. Instead of categorizing elements as black and white or good and evil, certain elements of this story are ambiguous and hard to determine. For instance, Pip’s secret benefactor turns out to be a convict. While it may seem that this is bad and Pip should no longer have anything to do with him, it’s more complicated than that. Pip is shocked and repulsed when he finds out who his benefactor is. However, he Pip feels like he owes Magwitch, so Pip helps him try to run and hide. By the end, Pip tries his hardest to appeal Magwitch’s sentence when Magwitch is ill an a prisoner, and Pip visits him everyday. If this novel were addressing things as black and white, Magwitch would be a bad guy and Pip would not care for him. When he dies, Pip, says, “O Lord, be merciful to him, a sinner!” As it is, the reader, and Pip, sympathizes with Magwitch the convict, thus showing that the situation is ambiguous and complicated.

While this novel is largely a realist novel, it does depart from the realism tradition and contain some gothic and sensationalism elements. We have some dark and gloomy scenes and settings, which is a gothic characteristic. Miss Havasham and the Satis house are very gloomy and eerie. The outside is dreary and there are chains on the door. There is no daylight inside. Miss Havisham herself is very gloomy: she is dressed in a wedding dress from long ago: “I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its luster…I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, and had shrunk to skin and bone.” Everything about this setting, person, and situation is very gloomy, which reflects gothic elements.

We also see some sensational elements in this story. While most of the novel focuses on the ordinary (Pip is a very ordinary boy in the beginning), there are some parts that emphasize the strange. The fact that Pip’s benefactor is a convict is shocking and not ordinary–most realist novels don’t deal with convicts. The mystery of who is Pip’s benefactor is also a sensational element.

Blood Moon Rising

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, while not exactly a Gothic novel, does contain many pointedly Gothic elements as far as setting goes, especially as it pertains to the sky. Because the narrator very clearly takes the time to describe certain settings more so than others, especially the darker, Gothic moments, the reader can read into them a clear foreshadowing of future trouble for our protagonist, Pip. Chapter 53 contains the best example of this concept, where the atmosphere that is depicted does in fact indicate approaching conflict.

The first two paragraphs of this particular chapter waste no time in laying out the dismal setting of the marshes in which Pip enters to meet the anonymous writer of the mysterious letter of “invitation.” Above him, “the red large moon” looms, in no unclear way promising less than pleasant events to soon occur. While the old maritime adage proclaims a red sky at night to be a sailor’s delight, J.R.R. Tolkien has his character of Legolas in The Lord of the Rings claim that a red sun means that blood has been spilled, which is generally the connotative case. Not too far off from a red sun, a red moon, or more commonly called a blood moon, is most often paired with apocalyptic or supernatural beliefs, and as such, is usually linked to bad tidings. To be sure, it perfectly fits the bill for Gothic elements in literature, and, when coupled with the “melancholy wind” and the all-around “dismal” air in the marshes, it does precede the kind of trouble that fits the implications (in Kindle: page 247).

Said trouble is this: in almost no time at all, a noose is thrown over Pip’s head, and a great revelation follows, in that Orlick is “the bad guy.” If this were a Scooby-Doo episode, Orlick would be the man behind the mask. Pip’s ensuing emotions after this unveiling fit the Gothic surroundings perfectly. In other words, the external darkness of the Gothic marshes matches the internal darkness in both Pip (his fear and confusion) and Orlick (his anger and malevolence). The sky does not mirror the Gothic elements in only this scene, either, although here seems to be the most obvious, what with the red moon and all. However, earlier in the novel, in chapter 39 to be precise, the reader does see mention of a dark sky tormented by rain, which aligns with all of the turmoil Pip feels concerning his convict being his benefactor. Earlier still is the gloomy setting in which the novel opens, one almost exactly reflective of that in chapter 53, and both are incredibly paramount to indicating the kind of troubles that lie ahead for poor Pip.

Calling the entire novel Gothic would be a stretch, but to deny that there are Gothic elements swimming amongst the realistic ones would be folly, and to ignore their effect upon the events that befall Pip, even if said effect is a passive consequence rather than an active causation, would be unwise. The Gothic elements of certain scenes in Great Expectations certainly give the reader cause to expect something not-so-great.

 

Cain and Abel

Our first introduction paragraph to Orlick compares him to the Biblical Cain (Vol 1, Ch 15), and this is the only time Cain is mentioned in the novel. This might not have been a noteworthy comparison (the quick mention merely serves to emphasize Orlick’s general skeeziness) if there hadn’t been a character named Abel that was also in the story. The story of Cain and Abel is a well-known story of murder and brotherhood, and involves the first humans born to a sinful and broken world. Cain might have only been referenced once, but Orlick exists throughout the novel, just as Abel does. Both have their important roles to play in this ‘modern’ (19th century) adaptation of the Cain and Abel story, and they do it well, in the background of Pip’s narrative.

Both Abel Magwitch and Orlick are born to the same broken world, fully represented by the unforgiving streets of Britain. We know Magwitch was raised poor, and while we don’t know Orlick’s backstory, he definitely had no prospects of his own. Magwitch definitely had the worse end of it, though. His first memory was him “a-thieving turnips for [his] living” (Vol 3, Ch 3), meaning he was born hungry and at the bottom of the ladder, if he was even on it at all. He committed various petty crimes while Britain’s streets raised him to a man. He tried to work, as people in society should, but no one was “over-ready” to give him a chance (Vol 3, Ch 3). People looked at him as untrustworthy, or maybe even just unworthy of having a place among them.

Orlick is viewed the same way, despite his slightly higher station in life (and wider breadth of opportunities) compared to Magwitch. Orlick has a good, stable job – has actually had it for so long he’s called a journeyman blacksmith. He’s a part of society the way Magwitch was often denied. But Orlick “slouches” into work like it’s a “mere accident” (Vol 1, Ch 15), and is jealous of Pip in all things. He’s an unpleasant fellow to be around, and he and Joe actually get into a fight (and Joe never fights with anyone). Our narrator never liked him, never felt comfortable around him, and his unease is proved correct at the end when Orlick tries to murder him and reveals that he was the one to hurt Pip’s sister (Vol 3, Ch 14). We very clearly should not like or sympathize with Orlick.

Magwitch had to steal to survive, and he was always in and out of jail, and we are very clearly meant to sympathize with him. Our narrator even felt “great pity” for him back when he was ashamed of him (Vol 3, Ch 3), and the feeling is only stronger at the end, when Pip stays by him the whole time, and saw him “only as a man,” not a criminal (Vol 3, Ch 15). Magwitch was a convict, and has pretty much always been, but society forced him to be. Even after that, he was still a good, simple person, which is why it’s easy for us to sympathize with him. He did his best to help Pip raise in station and life out of gratitude for Pip’s kindness (probably other motivations, too), doing everything “for him” (Vol 2, Ch 20). Even back at the beginning he tried to keep Pip out of trouble by saying he stole the food himself (Vol 1, Ch 5).

This adaptation of Cain and Abel has both looked upon with disgust by society as a whole, but while Orlick’s reception was because of his actual character, Magwitch’s was for circumstances beyond his control. Orlick was just as jealous of Pip as Cain was of Abel, and refused to take any responsibility for his own shortcomings, blaming Pip for Biddy’s disgust and even his attack on Mrs. Gargery (Vol 3, Ch 14), and this is why he tried to murder him. Our narrator showed us that Magwitch was just as good as his namesake, and felt nothing but affection and generosity towards Pip (Vol 3, Ch 15). And just like their counterparts, Orlick lives on, in jail but likely to get out eventually and continue to wreak his awful havoc, and Magwitch dies, sentenced to death by society.

Maybe that’s Dickens’ whole point – not just that Orlick was Cain, though he offered a nice foil to Magwitch by the comparison. But it was society that sentenced this Abel to death, not Orlick (though Orlick wanted it, since it would hurt Pip). Society is Cain, too – society failed Abel, by forcing him into criminal activities and refusing to take responsibility for the social dissonance that came from his existence. Society looked at him and said ‘Am I his keeper?’ Magwitch was murdered, and in this comparison Dickens is saying yes, society is his keeper, and their failure is murder. Good people are dying, and suffering, and they’re pushed into it, just like Abel was led out into the field. When the people’s jury looked at Magwitch and compared him to Compeyson, they made the wrong comparisons, and approved of the wrong man (Vol 3, Ch 3). England prided itself on its great civilization, but as our narrator notes, when you get down to it it’s just “ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty” (Vol 2, Ch 1). We are all Cains, is Dickens message here, and we are killing the good people of the world.

Dick Knows a Thing or Two About Marriage!!!

“It is such weary, weary work!”

He was leaning on his arm…and looking at the ground, when my darling rose, put off her bonnet, kneeled down beside him with her golden hair falling like sunlight on is head, clasped her two arms round his neck, and turned her face to me. O, what a loving and devoted face I saw!

‘Esther, dear,’ she said very quietly, ‘I am not going home again…Never any more.’

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That’s right. Ada’s  not going home anymore. At least, not until she has a baby and her husband dies. Because that is what Dickens sees for poor couples. Destitution and distress. Well, not entirely. Scenes such as the above, when Esther discovers Ada and Richard’s marriage, remind us that Dickens is not a total douche when it comes to depicting marriage. He gets it — sometimes, at least. Just like the bricklayer and his wife, Ada and Richard are in for difficult times. In both homes, Dickens seems desirous of portraying the Selfish Husband as a perpetrator of discontent. However, Dickens is also sensitive to the Victorian man’s drive to provide, and the subsequent stress, emotional abuse, and health issues resulting from a man’s inability to provide for wife and child.

What is fascinating in this portrayal is Richard’s complete apathy towards Ada. She drapes herself over him, she places his head on her chest, she comes to his apartments, and she remains with him…nowhere do we see Richard’s active involvement towards her, though perhaps we are to read his obsession with the Jarndyce case as a wish to provide for her. Unsurprisingly, he does not see Ada as a real person anymore than readers of Bleak House do. Ada remains a decoration and a beam of sunlight to all but Esther and her guardian, to whom she is a real person.

This is only one example of Dickens’ stunning portrayals of marriage, both cynical and uplifting. The Dedlocks, Jellybys, Ada and Richard, and the Buckets provide a wide and fairly nuanced idea of what marriages can be (though exaggerated for drama) and the very real problems faced by young couples overwhelmed by money problems and self-absorption, old couples wearied by time, middle-aged couples distracted by the outside world, and happy, energetic, and relaxed couples understanding one another’s vision and desirous of one another’s company. Unfortunately, youth does not seem a marital virtue in Dickens’ book, and from the first instance Ada tells Esther she is not returning “home,” we know that her and Rick are doomed. That staying with her emaciated and grungy husband in a place she does not consider “home,” to nurse him in his selfish obsessions, is to dim Dickens’ superficial little sunbeam. But the one who waits, the marred one, the childless, under-appreciated Esther? She is destined for happiness. Not the little sunbeam.

Take that, Victorian patriarchy, and kudos to you, Dick.

 

Sick Body, Sick Society

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.

By Means of Education

Throughout Bleak House everyone is concerned with knowing—what is the truth behind Jarndyce and Jarndyce, who is Nemo, who were Esther’s parents? And of course, Dickens seems to delight in drawing out the mystery—weaving storylines in and out as his audience attempts to piece together who’s who and which characters will eventually collide (or have done so in the past!). Even the narration plays with this idea of knowing, Dickens switching between the third-person omniscient (though, does this narrator reveal all?) and the limited Esther, by which the story is certainly mediated through a shaded lens. One of the notable manifestations of this theme is through another of Dickens’ common themes—education. Though Eliot’s novels tend to come to forefront of my mind when I consider education and Victorian prose, Dickens’ Hard Times isn’t far behind, and now Bleak House joins the ranks. Indeed, through several of the characters in this giant tome, Dickens’ considers the role and goals of education

The first character that comes to mind is the understated Esther Summerson. Her’s is the education most formally treated, as she goes to a boarding school, ostensibly to become a governess. Because of her awful godmother/aunt, school seems to be a haven for Esther where she learns and then teaches. Notable as well is that this is paid for by Mr. Jarndyce—an education she would not have had access to apart from his guardianship. It is because of this education that she becomes a companion/governess for Ada Clare and thus encounters all the other characters of the novel. Caddy Jellyby yearns after this sort of learning, abhorring the letter writing she must do for her mother, and crying to Esther, “If you only could have taught me, I could have learnt from you” (62). In this scene, as in others, education is framed as a means for escape from poverty—the Jellyby’s house being a prime illustration of such devastation. Esther’s education is a valuable tool, one gifted to her and accepted with gratitude.

In contrast to this is Richard Carstone’s education. Privileged and male, but also flighty, Carstone does not fully appreciate the opportunities offered to him as he dabbles in the various professions open to him. Esther, Ada, and Mr. Jarndyce discuss the avenues available—medical, military, legal—and though Carstone is enthusiastic, his fervor wanes upon application. Medicine cannot keep his attention, and attempting to understand his family’s legal case turns him off of the law. Carstone has the benefit of an education that allows him these opportunities, but he fails to follow through. With him, Dickens shifts to a critique of education, or rather a critique of its application, the insinuation being people like Caddy or perhaps even Esther, would be grateful to learn such things.

This particularly pales next to the lack of opportunities available to poor young Jo. Without money, Jo must spend his days trying to obtain the means upon which to live, rather than receiving education. Apart from the many scenes where Dickens’ descriptions of Jo’s sad lot tug at readers’ heartstrings, drawing on their sympathies, one in particular highlights this particular lack. When Jo is picked up for loitering and brought to Mr. Snagsby to defend his possession of extra money, he also encounters Mr. Chadband. Dickens highly satirizes this absurdly pious man as he describes young Jo as a “gem” because he is a “human boy…capable of receiving lessons of wisdom” (313). And thus as he desperately tries to sneak away, Jo is made to sit through a bout of didactic moral education and requested to return again for more. Clearly even as we’re made to pity Jo for lacking an education, Dickens sharply critiques “discourses” such as Chadband’s that fail to educate in a helpful manner.

Only half way through the novel, I am curious to see how else Dickens approaches education. As with all his works, one of Dickens’ main purposes seems to be to offer up a biting societal critique, raising the question of what he seems to be advocating as an alternative. What is the ideal education according to Dickens? Stay tuned.

Our dear Mr. Guppy bids you adieu:

Mr. Guppy

Go big or go home

I like novelists who seem comfortable as they write. Or maybe the word I’m looking for is confident. I don’t mean that I like novelists who feel entirely at ease with their craft or circumstances—like they are entitled to write, for instance—but novelists who seem at home in their writing to the point that their narratives are convincing, their voices striking and consistent. I don’t even mean that they are realistic (especially the way we have been defining it in class), but that they are committed and don’t look back. Go big or go home, as the saying goes.

I found Dickens’s Bleak House to be a striking example of the very type of narrative/ writing voice I admire. While many of the novels we’ve read this semester (and especially Middlemarch!) are convincing, Bleak House is bold in its methodology. More specifically, I find Bleak House to be a convincing novel through its continual embrace of mystery, use of humor, and its narrative structure. We’re only halfway through at this point, but I think this is probably a fair claim for Bleak House as a whole.

Firstly, Dickens glories in mystery—it’s his way of pulling the reader (however obviously) into wanting to know what is going to happen next. This is seen most overtly through the fact that Esther doesn’t know who her parents are. In chapter three she is given only a haunting statement about her mother: “your mother…is your disgrace, and you were hers” (30). Though Esther is not trying to solve her parentage in every chapter, it is always hanging in the background, and, we have a hunch (as readers) that the plotlines that seem entirely disconnected from Esther are by means of her unknown parentage. But there are smaller mysteries to solve at every turn as well. We wonder what in the world Richard will end up doing, why Jo becomes more and more of a central character, and what exactly Lady Dedlock’s secret it. Because it’s Dickens, we can make decent guesses, but we like watching it unravel page after page. And some of the mysterious parts of the narrative are not easily knowable; the image of “fog everywhere” surrounding the Jaundyce and Jaundyce case is apt and the footsteps on the “Ghost’s walk” haunting (13, 103).

Dickens also delights in the humorous aspects of characters. His purposeful (and nearly continual) humor points to the fact that he doesn’t fear not being taken seriously. Mr. Skimpole is a great example of this, for the reader laughs at him (and loathes him as well) without dismissing Dicken’s reason for writing him into the narrative: to show the egregious problems with living a man-child existence. And Lady Dedlock’s boredom works the same way. While her “imperfect remedy” of always traveling to a new place when she gets bored is funny, it also makes a point about the “fashionable” world in which she lives: that such a world is insular and limited (130). Likewise, the character’s names are transparently funny and fitting throughout the narrative. Dickens’s blatant nomenclature throughout suggests that the reader is supposed to laugh and to get what Dickens is doing. While mystery is used in the plotline to draw readers in, humor is used to help the reader keep the many side characters straight.

The narrative structure also establishes Dickens as a convincing writer, for here he allows Esther to “write” some of the chapters. Esther begins with the idea that she is not “clever” and laments the limitations of her own accounts somewhat consistently throughout them (at least for the first half of the novel), but her voice opens up a space for more complexity. The novel is not a straightforward account from a third person narrative, but is interspersed with a protagonists’s own explanations. And when she starts alluding only slightly to Mr. Woodcourt at the end of chapters (instead of explaining him as she seems to most else), we see that she in considering her audience in her writing. She may not be a reliable narrator to speak about herself. It seems to me that if Dickens is interested in “realism,” he is equally interested in a good story, one that is worth telling. And this proclivity does not seem like it warn readers away; on the contrary, it draws them in.