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.

Complex Critiques: What Do We Do with Miss Swartz?

Thackeray clearly intends Vanity Fair to be a satirical social critique. His prologue “Before the Curtain” explicitly reveals as much, the characters introduced in the forms of puppets, dolls, and figures and the whole affair—rather fair—as a performance. Then throughout the novel, the characters cover a broad spectrum of stereotypical roles. In Miss Pinkerton we have the strict but ironically unintelligent finishing school mistress who overvalues social status and affluence, and in Mr. Sambo we have a caricature of the affable black servant. Amelia is Patmore’s unassuming, ever-loving Angel in the House, and Jos Sedley is a shallow and overindulgent dandy only concerned about himself.

As we progress through the novel, the narrator is ever-present, drawing attention to himself (I find it unlikely the narrator is female) and his omniscience in order to moralize and pass judgment on these characters. Their extreme characteristics seem to allow for easy critique. However closer examination reveals inconsistencies in descriptions that suggest these critiques are more complex than they first appear.

One particularly complex depiction is that of Miss Swartz. She is clearly “other,” specifically an ethnic other. When we first meet her, it is at Miss Pinkerton’s school. She is described as the “rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt’s” (7) and upon Amelia’s (and Becky’s) departure, is inconsolable in a “passion of tears” (7) and “hysterical yoops” (10). These descriptions persist into the second appearance of the heiress as a potential suitor for George Osborne.  Nearly every time Miss Swartz is spoken of some reference to her “West Indie” appearance is made. George is the worst, his reaction to the “Belle Sauvage” (245), “Black Princess” (246), or “mahogany charmer” (250) as he refers to her is particularly distasteful. When he sees her decked out in her jewels and finery, he describes her as “elegantly decorated as a she chimney-sweep on May-day” (252). He pokes fun at her appearance, commenting on the “white feathers in her hair—I mean in her wool” (246).

Now to a certain extent, as with the other over-the-top descriptions of characters, the intention is criticism, and in this case it is for George.  Following one of George’s descriptions of Miss Swartz, the narrator says he is “rattling away as no other man in the world surely could” (246). The reader is meant to judge George for his close-mindedness, and yet at several points we see the narrator represent Miss Swartz in many of the same ways, referring to her as a “dark paragon” (246) and a “dark object of conspiracy” (251). He recalls her “very warm and impetuous nature” and connects it to her origins, saying she “responded to their affection with quite a tropical ardour” (251). Our understanding of how to view Miss Swartz and what exactly is being critiqued is thus complicated.

The reading is even more complicated by the positive characteristics we’re given of Miss Schartz; a vast majority originates in her wealth. She is an “object of vast respect” to the Osborne family because of her inheritance.  George’s sisters and father approve of their match because the former can imagine all the balls and Court presentations and the latter the ennobling of the family’s name. They are willing to overlook her foreignness because of the riches she has to offer. In contrast, they shun Amelia because having lost her family’s wealth, she is no longer a fit match for George. After discovering that George has defied him and married Amelia anyway, Mr. Osborne exclaims that he is “fly[ing] in the face of duty and fortune” (284). Of course the narrator explicitly criticizes this way of thinking, quipping, “People in Vanity Fair fasten on to rich folks quite naturally” (248), followed by a tangential paragraph of discussion.

In the end we are left with a conflicting depiction of Miss Swartz. She is the ethnic other, and yet Amelia is the classed other. Which was more threatening to the Victorians? Which is Thackeray and/or the narrator critiquing or mocking? Where might Thackeray’s own biases be creeping in? Miss Swartz represents just one of the many complicated social critiques that Thackeray makes throughout Vanity Fair, critiques that appear to have many layers, the satire making them all the more difficult to unfold.

Thackeray, William. Vanity Fair. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.