Deconstructive and New Historical Criticism of Bleak House

Bleak House, a novel by the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, has a number of elements: comedy, tragedy, melodrama, romance, and biting social satire. The work also includes at least ten major characters, and scores of minor ones. The novel’s complexity and length lends itself quite easily to a number of critical interpretations, including feminist, Marxist, and psychoanalytic theories. In the following paper, this argument will focus on a deconstruction of certain aspects of the novel, especially Dickens’ names for characters, and on a new historical approach of literary criticism of the satirical attacks on the Chancery justice system of Dickens’ day. Dickens’ awareness of the richness and variability of language, and his willingness to question the social institutions and customs of his day, both lead the reader to consider these theoretical approaches.Dickens employs a host of musical, comical, telling, and puzzling names for his characters. A representative list includes Tulkinghorn, Clare, Summerson, Dedlock, Snagsby, Nemo, Krook, Flite, Tangle, Barbary, Rouncewell, Jarndyce, Skimpole, Vholes, Woodcourt, Smallweed, Turveydrop, Guppy, Boythorn, Jellyby, Badger, Bucket, and even the minimally named Jo. The names deliver a shifting and information-filled story of the characters’ personalities, occupations, looks, manners, and what may lie beneath the exterior they present to the world. Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstructive philosophy, thought that “language is not the reliable tool of communication we believe it to be, but rather a fluid, ambiguous domain of complex experience in which ideologies program us without our being aware of them” (Tyson 249). So what might these names, and other aspects of Dickens’s text, tell us about the novel, perhaps in ways that are not obvious but are still recognized and internalized by the reader?If the sign is the name for the character in a novel, and the “signifier” is the “letters written or pronounced as a unit” of that word, then the “signified” is the idea the reader has in mind of the character (251). Every reader will have a different idea of the character in a novel, even if they read the exact same words. Take, for example, the first description in the novel of Caddy Jellyby:But what principally struck us was a jaded and unhealthy-looking though by no means plain girl, at the writing-table, who sat biting the feather of her pen, and staring at us. I suppose nobody ever was in such a state of ink. And, from her tumbled hair to her pretty feet, which were disfigured with frayed and broken satin slippers trodden down at heel, she really seemed to have no article of dress upon her, from a pin upwards, that was in its proper condition or its right place. (Dickens 85)This description would no doubt create a picture of Caddy Jellyby in the reader’s mind. The “signified” would be that picture, but, according to Derrida, it is really “chains of signifiers” (Tyson 252). The description might create an image of a Caucasian, English girl for a reader who knows that the vast majority of the inhabitants of 1850s England were Anglo-Saxon. However, a reader of another race or ethnicity, even with that same historical knowledge, might immediately think of a teenaged girl of his or her own ethnicity, especially one of his or her acquaintance who shared characteristics with Caddy Jellyby, such as a downtrodden or disheveled appearance. Furthermore, simple phrases such as “by no means plain girl” are value judgments that can inspire wildly different ideas in readers’ heads. One readers’ idea of “no means plain” could mean, by that person’s taste, beautiful; it could also mean, to another reader, an average-looking person of an image created by that reader’s experience. Obviously, those tastes and experience-created images of personal appearance will vary. And even down to such mundane descriptions as “tumbled hair”, the mental images can vary widely, too. Tumbled how? Is it falling from pins, or simply disheveled? Of what color, texture, thickness, and length is it? The permutations of the mental image of Caddy Jellyby are nearly limitless. The idea in the readers’ mind is informed not only by the words on the page and the concept that those words create (the “signifiers”), but also the readers’ own knowledge and experience. In addition, those “signified” images can change during the reading of the text, according to the reader’s feelings and perception of the story and the characters, and the “chain of signifiers”. This is possible, too, by the evocative images created by proper names. Krook, for example, the proprietor of a rag-and-bone shop and Miss Flite and Mr. Nemo’s landlord, is described as a repulsive, dirty, aged, and drunken illiterate: … an old man in spectacles and a hairy cap was carrying about in the shop. … He was short, cadaverous, and withered; with his head sunk sideways between his shoulders, and the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth, as if he were on fire within. His throat, chin, and eyebrows were so frosted with white hairs, and so gnarled with veins and puckered skin, that he looked from his breast upward, like some old root in a fall of snow. (Dickens 99-100)His name, directly insulting to him, implies that he is dishonest in his dealings, and perhaps “crooked” in personal morality, too. But Dickens has chosen such a richly descriptive word and assigned it to such an enigmatic character that it is possible to have many mental images merely from the contemplation of the name. “Krook” could be read with the sense of “crook your finger”, which might conjure up the idea of a bleary-eyed old man ominously beckoning someone. This could continue the negative imagery Dickens begins. Or “crook” could have the nature connotation of “crook of a tree,” such as what is implied by “some old root in a fall of snow.” This implies age, solidity, permanence, and immovability–all things amply demonstrated by the character of Krook in the novel. Other readings could include “crooked,” meaning crippled or deformed in some way. Since his “head is sunk sideways between his shoulders,” it could mean that he was suffering from some kind of physical impairment. This may incite sympathy for the character where none previously existed. One must remember, however, that this probably would have been different than the reaction of the contemporary readers of Bleak House, for the attitude toward physical disability has changed drastically. In Dickens’ time, crippled individuals were often derided and feared, or used as a subject of mockery, as is the semi-comic figure of Phil Squod in this same novel. Again, the “chain of signifiers” is not only continued but mutable, according to time and place. Further readings abound in this one single word for this relatively minor, though pivotal, character. Both a shepherd and a bishop carry a crook–a staff with a curved end meant for defense and for corralling the flock, literally in the former case and symbolically in the latter. This usually implies a gentle or kind person, a reference cemented in Christian English speakers (which most of Dickens’s readers were) with the 23rd Psalm “The Lord is my shepherd … thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Bible Gateway, italics mine). Krook is hardly a shepherdly or kindly figure, so this belies the reality of the characterization. But the “mental trace left behind by the play of signifiers” (Tyson 253) cannot help but suggest this reading, even if only unconsciously, in the reader’s mind. Just because the meaning does not exactly coordinate with the nature of the character does not mean that the image of a shepherd’s crook (or any other meaning of the word) is not, however fleetingly, suggested. Perhaps it could also be seen as a sort of ironic cognomen, since this illiterate loner was hardly the guide of any group of people or animals. Yet it also could be a commentary on what Krook could have been if anyone had “shepherded” him more carefully. Perhaps he would not have become the reclusive, slightly mad owner of a rag-and-bone shop who died of spontaneous human combustion while hoarding an extremely important document, never knowing what it meant. The irony of that possession is that Krook, who hoarded and hid the will for so long, caused the destruction of people’s lives. It could be argued that if someone had paid a little more attention to him, “shepherded” him into a more social existence, the will would have been discovered years before. There is also another reading of “crook,” the “device on some musical wind instruments for changing the pitch, consisting of a piece of tubing inserted into the main tube” (Dictionary.com). A musician conversant with this implement might use this tool every day, and immediately think of it when first reading about Krook. The fact that this small object can change the pitch of an instrument drastically might suggest to the reader that this character, though seemingly unimportant, could affect all the characters in the novel. That reading would be particularly sensible in terms of plot resolution. After all, Krook held the key (or the “crook”) to changing the status of most of the major characters in the novel (Ada, Richard, Mr. Jarndyce, Esther, and even Lady Dedlock). This reading, if the deconstruction of the name took place at the beginning of the novel, would substantially change the tone of the reading throughout. The reader might immediately pay more attention to Krook’s peculiarities, and might well guess his secret long before it is revealed at the end of the novel. By the same token, reading his name as “crook in the road” could mean that Krook was the means by which the plot changes, and if that “crook” was taken earlier, rather than after Krook’s death, then the Jarndyce suit would have been resolved earlier, as well. This leads us to yet another reading of “Krook.” There is, of course, the metal hook called a crook. This is an obvious reference to the deformity and subhuman nature of Krook. Despite living in the teeming metropolis of London, he lives a life apart. He is separate–unloved, uncared for, friendless. He is even unable to read the words around him, despite living amid documents piled up like wastepaper all through his shop. The crook, or hook, could have been a reference to his mental disability (as in, his illiteracy), and also the menacing nature of his appearance. Yet the idea that he was dishonest, a “crook” in the slang term, is never suggested in Bleak House. Krook was merely peculiar, perhaps repulsive, but certainly not criminal. He is simply outside of the customary ideas of what is socially acceptable. Thus, Krook’s name, immediately evocative of several differing and sometimes contradictory meanings, can lead to several different “fleeting, continually changing play[s] of signifiers” (Tyson 252). This array of meanings is only the beginning of what might be suggested purely by deconstructing one characters’ name. The individual experience, the “sliding accumulation of signifieds” (Tyson 252) which could create another set of entirely different meanings comes into play whenever the name is read. If the text is “really an indefinite, undecidable, plural, conflicting array of possible meanings” (259), then all of these readings are valid and useful. A new historical approach to a satirical novel like Bleak House gives the critic two fertile fields of inquiry. First, there is the nature of the institutions, people, and events of the Dickensian era. There is also the opportunity to analyze what Dickens thought about these institutions and social customs. Not only is our approach an attempt to discover hidden, formerly forgotten, repressed, or underrepresented versions of reality, but also the views of a main satirist of the time can be examined to show what he thought about what was happening in his own day, including his own ideologies, biases, prejudices, errors, distortions, hopes, and desires. We now will focus briefly on what Dickens thought was wrong with the Court of Chancery, and how that affected the society in which he lived. Considering that Bleak House is a “continuum with other historical and cultural texts from the same period” (Tyson 299), we might assume several things: The Court of Chancery was almost as corrupt and inefficient as Dickens’s grotesque portrayal; there was an audience for this kind of satire, and therefore people of his day knew something about the inefficiency of the Court and disliked it; that there were victims of the court, such as Mr. Gridley, Miss Flite, and Richard Carstone, who, perhaps not quite as blatantly as Dickens painted them, nevertheless wasted their lives “in Chancery”; and there was no hope, at least not directly, of changing the system in any kind of rapid way. Dickens creates a subversive mood in the novel, continually recording the excesses of Chancery but consistently deriding them. This is the Court of Chancery; which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire; which has its worn out lunatic in every madhouse, and its dead in every churchyard; which has its ruined suitor, with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress, borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance; which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right; which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope; so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart; that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give – who does not often give – the warning, ‘Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!’ (Dickens 51) When viewing this passage, one must ask, how much was Dickens really speaking with a subversive voice? Were the oppressed, the “ruined suitors” in agreement with him? Did he really attack an institution which caused widespread grief and poverty (“decaying houses and blighted lands”), or was this just the concern of the propertied few? It would seem that, in a society where financial mobility was not as easy as it is in contemporary America, that the inheritance customs concerning property and money would be very important. This was a society that cared very much about handed-down money, and people’s entire lives and fortunes were often decided by their birth. Therefore, the malfunctioning of such a body as the Court of Chancery, which decided (among other things) difficult cases of what Americans call probate, would cause consternation among people who had property to pass down. Perhaps Dickens overstates the “blighted lands”, for certainly many cases of probate must have been handled properly, in or out of Chancery. Also, Chancery would only concern the middle and upper classes. The consumption of an estate in legal fees would not concern a homeless orphan such as Jo, for example. Yet Dickens makes the case that it did affect him, as it provided Tom-all-alone’s, which Jo used as a flophouse and where he contracted the disease that killed him and scarred Esther. Thus, Dickens paints the Chancery as something of importance for the entire country. He may have been overstating the case for comic and satiric effect, but it also shows his own bias as a middle-class man concerned with passing down his own money to his heirs. Women, the homeless, the working poor, the illiterate, farm tenants, servants, and anyone else not owning property would probably not be as concerned with the workings of the Court of Chancery as Charles Dickens, the middle-class, homeowning author was. Rather, it was an example of Dickens’s own bias. Through Jo and Jenny and other working-class characters, he makes the case as best he can that the ill-functioning Court of Chancery is bad for the whole of England, not just the propertied few. The very title of the novel, Bleak House, is meant as a metaphor for Chancery. Though it is the name of not only one but two houses (Jarndyce’s home, and the new house built for Esther and Dr. Woodcourt), the houses thus named are not bleak. They are happy family homes. The Bleak House could be Tom-all-Alone’s (a “decaying house” left over from John Jarndyce’s dead relative Tom Jarndyce, in which the wretched homeless of London congregate), or it could be the Court of Chancery. Of course, this metaphor could be expanded to the whole of England, for Dickens has many more satirical targets in this novel that just the Court. Even so, it is clear that the bleak houses are not Jarndyce’s or Esther’s homes. Thus, Dickens again displays his own bias. He is willing to think that the experience of the literate, middle- and upper-class people of a country is an experience shared by everyone else in that country. The individual identity, too, of some of the people in Bleak House is tied up utterly in what the social customs of their day dictated. “Personal identity – like historical events, texts, and artifacts – is shaped by and shapes the culture in which it emerges” (Tyson 290). Miss Flite, for example, is completely controlled by her (never resolved) Chancery suit. She has mortgaged her whole life–her youth, her possible family, her future–on the gamble of the Court of Chancery. She says, acutely aware of her fate, “I was a ward myself. I was not mad at the time … I had youth and hope. I believe, beauty. It matters very little now. Neither of the three served, or saved me” (Dickens 81). Miss Flite, who considers it “an honour” to attend court regularly, has entirely bound up her sense of self in the Court of Chancery. In this she is adhering to two contemporary ideas. First, she believes that women of “good” family (meaning middle class or higher) should not have a profession of their own; second, she thinks that inherited family money was the best kind of money. Miss Flite recounts later that her brother and sister also were ruined by the suit, but she has persevered. She considers it not only her duty and “honour” to press her Chancery suit “with her documents,” but she has gone so far as to “wafer” (that is, use a legal seal to adhere) to the walls of her poor room “a few old prints from books, of Chancellors and barristers” (103) as the only decoration. Miss Flite sees as her only way of adhering to the “respectable” path is to follow her fruitless suit in Chancery. In this, she is affected by the culture that surrounds her. However, she has mutated it, as personalities do, into something different. Her sister, for example, cannot bear the genteel but extreme poverty in which Miss Flite lives; it seems that she became a prostitute. In contrast, Miss Flite has chosen to adhere to one of the cultural mores of her time, creating a new identity based on what the culture around her considered proper. That she mutated it, until that very culture called her “mad,” is the sadness of her own narrative. Dickens created Miss Flite to comment on his own perception of what was wrong with his society, namely the Court of Chancery. Therefore, he created a person whose individual identity, based on a flawed cultural institution, was twisted and skewed so that that her very culture called her “mad.” It is an example of his own bias that he chose a genteel woman as his main example, although he also includes Gridley (the man from Shropshire) as a more rustic example. But these gentle souls are ruined by Chancery, which is Dickens’ point. He sees it as a great system victimizing all its subjects. Dickens was more of a voice for oppressed groups in his day than many of his contemporaries. His portrait of Jo–with not only his dress and condition, but also his illiterate speech, recorded in exact detail–is a moving picture of social injustice. This orphan is not the blameless, downtrodden youth of some romantic stories. He has failings which would be likely in someone of such debased condition, such as illness, furtiveness, unwillingness to stay in one place, and errors in judgment. Even so, he is a realistic and extremely pathetic figure. That Dickens was willing to place a person of such underrepresented and oppressed state at the center of his novel, to be read by his mainly middle- and upper-class public, shows he tried to be less biased than perhaps many of his peers.Works CitedBible Gateway.com. King James Version Bible. Accessed 3/29/07. Gospel Communications International, Copyright 1995-2007. Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1853. London: Penguin Books, 1985. Dictionary.com, “crook.” Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 31 Mar. 2007. .Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Tensions Between Different Kinds Of Justice In Dickens’ Work

“I have the honour to attend Court regularly. With my documents. I expect a judgment. Shortly. On the Day of Judgment.” Bleak House.In a novel so acutely dedicated to exposing the real and actual misery of its characters, very little of it arises from the literal application of the frequent bouts of disease alone. Certainly disease and apocalyptic imagery is present – Esther’s smallpox disfigurement, Joe’s fatal pestilential illness, Caddy’s child, born deaf and mute, Miss Flite’s “Day of Judgment”, Krook’s combustion, Tom-all-Alone’s “revenge”, Richard Carstone’s untimely death literally from heartbreak and exhaustion, and Sir Leicester Dedlock’s metaphorical “floodgates” and actual stroke – but this endless string of tragedy tends to terminate rather than augur the larger metaphorical illness that afflicts all characters alike, regardless of social status or economic strength. In a society unseasoned with the ways of a quick and efficient justice system, and in the novel’s complicated plot with its dozens of characters enveloped by adultery, blackmail, murder, and plenty of fog and mud that characterise the turgid moral atmosphere, the Court of Chancery becomes the largest disburser of illness, disease and death. From its opening sentences, this institution of justice is linked with the symbols of obfuscation – fog and mud: “Never can there come a fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day…” But the Court is not just blind and inefficient towards serving the cause of justice. Its work is much more sinister: “This is the Court of Chancery … which gives to monied might, the means of abundantly wearying out the right; which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope; so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart; that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give-the warning, ‘Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!'” Evidently, the corrupt and life-destroying Court of Chancery has little interest in justice and more in making “…business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings.” That ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce’ bears a close phonetic resemblance with the disconcertingly panoptic term ‘John Doe’ is perhaps not mere co-incidence, but in fact a hint that Jarndyce’s interminable imbroglio in the courts of justice can easily develop into a situation fatally affecting just about anyone, right from the Gridleys to the Dedlocks. It certainly did have whole generations being born into it, while others were dying out of it. As pernicious as the severest of maladies, lawyers and the legal system are depicted as physical embodiments of parasitic diseases that, like Gridley’s and Richard’s death prove, consume all that comes within their path. Tulkinghorn is portrayed as “a dark, cold object” and “like a machine” who jealously guards aristocratic family secrets and has become rich administering marriage settlements and wills. Mr. Vholes looks at Richard predatorily, “as if he were making a lingering meal of him with his eyes as well as with his professional appetite.” “In a general way,” says George, “I object to the breed.” This inhuman parasitism extends out through society to characters like the Smallweeds whose “God was Compound Interest. [Their patriarch] lived for it, married it, died of it,” and who are also variously described as animals of prey such as “a money-getting species of spider, who spun webs to catch unwary flies.” The link between lawyers of Chancery and the Smallweeds as social parasites is rendered exact by the analogy of “lawyers [who] lie like maggots in nuts” and Mr. Smallweed’s grandfather who valued only “grubs” and “never bred a single butterfly.”It is revealed that the notorious slum, Tom-all-Alone’s, “a ruinous place…a swarm of misery [where] decay is far advanced” is also a property in Chancery, part of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, and indeed the narrator claims the suit itself “had laid the street waste”. Thus, the heart of the Jarndyce case, which is the heart of Chancery is Tom-all-Alone’s, a site of decay, misery, and disease. The third-person narrator skillfully links these three worlds through plot and complex language early on and continues to intensify these connections throughout the work. The Dedlock mystery and the Chancery case each suck in and consume the unaware or the unwilling, and expand until they affect not only the lives of the major parties or the voluntary snoopers, but of bystanders like Jo, Snagsby, George and Boythorn. Esther’s childhood and her mother’s marriage are passed in bleak houses; Jo lives among the crumbling tenements that are themselves part of the legacy of the house of Jarndyce; the curtains of the chaotic Jellyby lodgings are pinned up with forks; and the legal, judicial and political system each seem locked into its own bizarre routines of circular repetition. Miss Flite, Gridley and Richard form the inner circle of this pervasive system of disease, decay and death that demonstrates “the human waste and suffering generated by the Court.” But Jo is also a victim of both Chancery and of the society at large. Of these four, only Miss Flite is still alive at the novel’s dénouement, her insanity provides an ironic protection from the greater insanity of Chancery. But her collection of caged birds (to which she later adds “the two wards of Jarndyce”), symbolizing the victims of Chancery, and her many prescient comments serve as omens of Richard’ fate. And her concern with the “Great Seal” suggests that in this society true justice may only be had in the after-life. (“I expect a judgment. Shortly. On the Day of Judgment. I have discovered that the sixth seal mentioned in the Revelations is the Great Seal. It has been open a long time!”) The same is true of Gridley who indignantly rails against “the system” of Chancery and vows “I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar.” Yet Gridley’s impotent rage only hastens his death. The deadening effects of the injustice that infects Bleak House society can be seen most vividly in the portrayals of various key characters. The descriptions of Krook and his Rag and Bottle Shop are meant to function as a grim moral parallel with the Lord Chancellor and Chancery. Mr. Krook attests, “I have so many old parchments and papers in my stock. And I have a liking for rust and must and cobwebs…And I can’t bear to part with anything once I lay hold of or to alter anything, or to have any sweeping, nor scouring, nor cleaning…that’s why I’ve got the ill name of Chancery. I go to see my…brother pretty well every day, when he sits in the Inn…There’s no great odds betwixt us. We both grub on in a muddle.” Krook’s shop, in its filth and horror, exemplifies in a concrete, physical way the true moral nature of the Court, in the same way that the sheer abundance of neglected children in Bleak House exemplifies the undependable relationship that the Court, as a legal guardian of society, shares with its own wards, the inhabitants of that society.Esther’s orphan-hood (occurring twice over), and the abandonment of parental responsibility is but a microcosm of the wider, institutional abandonment of social responsibility. In different ways, Jo, Esther, Charley, Richard, and Ada are abandoned children. Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, Harold Skimpole, and even Mr. Turveydrop also abandon their children in a sense. Thus, while Esther’s story is that of an absent or lost parent, the central problem is the absence of justice in Chancery. Broken families, neglectful parents, and the loss of love, nurturance, and security reflect the chaos, disorder, and disease in society in the domestic sphere. Or, as Andrew Sanders puts it, Dickens “allows us to appreciate that an avoidance of due responsibility, in whatever sphere men and women act, is a threat to the well-being of society, and a general symptom of a general moral and social decay” And since the Court of Chancery serves as guardian for Richard and Ada, it too can be viewed as a bad parent. Indeed, since Chancery is responsible for the ruin of Tom-all-Alone’s, and Jo was “bred” by the “ruined shelters,” Jo can also be considered a ward of Chancery. The overall impression that emerges from Esther’s personal interaction with children and the victims of Chancery is that there are overwhelming private consequences for public injustice that extends and causes damage all the way through society to the most helpless. Indeed the damage to individual lives engendered by social conditions extends to the next generation. Caddy and Prince Turveydrop’s child is deaf and dumb, and Ada and Richard’s child will be raised without a father. This connection between (in)justice and its impact on the lives of the characters of Bleak House is manifest: “The system which destroys families is run by people who belong to unhappy families themselves: the system reproduces itself by means of the miseries it creates” (Hawthorn)The links established between these various public spheres can best be understood through the symbolic significance of Chancery as representative of the entire society. After all, a Chancery suit is, as Sir Leicester reflects, “a slow, expensive, British, constitutional kind of thing.” Likewise Mr. Kenge declares of Chancery, “This is a great system…and would you wish a great country to have a little system? Now, really, really!” Yet the very nature of Chancery, its methods and its effects is to stifle, bemuse, and consume all who come in contact with it. The lawyers of Chancery work exclusively in their own self-interest and the Court “is simply a socially condoned form of parasitism as is graphically confirmed by the eventual lot of the Jarndyce estate, which is eaten up in costs” (Daleski). Just as a biological parasite eventually weakens and destroys its host, the parasitic corruption of a national institution eventually weakens and destroys the rest of society. Thus, the primary symbol of justice – in Bleak House and Chancery – and its effect on the society is that of disease resulting from moral corruption and social parasitism with death looming not far behind. As Jeremy Hawthorn writes, “Disease is such a powerful symbol for Dickens in Bleak House because it involves different kinds of expressive connections: it arises from specific, concrete and material living conditions, living-conditions which are themselves the cause of particular social realities, and it also links the poor with those rich who wish to disclaim any relationship with or responsibility for them.” In effect, the prevalent social and physical disease created and spread by Chancery is none other than an outgrowth from the warped justice it provides. -X-Bibliography:Daleski, H.M. Bleak House. In Critical Essays on Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, 1989.Galloway, Shirley. Bleak House: Public and Private Worlds, 1997.Hawthorn, Jeremy. Bleak House, 1987.Roberts, Doreen. Bleak HouseSanders, Andrew. Charles Dickens: Resurrectionist. 1982.

Winning Love

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, is chiefly a novel about the consequences of abandonment. Dickens utilizes a mixture of nameless third-person narrative and the personal narrative of Esther Summerson, thereby balancing social criticism with a measure of personal experiences. Esther is only one of several orphans in the novel. In different ways, Jo, Esther, Charley, Richard, and Ada are all abandoned children. Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, Harold Skimpole, and even Mr. Turveydrop also abandon their children by forcing them to endure emotional neglect. Mrs. Jellyby, for example, claims to be a noble philanthropist, yet ignores her own family’s poor quality of life in order to focus on the injustices occuring in far-off Africa. Her “public duties [are her] favorite child.” Here, Dickens highlights the irresponsibility and arbitrariness of choosing to exhaust one’s resources (which are most likely being ineffectually employed) on an abstract problem, rather than on a literal one close at hand. Dickens maintained that people devoted to distant (“telescopic”) philanthropy very often show a tendency to neglect the needs of those around them. In this example, Dickens satirizes Mrs. Jellyby as a misguided “do-gooder.” The portrayal of the Jellyby children (especially the pathetic Peepy) is another variation on one of Dickens’ recurring themes: the vulnerability and suffering of children in a world mismanaged by adults. Using the story of Mrs. Pardiggle, a charity worker whose zeal unfortunately makes her own sons “ferocious with discontent,” Dickens once again contrasts the pretentiousness and emotional shallowness of the professional social activists by situating their character next to a real, deep emotional pain, such as that which occurs following the death of one’s child. Just as Chancery is at the center of the third-person narrative, the central problem of Esther’s story is that of an absent or lost parent. The chaos, disorder, and disease in society are reflected in the domestic sphere by broken families, neglectful parents, and the loss of love, comfort, and security. Esther underscores the theme of the abandonment of parental responsibility, which is analogous to that of the third-person narrative – the institutional abandonment of social responsibility. In Dickens’ Victorian England, people frequently slip though the cracks, as is exemplified by the characters of Jo and Nemo. Dickens uses his characters to illustrate the fact that the neglect of necessary social responsibility is a poison to society, and a symptom of moral decay. He writes of the all-consuming monster of a legal suit:Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. Dickens encourages readers to look at the suit itself, and therefore the entire legal system at Chancery, as an entity that has been responsible for the misguided lives and unfulfilled prospects of many individuals. Richard and Ada are wards of the court, and in a sense Jo is, too, as he was raised in provision houses for the poor. It can thus be said that the legal system and Chancery have also been neglectful guardians. The suggestion made in the comparison between the legal system and the family is that there are overwhelming private consequences for public neglect. The ironic result of the grossly drawn-out suit of Jarndyce verses Jarndyce is, of course, that after so many years of confusing legal jargon and red tape, the cost of the lawyer bills have consumed the entire worth of the suit, leaving nothing to inherit. This point can also be observed symbolically in the doorknobs of the Jellyby household, which go “round and round with the greatest of smoothness,” yet attain “no effect whatsoever on the door.” The world of Bleak House contains many examples of actions (well-meaning or not) which produce no positive effect, or no effect at all. Esther’s position as a narrator shows some of the possible consequences of social neglect, yet her narrative also illustrates the ways in which some people can learn to thrive despite their background. She shows how incumbent it is for each individual to be as fully human as they can be – to choose and to act as much as possible according to their highest aspirations and ideals, regardless of the values and tendencies of the larger society. In Esther’s confessions to her doll, she claims she “would try, as hard as ever I could, to repair the fault I had been born with (of which I confusedly felt guilty and yet innocent), and would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted, and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could.” Through Esther’s experience of neglect she comes to believe that one does not have a natural right to be loved, and that one must “earn” or “win” it. Although her point of view is unfortunate, the circumstances of the novel tend to support it. The character Jo, who “don’t know no-think,” and does very little for society or a family, finally dies because of his want for necessities, although he is the recipient of several token nurturing gestures. Several assertions are made that the struggle to live even in an atmosphere of death is still a worthwhile and noble pursuit. However, Jo’s fate reveals that this struggle is not always fruitful. Any way the question is posed, a person needs the support of a family to thrive. The perpetrators of abandonment and neglect seem often to have been the victims of such circumstances in their own upbringings. Mr. Skimpole is an excellent example of this: continually portraying himself as an “eternal child,” he escapes the responsibilities of adulthood and parenthood, but also does a tremendous disservice to the real children around him. The prime example of this behavior is found when he betrays Jo for a bribe. In the wake of the incident, he protests to Esther: “You know I don’t pretend to be responsible. I never could do it. Responsibility is a thing that has always been above me,” as if not having ever claimed to be good to others relieves him of that responsibility. Dickens clearly believes it is quite unfair for an innocent child to be subject to the care (or lack thereof) of an adult. While the irresponsible adult must accept some of the blame for the child’s condition, neglect is still the byproduct of a society that allows its citizens to suffer abandonment. Through the story’s jumbled legal suits and societal scandals, we learn of the arbitrary nature of the court, and because this poor system is practiced by law, it seems that a poor private structure must inevitably follow.

Dickens and Charity

The England of Charles Dickens was one plagued with disease, pollution, and poverty. This is the England that gave rise to the Salvation Army, the gin craze, and Benthamism, and it is no coincidence that Charles Dickens’ Bleak House has much to say about the question of charity. As Esther proceeds through life she is both the recipient of the charity of others as well as a bit of a philanthropist herself. However, it is John Jarndyce who is the central philanthropist in this novel. It is through his assistance that the causes of Miss Barbary, Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, Harold Skimpole, and, indeed, Esther Summerson are furthered. Nevertheless, Dickens does not always paint these characters’ charitable work in the most favorable light. Rather, one gets the feeling that their perspectives are a bit askew, and that they miss much of the good work they could be doing.The first so-called philanthropist with which the reader has contact is Miss Barbary. Esther’s “godmother,” who is in fact her aunt, does much to provide the necessities of life for Esther, albeit through the generosity of Mr. Jarndyce. Nevertheless, the home she and Esther share is not necessarily a happy one. Esther tells us that though Miss Barbary was quite pious — “[s]he went to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to lectures whenever there were lectures –, “she never smiled. She was always grave and strict” (28). It is in this home that Esther spends her early years, a home without friends, birthdays, or very much joy.After the death of Miss Barbary, it is again Jarndyce who comes to the aid of Esther and arranges for her to attend Greenleaf, a boarding school in Reading. While in transit via coach Esther encounters Jarndyce — though she does not know that it is him at the time –, whom she finds to be “very strange” and a bit scary. As Esther begins to cry about her unknown future, Jarndyce attempts to console her with a plum cake and pie, a trick which the reader soon comes to recognize as his standard means of dealing with an adverse situation:”In this paper,” which was nicely folded, “is a piece of the best plum-cake that can be got for money — sugar on the outside an inch thick, like fat on mutton chops. Here’s a little pie (a gem this is, both for size and quality), made in France. And what do you suppose it’s made of? Livers of fat geese. There’s a pie! Now let’s see you eat ’em.””Thank you, sir,” [Esther] replied, “thank you very much indeed, but I hope you won’t be offended; they are too rich for me.” (37-8)Though “[s]uch a man is rich and good, warm-hearted and generous, golden at the core,” what Jarndyce fails to recognize is that Esther does not need an imported pie or the finest cakes “that can be got for money” (Goldfarb 144). What she needs is love, acceptance, and comfort — not a hand-out, no matter how luxurious.Following her six years at Greenleaf, Esther once again finds herself under the influence of John Jarndyce; she is asked to serve in Bleak House, Jarndyce’s home. While en route she and two of Jarndyce’s other wards, Ada and Richard, spend the night at the home of Mrs. Jellyby, yet another cause Jarndyce has chosen to fund. While Mrs. Jellyby spends much time and energy addressing the issue of benefitting Africa, her home is a wreck, and she is abusing her daughter Caddy by forcing her to work so diligently for the cause as well. When Esther brings to the attention of Mr. Jarndyce the fact that “[Mrs. Jellyby] was a little unmindful of her home,” Jarndyce is “floored” (83). Esther suggests that “it is right to begin with the obligations of home […]; and that, perhaps, while those are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them?” (83). Jarndyce responds: “She means well” (84). Such seems to be the whole of Jarndyce’s philanthropic mission: good intentions and well-meaning are all that is necessary to earn the charitable support of John Jarndyce.While at Bleak House, Esther, Ada, and Richard meet Harold Skimpole, another of Jarndyce’s charity projects and a fine example of his philanthropic mission. A trained doctor, Skimpole has recently opted to live, thanks to the support of Jarndyce, the leisurely life of a dilettante. He manages to get Esther and Richard to contribute to the payment of one of his debts and, indeed, to forego any normal responsibility requisite of a grown-up life. For, “Harold Skimpole loves to see the sun shine; loves to hear the wind blow; loves to watch the changing lights and shadows; loves to hear the birds, those choristers in Nature’s great cathedral. And does it seem to me that I am about to deprive Harold Skimpole of his share in such possessions, which are his only birthright!” (99). Interestingly, it is a doctor, Skimpole, who Jarndyce has enabled to live a life of leisure. In a time and place where there is much suffering and disease — Esther herself becomes afflicted with smallpox — Skimpole should have much to offer to his society. Instead, he lives a comfortable life in Bleak House, allowing others to pay his debts, while he takes time to enjoy the sun shine.Jarndyce’s young wards Esther, Ada, and Richard, are introduced to yet another of his charitable causes while in residence at Bleak House, Mrs. Pardiggle. “[A] formidable style of lady, with spectacles, a prominent nose, and a loud voice, who had the effect of wanting a great deal of room,” Mrs. Pardiggle takes great concern with her charitable work and with the assistance her five boys provide not so willingly. She is “a School lady, […] a Visiting lady, […] a Reading lady, […] a Distributing lady, […] on the local Linen Box Committee, and many general Committees,” and has done extensive canvassing (125-6). She takes Esther and Ada with her to visit a brickmaker, “a very bad character,” and his family (128). Upon arrival, Esther and Ada see “a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire; a man, all stained with clay and mud, and looking very dissipated, lying at full length on the ground, smoking a pipe; a powerful young man, fastening a collar on a dog; and a bold girl, doing some kind of washing in very dirty water” (130). To this group, Mrs. Pardiggle, with “not a very friendly sound” warns that she cannot be tired and will continue to make regular visits until the conditions are to her liking. Even though the brickmaker informs her that their situation is as it is, and will not likely be changed by her regular visits, Mrs. Pardiggle is insistent. What Mrs. Pardiggle fails to notice or even take interest in, and that which Esther and Ada do take interest in, is the baby. Upon closer inspection, they discover it is dead.While the brickmaker is unable to rid himself of Mrs Pardiggle, Mr. Jarndyce has relatively little trouble; it has become his standard method of conflict resolution: writing a check. For, “[d]oing good for the sake of doing good is not his guiding impulse in life. He uses money, his unearned money, mostly to protect himself from the tribulations of life” (Goldfarb 145).Perhaps it is Esther, a bit of a charity case herself, who is the most effective humanitarian in Bleak House. Where Miss Barbary provided only the most essential resources to Esther during her early years, when it Esther’s turn to provide a nurturing environment for the young girls at Greenleaf, she provides warmth and compassion alongside the requisite instruction. Though Esther does not have the means to offer rich plum cakes or imported kidney pies, she can offer companionship. And it is that companionship that Mr. Jarndyce comes to value quite highly, eventually asking her to marry him. The same is true in the situation with Mrs. Jellyby. Though Esther takes relatively little interest in the problems plaguing Africa, she does take quite an interest in Caddy, Mrs. Jellyby’s over-worked, neglected daughter, who becomes a dear friend. Even though Esther is suspicious of Harold Skimpole’s lifestyle, she does make the effort to help pay his debts. Furthermore, it is she, not Mrs Pardiggle, who takes an interest in lives of the brickmaker’s family, and, indeed, returns to provide some real assistance. “Nobody could seem at times so self-unmaking as Esther but ultimately she is self-making. She needs to receive enough from the past to be educated and to learn to exert herself, but it is not by inheritance, not by high class, not by Christian […] virtues that she progresses” (Blake 15). Esther in many ways embodies the Utilitarian ideal, but with a compassionate human face.In a world as bleak as that depicted in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, it is no wonder that there are so many examples of people trying to provide for the needs of others. Whether it is Miss Barlaby meeting, through duty, the most essential of Esther’s needs, or John Jarndyce writing a check whenever a cause presents itself, or Mrs. Jellyby tirelessly working towards the betterment of Africa, or Harold Skimpole who has chosen to a live a life dependent on the goodwill of others, or Mrs. Pardiggle who exerts so much time and energy in so many causes that she finds important, everyone seems to be trying to improve the lives of others. Nevertheless, all of these efforts ultimately ring hollow. Indeed, it is Esther who seems to have the greatest impact, without investing any great sum of money, making any great sacrifice, or exerting any great amount of effort. Works CitedBlake, K. “Bleak House, Political Economy, Victorian Studies,” Victorian Literature and Culture, 25:1 (1997), 1-21.Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Penguin, 1996.Goldfarb, Russell M. “John Jarndyce of Bleak House,” Sutdies in the Novel, 12:2 (1980), 144-52.

Jarndyce, Snagsby, and the Varieties of Fatherhood in ‘Bleak House’

With several different families displayed throughout Bleak House, Charles Dickens makes a point to emphasize motherhood, or lack thereof. Charley, a child herself, takes care of her two younger siblings, Liz and Jenny help raise each other’s children and Lady Dedlock is the least motherly figure in her daughter’s life. Many of these characters depict nearly the opposite of what it means to be a mother as they adapt to the situations they face. Yet with this heavy portrayal of poor mothering, Dickens spends less time on the effects of fatherhood in the book. Fathers and father figures such as John Jarndyce and Mr. Snagsby offer a range of different aspects of fatherhood, each with their share of positive and negative traits.

A prominent character throughout the book, John Jarndyce enters Esther’s life in order to take her in after being abandoned by her guardian. He immediately becomes the father figure in her life as he essentially adopts her along with Richard and Ada. From the start, Jarndyce is made out to be a very charitable figure – he supports Esther, Richard and Ada financially, he gives money to Mr. Skimpole and towards the end of the novel, purchases a home for Mr. Woodcourt. In this sense, Jarndyce can be seen as a generous and necessary part of most of the characters’ lives. He is portrayed as a naturally good person, though what is most interesting about his character is that Dickens never reveals why. Any part of what makes Jarndyce who he is hidden. Because of this, his intentions are questionable, even if he perpetuates the stereotypical “good guy” narrative. Thus, however generous and kind-hearted Jarndyce seems, many of his actions in regard to fatherhood are often controversial. In Esther’s life, this is especially true. Jarndyce’s purpose at the start is to solely act as her guardian, which he succeeds at. He immediately takes the role as the lone father figure in her life, making her feel supported and appreciated in a way she had never experienced before. In the beginning of the novel as Esther’s time away at Greenleaf progresses, she is genuinely surprised to see that her guardian had not abandoned her. “…it was so gracious in that Father who had not forgotten about me, to have made my orphan way so smooth and easy…” (Dickens 41). In this sense, Jarndyce becomes a pinnacle individual in Esther’s life. Being raised by her abusive god-mother has certainly done nothing for her character.

Jarndyce’s efforts, however simple or grand they might be, make a distinct impact on her emotional well-being. Esther makes a point in her narratives to describe how grateful she is for Jarndyce and everything he does for her, therefore adding to his generous fatherly guise. Yet as the novel progresses, a line between the roles of father figure and husband are blurred. Jarndyce’s intentions towards Esther become questionable and it becomes clear that perhaps his generosity was displayed in order to make her the mistress of Bleak House. From the start, he asks Esther to call him “guardian” while Ada refers to him as “cousin John,” introducing a measure of ambiguity into Jarndyce’s exact role. Therefore, despite the charitable acts he has performed for her and other characters in the book, his purpose for them can truly never be trusted. This makes Jarndyce not only unreliable, but also an example of a poor father figure. It is easy to see how often he assisted other characters and look past how he manipulated Esther into accepting his marriage proposal. His generosity blinds Esther into believing that she will live a happy life if she marries him, despite her genuine attraction and love for Mr. Woodcourt. Though Jarndyce eventually allows Esther to marry Woodcourt because he realizes that that is where her heart lies, he does even this in a seemingly ill-intentioned way. In what seems like an instant, Jarndyce goes from regarding Esther as his soon-to-be mistress to giving her away to Woodcourt and replacing her with Ada. This action gives way to Jarndyce’s true perpetuation of fatherhood; he is a man that while kind-hearted, ultimately picks and chooses who he cares for.

In direct comparison and contrast, Mr. Snagsby is also a character that cares for those less fortunate, but does it in a way that is truly compassionate. Snagsby spends a large amount of time looking out for his servant, Guster, who has major health issues. He also genuinely cares for Jo, almost like he would a son. Snagsby’s relationship with Jo is very much fatherly, as he consistently gives the boy coins and is regarded as one of his only friends. Though Snagsby cannot ultimately save Jo, he manages to make the boy’s rather unfortunate life as tolerable as he can. When Jo is sick and nearing the end of his life, Snagsby visits him while he is under the care of Mr. Woodcourt. “Mr. Snagsby, touched by the spectacle before him, immediately lays upon the table half-a-crown: that magic balsam of his for all kinds of wounds” (Dickens 730). This gesture beholds so much love and affection for Jo. The boy’s life has certainly not been easy and his death is no more endurable. Jo shares some of these final moments of his life with his respected guardian and friend, giving a significant and meaningful ending to their relationship.

While there are many other examples of fathers and fatherhood woven into the story of Bleak House, there is a true obvious distinction between the manipulation of John Jarnydce and the genuine compassion of Mr. Sangsby. Mr. Snagsby is able to care for Jo in a majorly impactful way despite not being his real father. Mr. Jarndyce, undeterred by the fact that Esther is essentially his adopted daughter, molds her into accepting his marriage proposal. In this sense, throughout the novel, it is truly only the genuinely good-hearted that display what it means to be a father.

Secrecy in Bleak House and The Devil in the White City

The basis of the entirety of the plot in Bleak House by Charles Dickens is essentially an investigation. As the novel unfolds, little bits of the story come together in what is essentially a murder mystery at the end. Similarly, in The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson spends half of the book discussing the life of America’s first serial killer and the murders he commits. Together, both novels tell a tale of mystery and secrecy and how it coincides with reputation – the status and hierarchy of two major characters, H.H. Holmes and Mr. Tulkinghorn.

There are layers of mystique within Bleak House that are apparent as soon as it begins. The focus is on Esther Summerson, a strange girl with a murky past that is later unraveled in a shocking way. On the way to revealing her background is the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn, the esteemed lawyer of Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock. Tulkinghorn is a man of many secrets – whatever is said in front of him is in pure and total confidence. His reputation is extremely respected within London as he is the leading attorney within Chancery Court. In direct comparison to this is H.H. Holmes in The Devil in the White City. Holmes is the cause of mystery and intrigue in Chicago in the late 1800s. An amazingly likeable man, he charms his way through most of his life, gaining the reputation of an esteemed pharmacist and hotel owner within the Windy City. Much like Tulkinghorn, he harbors secrets that affect the lives of several others. With all the murders he commits and suspicious actions he demonstrates, Holmes is required to keep quiet to prevent himself from being found out. That being said, each and every secret he keeps is poorly reflected on the lives of those he harms. This same idea is reflected by Tulkinghorn. As he has an obligation to investigate anything suspicious he comes across in order to protect his clients, he harms the likes of Esther, and in a conflicting way, Lady Dedlock. Though Tulkinghorn is ultimately murdered before he can truly reveal the biggest secret of the book – the fact that Lady Dedlock is Esther’s mother – he goes through extensive trials of research in order to initially uncover it. It may seem as though the lawyer is doing so to obtain minimal fall out in regards to his client, but the more possessive and obsessed he gets about the Lady’s secret, the more it seems as though he is only wanting to uphold his reputation. Throughout an interaction in which Tulkinghorn reveals he knows the Lady’s secret, he maintains a strong, threatening composure and eventually, “he has conquered her” (Dickens 656). Tulkinghorn is a ruthless man, in the end only aiming for what will benefit him and sustain his high regard within the community. As he threatens to reveal the secret that Lady Dedlock could not bear to have revealed, he confirms himself as a man who will always choose himself, even over dear friends of several years.

A combination of mystery and secrecy leads both Tulkinghorn and Holmes down dark paths. Holmes bases nearly everything in his life on his killings and his intent to keep them undiscovered. With this in mind he creates multiple identities and is extremely careful about who and where he murders. Eventually, Holmes’ past catches up with him in the form of Frank Geyer, a detective who is ultimately able to prove just how guilty he is. Yet even when Holmes has been caught and eventually hanged, the case is left unsolved. The journey that Holmes takes, filled with intrigue and discretion, is one that sets him up for failure, much like Tulkinghorn. As the lawyer becomes ruthlessly consumed with Lady Dedlock’s secret, he finds himself caught up in a dangerous web that he wove himself. Eventually, his involvement in uncovering the secret proves fatal, as Hortense murders him after he refuses to find her another job. After hiring Hortense to pretend to be Lady Dedlock in order to find out information about her past, Tulkinghorn in turn digs himself into a deeper hole involving the mystery. Similarly, the way in which Holmes sometimes missteps in his attempt to cover up a murder builds up into his ultimate downfall. Together, not only do Tulkinghorn and Holmes involve themselves willingly in a world of mystery, they also let said enigmas become their end. Both characters become obsessed with secrets and how intriguing they are. Ultimately, despite the mystery ending in despair for each, they maintain their reputation incredibly successfully. Holmes especially had success in this, as “…he stood too close, stared too hard, touched too much and long. And women adored him for it” (Larson 36). Despite how often he was taking people’s lives, he still managed to keep quiet the secrets and uphold his charm. Tulkinghorn was majorly successful in this as well, keeping his business with Sir Leicester and others separate from his investigation into Lady Dedlock. This way, he would not let the mystery interfere with how he looked in the eyes of those he worked for and cared about.

Both the antagonists of their stories, H. H. Holmes and Mr. Tulkinghorn are encased in mystery and secrecy and ultimately thrive off of it. With their mutual desire to obtain the respect and trust of those around them, reputation ultimately blinds them into meeting their demise. Intrigued by the secrets he discovers while in the background of it all, Tulkinghorn investigates Esther and Lady Dedlock until he is murdered in relation to it. H. H. Holmes creates the secrets he must then hide, allowing the mystery of his life to eventually kill him. Upholding these secrets and allowing them to rule their lives essentially maintains these characters’ ways of life. Through it all, Tulkinghorn continues his investigation in order to protect himself and his standing within London, and Holmes keeps up his charming façade as the only way to extend his murder spree.