Charles Dicken’s “Bleak House” – One Of The Greatest Novels Of The English Language
Charles Dicken’s Bleak House is considered one of the most complex and greatest novels of the English language. The novel has many characters and sub-plots being told by two different narrators. This 750-page novel satires the English judicial system, which helped promote legal reforms in the 1870’s. How could Andrew Davies possibly translate this novel into just an 8-episode T.V. series. Making Bleak House into a show has already been done before in the year 1985, where most of the audience said that it was superb and one of the greatest adaptations of the novel that they have ever seen. How will Andrew Davies differentiate from this series? Is it even possible for him to have a better adaptation of the novel then the 1985 series did?
Every time that a literary work is translated into a movie or show, most of the audience believes that a lot of things were left out and that the book will always be superior. Movies and shows only give a slight insight into the world that is perceived by the literature. It is impossible for every image, feeling, and effect to be translated from a novel into a movie or show. Individuals that have read the books and go see the movie will always be disappointed because the book is always the original and correct way of presenting the literature. People have their own interpretation and image of what the book is supposed to look like. 500 different readers of the same book may have 500 different ideas of a character’s appearance. On top of that, if the actor doesn’t live up to what the reader expected, then the reader will be disappointed. There is also a limited amount of storytelling in a movie or show, and the script may not do the story justice. This comes with the questions of why directors and writers still try to adapt novels into movies and shows. Why do these writers still take the huge task of disappointing and letting down the audience who read the novel? Through this thinking and my love for the novel Bleak House, I created the question: To what extent did Andrew Davies adapt Charles Dickens’s novel into his T.V. show series Bleak House?
Serialization past and present
A serial in literature is when a larger single work, often a work of narrative fiction, is published in smaller, sequential installments usually in the newspaper. During the 19th and 20th centuries serialized fiction grew in popularity, which was during the Victorian era. Novel serialization was T.V. before T.V. Readers would wait for the newspaper and or magazine to come out so that they could read the next serial of their story. The first major success of a serialized piece of literature was Charles Dickens’s, The Pickwick Papers, in 1836. Many authors were inspired by Dickens way of serialization. This new way of storytelling continued and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes stories originally for serialization in The Strand magazine. Overtime, this British way of doing things translated over to America. The first significant American works to be released in serial format is Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
As time progress into the late 20th and early 21st centuries, serialization of novels began its slow decline because of the rise in broadcasting. Newspapers began focusing more on entertainment and television. Serializing, this way of breaking a large piece into parts translated into television. Television broadcasts were being separated into episodes like novels were broken up into small pieces. This is one way how Andrew Davies Bleak House T.V. series was like Charles Dickens’s novel. This breakdown of the story has a very important effect on the reader/watcher. After each episode or serial, the audience is left with suspense and curiosity. They want to know what is going to happen in the story, so they are left wondering until the next episode or serial comes out. This keeps the audience on their feet and draws them in. In an interview with BBC Andrew Davies said that he hopes that his half-hour format will leave viewers wanting more. “The thing that was uppermost in our minds was to tell the story in a way that made people absolutely die to know what happens next.”
After saying that, Andrew Davies clearly made the show episodic to be like the serial feel of the novel. After entertainment became popular, serialized novels became quite unpopular, however, some writers still serialized. Recently writers began serializing their novels on the World Wide Web. In 2011, pseudonymous author Wildbow published Worm, which remains one of the most popular web serials of all time. As of the week of April 17, 2017, 170 thousand unique people have read Worm Many aspiring authors also use the web to publish free-to-read works in serialized format independently as well as web-based communities. Many of these books receive as many readers as successful novels; some have received the same number of readers as New York bestsellers. Bleak house was serialized in this fashion
Characterization and setting between the two works
Andrew Davies left out more than ten characters in his adaptation of the novel: The wife of Snagsby, the law stationer; the wife and grandson of the moneylender Smallweed; the law clerk Tony Jobling; the bankrupt Jellyby; Sir Leicester Dedlock’s several cousins; and the Bagnet family, friends of the ex-soldier Sergeant George. Andrew Davies has never made it clear why he has erased those characters from his adaptation of the novel. These weren’t characters that were just in the background of the story and didn’t have an impact. They were very important to the plot and storyline of the novel. The storyline concerning Mrs. Snagsby’s paranoid jealousy of her husband is omitted altogether. This is because wife of Mr. Snagsby isn’t even in the adaptation. In the novel, the possession of Lady Dedlock’s letters involve Tony Jobling and Smallweed junior. Since Davies left these characters out, he used Mr. Crook, a landlord, and Mr. Guppy, a clerk at Mr. Kenge’s law firm, as the characters involved in the possession of her letters.
The final plot that was portrayed differently in the show was the reconnection of George and his mother, which in the novel was brought about by Mrs. Bagnet. In the show there was no Mrs. Bagnet, so Esther Summerson and Mr. John Jarndice found his mother and told her where her son was. These are all examples of elements left out of the show that were in the book, however there is one example of a sub-plot that was part of the show but not in the book. Mr. Tulkinghorn is Sir Leicester Deadlock’s lawyer and the lead attorney of the Chancery Court. He is the mysterious antagonist that Dickens and Davies choose not to solve. Throughout both works that reader/viewer is wondering what Mr. Tulkinhorn’s true intentions are up until the end. He is the devil figure in the story and has sinister intentions to hurt Lady Deadlock.
In the novel there is a narrator that shows the motives and deeds of Mr. Tulkinhorn. In the show there is no narrator, so Andrew Davies created a character known as Mr. Clamb. He is the Clerk of the foul lawyer. Mr. Clamb is sort of the confidante of Mr. Tulkinghorn. The confidante is someone that a character reveals his/her main thoughts, personality and motives to. The casting was a gift unto itself with BBC’s most talented actors playing in every role. Every actor portrayed their respective characters in a perfect way that would make Dickens proud. One of the most mesmerizing performances was Phil Davis as Mr. Smallweed.
In the novel Mr. Smallweed is desribed as an angry, paralyzed many whose only emotion is greed. The only thought that is ever on this man’s mind is profit. His body in the novel is described as barely human. He is paralyzed in a chair 24/7 and on top of that his granddaughter, Judy, must fluff him up like a pillow every few minutes. He is a nasty old man who is as foul on the inside as he is on the outside. In literature a monster is described as someone or something that brings sensation of disgust to the reader. On top of that, the monster has no redeeming qualities and has no heart. Mr. Smallweed is nasty in everything he does: screaming at everyone including his granddaughter, trying to extort George and Sir Leicester Deadlock, and trying to keep and sell the final will that would solve the Jarnidice and Jarndice case. Phil Davis executed this role in a way that made you feel disgusted and creeped out every time he was shown on the screen.
The set and the costumes add another dimension to the story. Charles Dickens’ works were associated with London, which is the setting of many of his novels. Dickens didn’t use London as a backdrop, instead he centered his works about London and its characters. No character played a role as important as London itself. The unique ways that he described London with all five sense brought a new perspective to the city. This description became known as Dickensian London. Dickensian London is a character in itself. Charles Dickens had a son named Charles Dickens who wrote a popular guide book to London, using his father’s description of the city. The book was called, Dickens’s Dictionary of London
This is the map that the guidebook is based around. In the legal district behind the courts on Chancery lane, is Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which in “Bleak House” are described as “the perplexed and troublous valley of the shadow of the law.” Dickens used words like dull, dingy, and dusky when describing the square. Andrew Davies perfectly portrayed Dickensian London in his adaptation of “Bleak House.” The city is always covered and fog and the lighting is minimal. Every outdoor scene consists of heavy rain and lightning, adding to the gloominess of the setting.
In chapter one of the novel Charles Dickens uses this imagery to describe the setting “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwhich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck.
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.
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.