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.
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