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.
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