In the Introduction, I wrote that the works I have covered in this book were chosen purely on the basis of my preferences. As an academic, I am supposed to have an area of specialization, though I have always had trouble focusing on a single area of literature to the exclusion of others. Theoretically, however, my areas of specialization are the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I mention this point because the present chapter concerns one of my favorite writers, a writer remote from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Charles Dickens.
Dickens, who lived through the middle of the nineteenth century, has come to represent Victorian England for many readers. While Dickens does, indeed, describe certain aspects of nineteenth-century England, his portrait of the period should not be regarded as all-inclusive. Perhaps a better portrait of the period can be found in the many novels of Anthony Trollope. These are fine works, enjoyable to read, with good plots and interesting characters; but for me, at least, they lack the magic of Dickens’ works. Trollope’s novels have a far greater level of realism, of verisimilitude. Dickens’ novels seem realistic, but his realism is an illusion.
Of course, any literary realism is an illusion, since the only reality in a literary work is the words on the page. If Gabriel Garcia-Marquez decides that one of his characters, Remedios the Beautiful, should ascend to heaven while she is hanging out the laundry, then in the context of 100 Years of Solitude, that is what is real; but when we talk about literary realism, we are usually talking about how closely the world of the novel corresponds to the world we inhabit. Since no one is known to have ascended to heaven while hanging laundry, and since the possibility of such an even seems remote, we can say that Garcia-Marquez does not use realism (or that he uses “magic realism”). Because no one now living was alive during Victorian times, it is difficult for us, even for those among us who have studied the Victorian era, to know for certain what everyday life was like then. In Trollope’s novels, we get the feeling that he is describing everyday life and everyday people. In Dickens’ novels, on the other hand, we often get that feeling, but when we look beneath the surface, we can see that Dickens has tricked us. Like all of the greatest writers, he is a magician, and the miracle is that he continues to cast his spell on us.
Naturally the question of literary realism entails many more complications. We might wonder about which American author best represents the reality of America. Is there a single novel written in twentieth-century America, or is there a single twentieth-century American author, whose collected works could represent twentieth-century America? Of course not. We are too diverse; and writers, however broad and inclusive their vision might be, are too limited to be able to depict an entire culture. For these reasons, there will never be such a thing as The Great American Novel, although there are many great American novels. In terms of verisimilitude, Moby Dick is a travesty. For one thing, much of the information about whales is incorrect, and it has always seemed to me that the owners of the Pequod, in their effort to make a profit, would have been unlikely to entrust their ship to a monomaniac like Captain Ahab. On the other hand, in terms of what it says about America and Americans of different kinds, what it says about human beings, and what it says about the difficulties of inhabiting this world, Moby Dick is a marvelous and much-maligned novel. Many readers are inclined to skip the passages about whales, but those passages, largely because of their fictionality, are vital to the novel. Melville makes them seem real. In terms of cetology, they are fictional; in terms of his novel, they are certainly real. They tell us something about the world as Melville saw it, about America as Melville saw it, and as inhabitants of that world and heirs of that America, we should be interested in Melville’s brilliantly presented vision.
So it is with Dickens. His novels are rooted in the particularities of nineteenth-century England, and they are full of the most outrageous characters and the most bizarre situations; characters and situations that could never have existed. In Bleak House, the novel we will be considering in this chapter, a character spontaneously combusts! Nevertheless, they show us important things about certain kinds of societies. They enlighten us about human relationships. They make clear the effects of industrialization on human beings, even for a post-industrial culture like ours. And they accomplish these things with humor and with humanity. They are remarkable achievements.
There are, however, three objections that are often raised against Dickens’ novels. These involves the length of those novels, their sentimentality, and the extraordinary amount of coincidence that pervades them. These are serious objections, but there are ways of explaining each of them. Let me begin by noting that for most Americans, if they have read a Dickens novel, it was probably A Tale of Two Cities, and if they have read two Dickens novels, the second one was probably Great Expectations. The reason for these selections is easy to see: they, along with Hard Times, are Dickens’ shortest complete novels, and given the amount of time that teachers have for teaching (with college semesters now at about fourteen weeks), our inclination is to use the shorter works. Furthermore, we tend to be in too much of a hurry in our everyday lives to read very long books. I have been using Tolstoy’s War and Peace in one of my courses for years, and once the students get over the shock of having to read fourteen hundred pages, they discover that the book is not terribly difficult and that they actually like it. But before they begin reading it, they are not very happy with me. Since some of Dickens’ greatest novels are closer to a thousand pages than they are to five hundred pages long, their sheer bulk tends to put readers off.
Unfortunately, A Tale of Two Cities is in many ways not typical Dickens. It is, to be sure, a wonderful book. The image of Madame Defarge and her knitting is priceless, and Sidney Carton’s self-sacrifice, along with his concluding speech, can never be forgotten. Furthermore, the novel does deal with themes that are present in other Dickens novels. Still, most of Dickens’ works are about England, and most of them are about England at roughly Dickens’ own time, while A Tale of Two Cities is about France in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, Tale’s relative brevity works against its being typical Dickens. Because of that brevity, Dickens does not have the time to develop his usual panoramic view. Great Expectations, however, is about the same length as A Tale of Two Cities, and it most certainly is typically Dickensian.
There are, however, simple explanations for the length of Dickens’ novels. One explanation is quite practical. Dickens wrote most of his novels to be published in monthly installments; and the more installments he wrote, the more magazines would be sold. That explanation is probably a bit too mercenary. Though Dickens was very much concerned with his finances (as who is not?), his novels do not contain “filler” put there to increase their length. But the fact remains that the longer a novel ran, the better it was for Dickens. Bleak House ran for eighteen months and was very popular. Of course, an eight-hundred page novel looks daunting to us, but if we were to divide it into eighteen monthly sections, each section would be about forty-five pages long. Just the psychological effect of eighteen forty-five-page sections rather than a single eight-hundred-page monster makes the work less daunting. (What always amazes me is that these long novels, in fact, everything we have discussed so far in this book, were written by hand. Imagine writing an eight-hundred-page novel by hand!) Of course, after their serialization, Dickens published his novels in book form, and they retained their popularity. Perhaps his readers did not feel as rushed as we do—we know from Austen, Trollope, and other writers that middle-class women and many middle-class men had very little that they were required to do—and were more willing to read long works while they sat around waiting for television to be invented. They certainly did not have all the distractions that we do.
If, however, we give these long novels a chance, we often find that they are captivating. Every novel creates a world, but the longer the novel is, the more developed that world can be. Dickens’ finest novels, with their wide-ranging settings, their traversal of England’s social classes, their focus on the problems of Victorian society, truly do feel like they capture the whole of that society. And if we read these books at a leisurely pace, not rushing through them but savoring Dickens’ language and enjoying his characters, we can enter what one of my teachers called the world of his novels.
Entering that world, naturally, entails accepting many of his conventions, including his sentimentality. We still like to have our emotions toyed with. Not only do soap operas flourish, but people often rush to movies where they can have “a good cry.” The ability of the arts to affect our emotions in this way is not only important but potentially healthy. It lies behind Aristotle’s doctrine of catharsis. Pure sentimentality, however, like pure oxygen, can be too much of a good thing. If sentimentality arises from natural situations, it may be fine, but if it arises from overt manipulation, may people object to it. I, for one, do not want to see a film whose sole purpose is to elicit tears, though I may be moved to tears by a particularly fine film. The question is whether this arousing of emotions is a means or an end. Sentimentality sees it as an end. Dickens certainly does have his share of sentimentality and of the melodrama that creates such sentimentality. My favorite example is The Old Curiosity Shop, a very long book, much of which is devoted to the death of Little Nell. Hundreds of pages are devoted to the death of Little Nell. It is the longest death scene in the history of literature. I am, frankly, relieved when Little Nell finally gives up the ghost, but Dickens’ original audience loved the whole morbid thing. They waited for installment after installment, hoping, perhaps, that antibiotics would be discovered and Nell could be saved. Clearly, though I like The Old Curiosity Shop, I find that aspect overdone.
Dickens’ sentimentality, however, is mostly better than that, and it is so for a specific reason. Dickens was highly sensitive to social wrongs and injustices. His feelings probably stemmed from his experiences as a child, but whatever their origin might have been, those feelings appear in novel after novel, as he explores problems in education, in the factories, in the financial system, in politics, in the law, and in the treatment of the poor. He is especially sensitive to the effects of social wrongs on children. He could have used those feelings to gather data and write sociological studies of child labor or corrupt politicians. He undoubtedly would have done a fine job and then been forgotten. Instead, he wrote novels that reveal and explore these problems, that illustrate their effects on people to whom we feel close. It may seem foolish for us to weep over the death of a little boy whose only reality is as words on a page, but if we can be moved by fictional characters, perhaps we can be more sensitive to their real-life counterparts.
I suspect that some of the objections to Dickens’ sentimentality come from people who object to being reminded of the social wrongs that we all tolerate all of the time. Rather than considering the important points that Dickens is making, they develop aesthetic objections, thereby relieving themselves of the guilt they might feel for taking part in a corrupt and oppressive system. In Bleak House, the death of Jo is not there for entertainment or to produce a gratuitous shedding of tears. Jo is a young boy on his own, with no one to watch out for him, to care for him, to love him. He does not even have a last name. He has nowhere to live. He survives on the scant charity of others, and the fact that he barely survives is a comment on the level of charity in Dickens’ England. When he finally does receive the attention he deserves as a human being, it is too late, and his pitiful death, as he tries to learn the words of the Lord’s Prayer, is a condemnation of the divine and human systems that made his life what it was. Dickens can be very funny when he wants to be, but he can also be bitter. Jo’s death is not simply sentimental. It is social criticism, and if we shed tears when we read about it, we are mourning for him, for all the Jos that we know still exist, and for ourselves, because we live in a world where Jos can and do exist.
Dickens’ sentimentality, then, stems from his concern with human relationships, and not all that sentimentality conveys tragedy. Nothing makes Dickens more happily sentimental than a loving family. The Bagnets in Bleak House are a wonderful example. Mr. and Mrs. Bagnet have their little peculiarities—she is all business, and he bows to her every opinion while pretending that they are his own—but they love and respect each other, they dote on their children, and they treat everyone they encounter with dignity. They are not financially well off, but they are among the richest characters in the novel; and when Dickens focuses the story on them, we can almost see him smile at their eccentricities while he delights in their warmth.
Dickens’ concern with human relationships brings us to the third of the criticisms often leveled against him, his reliance on coincidences. So much literature depends on coincidence that the charge against Dickens might seem specious. Romeo is in love with Rosalind when he just happens to see Juliet who just happens to be the daughter of his father’s bitterest enemy. Sure. The Danish king builds his new castle in the neighborhood where Grendel and his mother just happen to live. Right. Huck Finn and Jim just happen to come across the body of Huck’s father. Of course. But if coincidences abound in literature, they are everywhere in Dickens. His characters turn out to be related to each other at an alarming rate, or they know each other’s secret histories with amazing accuracy. It may seem that Dickens too often takes the easy way out by suddenly revealing a relationship that no one expected, but for Dickens these coincidences are not merely plot devices. They express an important point about his view of the world. At one point in Bleak House, Mr. Jarndyce and Mr. Woodcourt, looking at the dying Jo, both think “how strangely Fate has entangled this rough outcast in the web of very different lives” (chapter 47). Dickens’ point here is central to the novel: Jo is indeed an outcast in his society, poor, neglected, and dying, and yet he is intimately involved in the lives of all the major characters. The “web of very different lives” is an excellent image for the idea Dickens is trying to convey. Who would think there might be a connection between the haughty, rich, and pompous Sir Leicester Dedlock and a person like Jo? “What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!” (chapter 16). But the point is that social life is a web and that all these lives truly are connected. When we begin to read Bleak House, we seem to be reading several stories at the same time. A large number of characters are introduced relatively quickly, and the reader might well wonder what, if anything, they have to do with each other. As the novel progresses, however, the reader starts to see patterns of relationships. The characters themselves, like the reader, may be unaware of these patterns, which is perfectly natural. More problematical is their ignorance that such patterns are possible. If Sir Leicester sees no possibility of a connection between himself and Jo, then he makes himself incapable of ever seeing such a connection and he forces the Jos of the world into the position of outcast. If, on the other hand, Mr. Jarndyce recognizes the possibility of such connections, then he includes rather than excludes people. The difference is that between generosity and selfishness. The web is there. The question is whether we can see it, or whether we want to acknowledge it. I may be my brother’s keeper, but I also must know who my brother is.
So Dickens’ novels may seem to be full of coincidences, but those coincidences are meaningful. They ask us to consider the “web of very different lives,” to consider the connections, or even the possibility of connections, that exist among us. Those characters in Bleak House who see the world from this perspective are certainly far happier than those who do not. One element in the novel that helps us see this point is its dual narration. Approximately half of the novel’s chapters are narrated by Esther Summerson, who necessarily sees the story from her own limited point of view. The other half are narrated by an unnamed, omniscient narrator. Both are writing long after the action of the story has taken place, but their approaches are, as we should expect, quite different. Esther tells the story in the precise order that she became aware of things, but since she is one of the people who is open to the possibilities of the web, she aids us in discovering those possibilities. The anonymous narrator, who knows everything, does not share Esther’s sense of discovery. His presentation is more objective—“these are the connections that exist”—while Esther’s is subjective—“there are the connections as I discovered them.” Both narrators point to the connections, but they do so from different perspectives.
One important distinction between the narrators is that Esther is less likely to be overtly critical of characters or situations. Esther tends to look for the good in people, though she is not simply a Pollyanna. She cares for the people around her and finds it difficult to believe that people can intentionally behave badly. When she is confronted with evidence, however, as in the case of Harold Skimpole (about whom we will have more to say), she does not hesitate to state her opinion. She recognizes, too, the absurdity of Mrs. Jellyby, whose concern for Africa outweighs her concern for her own children, and the selfishness of that antiquated dandy Mr. Turveydrop (and doesn’t Dickens create wonderful names?), but since there would be nothing gained by confronting these characters with their failures, she does not bother. She is critical of the educational system that taught Richard “to make Latin Verses of several sorts, in the most admirable manner” but that never prepared him to do anything practical in life (chapter 13). Her response to evil and suffering is to try to relieve them, and she, along with characters like Mr. Jarndyce and the Bagnets, engages in many acts of kindness and charity. She is certainly aware of the actual conditions around her, though she is perhaps too polite to harp on them directly. Her use of indirect comment can be seen in one of her conversations with Miss Flite:
I said it was not the custom in England to confer titles on men distinguished by peaceful services, however good and great; unless occasionally, when they consisted of the accumulation of some very large amount of money.
“Why, good gracious,” said Miss Flite, “how can you say that? Surely you know, my dear, that all the greatest ornaments of England in knowledge, imagination, active humanity, and improvement of every sort, are added to its nobility! Look round you, my dear, and consider. You must be rambling a little now, I think, if you don’t know that this is the great reason why titles will always last in the land!”
I am afraid she believed what she said; for there were moments when she was very mad indeed.
Only a madwoman, Esther says, would believe that good deeds in the service of humanity are rewarded by a grateful England.
The anonymous narrator, on the other hand, is openly critical. His attitude toward the Dedlocks and their circle, which can be seen from the second chapter onward, is one of scorn and criticism. His references to “the fashionable intelligence,” that sector of society that cares about the activities of a moribund but still oppressive upper class, reveal his attitude to both the upper classes and to those who support them. His constant references to the Dedlocks’ footmen as “Mercuries” or “powdered Mercuries” betray a hostility to a society that admires ostentatious shows of wealth in the midst of crushing poverty. Sometimes his criticisms are merely implied, as they are when he mentions as part of a larger story that Mrs. Rouncewell, the Dedlocks’ housekeeper, felt obligated to report to Sir Leicester her own son’s participation in activities that, while harmless, were not to Sir Leicester’s liking. The implications of the story are clear: so powerful is the hold of the Dedlocks, the rich, that parents, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, are willing to inform on their children. At other times the narrator is bitter in his comments, for he is outraged at what he sees around him. When Jo dies, the narrator says, “Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day” (chapter 47). The narrator, and by extension Dickens, implicates the whole of British society in Jo’s death. From the queen through the nobility and the religious establishment down to all those people who profess compassion but do nothing, all are guilty of Jo’s death and of the deaths of so many others. The narrator understands and proclaims the implications of what he sees.
It is instructive to compare Esther’s and the narrator’s comments on poverty. When Esther is visiting one of the poor families that she helps, she says,
I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another; how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.
A little while later, in describing the burial of Nemo (which means “No one” and is another testimonial to the dehumanizing effects of this society), the narrator says,
With houses looking on, on every side, save where a reeking little tunnel of a court gives access to the iron gate—with every villainy of life in action close on death, and every poisonous element of death in action close on life—here, they lower our dear brother down a foot or two: here, sow him in corruption, to be raised in corruption: an avenging ghost at many a sick-bedside: a shameful testimony to future ages, how civilization and barbarism walked this boastful island together.
Esther sees the problem in terms of human relationships, while the narrator sees it in the more objective terms of moral judgment. Both views are correct, from their different perspectives; and by giving us both narrators, Dickens allows us to see clearly both perspectives.
Those perspectives raise another problem. We do not know why Esther is writing her account of the story. She has been asked to write it, but we do not know by whom or for what reason. Although it contains much that is critical, it is a highly personal story and recounts many acts of individual kindness. Such acts will not reform the system, but they do bring some relief to individuals. The anonymous narrator, on the other hand, is writing to tell a story, but he does so, we feel, in order to challenge the system. Lest anyone think that I am using a twenty-first-century concept of “the system,” let me cite the words of one of the novel’s unfortunate characters, Gridley:
The system! I am told, on all hands, it’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system. I mustn’t go into Court, and say, ‘My Lord, I beg to know this from you—is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice, and therefore am dismissed?’ My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there, to administer the system.
Gridley recognizes that the system is composed of individuals, each of whom consents to being part of the system and therefore bears responsibility for it. At the same time, the system seems to have a life of its own, a life which someone like Mr. Jarndyce can avoid or in which someone like Richard can become fatally entangled.
What, then, is the system? It often happens that readers, in trying to pin down what a book is about, will isolate a particular theme and declare that that theme is the subject of the book. Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is supposed to be about selfishness, while Bleak House is supposed to be about the law. There is indeed a law case at the center of Bleak House, the infamous case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a case that has dragged on for so long, involved so many documents and so many lawyers, and ruined so many lives that no one can keep track of it. Lawyers, as we all know, have been the target of much criticism and humor, from Shakespeare’s “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” (2 Henry VI, IV.ii) to “What’s brown and looks good on a lawyer? A Doberman.” Certainly the lawyers who populate the pages of Bleak House are less than admirable, from Mr. Tulkinghorn, who is always in the shadows, always appearing out of the dark, to Mr. Vholes ( a vole is a burrowing rodent), who looks like Death. While Jarndyce and Jarndyce drags on year after year, legions of lawyers make a living from it. In fact, it is not in their interest for the case to be settled, and so for them, the system is wonderful. As Mr. Kenge says to Mr. Jarndyce, “My dear sir, this is a very great country. Its system of equity is a very great system, a very great system. Really, really!” (chapter 62). So the law is certainly one of Dickens’ main targets in Bleak House, but this is not a novel about legal reform in the sense that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a novel about reforms in the meat-packing industry. Dickens makes not a single practical suggestion for reforming a single clear flaw in the legal system. That system, as we see over and over in the novel, is awful for everyone besides the lawyers, but that system is symptomatic of larger problems in England that are Dickens’ real targets. When Gridley comments on “the system,” he is commenting specifically on the legal system, but he is also commenting on a larger, more amorphous system that entraps almost everyone.
The openings of novels are very important. They often not only set a tone for the rest of the novel but they may indicate the novel’s thematic concerns. A good example is Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, which opens with a long chapter describing Egdon Heath, the novel’s physical setting. On a first reading, the reader may wonder why the chapter is there, but if the reader returns to that chapter after having finished the novel, it becomes clear how that chapter prepares us for the rest of the book, how it incorporates the setting and the themes of that highly uncheerful novel. The first chapter of Bleak House, too, serves this function. This chapter, entitled “In Chancery,” introduces us to the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, but it does far more. One of the oddities of this novel is that the place called Bleak House is one of the least bleak locales in the book. The bleakest settings are in London, and it is no accident that the novel opens, “London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.” The beginning of this chapter not only describes bleakness, it is itself bleak. In fact, the novel’s first grammatically complete sentence does not occur until the fourth paragraph. The first paragraph, consisting entirely of sentence fragments, describes mud, smoke, and soot, as well as the faceless crowd: “Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their footholds at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding more deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.” The paragraph begins with “London” and moves directly to the area of the law courts, after which it describes “tens of thousands” of individuals, their individualism emphasized by their individual jostling umbrellas that hide their individuality, all adding to the mud and filth that characterize the city.
The second paragraph, again consisting entirely of fragments, describes the fog: “Fog everywhere.” The people of this great city live in a perpetual fog, a fog that is both literal and metaphorical. Literally, London was a foggy city, largely because of the smoke generated by factories and fireplaces. Metaphorically, the people of London, all of those individuals adding to the filth, lived in a moral fog, as the rest of the novel illustrates. Every character, no matter how venal or self-serving, can justify his or her behavior. Almost no one seems to see the misery that surrounds them, the poverty, the injustice, the suffering; and even fewer take responsibility for it. The legal system, which professes its concern for equity but which is horribly flawed, becomes the perfect metaphor for England and for the “system” that treats human beings like objects, grinds them down, and then disposes of them. This novel is no exposé of the legal system. Instead it uses the well-known flaws of the elgal system to comment on the failings of the society. We see it in the Dedlocks and we see it in the most poverty stricken of the poor.
Sir Leicester bears an especially heavy responsibility because he is wealthy and because he is in the government, where he worries about political intrigues involving Lord Boodle and Lord Coodle, Sir Thomas Toodle, the Duke of Foodle, Goodle, and so on through the alphabet, or on the other side, Buffy, Cuffy, Duffy, and so on. If instead of playing such political games, the Sir Leicesters of England devoted their time to solving the country’s real problems, they might be able to do some good, but Sir Leicester cannot devote himself to solving problems of whose existence he is unaware, problems about which he chooses to be unaware. Dickens’ scorn is obvious. But the poor are not automatically good either. The husbands of Jenny and Liz beat their wives, and Krook is a crook.
On the other hand, there are numerous individuals who address the problems that Dickens points out in their own private ways. Esther and Mr. Jarndyce are clear examples, as are George, the Bagnets, Mr. Woodcourt, Jenny and Liz, and ultimately even Lady Dedlock; but they all operate as individuals, seemingly powerless against a system that appears to run on its own energy. Perhaps the most telling example of individual charity is Mr. Snagsby. The other charitable characters are openly charitable and gain some satisfaction from their good deeds; but poor Mr. Snagsby, who is meek, who is kind to his servant Guster (like Jo, a character without a last name), who is afraid of Tulkinghorn and of his own jealous wife, is frequently engaged in a kind of covert charity. Whenever he encounters someone who is poor or in need, he surreptitiously gives the person “half-a-crown, his usual panacea for an immense variety of afflictions” (chapter 22). Mr. Snagsby is neither a clever man nor a brave man. He trembles before anyone who behaves authoritatively. But he is a good man who, if he thought about it, would realize that he cannot change the system but who does the best he can to be generous and kind. In fact, if more of those “tens of thousands of other foot passengers” were less concerned with themselves and more like Mr. Snagsby, the oppressive system that dominates the novel might well break down.
There is yet another class of philanthropists in Bleak House who provide some of the novel’s comedy. Dickens’ novels, even the most critical, like Bleak House, tend to have humorous passages. In Bleak House, much of the humor is provided by Mrs. Jellyby and her colleagues. Mrs. Jellyby is something of a professional philanthropist, whose entire interest is focused on an African locale called Borrioboola-Gha. Her project is “to have from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha” (chapter 4). Not only is her project imperialistic, but her vision is so firmly focused on her futile mission in Africa that she does not, or cannot, see the real misery around her that she could actually help to alleviate. In fact, she cannot see the misery of her own children, whom she neglects, or of her husband, who at one point is downstairs trying to take care of his bankruptcy while she is upstairs dictating letters to Borrioboola-Gha. Mrs. Jellyby and her circle, with their ability to ignore the suffering that surrounds them, are no less a threat to England than the Dedlocks and their circle.
It is essential to realize, however, that as clearly as Dickens points out the evils of the system and of the individuals who allow or encourage the system to run, he is not creating simple stock figures. Esther may be a bit too self-righteous occasionally, but then the reality is that she is a good person to whom people turn in times of trouble. What is most interesting, though is the way the narrator is terribly critical of Sir Leicester through almost the whole book, but toward the end, when Sir Leicester is taken ill and suffers another misfortune, the narrator becomes sympathetic to him. The narrator is not looking for vengeance or just deserts. He is looking for justice, and he is dismayed at any instance of human suffering. It is tempting to identify this narrator with Dickens, but doing so would be an error. The narrator is as much a character as any of the novel’s other characters, and his behavior—his outrages, his sympathies—are as important as Esther’s
The way Dickens creates his characters is extraordinary. Commentators frequently refer to the large number of memorable characters in Dickens’ novels. Actually Dickens created a number of different kinds of characters. Some, like Esther, Mr. Jarndyce, and Lady Dedlock, are highly realistic. They are people who might have existed. Others have different degrees of verisimilitude. Some are plausibly real, like perhaps Mr. Guppy, and some are collections of eccentricities, like awful old Mr. Smallweed (and the rest of the Smallweeds). The fantastic part is that they all work so well together.
Dickens also has a habit of providing his characters with identifiable markers. Just as we may recognize a friend by his gait or by her posture, so Dickens endows each of his characters with some highly personal trait. If a character speaks emotionlessly out of the shadows, we know it is Tulkinghorn; if a character talks about the direction of the wind, we know it is Mr. Jarndyce; if a character qualifies his remarks with the comment “not to put too fine a point upon it,” we know it is Mr. Snagsby. This use of leitmotifs could become purely mechanical and even annoying, but Dickens is so skillful that he uses them to make his characters even more memorable. Each of their eccentricities fits their characters so well that rather than seeming mechanical, they seem perfectly natural.
Another technique that Dickens employs is the recurrence of particular images. Among the most important images in Bleak House are the fog and smoke that we have already seen, the Ghost Walk at the Dedlock estate, birds, and halos. The last two are especially interesting. Miss Flite, the pleasant old woman who has been driven mad by her interest in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, keeps a collection of caged birds in her squalid apartment. They are named “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want” and more. Caged birds are a perfect image for the effects of the law courts and of all that those courts represent. In contrast to these birds is the pet of Mr. Jarndyce’s friend Mr. Boythorn. This pet is “a very little canary, who was so tame that he was brought down by Mr. Boythorn’s man, on his forefinger, and, after taking a gentle flight around the room, alighted on his master’s hand” (chapter 9). The contrast between those poor caged birds, artificially constrained, and the tame canary perched on Mr. Boythorn’s hand is the contrast between the effects of an uncaring, inhumane, oppressive system and a system that might create harmony among its members.
Dickens uses the image of the halo in a similar way. His first description of the Lord High Chancellor shows this august person “with a foggy glow round his head” (chapter 1), and it is no mere coincidence that the Chancellor’s full title here has religious overtones. Shortly after, Sir Leicester is described as being “surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences” (chapter 2). This image appears a number of times in the novel, always in relation to some of the book’s less admirable characters. At one point, Esther even applies it to London:
In the north and north-west, where the sun had set three hours before, there was a pale dead light both beautiful and awful; and into it long sullen lines of cloud waved up, like a sea stricken immovable as it was heaving. Towards London, a lurid glare overhung the whole dark waste; and the contrast between these two lights, and the fancy which the redder light engendered of an unearthly fire, gleaming on all the unseen buildings of the city, and on all the faces of its many thousands of wondering inhabitants, was as solemn as might be.
The contrast that Esther points out between the “beautiful awful” light to the north, where there is relative peace, and the appearance of “unearthly fire” over London makes us think about those halos that are seen around the Chancellor, Sir Leicester, and Tulkinghorn, as does Mr. Snagsby’s impression when he sees a poor baby by the light of a lantern: “Mr. Snagsby is strangely reminded of another infant, encircled with light, that he has seen in pictures” (chapter 22). What we have here is a contrast between true halos and false ones. The Lord High Chancellor basks in his own light, while shedding misery around him, as do Sir Leicester and the city of London. Were they more aware of that other “infant, encircled with light,” perhaps their behavior would be different. But even Mr. Snagsby has only seen that infant in pictures. That infant is not a real presence in Dickens’ London, where the only representative of religion that we see is the fraudulent preacher Mr. Chadband, about whom Jo says,
“He prayed a lot, but I couldn’t make out nothink on it. Different times, there was other genlmen come down Tom-all-Alone’s a-prayin, but they all mostly sed as the t’other wuns prayed wrong, and all mostly sounded to be a-talking to theirselves, or a-passing blame on the t’others, and not talkin to us.”
So much for the role of establishment religion in helping to alleviate suffering in Bleak House.
One of the stranger characters in the novel is Harold Skimpole. Skimmpole is perhaps as frightening a character as exists in the novel. The major villains (and I will not reveal who they are) are clearly villainous, and the good characters are equally clearly good. Even the characters who mix good and evil can be appreciated and understood, but Harold Skimpole is so clever and so effective at what he does that he even fools those characters who are the best judges of character. Skimpole succeeds by denying the applicability of moral criteria to himself. He is determinedly amoral. He claims to have no understanding of money matters, though clearly he does, and he deceives even Mr. Jarndyce. He assumes no responsibility for his actions, though he does take credit, through a twisted kind of logic, for certain good deeds. What makes Skimpole so frightening is the extent to which his denial of his own responsibility for any of his actions frees him to do whatever he desires. He does not argue, as other characters might, that evil is really good. He claims that the categories do not apply to him at all. This defense of immorality is one we have seen too often in our time. Harold Skimpole, with his smile and his jocularity and the harm he does, represents a horrifying variation on the evil that plays such a large role in Bleak House.
Like so many great writers, then, Dickens focuses our attention on the problems of the individual, the problems of society, and the problems of the individual in society. He raises questions that we, as human beings living in society, must try to answer. That we have not so far come up with satisfactory answers in no way relives us of the responsibility to try. There are some people as I write these words who believe that we should try to recapture the values of the Victorian Era. There are some people who are trying to reestablish those values. Such people should read Dickens more carefully. The problems that he describes are the problems that are still with us. The major difference, perhaps, is that thanks to Dickens, we should know better. Whether we are talking about the poor, the law, gender relationships, education, or any number of other topics, we should take advantage of Dickens’ genius in our considerations.
Dickens, however, was not just a simplistic do-gooder. The wonderful thing about Dickens—what is wonderful about any great writer—is what the writer does with words. Dickens creates characters, situations, moods, and images that are unforgettable. I have read all of Dickens’ novels, many of them more than once, and I have never grown tired of reading him. I have tried to be selective in my recommendations for further reading in other chapters, but I find that I cannot be so selective here. Read Dickens—read all of him. Just try to find editions that have at least some of the illustrations by Hablot K. Browne, who was known as Phiz. They are such perfect illustrations of the scenes and characters that Dickens created that there should be a law (shades of Bleak House!) mandating their inclusion in any edition of Dickens’ works.
There are, in addition, other Victorian novelists whose works are both enjoyable and instructive. Close to Dickens is William Makepeace Thackery, especially his wonderful Vanity Fair. Also of interest are the novels of George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, The Egoist, and Diana of the Crossways. The novels of Anthony Trollope, as I mentioned earlier, provide a somewhat different perspective on Victorian England. And finally, for people who are too happy and want to bring their mirth under control, I recommend the novels of Thomas Hardy. His is an important, if depressing voice. At the same time, he is a fantastic writer, who excelled at writing both novels and poetry. Among his most important novels are The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Far from the Madding Crowd, and Jude the Obscure, but anything he wrote is well worth reading.
When novels first came into existence, there were people who thought that reading them was a frivolous way to waste time. We know that opinion is incorrect. There are time-wasting novels, and there novels that have made a difference to individuals and to nations. There is nothing wrong with reading the former sort, though a steady diet of such works cannot be healthy. What I hope my readers will see is that reading the latter class of novels is neither a chore nor a waste of time. It is one of the valuable pleasures of life.