On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

In his famous essay, John Stuart Mill defends the importance of individual liberty, which he suggests has been ignored in previous philosophical work. He explores the boundaries between our own individual liberty and society’s right to impede upon it, which Mill foresees as being “the vital question of the future.”

The major conclusion of the essay can be summarized like this: individuals should be free to make their own choices concerning themselves and their own interests without coercion from society or others, except if their choices harm others or society. Being able to consult our individual preference and ideas are a necessary ingredient for human happiness. People are at their best, happiest, and display their most admirable qualities when they are free to pursue their own interests. When society interferes and says you must do this and can’t do that in matters that only concern ourselves, people feel stifled and unhappy.

The problem is that society often does try to shape our values and limit our freedom. One way society does this is through laws. Some laws are just and necessary in so far as they regulate situations where one person may harm another, but many laws try to control behavior, actions, or permissible thoughts of others that have no direct effect on other people. Even democratic representative governments can pose problems for individual liberty in so far as the political ruling class serves the tyranny of the majority. There is a danger in the majority of society or the current ruling class infringing upon personal liberty and forcing others to adopt their values.

People often want to legislate their own sense of morality. Mill argues that what they are really doing is consulting their own preferences and confusing them with objective reality. Our ideas of how we think others should act are often just our personal preferences. I think it is worth mention that this can also happen at an individual level and not only at the societal level. Think of everyday remarks such as someone who says in disgust “why would you want to eat sushi?” People who make remarks like this fail to acknowledge that people have diverse tastes and they’re not forcing you to eat sushi if you dislike it.

Another factor that prevents us from consulting our inclinations and embracing our individual liberty is custom. Often we ignore our own preferences in order to conform to customs of our social class, religion, or culture. Customs require no discernment or critical thinking; they are already there and all we must do is accept them. Again, I don’t believe Mill is claiming we should never follow a custom if they conform to our individual preferences. Instead I think he means we shouldn’t follow customs blindly; we shouldn’t practice a custom simply because everyone else does or without thinking about our own reasons. If a person considers why they follow a custom and decide they enjoy the custom, then in many cases this may be a sufficient reason for continuing to follow it.

One way people can push back against ideas they dislike or think are harmful for individuals is through free speech. Mill is a strong advocate of free speech. People should be free to convince others that their way of life or their ideas about a particular topic are wrong. His arguments against society infringing on personal liberty mostly pertain to laws or attempts of suppression of free speech. One reason to support free speech is that people should have the opportunity to hear both sides of an argument. Suppression is bad because it prevents us from hearing both sides. We shouldn’t silence opinions because they may be true and since humans are fallible we may miss an opportunity of learning the truth. If we silence those who have different ideas, we may fail to learn the reason why our own ideas are false and discover what is true. In some cases, it’s possible that neither side has the truth, but “a portion of truth.” It is only in “the collision of adverse opinions” that occurs during a debate that we can hope to identify the portion of truth in each position that is missing from the other. Mill conceptualizes history as short bursts of progress made from one age to another in which the succeeding age has discovered a portion of the truth and progressed further than its predecessor, but not all the way, which is why progress continues to be made as history moves forward. Free speech is a critical part in the beginning stages of this progress from age to age that benefits everyone. Another reason that free speech is so important is that in cases where a person has the truth, it is worthless as a truth if it is never tested in the arena of debate. In Mill’s view, a truth is worthless if we can’t explain why it is true. Truth, even when true, becomes a dogma without good reasons and evidence and tests in debate to back it up.  The wise man tests his opinions by seeing if they can survive the many objections they will encounter and corrects his own when necessary. It is this process of testing and accumulation over time that brings wisdom to society as a whole. The only time opinions or free speech should be limited is when it may cause someone to act violently to others. He also suggests that insults and intemperate language should be avoided in debates whenever possible. Insults and mockery typically are advantageous to received or accepted opinion, however, minority opinions should avoid it for practical purposes as it decreases the likelihood of getting a fair hearing from those in the majority. The ideal person in a discussion gives everyone a fair hearing, interprets everyone’s arguments fairly, and even calls out unfair debate tactics of people on his or her own side.

Defending the principle of personal liberty allows everyone who takes advantage of it to engage in that which will make them happiest and the best human being they can be. Those who don’t wish to take advantage of this liberty and are fine with the status quo or received traditions can still benefit from those who do. Freethinking individuals are in a good position to identify when old truths no longer suffice or have evidence to support them, while their originality of lifestyle can offer new models for society of ways to live. Without those who innovate, life and society would not progress. We would be in a “stagnant pool.” Society needs these free individuals to create progress and persons of genius thrive in an atmosphere of freedom.

At the same, we do have some obligations to society as members who benefit from it. We have a duty to society to provide help to others who are in danger (such as someone who is on the side of the road and injured in a car accident), serve on a jury in a trial, and be drafted for the nation’s defense. In its best form, society protects our interests, so we owe our service to society in these things as needed.

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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White is considered one of the first sensation novels and a mystery. With that said, if you prefer to maintain the mystery for yourself, which is one of the joys of reading this novel you may not wish to read further in this post as it will contain spoilers.

 

On his way to accepting a position as drawing-master down at Limmeridge House, Walter Hartright encounters the mysterious woman in white who has escaped from an asylum. Walter little realizes how this one fateful night will embroil him in an extraordinary mystery and conspiracy. At Limmeridge House, he begins to teach the talkative and strong-willed Ms. Marian Halcombe and the beautiful, quiet, naïve Ms. Laura Fairlie, half-sisters to each other, only to fall in love with Laura. She returns Walter’s feelings, but unfortunately is already arranged to be married to a baronet named Sir Percival Glyde, which were the final wishes of her father on his death-bed. Soon an anonymous letter arrives for Laura describing Sir Percival Glyde as a heartless monster and warning her against marrying him. After some inquiry in town, it is discovered that the letter comes from the woman in white. Ms. Halcombe and Walter also learn from old letters of the late Mrs. Fairlie that the woman is named Anne Catherick and has once been to Limmeridge House. Walter speaks to Anne and finds out it was Sir Percival Glyde that locked her up in the asylum, but before they can find out the reason why Catherick flees in fear. It turns out that the Sir Percival sent her to an asylum because he believes Anne knows a terrible secret that could ruin him. The impending marriage sends Hartright to the Americas to forget his troubled emotions over Laura and Laura ends up in a loveless marriage that will lead to a conspiracy to steal her inheritance. Sir Percival Glyde marries Laura for her money to help pay off major debts. Once married Sir Percival’s friend, the cunning Count Fosco along with his wife who happens to be Laura’s aunt, come to stay at Blackwater Park, the estate of Sir Percival. Much of the novel is spent with Ms. Halcombe analyzing the behavior of these two men and attempting to outwit them in their conspiracies against her and Laura. Eventually the right opportunity comes and Count Fosco manages to switch Anne Catherick who strongly resemble Laura Fairlie with Laura Fairlie. Anne dies under the identity of Laura Fairlie, which allows the two men to inherit Laura’s money, while it is Laura who ends up in the madhouse as Anne Catherick. Ms. Halcombe rescues her sister from the asylum and Walter Hartright returns from the Americas and assists them in unraveling the conspiracy and restoring Laura’s identity as a living person.

 

The novel reveals the limits and problems of the law. Laura’s uncle, Mr. Fairlie who is an invalid and hates to be bothered with responsibilities, shows an unwillingness to fight for the best possible marriage settlement for Laura at the advice of his lawyer. Laura is at the whims of her male uncle’s decisions. If he had accepted the lawyers suggestion to not include her entire inheritance in the marriage settlement should Laura die it is likely the conspiracy against his niece never would have occurred. Likewise, the law has no recourse to prove the conspiracy perpetuated on Laura without the hard-gained evidence gathered by Walter Hartright. Even Percival Glyde’s secret which involved him forging information about his parent’s marriage in a registry at a church in order to inherit his titles and estates fails to be discovered by the means of the law. On the other hand, it is the laws of society that lead Sir Percival to forge the information in the first place. He is in fact the son of the previous Baronet and his lover, but because they were never legally married he isn’t entitled to his father’s estate according to society’s law. This arbitrary rule of society that his parents must be married for him to inherit shows the inadequacy of the law. It isn’t the law that brings Count Fosco to justice, but an assassin serving the secret society that he betrayed; in other words, vigilante justice, the very opposite of the law. The novel then shows the many ways the law fails to bring justice on various crucial issues.

Count Fosco is a challenge to the Victorian assumption that the arts and literature morally improve a person. He is as cultivated in the arts and in the sciences as one can be during this time period and claims to be sensitive to others emotions and feelings (a man of sentiment), yet he questions morality and virtue, and displaying a willingness to kill, ruin, or destroy anyone who gets in the way of his own interests. He not only shows us this, but tells us he is will punish anyone who threatens his interests. He also makes a speech before the two lady’s against virtue. Sir Percival represents a very different type of evil. He is all anger, tyranny, and resentment towards others, unable to control his emotions, yet hesitant to go as far as Fosco and kill others, preferring to control them through intimidation. As Fosco reveals in his letter that appears towards the end of the book, if Sir Percival had just taken his advice to have Mr. Hartright murdered and had recommitted Laura to the asylum they never would’ve been outwitted in the end.

Eventually Percival Glyde and Count Fosco do get their comeuppance. Percival dies in a fire after accidentally locking himself in the vestry when trying to destroy the forgery that he made all those years ago in attempt to remove the evidence against himself. Count Fosco is murdered in Paris for betraying a political brotherhood he once belonged to as a younger man in Italy. Walter attributes their demises, along with the necessary and accidental discoveries he makes along the way that help him solve the many mysteries in the book and restore Laura’s good name, to divine providence. This directly repudiates the Count’s philosophy against virtue that he makes in his speech. On the other hand, Laura marries Sir Percival and rejects Walter out of virtue (honoring her father’s wishes as opposed to her own “selfish” desires). She even reveals to Sir Percival that she will marry him, but doesn’t love him as her heart belongs to another. This admission is the virtuous thing to do, which of course only leads to Sir Percival’s resentment and is used by him as an emotional weapon against her. Insistence on virtue then causes the characters many problems. The story then at least partially affirms some of the Count’s arguments against virtue, even if it also rejects it overall. Perhaps Collins is suggesting too much virtue can be just as dangerous and just as much a character flaw as rejecting it completely. Another possibility is that Collins is implying that good and virtuous people might suffer from those who feel no such compunctions in the short term, but eventually justice and the divine plan rewards those who remain good and virtuous no matter what problems life throws at them.

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

“[F]or not an orphan in the wide world can be so deserted as the child who is an outcast from a living parent’s love” – chapter 24

Not one of his better known novels, Dombey and Son represents a transitional novel from his earlier works to his more serious and better developed later novels (such as Bleak House and David Copperfield). The overall work is good, but a little bloated.

Mr. Dombey is a rich and prideful merchant who heads one of the most successful and famous firms in England, Dombey and Son. His first wife dies after delivering the esteemed son who will continue the family legacy and business. Unfortunately for Mr. Dombey and his plans, the son proves sickly, and dies early in his childhood, leaving only the unloved and neglected daughter from his first marriage, Florence. His daughter wants only to be loved by her father, but he views her with indifference at first, which eventually intensifies to hatred in the belief that she was a rival for his first wife’s love and Paul’s affections. Suffering from grief over the death of his son, Dombey decides to accompany his newfound friend, Joey Bagstock, a retired sycophantic military man, to the English countryside where he meets a beautiful woman named Edith. Impressed with her accomplishments and with the encouragement of Edith’s scheming mother, Dombey proposes to her. Edith accepts the marriage, but possesses a pride of her own which disdains her new husband’s wealth and consideration as worthless things. Their prideful natures quickly conflict and lead to an unhappy married life. Meanwhile, the sycophantic Mr. Carker, Dombey’s second-in-command at the firm, betrays his employer when the time is right by putting the firm at risk with bad investments and running off with Dombey’s dissatisfied new bride in the hopes of seducing her. Dombey in his anger and damaged pride over these events pushes Florence to run away from home. Only after he loses everything does Dombey understand how his pride has blinded him and discovers his love for his daughter. Intersecting this main plot is the story of Walter who secretly loves Florence and ends up missing in a shipwreck when the firm sends him off to Barbados.

Like a classical Drama from Ancient Greece, Dickens builds his novel and conflict around a character flaw. Dombey’s flaw is his extreme pride, which leads him to trust in sycophants like Joey Bagstock and Mr. Carker. Carker ends up betraying him, while Bagstock only uses the connection to increase his own reputation among society. Not only does his pride lead him to become the dupe of sycophants, but he turns on characters he should trust such as his own sister, his own daughter, and Miss Tox (a friend of Dombey’s sister) all of whom genuinely love him in their own way. This extreme pride drives him towards the brink of madness. Even when his business ventures fall apart, his pride prevents him from accepting a deal that would allow him to dissolve the business and keep a portion of his personal fortune to live upon. Instead his pride demands that all his fortune be available to pay the firm’s debts, including his personal assets.

If pride is Dombey’s personal flaw, his unbridled belief in the power of money is his ideological flaw. Most of Dickens’ novels criticize this extreme capitalist view in which people are a means to an end and your worth is defined by your wealth. He tries to explain this vision of money to his son, Paul, before the character dies from sickness.

“What is money after all!” said Mr. Dombey, backing his chair a little, that he might the better gaze in sheer amazement at the presumptuous atom that propounded such an inquiry.

“I mean, papa, what can it do?” returned Paul, folding his arms (they were hardly long enough to fold), and looking at the fire, and up at him, and at the fire, and up at him again.
Mr. Dombey drew his chair back to its former place, and patted him on the head. “You’ll know better by-and-by, my man,” he said. “Money, Paul, can do anything.”

Dombey learns the hard way that money cannot do anything. It cannot save his beloved son from death, nor can money reconcile him to his daughter. Florence loves her father better once most of his money is gone, once all that pride and status that warped his mind is stripped away. Indeed, it is precisely those things that prevented him from loving his daughter.

He views relationships in terms of financial transactions, which is a fundamentally dehumanizing process. This is apparent when he hires Polly to be a nurse for Paul, demanding she change her name to Richards. Even though a nurse will naturally develop a close relationship with her charges, Dombey insists this relationship be only a pecuniary one.

“I desire to make it a question of wages, altogether. Now, Richards, if you nurse my bereaved child, I wish you to remember this always. You will receive a liberal stipend in return for the discharge of certain duties, in the performance of which, I wish you to see as little of your family as possible. When those duties cease to be required and rendered, and the stipend ceases to be paid, there is an end of all relations between us. Do you understand me?”

In his worldview all people and relationships are mere possessions, which can bought and sold for the right price. Not only does Dombey see the nurse this way, but he even views his first wife as a piece of property.

“If his wife should sicken and decay he would be very sorry, and that he would find a something gone from among his plate and furniture, and other household possessions, which was well worth the having, and could not be lost without a sincere regret.”

He likens his wife to a piece of plate or furniture, a valued material possession, but he doesn’t see her as an actual person with feelings and emotions. This is why his second wife, Edith, ultimately disdains Dombey’s wealth. She understands that to Dombey and other rich suitors she is a mere object, a commodity, a possession to be bought and sold.

“He sees me at the auction, and he thinks it well to buy me. Let him! When he came to view me—perhaps to bid—he required to see the roll of my accomplishments. I gave it to him. When he would have me show one of them, to justify his purchase to his men, I require of him to say which he demands, and I exhibit it. I will do no more. He makes the purchase of his own will, and with his own sense of its worth, and the power of his money; and I hope it may never disappoint him. I have not vaunted and pressed the bargain (chapter 27).”

Edith’s mother is no better than a pimp who is selling her daughter to the highest bidder. Edith’s mother stole her childhood and trained her from birth to be an object of interest to rich men.

The novel then is exploring the way money and pride distort human relationships, not only through Dombey, but also through many of its other characters such as Edith, Carker, and Bagstock. Each of these characters has a pride that leads to unethical behavior. Dickens is trying to show how pride, even different forms of pride, prevent us from being humane people who are capable of loving their fellow man. The contrast to these characters is provided by characters such as Florence and Harriet who have no pride, willingly sacrificing themselves for others, and capable of the deepest love for their family and friends.

One of the reasons Dombey fails to connect with his daughter is that these attitudes prevent him from understanding the nature of love in the first place. The last image of his first wife is her embracing their neglected daughter. He has no part in his first wife’s final moments.

“The last time he had seen his slighted child, there had been that in the sad embrace between her and her dying mother, which was once a revelation and a reproach to him. Let him be absorbed as he would in the Son on whom he built such high hopes, he could not forget that closing scene. He could not forget that he had had no part in it. That, at the bottom of its clear depths of tenderness and truth, lay those two figures clasped in each other’s arms, while he stood on the bank above them, looking down, a mere spectator—not a sharer with them—quite shut out (60).”

The final image of his first wife disturbs his sense of self. He doesn’t know what to make of this love he is witnessing between mother and daughter. It has no place in his worldview. His pride makes all his relationships about him. He marries his first wife because he believes her subservience to his will reflects his own greatness; he marries the second one because he hopes her pride will bolster his and her accomplishments and beauty be a reflection of his own greatness. His relationships are not relationships, so much as mirror images of his imagined greatness. Dombey’s pride interferes with forming true connections with people because it makes all relationships about him rather than about two human beings who love and respect each other. It is this inability to form true relationships and experience love that is the defect of pride. Only when Dombey loses everything and is brought to the lowest point, his pride crushed by events, can he learn to love Florence.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

“It could not, sir,” said Mr. Kenge, “have been stated more plainly and to the purpose if it had been a case at law.”
“Did you ever know English law, or equity either, plain and to the purpose?” said my guardian.
“Oh, fie!” said Mr. Kenge.

David Copperfield is the novel Dickens himself liked best, while Bleak House is the novel literary critics tend to like the most and hail as his masterpiece. Compared to his earlier novels it is extremely dark and serious. It unfolds with an unusual narration, switching between chapters that are told in first person past tense by the protagonist Esther Summerson and a more impersonal omnipotent third person present tense narration about various characters. This third-person narration allows Dickens to generalize about the world, while Esther’s narration told from the perspective of a character that is obedient and self-deprecating in light of Victorian patriarchal ideals allows for a more personal connection to the characters of the story. Initially the experience of these two contrasting viewpoints is jarring, but eventually as we come to know the many personalities and unique cast of characters better the novel smoothes out into an enthralling carriage ride through the dark streets of London and English countryside that comes together to produce one of the best novels in English ever written.

The novel’s plot revolves around a long-standing court case known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which casts it shadow over all the characters. As a consequence of this case, John Jarndyce takes on two distant cousins, Ada and Richard, as wards. He also invites Esther Summerson, an orphan who he advocated for as a child, to serve as the main housekeeper at Bleak House and intimate companion to the two wards. Love eventually blooms between the two cousins, and Richard tries his hand at numerous jobs, but his belief that he will inherit a great deal of money from the court case stymies his interest in possible careers and eventually leads him to fall under the obsessive spell of Jarndyce and Jaryndyce, breaking off his relations with his guardian and benefactor who he suspects of having ulterior motives related to the case and inheritance. Paralleling and intersecting this story is the tale of the aristocratic Lady Dedlock who hides a secret from her past about a former ex-lover and a dead child that threatens her social position in the upper class, as well as the story of Mr. Tulkinghorn, a lawyer, who is murdered over his quest for knowledge and power.

Bleak House is a book about how chancery (lawsuits dealing with estates and wills) ruins people’s lives by providing false hope. The novel satirizes chancery court and the frivolousness of law courts in general. Richard’s aimlessness and lack of ambition stem from being raised with deferred hopes of one day inheriting a substantial inheritance from the lawsuit; this attitude defines Richard as an anti-Dickens heroine. The “good” characters in a Dickens novel are those who are virtuous and industrious in the face of a society working against them, while it is the greedy, selfish, and obsessive characters that end up suffering and losing everything. The court case literally kills Richard, breaking down his mental health with constant worry. The case causes Richard to suspect the motives of Mr. Jarndyce whose interest in the case runs contrary to his own, but the reader sees that Mr. Jarndyce is a kind-hearted man who cares only for the good of Richard and denigrates the case as the “family curse,” wanting nothing to do with it.  As Richard’s part of the tale suggests, injustice and delay of hopes makes people unreasonable. It breed suspicions, causing people to find enemies where there are no enemies, to exaggerate slights, and imagine wrongs. Richard misjudges who his true friends are and lets greedy lawyers, in the form of Mr. Vholes, take advantage of him and his already restricted finances.

It is appropriate given this theme that the novel opens with a vast fog obscuring all of London. The “fog” looming over all the various characters is symbolic. Richard’s vision is clouded by a “fog” by placing his false hopes in Chancery and diving head first into such folly that will lead inevitably to his ruin; the metaphor extends even further in that the fog of his false hopes clouds his vision and judgements of other people. Lady Dedlock’s fog is the terrible secret of her past that she tries to hide, but which keeps following her and looming over the happiness of her future due to the pertinacity of Mr Tulkinghorn, her husband’s lawyer, and his inquiry into the mystery. A fog covers Esther as an orphan not knowing her parents or her true identity. The characters must slowly lift the metaphorical fog over their lives, sometimes leading to disastrous results. Yet some of the characters do overcome the obstacles placed in their lives. So why do the others succumb?

An important scene to help us navigate this question comes in the middle of the novel, when Esther Summerson is struck by a disease that deprives her of her good looks. An altered appearance doesn’t embitter Esther or change her inner character substantially. She remains the same person exemplified by her good qualities and sound judgment. Why do some people suffer loss of beauty, fortune, love, and other tragedies of human experience and remain unchanged like Esther Summerson, while others such as Richard can fall into poverty and be so completely changed for the worse by it? The answer seems to be a deep inner character, the cultivation of true virtue and selflessness where you put others rather than yourself first. Richard is a warning against putting your hopes in a foolish dream as a replacement for hard work. Esther has a deep inner character that can withstand misfortune and setbacks. Eventually her virtuous behavior is rewarded when she marries Dr. Allan Woodcourt. As described in the last chapter it adds to the poignancy of Richard’s fall by providing a model for what Richard and Ada’s relationship could have become, even in poverty, had he abandoned his misguided quest for comfort and ease.

“We are not rich in the bank, but we have always prospered, and we have quite enough. I never walk out with my husband but I hear the people bless him. I never go into a house of any degree but I hear his praises or see them in grateful eyes. I never lie down at night but I know that in the course of that day he has alleviated pain and soothed some fellow-creature in the time of need. I know that from the beds of those who were past recovery, thanks have often, often gone up, in the last hour, for his patient ministration. Is not this to be rich?”

Esther and Dr. Woodcourt have the happy relationship that Richard and Ada could have attained had Richard not ensnared himself in the false of hopes of riches. In line with the idea that virtuous behavior brings happiness in the long run that defines so many of Dickens’ protagonists throughout his works, Esther in the quote above reminds us that it is not money that makes people happy, but the ability to help other people. Not only does Esther exemplify this, along with her husband Dr. Woodcourt, but the entire novel can be seen as a testament to Mr. Jarndyce and his overwhelming goodness. Mr. Jandyce is man with no selfish aims, but thrives on helping others and seeing the best in them, even when they are at their worst. As seen through the eyes of Esther, Mr. Jarndyce, is there to remind us that much kindness can exist in a bleak, cold, calculating world. If more people were like Mr. Jarndyce and Esther Summerson we would live in a much kinder and selfless world.

For all its bleakness there is a dark sense of humor buried within the layers of the novel. On the day the final judgment finally arrives in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, Esther comes into court to find all the lawyers laughing about the final results of the case. As it turns out the entire case ends up being one giant joke. Due to the length and duration of the case all the money in the vast estate goes to paying the lawyers’ fees. The final punch line is that only the lawyers get paid in the end and everyone else is left with nothing.

When Richard is considered beside other characters such as Mrs. Jellyby it also becomes apparent how each of these characters is an example of mistaken priorities. Mrs. Jellyby considers it so important to pursue social causes—first to establish a settlement in a region of Africa and, by the end of the book after this crusade proves a disaster, her time and attention shifts to getting women to be allowed to serve in Parliament—that she neglects her household affairs much to the chagrin of her emasculated husband, her overworked daughter, and neglected children. She creates a daughter who secretly resents her and marries a man to escape her mother’s misgoverned household.  Whereas her mother completely neglected her children, unable to put aside her projects to even take much interest in her own daughter’s wedding plans, Caddy spends her time planning every last detail of her baby daughter’s life.

Indeed, Dickens has a lot of fun at the expense of political women, providing us with a few examples in addition to Mrs. Jellyby.  During Caddy Jellyby’s wedding a group of political women with their own social causes attend the wedding, with each party-member disregarding the others’ social mission as inherently unimportant.

“Miss Wisk informed us, with great indignation, before we sat down to breakfast, that the idea of woman’s mission lying chiefly in the narrow sphere of home was an outrageous slander on the part of her tyrant, man. One other singularity was that nobody with a mission . . . cared at all for anybody’s mission. Mrs. Pardiggle being as clear that the one infallible course was her course of pouncing upon the poor and applying benevolence on them like a strait-waistcoat; as Miss Wisk was that the only practical thing for the world was the emancipation of woman from the thralldom of her tyrant, man. Mrs. Jellyby, all the while, sat smiling at the limited vision that could see anything but Borrioboola-Gha.”

Despite the veneer of these being social missions for the benefit of other people, one detects a narcissistic selfishness about each of these characters. They are willing to accomplish their missions at any cost, even at the expense of their own families’ happiness.

There are many other characters to serve as comical relief in Bleak House. Mrs. Snagsby is an especially hilarious addition to novel, serving as a female Othello, in that she suspects an impoverished orphan boy named Jo is secretly her husband’s son with another woman and any woman that her husband’s speaks to as secretly being his clandestine mistress, despite no evidence other than her unwarranted paranoia. The lawyer Kenge, who serves as Mr. Jarndyce’s solicitor in the case, is known for his verbose speeches that say a lot with little substance, a not too subtle commentary on the nature of lawyers. Then there is Sir Leicester Dedlock, the noble husband of Lady Dedlock, who often spends his time contemplating his own greatness. And one cannot forget the scenes with Mr. Guppy who pines away after Esther Summerson to his friends, only to quickly renounce his affections and annul his offer of marriage when he finds her physical beauty impaired from the disease.

At its deepest level, Bleak House is really a novel about discovering our own identity. Are we merely our obsessions such as with Richard? Are we defined by our parents or lack thereof like Esther? Are our identities the past which haunts us like Lady Dedlock? Are we our knowledge or lack thereof such as in the case of poor Jo the orphan who can’t navigate the complicated world of Victorian England because as he tells us he knows nothing about anything? Are we our class like in the case of Sir Leicester Dedlock? Do our identities revolve around the people we help raise or our children such as with John Jarndyce and Caddy Jellyby? Are we defined by our social causes like Mrs. Jellyby? Are we truly defined not by our knowledge of ourselves, but what knowledge we possess of others such as in the case of Mr. Tulkinghorn who collects the secrets of the upper class? After all knowledge is power.

The tensions of the novel revolve around these identity questions as they clash or prove tenuous. John Jarndyce rejects the chancery case bearing his name and thus the “family curse,” forging his own identity. Yet, even his identity is troubled. We are told repeatedly that he is a good man and his actions prove this description, but when he breaks off his engagement with Esther for the sake of her happiness so she can marry Dr. Woodcourt, he is almost too unselfish. He plays a particular role and buries his own desires for the sake of others; he begins as the guardian of others and as the ending tells us he ends as the guardian of others, in this case, Esther’s and Ada’s children. Often the gender politics around Esther seems troubling because she allows herself to assume the roles that others thrust upon her, but this has just as much to do with her lack of a solid identity by growing up as an orphan as it does with her being female. She has no parents to mold her values, so the world at large and those closest to her mold her values. If she defers to others, it would seem in many ways so does John Jarndyce. Even with minor characters like Mr. Guppy identity is at stake. His supposed deep feelings for Esther is one of his defining characteristics, but the change of her appearance that leads to him renouncing those feelings demonstrates the shallowness of what are supposedly his deepest desires and the flexibility of identity given new contexts. When Lady Dedlock’s lover from the past reappears for a short time in the novel before he dies of an opium overdose he has changed his name to Nemo (meaning: no one). If we have any doubts about whether this is a novel about the problems of identity the presence of this character who has lost any form of identity, even stripping himself of a name, should convince us otherwise.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield is a heavily autobiographical bildungsroman, which Dickens called his favorite child and claimed he liked the best of all his works. It is a sprawling novel with many different plot threads that intersect and a large cast of character, which makes it difficult to summarize.

The story begins with David’s birth after the death of his father. An aunt named Betsey Trotwood arrives to assist the widowed Mrs. Copperfield with her pregnancy, promising to take care of her and the baby financially with the expectation it will be a girl. The expectation proves wrong and the temperamental aunt leaves in anger that David is not a girl. David has some good years growing up with his mom and his childhood servant, Pegotty, until his mother decides to remarry to Mr. Murdstone. Mr Murdstone brings along his sister who together try to crush the mother’s spirit and are outright abusive to David. They send him off to a detestable school where he recieves regular beatings and punishments from the headmaster, Mr. Creakle. There he meets James Steerforth, a haughty young man with a vibrant spirit, and Traddles, who both befriend the young Copperfield. He leaves school and on returning home the Murdstones have crushed his mother’s spirit to the point where she no longer wants to live and dies. They send him to founder in London, fending for himself where he takes residence as a renter with Mr Micawber and his family whose out of control spending and inability to secure work put them into debt.

After experiencing poverty and abuse, and knowing he won’t survive long living such a harsh life, David leaves London and seeks aid from his aunt. She decides to raise him, sends him off to school, and fosters him with Mr Wickfield and his daughter, Agnes. He also meets obsequious clerk named Uriah Heep. He grows to view Agnes as a sister.

In his later life he meets Steerforth again from his younger days. They rekindle their friendship. The two go to visit the home of David’s old nurse home where Steerforth begins courting Emily, the niece of Mr. Pegotty, in secret even though she has recently become engaged. Emily runs off with Steerforth, abandoning her fiancé and family, leaving them in a state of grief and disappointment, while ruining her reputation. David sees Steerforth in his true nature and repudiates the friendship. Mr Pegotty leaves home and wanders the world to recover his niece, eventually finding her, after Steerforth abandons her out of boredom.

Copperfield decides to become a Proctor (a type of ecclesiastic lawyer), which leads him to meet his first wife, Dora, who is the daughter of his mentor in the field.  She is a silly spoiled empty-headed doll, but in his naive youth David falls for her beauty. He eventually abandons the law to become a successful and famous writer, and marries Dora. He also meets up with Traddles again, another friend from his former school, who is also becoming a lawyer.

Eventually the former clerk of Mr Wickfield, Uriah Heep, rises through his treacherous machinations to become a partner of the business and secretly desires to marry Agnes. Mr. Micawber, a friend from Copperfield’s early days, takes employment as the new clerk of Wickfield and Heep, due to his massive debt. While employed, he learns about Uriah’s malevolent plans and with the help of David, Traddles, and others manages to thwart them.

Many of the characters move to Australia to start new lives such as Emily and Mr Pegotty, Mr Micawber and his family, while David leaves the country to explore Europe after the death of his wife, Dora. On this trip, while dealing with his grief, he comes to an epiphany that he loves Agnes. When he returns the two meet up and after many struggles admit their love for each other, ending in a happy marriage of equal minds.

A common theme of coming-of-age novels is a lack of self-knowledge. In growing up David hits many bumps and makes many mistakes not just in his judgements about the character of other people, with the most conspicuous example being Steerforth, but he even misjudges his own desires. David thinks of Agnes as a sister, never realizing his true feelings for her until the end of the book, even though the reader sees it right away. Dora is the beautiful doll most of us think we want to marry in our youth (“the first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart”), while Agnes is David’s intellectual and moral equal whose the type of wife that a mature heart desires. When David falls for Agnes he looks beyond only physical beauty and searches for compatibility of character and ideas. Copperfield grows into self-knowledge and awareness as the book progresses. This is in contrast to the wicked characters of the book who seem to be unaware of their moral failings and therefore never attempt to change themselves for the better.

It is hard to tell what to make of Uriah Heep’s false humility. When all his scheming is uncovered the other characters observing him claim it is a mask, a defense mechanism to get people to put down their guards. Part of me wonders, though, if he truly believes himself humble, that he has convinced himself that he is in fact humble. Even more interesting is when David finally confronts the Murdstones as an adult, outright telling them he misused his mother and himself. We find two people not only unrepentant of the past, but who truly believe their actions were morally justified, despite their obviously cruel and abusive behavior. Likewise, for all his worldliness, Steerforth lacks self-control, and by extension, self-knowledge. This lack of self-control allows him to jump from one desire to another, which jeopardizes his friendship with David and even the relationship he has with his mother. One gets the sense that he just wanders, unsure of his purpose, following his whims. He attends college, but never stays their long, and isn’t clear what he is studying or that he cares for it much.  Steerforth moves through life without a plan, destroying anything that gets in his way.

After his fame, David and Traddles find themselves invited by their cruel schoolmaster from their youth, now a prison magistrate, to come survey the facility in his charge:

“Traddles and I repaired to the prison where Mr Creakle was powerful. It was an immense and solid building, erected at a vast expense. I could not help thinking, as we approached the gate, what an uproar would have been made in the country, if any deluded man had proposed to spend one half the money it had cost, on the erection of an industrial school for the young, or a house of refuge for the deserving old.”

It is depressing to see in a book written in 1849 – 1850 that our political priorities on where to spend tax money hasn’t changed much. At the prison, Copperfield and Traddles discovers an incarcerated Uriah Heep and Mr. Littimer who are praised by their caretakers as model prisoners due their false humility and their deceitful repentance. Indeed, Uriah Heep’s false modesty thrives in the particular reform system in place in this prison, damning the system as a waste of taxpayers dollars and not producing genuine reform.

Like in most Dickens’ novels, the virtuous triumph by making good decisions and acquiring faithful friends to aid them in their conflicts, while the unethical succumb to their own twisted machinations. Dickens shows us the moral difference of those who practice their ambition at the expense of others (Heep and Murdstone) versus those willing to sacrifice for the happiness of others (Copperfield, Mrs. Trotwood, Traddles, Agnes). Uriah Heep, James Steerforth, and Littimer all get their appropriate punishments, while the heroes all get their just rewards and live happily ever after. Throughout almost all his novels Dickens communicates that virtuous behavior will be rewarded over time, while greed and backhanded scheming against your fellow man will be punished.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

The Old Curiosity Shop is a menagerie of grotesque figures, replete with dwarves, giants, obsequious and unscrupulous lawyers, Punch and Judy shows, high-stakes gambling, and waxwork museums. These disparate and outlandish elements make this one of Dickens most imaginative novels, but for many the carnivalesque atmosphere and sentimental tone may prove too chaotic.

In the novel, the angelic Little Nell lives with her grandfather in an antique shop. Her grandfather disappears every night for mysterious reasons. It turns out he has been borrowing money from a rich and malevolent dwarf named Quilp so he can gamble it away in the hopes of amassing from the spoils an inheritance for Little Nell. Instead of gaining a fortune, he loses all of the borrowed money instead. Quilp discovers how the grandfather has been disposing of his loans and seizes their property (the old curiosity shop) to make back some of his losses. After Quilp seizes the property, Little Nell and her grandfather escape London and go on the run into the countryside, begging and working odd jobs to make a living. Meanwhile, Nell’s worthless and disowned brother, Frederick, conspires with his friend, Richard Swiveller to marry Little Nell, falsely believing his grandfather to possess a lot money and believing that his grandfather is planning to leave it all to his sister. Quilp knowing the truth about the grandfather’s poverty plans to assist them as a way of getting revenge on Richard and Frederick; he resents Richard for punching him during a fight they have in the early part of the novel and he just doesn’t particularly like Frederick. His plan is to help Richard marry Nell for her money, only for him to discover that she is penniless and now an additional burden on his own insufficient funds. Kit, a servant of Nell and the grandfather, finds himself out of work once his employers lose their property and go on the run. He soon improves his situation by getting new job attending the pony of Mr and Mrs. Garland whom he meets accidentally one day while wandering the streets. However, the vindictive Quilp who holds a grudge against Kit for rude comments regarding his stature, conspires with Mr. Brass, a lawyer, to frame Kit for a crime he didn’t commit.

The work’s biggest strength is that it is extremely imaginative. We get to see a playful fantastic side of England absent from some of Dickens’ other works, a countryside full of dwarves and giants, traveling showmen, and all other forms of bizarre entertainments. At first I found myself enjoying the story, but after thinking about it more, I started to realize there really wasn’t much of a story at all. It is really the tale of an old man and his granddaughter losing their antique shop because of his gambling habit and the consequences this loss has on all the other characters’ fates. However, that is description would give most reader’s a false impression of the novel as tightly plot when the story is more a loose and jumbled set of narratives tied together by Quilp’s villainy against various characters; there are really more like two or three different plot rather than a single coherent one forming a sturdy backbone. We have the story of Little Nell and her grandfather’s journey through the countryside after losing everything, we have the story of Kit falsely being framed for a crime after getting on Quilp’s bad side, we have Richard Swiveller’s story of a man of profligate tendencies who has a moral redemption by helping a poor servant suffering under the cruel yoke and mistreatment of her employers. Many critics of this novel dislike it for its extreme sentimentality, but I personally think lack of a cohesive and well-structured plot is its bigger flaw.

Dickens writes a wide variety of interesting characters, but none of whom are particularly deep or insightful ones. While I thought Quilp was an interesting character overall (a repugnant devil who plays counterpoint to Little Nell’s perfect goodness), his motivations for his misdeeds against other characters are vague (usually stemming from some perceived insult to him and his dwarfism). Some characters seem completely unnecessary; characters such as Frederick are a complete waste of space, appearing in only a few chapter in the beginning, and then only brought up again briefly by characters via dialogue or exposition, while having no real effect on the outcome of the story. He could easily be cut-out of the novel and nothing would be lost. Even the title of the novel is problematic. Why name an entire novel after an antique shop that only appears for the first couple of chapters? The old curiosity shop really doesn’t play much of a role in the story.

For all its problems I still enjoyed the novel. I think if you draw any conclusions from my ramblings it should be this: it’s an entertaining novel, but an extremely flawed one. Often you’ll hear someone remark that they should have enjoyed a work more than they did based on their usual tastes; well, with this book I feel like I should have liked it less than I did.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’ second novel. No longer is the plot disconnected and episodic like in The Pickwick Papers, but Oliver Twist has a much tighter focus and a stream-lined plot compared to its predecessor, while still possessing a few irrelevant, but interesting episodes (such as the humorous marriage of the arrogant beedle that tormented Oliver in his childhood, Mr. Bumble, to a wife who bullies him into submission that really has nothing to do with moving the larger plot).

Oliver Twist is an orphan born to a life of mistreatment. His mistreatment only grows worse when one day he grabs the shortest straw among the orphans and asks for more food, which incenses the wrath of his parochial masters, especially the beedle, Mr. Bumble. As a consequence, Oliver is apprenticed to an undertaker, with the goal of getting rid of him and having to feed him, but his mistreatment continues there at the hands of Noah Claypole, which forces him to run away to London. There a boy named the Artful Dodger finds Oliver and takes him to Fagin. Fagin tries to train him to become a pickpocket, and also has made a deal with a mysterious man named Monks that concerns Oliver. The first time Oliver goes out with the other boys he gets falsely accused of stealing from an old gentleman. The old gentleman takes the sick and weary Oliver to his home. When Oliver goes out again to deliver the old gentleman’s books he is recaptured by the criminals. He is then forced to help with a break-in at a house with the ill-tempered Bill Sikes. The break-in fails and Oliver finds himself back in the hands of wealthy benefactors who want to help him. Then Nancy, a member of the gang and Bill Sikes’ lover, turns traitor and tells them about the mysterious man Monks and his connection with Oliver’s past.

Dickens primarily goal in this text is right on the surface: to call our attention to the harsh social conditions of the orphan’s life in the parochial system and to explore the types of people that become criminals. Sometimes he hints at the reasons such people turn to thievery, while other times, he is content to simply show their nastiness. Certainly he never really gives a reason for Bill Sikes’ life in crime and portrays him to be a completely unsympathetic brute, but he does show Nancy thinking about how she got caught up in her criminal life.

Fagin, referred constantly in the text as “The Jew”, is a horribly anti-Semitic depiction. He is not merely a Jewish criminal, but descriptions of him follow typical racial and anti-Semitic tropes, describing him in terms of ugly animals and the devil. The text often talks about “the Jew’s cupidity.” Fagin is shown as conniving and willing to sell out members of his gang to save his own skin. If this were the only example of a Jewish character in the text depicted this way, a skeptic might be able to argue against this point, but there are a couple of other Jewish characters mentioned in the background of Fagin’s various haunts and they’re depicted as criminals too.