“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.