Bleak House: Essay Q&A

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1.  Was the English Court of Chancery as bad as Dickens says?

Dickens had experience as a court reporter and witnessed legal practices first hand. Although Chancery had been a longstanding scandal, many people in England were like the lawyer Kenge, who mouths to Mr. Jarndyce the complacency that “this is a very great country” and “Its system of equity is a very great system” (Chpt. LXII, p. 638). In his preface to Bleak House, Dickens denies he has exaggerated his criticisms; he mentions a current court case of twenty years’ length in which seventy thousand pounds had been consumed in costs. In his book, Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian (1928, reprt. 1972), legal historian, Sir William Searle Holdsworth, a Professor of Law at Oxford, claims Dickens’s novels should be studied as source documents on the history of English law.

Dickens makes use of the history of Chancery for the symbolic thrust of the novel. There were two different court systems. Common law courts used statutory law and precedent to decide cases. The Court of Chancery dealt with equity, or property issues, rather than law and used different principles to arrive at judgments.

In medieval times, because the legal courts were insufficient to deal with all needs, people would petition the King for relief in property settlement, land use, protection from debtors, custody cases, and other such suits. The King created the position of a Lord Chancellor to hear the petitions and rule on them. The Court of Chancery was presided over originally by clergymen Chancellors, and they passed judgment based on conscience, morals, fairness and equality. The Court of Chancery, in a way, represented the conscience of the King rather than written laws; its intent was to soften the harshness of the law with flexibility and mercy.

Because the early Chancellors had no training in law, their judgments on matters of equity varied. Eventually, a body of equity law developed, requiring lawyers. Cases could be mired in detail. As Dickens complains, Chancery had become a matter of “precedent and usage” (Chpt. II, p. 6) like the courts of law, rather than courts of moral justice.

Dickens symbolically makes the slum of Tom-all-Alone’s a suitor in Chancery, to refer to the original idea of the Chancery Court as the King’s conscience, able to give fair relief. The origin of Chancery in petitions to the crown for justice explains why Dickens addresses the Queen when the boy Jo dies: “Dead, your Majesty. . . . And dying thus around us every day” (Chpt. XLVII, p. 492). The court system, according to Dickens, had abandoned its moral roots of looking after the welfare of the people, and was corrupt and self-serving.

Because equity became as rigid as statutory law, as pictured in the tiresome procedures in Bleak House, rather than based on the idea of mercy and conscience, there was no reason for it to be separate from the legal courts. In 1873, after Dickens’s death, the High Court of Chancery was merged with the courts of law as one administrative system, with different divisions of law and equity.

2.  What is the symbolic importance of the character of Tulkinghorn?

As the Court of Chancery is the larger symbolic vehicle of social evil, with its Great Seal all over England, “with its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire” (Chpt. I, p. 2), so the lawyer Tulkinghorn, with his elegant rooms in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, embodies the more local and personal aspect of that evil.

“He never converses” with anyone except on business, “An oyster of the old school, whom nobody can open.” He is a “reservoir of confidences,” collecting secrets and using them against his clients (Chpt. X, p. 100). Unasked, he tracks down Lady Dedlock’s past on the pretense it is for Sir Leicester’s honor, and then emotionally blackmails her, sadistically keeping her on the hook, as he does Mr. George, and the crazed Hortense. He has a finger in every pie, like the Court of Chancery: in the Jarndyce case for Lady Dedlock, in Sir Leicester’s suit against Boythorn, in the moneylending schemes of Smallweed. He knows everyone and can intimidate Snagsby, Krook, and Guppy. He uses Bucket to keep an eye on Jo and the family secrets. Sir Leicester, proud of Tulkinghorn as his faithful retainer, innocently replies when asked if the lawyer is rich: “He has a stake in the country”(Chpt. XL, p. 432). So he does—a mere financial stake.

Dickens warns that something is going to happen to Tulkinghorn, as he hints about Krook’s fiery end. The figure of Allegory, as the narrator calls it, is a figure on the painted ceiling of Tulkinghorn’s chambers, a Roman soldier among “flowers, clouds, and big-legged boys.” The figure is foreshortened in perspective and swooping down pointing his finger, “mak[ing] the head ache” (Chpt. X, p. 100). Tulkinghorn pays no attention, but Allegory points and warns him every time he comes into the room, and eventually he points at Tulkinghorn’s dead body.

The figure of Allegory is a symbol of Tulkinghorn’s fate. It foreshadows the end of his nasty games, pointing a finger at his wrongdoing. Tulkinghorn, however, cannot read the allegory; like Krook, who is illiterate; like Chancery, unable to interpret the case. Tulkinghorn has created a monster that will turn on him. Hortense, of whom he is so contemptuous and threatens with prison, takes her revenge and shoots him. It is fitting that it is a woman, because Tulkinghorn hates women, and that is the reason he takes special delight in shaming Lady Dedlock.

Krook’s end and Tulkinghorn’s thus have a lot in common. Krook’s shop is filthy, and echoes the dust blowing into Tulkinghorn’s windows, like the law that blows dust “in the eyes of the laity” (Chpt. XXII, p. 232). As Tulkinghorn sits in his rooms, sipping his expensive wine, controlling the lives of people, so does Krook sit in his shop, drinking cheap gin, sitting on the fortunes and fates of others. Both control by gathering secrets. They use the same tactics as the law whose main technique is to gather in, to hold on, to enrich itself. Because there is no circulation, this evil must eventually spontaneously combust.

3.  How does Dickens use characterization to reflect his themes?

Dickens is noted for his endless inventiveness of character, galleries and galleries of memorable studies. There are two kinds of characters, the sentimental and the grotesque. The sentimental characters are the admirable ones capable of human love and growth—the Bagnets, Rick, Ada, Esther, Charley, Woodcourt, Mr. Jarndyce, Mr. George, Caddy, Mr. Snagsby, Lady Dedlock, even Bucket and Jo. Their scenes are full of touching emotion, such as the one where Esther first looks at her scarred face; the orphan Charley taking care of her young siblings; Woodcourt saying the Lord’s Prayer with the dying Jo; and Sir Leicester humbly accepting the help of Bucket and George. These are decent human beings, even if they err or have eccentric ways, like Boythorn and Miss Flite. The grotesque characters are usually comic types, fixed in their narrow ways, repeating their behavior and key phrases over and over, like Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, Krook, Tulkinghorn, Vholes, Smallweed, Skimpole, and old Turveydrop.

The grotesques are ruled by a particular passion or unbalanced disposition. They are funny or disgusting because they are obsessive.  Dickens often attaches animal imagery to these characters, because they seem sub-human. Mr. Skimpole has his Drone philosophy, wanting to have worker bees do the work for him. Mr. Vholes preys on Richard, like a snake that has just gorged itself. Mr. Tulkinghorn is an oyster, a “dingy London bird” “dwelling among mankind but not consorting with them” with his nest “in holes and corners of human nature,” not remembering “their better range” (Chpt. XLII, pp. 442-443). Krook and his evil cat, Lady Jane, seem to share one spirit. The Smallweed family are “old monkeys”(Chpt. XXI, p. 219). Judy Smallweed couldn’t play with other children, because “She seemed like an animal of another species” (Chpt. XXI, p. 220).

Dickens sets up Mr. Jarndyce, Esther, and Woodcourt as the most admired characters because they are the kindest and most full of brotherly love. They rescue, they solve problems, they make connections, they can grow. In this way, Dickens uses his characters to say that a full human being must know “the better range” of human nature that Tulkinghorn, Krook, and Smallweed avoid. Mr. George is a big stupid fool to Smallweed and Tulkinghorn, someone to take advantage of, but he is good to rich and poor alike. He treats the outcast Phil and Sir Leicester with the same respect. Esther is the main character, the pattern of a person who turns each experience into something worthy. She gets the love she desires because she gives it. Even the tragic figures of Lady Dedlock and Richard Carstone are able to learn and repent, making them fully human. The story shows if society is diseased, it is because there is a general pathology in behavior and not enough unselfish individuals working for the common good.

4.  Why are there two narrative voices?

The novel switches back and forth from a third person narrator who carries Dickens’s own harsh judgment of English society, and the first person narrative of Esther Summerson, Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate daughter. The result is a richness and depth that could not be reached with only one point of view.

The third person narrator speaks objectively but darkly in the present tense, as a reporter on the scene, tying things together. He tells us what events are happening and what they mean in the larger picture. We get his moral perspective that things are not going well and why. He speaks with anger and irony about the failures of people and institutions. He narrates the murder mystery, creating suspense in the order in which he reveals events, connections and motives. With only his view, the reader would mainly understand what was wrong with society but not have a clear window on how it could be fixed.

Esther, in her observant innocence, is a good counterpoint to the darkness around her. She must go through trial, but she shows it is possible to come through that trial to a fuller life. Her victory implies the same could happen on a larger scale, if enough people followed her lead. She is innocent without being a fool, for she perfectly comprehends the hypocrisy of Vholes and Skimpole. In the terrible search for her dying mother with Inspector Bucket, she is so courageous and uncomplaining that Bucket calls her “a pattern.” He tells her, “when a young lady is as mild as she’s game . . . She then becomes a Queen” (Chpt. LIX, p. 606). Esther is as beset by challenge as other characters, but she maintains her integrity and love, her unselfish concern for others.

Esther does not become bitter with her upbringing or her scarred face. By keeping this a personal narrative, she shines the light of one good soul on the world, showing what each of us can accomplish, and thus, becomes a resonant center for the values Dickens wishes to teach. At first her narrative strand seems to interrupt the main third-person narrative, but slowly, the strands intertwine with Esther being a key player in the Jarndyce suit and the Dedlock drama. Her narrative brings home the full tragedy of her mother’s story and Richard’s, yet creates hope out of the wreckage.

5.  How does the novel debunk the idea of England as “two nations”?

In Benjamin Disraeli’s novel, Sybil; or the Two Nations (1845), he proclaimed a division in England: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.” Disraeli described the miseries of the lower classes of Manchester, who were fodder for the factories, but he could offer no solution to this industrial nightmare. It was the social challenge of the day that Dickens also tackled in his novels.

Dickens sets forth the problem in the scenes of the slum, Tom-all-Alone’s. He says it is a “ruinous place” where decent people don’t go; the tenements are full of vermin, parasites, and maggots, “carrying fever, and sowing more evil . . . than Lord Coodle, and Sir Thomas Doodle, and the Duke of Foodle  . . . shall set right in five hundred years” (Chpt. XVI, p. 167). This passage makes the evil sound irremediable, especially by an incompetent government. Dickens describes the other nation of the poor as no better than animals, “blinded oxen, over-goaded, over-driven, never guided” (Chpt. XVI, p.169). Jo, for instance, is a “vagabond dog” (Chpt. XVI, p. 169). Nothing can be done to fix this piece of property, for it is part of the Jarndyce suit, awaiting judgment.

In 1849, a group of actual slum dwellers in London got together and wrote a letter to the editor of The Times that described their wretched conditions, with no proper drainage or sanitation measures and their inability to get any sewer commissioners to help them. It describes overcrowded housing and children dying of fever, as Dickens had described in the crumbling tenements of Tom-all-Alone’s. Dickens wrote articles on the subject of sanitation and housing for the poor, gave speeches, and in every way, pushed for better conditions. His portrayal of the problem in his fiction was meant to light a fire under the public will. The narrator scolds do-gooders like Mrs. Jellyby, who try to help the natives of Africa. As Jo is dying, the narrator angrily comments, “He is not one of Mrs. Pardiggle’s Tockahoopo Indians; he is not one of Mrs. Jellyby’s lambs, being wholly unconnected with Borrioboola-Gha . . . .  he is the ordinary home-made article” (Chpt. XLVII, p. 485).

Instead of appealing solely to sympathy for the poor, Dickens shows it is in the self-interest of each citizen to help solve the problem, because it is not “two nations,” but one. The one nation is suffering because it is neglecting part of itself, which will eventually infect the whole body politic. This is shown when Jo carries pestilence out of the slums to the houses of the rich. Esther, in her snug and ideal Bleak House, is nevertheless scarred by Jo’s disease. There is no barrier erected between one part of the city or country and the other, just as an arm is connected to a leg. If the country allows part of its population to live and act like animals, then those animals will bite: “There is not an atom of Tom’s slime . . . but shall work its retribution, through every order of society” (Chpt. XLVI, p. 475).

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