Bleak House Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Bleak House: Metaphor Analysis

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Weather: Fog, Rain, Sleet, Snow

Bad weather is a symbol of decay, death, “mourning” for the sun (Chpt. I, p. 1). It is a symptom of “a general infection of ill-temper” (Chpt. I, p. 1), showing the imbalance and sickness of society. When Mr. Jarndyce is upset, he says there is an east wind blowing that brings foul weather.

The famous opening of the novel describing the fog of London and connecting it to corruption, exemplified by the Court of Chancery, establishes mood, symbol, and theme in one stroke. It is November, and there is “as much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth” (Chpt. I, p. 1). This mud and rain evokes Biblical references to both Creation and to the Flood that God used to destroy the wickedness of people who marred His creation. It strongly suggests theories of the evolution of species by superimposing prehistoric times and contemporary London by showing a “Megalosaurus” would not be out of place “waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Street” (Chpt. I, p.1). This primitive atmosphere in which species must fight to survive is hardly the popular national image of England as the great seat of Western civilization.

The fog is “everywhere” especially at the Court of Chancery, “most pestilent of hoary sinners” (Chpt. I, p.1).  The courtroom is dim, and “well may the fog hang heavy in it” (Chpt. I, p. 2). The fog hides a multitude of legal sins and confuses the suitors who look for justice. The world of fashion is not unlike Chancery, the narrator says, because we find the decaying rain and mold in the “deadened world” of Chesney Wold, Sir Leicester’s home. The rain falls into the “stagnant river” (Chpt. II, p. 6), the moldy church, and on Ghost’s Walk, prefiguring the ruin of the Dedlock family.

That ruin completes itself at the end of the story when Lady Dedlock runs away in the sleet and snowstorm, freezing to death at the gate to the pauper’s cemetery. Sir Leicester, crippled by a stroke, sits in vain looking out the window at the sleet coming down, as the hours tick by, and he knows there is less and less hope. Esther, looking for her mother with Detective Bucket, describes how “The sleet fell all that day unceasingly, a thick mist came on early, and it never rose or lightened for a moment” stretching into “an indefinite period of time” (Chpt. LVII, p. 592). Even Bucket is lost for once, trying to pick up clues. The snow is thick and obscuring, like the fog: “the air was so thick with the darkness of the day” that they cannot see far (Chpt. LVII, p. 591). Mrs. Rouncewell takes this as an omen that “it’s breaking up . . . the great old Dedlock family is breaking up” (Chpt. LVIII, p. 597).

Krook’s Rag and Bottle Warehouse

Krook’s shop is a parody of Chancery. Mr. Krook collects junk and old paper in his Rag and Bottle Warehouse. The neighbors call him the Lord Chancellor, and his shop, the Court of Chancery. The shop is thus “a dirty hanger-on and disowned relation of the law” (Chpt. V, p.38). It is here Lady Dedlock’s letters to Hawdon turn up, and the Jarndyce will that solves the case. It is here Esther’s father dies and Miss Flite keeps her captive birds to be released when the case is solved. The illiterate Krook hoards documents but cannot read, suggesting the court that spends so much time on legal briefs but gets more and more confused by them. The bags and bags of papers carried out of the court at the end of the Jarndyce case are parallel to the bags of junk in Krook’s shop. He says, “I have a liking for rust and must and cobwebs. And all’s fish that comes to my net. And I can’t abear to part with anything I once lay hold of . . . That’s the way I’ve got the ill name of Chancery” (Chpt. V, p. 40).

In the very first chapter, the narrator wishes that the court could be burnt up in a great funeral pyre, and symbolically that happens when Mr. Krook, the “Chancellor,” soaked in gin, catches on fire by Spontaneous Combustion. Spontaneous Combustion is described by the narrator as “the same death eternally—inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself” (Chpt. XXXII,  p. 346). This is the prediction that corruption must finally corrupt itself. Krook “has died the death of all Lord Chancellors in all Courts . . . where false pretences are made, and where injustice is done (Chpt. XXXII, p. 346).

The Day of Judgment, The Great Seal, Miss Flite’s Birds

This is a group of related symbols connected to Miss Flite, the madwoman who waits for the Jarndyce judgment in the Court of Chancery, which she calls “The Day of Judgment.” The Day of Judgment in the Bible refers to the end of time when all souls shall be judged. In her mad perspective, the court judgment takes on such cosmic importance, and well it might since she is the sole survivor of a family destroyed by the suit. She has been waiting all her life for the outcome, the way some wait for heaven. In a symbolic way, the characters are judged by their reaction to the suit. Mr. Jarndyce regards it as evil and does not get caught up. Gridley and Richard are martyred waiting for the judgment, and so they do go through a Day of Judgment in their deaths. Richard confesses his failure in this life, asks to be forgiven, and goes to “the world that sets this right” (Chpt. LXV, p. 659)

Mr. Jarndyce speaks of the influence of the Great Seal of Chancery being “all over England,” that stamped out Tom Jarndyce.  (Chpt. VIII, p. 74). Miss Flite thinks of the Great Seal in apocalyptic terms. She says that the Chancellor’s Mace and Seal sitting on his table “Draw people on, my dear. Draw peace out of them, Sense out of them. Good looks out of them. Good qualities out of them” (Chpt. XXXV, p. 378). She gives examples with the destruction of each of her family members. She believes that the anonymous gift of money left for her by Mr. Jarndyce came to her from the Chancellor because he knows that the Great Seal had been left open too long. In the Book of Revelation, the destruction of the world at the end of time is accomplished by the opening of the seven seals to let out death and plagues. The Chancery Seal bringing so many plagues is thus a sign of the Day of Judgment coming, she thinks.

One of Miss Flite’s stranger habits is to keep birds in cages with symbolic names like Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, etc. “all cooped up together” (Chpt. XIV, p. 152). In the prolonged expectation of getting rich from the will, the good qualities of a person are imprisoned and poisoned by the bad. This is exemplified in Richard’s decline. Miss Flite plans to set the birds free on the Day of Judgment, which suggests the purification of the world at the end of time. She finally sets the birds free after Richard’s death.


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