I love classics. I love Dickens. And I love re-reading them over and over again. One of the things I miss most about college and my English literature courses was the healthy discussion around books, meaning, and their themes or symbols. Today, I want to talk Bleak House, one of my favorite Dickens books.
The novel Bleak House by Charles Dickens is filled with critiques and moral lessons for all readers while offering an entertaining and entwined plot. Of the critiques that Dickens offers the reader, the most important are the parallels of charity abroad vs. charity at home and the need for social responsibility in the world. In a world with so much stimuli and drama, it is easy to be enthralled with nothing but concern for one’s own life. Charles Dickens expresses the importance of contributing to the welfare of society because it is the world’s duty to take care and love one another. Without this care and love, our society and individual lives are doomed just like so many characters that are afflicted in his novel from the lack of help at home. Dickens critiques those that advertise their charity and reminds the audience that charity must be genuine. These important and relevant lessons to any time period are also supported in other works including A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and Silly Novels By Lady Novelists from George Eliot. These authors work together to instill in society that it is vital for our survival as a race to help one another. The lack of concern to improve life around one another, as revealed in Bleak House, can consequently lead to great unhappiness, further problems, and even unexpected death.
Esther, the protagonist in Bleak House, is an orphan who is taken in by Mr. Jarndyce (her gracious benefactor) as a guardian. Her travels to Bleak House lead her to meet two friends (also cared for by Jarndyce) named Ada and Richard who stay with her throughout the novel. One night before they reach Bleak House, they are set up to stay overnight at the house of Mrs. Jellyby. Mrs. Jellyby is a strong headed woman who is obsessed with her “mission” of charity to help Borrioboola-Gha in Africa. This woman is so caught up in her cause that she neglects her family and their needs in their entirety. Esther, Ada, and Richards’s arrival find the house a complete mess, children are running around, and another poor child has his head stuck in a stairwell. Humorously, Mrs. Jellyby fails to notice any of these hectic situations or have any concern for her children as she is merely concerned with writing a letter on the topic of her charity in Africa. When Mr. Jarndyce asks Esther what he thought of Mrs. Jellyby, Esther replies, “ perhaps she was a little unmindful of her home…it is right to begin with the obligations of home…no other duties can possibly be substituted for them” (Dickens, 83). This understatement of the lack of care in Mrs. Jellyby’s home best portrays Dickens’s opinions of social responsibility. It is noble to care for mankind, and other duties of society to try and make a difference. However it is irresponsible to ignore the plights of those around and under one’s care. This was a vital message that Dickens desired to reveal, which is why he has Esther say it, instead of letting the reader draw these conclusions for oneself after reading about the state of Mrs. Jellyby’s home.
In chapter eight, we are reminded of Mrs. Jellyby by a new character named Mrs. Pardiggle. Mrs. Pardiggle is an annoying woman who forces her sons to give their money away to her charities against their will. When Esther is talking to Mrs. Pardiggle, Mrs. Pardiggle tries to get Esther and Ada to come with her to make her rounds to spread word about the Bible. Esther tries to get out of it by saying that she is too inexperienced as of this point and she “thought it best to be as useful as [she] could, and to render what type of services [she] could, to those immediately around [her] (Dickens, 128). Esther’s comment is a direct address of the question of charity at home vs. charity abroad. Esther acknowledges the need of social responsibility but criticizes Mrs. Pardiggle indirectly by commenting that Esther needs to help out “those immediately around her (Dickens, 128).” Mrs. Pardiggle makes it a point to try and help other people and make their lives better, but Mrs. Pardiggle doesn’t see her own hypocrisy. Her own children are miserable, and yet she does nothing to change that. She is blinded by her charity work and caught up with advertising her good deeds. Dickens is successful in portraying to the reader the state of unhappiness and unrest in society (represented by Mrs. Pardiggle’s children) that will inevitably transpire if immediate problems are home are ignored.
It appears at first to the reader that Mrs. Pardiggle is taking charge of her need for social responsibility by helping others, but it soon becomes apparent that her intentions may be all but in the interest of genuine help. Even Esther, who does not like to find fault in others, recognizes Mrs. Pardiggle’s narcissism. After watching Mrs. Pardiggle leave a house that she was unwelcomly visiting, Esther comments that, “I hope it is not unkind in me to say that she certainly did make…a show…of doing charity by wholesale (Dickens, 133). Esther acknowledges Mrs. Pardiggle’s rapacious benevolence, but knows that it is not one of genuine concern or even one of a wanted concern. Mrs. Pardiggle does her charity only to advertise it and have the ability to brag about it. There is something honorable and dutiful to help out fellow mankind, however those truly honorable in recognition for their good deeds need not make an advertisement out of it like Mrs. Pardiggle does. Dickens illustrates that Mrs. Pardiggle’s and Mrs. Jellyby’s duties are done merely in vain, not for the goodness of mankind. This show put on by Mrs. Pardiggle, is seemingly similar to works by George Eliot entitled, “Silly Novels By Lady Novelists.”
In Silly Novels By Lady Novelists, George Eliot critiques female writers at the times for their foolish topics and thinking that they are better than all others. Mrs. Pardiggle is in a seemingly familiar situation. She too, like the lady novelists addressed in this piece, “keeps a mental pocket mirror, and is continually looking into it at her own ‘intellectuality’…she mistakes bombast for eloquence and affectation for originality (Black et al, 406).” This describes Mrs. Pardiggle perfectly. She has such a high opinion of herself and tries to advertise how good she is doing. Someone worthy of much praise and someone who was actually doing good things for others, would most likely receive warmer welcomes than she did when visiting Jenny’s home and she would not have to advertise it. Similar to Eliot’s line “affectation for originality”, Mrs. Pardiggle has an affectation to appear to have the quality of being charitable, however if she truly was engaged in charitable deeds, she would notice the unmet needs and the desire for change that her children wish for.
Jenny, who Esther meets through Mrs. Pardiggle’s visit, mourns the death of her baby. Jenny is lucky enough to have a friend that sneaks out of her house just to watch over Jenny. The women tells Esther and Ada when they go back to Jenny’s house to bring some presents for comfort, that is her husband were to find her out of the house now, he would murder her. Esther and Ada reply “may heaven reward you, you are a good woman” (Dickens, 135). At this period of times, men had complete control over a woman. They controlled the woman’s assets and could even beat them without consequence. She is risking being beaten by her husband for being out so late, but compassion and duty to console another human being drives her to take the risk. Jenny’s friend understands human longing for help and understands that though she is at risk for sneaking out, it is for a good cause. Here, Jenny fulfills Dickens’s call to action to help a fellow human in need and the goodness and comfort that result.
Tom All Alones is a ruinous place in Bleak House where Jo, a street urchin, lives. Tom All Alones is full of filth, disease, vermin, and parasites. It is where sickness dwells and the working class live; if one can call their lifestyle living. One cannot deny the connection between illness and Tom All Alones. Jo, Charley and Esther all suffered from smallpox and have different outcomes. Jo eventually dies from illness, Esther nurses Charley back to health from smallpox, and Esther herself recovers from smallpox, but is forever changed by it. The prevalence of sickness is a commentary on societal desires for the upper class who forget about those who can barely feed themselves. The wealthy knew about the unhealthy conditions of Tom All Alones and did nothing. As a consequence of doing nothing to help any of the poor souls that dwell in Tom All Alones, Dickens shows the audience the punishment. If someone had acted and tried to make a difference, perhaps Tom All Alones would not have been so dirty or disease ridden. If it was not so disease ridden, perhaps Jo would not have died. Perhaps Jenny’s baby would not have died. Perhaps Esther would not have gotten sick and been scarred for life. A seeming contained mess of filth known as Tom All Alones has now become everyone’s problem, not just those who are forced to inhabit there. Dickens demonstrates the effects that misery and unhappiness has on all people, even if the effect is not seen at first.
This commentary can also be found in Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol as well as in pieces from the work and poverty section of A Broadview Anthology. Scrooge the protagonist is a hard unfriendly and uncharitable man to say the least. When he is asked for a monetary donation for the poor, Scrooge basically says that if the poor cannot feed themselves, then they deserve to die. He continues on to say “it is not my business” (Dickens, 316). Later back at Scrooges home when the ghost of his old working partner visits him, Marley tells Scrooge, “My spirit never walked beyond our counting house…mankind was my business…charity, mercy, forbearance…”(Dickens, 321). Dickens does not take a chance in the reader missing his moral points. The ghost of Marley blatantly tells Scrooge that business does not mean anything in life because he had no ties to another being. He provided nothing to his fellow man and refused to take part in any social responsibility close and far away. He failed to provide care and charity for mankind as whole and as a punishment Marley is doomed to wander in unrest for all eternity. Marley then, calls to reform Scrooge so that Scrooge does not have to bear the weight of chains and the pain of restlessness for the rest of his life. Scrooge may think that his lack of apathy or compassion will never affect him until Marley reveals the truth. Scrooges comment that “It is not my business” to care for others is a view that many upper class held. They could not see how the struggles affected their lifestyle, so they did not feel the need to aid in any way. They only saw it beneficial to act, when something for themselves could be gotten out of it. If any character in Bleak House had made any effort to try and aid the disease in Tom All Alones, they would have remained most likely un-afflicted.
The reality of the world is that most people care for themselves. If others are hurting and in need, it is the general idea that their struggling is usually their own fault,or at the very least, solely their battle. Through the use of the novel Bleak House by Charles Dickens, readers are called to action to change their selfish ways. Through dramatic events and loveable characters, Dickens reveals the necessity for kindness and the need to genuinely help one another. It is vital for the survival of the human races to care and provide for those who need it. Dickens stresses the need to act first at home to solve problems before moving any further and trying to aid distant places. The inability to recognize problems at home only lead to unrest and disaster, as demonstrated through the use of Scrooge, Esther, and many more characters. Although this message may seem like one out of a hallmark card, these key themes are still something that if practiced and applied, would make this world a much better place.
Eliot, George. “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: the Victorian Era. Ed. Joseph Black. Broadview P, 2006. 407-420.
Dickens, Charles. “A Christmas Carol.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: the Victorian Era. Ed. Joseph Black. Broadview P, 2006. 313-360.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Penguin Books, 1971.
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Have you read Bleak House? Did you like it? What was your favorite theme or motif from the book? Let me know in the comments below.