Bleak House by Charles Dickens was described by G.K. Chesterton as Dickens’s “best novel.” Bleak House is a complex work interweaving an omniscient narrator alongside the first-person account of Esther, the novel’s principal protagonist and heroine. It is, in odd ways, a “crime” novel and a story of investigation.
Part of the investigation is Esther’s parentage. She is a mysterious individual in a society that prides itself on facts and genealogy. Part of the investigation is also Dickens’s deconstruction of mid-Victorian London society. In doing so, Dickens exposes the emptiness of power, prestige, and the supposed “civilization” of the new age.
While we meet a plethora of characters, the principal individuals are related to this double-investigation. Esther and her friends, especially Ada, are tied to the question and mystery of Esther’s parentage. As is the comical—hollow—young law clerk, Mr. Guppy. Guppy is an empty young man, a man who embodies the hollow viciousness (though presented in a comical way in the novel) of social climbing. His infatuation with Esther is largely to advance himself in the social world he inhabits. He tries to utilize leverage and investigative prowess to “help” Esther which is really his way of dominating her and bringing her into his desire for self-advancement. Ultimately, he fails and, for instance, when Esther comes to him for help after a bout of smallpox, Guppy’s public rescinding of his earlier marriage proposal reveals his emptiness (he then tries to propose again later).
The lawyer Tulkinghorn, the embodiment of this empty and menacing society of mid-Victorian England, is an incarnation of all that is wrong with society in Dickens’s eye. As is the self-destructive case Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the other investigation that advances the novel. The mysterious case that attracts so much attention is like a plague—a legal smallpox—that is destroying society and all around it.
The various characters represent, then, Dickens’s expose of society: Tulkinghorn, Leicester, Guppy, Madame Hortense, Krook, etc. are the embodiment of all the ills of society: concerned with power, prestige, social advancement, and name reputation—or the case of Krook, self-destructive habits (causing the famous scene of “spontaneous combustion”). Ester, meanwhile, is the epitome of goodness in her humility and ability to be grateful no matter what. John Jarndyce, meanwhile, eventually is revealed as a kind and generous man—the kind of person all of wealth and power should be (in contrast to those who are only concerned with their self-advancement and image).
Inspector Bucket, the famous detective, though cold and calculative, gets the job done. Originally hired for the service of power, he comes to serve the banner of truth (an idea Dickens has much to say about). Eventually, the truth is revealed about Jarndyce and Jarndyce, Esther, and all the various murders and deaths that the story includes. In the revealing of truth there is the opportunity, Dickens implies, to accommodate with the “bleak” system and bring some degree of healing, wholeness, and mercy in an otherwise bleak world that is cruel, uncaring, and self-centered (to the point of causing indirect deaths, like that of the orphaned street boy Jo, or direct deaths like the murder of Tulkinghorn in the game of relational power): “And dying thus around us every day.”
Dickens, then, takes a pragmatic approach to social reform while exposing the horrors of society that often goes unnoticed. We need to notice these horrors, Dickens tells us through his novel. For in recognizing the bleakness of our society, in obtaining the truth of things, we can begin to act for a better tomorrow. And a better tomorrow comes about when Esther marries Allan Woodcourt and Ada and Richard, though impoverished, begin to raise their family. The social order isn’t destroyed for something “better,” we find ways to make it better through our own loving lives of kindness and compassion.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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