Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is considered by most contemporary critics to be his best novel and, although the postmodernist intellectual community should be navigated with caution, I am inclined to agree. It’s richly complex with an eclectic array of subplots, characters, and themes, and concludes with a bitter-sweet ending that is, unlike many contemporary stories, definitive and unambiguous in its depiction of good and evil. And while there are many aspects of this novel that could be explored, I don’t think it’s possible for any single analysis to encompass all of them. Therefore, the particular dimension of this work which I wish to discuss is what could be considered an analogous representation of original sin. Corruption is passed down and inherited from one generation to the next in what, at first, appears to be an inexorable continuation that is damned to be an incessant cycle. Like the metaphorical fog that opens the pages of the novel, this corruptive influence penetrates nearly every corner of the story and blackens all that it touches. It is broken only through the “baptism” of familial love and true charity.

Let us begin with the Chancery suit which remains in effect throughout most of the novel, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. This suit is the result of conflicting wills and has generated a pervasive display of confusion which has devolved into unintelligibility. It is seen as a great joke and inspires derisive laughter at the mere mention of its name. Those born into the Jarndyce family, including distant relations, inherit this suit as though it were the “family curse” (as John Jarndyce calls it); and the greedy hope of receiving a payout from its final decision is what seems to hold the interest of concerned parties attached to it. John Jarndyce has sworn off all interest in the suit and is therefore free of its seduction, but others have not been so free from its snares: Tom Jarndyce, his elder cousin, committed suicide over it, and Richard becomes deeply influenced by it when he neglects a career in the expectation that the suit will eventually be resolved and afford him a comfortable inheritance. At first he enters an apprenticeship to become a surgeon, and then a lawyer, and then a soldier, and then, finally, nothing at all in order to dedicate the entirety of his time and resources to the resolution of the suit. John Jarndyce urges him to abandon all hope in the suit and instead invest his efforts in choosing a trade that interests him, but Richard comes to resent him for this. Believing John to have opposing interests in the suit, Richard views him as an enemy who is trying to dissuade him out of self-interest. Eventually he comes to hate John Jarndyce, a guardian who has never shown him anything but selfless charity, and he deteriorates in both mind and body as though the suit itself is gnawing away at his body and soul.

Although I often see money as the collective villain in Dickens’ works, the court of Chancery is arguably the antagonist of the novel, and propagates its influence far and wide throughout the characters’ lives.[1] It is a complex villain with a train of henchmen—incarnated in the form of lawyers—and cannot be reduced to the role of a one-dimensional symbol. In fact, it could also be seen as analogous to the Tower of Babel, for it represents the epitome of human achievement in Victorian law and has been constructed entirely by human efforts. And yet, rather than inspiring clarity and a true sense of justice, it has only contributed to the corrosion of society. The Tower of Babel brought about the dispersion of the peoples because they were concerned with their own self-interests, and had the arrogance to think that they could attain to the heights of God by their own efforts. Therefore, God confused their language and this communicative divide has continued down through the generations ever since. Likewise, the court of Chancery has brought about the dispersion of the peoples because it has placed itself on a centralized pedestal far above the people as though it were some kind of deity, and this arrogance has birthed a type of corruption which has been carried down through the generations. But one does not become ensnared by it without first going to it of his own volition. Gridley, for example, became involved in a suit between himself and his brother which called into question a matter of three hundred pounds. By the end of the suit, the entire estate left by their father had been consumed by court fees. This reminded me of the Gospel passage in Matthew chapter five, “Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.”[2] Indeed, this is precisely what happens to Gridley. Not only is the estate subsumed, but, after threatening one of the lawyers in his anger, Gridley is pursued by Inspector Bucket, just like he is pursued, or haunted, by the sins of his ancestors.

Jarndyce v Jarndyce holds a connection with two other important figures in the novel: Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock. Sir Leicester is a highly reputable baronet who invests a prodigious sense of pride in his family name, and sees its merit as unquestionably inherent and likewise expects others to view it as such. That it should be viewed with any hint of derision or supposed insufficiency is incomprehensible to Sir Leicester, and cause for great offense. (Take, for example, the encounter between him and Mrs. Rouncewell’s son, the ironmaster, who implies their housemaid’s education is, in certain respects, lacking. Oh, the indignation that ignites in Sir Leicester!) And yet, portentous elements haunt Chesney Wold (their home) from the very beginning, the most notable of which is the Ghost’s Walk. As the old family legend goes, the wife of Sir Morbury Dedlock haunts the terrace due to an old domestic war in which she took sides against King Charles and he, Sir Morbury, remained in support of him. The steps heard upon the Ghost’s Walk incessantly haunt their household and therefore serve, both metaphorically and literally, as a premonition of the retributions which are visited down upon the successive generations of the offender’s families; although Lady Dedlock’s secret has not yet been revealed when this legend is first described in the novel, it creates a foreboding atmosphere in which a certain evil something feels inevitable. This is fulfilled in the revelation of Lady Dedlock’s pregnancy conceived out of wedlock. However, I want to emphasize that Dickens is not suggesting Lady Dedlock’s sin to be predestined or unavoidable, nor is he depicting despair as the only option; rather, it’s that disorder birthed by one generation and handed down to all future generations that is to blame, and it is this crookedness that, unless checked, steers their children astray.

This theme is further illustrated by the Jellyby and Turveydrop parents. Mrs. Jellyby is concerned with charitable activities that are concentrated thousands of miles away in Africa, but seems to overlook the most basic of needs demonstrated by her own children. Similarly, Mr. Turveydrop is consumed with the vain ambition of “deportment”—a silly practice which involves ornate clothing, fine dining, flawless speech, and no work. He relies upon his son to support and thereby make this practice possible. Poor Caddy Jellyby is driven to desperation by the misery of her own household and runs impulsively into a marriage with Mr. Turveydrop’s son, Prince. She finds herself in cramped lodgings where she is obliged to help Prince with his dancing studio, and continue the support of Mr. Turveydrop’s deportment. There is evidence here of the “sins of the fathers” being handed down, though perhaps more indirectly than in the examples detailed above, for in this instance it is more in the form of natural consequence. Caddy reacts to her situation rather than prudently considering her best course of action and consequently arrives at a situation which, although not deplorable, is far from ideal. Mr. Turveydrop contributes to the burden already set upon her and Prince’s shoulders. Therefore, both Caddy and her husband are tied inextricably to the sins of their parents and remain so to the end of the novel.

Amidst all this darkness shines the light of Esther and John Jarndyce and the home they create. Both are inheritors of the sins of their parents. Esther is the illegitimate child of Lady Dedlock and Captain Hawdon, and John Jarndyce is bound to the fate of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, despite having sworn off giving any attention to it. Esther was raised in an austere and morose environment by Lady Dedlock’s sister, who saw Esther’s very existence as evidence of a shameful act that could never be retracted or forgiven—in her estimation, that is. This is an unhappy experience for her but she endures it with patience, even as a child; and, after she is sent away following the death of her aunt, she comes to do much good for others throughout the story. To summarize them comprehensively would exceed the limits of this essay, but there are some more notable examples worthy of our closer attention. In a selfless manner, which remains consistent with her character, she forgets herself for the good of others and tirelessly ministers to Caddy Jellyby, who is in quite a miserable state when we first meet her. Having been driven to the borders of despair by the emotional and material negligence of her mother, Caddy finds great comfort in her friendship with Esther and asks for her support on more than one occasion. Additionally, when the orphan Jo is found dangerously ill in an old dilapidated home, she brings him back to Bleak House and cares for him in a motherly way, consequently contracting smallpox in the process. Although she recovers, her face is irrevocably scarred in a manner reminiscent of Christ’s wounds.

By the end of the story, those that remain in the bonds of this authentic familial love seem to be few, and those that have been swallowed by the fog seem to be many. Chesney Wold has become a type of wasteland, devoid of the cheery joy it once held and absent of any children through which the family name will endure. The only redemptive element to be found for Chesney Wold is the reunion between Mrs. Rouncewell and her son, George; here we find themes not only of familial love, but also of the beauty of reconciliation—a personal favorite for Dickens. Only in their love is there any hope for Chesney Wold. Otherwise, Lady Dedlock and Richard have both died, the former in despair and the latter from exhaustion in his efforts to resolve the suit; and Jarndyce v Jarndyce, although finally resolved, has produced no profit for any of the parties involved, because the entire estate has been swallowed up by court fees. And yet, a sweet haven of comfort remains hidden away in the form of the new Bleak House. Esther resides there as the mistress with her husband, Allan Woodcourt (also an image of charity), and it has become a place of solace for the widowed Ada and her son, and for John Jarndyce as well who serves as the father figure. The holiness of this well-ordered domestic life puts an end to the cyclic misery which has been graphically depicted throughout the novel. It is for this reason that I referred to it earlier as a symbol for baptism, because it seems to be the only antidote for the unhappiness we have witnessed, not only at the hands of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, but also in dysfunctional homes such as Chesney Wold and the Jellyby household. This concept of a salvific domestic life is outlined in more detail by Jennifer R. Overkamp in her essay, “Home and Homemaking in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.” Here is what she has to say: “The home is the primary source of moral education, and a woman has a unique and valuable set of qualities that allow her to infuse her benevolent influence into society through the work that she does in the home.” Then, in a continuation of this thread, she goes on to write:

Lucie extends the peace and refuge implied by the word ‘home’ to those who are not family, but who have become a family . . . Even Sydney Carton finds comfort in the home that Lucie has made. It is significant that when Carton confides in Lucie how she has inspired him, it is not by her beauty or decorative accomplishments, but by her creation of a home.[3]

Like Lucie, Esther is the heart of the home at the end of Bleak House and offers the healing comforts of the home she has created to all who desire it. Even Richard is at last influenced by her towards the end when he reconciles with John Jarndyce. (She acts almost as an intercessor between Richard, the broken sinner, and John, the loving father. In this way, she could be seen as a symbol of Mary.) For those who do not choose the antidote of the domestic church, they are left in the void of an unsatisfying emptiness, as described above. I will conclude with a quote from the final pages of Bleak House which illustrates the healing powers of the home:

The help that [Ada] counted on, did come to her; though it came, in the Eternal wisdom, for another purpose. Though to bless and restore his mother, not his father, was the errand of this baby, its power was mighty to do it. When I saw the strength of the weak little hand, and how its touch could heal [Ada’s] heart, and raise up hope within her, I felt a new sense of the goodness and the tenderness of God.

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Notes:

[1] More specifically, money when idolized or used irresponsibly. Sara Skwire gave an interesting lecture in which she analyzes characters’ attitudes towards money in the works of Dickens, and differentiates the results based on their intentions and responsibility (or irresponsibility). She argues for evidence of free market advocacy. Her lecture is titled “Not-So-Bleak House,” and can be found online.

[2] Revised Standard Version. (Charlotte, North Carolina: St. Benedict Press, 2010).

[3] Collected in: Aeschliman, Michael D. (Editor), Pearce, Joseph (Series Editor), A Tale of Two Cities: Ignatius Critical Editions. ( San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012) E-book.

The featured image is “Visitors to the Shooting Gallery by ‘Phiz’ (Hablot Knight Browne) for Bleak House, p. 261 (ch. 26, “Sharpshooters”).” It is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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