Bleak House

Dickens and Charity

The England of Charles Dickens was one plagued with disease, pollution, and poverty. This is the England that gave rise to the Salvation Army, the gin craze, and Benthamism, and it is no coincidence that Charles Dickens' Bleak House has much to say about the question of charity. As Esther proceeds through life she is both the recipient of the charity of others as well as a bit of a philanthropist herself. However, it is John Jarndyce who is the central philanthropist in this novel. It is through his assistance that the causes of Miss Barbary, Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, Harold Skimpole, and, indeed, Esther Summerson are furthered. Nevertheless, Dickens does not always paint these characters' charitable work in the most favorable light. Rather, one gets the feeling that their perspectives are a bit askew, and that they miss much of the good work they could be doing.

The first so-called philanthropist with which the reader has contact is Miss Barbary. Esther's "godmother," who is in fact her aunt, does much to provide the necessities of life for Esther, albeit through the generosity of Mr. Jarndyce. Nevertheless, the home she and Esther share is not necessarily a happy one. Esther tells us that though Miss...

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