Bleak House

Bleak House Themes

Bad parenting and society

Bleak House is filled with bad parents. Esther's aunt, Lady Dedlock, Mrs. Jellyby, the brickmaker, and Mr. Turveydrop, to take some examples, all abuse, neglect, or generally use their children for selfish reasons, thus quashing the happiness and development of those children. This poor parenting, in turn, creates disillusioned and disenchanted children, thus perpetuating the original neglect or abuse. In this way, bad parenting undermines all of society. Indeed, to take the theme one remove farther, Dickens suggests that England is in a permanent state of bad parenting, with the parents -- the government, the courts -- neglecting, abusing, or generally using the children -- the people of England.

Weather and society

Throughout the novel, Dickens consistently identifies human moral or subjective states with the weather. This, like the other grotesque elements of his style, is done with a greatly exaggerated panache. Thus Dickens begins the novel in a deep "London particular" fog, signifying the foggy confusion of the Court of Chancery. Or, to take another example, Lady Dedlock is often shown in the rain, which signifies her deep and unending boredom and sorrow. The mud and the cold too often emphasize the evils of urban life, and their inescapability mirrors the corruption of the society at large. Naturally, Dickens' sunny days occur when things are chipper and cheery, such as when the young people first arrive at Bleak House.

Names in Dickens

The most prevalent and widely-cited form of Dickens' grotesque style is his tendency to illustrate the nature and morality of his characters through their names. Because Bleak House has so many people, thus so many names, it is as good a collection of the variety of Dickens' art of naming as any of his books.

Some of Dickens' characters' names simply announce the bearer's moral destitution -- Krook is an obvious example. Mr. Smallweed's name captures that characters particular mixture of physical frailty and moral pettiness; it also suggests that Dickens' would like he and his captilastic, opportunistic kind to be weeded from society. His "good" characters are also aptly named, as in "Ada Clare," which conjures clarity and simplicity for the reader. Other names allude to occupation as well as character -- e.g. "Tulkinghorn" is close to talking-horn, and talk is the lawyer's trade. Or Dickens' names could represent a simple pun, such as Miss Flite and her birds, or a sad commentary, such as Jo's name being similar to Job, suggesting the many trials that character will endure. The common characteristic: Dickens invites us to interpret the significance of the names of all of his characters.

This invitation becomes quite interesting when the correlation between name and character is less obvious than in the above examples. Esther Summerson's name, for instance, is problematic. The reference to the Old Testament Esther implies that she is a strong character, but Summerson could be seen as ironic. She is no summer's son, she is an illegitimate daughter. Perhaps it is a reference to the idea that she was conceived in love, the product of a "summer's passion" between Hawden and the future Lady Dedlock. At any rate, Dickens invites this kind of speculation, asking us to see his name-puzzles as complex in some cases, simple in others, perhaps according to the relative complexity of the characters the names represent.

In an interesting twist, Dickens' own characters sometimes display his panache for choosing dramatic and evocative names. For instance, Captain Hawden (whose proper name possibly alludes to his naval status by bringing up the term "hawser") uses the Latin word Nemo as his pseudonym, which means "nobody". He is, to the plot, indeed somebody, but he refuses to own up to any part of society, especially his own name, because he has sunk so low. Other characters are given nicknames, such as Conversation Kenge, that capture an awareness on the community's part of the humor and power of an apt name. Like their author, these characters seem to relish the puzzle and joy of apt naming.

Chancery in microcosm

Just as Dickens captures the failures of the English state in the metaphor of bad parenting, so too he criticizes the endless mechanizations of Chancery through various metaphors of ill-run shops, homes or other systems. Miss Flite's pointless habit of keeping birds awaiting the "Day of Judgement" which never comes is an expression of her own endless waiting for her case to be settled. Krook's rag and bottle shop, with its piles of useless and decaying stuff, represents in turn the mounds of mouldy documents rotting in Chancery's hands, and the resulting decay of the "store" -- i.e. the wealth and property -- of England. Tom-all-alone's is another example of a property gone to rack and ruin because of Chancery.

England's orphan

Continuing the metaphor of the English state as an absent parent, the most egregious form of parental abuse presented by Dickens is captured in Jo, an orphan. Though he is shown occasional kindness, the overwhelming theme of Jo's life is that he belongs nowhere. People are constantly telling him to "move on." The state, which must act for him in loco parentis, gives him two options -- to live on the streets or in the workhouse, that is to say, to choose between death by neglect and death by abuse. Jo's diseased death -- and the manner in which he spreads his disease throughout society -- caps his role as a living metaphor for the failure of the English social system. Jo, himself a victim of disease, spreads disease further, thus perpetuating the ill visited upon him. He is the bleakest soul in Bleak House, and Dickens' most trenchant social text.

The repurcussions of young choice

Dickens provides us with several characters who, through an early passionate sin or hasty decision, foment lasting misery for themselves and others. Honoria lives a life of boredom and lies as Lady Dedlock, having created a delicate situation for her daughter as well as herself; Hawdon descends into opium abuse; Honoria's sister, who takes care of Esther instead of marrying Boythorn, is bitter and cold to Esther her entire life, and dies at a young age. A sub-set of these youthful, fateful decisions concern Chancery. Miss Flite, we are told, decided in youthful passion to follow her Chancery suit through to the end, and as a result has been consumed, dessicated and driven mad by the endless litigation of Chancery's process. Similarly, Richard chooses to depend upon the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit, which drives him to a life of hatred and paranoia and to an early, tragic death.

Systems bad, personal accountability good

In Bleak House, Dickens offers a bitter and ironic critique of institutions. Chancery, the system of justice, is the most unjust system imaginable; Mrs. Jellyby's social activism, which she presents as humanitarian, gives rise to a most inhumane and neglected household. Indeed, institutions seem inevitably to succumb to the problems that they are supposed to address. After all, justice depends upon injustice, and so it is in the best interest of Chancery, which makes money through righting "injustice," to increase injustice.

Rather than depend upon systems or institutions to address society's ills, Dickens calls for individuals to right wrongs and relieve suffering through freely chosen charity. Humanism pervades the novel, with John Jarndyce going so far as to say in Chapter 13: "Trust in nothing but in Providence and your own efforts."

Understanding toward sexual misbehavior

Dickens, for his day, treats themes of sexuality with rather un-Victorian (or, at least, unlike our present-day ideas of Victorians) tolerance and understanding. He paints a largely sympathetic portrait of Lady Dedlock, who bore a child out of wedlock. In the 1850s, this would have been enough to make her a social pariah, but Dickens paints her detractors (Tulkinghorn, her sister), not herself, in unflattering light. He makes her suffer, it is true, but he does not condemn her for her sexual relationship with Captain Hawdon. He also paints Mr. Snagsby, who is under suspicion of being Jo's father for most of the novel, as a sympathetic character.

Dickens is rather harder on those who subject their natural desires to a principle. Miss Barbary, Honoria's sister who raises Esther and emotionally neglects her, without Honoria's knowledge, is shown to be a narrow and bitter person, who, rather than being praised for doing good by raising her illegitimate niece, died young and unhappy after giving up her love for Mr. Boythorn.