The Bleak House By Charles Dickens English Literature Essay

Being one of the most prominent literary figures of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens inevitably became the subject of scrutiny by various scholars throughout the years; resulting in numerous debates in regards to his works and begetting heterogeneous theories apropos his politics. Taking initiative from an essay by Peter Gay entitled: ‘The Angry Anarchist: Charles Dickens in Bleak House’ [1] , this essay will attempt to elaborate on the validity of the aforementioned epithet attributed to Dickens and examine its soundness compared to Dickens’s − commonly acknowledged − heated social satire. To elaborate on Gay’s argument, accounts of Dickens’s life, beliefs and actions will be taken into account in an attempt to disambiguate his political views. Additionally, Bleak House will be re-read considering the spectrum of theories associated with archives and will be compared to novels revolving around the theme of anarchy.

To begin with, Gay begins by stating that Dickens’s attack against the Court of Chancery in the very first pages of the novel − associating it with darkness, filth and pestilence − is a harsh, conscious, political statement against the corrupted legal system of England. [2] Having suffered himself a first-hand experience of legal victimization, in a lawsuit he pursued against a pirated publication of his Christmas Carol − that brought him damage instead of profit − he chose never to resort to Chancery again. The above might also be reflected in the case of John Jarndyce in Bleak House, whose disappointment by the court of Chancery led him to detachment from his long running law suit, making him indifferent. Both suffering and witnessing injustice himself Dickens tries to retaliate by bringing forward, in Bleak House, those unpleasant incidents in a ‘lovingly cultivated display of hatred’. [3] Thought one may find the word hatred to be a hyperbole in describing Dickens’s feelings in the novel, at this point it will not be disputed for the sake of presenting Gay’s argument without many interruptions. Some evidence for the title of the rebel appointed to Dickens by Gay may be found in the incident Andrew Sanders describes. Being invited by Queen Victoria at the Buckingham Palace, there was a rumor that Dickens was to be offered a baronetcy; however, Dickens − feeling proud for his hard endeavors to rise from poverty − had no intention to accept joining the aristocracy he detested and linked with moral and political corruption. [4] Surely in the light of such a circumstance, Dickens’s disapproval for the Old Order and the privileges of the aristocratic ranks marks his role as a revolutionary of his period; a role further substantiated by his critical stance towards the religious dogmatism of the church.

Dickens believed that the original message of Christianity and its free interpretation has been replaced by a rigid conformism to the Old Testament, resulting to the domination of religion over people. [5] A paradigm of such attitude is that of Esther’s aunt, Miss Barbary, attending the Church ‘three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to lectures whenever there were lectures’. [6] Being driven by her strict catechism and her one-dimensional perception of the laws of religion she tries to instill to Esther that she had been a disgrace for her mother while her mother constituted a disgrace for her; projecting upon an innocent child her malevolence towards her sister. Dickens’s deviation from the uniformity of religious interpretations can also be seen in a passage from his will quoted in Sanders, in which he advises his children ‘to try to guide themselves by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man’s narrow construction of its letter here and there’. [7] Undoubtedly, Dickens was a unique figure of his period. Choosing to be detached from institutions of his time such as law, religion and aristocracy he adopted a critical stance towards their corruption and decay; never hesitating to offend them just like he does in Bleak House. Maintaining the same attitude of unconventionality, he expressed an antipathy towards two of the most infamous spectacles of the nineteenth century in England: the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the sate funeral of the Duke of Wellington in 1852; separating in this way his position from the vainglory of his compatriots, who in the meantime disregarded the burning problems of their society. [8] Being himself extremely concerned about the current situation of his country and the decay he noticed in the domains of social life, he was disappointed that his fellow citizens did not share his worries.

To enforce his argument, Gay encourages one to follow a different reading of Esther’s illness in the novel which, as he claims, helps reveal Dickens’s anger. He reasons that the infection of Esther by Jo acts symbolically as an attempt of the lower and subordinate suffering classes to ‘get even with as society that permits this sort of misery, with bacilli rather than riots’. [9] Thus, one can assert that what Gay undertakes to unveil by depicting this vengeance of destitution over the higher classes, is Dickens’s own revolt; attempting to appoint to him the title of the anarchist. In the final pages of his essay Gay poses what one may find to be his most interesting argument by giving an important fact about Dickens. Gay states that even though the reform Dickens was demanding eventually commenced to take place in England − sanitary reform, educational reform, factory reform, even parliamentary reform − his own recognition and approval for the disburdenment of the people was minimal; thus leading to the inevitable conclusion that he had an aversion towards authority, with his politics being ‘a matter far more of passion than of information’. [10] 

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What is striking though in Gay’s essay is that in its very last paragraph, the cornerstone of the main argument is to a significant degree self-contradicted. Overemphasizing on the righteousness that distinguishes exemplars like Mr Jarndyce, Esther and doctor Woodcourt, Dickens implicitly suggests that ‘only private decency and charity could ever redeem the dismal English condition’. [11] What Gay chooses as a closing to his essay comes in complete contrast to the principles of anarchy, which proclaimed political disorder, eradication of government and laws and defiance of every form of authority. Undeniably, the sheer amount of virtue inhabiting in the paragons of decency and charity mentioned earlier, is not what anarchists or anarchic literature idealized. Anarchy, which has being directly associated in literature with dynamite violence, images of terror and abhorring characters is beyond any doubt absent from Dickens’s Bleak House. However, the one minor instance of explosion in Bleak House occurs in Krook’s ‘[s]pontaneous [c]ombustion’ (BH p. 512), which is actually unintentional; hence, it becomes difficult to be associated with an anarchic outburst.

The problematic of this false categorization of Dickens as an anarchist lies, as Bruce Robbins puts it, in the fact that to some professional critics ‘anti-institutional anarchism […] is indistinguishable from liberalism’. [12] Dickens’s heated satire, launched against all forms of injustice and the malpractices of authoritative instruments, had as an aim to incept reform but always in the theme of civility and humanism. Correlations with anarchy would thus seem obscure, because the amount of evidence to support them is minimal. As John Gross insightfully comments: ‘If we strain at accepting Dickens as a thoroughgoing rebel or outcast […] it is, above all, in account of his humour’. [13] What is more, a novel with so prevalent the idea of archives and archiving inevitably comes in contrast with the notion of disorder anarchy is linked with. Consequently, the desire to archive − that one may effortlessly discern in Bleak House − and the importance of archives in the novel will be the topic to be analyzed next, always as it might relate to the theme of anarchy.

To begin with, despite the fact that the two words ‘archive’ and ‘anarchy’ stem from the same Greek root arkhÄ“, meaning both commencement and commandment, they express contrasting notions due to the fact that anarchy annuls any form of law, authority and social order which the latter meaning constitutes. [14] On the other hand, all those implications of commandment are found in archives; thus making them − in cases such as the one of Bleak House − the epitome of controlled order. Moreover, according to Derrida, the Greek arkeion was the place where official documents were collected but also the residence of the archons − the persons in command − who also had the role of preserving and interpreting the documents; being reposed under the authority of the archons the documents become bearers of the law as they ‘recall the law and call on or impose the law’. [15] If in the above relation one replaces the arkeion with the Court of Chancery and the archons with lawyers such as Mr Tulkinghorn or Mr Guppy, leaving the official documents intact, the connection is more than obvious. In this Victorian version of the arkeion Dickens presents the documents of Chancery as the embodiment of the law, defining and controlling people’s fate. This phenomenon applies for the case of Mr Gridley’s long running lawsuit. In spite of his daring orations and his persistent ventures, no positive outcome results because ‘the rules of court declare him a nonentity […] [and] [t]he historical accumulation of documents overpowers his verbal challenge’. [16] Archives in Bleak House acquire major status by initiating the main mystery of the plot; that between the relationship between Lady Deadlock and Nemo the copyist, and subsequently their offspring Esther. A legal document copied by Nemo comes to Lady Deadlock’s attention and as she recognizes the handwriting of her former lover she enquires who copied it, setting Mr Tulkinghorn on a quest to discover the man behind the documents and eventually get his hands on them. After Nemo’s death, the venture to acquire his letters involves a multitude of characters of the play, such as: Krook, Mr Guppy, Mr Weevle, Mr Snagsby, Mr George, Inspector Bucket and Sir Leicester Deadlock.

The above endeavor to locate the archive and its continuous chase throughout Bleak House, in combination with the incessant drive for documentation, may well echo Jacques Derrida’s trouble de l’archive, originating from a mal d’archive situation which occurs when one is in need of archives. From Derrida’s description, it is:

[T]o burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there’s too much of it [.] […] It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive. [17] 

Inevitably, Derrida’s theory also reminds one of Krook’s fixation to accumulate documents of all sorts in his rag-and-bottle shop where ‘[e]verything seemed to be bought, and nothing to be sold’ (BH p. 99) despite the fact that he was not even able to read. Moreover, it also brings to mind the case of Miss Flite and her fascination by the legal documents of the Chancery lawsuits, keeping her engaged in the court most of the time. Bleak House is literally governed by the enormous concentration of archives, as one can notice the Chancery court is piled with: ‘bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, master’s reports, mountains of costly nonsense’ (BH p.50). In addition, law-stationers like Snagsby, copyists like Nemo, and the massive volume of paperwork concerning the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit complete the image of the archival avalanche in the novel. The desire to archive, as Jeremy Tambling highlights, also lies in the record of place names that appears from the very first page of the book even though the novel obfuscates the presence of landmarks and the physical environment through the fog and the mud. [18] Therefore, in the opening scene of the novel Dickens brings into play Lincoln’s Inn Hall, Holborn Hill, the Essex Marshes, the Kentish Heights, river Thames, Greenwich, Temple Bar and finally the High Court of Chancery. Documenting, in just four paragraphs, a respectable number of London’s landmarks. The importance of this exposition of locations and buildings according to Tambling is noteworthy due to the fact that they ‘record London’s medieval existence’. [19] Apart from that, one can also suggest that most of the places introduced to the reader are milestones in London’s terrain; directly linked to its character diachronically, as if they were documents of its history.

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Further alluding to Derrida’s theories engaged with the topic of archives, one cannot fail to mention the parallel he draws between archives and anarchy, which as he purports, is expressed by the Freudian psychoanalytic theory of the death drive. [20] Suggesting that the death drive is ‘diabolical’ and encloses ‘aggression’ and ‘destruction’, Deridda underscores that its function is to destroy the archive by obliterating its specific representative characteristics. [21] At this point one may argue that the sinister traits attributed to the death drive start to work in support to Gay’s argument, exposed at the beginning of this essay, as they challenge the systemized consistency archives create. To Gay’s additional defense Derrida notes that the hidden quality in the archives, called death drive, appears to be not only anarchic but also ‘anarchivic’ by turning against it and ‘archiviolithic’ by assaulting it by its very inception; acting ceaselessly in a mute procedure of destruction. [22] 

Undertaking the task to relate the anarchivic and archiviolithic qualities of the archive with Dickens’s Bleak House one may flash back to a scene cited earlier in this essay, that of Krook’s self-combustion. Quoting Tambling, in Dickens novel ‘London comprises an archive, which is self-combustible: Mr Krook’s shop becomes the symbol of the archive, and Krook’s spontaneous combustion is the death drive, “archive fever”, entropic, destructive’. [23] Up to a certain degree one can allege that in the light of Derrida’s theory, Bleak House can be read in an anarchic perspective; but the extend to which Krook’s combustion can define the whole novel is not − in my opinion − adequate. The reason is that Krook’s case is the sole occasion of blast in the novel, which is in fact non-deliberate but also too mediocre; hence it fails to reach the magnitude of anarchic dynamite outbursts.

Touching upon the subject of literature containing the theme of anarchy, one discerns that Bleak House lacks the political associations − clearly visible in other novels − that the detonation of explosives carries. For Sarah Cole the anarchist and the bomb were inseparable comrades; since the almighty connotations of dynamite provided ‘new vistas of power, not solely for its potential to wreak destruction, but also for its ability to terrify a wide public’. [24] The shock-value of dynamite, Cole describes, and its intertwining with rebellious movements is evident in a novel written by Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson, entitled The Dynamiter. [25] The Stevenson’s novel is an example of literature that participated in the shaping of the anarchist as a type, by expressing political and social reform via the colossal catastrophic potential of dynamite. [26] Unlike the humanitarian and exaggeratedly virtuous apostles of reform −Esther, Mr Jarndyce, Mr Woodcourt − in Bleak House, the Stevenson’s novel depicts inhuman and radical preachers of change like Zero and M’Guire. In The Dynamiter the abhorrent rebels vision ‘the fall of England, the massacre of thousands’ (Dynamiter p. 166); in an indiscriminate war in which they are willing to spare nothing and no one − not even innocent children − having as their purpose to ‘strike fear, […] confound or paralyze the activities of the guilty nation’ (Dynamiter p. 168).

Affronting oppression with aggression and violence, in contrast to Dickens’s characters devoured by the all-encompassing force of the system − like Jo, Mr Gridley, Miss Flite and many others − the Stevenson’s ones envision London collapsing in flames, locating power for the suppressed in ‘the star of dynamite’ (Dynamiter p .164). As a consequence, one detects in the novel various outbursts like the devastating explosion of the superfluous mansion, the outrage of Red Lion Court and Zero’s thunderous self-blowup. Moving on, an extra argument canceling Dickens − and in extension Bleak House − as anarchic, is the failure to be categorized under sensational literature. [27] The fascination possessing the readers at the illustration of abominable eruptions of violence, along with the shock generated in the encounter with raw images of atrocity, were emotions Dickens’s novel could not create. On the other hand, explosive outbreaks similar to that of The Dynamiter were ‘sensational almost by definition’ since as Cole states ‘the history of anarchism and the theatricality of dynamite violence were always thoroughly intertwined with sensationalism’. [28] 

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Conversely, the characterization of Dickens’s critique as poignant satire is less problematic and more widely accepted. Bleak House is dominated by comic characters, satiric representations, sarcasm and irony in order to bring forward the criticism of Dickens and his demand for reform on all layers of society. First of all, Dickens begins to satirize the Court of Chancery and in extension the whole legal system. As Alexander Welsh notices, the eccentric Krook is illustrated as a mock-Chancellor and his shop is called by the neighbours the Court of Chancery. [29] Therefore, the status of the legal institution is diminished when likened to the half-crazed Krook. Supplementary, the mere accumulation of bundles of legal documents carried around the court by numerous clerks, and the burlesque sketching of the dozed and idle legal employs in the Jarndyce and Jarndyce trial, create a comic atmosphere in the novel.

In the chapter named ‘On the Watch’, Dickens employs an alphabetical parody in the names he chooses for the ministers of state like Coodle, Doodle, Noodle and Poodle and the members of the parliament like Buffy, Huffy and Puffy. In this way, Bleak House continues to ridicule the institutions, this time turning against the government and its representatives. Symbolical naming becomes also the inventive method Dickens utilizes to exhibit his critique towards the decaying aristocracy, expressed by Sir Leicester Deadlock; appearing to keep England stationary, in an inescapable dead end situation. [30] An additional phenomenon that could not escape Dickens’s harsh criticism was that of telescopic philanthropy; the false and hypocritical acts of charity met in the characters of Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle. Both women’s objectives are not driven by altruism and magnanimity but rather involve a sense of egotism antithetic to the preaching of Christianity. [31] Therefore, Mrs Jellyby completely deserts her household duties, neglecting her children and her husband with the pretext of her benevolent mission. While Mrs Pardiggle, adopting a military attitude, commands her children and invades the slums to impose her false charity through religious catechesis.

Given the behaviour of the two women described above, Miller’s statement that in Bleak House ‘the family will sometimes be shown as only a slight modulation of Chancery bureaucracy (comfortably domesticated with the Jellybys), or of the police [,] […] one of whose different voices can be heard in Mrs Pardiggle, the “moral policeman”‘ can be said to be to the point. [32] Hence, the portrayal of the family in such a way blurs its distinctive traditional characteristics, creating a travesty. The paradox which Dickens underlines about Mrs Pardiggle and Mrs Jellyby is that albeit both boast to be philanthropists none of them does anything about the dire situation of people like Jo, living in the slum of Tom-all-Alone. Instead the former tries to instil the Christian faith to starving, penniless families with her obnoxious persistence, while the latter centres the focus of her charitable business to a remote tribe rather than to the suffering in the domain of her own country. Accordingly, Dickens chooses to make a joke out of the two women, focusing the strength of his mockery to their unfaltering single-mindedness. [33] A quality which eventually tends to acquire comic associations, because of its futility and incapability to produce a positive impact.

The same selfish aims attributed to the two women are shared by the representative of the church Mr Chadband, which Dickens does not hesitate to condemn as well. In targeting with its fervent satire the clergy, Bleak House seeks to portray its indifference towards the problems of the poor and the suffering. Dickens accomplishes to draw a humoristic sketch of Mr Chadband by making him a preacher self-indulging in his own words; recasting the same orations, stripped from any actual meaning and furthermore, never hesitant to devour a plate of free food. Quoting Welsh’s imaginative characterisation, he is ‘the Victorian equivalent of a T.V. ministry’. [34] Closing, two more victims of the novels satire will be mentioned. First the intolerably immature Mr Skimpole, who exploits the kindness of people like Mr Jarndyce in order to live on their expense; without offering anything to the society by using the hilarious pretext that he is still a child. And secondly Mr Turveydrop, trying to construct a model of deportment out of himself with ‘false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig’ (BH p. 242) in combination with other extravagant accessories; ending thus to lose any ‘touch of nature’ (BH p. 244) and become ridiculous, in his attempt to resemble Prince Regent he so much admired. In my opinion, with the mockery of Mr Turveydrop’s faux royalty and conceitedness, Dickens stresses the need to disengage from the idealization of the regal.

Attaching to Dickens the label of the anarchist would seem as a hyperbole, due to the fact that his notion of reform and progress did not involve scenes of mayhem and chaos. The ideas he sought to mediate were inextricably connected with liberalism and humanism, having constantly in mind what was most beneficial for his country. The same condition applies for Bleak House as well, in which he uses a penetrating satire to subvert the order he creates from the exaggeration of documentation and archiving, in order to allow for the very problems he wants to stress to come to surface. Hence it might not be an overstatement if one claimed that Dickens’s politics, which have been promoted in an unconventional way in his novels, contributed to some extent to the amendment of the defective Victorian institutional apparatus.

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