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Bleak House

Bleak House

by Charles Dickens

Appearances Theme

Bleak House is obsessed with appearances. Characters' features are scrutinized by narrators, by mirrors, by people watching them and spying on them, and even through artwork that represents them. Geographical and topographical landmarks are primarily identified by sight, and the ability to quickly orient oneself visually is crucial to the very survival of characters forced to find their way through hostile terrain. Still, outer looks and inner morality do not always coincide, as the novel flirts with mildly overturning some of the staunchest Victorian stereotypes about appearance.

Questions About Appearances

  1. Which characters are aware of the way their looks affect other people? Which are unaware?
  2. How do different characters use their appearance to influence those around them? Does it work? Why or why not?
  3. Does the appearance of a character or a location change depending on who is describing it? Find two passages that describe the same thing or person (Lady Dedlock, for instance, or the cemetery at Tom-all-Alone's) from two different points of view – either from the point of view of the two different narrators, or from the point of view of other characters. What stays the same about the description? What changes?
  4. What do you make of Esther's fixation on Ada's good looks? Why is Ada the person Esther is most scared of seeing after her face is scarred? What is their relationship, and why is appearance such a huge part of it?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

In the novel, characters' reactions to what they are seeing are so predictable and expected that we don't actually need any of the narrator's descriptions of people and places in order to immediately understand what they look like.

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