Bleak House Theme of Guilt and Blame
The deeply related sensations of guilt and blame dominate the emotional life of most of the characters in Bleak House. Almost any situation calls forth feelings that fall somewhere in this category: the shamelessness of Skimpole causes empathetic embarrassment in Esther, the impossible situation of Lady Dedlock's youth creates unbearable guilt in her middle age, and the inculcated blame of Esther's childhood is reflected in the mortification she feels at the slightest bit of praise. The novel is a lesson in overcoming these crippling emotions – but given what we know about the repressive environment of real-life Victorians, this may be wishful thinking.
Questions About Guilt and Blame
- Are some characters more prone to feeling guilty than others? Are there characters who do not feel any guilt whatsoever about their actions? Is lack of guilt necessarily a negative thing, or does it actually serve a constructive purpose?
- Plenty of the bad guys in the novel use other characters' guilt against them. For instance, Tulkinghorn is able to extort Captain Hawdon's letter from Mr. George by reminding him that if the Bagnets were to go bankrupt, he would be to blame. Are there examples of good guys using the same technique to get results? Is this ethically OK? Why or why not?
- Do the guilty receive fitting punishments? Who suffers cruelly and unusually? Whose comeuppance is earned? Who escapes punishment altogether? Why? What would happen to the novel if some of these punishments were reversed?
Chew on This
The feeling of guilt is so pervasive in this repressive society that even those who are not criminals constantly feel blameworthy. For some characters, the only way to cope with personal guilt is to investigate and police the behavior of others, becoming amateur spies and detectives.
In Bleak House, the process of growing up is strongly tied to a child's need to stop internalizing the shame of her parents' behavior. Only when Caddy can see her mother without seeing herself is she is able to move into maturity. Only when Esther can let go of Miss Barbary's guilt-inducing putdowns does she come into her own. Those who cannot escape their parents – like Richard, who is caught in the Jarndyce web, or Prince Turveydrop, who sacrifices himself for his father – can never truly become adults.