by Charles Dickens
Bleak House Identity Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
Another ruined suitor, who periodically appears from Shropshire and breaks out into efforts to address the Chancellor at the close of the day's business and who can by no means be made to understand that the Chancellor is legally ignorant of his existence. (1.7)
The idea of a person whose existence is legally denied is a terrifying thought. Later this idea will mined for full effect by Kafka and other writers of the absurd and fantastical.
What the destitute subject of such an offer tried to say, I need not repeat. What she did say, I could more easily tell, if it were worth the telling. What she felt, and will feel to her dying hour, I could never relate. (3.52)
This is Esther talking about herself in the third person, when Kenge offers her the opportunity to go live with Jarndyce. It's one of the few moments when the novel really registers the huge disconnect between Esther as the young girl in the story and Esther as the grownup who is telling the story. Here it is so hard for the latter to remember the former that she is forced to talk about herself as though she were a completely different, unknowable person.
"And Mr. Jellyby, sir?" suggested Richard.
"Ah! Mr. Jellyby," said Mr. Kenge, "is--a--I don't know that I can describe him to you better than by saying that he is the husband of Mrs. Jellyby."
"A nonentity, sir?" said Richard with a droll look.
"I don't say that," returned Mr. Kenge gravely. "I can't say that, indeed, for I know nothing whatever OF Mr. Jellyby. I never, to my knowledge, had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Jellyby. He may be a very superior man, but he is, so to speak, merged--merged--in the more shining qualities of his wife." (4.5-8)
This is all very telling about Mr. Jellyby's unremarkableness, of course. But what really cinches the joke here is that in the 19th century, a married woman had no legal existence of her own; for the sake of the law, a married woman was considered merged into the identity of her husband. This legal framework, called "couverture," precluded women from being able to own their own property, voting, becoming owners or partners in businesses, and so on. Here the joke is that with the Jellybys, it's Mr. Jellyby who has "merged" with his wife, so it is his identity that has been erased by hers.