Bleak House Poverty Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
Then the active and intelligent [beadle], who has got into the morning papers as such, comes with his pauper company to Mr. Krook's and bears off the body of our dear brother here departed to a hemmed-in churchyard, pestiferous and obscene, whence malignant diseases are communicated to the bodies of our dear brothers and sisters who have not departed, while our dear brothers and sisters who hang about official back-stairs--would to heaven they HAD departed!--are very complacent and agreeable. Into a beastly scrap of ground which a Turk would reject as a savage abomination and a Caffre would shudder at, they bring our dear brother here departed to receive Christian burial.
With houses looking on, on every side, save where a reeking little tunnel of a court gives access to the iron gate--with every villainy of life in action close on death, and every poisonous element of death in action close on life--here they lower our dear brother down a foot or two, here sow him in corruption, to be raised in corruption: an avenging ghost at many a sick-bedside, a shameful testimony to future ages how civilization and barbarism walked this boastful island together. (11.96-97)
This is a pretty powerful indictment, right? There are a lot of reasons this passage is so powerful. There's the language of course. The horror of the burial ground contrasted and beaten home with the repetition of "dear brothers and sisters" (a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer's burial service). The not particularly politically correct point that Christian people shouldn't do to their dead what those who practice "inferior" religions (Turks, Caffres) would never do. And then, going along with the best science of the time, the idea that cemeteries are disease ridden and generate contagious miasma. This was just two years before the germ theory of disease came into widespread knowledge, when John Snow showed that the London cholera epidemic of 1854 could only statistically be explained by contagion through germs. Before that, the belief was that disease spread through "miasma," a kind of bad air that came from dirty places.
In a poor room with a sloping ceiling and containing very little furniture was a mite of a boy, some five or six years old, nursing and hushing a heavy child of eighteen months. There was no fire, though the weather was cold; both children were wrapped in some poor shawls and tippets as a substitute. [...] We were looking at one another and at these two children when there came into the room a very little girl, childish in figure but shrewd and older-looking in the face--pretty-faced too--wearing a womanly sort of bonnet much too large for her and drying her bare arms on a womanly sort of apron. Her fingers were white and wrinkled with washing, and the soap-suds were yet smoking which she wiped off her arms. [...]
"Oh, here's Charley!" said the boy.
The child he was nursing stretched forth its arms and cried out to be taken by Charley. The little girl took it, in a womanly sort of manner belonging to the apron and the bonnet, and stood looking at us over the burden that clung to her most affectionately.
"Is it possible," whispered my guardian as we put a chair for the little creature and got her to sit down with her load, the boy keeping close to her, holding to her apron, "that this child works for the rest? Look at this! For God's sake, look at this!"
It was a thing to look at. The three children close together, and two of them relying solely on the third, and the third so young and yet with an air of age and steadiness that sat so strangely on the childish figure. (15.47-61)
OK, so not to rain on the sadness parade here or anything, but this passage comes a little too close to "poverty tourism" for our liking. There are so many details, and Esther and Jarndyce stand and stare at these kids for so long, that it starts to feel a little bit like feeding time at the zoo. Or maybe Shmoop's getting a little cynical in its old age.
Jo lives--that is to say, Jo has not yet died--in a ruinous place known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone's. [...] It must be a strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows! To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postmen deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language--to be, to every scrap of it, stone blind and dumb! It must be very puzzling to see the good company going to the churches on Sundays, with their books in their hands, and to think (for perhaps Jo does think at odd times) what does it all mean, and if it means anything to anybody, how comes it that it means nothing to me? To be hustled, and jostled, and moved on; and really to feel that it would appear to be perfectly true that I have no business here, or there, or anywhere; and yet to be perplexed by the consideration that I am here somehow, too, and everybody overlooked me until I became the creature that I am! It must be a strange state, not merely to be told that I am scarcely human (as in the case of my offering myself for a witness), but to feel it of my own knowledge all my life! To see the horses, dogs, and cattle go by me and to know that in ignorance I belong to them and not to the superior beings in my shape, whose delicacy I offend! Jo's ideas of a criminal trial, or a judge, or a bishop, or a government, or that inestimable jewel to him (if he only knew it) the Constitution, should be strange! His whole material and immaterial life is wonderfully strange; his death, the strangest thing of all. (16.8-12)
This is kind of an amazing passage. For one brief paragraph, Jo suddenly gets to be the narrator of the novel. Notice how the text switches from talking about Jo in the third person ("Jo lives," "it must be strange to be like Jo") to trying to imagine his inner monologue in the first person ("I have no business here," "I am here somehow"). This isn't really in character, since Jo doesn't really know half these words, but it's pretty startling to suddenly get a glimpse inside Jo's head as he wonders what the point of his life is and thinks about how he's like a dog.