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Themes

In Bleak House, law is a hopelessly tangled mess of unsolvable, endless cases, and the power of the police is new enough to be used sometimes to further private interests or for other morally ambiguous purposes. So the only way to ensure moral coherence is to devise and stick to some kind of code of honor. Many characters have such declared principles, some of which make sense and some of which don't, but none of which are meant to be taken lightly or ignored.

Questions About Principles

  1. There are a lot of characters who give themselves principles to live by: Mr. George and his anti-lawyer stance, Sir Dedlock and his obsession with integrity, Mrs. Jellyby and her commitment to being an activist. Do any of the institutions in the novel (government, Chancery, police force) have principles? Why or why not? If they do have principles, do they stick to them?
  2. Do either of the two narrators have any principles they use to do their work? Are there things that are beyond the pale for either one to mention? Do these principles match or coincide? Or are they opposed?
  3. When do principles cross the line into obsessive or destructive behavior? For example, is Tulkinghorn committed to preserving the honor of the Dedlocks or crazily focused on power and surveillance? Does Skimpole simply want to live out his days without any responsibility, or is he a sociopathic parasite who destroys everyone in his path? Why does the novel put the two things in such close proximity?

Chew on This

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

In an ironic twist, the more options a character has (through wealth, power, education, or career prospects), the more likely he is to stick to his principles. Those who are less fortunate and do not have the luxury of choice paradoxically end up with far more freedom of action.

Although principles would seem to ensure a strict code of behavior, in practice most of the people who have them are able to twist them to suit their own ends.

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