Bleak House Theme of Respect and Reputation
Obsession with personal reputation is one of the many kinds of monomania presented in Bleak House. There are those whose social rank entitles them to limitless respect, which they don't hesitate to claim. There are also those whose position in life is the product of a fevered imagination – but this does not deter their posturing. The more either of these types demand respect, the more they seem to get it, perhaps because in a highly stratified society, it is always helpful to know who outranks whom, and that calculation is sometimes so hard to perform that it's easier to just go by a person's actions.
Questions About Respect and Reputation
- Which character cares the most about how respectful others are toward him or her? Which cares the least? Are there characters who are surprisingly touchy about getting their respect? Are there ones who surprisingly don't care about how others treat them? Why or why not?
- Do characters with good reputations care about them more or less than those with bad reputations? Is it more useful in the novel to have a good or bad reputation? Who uses their reputation in the course of daily life? How?
- In the novel, there are several identifiers that seem to automatically call for respect from other characters: age, wealth, or being of a higher social class. Does the novel approve or disapprove of these automatic respect-generators? How do you know?
Chew on This
The only characters whose reputation precedes them are ones who are malicious or evil. Positive characters, on the other hand, have to reassert themselves and their intentions every time they encounter a new person.
The only characters whom it is possible to genuinely respect in the novel are ones who are narrated at least in part by Esther's voice. Anyone who is only described by the third-person narrator is shown with too many gaping flaws to be a figure of respect.