Esther Summerson in Bleak House
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A young woman raised by a strict and horrible aunt, Esther narrates her own half of the novel, chronicling how she becomes Ada's governess and the housekeeper of Bleak House, befriends and helps many people in the process, and eventually uncovers the mystery of her birth.
Dickens almost has a patent out on Esther's character type. To put it briefly, she is perfect. No, scratch that – she is the perfect young woman, in all the ways that mattered to our stodgy, prim Victorian ancestors. There's almost a standard list of requirements we can run down to make sure:
- Looks: Pretty, but not overwhelmingly so? Check. Not too vain to get over some facial scarring? Check. So far so good.
- Personality: Humble, modest, quiet, hard-working, and grateful? Yes, indeedy. A good caretaker, and homemaker who generally tends to act only for the benefit of others? Every time. Excellent, excellent.
- Sex: Represses her own desires? Yes, always. Hard for others to see her as a sexual being? Very much so.
OK, then – we've got ourselves a very nice version of the "Angel in the House." That phrase comes from a sappy poem written in 1854 by Coventry Patmore about his wife Emily, summing up the awesome way she rolls, wife-style. The poem wasn't a big hit, but the phrase definitely stuck as a neat shorthand for what makes a "good" woman. She's got to stay in the house doing domestic things (so no pesky jobs, voting, or property ownership for you, ladies!). And she's got to be a ministering angel, constantly taking care of everyone around her (family, friends, random neighborhood poor people), without spending much time taking care of herself (no days off now! and stop looking at yourself in the mirror! well, unless it's just to make yourself attractive for your husband). You know, no big deal.
In real, life of course, it was probably pretty hard to find anyone who actually fit this mold. But apparently every man could dream. And a man like Dickens could dream and write it down.
The Modest Narrator
Still, this Angel in the House is different in one important way from Dickens's other angels, like Amy in Little Dorrit, Biddy in Great Expectations, Sissy Jupe in Hard Times, or Lizzie Hexam in Our Mutual Friend. She actually gets to speak in her own voice and tell her own story.
So what happens when a shy, modest, and self-abnegating character tries to be a narrator – someone who has to speak to others, talk about herself, and describe things with relative honesty? For one thing, because we are getting a lot of the narrating character's thoughts, Esther constantly has to analyze the people she sees, the events she experiences, and her own emotions. All this analysis leads to growth that can actually be demonstrated rather than described.
So for instance, at first Esther has only very mild concern about Harold Skimpole, but as she gets older and more self-assured, she goes and actually tells him off. We, in turn, know that she has changed as a person because we see her going to give him what for rather than simply hearing about it from a third-person narrator.
Another way to see growth is in the way Esther becomes more and more willing to be critical about what she sees. So while she describes Mrs. Jellyby in the nicest way possible and tries to find the good in that crazy woman with her philanthropic nonsense, later in the novel she is totally straight with us about Mr. Turveydrop and his selfish, ludicrous existence. She even gets kind of nasty in her (always internal) put-downs. See if you can spot a few toward the end of the novel.
All that modesty and self-denial has a narrative drawback, which is easy to see whenever Esther has to describe the way other people think about her. Since she is so perfect, most people are totally bowled over by her, think of her extremely highly, and generally want to be super nice and complimentary to her. But a person who doesn't advertise her own awesomeness would never broadcast this kind of thing. So Dickens solves this problem by having Esther repeat the nice things other people say but then immediately downplay them herself. It's kind of an imperfect solution – every time she does this, she sounds like she's just fishing for compliments.
Esther Summerson in Bleak House Study Group
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