Study Guide

Bleak House Appearances

By Charles Dickens

Appearances

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds. [...] The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth. (1.2-5)

This is a pretty cool transformation of a literal fog into a metaphorical one. At first the narrator is describing actual fog and how it covers the whole city. But then, slowly, the fog turns into a metaphor of confusion and unintelligibility. Suddenly the narrator describes the Court of Chancery as being in the middle of the thickest fog. Dickens is great at this kind of thing: pulling out some visual detail about a place and turning it into a metaphor for the place as a whole.

Lady Dedlock as one of a class--as one of the leaders and representatives of her little world. She supposes herself to be an inscrutable Being, quite out of the reach and ken of ordinary mortals--seeing herself in her glass, where indeed she looks so. Yet every dim little star revolving about her, from her maid to the manager of the Italian Opera, knows her weaknesses, prejudices, follies, haughtinesses, and caprices and lives upon as accurate a calculation and as nice a measure of her moral nature as her dressmaker takes of her physical proportions. Is a new dress, a new custom, a new singer, a new dancer, a new form of jewelry, a new dwarf or giant, a new chapel, a new anything, to be set up? There are deferential people in a dozen callings whom my Lady Dedlock suspects of nothing but prostration before her, who can tell you how to manage her as if she were a baby, who do nothing but nurse her all their lives, who, humbly affecting to follow with profound subservience, lead her and her whole troop after them. (2.13)

This a great passage describing the different ways Lady Dedlock looks depending on who is doing the looking. To herself, in the mirror, she looks totally aloof, powerful, and mysterious. To her "little world" she is a representative who "leads" her troop. But to the various salespeople and tradesmen who provide goods and services to her, she's a "baby" who is easily fooled into buying whatever it is they want to sell her. They all know what buttons to push to get her to do anything.

But a portrait over the chimney-piece, painted by the fashionable artist of the day, acts upon him like a charm. He recovers in a moment. He stares at it with uncommon interest; he seems to be fixed and fascinated by it.

"Dear me!" says Mr. Guppy. "Who's that?"

"The picture over the fire-place," says Rosa, "is the portrait of the present Lady Dedlock. It is considered a perfect likeness, and the best work of the master."[...]

"It's unaccountable to me," he says, still staring at the portrait, "how well I know that picture! I'm dashed," adds Mr. Guppy, looking round, "if I don't think I must have had a dream of that picture, you know!"

As no one present takes any especial interest in Mr. Guppy's dreams, the probability is not pursued. But he still remains so absorbed by the portrait that he stands immovable before it until the young gardener has closed the shutters, when he comes out of the room in a dazed state that is an odd though a sufficient substitute for interest and follows into the succeeding rooms with a confused stare, as if he were looking everywhere for Lady Dedlock again. (7.37-45)

What do you think about the idea of a painting being "a perfect likeness"? Is that even possible? What does it say about Lady Dedlock that she is able to be painted exactly – unlike Sir Dedlock, for instance, who is later described as hating a particularly bad portrait of himself?

We all conceived a prepossession in [Boythorn's] favour, for there was a sterling quality in this laugh, and in his vigorous, healthy voice, and in the roundness and fullness with which he uttered every word he spoke, and in the very fury of his superlatives, which seemed to go off like blank cannons and hurt nothing. But we were hardly prepared to have it so confirmed by his appearance when Mr. Jarndyce presented him. He was not only a very handsome old gentleman--upright and stalwart as he had been described to us-- with a massive grey head, a fine composure of face when silent, a figure that might have become corpulent but for his being so continually in earnest that he gave it no rest, and a chin that might have subsided into a double chin but for the vehement emphasis in which it was constantly required to assist; but he was such a true gentleman in his manner, so chivalrously polite, his face was lighted by a smile of so much sweetness and tenderness, and it seemed so plain that he had nothing to hide, but showed himself exactly as he was. [...] [He had] a very little canary, who was so tame that he was brought down by Mr. Boythorn's man, on his forefinger, and after taking a gentle flight round the room, alighted on his master's head. To hear Mr. Boythorn presently expressing the most implacable and passionate sentiments, with this fragile mite of a creature quietly perched on his forehead, was to have a good illustration of his character, I thought. (9.37-40)

So here are two competing descriptions. First is Esther's actual description of Boythorn's body, head, chin, and smile. Then there's the description that says he's a man who yells with seeming violence while a tiny pet bird sits on his head. Which is the better, more informative image?

During this dialogue Mr. Tulkinghorn has stood aloof by the old portmanteau, with his hands behind him, equally removed, to all appearance, from all three kinds of interest exhibited near the bed--from the young surgeon's professional interest in death, noticeable as being quite apart from his remarks on the deceased as an individual; from the old man's unction; and the little crazy woman's awe. His imperturbable face has been as inexpressive as his rusty clothes. One could not even say he has been thinking all this while. He has shown neither patience nor impatience, nor attention nor abstraction. He has shown nothing but his shell. As easily might the tone of a delicate musical instrument be inferred from its case, as the tone of Mr. Tulkinghorn from his case. (11.34)

Tulkinghorn is like a black hole, sucking in the air and light around him. Notice how the faces of everyone else show at least some signs of life: the doctor is all professional doing his doings, the woman is scared and shocked, the old man is obsequious. But Tulkinghorn can't even be said to be alive, from this description.

[Mr. Turveydrop] was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star or a broad blue ribbon to be complete. He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear. He had such a neckcloth on (puffing his very eyes out of their natural shape), and his chin and even his ears so sunk into it, that it seemed as though be must inevitably double up if it were cast loose. He had under his arm a hat of great size and weight, shelving downward from the crown to the brim, and in his hand a pair of white gloves with which he flapped it as he stood poised on one leg in a high-shouldered, round-elbowed state of elegance not to be surpassed. He had a cane, he had an eye-glass, he had a snuff-box, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature; he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was not like anything in the world but a model of Deportment. (14.71)

This might be the first time Esther really doesn't pull any punches: she lets Mr. Turveydrop have it for his totally horrible and ridiculous appearance. This sounds a lot more like the adult Esther narrating than the child Esther actually registering this guy for the first time. If he hadn't turned out to be such an awful person, would she have been a little nicer to him here?

There is only one judge in town. Even he only comes twice a week to sit in chambers. If the country folks of those assize towns on his circuit could see him now! No full-bottomed wig, no red petticoats, no fur, no javelin-men, no white wands. Merely a close-shaved gentleman in white trousers and a white hat, with sea-bronze on the judicial countenance, and a strip of bark peeled by the solar rays from the judicial nose, who calls in at the shellfish shop as he comes along and drinks iced ginger-beer! (19.3)

This is what happens to the super-formality of the Court during summer recess. It's interesting to think about how much of the Court's or the Chancellor's authority comes from fancy appearance – the wigs, the clothes, the guys who stand and pretend to guard him. This also gives us a nice separation of the man from the office: see, this judge is just a regular guy who likes to eat shrimp and whose sunburn is peeling. It's only the dehumanized legal figure "Chancellor" who can't acknowledge Gridley's existence.

Mrs. Smallweed, following her usual instinct, breaks out with "Fifteen hundred pound. Fifteen hundred pound in a black box, fifteen hundred pound locked up, fifteen hundred pound put away and hid!" Her worthy husband, setting aside his bread and butter, immediately discharges the cushion at her, crushes her against the side of her chair, and falls back in his own, overpowered. His appearance, after visiting Mrs. Smallweed with one of these admonitions, is particularly impressive and not wholly prepossessing, firstly because the exertion generally twists his black skull-cap over one eye and gives him an air of goblin rakishness, secondly because he mutters violent imprecations against Mrs. Smallweed, and thirdly because the contrast between those powerful expressions and his powerless figure is suggestive of a baleful old malignant who would be very wicked if he could. All this, however, is so common in the Smallweed family circle that it produces no impression. The old gentleman is merely shaken and has his internal feathers beaten up, the cushion is restored to its usual place beside him, and the old lady, perhaps with her cap adjusted and perhaps not, is planted in her chair again, ready to be bowled down like a ninepin. (21.48)


Isn't it strange how often the Smallweeds are compared to inanimate objects? Shmoop's betting it happens more with them than with any of the other characters. They're already sort of repetitive and puppet-like in the things they say: Mrs. Smallweed is always yelling about hidden money, and Mr. Smallweed is constantly calling her a "brimstone beast". Here, though, he is first a goblin, then a pillow. She is first a bowling pin, then a plant.

I went up to the glass upon the dressing-table. There was a little muslin curtain drawn across it. I drew it back and stood for a moment looking through such a veil of my own hair that I could see nothing else. Then I put my hair aside and looked at the reflection in the mirror, encouraged by seeing how placidly it looked at me. I was very much changed--oh, very, very much. At first my face was so strange to me that I think I should have put my hands before it and started back but for the encouragement I have mentioned. Very soon it became more familiar, and then I knew the extent of the alteration in it better than I had done at first. It was not like what I had expected, but I had expected nothing definite, and I dare say anything definite would have surprised me.

I had never been a beauty and had never thought myself one, but I had been very different from this. It was all gone now. Heaven was so good to me that I could let it go with a few not bitter tears and could stand there arranging my hair for the night quite thankfully.

One thing troubled me, and I considered it for a long time before I went to sleep. I had kept Mr. Woodcourt's flowers. When they were withered I had dried them and put them in a book that I was fond of. Nobody knew this, not even Ada. I was doubtful whether I had a right to preserve what he had sent to one so different--whether it was generous towards him to do it. I wished to be generous to him, even in the secret depths of my heart, which he would never know, because I could have loved him--could have been devoted to him. At last I came to the conclusion that I might keep them if I treasured them only as a remembrance of what was irrevocably past and gone, never to be looked back on any more, in any other light. I hope this may not seem trivial. I was very much in earnest. (36.4-7)

There's a nice parallel and echo here between the way Esther talks about the clear line before and after her disfigurement ("it was all gone now") and the way she decides to think about the flowers (a keepsake of "what was irrevocably past and gone"). Now that everything has changed, she feels safe to admit that she is in love with Woodcourt. She also can express her gratitude that she still has a small part of her good looks (her hair).

[Mr. Turveydrop] would come into the room once a day, all but blessing it--showing a condescension, and a patronage, and a grace of manner in dispensing the light of his high-shouldered presence from which I might have supposed him (if I had not known better) to have been the benefactor of Caddy's life.

"My Caroline," he would say, making the nearest approach that he could to bending over her. "Tell me that you are better to-day."

"Oh, much better, thank you, Mr. Turveydrop," Caddy would reply.

"Delighted! Enchanted! And our dear Miss Summerson. She is not quite prostrated by fatigue?" Here he would crease up his eyelids and kiss his fingers to me, though I am happy to say he had ceased to be particular in his attentions since I had been so altered.

"Not at all," I would assure him.

"Charming! We must take care of our dear Caroline, Miss Summerson. We must spare nothing that will restore her. We must nourish her. My dear Caroline"--he would turn to his daughter-in-law with infinite generosity and protection--"want for nothing, my love. Frame a wish and gratify it, my daughter. Everything this house contains, everything my room contains, is at your service, my dear. Do not," he would sometimes add in a burst of deportment, "even allow my simple requirements to be considered if they should at any time interfere with your own, my Caroline. Your necessities are greater than mine."

He had established such a long prescriptive right to this deportment (his son's inheritance from his mother) that I several times knew both Caddy and her husband to be melted to tears by these affectionate self-sacrifices. (50.26-34)

Which is better, Mr. Turveydrop's totally feigned and delusional pretense of being important and self-sacrificing while he's actually a passive-aggressive leech, or Skimpole's admission that he wants what he wants and that you have to give it to him? Does Turveydrop's method somehow allow his enablers to save face? Do Skimpole's enablers get the feeling of doing a good deed as their reward?

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