Study Guide

Bleak House Duty

By Charles Dickens

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[Jarndyce] asked me what I thought of Mrs. Jellyby.

"She exerts herself very much for Africa, sir," I said.

"Nobly!" returned Mr. Jarndyce. "But you answer like Ada." Whom I had not heard. "You all think something else, I see."

"We rather thought," said I, glancing at Richard and Ada, who entreated me with their eyes to speak, "that perhaps she was a little unmindful of her home."

"Floored!" cried Mr. Jarndyce.

I was rather alarmed again.

"Well! I want to know your real thoughts, my dear. I may have sent you there on purpose."

"We thought that, perhaps," said I, hesitating, "it is right to begin with the obligations of home, sir; and that, perhaps, while those are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them." (6.21-28)

This might be as good a summary as we ever get of Dickens's opinions about foreign aid: domestic charity should always trump foreign philanthropy.

All this and a great deal more he told us, not only with the utmost brilliancy and enjoyment, but with a certain vivacious candour-- speaking of himself as if he were not at all his own affair, as if Skimpole were a third person, as if he knew that Skimpole had his singularities but still had his claims too, which were the general business of the community and must not be slighted. He was quite enchanting. If I felt at all confused at that early time in endeavouring to reconcile anything he said with anything I had thought about the duties and accountabilities of life (which I am far from sure of), I was confused by not exactly understanding why he was free of them. That he WAS free of them, I scarcely doubted; he was so very clear about it himself. (6.71)

One of the many things that prove how big a liar Skimpole is is the fact that he knows there are duties he's shirking. If he really were a naïve and innocent child, he wouldn't know any better. Just ask any five-year-old.

[The idle dream of Jarndyce being Esther's father] was all gone now, I remembered, getting up from the fire. It was not for me to muse over bygones, but to act with a cheerful spirit and a grateful heart. So I said to myself, "Esther, Esther, Esther! Duty, my dear!" and gave my little basket of housekeeping keys such a shake that they sounded like little bells and rang me hopefully to bed. (6.160)

For the first time (but not the last), Esther concentrates on duty as a way to avoid unpleasant emotions. Bells are a nice sonic image there, with many connotations – for example church bells, but also the bells that cows wear. Anything else come up for you when you think about a bell sound?

"It had been called, before [Tom Jarndyce's] time, the Peaks. He gave it its present name [Bleak House] and lived here shut up, day and night poring over the wicked heaps of papers in the suit and hoping against hope to disentangle it from its mystification and bring it to a close. In the meantime, the place became dilapidated [...] There is, in that city of London there, some property of ours which is much at this day what Bleak House was then [...] a street of perishing blind houses, with their eyes stoned out, without a pane of glass, without so much as a window-frame, with the bare blank shutters tumbling from their hinges and falling asunder, the iron rails peeling away in flakes of rust, the chimneys sinking in, the stone steps to every door (and every door might be death's door) turning stagnant green, the very crutches on which the ruins are propped decaying." (8.22-26)

So wait, does the Jarndyce lawsuit secretly deal with the property we know as Tom-all-Alone's? Are those slums so horrible because they don't belong to anyone, so no one is responsible for their upkeep?

"It has been observed that [Mrs. Jellyby's] young family are excluded from participation in the objects to which she is devoted. She may be right, she may be wrong; but, right or wrong, this is not my course with MY [Mrs. Pardiggle's] young family. I take them everywhere. [...] They attend matins with me (very prettily done) at half-past six o'clock in the morning all the year round, including of course the depth of winter," said Mrs. Pardiggle rapidly, "and they are with me during the revolving duties of the day. I am a School lady, I am a Visiting lady, I am a Reading lady, I am a Distributing lady; I am on the local Linen Box Committee and many general committees; and my canvassing alone is very extensive--perhaps no one's more so. But they are my companions everywhere; and by these means they acquire that knowledge of the poor, and that capacity of doing charitable business in general--in short, that taste for the sort of thing--which will render them in after life a service to their neighbours and a satisfaction to themselves. My young family are not frivolous; they expend the entire amount of their allowance in subscriptions, under my direction; and they have attended as many public meetings and listened to as many lectures, orations, and discussions as generally fall to the lot of few grown people. Alfred (five), who, as I mentioned, has of his own election joined the Infant Bonds of Joy, was one of the very few children who manifested consciousness on that occasion after a fervid address of two hours from the chairman of the evening." (8.62-65)

Usually the idea of duty is a positive and life-affirming one in the novel. People who see to their duties – like Jo's sweeping the steps to Nemo's cemetery – tend to be emotionally and morally superior to those who shirk them. But here we've got duty used as a weapon and borderline child abuse.

"We have here among us, my friends," says Chadband, "a Gentile and a heathen [...] a brother and a boy. [...] When this young hardened heathen told us a story of a cock, and of a bull, and of a lady, and of a sovereign, was THAT the Terewth? No. Or if it was partly, was it wholly and entirely? No, my friends, no!" [...] All this time Jo has been standing on the spot where he woke up, ever picking his cap and putting bits of fur in his mouth. He spits them out with a remorseful air, for he feels that it is in his nature to be an unimprovable reprobate and that it's no good HIS trying to keep awake, for HE won't never know nothink. [...] Jo never heard of any such book [the Bible]. Its compilers and the Reverend Chadband are all one to him, except that he knows the Reverend Chadband and would rather run away from him for an hour than hear him talk for five minutes. "It an't no good my waiting here no longer," thinks Jo. "Mr. Snagsby an't a-going to say nothink to me to-night." And downstairs he shuffles.

But downstairs is the charitable Guster, holding by the handrail of the kitchen stairs and warding off a fit, as yet doubtfully, the same having been induced by Mrs. Snagsby's screaming. She has her own supper of bread and cheese to hand to Jo, with whom she ventures to interchange a word or so for the first time.

"Here's something to eat, poor boy," says Guster. (25.19-46)

First of all, when Chadband says "Terewth," we're meant to sound it out – it's his totally obnoxious pronunciation of the word "truth." So the contrast between Chadband yelling at Jo (in a way that's not only shaming but also totally over the boy's head) and Guster feeding him is pretty self-explanatory. There is a bit of a contradiction here, though, because what Guster does is not enough. Jo does need to know about Jesus and the Bible, according to the narrator, and it's someone's duty to teach him. So Chadband apparently has the right idea – the problem is that he's a pompous jerk.

Mr. Tulkinghorn comes and goes pretty often, there being estate business to do, leases to be renewed, and so on. He sees my Lady pretty often, too; and he and she are as composed, and as indifferent, and take as little heed of one another, as ever. Yet it may be that my Lady fears this Mr. Tulkinghorn and that he knows it. It may be that he pursues her doggedly and steadily, with no touch of compunction, remorse, or pity. It may be that her beauty and all the state and brilliancy surrounding her only gives him the greater zest for what he is set upon and makes him the more inflexible in it. Whether he be cold and cruel, whether immovable in what he has made his duty, whether absorbed in love of power, whether determined to have nothing hidden from him in ground where he has burrowed among secrets all his life, whether he in his heart despises the splendour of which he is a distant beam, whether he is always treasuring up slights and offences in the affability of his gorgeous clients--whether he be any of this, or all of this, it may be that my Lady had better have five thousand pairs of fashionable eyes upon her, in distrustful vigilance, than the two eyes of this rusty lawyer with his wisp of neckcloth and his dull black breeches tied with ribbons at the knees. (29.3)

Finally we get some answers about Tulkinghorn. Here is a whole bunch of possible explanations for why he does what he does – and apparently feels he is duty-bound to do. It might be for all these reasons or just for some of them, but the narrator pretty strongly argues that it's at least one thing from this list. What's interesting is that as soon as he has understandable motivations, Tulkinghorn is immediately made more human. Now he has "zeal" and gets offended by insults rather than just being some kind of evil machine.

"Mr. Carstone has laid down the principle of watching his own interests," said Mr. Vholes, "and when a client lays down his own principle, and it is not immoral, it devolves upon me to carry it out. I wish in business to be exact and open. I am a widower with three daughters--Emma, Jane, and Caroline--and my desire is so to discharge the duties of life as to leave them a good name. This appears to be a pleasant spot, miss."

[...] I asked Mr. Vholes if he would like to live altogether in the country.

"There, miss," said he, "you touch me on a tender string. My health is not good (my digestion being much impaired), and if I had only myself to consider, I should take refuge in rural habits, especially as the cares of business have prevented me from ever coming much into contact with general society, and particularly with ladies' society, which I have most wished to mix in. But with my three daughters, Emma, Jane, and Caroline--and my aged father--I cannot afford to be selfish. It is true I have no longer to maintain a dear grandmother who died in her hundred and second year, but enough remains to render it indispensable that the mill should be always going." (37.138-145)

What's great about Dickens is that nothing is ever totally, completely cut and dry. So all along we've been told that you have to take care of your family and your house before you even start thinking about anything else – your primary duty is deal with your domestic situation. So what do we make of Vholes, here, who is clearly a negative, weird, vampiric character but is totally devoted to his kids and his dad?

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day. (47.140)

Dickens has a message for us here: Yeah, you lazy, good-for-nothing readers. Now get off your butts and do something to make things better!

"Now, George," says Mr. Bucket, "duty is duty, and friendship is friendship. I never want the two to clash if I can help it. I have endeavoured to make things pleasant to-night, and I put it to you whether I have done it or not. You must consider yourself in custody, George."

"Custody? What for?" returns the trooper, thunderstruck.

"Now, George," says Mr. Bucket, urging a sensible view of the case upon him with his fat forefinger, "duty, as you know very well, is one thing, and conversation is another. It's my duty to inform you that any observations you may make will be liable to be used against you. Therefore, George, be careful what you say. You don't happen to have heard of a murder?" [...] With his upholsterer manner, as if the trooper were a window to be fitted up, he takes from his pocket a pair of handcuffs. "This is a serious charge, George, and such is my duty." [...] Mr. Bucket adjusts them in a moment. "How do you find them? Are they comfortable? If not, say so, for I wish to make things as pleasant as is consistent with my duty, and I've got another pair in my pocket." This remark he offers like a most respectable tradesman anxious to execute an order neatly and to the perfect satisfaction of his customer. (49.94-111)

There's an interesting clash here. Bucket is fixated on telling George the difference between content and manner. He sounds like a "friend" and is talking like this is a "conversation," but in reality he's acting totally out of his duty as a cop. Meanwhile, the narrator is coming at this from a different angle, comparing Bucket to an "upholsterer" or a "tradesman" trying to please a customer rather than someone with legal power over George. Is this difference in style and substance what makes us like Bucket?

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