Study Guide

Bleak House Guilt and Blame

By Charles Dickens

Guilt and Blame

[…] instead of finding Mr. Skimpole stretched upon the bed or prostrate on the floor, I found him standing before the fire smiling at Richard, while Richard, with a face of great embarrassment, looked at a person on the sofa, in a white great-coat, with smooth hair upon his head and not much of it, which he was wiping smoother and making less of with a pocket-handkerchief. [...] "Mr. Skimpole," said Richard to me, "has a delicacy in applying to my cousin Jarndyce because he has lately--I think, sir, I understood you that you had lately--" [...] Richard and I looked at one another again. It was a most singular thing that the arrest was our embarrassment and not Mr. Skimpole's. He observed us with a genial interest, but there seemed, if I may venture on such a contradiction, nothing selfish in it. He had entirely washed his hands of the difficulty, and it had become ours. (6.90-106)

Wow, that's some powerful social conditioning right there. Someone clearly has to feel ashamed in this situation, and if Skimpole isn't going to do it then Richard and Esther will step right up.

I sat down and said after a little effort to be as calm as I ought to be, "One of my earliest remembrances, guardian, is of these words: 'Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers. The time will come, and soon enough, when you will understand this better, and will feel it too, as no one save a woman can.'" I had covered my face with my hands in repeating the words, but I took them away now with a better kind of shame, I hope, and told him that to him I owed the blessing that I had from my childhood to that hour never, never, never felt it. (17.96)

Miss Barbary is a master of psychological abuse. She inflicts Esther with guilt for having been born, guilt for intruding into her godmother's life, guilt for whatever nameless thing happened to her mother, sexual guilt before the fact (since this horrible thing is only known by women), and the anticipation of more guilt ("soon enough"). Man!

"It's brought into my head, master," returns the woman, her eyes filling with tears, "when I look down at the child lying so. If it was never to wake no more, you'd think me mad, I should take on so. I know that very well. I was with Jenny when she lost hers--warn't I, Jenny?--and I know how she grieved. But look around you at this place. Look at them," glancing at the sleepers on the ground. "Look at the boy you're waiting for, who's gone out to do me a good turn. Think of the children that your business lays with often and often, and that YOU see grow up! [...] I have been a-thinking, being over-tired to-night and not well with the ague, of all the many things that'll come in his way. My master will be against it, and he'll be beat, and see me beat, and made to fear his home, and perhaps to stray wild. If I work for him ever so much, and ever so hard, there's no one to help me; and if he should be turned bad 'spite of all I could do, and the time should come when I should sit by him in his sleep, made hard and changed, an't it likely I should think of him as he lies in my lap now and wish he had died as Jenny's child died!" (22.83-85)

Yeesh. Shmoop dares you not to tear up a little at this one. Liz feels so prematurely guilty about the horrible life her child will lead that she wishes him dead, despite how insane with grief this would leave her. Then, of course, she feels horrible for even thinking such a thing. Not easy to be a mom in the slums of Victorian London!

"I [Richard] was born into this unfinished contention with all its chances and changes, and it began to unsettle me before I quite knew the difference between a suit at law and a suit of clothes; and it has gone on unsettling me ever since; and here I am now, conscious sometimes that I am but a worthless fellow to love my confiding cousin Ada."

We were in a solitary place, and he put his hands before his eyes and sobbed as he said the words.

"Oh, Richard!" said I. "Do not be so moved. You have a noble nature, and Ada's love may make you worthier every day."

"I know, my dear," he replied, pressing my arm, "I know all that. You mustn't mind my being a little soft now, for I have had all this upon my mind for a long time, and have often meant to speak to you, and have sometimes wanted opportunity and sometimes courage. I know what the thought of Ada ought to do for me, but it doesn't do it. I am too unsettled even for that. I love her most devotedly, and yet I do her wrong, in doing myself wrong, every day and hour." (23.38-45)

Many of the characters in the novel have opportunities to figure out key things about themselves. Richard is totally self-aware and knows what an idiotic and useless life he is leading, but he still can't stop. Why are characters who understand their problem still not able to solve it?

"So, Miss Summerson," [Mrs. Woodcourt] would say to me with stately triumph, "this, you see, is the fortune inherited by my son. Wherever my son goes, he can claim kindred with Ap-Kerrig. He may not have money, but he always has what is much better--family, my dear." (30.4)

Esther is frequently being made to feel bad about various aspects of herself – here because of her questionable birth and parents. Is this a way to tone down how totally and unrealistically perfect her character is?

"My little woman, why do you look at me in that way? Pray don't do it."

"I can't help my looks," says Mrs. Snagsby, "and if I could I wouldn't."

Mr. Snagsby, with his cough of meekness, rejoins, "Wouldn't you really, my dear?" and meditates. Then coughs his cough of trouble and says, "This is a dreadful mystery, my love! [...] Don't for goodness' sake speak to me with that bitter expression and look at me in that searching way! I beg and entreat of you not to do it. Good Lord, you don't suppose that I would go spontaneously combusting any person, my dear?"

"I can't say," returns Mrs. Snagsby.

On a hasty review of his unfortunate position, Mr. Snagsby "can't say" either. He is not prepared positively to deny that he may have had something to do with it. He has had something--he don't know what--to do with so much in this connexion that is mysterious that it is possible he may even be implicated, without knowing it, in the present transaction. [...] Mr. Snagsby casts his eye forlornly round the bar, gives Messrs. Weevle and Guppy good morning, assures them of the satisfaction with which he sees them uninjured, and accompanies Mrs. Snagsby from the Sol's Arms. Before night his doubt whether he may not be responsible for some inconceivable part in the catastrophe which is the talk of the whole neighbourhood is almost resolved into certainty by Mrs. Snagsby's pertinacity in that fixed gaze. His mental sufferings are so great that he entertains wandering ideas of delivering himself up to justice and requiring to be cleared if innocent and punished with the utmost rigour of the law if guilty. (23.15-37)

Snagsby is probably the best evidence for how heavy a layer of surveillance, dread, and general self-policing lies over the world of this novel. He is totally confused about what is going on, but even his confusion somehow transforms itself into feelings of guilt (as opposed to, say, curiosity).

"I must keep this secret, if by any means it can be kept, not wholly for myself. I have a husband, wretched and dishonouring creature that I am!"

These words [Lady Dedlock] uttered with a suppressed cry of despair, more terrible in its sound than any shriek. Covering her face with her hands, she shrank down in my embrace as if she were unwilling that I should touch her; nor could I, by my utmost persuasions or by any endearments I could use, prevail upon her to rise. She said, no, no, no, she could only speak to me so; she must be proud and disdainful everywhere else; she would be humbled and ashamed there, in the only natural moments of her life. (36.36-37)

So Shmoop has read a bunch of Dickens's other novels, and it's a little weird that Lady Dedlock's guilt comes out as a fear that Esther will touch her. Why is it weird? Because in several of the other novels, the women who don't want to be touched when they are feeling guilty are prostitutes (see Little Dorrit for example, or Oliver Twist).

I must say for Mr. Guppy that the snuffling manner he had had upon him improved very much. He seemed truly glad to be able to do something I asked, and he looked ashamed. [...] must do Mr. Guppy the further justice of saying that he had looked more and more ashamed and that he looked most ashamed and very earnest when he now replied with a burning face, "Upon my word and honour, upon my life, upon my soul, Miss Summerson, as I am a living man, I'll act according to your wish! I'll never go another step in opposition to it. I'll take my oath to it if it will be any satisfaction to you. In what I promise at this present time touching the matters now in question," continued Mr. Guppy rapidly, as if he were repeating a familiar form of words, "I speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." (38.68-70)

Why is Guppy so terrified that Esther might insist on their engagement? Well, back then engagements were legally binding, and men who broke them off could be sued for damages. The idea was to prevent guys from getting engaged, sleeping with their fiancées, then running off leaving behind what Victorians considered damaged goods. Yeah, double yuck.

Jo is brought in. He is not one of Mrs. Pardiggle's Tockahoopo Indians; he is not one of Mrs. Jellyby's lambs, being wholly unconnected with Borrioboola-Gha; he is not softened by distance and unfamiliarity; he is not a genuine foreign-grown savage; he is the ordinary home-made article. Dirty, ugly, disagreeable to all the senses, in body a common creature of the common streets, only in soul a heathen. Homely filth begrimes him, homely parasites devour him, homely sores are in him, homely rags are on him; native ignorance, the growth of English soil and climate, sinks his immortal nature lower than the beasts that perish. Stand forth, Jo, in uncompromising colours! From the sole of thy foot to the crown of thy head, there is nothing interesting about thee.

He shuffles slowly into Mr. George's gallery and stands huddled together in a bundle, looking all about the floor. He seems to know that they have an inclination to shrink from him, partly for what he is and partly for what he has caused. He, too, shrinks from them. He is not of the same order of things, not of the same place in creation. He is of no order and no place, neither of the beasts nor of humanity. (47.39-40)

There is a nice contrast here. The narrator spends a lot of time describing Jo like something you could buy from a store – he's an "article" (meaning a piece of goods), he's "home-made", everything about him is "homely" (meaning "from home" back then, not ugly). Or maybe he's like a zoo exhibit – "lower than beasts," "grown on English soil." But a beat later, Jo feels guilty for infecting Charley and then Esther with his contagious fever. In our eyes, this restores his humanity, but in his eyes his crime makes him lower than animals.

"And mind once more, ma'am [Mrs. Rouncewell], what you had best do on finding George to be your own son is to make him--for your sake--have every sort of help to put himself in the right and clear himself of a charge of which he is as innocent as you or me. It won't do to have truth and justice on his side; he must have law and lawyers," exclaims the old girl, apparently persuaded that the latter form a separate establishment and have dissolved partnership with truth and justice for ever and a day. (55.10)

For Dickens, the legal system has nothing to do with truth or justice. George's guilt or innocence is irrelevant; he just needs to be sure he gets a good lawyer.

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