Study Guide

Bleak House Identity

By Charles Dickens

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Another ruined suitor, who periodically appears from Shropshire and breaks out into efforts to address the Chancellor at the close of the day's business and who can by no means be made to understand that the Chancellor is legally ignorant of his existence. (1.7)

The idea of a person whose existence is legally denied is a terrifying thought. Later this idea will mined for full effect by Kafka and other writers of the absurd and fantastical.

What the destitute subject of such an offer tried to say, I need not repeat. What she did say, I could more easily tell, if it were worth the telling. What she felt, and will feel to her dying hour, I could never relate. (3.52)

This is Esther talking about herself in the third person, when Kenge offers her the opportunity to go live with Jarndyce. It's one of the few moments when the novel really registers the huge disconnect between Esther as the young girl in the story and Esther as the grownup who is telling the story. Here it is so hard for the latter to remember the former that she is forced to talk about herself as though she were a completely different, unknowable person.

"And Mr. Jellyby, sir?" suggested Richard.

"Ah! Mr. Jellyby," said Mr. Kenge, "is--a--I don't know that I can describe him to you better than by saying that he is the husband of Mrs. Jellyby."

"A nonentity, sir?" said Richard with a droll look.

"I don't say that," returned Mr. Kenge gravely. "I can't say that, indeed, for I know nothing whatever OF Mr. Jellyby. I never, to my knowledge, had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Jellyby. He may be a very superior man, but he is, so to speak, merged--merged--in the more shining qualities of his wife." (4.5-8)

This is all very telling about Mr. Jellyby's unremarkableness, of course. But what really cinches the joke here is that in the 19th century, a married woman had no legal existence of her own; for the sake of the law, a married woman was considered merged into the identity of her husband. This legal framework, called "couverture," precluded women from being able to own their own property, voting, becoming owners or partners in businesses, and so on. Here the joke is that with the Jellybys, it's Mr. Jellyby who has "merged" with his wife, so it is his identity that has been erased by hers.

The present representative of the Dedlocks is an excellent master. He supposes all his dependents to be utterly bereft of individual characters, intentions, or opinions, and is persuaded that he was born to supersede the necessity of their having any. If he were to make a discovery to the contrary, he would be simply stunned--would never recover himself, most likely, except to gasp and die [...] if Sir Leicester Dedlock ever saw [Mrs. Rouncewell's older son] when he came to Chesney Wold to visit his mother, or ever thought of him afterwards, it is certain that he only regarded him as one of a body of some odd thousand conspirators, swarthy and grim, who were in the habit of turning out by torchlight two or three nights in the week for unlawful purposes. (7.8-9)

Nice. And probably a good call about the way most landed aristocrats thought of the many people who worked for them on their huge estates – as just one giant mass of indistinguishable people. Is it just us, or does Sir Dedlock really evolve into a much more sympathetic person as the novel goes on? Would we expect to read such a dismissive description of him later in the novel?

"You are clever enough to be the good little woman of our lives here, my dear," he returned playfully; "the little old woman of the child's (I don't mean Skimpole's) rhyme:

"'Little old woman, and whither so high?'
'To sweep the cobwebs out of the sky.'

"You will sweep them so neatly out of OUR sky in the course of your housekeeping, Esther, that one of these days we shall have to abandon the growlery and nail up the door."

This was the beginning of my being called Old Woman, and Little Old Woman, and Cobweb, and Mrs. Shipton, and Mother Hubbard, and Dame Durden, and so many names of that sort that my own name soon became quite lost among them. (8.35-38)

So this is probably meant to be cute, right? Aww, look, they've nicknamed her and made her part of the family. But really, aren't these nicknames totally horrible and inappropriate for a beautiful 20-year-old woman? And not only that, the line about her own name disappearing is creeptastic.

Richard said he was ready for anything. When Mr. Jarndyce doubted whether he might not already be too old to enter the Navy, Richard said he had thought of that, and perhaps he was. When Mr. Jarndyce asked him what he thought of the Army, Richard said he had thought of that, too, and it wasn't a bad idea. When Mr. Jarndyce advised him to try and decide within himself whether his old preference for the sea was an ordinary boyish inclination or a strong impulse, Richard answered, Well he really HAD tried very often, and he couldn't make out. [...] I thought it much to be regretted that Richard's education had not counteracted those influences or directed his character. He had been eight years at a public school and had learnt, I understood, to make Latin verses of several sorts in the most admirable manner. But I never heard that it had been anybody's business to find out what his natural bent was, or where his failings lay, or to adapt any kind of knowledge to HIM. [...] I did doubt whether Richard would not have profited by some one studying him a little, instead of his studying them quite so much. (13.1-3)

What do you think about Esther's argument about what school should be? She thinks Richard's indecisiveness is because of his useless liberal arts degree – that's why he can't get a job or even think about what kind of work he might want to do. Does that sound like a familiar argument? Shmoop thinks there are people still arguing this exact thing today.

And, very strangely, there was something quickened within me, associated with the lonely days at my godmother's; yes, away even to the days when I had stood on tiptoe to dress myself at my little glass after dressing my doll. And this, although I had never seen this lady's face before in all my life--I was quite sure of it-- absolutely certain [...] the lady was Lady Dedlock. But why her face should be, in a confused way, like a broken glass to me, in which I saw scraps of old remembrances, and why I should be so fluttered and troubled (for I was still) by having casually met her eyes, I could not think.

I felt it to be an unmeaning weakness in me and tried to overcome it by attending to the words I heard. Then, very strangely, I seemed to hear them, not in the reader's voice, but in the well- remembered voice of my godmother. This made me think, did Lady Dedlock's face accidentally resemble my godmother's? [...] I, little Esther Summerson, the child who lived a life apart and on whose birthday there was no rejoicing--seemed to arise before my own eyes, evoked out of the past by some power in this fashionable lady, whom I not only entertained no fancy that I had ever seen, but whom I perfectly well knew I had never seen until that hour. (18.43-45)

Here Ester has a sudden flash of recognition and intuition. She's starting to put the pieces together about her true identity.

Dare I [Esther] hint at that worse time when, strung together somewhere in great black space, there was a flaming necklace, or ring, or starry circle of some kind, of which I was one of the beads! And when my only prayer was to be taken off from the rest and when it was such inexplicable agony and misery to be a part of the dreadful thing? (35.5)

This is an interesting hallucination. Esther is part of a necklace, chained together with many other beads just like her. They cannot help but all be next to each other and tied together. To be dead is to be free from all those other beads. That's a pretty good metaphor for the kind of closed social space that this novel is.

"Do you know," Lady Dedlock asks her, signing to her to bring her chair nearer, "do you know, Rosa, that I am different to you from what I am to any one?"

"Yes, my Lady. Much kinder. But then I often think I know you as you really are."

"You often think you know me as I really am? Poor child, poor child!"

She says it with a kind of scorn--though not of Rosa--and sits brooding, looking dreamily at her.

"Do you think, Rosa, you are any relief or comfort to me? Do you suppose your being young and natural, and fond of me and grateful to me, makes it any pleasure to me to have you near me?"

"I don't know, my Lady; I can scarcely hope so. But with all my heart, I wish it was so."

"It is so, little one." (48.12-18)

When Lady Dedlock suddenly feels she can no longer fully repress all the maternal instincts and feelings she has long buried, she cleverly makes Rosa the object of her affection. This gives her newfound emotions an outlet and makes them seem a little less suspect to the people around her.

"Yes," says the man, coming in and closing the door. "I was going down the street here when I happened to stop and look in at the musical instruments in the shop-window--a friend of mine is in want of a second-hand wiolinceller of a good tone--and I saw a party enjoying themselves, and I thought it was you in the corner; I thought I couldn't be mistaken. How goes the world with you, George, at the present moment? Pretty smooth? And with you, ma'am? And with you, governor? And Lord," says Mr. Bucket, opening his arms, "here's children too! You may do anything with me if you only show me children. Give us a kiss, my pets. No occasion to inquire who YOUR father and mother is. Never saw such a likeness in my life!" [...] "A friend of mine has had nineteen of 'em, ma'am, all by one mother, and she's still as fresh and rosy as the morning. Not so much so as yourself, but, upon my soul, she comes near you! And what do you call these, my darling?" pursues Mr. Bucket, pinching Malta's cheeks. "These are peaches, these are. Bless your heart!" [...] These blandishments have entirely won the family heart. Mrs. Bagnet forgets the day to the extent of filling a pipe and a glass for Mr. Bucket and waiting upon him hospitably. She would be glad to receive so pleasant a character under any circumstances, but she tells him that as a friend of George's she is particularly glad to see him this evening, for George has not been in his usual spirits. (49.57-61)

This is the first time we see Bucket's smooth ability to become instant friends with anybody. We think he does genuinely have some of the emotions he pretends to have. It would be hard to know how to act with little kids, for instance, without actually liking them. So he both likes this fresh-faced, happy family and is also putting on a show to keep tabs on George.

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