Study Guide

Bleak House Language and Communication

By Charles Dickens

Language and Communication

[Krook] touched me on the arm to stay me, and chalked the letter J upon the wall--in a very curious manner, beginning with the end of the letter and shaping it backward. It was a capital letter, not a printed one, but just such a letter as any clerk in Messrs. Kenge and Carboy's office would have made.

"Can you read it?" he asked me with a keen glance.

"Surely," said I. "It's very plain."

"What is it?"


With another glance at me, and a glance at the door, he rubbed it out and turned an "a" in its place (not a capital letter this time), and said, "What's that?"

I told him. He then rubbed that out and turned the letter "r," and asked me the same question. He went on quickly until he had formed in the same curious manner, beginning at the ends and bottoms of the letters, the word Jarndyce, without once leaving two letters on the wall together.

"What does that spell?" he asked me.

When I told him, he laughed. In the same odd way, yet with the same rapidity, he then produced singly, and rubbed out singly, the letters forming the words Bleak House. These, in some astonishment, I also read; and he laughed again.

"Hi!" said the old man, laying aside the chalk. "I have a turn for copying from memory, you see, miss, though I can neither read nor write." (5.79-88)

This passage works well in combination with the paragraph about how horrible it must be for Jo not to be able to read or write. Literacy was quite a divide back then, when such a huge proportion of the population was fully or functionally illiterate. Writing and documents have so much power in the novel that not being able to understand them is a tremendous disadvantage for people who already have plenty of disadvantages.

We were all enchanted. I felt it a merited tribute to the engaging qualities of Ada and Richard that Mr. Skimpole, seeing them for the first time, should he so unreserved and should lay himself out to be so exquisitely agreeable. They (and especially Richard) were naturally pleased, for similar reasons, and considered it no common privilege to be so freely confided in by such an attractive man. The more we listened, the more gaily Mr. Skimpole talked. And what with his fine hilarious manner and his engaging candour and his genial way of lightly tossing his own weaknesses about, as if he had said, "I am a child, you know! You are designing people compared with me" (he really made me consider myself in that light) "but I am gay and innocent; forget your worldly arts and play with me!" the effect was absolutely dazzling. (6.75-76)

Skimpole can really talk a good game. With Skimpole, we have to keep in mind that he can schmooze and charm everyone he comes across. This is probably how he gets all these tradesmen to sell him stuff on credit.

"I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you're a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom--I know what you're a-going to be up to. Well! You haven't got no occasion to be up to it. I'll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she IS a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That's wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An't my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty-- it's nat'rally dirty, and it's nat'rally onwholesome; and we've had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an't read the little book wot you left. There an't nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn't be suitable to me. It's a book fit for a babby, and I'm not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn't nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I've been drunk for three days; and I'da been drunk four if I'da had the money. Don't I never mean for to go to church? No, I don't never mean for to go to church. I shouldn't be expected there, if I did; the beadle's too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn't, she's a lie!" (8.91-93)

This is quite an extraordinary speech to put in the mouth of the brickmaker that Ada and Esther go visit with Mrs. Pardiggle. In a way, he is just as defiant about his lifestyle and choices as Sir Dedlock is about his, which was a progressive way to portray a miserable and destitute guy back in the day. His argument for getting the horrible Mrs. Pardiggle to leave him alone is pretty sound, too – it's not like she's going to make anyone's life better in that hovel.

"My [Skimpole's] butcher says to me he wants that little bill. It's a part of the pleasant unconscious poetry of the man's nature that he always calls it a 'little' bill--to make the payment appear easy to both of us. I reply to the butcher, 'My good friend, if you knew it, you are paid. You haven't had the trouble of coming to ask for the little bill. You are paid. I mean it. [...] '"

"But, suppose," said my guardian, laughing, "he had meant the meat in the bill, instead of providing it?"

"My dear Jarndyce," he returned, "you surprise me. You take the butcher's position. A butcher I once dealt with occupied that very ground. Says he, 'Sir, why did you eat spring lamb at eighteen pence a pound?' 'Why did I eat spring lamb at eighteen pence a pound, my honest friend?' said I, naturally amazed by the question. 'I like spring lamb!' This was so far convincing. 'Well, sir,' says he, 'I wish I had meant the lamb as you mean the money!' 'My good fellow,' said I, 'pray let us reason like intellectual beings. How could that be? It was impossible. You HAD got the lamb, and I have NOT got the money. You couldn't really mean the lamb without sending it in, whereas I can, and do, really mean the money without paying it!' He had not a word. There was an end of the subject." (15.6-9)

This, boys and girls, is a type of argument called "sophistry": it seems logical and sound on its face, but in reality it's total baloney. Skimpole is an ace at this kind of double talk, and for some reason Jarndyce eats it up. It's a funny detail that he close-reads his butcher's conversation, noting that the butcher calls the bill "little" regardless of how much it actually is to make the transaction more pleasant.

"My friends," says he, "what is this which we now behold as being spread before us? Refreshment. Do we need refreshment then, my friends? We do. And why do we need refreshment, my friends? Because we are but mortal, because we are but sinful, because we are but of the earth, because we are not of the air. Can we fly, my friends? We cannot. Why can we not fly, my friends?"

Mr. Snagsby, presuming on the success of his last point, ventures to observe in a cheerful and rather knowing tone, "No wings." But is immediately frowned down by Mrs. Snagsby.

"I say, my friends," pursues Mr. Chadband, utterly rejecting and obliterating Mr. Snagsby's suggestion, "why can we not fly? Is it because we are calculated to walk? It is. Could we walk, my friends, without strength? We could not. What should we do without strength, my friends? Our legs would refuse to bear us, our knees would double up, our ankles would turn over, and we should come to the ground. Then from whence, my friends, in a human point of view, do we derive the strength that is necessary to our limbs? Is it," says Chadband, glancing over the table, "from bread in various forms, from butter which is churned from the milk which is yielded unto us by the cow, from the eggs which are laid by the fowl, from ham, from tongue, from sausage, and from such like? It is. Then let us partake of the good things which are set before us!" (19.38-41)

Chadband's totally strange way of talking has Dickens poking fun at a style of public speaking that was popular at the time. It's sort of the opposite of the Socratic method, where questions are asked in order to get some deep thoughts and meaningful discussion going. Here, when Snagsby tries to answer Chadband, he is made to shut up because all of these questions (besides being completely ridiculous) only have one correct answer – Chadband's.

"You see, Mr. Snagsby," says Mr. Bucket, accompanying him to the door and shaking hands with him over and over again, "what I like in you is that you're a man it's of no use pumping; that's what you are. When you know you have done a right thing, you put it away, and it's done with and gone, and there's an end of it. That's what YOU do."

"That is certainly what I endeavour to do, sir," returns Mr. Snagsby.

"No, you don't do yourself justice. It an't what you endeavour to do," says Mr. Bucket, shaking hands with him and blessing him in the tenderest manner, "it's what you do. That's what I estimate in a man in your way of business." (22.136-138)

Bucket has several interesting modes of speaking. In this one, he forcibly praises the person he's speaking to because that person is about to act in the way that Bucket... ahem... really, really strongly suggests (with some threat implied if that suggestion isn't taken closely to heart). It's easy to imagine this kind of thing working well on the weaker-minded – kind of like the Force and the whole "these aren't the droids you're looking for."

[Mrs. Woodcourt] was such a sharp little lady and used to sit with her hands folded in each other looking so very watchful while she talked to me that perhaps I found that rather irksome. Or perhaps it was her being so upright and trim, though I don't think it was that, because I thought that quaintly pleasant. Nor can it have been the general expression of her face, which was very sparkling and pretty for an old lady. I don't know what it was. Or at least if I do now, I thought I did not then. Or at least--but it don't matter. (30.2)

Esther's waffling over the Woodcourt issue is sometimes confusing, sometimes unrealistic, and generally too much for Shmoop. There, we said it.

We knew afterwards what we suspected then, that [Jarndyce] did not trust to time until he had often tried to open Richard's eyes. That he had written to him, gone to him, talked with him, tried every gentle and persuasive art his kindness could devise. Our poor devoted Richard was deaf and blind to all. If he were wrong, he would make amends when the Chancery suit was over. If he were groping in the dark, he could not do better than do his utmost to clear away those clouds in which so much was confused and obscured. Suspicion and misunderstanding were the fault of the suit? Then let him work the suit out and come through it to his right mind. This was his unvarying reply. Jarndyce and Jarndyce had obtained such possession of his whole nature that it was impossible to place any consideration before him which he did not, with a distorted kind of reason, make a new argument in favour of his doing what he did. (43.4)

Richard's new penchant for being really argumentative and circular in his logic is a fascinating development. It makes sense when you realize that his thoughts are now being shaped by Chancery (known for its circular and nonsensical arguments) and Skimpole's sophistry. This discussion with Jarndyce is a neat mixture of the two.

But [Jarndyce] did not hint to me that when I had been better looking he had had this same proceeding in his thoughts and had refrained from it. That when my old face was gone from me, and I had no attractions, he could love me just as well as in my fairer days. That the discovery of my birth gave him no shock. That his generosity rose above my disfigurement and my inheritance of shame. That the more I stood in need of such fidelity, the more firmly I might trust in him to the last. [...] Still I cried very much, not only in the fullness of my heart after reading the letter, not only in the strangeness of the prospect-- for it was strange though I had expected the contents--but as if something for which there was no name or distinct idea were indefinitely lost to me. I was very happy, very thankful, very hopeful; but I cried very much.

By and by I went to my old glass. My eyes were red and swollen, and I said, "Oh, Esther, Esther, can that be you!" I am afraid the face in the glass was going to cry again at this reproach, but I held up my finger at it, and it stopped. (44.36-40)

Dickens is very interested in the psychology of repression and the way people manage to totally dissociate themselves from feelings they don't want to acknowledge having. Here it feels like Jarndyce kind of knows that Esther is going to need a time-out after he proposes. He does it by letter rather than face to face so he doesn't have to see her initial reaction. And sure enough, she gets herself under control by talking to her reflection as though it were a totally different person: check out how "it stopped" crying when "I held up my finger."

For many years the persistent Roman [painting of Allegory in Tulkinghorn's office] has been pointing, with no particular meaning, from that ceiling. It is not likely that he has any new meaning in him to-night. Once pointing, always pointing--like any Roman, or even Briton, with a single idea. There he is, no doubt, in his impossible attitude, pointing, unavailingly, all night long. Moonlight, darkness, dawn, sunrise, day. There he is still, eagerly pointing, and no one minds him.

But a little after the coming of the day come people to clean the rooms. And either the Roman has some new meaning in him, not expressed before, or the foremost of them goes wild, for looking up at his outstretched hand and looking down at what is below it, that person shrieks [...]

He is pointing at a table with a bottle (nearly full of wine) and a glass upon it and two candles that were blown out suddenly soon after being lighted. He is pointing at an empty chair and at a stain upon the ground before it that might be almost covered with a hand. [...]

the Roman, pointing from the ceiling shall point, so long as dust and damp and spiders spare him, with far greater significance than he ever had in Mr. Tulkinghorn's time, and with a deadly meaning. For Mr. Tulkinghorn's time is over for evermore, and the Roman pointed at the murderous hand uplifted against his life, and pointed helplessly at him, from night to morning, lying face downward on the floor, shot through the heart. (48.133-147)

Why do we see Tulkinghorn's murder through the eyes of this painting above his desk? Does this bring us in closer somehow? Or does it keep us at arm's length? Are we supposed sympathize with Tulkinghorn, or does Dickens think we're in danger of getting too emotionally involved with him?

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