Study Guide

Bleak House Love

By Charles Dickens

Love

An ugly woman, very poorly clothed, hurried in while I was glancing at them, and coming straight up to the mother, said, "Jenny! Jenny!" The mother rose on being so addressed and fell upon the woman's neck.

She also had upon her face and arms the marks of ill usage. She had no kind of grace about her, but the grace of sympathy; but when she condoled with the woman, and her own tears fell, she wanted no beauty. I say condoled, but her only words were "Jenny! Jenny!" All the rest was in the tone in which she said them.

I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another, how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God. (8.106-108)

Jenny and Liz's love for each other is one of the novel's true notes of grace. It lifts them out of the realm of Tom-all-Alone's and the rest of the poor miserables, and elevating them to a kind of saintly level. Notice how they are always cradling babies, like a kind of double Madonna and child painting.

I asked my guardian as we sat at the backgammon board whether Mr. Boythorn had ever been married. [...] "You are right, little woman," he answered. "He was all but married once. Long ago. And once."

"Did the lady die?"

"No--but she died to him. That time has had its influence on all his later life." [...] when I was awakened by Mr. Boythorn's lusty snoring; and I tried to do that very difficult thing, imagine old people young again and invested with the graces of youth. But I fell asleep before I had succeeded, and dreamed of the days when I lived in my godmother's house. (9.58-69)

This is such a wonderful human moment – a young Esther trying to imagine what an old dude like Boythorn was like as a young man. It just feels like exactly the kind of thought you might have in that half-awake half-asleep state.

It was at the theatre that I began to be made uncomfortable again by Mr. Guppy [...] with his hair flattened down upon his head and woe depicted in his face, looking up at me. I felt all through the performance that he never looked at the actors but constantly looked at me, and always with a carefully prepared expression of the deepest misery and the profoundest dejection.

It quite spoiled my pleasure for that night because it was so very embarrassing and so very ridiculous. But from that time forth, we never went to the play without my seeing Mr. Guppy in the pit, [...] I really cannot express how uneasy this made me. [...] to know that that absurd figure was always gazing at me, and always in that demonstrative state of despondency, put such a constraint upon me that I did not like to laugh at the play, or to cry at it, or to move, or to speak. I seemed able to do nothing naturally. [...] Sometimes I thought of telling Mr. Jarndyce. Then I feared that the young man would lose his situation and that I might ruin him. Sometimes I thought of confiding in Richard, but was deterred by the possibility of his fighting Mr. Guppy and giving him black eyes. Sometimes I thought, should I frown at him or shake my head. Then I felt I could not do it. Sometimes I considered whether I should write to his mother, but that ended in my being convinced that to open a correspondence would be to make the matter worse. I always came to the conclusion, finally, that I could do nothing. (13.34-37)

It's a little chilling, isn't it, that Esther has no recourse but to be stalked by this ridiculous guy? Here it's played for laughs because he's so pathetic and clearly not dangerous, but still. Shmoop thinks there's a larger point to be made here about how powerless Esther feels in this situation despite her extreme discomfort. Is she right not to take action? Why do you think she dismisses all the possibilities in favor of "doing nothing"?

They brought a chair on either side of me, and put me between them, and really seemed to have fallen in love with me instead of one another, they were so confiding, and so trustful, and so fond of me. They went on in their own wild way for a little while--I never stopped them; I enjoyed it too much myself-- and then we gradually fell to considering how young they were, and how there must be a lapse of several years before this early love could come to anything, and how it could come to happiness only if it were real and lasting and inspired them with a steady resolution to do their duty to each other, with constancy, fortitude, and perseverance, each always for the other's sake. Well! Richard said that he would work his fingers to the bone for Ada, and Ada said that she would work her fingers to the bone for Richard, and they called me all sorts of endearing and sensible names, and we sat there, advising and talking, half the night. (13.100)

There is a lot of this odd setup, where Esther is somehow the middleman in the Ada-Richard relationship. She talks to Richard on Ada's behalf, brings his letters to her, and here she is literally sitting between them as they talk about their love for each other. What's the deal with that? Shmoop doesn't really get it; what do you think?

[Gridley] drew the hand Miss Flite held through her arm and brought her something nearer to him.

"This ends it. Of all my old associations, of all my old pursuits and hopes, of all the living and the dead world, this one poor soul alone comes natural to me, and I am fit for. There is a tie of many suffering years between us two, and it is the only tie I ever had on earth that Chancery has not broken." (24.141-142)

The connection Gridley and Miss Flite form as two rejected Chancery suitors is rather sweet and moving. Platonic love between men and women is so rare in novels that it seems worth pointing out when it does occur.

"Shall I tell you what I always think of you and the fortune yet to come for you, my love?" said Mrs. Woodcourt. [...] "Why, then, it is that you will marry some one very rich and very worthy, much older--five and twenty years, perhaps--than yourself. And you will be an excellent wife, and much beloved, and very happy."

"That is a good fortune," said I. "But why is it to be mine?"

"My dear," she returned, "there's suitability in it--you are so busy, and so neat, and so peculiarly situated altogether that there's suitability in it, and it will come to pass. And nobody, my love, will congratulate you more sincerely on such a marriage than I shall."

It was curious that this should make me uncomfortable, but I think it did. I know it did. It made me for some part of that night uncomfortable. [...] And after all, what did it matter to me, and why did it matter to me? Why could not I, going up to bed with my basket of keys, stop to sit down by her fire and accommodate myself for a little while to her, at least as well as to anybody else, and not trouble myself about the harmless things she said to me? Impelled towards her, as I certainly was, for I was very anxious that she should like me and was very glad indeed that she did, why should I harp afterwards, with actual distress and pain, on every word she said and weigh it over and over again in twenty scales? Why was it so worrying to me to have her in our house, and confidential to me every night, when I yet felt that it was better and safer somehow that she should be there than anywhere else? These were perplexities and contradictions that I could not account for. At least, if I could--but I shall come to all that by and by, and it is mere idleness to go on about it now. (30.30-37)

What do you make of Esther's weirdly hiding the fact that she and Woodcourt had feelings for each other at this point? Especially since she's writing from a future in which they've been married for seven years and have two kids? Does that long passage about Mrs. Woodcourt's opinions of her sound a little too coy? Shmoop is smelling some kind of narrative rat here, but it's hard to say exactly what it might be.

And now I must part with the little secret I have thus far tried to keep. I had thought, sometimes, that Mr. Woodcourt loved me and that if he had been richer he would perhaps have told me that he loved me before he went away. I had thought, sometimes, that if he had done so, I should have been glad of it. But how much better it was now that this had never happened! What should I have suffered if I had had to write to him and tell him that the poor face he had known as mine was quite gone from me and that I freely released him from his bondage to one whom he had never seen!

Oh, it was so much better as it was! With a great pang mercifully spared me, I could take back to my heart my childish prayer to be all he had so brightly shown himself; and there was nothing to be undone: no chain for me to break or for him to drag; and I could go, please God, my lowly way along the path of duty, and he could go his nobler way upon its broader road; and though we were apart upon the journey, I might aspire to meet him, unselfishly, innocently, better far than he had thought me when I found some favour in his eyes, at the journey's end. (35.118-119)

Again, check out how Esther uses "duty" as a shield to bash away the less convenient emotions that she can't quite handle. She convinces herself that there's no way Woodcourt would ever love her with her face all scarred. She's got herself so convinced that she totally misreads the emotions on his face when she sees him again.

I looked at her, but I could not see her, I could not hear her, I could not draw my breath. The beating of my heart was so violent and wild that I felt as if my life were breaking from me. But when she caught me to her breast, kissed me, wept over me, compassionated me, and called me back to myself; when she fell down on her knees and cried to me, "Oh, my child, my child, I am your wicked and unhappy mother! Oh, try to forgive me!"--when I saw her at my feet on the bare earth in her great agony of mind, I felt, through all my tumult of emotion, a burst of gratitude to the providence of God that I was so changed as that I never could disgrace her by any trace of likeness, as that nobody could ever now look at me and look at her and remotely think of any near tie between us. [...] my heart overflowed with love for her, that it was natural love which nothing in the past had changed or could change. (36.32-33)

Now that Esther no longer looks like her mother, she can fully love her and move on to life as a separate being. Or are we getting a little to psychoanalytical here? In any case, these are some hardcore, primal, raw emotions.

It is the old girl's birthday, and that is the greatest holiday and reddest-letter day in Mr. Bagnet's calendar. The auspicious event is always commemorated according to certain forms settled and prescribed by Mr. Bagnet some years since. Mr. Bagnet, being deeply convinced that to have a pair of fowls for dinner is to attain the highest pitch of imperial luxury, invariably goes forth himself very early in the morning of this day to buy a pair; he is, as invariably, taken in by the vendor and installed in the possession of the oldest inhabitants of any coop in Europe. Returning with these triumphs of toughness tied up in a clean blue and white cotton handkerchief (essential to the arrangements), he in a casual manner invites Mrs. Bagnet to declare at breakfast what she would like for dinner. Mrs. Bagnet, by a coincidence never known to fail, replying fowls, Mr. Bagnet instantly produces his bundle from a place of concealment amidst general amazement and rejoicing. He further requires that the old girl shall do nothing all day long but sit in her very best gown and be served by himself and the young people. As he is not illustrious for his cookery, this may be supposed to be a matter of state rather than enjoyment on the old girl's part, but she keeps her state with all imaginable cheerfulness. (49.4)

Don't you love how the stereotypical Mother's Day or mom's birthday tradition is exactly the same now as it was over 150 years ago? Seriously, note for note, exactly the same. Hmm... actually, that doesn't say anything too great about how far along mothers have come in terms of work-life balance or their role within the family.

My darling [Ada] rose, put off her bonnet, kneeled down beside him with her golden hair falling like sunlight on his head, clasped her two arms round his neck, and turned her face to me. Oh, what a loving and devoted face I saw!

"Esther, dear," she said very quietly, "I am not going home again. [...] Never any more. I am going to stay with my dear husband. We have been married above two months. Go home without me, my own Esther; I shall never go home any more!" With those words my darling drew his head down on her breast and held it there. And if ever in my life I saw a love that nothing but death could change, I saw it then before me. [...] "My pet," said I. "My love. My poor, poor girl!" I pitied her so much. I was very fond of Richard, but the impulse that I had upon me was to pity her so much. (51.65-70)

There are some very complex dynamics going on here. Ada is happy to be married to Richard but feels guilty about lying to Jarndyce and sad about leaving Esther. Esther is happy for the couple, but she can't stop loving Ada like a child/sister enough to let her go. Growing up is hard to do and often disappointing.