Study Guide

Bleak House Poverty

By Charles Dickens

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Then the active and intelligent [beadle], who has got into the morning papers as such, comes with his pauper company to Mr. Krook's and bears off the body of our dear brother here departed to a hemmed-in churchyard, pestiferous and obscene, whence malignant diseases are communicated to the bodies of our dear brothers and sisters who have not departed, while our dear brothers and sisters who hang about official back-stairs--would to heaven they HAD departed!--are very complacent and agreeable. Into a beastly scrap of ground which a Turk would reject as a savage abomination and a Caffre would shudder at, they bring our dear brother here departed to receive Christian burial.

With houses looking on, on every side, save where a reeking little tunnel of a court gives access to the iron gate--with every villainy of life in action close on death, and every poisonous element of death in action close on life--here they lower our dear brother down a foot or two, here sow him in corruption, to be raised in corruption: an avenging ghost at many a sick-bedside, a shameful testimony to future ages how civilization and barbarism walked this boastful island together. (11.96-97)

This is a pretty powerful indictment, right? There are a lot of reasons this passage is so powerful. There's the language of course. The horror of the burial ground contrasted and beaten home with the repetition of "dear brothers and sisters" (a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer's burial service). The not particularly politically correct point that Christian people shouldn't do to their dead what those who practice "inferior" religions (Turks, Caffres) would never do. And then, going along with the best science of the time, the idea that cemeteries are disease ridden and generate contagious miasma. This was just two years before the germ theory of disease came into widespread knowledge, when John Snow showed that the London cholera epidemic of 1854 could only statistically be explained by contagion through germs. Before that, the belief was that disease spread through "miasma," a kind of bad air that came from dirty places.

In a poor room with a sloping ceiling and containing very little furniture was a mite of a boy, some five or six years old, nursing and hushing a heavy child of eighteen months. There was no fire, though the weather was cold; both children were wrapped in some poor shawls and tippets as a substitute. [...] We were looking at one another and at these two children when there came into the room a very little girl, childish in figure but shrewd and older-looking in the face--pretty-faced too--wearing a womanly sort of bonnet much too large for her and drying her bare arms on a womanly sort of apron. Her fingers were white and wrinkled with washing, and the soap-suds were yet smoking which she wiped off her arms. [...]

"Oh, here's Charley!" said the boy.

The child he was nursing stretched forth its arms and cried out to be taken by Charley. The little girl took it, in a womanly sort of manner belonging to the apron and the bonnet, and stood looking at us over the burden that clung to her most affectionately.

"Is it possible," whispered my guardian as we put a chair for the little creature and got her to sit down with her load, the boy keeping close to her, holding to her apron, "that this child works for the rest? Look at this! For God's sake, look at this!"

It was a thing to look at. The three children close together, and two of them relying solely on the third, and the third so young and yet with an air of age and steadiness that sat so strangely on the childish figure. (15.47-61)

OK, so not to rain on the sadness parade here or anything, but this passage comes a little too close to "poverty tourism" for our liking. There are so many details, and Esther and Jarndyce stand and stare at these kids for so long, that it starts to feel a little bit like feeding time at the zoo. Or maybe Shmoop's getting a little cynical in its old age.

Jo lives--that is to say, Jo has not yet died--in a ruinous place known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone's. [...] It must be a strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows! To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postmen deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language--to be, to every scrap of it, stone blind and dumb! It must be very puzzling to see the good company going to the churches on Sundays, with their books in their hands, and to think (for perhaps Jo does think at odd times) what does it all mean, and if it means anything to anybody, how comes it that it means nothing to me? To be hustled, and jostled, and moved on; and really to feel that it would appear to be perfectly true that I have no business here, or there, or anywhere; and yet to be perplexed by the consideration that I am here somehow, too, and everybody overlooked me until I became the creature that I am! It must be a strange state, not merely to be told that I am scarcely human (as in the case of my offering myself for a witness), but to feel it of my own knowledge all my life! To see the horses, dogs, and cattle go by me and to know that in ignorance I belong to them and not to the superior beings in my shape, whose delicacy I offend! Jo's ideas of a criminal trial, or a judge, or a bishop, or a government, or that inestimable jewel to him (if he only knew it) the Constitution, should be strange! His whole material and immaterial life is wonderfully strange; his death, the strangest thing of all. (16.8-12)

This is kind of an amazing passage. For one brief paragraph, Jo suddenly gets to be the narrator of the novel. Notice how the text switches from talking about Jo in the third person ("Jo lives," "it must be strange to be like Jo") to trying to imagine his inner monologue in the first person ("I have no business here," "I am here somehow"). This isn't really in character, since Jo doesn't really know half these words, but it's pretty startling to suddenly get a glimpse inside Jo's head as he wonders what the point of his life is and thinks about how he's like a dog.

When they come at last to Tom-all-Alone's, Mr. Bucket stops for a moment at the corner and takes a lighted bull's-eye from the constable on duty there, who then accompanies him with his own particular bull's-eye at his waist. Between his two conductors, Mr. Snagsby passes along the middle of a villainous street, undrained, unventilated, deep in black mud and corrupt water-- though the roads are dry elsewhere--and reeking with such smells and sights that he, who has lived in London all his life, can scarce believe his senses. Branching from this street and its heaps of ruins are other streets and courts so infamous that Mr. Snagsby sickens in body and mind and feels as if he were going every moment deeper down into the infernal gulf. (22.52)

OK, just so we're all clear about what's going on here: this description has been really toned down for the sensitive Victorian audience. They of course knew what all the euphemisms really stood for, but it's one thing to know a word is implied and another to see it in print. Or something. In any case, the "undrained" street where there is "corrupt water" means there is actually raw sewage (excrement, people) dumped in the street because there are no sewers. So the "unventilated" smells Snagsby is smelling are basically just giant piles of poop. Oh, and the "infernal gulf" is hell – which in the popular imagination smells like brimstone, a.k.a. sulfur. And sulfur smells, yet again, like human waste.

"Now, is it not a horrible reflection," said my guardian, to whom I had hastily explained the unavailing efforts of the two women, "is it not a horrible reflection," walking up and down and rumpling his hair, "that if this wretched creature [Jo] were a convicted prisoner, his hospital would be wide open to him, and he would be as well taken care of as any sick boy in the kingdom?"

"My dear Jarndyce," returned Mr. Skimpole, "you'll pardon the simplicity of the question, coming as it does from a creature who is perfectly simple in worldly matters, but why ISN'T he a prisoner then? [...] I confess I don't see why our young friend, in his degree, should not seek to invest himself with such poetry as is open to him. He is no doubt born with an appetite--probably, when he is in a safer state of health, he has an excellent appetite. Very well. At our young friend's natural dinner hour, most likely about noon, our young friend says in effect to society, 'I am hungry; will you have the goodness to produce your spoon and feed me?' Society, which has taken upon itself the general arrangement of the whole system of spoons and professes to have a spoon for our young friend, does NOT produce that spoon; and our young friend, therefore, says 'You really must excuse me if I seize it.' [...] In the meantime," said Mr. Skimpole cheerfully, "as Miss Summerson, with her practical good sense, observes, he is getting worse. Therefore I recommend your turning him out before he gets still worse."
The amiable face with which he said it, I think I shall never forget. (31.75-83)

So is this an argument against the welfare state? Because if we had lots of social welfare, then people like Skimpole would just do exactly what he is describing here and demand to be fed by society's spoon? Or is the problem that the only available welfare in Victorian England was punitive – so only bad guys in prison got food and medical care on the state's dime, while the "deserving poor" got nothing?

"George," says Mrs. Bagnet, using both her arms for emphasis and occasionally bringing down her open hands upon her knees. "If you have allowed anything wrong to come to that security of Lignum's, and if you have let him in for it, and if you have put us in danger of being sold up--and I see sold up in your face, George, as plain as print--you have done a shameful action and have deceived us cruelly. [...] George, I am ashamed of you! George, I couldn't have believed you would have done it! I always knew you to be a rolling stone that gathered no moss, but I never thought you would have taken away what little moss there was for Bagnet and the children to lie upon. You know what a hard-working, steady-going chap he is. You know what Quebec and Malta and Woolwich are, and I never did think you would, or could, have had the heart to serve us so. Oh, George!" Mrs. Bagnet gathers up her cloak to wipe her eyes on in a very genuine manner, "How could you do it?" (34.38-40)

This is what happens when you've got an economic system where regular people don't have access to legal credit. George had to borrow money to start up his shooting gallery business. He had no collateral, so he got Bagnet to be the co-signer on the loan. That's all well and good, but when your lender is the loan shark Smallweed rather than your local neighborhood bank – well, friends, you've got trouble right here in River City.

[Richard] was writing at a table, with a great confusion of clothes, tin cases, books, boots, brushes, and portmanteaus strewn all about the floor. He was only half dressed--in plain clothes, I observed, not in uniform--and his hair was unbrushed, and he looked as wild as his room. (45.33)

This is what poverty looks like when the person has kind of slowly become broke rather than being born destitute. Richard still has the trappings of the middle class – lots of unpawned stuff still lying around, potentially brushable hair, a choice of clothes. We don't see any of that for the born-poor characters.

Much mighty speech-making there has been, both in and out of Parliament, concerning [the bums of Tom-all-Alone's], and much wrathful disputation how Tom shall be got right. Whether he shall be put into the main road by constables, or by beadles, or by bell-ringing, or by force of figures, or by correct principles of taste, or by high church, or by low church, or by no church; whether he shall be set to splitting trusses of polemical straws with the crooked knife of his mind or whether he shall be put to stone-breaking instead. (46.2-3)

Ooh, packed passage – lots of good stuff going on here. First of all, check out the personification of poverty! Personification is giving an inanimate object human-like qualities. So here we've got the whole problem of Tom-all-Alone's – the people, the slum, the dirt, the whole shebang – lumped into one pretend guy, "Tom." But what does it mean that the politicians think of all the poor as one big horrible mass of grossness? They don't really seem all that committed to seeing the humanity and individuality of these people.

OK, second, here's a nice list of all the options for dealing with the poor back in the day. "Constables or beadles" can be used to force them the heck out of Dodge. We can try to get them into mainstream society through "bell-ringing" (forcibly converting them), through "figures" (political economy... and for some info about how Dickens felt about this, check out Shmoop's Hard Times Learning Guide), or through "taste" (touchy-feely liberal programs that try to develop the aesthetic senses). Another option is to make them "split trusses" (a.k.a. work on the ever-expanding railroads) or do "stone-breaking" (what it sounds like – making gravel out of big rocks...always a popular pastime for prison chain gangs as well).

"Now, Miss Summerson," he said to me as we walked quickly away. "They've got her ladyship's watch among 'em. That's a positive fact."

"You saw it?" I exclaimed.

"Just as good as saw it," he returned. "Else why should he talk about his 'twenty minutes past' and about his having no watch to tell the time by? Twenty minutes! He don't usually cut his time so fine as that. If he comes to half-hours, it's as much as HE does. Now, you see, either her ladyship gave him that watch or he took it. I think she gave it him. (57.96-98)

This is how we know that Bucket is awesome at his job. He knows these brickmakers are poor, so when he hears them refer offhandedly to a precise time, he immediately realizes they must have gotten hold of a watch. That's some Sherlock Holmes stuff right there, 35 years before that detective's debut.

The days when I frequented that miserable corner which my dear girl [Ada] brightened can never fade in my remembrance. I never see it, and I never wish to see it now; I have been there only once since, but in my memory there is a mournful glory shining on the place which will shine for ever. (61.1)

How different the tone is when Esther is describing the dump where Ada and Richard live, although it most likely is not that much better than Miss Flite's place.

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