Study Guide

Bleak House Principles

By Charles Dickens


Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills but would be done up without Dedlocks. He would on the whole admit nature to be a good idea (a little low, perhaps, when not enclosed with a park-fence), but an idea dependent for its execution on your great county families. He is a gentleman of strict conscience, disdainful of all littleness and meanness and ready on the shortest notice to die any death you may please to mention rather than give occasion for the least impeachment of his integrity. He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man. (2.35)

Props for that tonally perfect, very Dickensian string of adjectives at the end. Shmoop's loving how the last adjective totally makes us question all the ones that came before it. Like, which quality makes him unreasonable? Is it unreasonable to be truthful?

[Mrs. Jellyby] told us a great deal that was interesting about Borrioboola-Gha and the natives, and received so many letters that Richard, who sat by her, saw four envelopes in the gravy at once. Some of the letters were proceedings of ladies' committees or resolutions of ladies' meetings, which she read to us; others were applications from people excited in various ways about the cultivation of coffee, and natives; others required answers, and these she sent her eldest daughter from the table three or four times to write. She was full of business and undoubtedly was, as she had told us, devoted to the cause. [...] Mrs. Jellyby, sitting in quite a nest of waste paper, drank coffee all the evening and dictated at intervals to her eldest daughter. She also held a discussion with Mr. Quale, of which the subject seemed to be--if I understood it--the brotherhood of humanity, and gave utterance to some beautiful sentiments. I was not so attentive an auditor as I might have wished to be, however, for Peepy and the other children came flocking about Ada and me in a corner of the drawing-room to ask for another story; so we sat down among them and told them in whispers "Puss in Boots" and I don't know what else until Mrs. Jellyby, accidentally remembering them, sent them to bed. (4.52-55)

Well, we'll say this for good old Mrs. Jellyby – she sticks to her principles through thick and thin. There's a nice comparison here between the stories Mrs. Jellyby tells her children (she dictates letters to Caddy and talks about the "brotherhood of humanity") and the far more appropriate stories Esther tells them ("Puss in Boots" is a fairy tale about an awesomely clever talking cat.)

The notes revived in Richard and Ada a general impression that they both had, without quite knowing how they came by it, that their cousin Jarndyce could never bear acknowledgments for any kindness he performed and that sooner than receive any he would resort to the most singular expedients and evasions or would even run away. Ada dimly remembered to have heard her mother tell, when she was a very little child, that he had once done her an act of uncommon generosity and that on her going to his house to thank him, he happened to see her through a window coming to the door, and immediately escaped by the back gate, and was not heard of for three months. (6.12)

This is kind of bizarre behavior, right? Maybe Shmoop can shed a little light on it. There was a pretty lively debate in the 19th century about whether a truly generous or altruistic action was possible. If the giver received pleasant feelings of being generous and noble, wasn't generosity to some degree self-interested? (Which, OK, whatever.) So Jarndyce is trying really hard to at least keep the external gratitude to a minimum.

Rick, the world is before you; and it is most probable that as you enter it, so it will receive you. Trust in nothing but in Providence and your own efforts. Never separate the two, like the heathen waggoner. Constancy in love is a good thing, but it means nothing, and is nothing, without constancy in every kind of effort. If you had the abilities of all the great men, past and present, you could do nothing well without sincerely meaning it and setting about it. If you entertain the supposition that any real success, in great things or in small, ever was or could be, ever will or can be, wrested from Fortune by fits and starts, leave that wrong idea here or leave your cousin Ada here. (13.119)

The problem with principles is that they can only come from within, so this speech Jarndyce busts out with as Richard is leaving for his doctor apprenticeship is useless. Still, it's good advice, meaning basically "apply yourself, doofus."

"How I hoped you would begin, and how go on, I told you when we spoke of these things last," said Mr. Jarndyce in a cordial and encouraging manner. "You have not made that beginning yet, but there is a time for all things, and yours is not gone by; rather, it is just now fully come. Make a clear beginning altogether. You two (very young, my dears) are cousins. As yet, you are nothing more. What more may come must come of being worked out, Rick, and no sooner."

"You are very hard with me, sir," said Richard. "Harder than I could have supposed you would be."

"My dear boy," said Mr. Jarndyce, "I am harder with myself when I do anything that gives you pain. You have your remedy in your own hands. Ada, it is better for him that he should be free and that there should be no youthful engagement between you. Rick, it is better for her, much better; you owe it to her. Come! Each of you will do what is best for the other, if not what is best for yourselves." (24.21-27)

Yeah, like we just said – no amount of good advice is worth anything unless it's internalized. So we're back to square one with Richard here. Jarndyce switches tactics, this time going with "try not to drag the woman you love down with you," but this doesn't really work either.

"George," says Mr. Bagnet. "You know me. It's my old girl that advises. She has the head. But I never own to it before her. Discipline must be maintained. Wait till the greens is off her mind. Then we'll consult. Whatever the old girl says, do--do it!"

"I intend to, Mat," replies the other. "I would sooner take her opinion than that of a college." [...]

"She is a treasure!" exclaims Mr. George.

"She's more. But I never own to it before her. Discipline must be maintained. [...] I never saw the old girl's equal. But I never own to it before her. Discipline must be maintained!" (27.85-95)

Dickens took a lot of flak for Esther's superhuman perfection, but what about Mrs. Bagnet? Shmoop is really intimidated by how crazily awesome a mother, wife, and businessperson she is. Is there a connection between Bagnet's principle to never tell his wife how perfect she is and Jarndyce's principle to avoid being thanked for stuff?

"My dear Caddy!" said Mr. Jellyby, looking slowly round from the wail. It was the first time, I think, I ever heard him say three words together.

"Yes, Pa!" cried Caddy, going to him and embracing him affectionately.

"My dear Caddy," said Mr. Jellyby. "Never have--"

"Not Prince, Pa?" faltered Caddy. "Not have Prince?"

"Yes, my dear," said Mr. Jellyby. "Have him, certainly. But, never have--"

I mentioned in my account of our first visit in Thavies Inn that Richard described Mr. Jellyby as frequently opening his mouth after dinner without saying anything. It was a habit of his. He opened his mouth now a great many times and shook his head in a melancholy manner.

"What do you wish me not to have? Don't have what, dear Pa?" asked Caddy, coaxing him, with her arms round his neck.

"Never have a mission, my dear child." (30.75-82)

Oh jeez, what a totally destroyed guy Mr. Jellyby is! Still, it's one of the oldest tricks in the book: if you have a character who remains almost entirely silent, the one thing that comes out of his mouth will be totally revelatory. Is there any better summary for how the Jellybys went off the rails?

"But is the secret safe so far?" I asked. "Is it safe now, dearest mother?"

"No," replied my mother. "It has been very near discovery. It was saved by an accident. It may be lost by another accident--to-morrow, any day."

"Do you dread a particular person?"

"Hush! Do not tremble and cry so much for me. I am not worthy of these tears," said my mother, kissing my hands. "I dread one person very much."

"An enemy?"

"Not a friend. One who is too passionless to be either. He is Sir Leicester Dedlock's lawyer, mechanically faithful without attachment, and very jealous of the profit, privilege, and reputation of being master of the mysteries of great houses." [...]

"Has he so little pity or compunction?"

"He has none, and no anger. He is indifferent to everything but his calling. His calling is the acquisition of secrets and the holding possession of such power as they give him, with no sharer or opponent in it." (36.39-50)

Many characters try to figure out what principles are driving Tulkinghorn. Here Lady Dedlock paints him as an unstoppable, barely human form of evil, "mechanical" and "indifferent." The scariest bad guys tend to be motiveless and emotionless – think Shakespeare's Iago from Othello, the Borg from Star Trek, or that planet-brain from Solaris. The less we understand them, the scarier they are.

The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble. (39.4-6)

This really threw down the gauntlet when Dickens printed it. There were a bazillion letters to the editor in the Times complaining about how unfair this was, how it paints lawyers with too broad a brush, how lawyers are totally principled and honest people, and any number of other indignant declarations. And yet the bad reputation of lawyers persists to this day.

"I would rather be hanged in my own way. And I mean to be! I don't intend to say," looking round upon us with his powerful arms akimbo and his dark eyebrows raised, "that I am more partial to being hanged than another man. What I say is, I must come off clear and full or not at all. Therefore, when I hear stated against me what is true, I say it's true; and when they tell me, 'whatever you say will be used,' I tell them I don't mind that; I mean it to be used. If they can't make me innocent out of the whole truth, they are not likely to do it out of anything less, or anything else. And if they are, it's worth nothing to me." [...]

"Why, George," exclaimed Mrs. Bagnet, who had been unpacking her basket, in which there was a piece of cold pickled pork, a little tea and sugar, and a brown loaf, "you ought to know it don't. You ought to know it's enough to drive a person wild to hear you. You won't be got off this way, and you won't be got off that way--what do you mean by such picking and choosing? It's stuff and nonsense, George." (52.54-65)

This is a really great philosophical discussion hidden in very character-driven dialog. George and Mrs. Bagnet are debating whether it's better to stick to principles no matter what, or to be practical and make choices based on the situation at hand. This is still a pretty relevant debate. Check out, for instance, the two different types of Supreme Court judge: conservatives, who believe in "originalism" (basically that there is just one interpretation of the US Constitution) and liberals, who argue that the Constitution is a living document that needs to be reinterpreted according to the times.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...