Study Guide

Bleak House Rules and Order

By Charles Dickens

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Rules and Order

Well may the court be dim, with wasting candles here and there; well may the fog hang heavy in it, as if it would never get out; well may the stained-glass windows lose their colour and admit no light of day into the place; well may the uninitiated from the streets, who peep in through the glass panes in the door, be deterred from entrance by its owlish aspect and by the drawl, languidly echoing to the roof from the padded dais where the Lord High Chancellor looks into the lantern that has no light in it and where the attendant wigs are all stuck in a fog-bank! This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man's acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give--who does not often give--the warning, "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!" (1.6)

Of course the Court is totally dysfunctional and whatever rules it has are completely useless in the face of the nonsensical, dragged-out cases. And yet, isn't there a kind of order in the way the Chancery is tying all the bad institutions together here? Madhouses, cemeteries, blighted lands, beggars – all now neatly connected through this one institution.

Under cover of the night, the feeble-minded beadle comes flitting about Chancery Lane with his summonses, in which every juror's name is wrongly spelt, and nothing rightly spelt but the beadle's own name, which nobody can read or wants to know. [...] At the appointed hour arrives the coroner, for whom the jurymen are waiting. [...] He takes a Windsor-chair at the head of a long table formed of several short tables put together and ornamented with glutinous rings in endless involutions, made by pots and glasses. As many of the jury as can crowd together at the table sit there. The rest get among the spittoons and pipes or lean against the piano. Over the coroner's head is a small iron garland, the pendant handle of a bell, which rather gives the majesty of the court the appearance of going to be hanged presently. [The Inquest officials] go out in a loose procession, something after the manner of a straggling funeral, and make their inspection in Mr. Krook's back second floor, from which a few of the jurymen retire pale and precipitately. The beadle is very careful that two gentlemen not very neat about the cuffs and buttons (for whose accommodation he has provided a special little table near the coroner in the Harmonic Meeting Room) should see all that is to be seen. For they are the public chroniclers of such inquiries by the line; and he is not superior to the universal human infirmity, but hopes to read in print what "Mooney, the active and intelligent beadle of the district," said and did. (11.60-71)

Here is another confused, disorderly, and fairly useless court, assembled to determine whether Nemo's death was an accident or a suicide.

Name, Jo. Nothing else that he knows on. Don't know that everybody has two names. Never heerd of sich a think. Don't know that Jo is short for a longer name. Thinks it long enough for HIM. HE don't find no fault with it. Spell it? No. HE can't spell it. No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school. What's home? Knows a broom's a broom, and knows it's wicked to tell a lie. Don't recollect who told him about the broom or about the lie, but knows both. Can't exactly say what'll be done to him arter he's dead if he tells a lie to the gentlemen here, but believes it'll be something wery bad to punish him, and serve him right--and so he'll tell the truth.

"This won't do, gentlemen!" says the coroner with a melancholy shake of the head.

"Don't you think you can receive his evidence, sir?" asks an attentive juryman.

"Out of the question," says the coroner. "You have heard the boy. 'Can't exactly say' won't do, you know. We can't take THAT in a court of justice, gentlemen. It's terrible depravity. Put the boy aside." (11.79-82)

With heavy irony we see that the inquest court is so totally backwards that it dismisses the one witness who would actually be able to tell them something – anything at all – about the dead guy. Jo has grown up in a system that failed to teach him about the Bible and its rules about right and wrong. Now that same system decides that because he doesn't know those things, he can't have a civic life.

The old man, looking up at the cages after another look at us, went through the list.

"Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach. That's the whole collection," said the old man, "all cooped up together, by my noble and learned brother."

"This is a bitter wind!" muttered my guardian.

"When my noble and learned brother gives his judgment, they're to be let go free," said Krook, winking at us again. "And then," he added, whispering and grinning, "if that ever was to happen--which it won't--the birds that have never been caged would kill 'em." (14.151-154)

In a way Miss Flite's rules about her birds (the first rule of the birds is that you do not talk about the birds!) is about as arbitrary as Chancery. It's about as fair and makes just about as much sense.

"There again!" said Mr. Gridley with no diminution of his rage. "The system! I am told on all hands, it's the system. I mustn't look to individuals. It's the system. I mustn't go into court and say, 'My Lord, I beg to know this from you--is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice and therefore am dismissed?' My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there to administer the system. I mustn't go to Mr. Tulkinghorn, the solicitor in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and say to him when he makes me furious by being so cool and satisfied--as they all do, for I know they gain by it while I lose, don't I?--I mustn't say to him, 'I will have something out of some one for my ruin, by fair means or foul!' HE is not responsible. It's the system. (15.112)

Gridley's raving against the system has kind of a modern-day sound, doesn't it? What do you think about this distinction (which is made in other places in the novel, too) – that it's not the individuals that are the problem (the judge himself might be nice enough) but the giant institution as a whole. How could you fix such a big thing? Is this a copout?

The house, though a little disorderly in comparison with the garden, was a real old house with settles in the chimney of the brick-floored kitchen and great beams across the ceilings. On one side of it was the terrible piece of ground in dispute, where Mr. Boythorn maintained a sentry in a smock-frock day and night, whose duty was supposed to be, in cases of aggression, immediately to ring a large bell hung up there for the purpose, to unchain a great bull-dog established in a kennel as his ally, and generally to deal destruction on the enemy. Not content with these precautions, Mr. Boythorn had himself composed and posted there, on painted boards to which his name was attached in large letters, the following solemn warnings: "Beware of the bull-dog. He is most ferocious. Lawrence Boythorn." "The blunderbus is loaded with slugs. Lawrence Boythorn." "Man-traps and spring-guns are set here at all times of the day and night. Lawrence Boythorn." "Take notice. That any person or persons audaciously presuming to trespass on this property will be punished with the utmost severity of private chastisement and prosecuted with the utmost rigour of the law. Lawrence Boythorn." These he showed us from the drawing-room window, while his bird was hopping about his head, and he laughed, "Ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha!" to that extent as he pointed them out that I really thought he would have hurt himself. (18.35-37)

Here is a nice example of someone taking the law into his own hands. We do know that Boythorn and Dedlock have been suing and countersuing each other for a long time, but here we see firsthand that, however those lawsuits come out, the enforcement still rests with the people involved.

I think it came on "for further directions"--about some bill of costs, to the best of my understanding, which was confused enough. But I counted twenty-three gentlemen in wigs who said they were "in it," and none of them appeared to understand it much better than I. They chatted about it with the Lord Chancellor, and contradicted and explained among themselves, and some of them said it was this way, and some of them said it was that way, and some of them jocosely proposed to read huge volumes of affidavits, and there was more buzzing and laughing, and everybody concerned was in a state of idle entertainment, and nothing could be made of it by anybody. After an hour or so of this, and a good many speeches being begun and cut short, it was "referred back for the present," as Mr. Kenge said, and the papers were bundled up again before the clerks had finished bringing them in. (24.87-88)

Look at the way Esther struggles to figure out what's going on in the Court. She tries to be as specific as possible: there is the official, technical language that she is trying to use in context and also define ("for further directions," "in it," "referred back for the present"); and she has counted the number of solicitors ("twenty-three") and timed the proceedings ("an hour or so"). She gives up on describing the actual content of the speeches: all we see is the confusion of some people arguing this way and some "that way." Then she changes tactics and works on the emotional description: check out her shock at the way the lawyers are laughing at something that so tragically affects the lives of people she knows.

"My dear," said she as she carefully folded up her scarf and gloves, "my brave physician ought to have a title bestowed upon him. And no doubt he will. You are of that opinion?"

That he well deserved one, yes. That he would ever have one, no.

"Why not, Fitz Jarndyce?" she asked rather sharply.

I said it was not the custom in England to confer titles on men distinguished by peaceful services, however good and great, unless occasionally when they consisted of the accumulation of some very large amount of money.

"Why, good gracious," said Miss Flite, "how can you say that? Surely you know, my dear, that all the greatest ornaments of England in knowledge, imagination, active humanity, and improvement of every sort are added to its nobility! Look round you, my dear, and consider. YOU must be rambling a little now, I think, if you don't know that this is the great reason why titles will always last in the land!"

I am afraid she believed what she said, for there were moments when she was very mad indeed. (35.112-117)

Sometimes the novel goes into full-on mockery mode. This passage is meant to be read tongue-in-cheek, because back then England really didn't regularly give titles for non-military achievements – something Dickens clearly thinks is "very mad indeed." Why? Well let's see, who would stand to get such a title for excellence and general awesomeness if they were given out to people for "imagination" and "active humanity"?

"Miss Summerson," stammered Mr. Guppy, "I--I--beg your pardon, but in our profession--we--we--find it necessary to be explicit. You have referred to an occasion, miss, when I--when I did myself the honour of making a declaration which-- [...] My intention was to remark, miss," said Mr. Guppy, "dear me-- something bronchial, I think--hem!--to remark that you was so good on that occasion as to repel and repudiate that declaration. You-- you wouldn't perhaps object to admit that? Though no witnesses are present, it might be a satisfaction to--to your mind--if you was to put in that admission."

"There can be no doubt," said I, "that I declined your proposal without any reservation or qualification whatever, Mr. Guppy."

"Thank you, miss," he returned, measuring the table with his troubled hands. "So far that's satisfactory, and it does you credit. Er--this is certainly bronchial!--must be in the tubes-- er--you wouldn't perhaps be offended if I was to mention--not that it's necessary, for your own good sense or any person's sense must show 'em that--if I was to mention that such declaration on my part was final, and there terminated?

"I quite understand that," said I.

"Perhaps--er--it may not be worth the form, but it might be a satisfaction to your mind--perhaps you wouldn't object to admit that, miss?" said Mr. Guppy.

"I admit it most fully and freely," said I.

"Thank you," returned Mr. Guppy. "Very honourable, I am sure. I regret that my arrangements in life, combined with circumstances over which I have no control, will put it out of my power ever to fall back upon that offer or to renew it in any shape or form whatever, but it will ever be a retrospect entwined--er--with friendship's bowers." Mr. Guppy's bronchitis came to his relief and stopped his measurement of the table. (38.51-61)

This is the scene where Guppy wants to make sure the disfigured Esther is not going to hold him to his offer to marry her. Shmoop is loving that he needs her to rephrase everything she says in more legal terms. "I understand" isn't good enough, so she has to rephrase it to the more formal "I admit." It's always funny to see Guppy speak as though examining a witness, and this conversation takes this to a hilarious new extreme.

"Look, mistress, this is the key of my wine-cellar. It is a large key, but the keys of prisons are larger. In this city there are houses of correction (where the treadmills are, for women), the gates of which are very strong and heavy, and no doubt the keys too. I am afraid a lady of your spirit and activity would find it an inconvenience to have one of those keys turned upon her for any length of time. [...] the law is so despotic here that it interferes to prevent any of our good English citizens from being troubled, even by a lady's visits against his desire. And on his complaining that he is so troubled, it takes hold of the troublesome lady and shuts her up in prison under hard discipline." (42.64-68)

This is Tulkinghorn threatening Hortense. Here he admits to her that he could have her locked up (totally illegally) for as long as he wants to. Some of his bravado here probably has to do with the fact that she's a foreigner, with fewer civil rights in England. But some also has to do with the fact the she is a woman, with inherently less power than him. Even if she were to go to the police, whose story would they believe?

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