Bleak House's search for the legal identity of several characters is vitally important in a society where birth and social rank mean so much that the unidentified are in a way non-persons. But this quest also points to the work's greater preoccupation with the slow reveal of key aspects of identity of a more figurative kind. Protagonists, and even secondary characters, carefully unfold the various strands of their personality. Plot twists are not simply action but provide a sounding wall against which characters are shown to themselves, sometimes for the first time.
Questions of identity revolve surprisingly heavily around legal formalities: for instance, whether Jo counts a person who can fulfill his civic duty at the inquest, whether Miss Barbary can accurately be called Esther's aunt or not, and whether Gridley can be recognized to exist as a speaker inside the courtroom. This legal framework undermines the novel's strong criticism of the Chancery Court system.
Esther only truly earns her own identity after her face is disfigured and she no longer looks like her mother. Until then, she is merely a part of Lady Dedlock's story, but afterwards she becomes an independent and separate character.
Bleak House is obsessed with appearances. Characters' features are scrutinized by narrators, by mirrors, by people watching them and spying on them, and even through artwork that represents them. Geographical and topographical landmarks are primarily identified by sight, and the ability to quickly orient oneself visually is crucial to the very survival of characters forced to find their way through hostile terrain. Still, outer looks and inner morality do not always coincide, as the novel flirts with mildly overturning some of the staunchest Victorian stereotypes about appearance.
In the novel, characters' reactions to what they are seeing are so predictable and expected that we don't actually need any of the narrator's descriptions of people and places in order to immediately understand what they look like.
In Bleak House, law is a hopelessly tangled mess of unsolvable, endless cases, and the power of the police is new enough to be used sometimes to further private interests or for other morally ambiguous purposes. So the only way to ensure moral coherence is to devise and stick to some kind of code of honor. Many characters have such declared principles, some of which make sense and some of which don't, but none of which are meant to be taken lightly or ignored.
In an ironic twist, the more options a character has (through wealth, power, education, or career prospects), the more likely he is to stick to his principles. Those who are less fortunate and do not have the luxury of choice paradoxically end up with far more freedom of action.
Although principles would seem to ensure a strict code of behavior, in practice most of the people who have them are able to twist them to suit their own ends.
The world of Bleak House is so interconnected that duty is the natural byproduct of almost any relationship. Because no characters are wasted or non-recurring, and anyone we meet we will meet over and over again, the people in the novel have no choice but to form ties of obligation and reciprocity with everyone they meet. In a closed system like this one, duty creates and maintains reputation; ensures continuity between friends, neighbors, and acquaintances; and creates links between people whose lives would otherwise be so divergent that they would never intersect.
The main duty of women in Bleak House is restoring, keeping up, and increasing connections between characters. This can be for the good: Esther takes it as a given that part of her life will involve helping Caddy and Miss Flite, while Mrs. Bagnet thinks nothing of going, without being asked, to find George's mother. It can also be negative: Mrs. Snagsby does her best to connect Mr. Snagsby and Jo not just as patron and charity case, but as father and son, while Hortense maliciously tries to bring together Esther and Lady Dedlock. Without this female duty, the world of the novel would collapse, or stop moving forward.
In a world as oppressive as this one, characters who manage to completely evade responsibility and duty are actually impressive and worthy of admiration.
The deeply related sensations of guilt and blame dominate the emotional life of most of the characters in Bleak House. Almost any situation calls forth feelings that fall somewhere in this category: the shamelessness of Skimpole causes empathetic embarrassment in Esther, the impossible situation of Lady Dedlock's youth creates unbearable guilt in her middle age, and the inculcated blame of Esther's childhood is reflected in the mortification she feels at the slightest bit of praise. The novel is a lesson in overcoming these crippling emotions – but given what we know about the repressive environment of real-life Victorians, this may be wishful thinking.
The feeling of guilt is so pervasive in this repressive society that even those who are not criminals constantly feel blameworthy. For some characters, the only way to cope with personal guilt is to investigate and police the behavior of others, becoming amateur spies and detectives.
In Bleak House, the process of growing up is strongly tied to a child's need to stop internalizing the shame of her parents' behavior. Only when Caddy can see her mother without seeing herself is she is able to move into maturity. Only when Esther can let go of Miss Barbary's guilt-inducing putdowns does she come into her own. Those who cannot escape their parents – like Richard, who is caught in the Jarndyce web, or Prince Turveydrop, who sacrifices himself for his father – can never truly become adults.
There is something in the way the legal system does its best not to work in Bleak House that anticipates the nightmarish bureaucracies of Kafka (see The Trial ), especially in the terrifying moment that shows Gridley attempting to get the judge's attention and being told that he cannot legally be admitted to exist at this time. The wheels of this system spin only each other and do not advance any of the actual machinery forward. Rather, the Court of Chancery feeds on England's resources in the form of the land or accumulated wealth that a will is attempting to distribute, converting potential capitalist investment into coffer-lining feudalism.
One of the political implications of Bleak House is that individual charity and generosity are not enough – systemic change is needed to combat the social ills being described. However, by portraying institutions in such a negative and cynical way, the novel undermines the possibility that government or some other large organization will ever be able to rise to the occasion.
There are so many different ways that people are policed and regulated in the novel – some formal, but most informal – that there is almost no need for the actual police constables. They only come into a situation when the social policing has failed, and even then they are only one of several ways of enforcing rules.
The kind of degradation that the poor suffer in Bleak House is all-consuming and relentlessly bleak. There is no relief from predation, especially for the children who wind up on the streets through no fault of their own. Jo's money is stolen, and Charley is taken advantage of by those who hire her for chump change. By showing us the depths of their despair and the lowest points of their existence, the novel puts out a challenge to its readers to hear the call to action embodied in the plight of the vulnerable, deeply moving story of Jo.
Despite the differences in architecture, Tom-all-Alone's and Chesney Wold are described in very similar ways, as the narrator dwells on the ways each is falling apart and each is polluted and diseased. This is because the novel in some ways equates economic poverty with emotional or spiritual bankruptcy.
We are not actually meant to sympathize with the poor in this novel, since poverty is presented as so pervasive and endemic that sympathy and charity are useless. Instead, the activism the novel calls for is the destruction of institutions like the Chancery and the aristocracy and the creation of a more widespread and less elitist system of education.
Obsession with personal reputation is one of the many kinds of monomania presented in Bleak House. There are those whose social rank entitles them to limitless respect, which they don't hesitate to claim. There are also those whose position in life is the product of a fevered imagination – but this does not deter their posturing. The more either of these types demand respect, the more they seem to get it, perhaps because in a highly stratified society, it is always helpful to know who outranks whom, and that calculation is sometimes so hard to perform that it's easier to just go by a person's actions.
The only characters whose reputation precedes them are ones who are malicious or evil. Positive characters, on the other hand, have to reassert themselves and their intentions every time they encounter a new person.
The only characters whom it is possible to genuinely respect in the novel are ones who are narrated at least in part by Esther's voice. Anyone who is only described by the third-person narrator is shown with too many gaping flaws to be a figure of respect.
Although many seemingly positive values and emotions are questioned in Bleak House – generosity, honesty, friendship, and even justice each come in for some criticism – love is never portrayed as an impossible, unattainable, or somehow false state. Parents unconditionally love even the most wayward of children, and in turn children are devoted to even deeply flawed parents. Even romantic love, often shown in literature to be a fleeting sensation or a state too commonly confused with simple lust, is in Bleak House a semi-permanent emotion, available both to the high and the low.
Many of the marriages and love affairs in the novel are repetitions of similar parental actions. For instance, Caddy marries a weak and subservient man, in the mold of Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Jellyby. Esther almost marries a kind older man whom she doesn't love but who can provide material comforts over the true love she feels for Woodcourt, just as her mother married Sir Dedlock rather than Captain Hawdon. Progress in the novel occurs when these cycles are broken, or at least adjusted.
There is so little cynicism about love in the novel that those who are not capable of forming loving attachments to family or romantic partners are never given the opportunity to do so. They are not even shown to have any desire for such relationships.
Bleak House is acutely concerned with questions of when to speak and when to remain silent. Part of Esther's maturation is understanding how and when to deploy criticism: keeping quiet maintains social bonds, while offering judgment can sometimes repair a wrong. However, the choice to speak is riddled with its own secondary decisions about manner and medium. Sir Dedlock's highly formal affirmations of love sound too trite for Lady Dedlock to put stock in his forgiveness, while Jarndyce's proposal by letter rather than voice places a distance between the passion on the page and his calm manner in person.
The ability to modulate language to a specific audience is a skill only developed by those who serve or wait on others. The powerful have no need to differentiate the people they are addressing.
Written communications in the novel are far more important as physical objects than for whatever their content might be. The love letters found with Hawdon's body, for instance, are never read, but their existence as a little packet tied with red ribbon is crucial. It's the same with the documents in the Jarndyce case, which are too numerous to fit into the bags they're carried in. Because of this, non-language-based modes of communication, like Woodcourt's bouquet, take on infinitely greater meaning than they would otherwise.