Study Guide

Bleak House Themes

  • Identity

    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 About Identity

    1. Why do we find out Miss Flite's back-story and her family's history with Chancery? What would be different if the novel kept her as the more mysterious and random character she initially seems to be? What about Vholes?
    2. Are there other minor characters for whom it would be nice to have more background information? Some who would be better with less?
    3. By the end of the novel, all the questions of identity are solved – Mr. George is the son of Mrs. Rouncewell, Krook is the brother of Mrs. Smallweed, Esther and Lady Dedlock and Captain Hawdon are a nuclear family, the "Jenny" that comes to London is actually a suicidal Lady Dedlock. How would the reader react if one or more of the mysteries remained open? What effect does figuring out identity have on the reader?
    4. Many of the characters have their own debased, deformed, or caricatured doubles. Krook is nicknamed Lord Chancellor, Richard and Ada are represented by caged birds named The Wards in Jarndyce, and Mr. Turveydrop preposterously imitates the grandeur of King George IV. Are there other pairs like this that you can think of? What light do these doubles shed on their originals? What do we learn from the originals about the doubles?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Appearances

    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.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Which characters are aware of the way their looks affect other people? Which are unaware?
    2. How do different characters use their appearance to influence those around them? Does it work? Why or why not?
    3. Does the appearance of a character or a location change depending on who is describing it? Find two passages that describe the same thing or person (Lady Dedlock, for instance, or the cemetery at Tom-all-Alone's) from two different points of view – either from the point of view of the two different narrators, or from the point of view of other characters. What stays the same about the description? What changes?
    4. What do you make of Esther's fixation on Ada's good looks? Why is Ada the person Esther is most scared of seeing after her face is scarred? What is their relationship, and why is appearance such a huge part of it?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Principles

    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.

    Questions About Principles

    1. There are a lot of characters who give themselves principles to live by: Mr. George and his anti-lawyer stance, Sir Dedlock and his obsession with integrity, Mrs. Jellyby and her commitment to being an activist. Do any of the institutions in the novel (government, Chancery, police force) have principles? Why or why not? If they do have principles, do they stick to them?
    2. Do either of the two narrators have any principles they use to do their work? Are there things that are beyond the pale for either one to mention? Do these principles match or coincide? Or are they opposed?
    3. When do principles cross the line into obsessive or destructive behavior? For example, is Tulkinghorn committed to preserving the honor of the Dedlocks or crazily focused on power and surveillance? Does Skimpole simply want to live out his days without any responsibility, or is he a sociopathic parasite who destroys everyone in his path? Why does the novel put the two things in such close proximity?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Duty

    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.

    Questions About Duty

    1. Are duty and responsibility more important to female or male characters in the novel? How do you know?
    2. Some characters excel only when saddled with increasing duty – think Caddy Jellyby or Esther, for example. Some, on the other hand, are unable to handle the extra load – for instance Mr. George and Richard. Can we predict ahead of time who will fall into which category? What determines how a character will cope with adverse circumstances or added weight?
    3. Duty is sometimes used to conceal or overcome an unpleasant emotion. Mrs. Pardiggle hates the people on whom she inflicts her charity, so she thinks of her rounds as an obligation. Esther doesn't like Jarndyce romantically, so she convinces herself that marrying him is the dutiful thing to do. Can you find other examples of characters using duty as a mask? Is this a useful strategy? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Guilt and Blame

    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.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Are some characters more prone to feeling guilty than others? Are there characters who do not feel any guilt whatsoever about their actions? Is lack of guilt necessarily a negative thing, or does it actually serve a constructive purpose?
    2. Plenty of the bad guys in the novel use other characters' guilt against them. For instance, Tulkinghorn is able to extort Captain Hawdon's letter from Mr. George by reminding him that if the Bagnets were to go bankrupt, he would be to blame. Are there examples of good guys using the same technique to get results? Is this ethically OK? Why or why not?
    3. Do the guilty receive fitting punishments? Who suffers cruelly and unusually? Whose comeuppance is earned? Who escapes punishment altogether? Why? What would happen to the novel if some of these punishments were reversed?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Rules and Order

    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.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. One of the ways in which orderliness is expressed is through the quality of housekeeping in a specific place. For example, think about the difference in messiness levels between Bleak House, Mrs. Jellyby's house, and Krook's shop. Does physical disorder relate to mental or emotional messiness? Who is better off, those who clean up or those who let things fall where they may?
    2. Bleak House seems to show the law as being particularly random, unjust, and, well, lawless. Are there other supposed systems of order that are shown to be completely without rhyme or reason? Why have these systems broken down? Does the novel suggest they can be repaired? How?
    3. One of the novel's structural rules seems to be that there are no superfluous characters. Despite being set in London, a huge metropolis where each day many people come into contact who will never see each other again, the novel only shows us the same few characters, who meet and interact in different combinations. Why is the random-stranger part of city life left out?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Poverty

    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.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. We get several different examples of dire poverty in the novel: the Neckett children, Jo, and the brickmakers and their wives. Why does Dickens show us what happens to the poor at different ages? Is there a cut-off point beyond which help is impossible? Does the amount of intervention differ depending on age?
    2. What is work like for the poor? Compare the jobs of, for instance, Nemo, Phil, Charley, and Jo. Does Dickens think there is a difference between freelance and regular employment? What is the effect of work on the type of poverty a character experiences?
    3. What is the difference between those born into poverty (Phil and Jo, for example), those who are suddenly impoverished (for instance, Lady Dedlock and the Necketts), and those who experience a slow and gradual decline (say, Miss Flite and Richard). Are there qualities they have in common? Do their responses to their situation differ? How? Why?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Respect and Reputation

    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.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. Which character cares the most about how respectful others are toward him or her? Which cares the least? Are there characters who are surprisingly touchy about getting their respect? Are there ones who surprisingly don't care about how others treat them? Why or why not?
    2. Do characters with good reputations care about them more or less than those with bad reputations? Is it more useful in the novel to have a good or bad reputation? Who uses their reputation in the course of daily life? How?
    3. In the novel, there are several identifiers that seem to automatically call for respect from other characters: age, wealth, or being of a higher social class. Does the novel approve or disapprove of these automatic respect-generators? How do you know?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Love

    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.

    Questions About Love

    1. How would the novel be different if Esther had ended up marrying Jarndyce? How would that change how we see her? How we see him?
    2. We see many marriages where love has clearly been long-lasting and deep – for example, the Bagnets', the Dedlocks', the Snagsbys', and the Woodcourts'. Is love shown to be capable of overcoming negative emotions? If so, how? If not, why not? Does a long-lasting love help or hinder the emotional health of those who have it and those who are the objects of it?
    3. Who are the best and worst parents? Who are the best and worst children? How are the criteria for good parenting different from the criteria for being the best child? How are they the same?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Language and Communication

    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.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Try to imagine some of the communication that takes place in the novel switching to a different medium. What changes? What stays the same? For instance, what if Jarndyce had proposed in person rather than by letter? How would that change how we see his feelings for Esther? How would her response be different? Would it then be harder or easier for her to break their engagement?
    2. Why did Dickens decide to make Hortense French? What does it do to our feelings about her that her language appears so stilted and strange, as the narrator tries to reproduce her accent? Does her otherness or outsider status explain anything about her? Is that fair?
    3. Think of the many types of speech that are specifically denied by legal authorities in the novel: Jo cannot testify at Nemo's inquest, Gridley cannot be recognized by the Lord Chancellor, the final will that should resolve Jarndyce and Jarndyce is inadmissible. Why do we get so many instances where real communication is denied legal existence?

    Chew on This

    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.