Study Guide

Bleak House Duty

By Charles Dickens

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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.

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