Study Guide

Bleak House Identity

By Charles Dickens

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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.

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