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
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?
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?
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.