‘Bleak House’ is often regarded as the first of the late novels of Charles Dickens. It depicts England as a bleak house, torn apart by an irresponsible and self-serving judicial system, symbolized by the Lord Chancellor, who sits in foggy grandeur in the Court of Chancery. Dickens employs two narrators: a third-person narrator who reports on public life in the spheres of law and fashion, and a first-person narrator, Esther Summerson, a young lady who recounts her own personal experience. He is able to connect and contrast Esther’s private tale with broader public problems through this parallel narration. Esther’s story follows her revelation of her true identity as Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate child. Esther is a self-denying, unassailable young lady who was abandoned as a child and reared by an abusive aunt. She is glad for whatever respect she earns from the patriarchal society around her. Her plight encompasses that of the larger society, in which aristocratic privilege denies human needs and desires, patriarchal institutions such as the courts make orphans of society’s children, allow slums and disease to thrive, and suppress individual autonomy through “philanthropy” that makes recipients dependents.
The poisoned cityscape of Victorian London is shown in the first few chapters of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, creating an atmosphere formed by the terrible results of a shattered civilization. The ruined state of the poisoned metropolis reflects the natural world’s corruption under the negligent care of Victorian society’s aristocratic elite. This shattered form of nature is used to portray London contagions, stressing the negative source and consequence of the man-made social environment.
Dickens warns readers in Bleak House on the fragility of vulnerable groups, particularly the young, the poor, and those bound by gender standards, to the consequences of a deeply defective social structure, in order to warn against society institutions’ continued mistreatment of the vulnerable classes. Dickens supports the demand for social reform by illustrating the negative consequences of Victorian society caused by institutions such as philanthropic institutions and the educational system failing to fulfill their responsibilities, as well as constraining nineteenth-century gender roles reinforced by a hierarchical and indifferent class mentality. In modern culture, such troublesome social difficulties may be found in the academic system’s disrespect for uniqueness and the pressures of technology and media to meet societal expectations.
The British Court of Chancery had grown synonymous with procedural dysfunction and unfairness by the early nineteenth century. This was especially true for the middle classes, who couldn’t afford to file a claim for fear of the procedure consuming their whole wealth. Despite the fact that “the evils of Chancery were well known and had been exposed over and over again,” Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House, published in 1852, threw an even brighter light on the Court and the lives lost by its corruption and dysfunctionality.
When one hears of the Court of Chancery, it’s difficult not to think of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, that black hole of a case at the core of Bleak House; the greatest of Chancery suits and “a monument of Chancery practice,” even after all these years.
John Jarndyce’s character argues that his case is simply about “a will, and the trusts under a will,” but that “…the lawyers have twisted it into such a state of bedevilment that the original merits of the case have long disappeared from the face of the earth.”
His timing in delivering such criticism was not perfect. The Court of Chancery was undergoing a period of significant transformation the same year Dickens serialized ‘Bleak House’. An Act of Parliament changed the ways of gathering testimony, replaced fees with wages, and eliminated a slew of other unnecessary costs and offices in 1852. This isn’t to imply that the lack of time makes Bleak House any less educational. Taken as though the events in the novel occurred in or about 1827, which is often regarded as the Court of Chancery’s worst time, the novel provides a window into a flawed and corrupt institution, as well as the lives devastated by it.
Dickens utilizes the divide of London, particularly the exclusion of the limited, defenseless lower classes, to demonstrate the disastrous repercussions of class division and apathy about the collapse of the social structure. “…In a general infection of ill-temper…foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke…adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud…” Dickens says, highlighting the problems of class and the city’s wretched condition.
Dickens’ condemnation of the distinction between higher and lower statuses in Victorian society, like the partitioning of the city, highlights a dysfunctional kind of class education as a result of either the isolation of these undesired groups or inattentive institutions. Dickens utilizes the continuation of such inadequate training for both the weak and their neglected environment to reflect London’s people’s perpetual condition of misery, which only progresses farther into the city owing to the social limitations and apathy of the ruling upper class.
The law and the system of injustice that benefits itself but ignores the human consequences of its activities are linked in various ways to the bleakness that afflicts all of the houses. The Lord Chancellor, the interminable Jarndyce suit, and the many lawyers in the novel represent the law, particularly Tulkinghorn, whose house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields is the bleak house of the law: “Formerly a house of state… it is let off in sets of chambers now; and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts… Here, among his many boxes labelled with transcendent names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn… Everything that can have a lock has got one; no key is visible”. The frightening image of Allegory painted on the ceiling of Tulkinghorn’s quarters indicates his importance. He appears to be more interested in power than in serving his customers’ best interests. His schemes are part of a legal system that exists solely to serve itself, wreaking havoc on society in the process. Allegorically, the legislation has destroyed the entire country of England.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977.
Holdsworth, William S. Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1929.
Davis, P. (2007). Critical companion to Charles Dickens. New York: Facts On File.