Reading & Writing Bleak House

"Telescopic Philanthropy"

Jan 27, 2012 by Andrea L Ray in Esther


When Dickens writes “Telescopic Philanthropy” he is referring to the philanthropy of caring for those far away, and forgetting the philanthropy of giving to those closest to you. Mrs. Jellyby is so wrapped up in Africa that she has eyes that seemingly looked a long way off…as if they could see nothing closer than Africa!” (52). She has entirely forgotten about her own family, who are looking for her philanthropy as well. One of Mrs. Jellyby’s children has stuck his head through the railings when Esther and Ada arrive. Esther describes him as “one of the dirtiest little unfortunates I ever saw” (51). Her other daughter Miss Jellyby is dreadfully unhappy and at one point tells Esther and Ada that she “wishes we were all dead! It would be a great deal better for us!” (62). Miss Jellyby also points out, “She [Ada] can dance and sing and play music? She can speak French and do geography, and globes and everything?...I can’t. I can’t do anything hardly, except write.” (60). Being so generous to Africa, Mrs. Jellyby has neglected her own children, who are dependent upon her to learn skills which will ensure them a decent future. 

I do wonder if Dickens was making a commentary on helping those far away while ignoring the problems at your doorstep, so to speak.  I think that Mrs. Jellyby might be a metaphor for philanthropists or charities which sent money abroad while ignoring the squalor and poverty which was occurring in London itself, a metaphor that still works today in many different places and countries. I also think that at this point Mrs. Jellyby was attempting to forget her own problems by working so hard on Africa!

-Just as a sidenote, I'm not sure how Jellyby is prounounced, but I was wondering if Dickens is known for using descriptive names. I've only read one other book by him, Great Expectations, where "Pip" could arguably be descriptive, at least in the beginning. But I read Jellyby as "Jelly-bee", and keep imagining Mrs. Jellyby as a humming, busy bee, which I think suits her.


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