Reading & Writing Bleak House

Comparing Charity in Bleak House and Today

Apr 01, 2012 by Rachel Berlage in Esther

            In the section for this week, we see another example of Mrs. Jellyby choosing her charity over her family. In preparing for Caddy’s wedding, Esther tries to “imbue Mrs. Jellyby beforehand with some faint sense of the occasion,” but instead, Mrs. Jellyby puts her work before her children—Caddy’s mother “hold[s] Borrioboolan interviews by appointment,” while her children “tumbled down the house, as they had always been accustomed to do,” (402*) We have talked previously about how this charity work seems self-centered on Mrs. Jellyby’s part. I am reminded of Mr. Jarndyce’s quote in chapter 8: “there were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all,” where Mrs. Jellyby represents the former (109-110).

            This made me think about how people view charity today. I recently studied the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and one of the main criticisms of how the situation was handled internationally was that assistance (both from governments and NGOs) came reactively rather than proactively. While some groups “played dumb” about the situation in this African nation, the fact is that many scholars knew that the Genocide was going to happen and begged for assistance to stop it. The situation quickly escaladed and it is possible that it could have been avoided or at least tempered by intervention before the violence started—but no one wanted to get involved in the fray. However, after the dust settled and people began to realize the magnitude of what had happened, there was a cry for assistance to the country. For years after the Genocide, Rwanda has been the “darling” of international donors wanting to help rebuild because the nation has emerged into what appears to be a stable society, but ethnic tensions and repression remain.

            This is one situation that I think could have been helped if people viewed charity as something to do for its own sake, rather than with a “Mrs. Jellby” type attitude—treating charity as something to do because the cause is popular.


*I am using a different edition so my page numbers are off.

Lots of information on Rwanda if anyone is interested:


I think that throughout this novel Mrs. Jellyby was one of those characters that were put into place to say something much greater about society. Like discussed many times before there is always that one female character that does not embody the “ideal female” characteristics of that era. Women are supposed to be that motherly figure that depends on a man for survival. In this case we see the total opposite with Mrs. Jellyby. She is a very independent woman who focuses on her charity rather than on her own family. Here we see this idea of duty. She feels like she has this duty to help others when the reality she has to help herself to become a better mother. The example that you provided about charity is very interesting. It calls attention to this idea of duty and wanting to somewhat be the “savior” in a particular situation which is what many programs and even countries try to be. You are right that many of these tragic events such as genocide can be prevented but it seems as if people sit around to wait for these things to happen to then be the hero of the story when things have finally gotten too out of hand. This reminds me of something that we spoke about in class. We briefly spoke about the programs that donate money directly to Africa. We went directly on one of the websites and analyze the page. One of the things we saw was a white person hugging a smaller black child. To us it meant something deeper. We thought it was a portrayal of what often times happens. The white man is the savior while the oppressed peoples are often the ones in need of saving. To me this was an interesting analysis to make and it was just an interesting experience overall deconstructing this website to comment about greater issues in society.

Posted by Kassandra Torres on April 23, 2012 at 08:45 PM EDT #

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