Reading & Writing Bleak House

Who's That Narrator: Dickens or Esther

Mar 20, 2012 by Emma V Ginader in Esther

            The chapter 23 Title, Esther’s Narrative, gains significance as Esther takes on the omniscient narrator’s abilities to reflect on the status of the world around her and manipulate situations to create plot.   

         Like the omniscient narrator at the beginning of the novel, Esther criticizes the legal system of England. In the opening chapter of the novel, the narrator observes that the Court of Chancery in London has decayed to the point that it can no longer function or help solve legal problems. He declares that the courts are “decaying houses” and “that there is not an honorable man among its practitioners” (15). The narrator’s sentiments are mirrored by Esther’s believe that the “industry was all misdirected. I could not find that it led to anything, but the formation of delusive hopes” (269). An omniscient narrator must have the ability to critically think about their social surroundings and past judgment on it.  Because Esther is the only character in the novel that seems to process the society that she lives in, her intelligence gives her the power to shape the narrative that other characters in the novel cannot access.

         Esther exercises her narrative power by directing her friends to take action. By controlling her friends’ actions, she is able to shape the course of the plot. One of the ways Esther is able to create her views on society is that the other characters often tell her their secrets and plans for the future. For example, the Miss Jellby confesses to Esther that she plans to get married to Prince Turverydrop but hasn’t informed her mother or her future father-in-law about the plan. Similarly to how an omniscient narrator uses the hidden facts about characters to help control how the plot will play out, Esther urges Miss Jellby to tell the parents about the engagement because it is “wrong to marry without ma’s knowledge” (373). After hearing Esther’s opinion, Miss Jellby and Prince tell their parents about their engagement to varying degrees of success. As a result of their actions, the plot is moved forward.

         As a result of Esther taking on traits of the omniscient narrator, she becomes interchangeable with the omniscient narrator and thus Dickens himself.

Passing On the Knowledge: Class Intermingling in Bleak House

Mar 11, 2012 by Emma V Ginader in Phiz

In Chapters 21 and 22 of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the illustrator Phiz helps to further elaborate and display the intermingling of the different classes between Young Bart Smallweed and his patrons, Mr. Guppy and Mr. Jobling through his illustration.



            In Dickens’ text, he describes Young Smallweed as coming from a family of “little old men and women” (332). Because Bart’s great-grandfather was “an example of the failure of education” and never achieved anything during his life, the Smallweed family is dedicated to rising up in the social class, at the expense of their youth and vigor (333). Young Bart Smallweed is fulfilling his familial destiny by is working at the law offices as Mr. Guppy and plans on becoming a clerk like Mr. Guppy. As a result, Young Bart Smallweed “is honored with Mr. Guppy’s particular confidence” (316).

Through his mentorship with Mr. Guppy, Young Smallweed starts to loosen his strict work centric moral and begins to display a flirtatious and gluttonous attitude normally attributed to the upper class. During Chapter 21 alone, he “winks upon” Polly the waitress and calls her by her first name when he orders his food like she is his wife (319). He also consumes the equivalent of “a model of the tower of Babel” (319) that costs no small amount of money. Through this evidence reader learns that he has moved on from purely being “an old limb of the law” (316) and traveled “into such broader regions as lie within the ken of Mr. Guppy” (335).

In Phiz’s illustration of the dinner in Chapter 22, the reader clearly comprehends visually the differences between Young Smallweed and the two upper class gentlemen while showing them intermingling. Young Bart Smallweed is clearly leaning enthusiastically over to his mentors as if to try to absorb knowledge from them. He also appears to be hungry, matching the appetite that he displays during the dinner scene. This hunger could be symbolic of his desire to be like his mentors one day. Physically, he is hairy and behaves in “a monkeyish way” (318).

His counterparts, Mr. Guppy and Mr. Jobling, are described in more human terms. They don’t have to ape the upper class manners because they belong to a higher class than Young Bart Smallweed. They are better groomed than Young Smallweed. They wear top hats and trim suits. In the illustration, they are apathetic in comparison to Young Bart Smallweed. I theorize that this is because it reflects their position in life. Because they are more stable in their social positions than Young Smallweed, they do not have to give the same amount of energy and interest in the everyday events in order to be seen as respectable by society. But by displaying this attitude to their mentee, they are teaching him the social norms that respectable society men display in public places. By eating together, they are trading the customs of their respective classes and beginning to break the Victorian class wall.


Picture attributed to Phiz and "Dickens and Visual Culture" by University of Missouri (URL:

Illumination in Bleak House

Feb 18, 2012 by Bailly S Morse in God

Illumination is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary not just as “lighting or light” but as “clarification; spiritual or intellectual enlightenment”. There are several examples in Bleak House relating to the significance of light and illumination, which are especially relevant when looking at chapters eleven and twelve. 

At the opening of chapter eleven, Mr. Tulkinghorn is alone, in the dark created by his extinguished candle, looking at the dead body in front of him. Mr. Krook then appears and offers to shed light on the situation literally, as he “goes to the fire, stoops over the red embers, and tries to get a light. The dying ashes have no light to spare” (166). This is followed by Krook providing a candle, as “the welcome light soon shine upon the wall” (166). In this instance, light can be construed in several ways. First, the absence of light in the room with Tulkinghorn indicates a sort of blindness, as the image in front of him, of a dead Nemo, is distorted and made ghoulish, unlike reality. The illusion of blindness is lifted, however, as Krook appears, stirring up a red, evil grate of fiery coals. This creates an ominous scene as the reader continues to feel uneasy and left “in the dark” so to speak. When Krook returns with a candle, the room slowly lights up, as the two men can finally see Nemo for what he is: a dead body, not a sleeping man. On a symbolic level, perhaps this use of extinguishing and bringing forth new light can be a metaphor for life, and the cycle that has literally played out before Tulkinghorn in the form of the dead man. 

Similarly significant in this concept of illumination is the following chapter, which chronicles the further activities of Sir Leicester and his Lady. The repeated imagery of “clear cold sunshine” (181) gives the impression of a light that doesn’t contain all the warmth and delight of the sun, but just shines on the very surface. This seems to characterize the two main characters of this section, living in their large, cold, haunted estate after taking no pleasure from the charms of Paris. Lady Dedlock, who is bitter and icy throughout this section, even refers to Paris, which is known as the “City of Light” as “the city a mere mound in a plain: two dark square towers rising out of it, and light and shadow descending on it aslant” (183). In a characterization that illuminates her character, Lady Dedlock seems to take the brightest things and diminish them to something cold and distant. 

These two chapters are rife with examples of the usage of light to indicate illumination of both the situations and the characterizations of the people who are involved in them.