Saturday, January 18, 2014

Dickens Takes Aim at the World's Impostors in Bleak House


Charles Dickens exhibits a strange mix of naiveté and cynicism when displaying his worldview through his fiction. This is very true in regards to Bleak House. Many of his characters are portrayed as being filled with virtue and innocence. These personas are often so inundated with righteousness that they can only be described as one-dimensional. There is, however, another aspect to Dickens’ worldview. In addition to the outright villains, there are the imposters. These people, and sometimes institutions, masquerade as the innocent and the good. When he portrays these aspects of reality, the great author is deliciously and bitingly sardonic. 

Take Harold Skimpole, a friend of the novel’s protagonist, Esther Summerson. When we are introduced to Skimpole, he is seemingly charming in his innocence. He constantly and with cheerful stubbornness refuses to take stands or declare his belief in anything substantial. Always jovial, happy and in a frivolous mood, he is continually incurring expenses that he cannot pay for.  He unconcernedly relies on the goodwill of others to make good on his debts. Again and again, in what are often hilarious passages, he runs up liabilities that he has no intention to pay, eludes angry creditors or charms well-meaning benefactors into satisfying his obligations. He incessantly prattles on about how childlike and innocent he is as the explanation for his irresponsibility. 

However, as the narrative progresses, we see that there is a very dark side to all of this. Skimpole is seen neglecting his family, laughingly justifies all sorts of behavior that causes harm to others, is a terrible influence on impressionable young people and eventually betrays others for money without the slightest twinge of conscience. 

At one point, when asked by another character,

“'Is there such a thing as principle, Mr. Harold Skimpole?'"

Skimpole answers with,

”you know," he returned in his gayest manner and with his most ingenuous smile, "' Upon my life I have not the least idea! I don't know what it is you call by that name, or where it is, or who possesses it. If you possess it and find it comfortable, I am quite delighted and congratulate you heartily. But I know nothing about it, I assure you; for I am a mere child, and I lay no claim to it, and I don't want it!'  

Again and again, Dickens sarcastically and humorously indicts Skimpole, and people like him, with such biting irony. The result is often tragic.

Or, take Mrs. Jellyby, a woman who devotes copious amounts of time and effort into aid work for Africa. In the process, she emotionally and materially neglects her family. The disorder in her household caused by her malfeasance is initially portrayed in a comical way. At one point, Esther finds one of Mrs. Jellyby’s young children in a predicament,

“I made my way to the poor child, who was one of the dirtiest little unfortunates I ever saw, and found him very hot and frightened and crying loudly, fixed by the neck between two iron railings, while a milkman and a beadle, with the kindest intentions possible, were endeavouring to drag him back by the legs, under a general impression that his skull was compressible by those means. As I found (after pacifying him) that he was a little boy with a naturally large head, I thought that perhaps where his head could go, his body could follow, and mentioned that the best mode of extrication might be to push him forward. This was so favourably received by the milkman and beadle that he would immediately have been pushed into the area if I had not held his   pinafore while Richard and Mr. Guppy ran down through the kitchen to catch him when he should be released. At last he was happily got down without any accident, and then he began to beat Mr. Guppy with a hoop-stick in quite a frantic manner.”  

We soon see, however, that Mrs. Jellyby’s neglect of her husband and children is pathological and dangerous.

Supposedly respected institutions also do not escape the author’s critique. The entire English system of civil law is skewered over and over again. At one point the system is described,

“This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man's acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give— who does not often give— the warning, "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!" “

Dickens introduces a policeman into his narrative called inspector Bucket. I think that this detective, at least when it comes to human motivations and feelings, displays a kind of omniscience. He sees through everyone and everything. He is not a complete cynic, as he also recognizes virtuous people and actions. However, hypocrisy is transparent to him. At one point, when speaking to Esther, he comments,


“Now, Miss Summerson, I'll give you a piece of advice that your husband will find useful when you are happily married and have got a family about you. Whenever a person says to you that they are as innocent as can be in all concerning money, look well after your own money, for they are dead certain to collar it if they can. Whenever a person proclaims to you 'In worldly matters I'm a child,' you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person's number, and it's Number One.”

To be sure, Dickens illustrates a world that is full of good. Multiple characters, such as Esther, her guardian John Jarndyce, her close friend Ada and others are mostly decent and moral. Interestingly, these principled characters do not constantly about their own merits, as the hypocrites do.

Dickens’ ironic wit can be found all over Bleak House. Nowhere is it as effective, however, as when he aims his sights on hypocrisy. I think that this is one element that makes the famous author such a brilliant artist. Derision, when aimed at the contemptible, can also be so very insightful as well as entertaining and fun.

Sometimes, I think that readers often see Dickens in a kind of innocent light, as he often portrays good and evil in a straightforward and clear way. Such an assessment misses this mocking and sarcastic tendency that is present throughout this work.



My general commentary on Bleak House is here.

37 comments:

Guy Savage said...

I've told you before that this is my all-time favourite Dickens novel, but Mrs Jellyby is one of my all-time favourite characters. can't tell you how many times I see examples of 'telescopic philanthropy.' It's everywhere, and Dickens nails it with this character.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Telescopic philanthropy is indeed a common occurrence and a great term to describe the phenomena.

Lee-Anne said...

Although I haven't read "Bleak House" before, I thoroughly enjoyed your summary of Dickens "ironic wit" and recognise the device from the novels I have read. One of my favourite characters to loathe is Gradgrind from "Hard Times" who is portrayed in such a scathing yet entertaining manner. Nice post, Brian!

Brian Joseph said...

Thans Lee - Ann.


Dickens irony is really prevalent throughout his work. It has been so long since I have read "Hard Times". i really need to give it a reread.

Sharon Henning said...

I now remember this book. Yes, Mr. Skimpole was based on Dickens' own father. His neglect left Dickens' and his family in debtor's prison when he was a child. It left scars that are revealed in all his books. They also were instrumental in changing the English system to it's present socialist structure.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon. - Without a doubt Skimpole represented monumental irresponsibly that hurt others. I did not know that he was representive of Dickens's farther.

I think that Dickens along with other thinkers helped the Western nations evolve towards a system that mixed capitalism with government programs to alleviate poverty. It would stand to reason that Dickens in particular would have a disportionate effect in the UK. I tend not to consider many of these initiatives socialist, though some were and are, specificly where governmet became directly involved with production.

seraillon said...

It'll be either this or Our Mutual Friend sometime this year; just the few quotations you've chosen have me leaning towards Bleak House.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

There is a long series of useless fathers in Dickens novels. But Skimpole is something special. The worst of a bad bunch.

Somewhere around this period Dickens began to complicate or darken his portrayal of good and evil. I think this has as much to do with changes in what he thought fiction could do as any changes in his views, but who knows.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - I think that both novels are well worth reading but that Bleak House is the stronger of the two.

Either way I would love to know what you think.

Séamus Duggan said...

I keep meaning to return to Dickens who was a bit of an obsession with the teenage me. Bleak House was, I think, the last Dickens I read and that was more than 25 years ago. You have me putting a couple of Dickens' on my immediate TBR shelf.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Seamus - I had stayed away from Dickens myself for more then a few years. In these later readings I have found much in him to appreciate.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - As I read more Dickens I begin to see the patterns as in the fathers.

One striking thing about Skimpole is that he has an entire philosophy built around his uselessness.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

It's funny, but your comment about Skimpole reminded me of another character, this one in "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell", a book I'm reading now. His name is Drawlight and he seems to have a few things in common with Skimpole: careless about money, a chatterbox, and living well above his means.
I haven't read Bleak House but I do have Our Mutual Friend and hope to get to it someday.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - That is interesting about Drawlight.


I think that many of Dickens's characters have served as a template for the creations of many writers who have come since. Of course to the extent that these characters reflect traits of real life people of these observe it could juts be that both writers are mirroring the same aspects of real life

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

I picked up Bleak House for a read a long last year and didnt complete it. Its one of those I want to and need to try again.

Lindsay said...

Love how you've highlighted the different sides to Dickens' work here Brian, great post.

Suko said...

Brian, I stopped by this post a couple of days ago, but ran out of time to leave a comment. Thoughtful post, as usual. I'm learning more about this author each time you post on him. Skimpole sounds like quite a "character"!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Shelia - thanks for stopping by. It is indeed a long book. Though fruitful if one sticks with it. I think that one needs to approach it knowing that a lot of patience is required.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - thanks for the good word.

I think that this book showed multiple sides to the world more so then the other Dickens works that I have read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Indeed Skimpole is an interesting character. I think that if one were to meet him in real life he would be likable and funny initially. Eventually his irresponsibility that trends toward immorality would become an issue.

Tracy Terry said...

As always beautifully explored, thank you.

Caroline said...

I can't remember how sarcastic he is Great Expectatins.
You certainly make me want to pick this up.
I'm curious about all the charcaters you mentioned so far.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Thanks for the good word!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I too do not remember Great Expectations enough to really say much about the sarcastic voice. This emphasizes the need to reread books.

JaneGS said...

Excellent, thoughtful post. Dickens is certainly a master of character portraits. He was a cynic, especially as he aged, and was particularly hard on hypocrites. Ironically, I think he was being hard on himself, because he was living a lie for the last twenty years of his life. Looking forward to the movie version of The Invisible Woman, which is about his life with Nelly Ternan.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - He certainly had a cynical streak. Nevertheless he really seemed to always appreciate virtue.

I have heard about that film, and it sounds good. He also seemed to show lots of sympathy for those who ran afoul of social conventions so perhaps that partially reflected his own life choices.

James said...

A wonderful analysis of Dickensian "characters". Certainly Dickens reached new heights in Bleak House, combining his ability to create characters with a well-plotted story.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi james - Thanks!


As I commented on my other post, though I certainly have not read all of Dickens's major works, I suspect that indeed, Bleak House was THE highpoint for Dickens.

Andrew Blackman said...

Nice post, Brian! I haven't read this, or any other Dickens, for years now, and you've made me want to go back to him. I think he uses characters in a number of different ways, and you've done a good job here of showing that. Some characters, particularly minor characters, exist purely to represent a particular trait that Dickens wants to satirise, and he does that very well. Those characters can be a little one-dimensional sometimes, but it doesn't seem to matter because they are portrayed so well and so memorably. The more primary characters tend to be more nuanced and capable of evolution. Nice post!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Andrew - Thanks for the good word. This one had a few nuanced characters. The thing about Dickens one dimensional characters is that Dickens seems to get away with such more portrayals more then other writers. Perhaps it is the "memorable" thing. I also that when it comes to such personas, Dickens set the mold that has been imitated by many who have come after him.

Rachel Bradford said...

Sometimes, I think that readers often see Dickens in a kind of innocent light, as he often portrays good and evil in a straightforward and clear way. Such an assessment misses this mocking and sarcastic tendency that is present throughout this work.

It's interesting that you say this. I have mixed feelings about Dickens characters. I had always thought of them as particularly deep and meaningful, until a friend told me that they were "flat." FLAT?! Dickens?

Then I thought about it - yes I suppose many of the characters ARE actually caricatures...they're either totally good (like that obnoxious Little Nell in Old Curiosity Shop) or totally slimy and gross (like Uriah Heep in David Copperfield). But, somehow, I think Dickens can say more with a caricature than most authors can say with a complex, thoughtful character. I believe part of that is his sharp sarcasm.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - I think that you hit something on the head. That is, Dickens is something of an enigma. Though on the surface these characters are simplistic, when one puts one of his novels all together they seem to form something complex. I think that this is true in addition to the sarcasm.

Maria Behar said...

With this latest commentary, you have underscored, once again, the importance of this great English writer. I totally agree with your point that, although he might be perceived as being rather simplistic in his portrayal of good and evil characters, this is an erroneous perception.

Dickens's novels are indeed full of his sardonic, biting wit, as is clearly evident in his character, Skimpole. That character's name, by the way, is not only hilarious, but also hints at the true nature of his financial dealings....lol.

I also like the depiction of the woefully inadequate English legal system! It reminds me of criticisms leveled at our own legal system, although hopefully ours is not as bad.....

Thanks for more great commentary on this novel!! : )

argumentativeoldgit said...

In "Nicholas Nickleby", there's a marvellous comic character called Mr Mantalini - a very flamboyant character, but who did no work, and was happy to live on the money earned by his hard-working wife. Dickens was quiet kind to Mantalini: he was simply a delightful comic figure, but nothing really more. Skimpole seems to be a sort of Mantalini-like figure, but Dickens is an older writer now, and is far more censorious. In a novel full of brutalised children, of children forced by cruel circumstance to take on adult responsibilities, here we have afully grown adult pretending to be a child. I think Dickens really hated Skimpole.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri - I really want to get to Nicholas Nickleby sooner rather then later. I agree with Dickens despising Skimpole. I is not apparent at first, but as the narrative progresses Skimpoles acts cause more and more harm and Skimpole is so unfazed by it.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Skimpole is also used to undermine the benevolence of Jarndyce, to make Jarndyce into a fool, since he 100% falls for the Skimpole act, unlike Esther who is on to him early.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - You are correct indeed. At laeast early in the game Jarndyce is so much taken in by Skimpole. Later he does see through him.