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.