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Bleak House’s New Historical And Deconstructive Criticism

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Bleak House, a novel by the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, has a number of elements: comedy, tragedy, melodrama, romance, and biting social satire. The work also includes at least ten major characters, and scores of minor ones. The novel’s complexity and length lends itself quite easily to a number of critical interpretations, including feminist, Marxist, and psychoanalytic theories. In the following paper, this argument will focus on a deconstruction of certain aspects of the novel, especially Dickens’ names for characters, and on a new historical approach of literary criticism of the satirical attacks on the Chancery justice system of Dickens’ day. Dickens’ awareness of the richness and variability of language, and his willingness to question the social institutions and customs of his day, both lead the reader to consider these theoretical approaches.

Dickens employs a host of musical, comical, telling, and puzzling names for his characters. A representative list includes Tulkinghorn, Clare, Summerson, Dedlock, Snagsby, Nemo, Krook, Flite, Tangle, Barbary, Rouncewell, Jarndyce, Skimpole, Vholes, Woodcourt, Smallweed, Turveydrop, Guppy, Boythorn, Jellyby, Badger, Bucket, and even the minimally named Jo. The names deliver a shifting and information-filled story of the characters’ personalities, occupations, looks, manners, and what may lie beneath the exterior they present to the world. Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstructive philosophy, thought that “language is not the reliable tool of communication we believe it to be, but rather a fluid, ambiguous domain of complex experience in which ideologies program us without our being aware of them” (Tyson 249). So what might these names, and other aspects of Dickens’s text, tell us about the novel, perhaps in ways that are not obvious but are still recognized and internalized by the reader?

If the sign is the name for the character in a novel, and the “signifier” is the “letters written or pronounced as a unit” of that word, then the “signified” is the idea the reader has in mind of the character (251). Every reader will have a different idea of the character in a novel, even if they read the exact same words. Take, for example, the first description in the novel of Caddy Jellyby:

But what principally struck us was a jaded and unhealthy-looking though by no means plain girl, at the writing-table, who sat biting the feather of her pen, and staring at us. I suppose nobody ever was in such a state of ink. And, from her tumbled hair to her pretty feet, which were disfigured with frayed and broken satin slippers trodden down at heel, she really seemed to have no article of dress upon her, from a pin upwards, that was in its proper condition or its right place. (Dickens 85)

This description would no doubt create a picture of Caddy Jellyby in the reader’s mind. The “signified” would be that picture, but, according to Derrida, it is really “chains of signifiers” (Tyson 252). The description might create an image of a Caucasian, English girl for a reader who knows that the vast majority of the inhabitants of 1850s England were Anglo-Saxon. However, a reader of another race or ethnicity, even with that same historical knowledge, might immediately think of a teenaged girl of his or her own ethnicity, especially one of his or her acquaintance who shared characteristics with Caddy Jellyby, such as a downtrodden or disheveled appearance. Furthermore, simple phrases such as “by no means plain girl” are value judgments that can inspire wildly different ideas in readers’ heads. One readers’ idea of “no means plain” could mean, by that person’s taste, beautiful; it could also mean, to another reader, an average-looking person of an image created by that reader’s experience. Obviously, those tastes and experience-created images of personal appearance will vary. And even down to such mundane descriptions as “tumbled hair”, the mental images can vary widely, too. Tumbled how? Is it falling from pins, or simply disheveled? Of what color, texture, thickness, and length is it? The permutations of the mental image of Caddy Jellyby are nearly limitless. The idea in the readers’ mind is informed not only by the words on the page and the concept that those words create (the “signifiers”), but also the readers’ own knowledge and experience. In addition, those “signified” images can change during the reading of the text, according to the reader’s feelings and perception of the story and the characters, and the “chain of signifiers”.

This is possible, too, by the evocative images created by proper names. Krook, for example, the proprietor of a rag-and-bone shop and Miss Flite and Mr. Nemo’s landlord, is described as a repulsive, dirty, aged, and drunken illiterate:

… an old man in spectacles and a hairy cap was carrying about in the shop. … He was short, cadaverous, and withered; with his head sunk sideways between his shoulders, and the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth, as if he were on fire within. His throat, chin, and eyebrows were so frosted with white hairs, and so gnarled with veins and puckered skin, that he looked from his breast upward, like some old root in a fall of snow. (Dickens 99-100)

His name, directly insulting to him, implies that he is dishonest in his dealings, and perhaps “crooked” in personal morality, too. But Dickens has chosen such a richly descriptive word and assigned it to such an enigmatic character that it is possible to have many mental images merely from the contemplation of the name. “Krook” could be read with the sense of “crook your finger”, which might conjure up the idea of a bleary-eyed old man ominously beckoning someone. This could continue the negative imagery Dickens begins. Or “crook” could have the nature connotation of “crook of a tree,” such as what is implied by “some old root in a fall of snow.” This implies age, solidity, permanence, and immovability–all things amply demonstrated by the character of Krook in the novel.

Other readings could include “crooked,” meaning crippled or deformed in some way. Since his “head is sunk sideways between his shoulders,” it could mean that he was suffering from some kind of physical impairment. This may incite sympathy for the character where none previously existed. One must remember, however, that this probably would have been different than the reaction of the contemporary readers of Bleak House, for the attitude toward physical disability has changed drastically. In Dickens’ time, crippled individuals were often derided and feared, or used as a subject of mockery, as is the semi-comic figure of Phil Squod in this same novel. Again, the “chain of signifiers” is not only continued but mutable, according to time and place.

Further readings abound in this one single word for this relatively minor, though pivotal, character. Both a shepherd and a bishop carry a crook–a staff with a curved end meant for defense and for corralling the flock, literally in the former case and symbolically in the latter. This usually implies a gentle or kind person, a reference cemented in Christian English speakers (which most of Dickens’s readers were) with the 23rd Psalm “The Lord is my shepherd … thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Bible Gateway, italics mine). Krook is hardly a shepherdly or kindly figure, so this belies the reality of the characterization. But the “mental trace left behind by the play of signifiers” (Tyson 253) cannot help but suggest this reading, even if only unconsciously, in the reader’s mind. Just because the meaning does not exactly coordinate with the nature of the character does not mean that the image of a shepherd’s crook (or any other meaning of the word) is not, however fleetingly, suggested. Perhaps it could also be seen as a sort of ironic cognomen, since this illiterate loner was hardly the guide of any group of people or animals. Yet it also could be a commentary on what Krook could have been if anyone had “shepherded” him more carefully. Perhaps he would not have become the reclusive, slightly mad owner of a rag-and-bone shop who died of spontaneous human combustion while hoarding an extremely important document, never knowing what it meant. The irony of that possession is that Krook, who hoarded and hid the will for so long, caused the destruction of people’s lives. It could be argued that if someone had paid a little more attention to him, “shepherded” him into a more social existence, the will would have been discovered years before.

There is also another reading of “crook,” the “device on some musical wind instruments for changing the pitch, consisting of a piece of tubing inserted into the main tube” (Dictionary.com). A musician conversant with this implement might use this tool every day, and immediately think of it when first reading about Krook. The fact that this small object can change the pitch of an instrument drastically might suggest to the reader that this character, though seemingly unimportant, could affect all the characters in the novel. That reading would be particularly sensible in terms of plot resolution. After all, Krook held the key (or the “crook”) to changing the status of most of the major characters in the novel (Ada, Richard, Mr. Jarndyce, Esther, and even Lady Dedlock). This reading, if the deconstruction of the name took place at the beginning of the novel, would substantially change the tone of the reading throughout. The reader might immediately pay more attention to Krook’s peculiarities, and might well guess his secret long before it is revealed at the end of the novel. By the same token, reading his name as “crook in the road” could mean that Krook was the means by which the plot changes, and if that “crook” was taken earlier, rather than after Krook’s death, then the Jarndyce suit would have been resolved earlier, as well.

This leads us to yet another reading of “Krook.” There is, of course, the metal hook called a crook. This is an obvious reference to the deformity and subhuman nature of Krook. Despite living in the teeming metropolis of London, he lives a life apart. He is separate–unloved, uncared for, friendless. He is even unable to read the words around him, despite living amid documents piled up like wastepaper all through his shop. The crook, or hook, could have been a reference to his mental disability (as in, his illiteracy), and also the menacing nature of his appearance.

Yet the idea that he was dishonest, a “crook” in the slang term, is never suggested in Bleak House. Krook was merely peculiar, perhaps repulsive, but certainly not criminal. He is simply outside of the customary ideas of what is socially acceptable.

Thus, Krook’s name, immediately evocative of several differing and sometimes contradictory meanings, can lead to several different “fleeting, continually changing play[s] of signifiers” (Tyson 252). This array of meanings is only the beginning of what might be suggested purely by deconstructing one characters’ name. The individual experience, the “sliding accumulation of signifieds” (Tyson 252) which could create another set of entirely different meanings comes into play whenever the name is read. If the text is “really an indefinite, undecidable, plural, conflicting array of possible meanings” (259), then all of these readings are valid and useful.

A new historical approach to a satirical novel like Bleak House gives the critic two fertile fields of inquiry. First, there is the nature of the institutions, people, and events of the Dickensian era. There is also the opportunity to analyze what Dickens thought about these institutions and social customs. Not only is our approach an attempt to discover hidden, formerly forgotten, repressed, or underrepresented versions of reality, but also the views of a main satirist of the time can be examined to show what he thought about what was happening in his own day, including his own ideologies, biases, prejudices, errors, distortions, hopes, and desires. We now will focus briefly on what Dickens thought was wrong with the Court of Chancery, and how that affected the society in which he lived.

Considering that Bleak House is a “continuum with other historical and cultural texts from the same period” (Tyson 299), we might assume several things: The Court of Chancery was almost as corrupt and inefficient as Dickens’s grotesque portrayal; there was an audience for this kind of satire, and therefore people of his day knew something about the inefficiency of the Court and disliked it; that there were victims of the court, such as Mr. Gridley, Miss Flite, and Richard Carstone, who, perhaps not quite as blatantly as Dickens painted them, nevertheless wasted their lives “in Chancery”; and there was no hope, at least not directly, of changing the system in any kind of rapid way. Dickens creates a subversive mood in the novel, continually recording the excesses of Chancery but consistently deriding them.

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 51)

When viewing this passage, one must ask, how much was Dickens really speaking with a subversive voice? Were the oppressed, the “ruined suitors” in agreement with him? Did he really attack an institution which caused widespread grief and poverty (“decaying houses and blighted lands”), or was this just the concern of the propertied few? It would seem that, in a society where financial mobility was not as easy as it is in contemporary America, that the inheritance customs concerning property and money would be very important. This was a society that cared very much about handed-down money, and people’s entire lives and fortunes were often decided by their birth. Therefore, the malfunctioning of such a body as the Court of Chancery, which decided (among other things) difficult cases of what Americans call probate, would cause consternation among people who had property to pass down. Perhaps Dickens overstates the “blighted lands”, for certainly many cases of probate must have been handled properly, in or out of Chancery. Also, Chancery would only concern the middle and upper classes. The consumption of an estate in legal fees would not concern a homeless orphan such as Jo, for example. Yet Dickens makes the case that it did affect him, as it provided Tom-all-alone’s, which Jo used as a flophouse and where he contracted the disease that killed him and scarred Esther. Thus, Dickens paints the Chancery as something of importance for the entire country. He may have been overstating the case for comic and satiric effect, but it also shows his own bias as a middle-class man concerned with passing down his own money to his heirs. Women, the homeless, the working poor, the illiterate, farm tenants, servants, and anyone else not owning property would probably not be as concerned with the workings of the Court of Chancery as Charles Dickens, the middle-class, homeowning author was. Rather, it was an example of Dickens’s own bias. Through Jo and Jenny and other working-class characters, he makes the case as best he can that the ill-functioning Court of Chancery is bad for the whole of England, not just the propertied few.

The very title of the novel, Bleak House, is meant as a metaphor for Chancery. Though it is the name of not only one but two houses (Jarndyce’s home, and the new house built for Esther and Dr. Woodcourt), the houses thus named are not bleak. They are happy family homes. The Bleak House could be Tom-all-Alone’s (a “decaying house” left over from John Jarndyce’s dead relative Tom Jarndyce, in which the wretched homeless of London congregate), or it could be the Court of Chancery. Of course, this metaphor could be expanded to the whole of England, for Dickens has many more satirical targets in this novel that just the Court. Even so, it is clear that the bleak houses are not Jarndyce’s or Esther’s homes. Thus, Dickens again displays his own bias. He is willing to think that the experience of the literate, middle- and upper-class people of a country is an experience shared by everyone else in that country.

The individual identity, too, of some of the people in Bleak House is tied up utterly in what the social customs of their day dictated. “Personal identity – like historical events, texts, and artifacts – is shaped by and shapes the culture in which it emerges” (Tyson 290). Miss Flite, for example, is completely controlled by her (never resolved) Chancery suit. She has mortgaged her whole life–her youth, her possible family, her future–on the gamble of the Court of Chancery. She says, acutely aware of her fate, “I was a ward myself. I was not mad at the time … I had youth and hope. I believe, beauty. It matters very little now. Neither of the three served, or saved me” (Dickens 81). Miss Flite, who considers it “an honour” to attend court regularly, has entirely bound up her sense of self in the Court of Chancery.

In this she is adhering to two contemporary ideas. First, she believes that women of “good” family (meaning middle class or higher) should not have a profession of their own; second, she thinks that inherited family money was the best kind of money. Miss Flite recounts later that her brother and sister also were ruined by the suit, but she has persevered. She considers it not only her duty and “honour” to press her Chancery suit “with her documents,” but she has gone so far as to “wafer” (that is, use a legal seal to adhere) to the walls of her poor room “a few old prints from books, of Chancellors and barristers” (103) as the only decoration. Miss Flite sees as her only way of adhering to the “respectable” path is to follow her fruitless suit in Chancery. In this, she is affected by the culture that surrounds her. However, she has mutated it, as personalities do, into something different. Her sister, for example, cannot bear the genteel but extreme poverty in which Miss Flite lives; it seems that she became a prostitute. In contrast, Miss Flite has chosen to adhere to one of the cultural mores of her time, creating a new identity based on what the culture around her considered proper. That she mutated it, until that very culture called her “mad,” is the sadness of her own narrative.

Dickens created Miss Flite to comment on his own perception of what was wrong with his society, namely the Court of Chancery. Therefore, he created a person whose individual identity, based on a flawed cultural institution, was twisted and skewed so that that her very culture called her “mad.” It is an example of his own bias that he chose a genteel woman as his main example, although he also includes Gridley (the man from Shropshire) as a more rustic example. But these gentle souls are ruined by Chancery, which is Dickens’ point. He sees it as a great system victimizing all its subjects.

Dickens was more of a voice for oppressed groups in his day than many of his contemporaries. His portrait of Jo–with not only his dress and condition, but also his illiterate speech, recorded in exact detail–is a moving picture of social injustice. This orphan is not the blameless, downtrodden youth of some romantic stories. He has failings which would be likely in someone of such debased condition, such as illness, furtiveness, unwillingness to stay in one place, and errors in judgment. Even so, he is a realistic and extremely pathetic figure. That Dickens was willing to place a person of such underrepresented and oppressed state at the center of his novel, to be read by his mainly middle- and upper-class public, shows he tried to be less biased than perhaps many of his peers.

Works Cited

Bible Gateway.com. King James Version Bible. Accessed 3/29/07. Gospel Communications International, Copyright 1995-2007. <http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=psalm%2023&version=9.>

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1853. London: Penguin Books, 1985.

Dictionary.com, “crook.” Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 31 Mar. 2007. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/crook>.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006.

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