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“I have the honour to attend Court regularly. With my documents. I expect a judgment. Shortly. On the Day of Judgment.” Bleak House.
In a novel so acutely dedicated to exposing the real and actual misery of its characters, very little of it arises from the literal application of the frequent bouts of disease alone. Certainly disease and apocalyptic imagery is present – Esther’s smallpox disfigurement, Joe’s fatal pestilential illness, Caddy’s child, born deaf and mute, Miss Flite’s “Day of Judgment”, Krook’s combustion, Tom-all-Alone’s “revenge”, Richard Carstone’s untimely death literally from heartbreak and exhaustion, and Sir Leicester Dedlock’s metaphorical “floodgates” and actual stroke – but this endless string of tragedy tends to terminate rather than augur the larger metaphorical illness that afflicts all characters alike, regardless of social status or economic strength.
In a society unseasoned with the ways of a quick and efficient justice system, and in the novel’s complicated plot with its dozens of characters enveloped by adultery, blackmail, murder, and plenty of fog and mud that characterise the turgid moral atmosphere, the Court of Chancery becomes the largest disburser of illness, disease and death. From its opening sentences, this institution of justice is linked with the symbols of obfuscation – fog and mud: “Never can there come a fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day…”
But the Court is not just blind and inefficient towards serving the cause of justice. Its work is much more sinister: “This is the Court of Chancery … which gives to monied might, the means of abundantly 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-the warning, ‘Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!'” Evidently, the corrupt and life-destroying Court of Chancery has little interest in justice and more in making “…business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings.” That ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce’ bears a close phonetic resemblance with the disconcertingly panoptic term ‘John Doe’ is perhaps not mere co-incidence, but in fact a hint that Jarndyce’s interminable imbroglio in the courts of justice can easily develop into a situation fatally affecting just about anyone, right from the Gridleys to the Dedlocks. It certainly did have whole generations being born into it, while others were dying out of it.
As pernicious as the severest of maladies, lawyers and the legal system are depicted as physical embodiments of parasitic diseases that, like Gridley’s and Richard’s death prove, consume all that comes within their path. Tulkinghorn is portrayed as “a dark, cold object” and “like a machine” who jealously guards aristocratic family secrets and has become rich administering marriage settlements and wills. Mr. Vholes looks at Richard predatorily, “as if he were making a lingering meal of him with his eyes as well as with his professional appetite.” “In a general way,” says George, “I object to the breed.” This inhuman parasitism extends out through society to characters like the Smallweeds whose “God was Compound Interest. [Their patriarch] lived for it, married it, died of it,” and who are also variously described as animals of prey such as “a money-getting species of spider, who spun webs to catch unwary flies.” The link between lawyers of Chancery and the Smallweeds as social parasites is rendered exact by the analogy of “lawyers [who] lie like maggots in nuts” and Mr. Smallweed’s grandfather who valued only “grubs” and “never bred a single butterfly.”
It is revealed that the notorious slum, Tom-all-Alone’s, “a ruinous place…a swarm of misery [where] decay is far advanced” is also a property in Chancery, part of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, and indeed the narrator claims the suit itself “had laid the street waste”. Thus, the heart of the Jarndyce case, which is the heart of Chancery is Tom-all-Alone’s, a site of decay, misery, and disease. The third-person narrator skillfully links these three worlds through plot and complex language early on and continues to intensify these connections throughout the work. The Dedlock mystery and the Chancery case each suck in and consume the unaware or the unwilling, and expand until they affect not only the lives of the major parties or the voluntary snoopers, but of bystanders like Jo, Snagsby, George and Boythorn. Esther’s childhood and her mother’s marriage are passed in bleak houses; Jo lives among the crumbling tenements that are themselves part of the legacy of the house of Jarndyce; the curtains of the chaotic Jellyby lodgings are pinned up with forks; and the legal, judicial and political system each seem locked into its own bizarre routines of circular repetition.
Miss Flite, Gridley and Richard form the inner circle of this pervasive system of disease, decay and death that demonstrates “the human waste and suffering generated by the Court.” But Jo is also a victim of both Chancery and of the society at large. Of these four, only Miss Flite is still alive at the novel’s dÃ©nouement, her insanity provides an ironic protection from the greater insanity of Chancery. But her collection of caged birds (to which she later adds “the two wards of Jarndyce”), symbolizing the victims of Chancery, and her many prescient comments serve as omens of Richard’ fate. And her concern with the “Great Seal” suggests that in this society true justice may only be had in the after-life. (“I expect a judgment. Shortly. On the Day of Judgment. I have discovered that the sixth seal mentioned in the Revelations is the Great Seal. It has been open a long time!”) The same is true of Gridley who indignantly rails against “the system” of Chancery and vows “I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar.” Yet Gridley’s impotent rage only hastens his death.
The deadening effects of the injustice that infects Bleak House society can be seen most vividly in the portrayals of various key characters. The descriptions of Krook and his Rag and Bottle Shop are meant to function as a grim moral parallel with the Lord Chancellor and Chancery. Mr. Krook attests, “I have so many old parchments and papers in my stock. And I have a liking for rust and must and cobwebs…And I can’t bear to part with anything once I lay hold of or to alter anything, or to have any sweeping, nor scouring, nor cleaning…that’s why I’ve got the ill name of Chancery. I go to see my…brother pretty well every day, when he sits in the Inn…There’s no great odds betwixt us. We both grub on in a muddle.” Krook’s shop, in its filth and horror, exemplifies in a concrete, physical way the true moral nature of the Court, in the same way that the sheer abundance of neglected children in Bleak House exemplifies the undependable relationship that the Court, as a legal guardian of society, shares with its own wards, the inhabitants of that society.
Esther’s orphan-hood (occurring twice over), and the abandonment of parental responsibility is but a microcosm of the wider, institutional abandonment of social responsibility. In different ways, Jo, Esther, Charley, Richard, and Ada are abandoned children. Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, Harold Skimpole, and even Mr. Turveydrop also abandon their children in a sense. Thus, while Esther’s story is that of an absent or lost parent, the central problem is the absence of justice in Chancery. Broken families, neglectful parents, and the loss of love, nurturance, and security reflect the chaos, disorder, and disease in society in the domestic sphere. Or, as Andrew Sanders puts it, Dickens “allows us to appreciate that an avoidance of due responsibility, in whatever sphere men and women act, is a threat to the well-being of society, and a general symptom of a general moral and social decay” And since the Court of Chancery serves as guardian for Richard and Ada, it too can be viewed as a bad parent. Indeed, since Chancery is responsible for the ruin of Tom-all-Alone’s, and Jo was “bred” by the “ruined shelters,” Jo can also be considered a ward of Chancery. The overall impression that emerges from Esther’s personal interaction with children and the victims of Chancery is that there are overwhelming private consequences for public injustice that extends and causes damage all the way through society to the most helpless. Indeed the damage to individual lives engendered by social conditions extends to the next generation. Caddy and Prince Turveydrop’s child is deaf and dumb, and Ada and Richard’s child will be raised without a father. This connection between (in)justice and its impact on the lives of the characters of Bleak House is manifest: “The system which destroys families is run by people who belong to unhappy families themselves: the system reproduces itself by means of the miseries it creates” (Hawthorn)
The links established between these various public spheres can best be understood through the symbolic significance of Chancery as representative of the entire society. After all, a Chancery suit is, as Sir Leicester reflects, “a slow, expensive, British, constitutional kind of thing.” Likewise Mr. Kenge declares of Chancery, “This is a great system…and would you wish a great country to have a little system? Now, really, really!” Yet the very nature of Chancery, its methods and its effects is to stifle, bemuse, and consume all who come in contact with it. The lawyers of Chancery work exclusively in their own self-interest and the Court “is simply a socially condoned form of parasitism as is graphically confirmed by the eventual lot of the Jarndyce estate, which is eaten up in costs” (Daleski). Just as a biological parasite eventually weakens and destroys its host, the parasitic corruption of a national institution eventually weakens and destroys the rest of society. Thus, the primary symbol of justice – in Bleak House and Chancery – and its effect on the society is that of disease resulting from moral corruption and social parasitism with death looming not far behind. As Jeremy Hawthorn writes, “Disease is such a powerful symbol for Dickens in Bleak House because it involves different kinds of expressive connections: it arises from specific, concrete and material living conditions, living-conditions which are themselves the cause of particular social realities, and it also links the poor with those rich who wish to disclaim any relationship with or responsibility for them.” In effect, the prevalent social and physical disease created and spread by Chancery is none other than an outgrowth from the warped justice it provides.
Daleski, H.M. Bleak House. In Critical Essays on Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, 1989.
Galloway, Shirley. Bleak House: Public and Private Worlds, 1997.
Hawthorn, Jeremy. Bleak House, 1987.
Roberts, Doreen. Bleak House
Sanders, Andrew. Charles Dickens: Resurrectionist. 1982.
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