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Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, is chiefly a novel about the consequences of abandonment. Dickens utilizes a mixture of nameless third-person narrative and the personal narrative of Esther Summerson, thereby balancing social criticism with a measure of personal experiences. Esther is only one of several orphans in the novel. In different ways, Jo, Esther, Charley, Richard, and Ada are all abandoned children. Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, Harold Skimpole, and even Mr. Turveydrop also abandon their children by forcing them to endure emotional neglect.
Mrs. Jellyby, for example, claims to be a noble philanthropist, yet ignores her own family’s poor quality of life in order to focus on the injustices occuring in far-off Africa. Her “public duties [are her] favorite child.” Here, Dickens highlights the irresponsibility and arbitrariness of choosing to exhaust one’s resources (which are most likely being ineffectually employed) on an abstract problem, rather than on a literal one close at hand. Dickens maintained that people devoted to distant (“telescopic”) philanthropy very often show a tendency to neglect the needs of those around them. In this example, Dickens satirizes Mrs. Jellyby as a misguided “do-gooder.” The portrayal of the Jellyby children (especially the pathetic Peepy) is another variation on one of Dickens’ recurring themes: the vulnerability and suffering of children in a world mismanaged by adults.
Using the story of Mrs. Pardiggle, a charity worker whose zeal unfortunately makes her own sons “ferocious with discontent,” Dickens once again contrasts the pretentiousness and emotional shallowness of the professional social activists by situating their character next to a real, deep emotional pain, such as that which occurs following the death of one’s child.
Just as Chancery is at the center of the third-person narrative, the central problem of Esther’s story is that of an absent or lost parent. The chaos, disorder, and disease in society are reflected in the domestic sphere by broken families, neglectful parents, and the loss of love, comfort, and security. Esther underscores the theme of the abandonment of parental responsibility, which is analogous to that of the third-person narrative – the institutional abandonment of social responsibility.
In Dickens’ Victorian England, people frequently slip though the cracks, as is exemplified by the characters of Jo and Nemo. Dickens uses his characters to illustrate the fact that the neglect of necessary social responsibility is a poison to society, and a symptom of moral decay. He writes of the all-consuming monster of a legal suit:
Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit.
Dickens encourages readers to look at the suit itself, and therefore the entire legal system at Chancery, as an entity that has been responsible for the misguided lives and unfulfilled prospects of many individuals. Richard and Ada are wards of the court, and in a sense Jo is, too, as he was raised in provision houses for the poor. It can thus be said that the legal system and Chancery have also been neglectful guardians. The suggestion made in the comparison between the legal system and the family is that there are overwhelming private consequences for public neglect.
The ironic result of the grossly drawn-out suit of Jarndyce verses Jarndyce is, of course, that after so many years of confusing legal jargon and red tape, the cost of the lawyer bills have consumed the entire worth of the suit, leaving nothing to inherit. This point can also be observed symbolically in the doorknobs of the Jellyby household, which go “round and round with the greatest of smoothness,” yet attain “no effect whatsoever on the door.” The world of Bleak House contains many examples of actions (well-meaning or not) which produce no positive effect, or no effect at all.
Esther’s position as a narrator shows some of the possible consequences of social neglect, yet her narrative also illustrates the ways in which some people can learn to thrive despite their background. She shows how incumbent it is for each individual to be as fully human as they can be – to choose and to act as much as possible according to their highest aspirations and ideals, regardless of the values and tendencies of the larger society.
In Esther’s confessions to her doll, she claims she “would try, as hard as ever I could, to repair the fault I had been born with (of which I confusedly felt guilty and yet innocent), and would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted, and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could.” Through Esther’s experience of neglect she comes to believe that one does not have a natural right to be loved, and that one must “earn” or “win” it. Although her point of view is unfortunate, the circumstances of the novel tend to support it. The character Jo, who “don’t know no-think,” and does very little for society or a family, finally dies because of his want for necessities, although he is the recipient of several token nurturing gestures. Several assertions are made that the struggle to live even in an atmosphere of death is still a worthwhile and noble pursuit. However, Jo’s fate reveals that this struggle is not always fruitful. Any way the question is posed, a person needs the support of a family to thrive.
The perpetrators of abandonment and neglect seem often to have been the victims of such circumstances in their own upbringings. Mr. Skimpole is an excellent example of this: continually portraying himself as an “eternal child,” he escapes the responsibilities of adulthood and parenthood, but also does a tremendous disservice to the real children around him. The prime example of this behavior is found when he betrays Jo for a bribe. In the wake of the incident, he protests to Esther: “You know I don’t pretend to be responsible. I never could do it. Responsibility is a thing that has always been above me,” as if not having ever claimed to be good to others relieves him of that responsibility.
Dickens clearly believes it is quite unfair for an innocent child to be subject to the care (or lack thereof) of an adult. While the irresponsible adult must accept some of the blame for the child’s condition, neglect is still the byproduct of a society that allows its citizens to suffer abandonment. Through the story’s jumbled legal suits and societal scandals, we learn of the arbitrary nature of the court, and because this poor system is practiced by law, it seems that a poor private structure must inevitably follow.
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