The Imagery of Bleakness and Disease in Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House” Having been referred to as one of Dickens’s best novel, “Bleak House” is a novel which stands out, not only through its narrative technique, but also through the complex imagery the author conveys, managing somehow to relate this imagery to the real world, namely the XIXth century England. Thus, in spite of some instances of humorous, ironical scenes and a few comic characters, the novel reveals the sordidness and disease which seemed to prevail in England during those times.
From the opening sentence of the novel, the Court of Chancery is introduced, being associated with the symbols of fog and mud: “Never can there come a fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep,… holds, this day” The word “fog” appears thirteen times in one paragraph, and many times throughout the novel, the author conveying thus a bleak imagery, symbolic for the English society of the XIXth century.
Making use of a special narrative technique, Dickens chooses to have his story told by two different narrators, an omniscient third-person narrator and a first-person narrator, Esther Summerson, who is presenting her life from her own viewpoint. Unlike the generalizing, highly rhetorical voice which opens the novel, Esther’s voice begins hesitatingly, almost self-deprecating herself. This manner of presenting her story is highly relevant as it is seen as a result of her life as an orphan in the sordid house of a cruel, merciless aunt.
Thus, regarding the imagery of bleakness, Esther can be deemed to have passed through a series of symbolic “bleak houses” before she reaches the real Bleak House, which proves to be the least bleak of all. Consequently, it can be considered that the names of the two houses – “Bleak House”, is nothing more than Dickens’s irony which becomes obvious only in the end of the novel. With regard to Esther’s evolution throughout the novel, the first and apparently worse bleak house is that of her childhood, where she is raised by her cruel aunt who tells her that “It would have been better … hat you had never been born”. The little girl is taught to make use of submission, self-denial and diligent work so as to compensate for her guilt of having been born. Another bleak house situated in Esther’s long evolutionary path is the house of Mrs Jellyby, an apparently philanthropic woman who is more preoccupied with Africa than with her own numerous family. This was meant as a metaphor of imperial England, which was so much engaged around the world in those times, that it became out of touch with the problems it had at home.
The imagery of bleakness is here complex, revealing a dirty, unkept for house, with children running all around it, without having anyone to care for them. The imagery of bleakness and disease is also evident in the description of Krook’s rooming house, an emblem of waste and neglect. Krook is described as a ragged man who keeps documents, “the detritus of legal London”(Davis,42) in his bottle shop, while his apartments are the home for the victims of Chancery, little Miss Flite and the ill law writer Nemo, two characters who represent two powerful instances of the imagery of disease.
What is interesting is the way Dickens chooses to relate the bleakness of these houses to the law and the system of injustice, which serves itself, but ignores the effects its actions have upon humans. But even the law is perceived inside a bleak house, namely Tulkinghorn’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is described as having been “let off in sets of chambers; and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts… Here among his many boxes labelled with transcendent names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn.
Everything that can have a lock has got one; no key is visible. ” As far as the disease metaphor si concerned, this seems to be very complex in Jo, the illiterate sweeper, who is seen most of the time starving and begging. Given the society with no public education, Jo is allowed to know nothing, he is neglected by the system itself, being somehow forced to move on, regardless of his deprivations. The most seemingly bizarre expression of the disease metaphor is found in the figure of Krook, the illiterate rag and bottle merchant who seems to be the underworld equivalent of the Lord Chancellor.
Just like him, Krook collects legal documents but he is not able to understand their content, and so they cannot help justice. As a warning for the established legal system stands the episode of Krook’s improbable death by spontaneous combustion, which is symbolic for legal England ending in fire, as “When the law becomes totally absorbed with itself and its own procedures, it is bound to destroy itself”, according to Dickens.
In the light of the above-mentioned evidence, it can be said that the imagery of bleakness and disease in the lives of his characters is used by Charles Dickens so as to reveal the bleakness of England itself and how a sick system caused many injustices and perils for the poor, while the rich had a life of luxury and abundance. Works cited Primary sources: Dickens, Charles, Bleak House, Collins, London and Glasgow, 1953 Secondary sources: 2. Davis, Paul, Charles Dickens A Literary Reference to his Life and Work, Infobase Publishing, 1999, pp 41-45 3. Aubrey, Brian, Novels for Students, Gale Publishing, pp 84-86
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