Sunday 28 November 2021

Imagery in Bleak House

As everyone probably notices the bird motif and the ink motif in the novel, I won’t write about them. Instead, I will write about some other images that I find interesting. 

1/ There’s something strange and utterly compelling about Dickens’s imagination. A man is cadaverous (derivative of “cadaver”, meaning “corpse”) and described as looking like a root: 

“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.” (Ch.5) 

That’s Mr Krook.

And things are compared to people. This is Mrs Jellyby’s sofa:  

“We expressed our acknowledgments and sat down behind the door, where there was a lame invalid of a sofa.” (Ch.4) 

This is a grate in Nemo’s room: 

“In the rusty skeleton of a grate, pinched at the middle as if poverty had gripped it, a red coke fire burns low.” (Ch.10) 

There’s a bottle of alcohol patted like a grandchild: 

“The old man receives it in his arms like a beloved grandchild and pats it tenderly.” (Ch.20) 

And there’s a man shaken up like a bottle: 

“The excellent old gentleman being at these times a mere clothes-bag with a black skull-cap on the top of it, does not present a very animated appearance until he has undergone the two operations at the hands of his granddaughter of being shaken up like a great bottle and poked and punched like a great bolster.” (Ch.21) 

There’s a cat called Lady Jane (belonging to Mr Krook): 

“The cat leaped down and ripped at a bundle of rags with her tigerish claws, with a sound that it set my teeth on edge to hear.” (Ch.5) 

“… his cat looked so wickedly at me, as if I were a blood-relation of the birds upstairs…” (ibid.) 

The cat is aggressive. Dickens later repeats the word “wicked”: 

“The cat expands her wicked mouth and snarls at him.” (Ch.10) 

And there’s a woman compared to a cat:

“My Lady's maid is a Frenchwoman of two and thirty, from somewhere in the southern country about Avignon and Marseilles, a large-eyed brown woman with black hair who would be handsome but for a certain feline mouth and general uncomfortable tightness of face, rendering the jaws too eager and the skull too prominent.” (Ch.12) 

She too is aggressive, and malicious. 

There’s a character who’s middle-aged but “in simplicity, and freshness, and enthusiasm, and a fine guileless inaptitude for all worldly affairs, he is a perfect child” (Ch.6), or pretends to be a child, shaking off all his responsibilities: Harold Skimpole. 

There are also characters who are old despite their young age, who have never been children, such as the Smallweeds. 

“He stands precociously possessed of centuries of owlish wisdom. If he ever lay in a cradle, it seems as if he must have lain there in a tail-coat. He has an old, old eye, has Smallweed; and he drinks and smokes in a monkeyish way; and his neck is stiff in his collar; and he is never to be taken in; and he knows all about it, whatever it is.” (Ch.20) 

That’s Bartholomew Smallweed, often called Bart or Elfin, and he’s something under 15. Here’s his twin sister Judith:

“Judy never owned a doll, never heard of Cinderella, never played at any game. She once or twice fell into children's company when she was about ten years old, but the children couldn't get on with Judy, and Judy couldn't get on with them. She seemed like an animal of another species, and there was instinctive repugnance on both sides. It is very doubtful whether Judy knows how to laugh.” (Ch.21) 

If Dickens had created only Bart and Judith, they may seem like some coarse caricatures of young people forced to go out and work early in life, not knowing what it’s like to be a child, but Dickens didn’t do so. 

“There has been only one child in the Smallweed family for several generations. Little old men and women there have been, but no child, until Mr. Smallweed's grandmother, now living, became weak in her intellect and fell (for the first time) into a childish state. With such infantine graces as a total want of observation, memory, understanding, and interest, and an eternal disposition to fall asleep over the fire and into it, Mr. Smallweed's grandmother has undoubtedly brightened the family.” (ibid.) 

The image of the Smallweed family becomes much more absurd, and therefore much more brilliant. 

2/ Sometimes Dickens adds an image that seems random and out of nowhere, but it adds more life, more vitality to his eccentric characters. 

For example, this is Mr Jarndyce, though Esther at the time doesn’t know that it’s him. 

“"Now, look here!" he said. "In this paper," which was nicely folded, "is a piece of the best plum-cake that can be got for money—sugar on the outside an inch thick, like fat on mutton chops. Here's a little pie (a gem this is, both for size and quality), made in France. And what do you suppose it's made of? Livers of fat geese. There's a pie! Now let's see you eat 'em."

"Thank you, sir," I replied; "thank you very much indeed, but I hope you won't be offended—they are too rich for me."

"Floored again!" said the gentleman, which I didn't at all understand, and threw them both out of window.” (Ch.3)

This is Mr Guppy, the lawyer who is in love with Esther:

“Mr. Guppy saunters along with it congenially. He has blunted the blade of his penknife and broken the point off by sticking that instrument into his desk in every direction. Not that he bears the desk any ill will, but he must do something, and it must be something of an unexciting nature, which will lay neither his physical nor his intellectual energies under too heavy contribution. He finds that nothing agrees with him so well as to make little gyrations on one leg of his stool, and stab his desk, and gape.” (Ch.20) 

That passage would fit well in something by Dostoyevsky or Kafka. 

3/ I like the introduction to Mr Tulkinghorn, a lawyer for the Dedlocks: 

“He is surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences, of which he is known to be the silent depository. There are noble mausoleums rooted for centuries in retired glades of parks among the growing timber and the fern, which perhaps hold fewer noble secrets than walk abroad among men, shut up in the breast of Mr. Tulkinghorn.” (Ch.2) 

This is an interesting image: 

“He wears his usual expressionless mask—if it be a mask—and carries family secrets in every limb of his body and every crease of his dress.” (Ch.12) 

4/ In the previous blog post, I wrote that Dickens characterised each character with a few striking images. Mr Chadband for example is compared to a vessel, and Dickens repeats the vessel image several times. 

“From Mr. Chadband's being much given to describe himself, both verbally and in writing, as a vessel, he is occasionally mistaken by strangers for a gentleman connected with navigation, but he is, as he expresses it, "in the ministry." Mr. Chadband is attached to no particular denomination and is considered by his persecutors to have nothing so very remarkable to say on the greatest of subjects as to render his volunteering, on his own account, at all incumbent on his conscience; but he has his followers, and Mrs. Snagsby is of the number. Mrs. Snagsby has but recently taken a passage upward by the vessel, Chadband; and her attention was attracted to that Bark A 1, when she was something flushed by the hot weather.” (Ch.19) 

When he sits down to eat:

“For Chadband is rather a consuming vessel—the persecutors say a gorging vessel—and can wield such weapons of the flesh as a knife and fork remarkably well.” (ibid.) 


“The conversion of nutriment of any sort into oil of the quality already mentioned appears to be a process so inseparable from the constitution of this exemplary vessel that in beginning to eat and drink, he may be described as always becoming a kind of considerable oil mills or other large factory for the production of that article on a wholesale scale.” (ibid.) 

The train oil metaphor is also repeated a few times, and when Mr Chadband finishes:

“During the progress of this keen encounter, the vessel Chadband, being merely engaged in the oil trade, gets aground and waits to be floated off.” (ibid.) 

What a sentence.

Like Nabokov, I’m not particularly interested in the social themes of Bleak House and its satire of the legal system. The genius of Dickens is in prose and images and his grotesque characters.  

Wednesday 24 November 2021

Characterisation in Bleak House

Dickens’s detractors always say his characters are caricatures, not complex, multifaceted, and lifelike like Tolstoy’s or Jane Austen’s or George Eliot’s characters. This is something they say over and over again whenever his name pops up, and in a way, they have a point, but I think they’re missing something. There’s something magical about Dickens’s characters: they are grotesque and exaggerated but don’t feel flat and don’t feel two-dimensional—somehow they seem to have a vivid existence within the world of his books, all distinct and striking and memorable. 

How does it work? Dickens characterises each character with a few striking images. Not traits—his caricatures are more than types. Not ideas—his characters are not embodiments of ideas. But images. 

For example, this is how he introduces Mr Krook in Bleak House

“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.” (Ch.5) 

We see him after seeing his shop, full of old rags and shabby old volumes and various kinds of bottles.

“The litter of rags tumbled partly into and partly out of a one-legged wooden scale, hanging without any counterpoise from a beam, might have been counsellors' bands and gowns torn up. One had only to fancy, as Richard whispered to Ada and me while we all stood looking in, that yonder bones in a corner, piled together and picked very clean, were the bones of clients, to make the picture complete.” (ibid.)

The shop is an extension of the man: the short, cadaverous, and withered Mr Krook is linked to the images of old rags, one-legged wooden scale, and bones.

This is Mrs Pardiggle, one of the women in the novel who do charities but neglect their own children. 

“She was a formidable style of lady with spectacles, a prominent nose, and a loud voice, who had the effect of wanting a great deal of room. And she really did, for she knocked down little chairs with her skirts that were quite a great way off. As only Ada and I were at home, we received her timidly, for she seemed to come in like cold weather and to make the little Pardiggles blue as they followed.” (Ch.8)

Her whole manners are contained in the phrase “wanting a great deal of room”: 

“… pursued the lady, always speaking in the same demonstrative, loud, hard tone, so that her voice impressed my fancy as if it had a sort of spectacles on too—and I may take the opportunity of remarking that her spectacles were made the less engaging by her eyes being what Ada called "choking eyes," meaning very prominent…” (ibid.) 


“When we hastily returned from putting on our bonnets, we found the young family languishing in a corner and Mrs. Pardiggle sweeping about the room, knocking down nearly all the light objects it contained.” (ibid.) 

As they leave for the brickmaker’s house, she talks to Ada in the same loud tone for the entire way. And later at the brickmaker’s house, when she’s done: 

“Mrs. Pardiggle accordingly rose and made a little vortex in the confined room from which the pipe itself very narrowly escaped.” (ibid.) 

The depiction culminates in an image that would imprint on the reader’s mind: Mrs Pardiggle taking the entire family into religious custody and rambling on about improving their lives, without noticing a baby dying in a corner. 

In the following chapter, Dickens introduces another character who is also loud and all ferocity but completely different from Mrs Pardiggle: Mr Lawrence Boythorn, a friend of Mr Jarndyce. 

“We all conceived a prepossession in his favour, for there was a sterling quality in this laugh, and in his vigorous, healthy voice, and in the roundness and fullness with which he uttered every word he spoke, and in the very fury of his superlatives, which seemed to go off like blank cannons and hurt nothing.” (Ch.9)

The central image is there: “go off like blank cannons and hurt nothing”. Dickens also gives him a distinct voice, full of superlatives. Then we see Mr Boythorn with his little canary:

“The subject of this laudation was a very little canary, who was so tame that he was brought down by Mr. Boythorn's man, on his forefinger, and after taking a gentle flight round the room, alighted on his master's head. To hear Mr. Boythorn presently expressing the most implacable and passionate sentiments, with this fragile mite of a creature quietly perched on his forehead, was to have a good illustration of his character, I thought.

[…] It was impossible not to laugh at the energetic gravity with which he recommended this strong measure of reform. When we laughed, he threw up his head and shook his broad chest, and again the whole country seemed to echo to his "Ha, ha, ha!" It had not the least effect in disturbing the bird, whose sense of security was complete and who hopped about the table with its quick head now on this side and now on that, turning its bright sudden eye on its master as if he were no more than another bird.” (ibid.) 

He is having a rant about Sir Dedlock. 

“To hear him say all this with unimaginable energy, one might have thought him the angriest of mankind. To see him at the very same time, looking at the bird now perched upon his thumb and softly smoothing its feathers with his forefinger, one might have thought him the gentlest.” (ibid) 

How could any reader of Bleak House forget Mr Boythorn and that contradictory image? It reminds me of Count Fosco and his mice in The Woman in White. I can’t help wondering if Wilkie Collins was inspired by Dickens. Count Fosco is the villain and he is the character with the most vivid existence in The Woman in White

Now let’s look at Mr Turveydrop the father:

“Just then there appeared from a side-door old Mr. Turveydrop, in the full lustre of his deportment.

He was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star or a broad blue ribbon to be complete. He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear. He had such a neckcloth on (puffing his very eyes out of their natural shape), and his chin and even his ears so sunk into it, that it seemed as though he must inevitably double up if it were cast loose. He had under his arm a hat of great size and weight, shelving downward from the crown to the brim, and in his hand a pair of white gloves with which he flapped it as he stood poised on one leg in a high-shouldered, round-elbowed state of elegance not to be surpassed. He had a cane, he had an eye-glass, he had a snuff-box, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature; he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was not like anything in the world but a model of deportment.” (Ch.14) 

In a lesser writer’s hand, Mr Turveydrop might just be a dandy—a type. But in Dickens’s hand, he’s quite something else, something more vivid and grotesque. Everything about him is unnatural and false, he is “pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down”. 

Dickens creates a contrasting image of father and son:

“Prince Turveydrop sometimes played the kit, dancing; sometimes played the piano, standing; sometimes hummed the tune with what little breath he could spare, while he set a pupil right; always conscientiously moved with the least proficient through every step and every part of the figure; and never rested for an instant. His distinguished father did nothing whatever but stand before the fire, a model of deportment.” (ibid.) 

The word “deportment” appears a few times in the novel, before this chapter, but the portrayal of Mr Turveydrop transforms the word completely. You cannot see the word “deportment” without seeing Mr Turveydrop—" he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was not like anything in the world but a model of deportment”. 

But the most striking character in Bleak House so far (I’m on chapter 14) is Mrs Jellyby, the other woman who does charities but neglects her own children.

“She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if—I am quoting Richard again—they could see nothing nearer than Africa!” (Ch.4) 

The characters in the novel are all colourful and unforgettable, but Dickens’s depiction of Mrs Jellyby and her household is particularly rich in detail. 

“Ada and I had two upper rooms with a door of communication between. They were excessively bare and disorderly, and the curtain to my window was fastened up with a fork.” (ibid.) 

Everything is in the wrong place and Esther’s door has no knob. 

“We had a fine cod-fish, a piece of roast beef, a dish of cutlets, and a pudding; an excellent dinner, if it had had any cooking to speak of, but it was almost raw.” (ibid.) 


“She told us a great deal that was interesting about Borrioboola-Gha and the natives, and received so many letters that Richard, who sat by her, saw four envelopes in the gravy at once.” (ibid.) 

The description of the Jellyby household is rich in detail, I’m just picking out the most interesting images. Later on, when we see her family again:

“… Miss Jellyby was announced, and entered, leading the identical Peepy, whom she had made some endeavours to render presentable by wiping the dirt into corners of his face and hands and making his hair very wet and then violently frizzling it with her fingers. Everything the dear child wore was either too large for him or too small.” (Ch.14) 

See that image of the dirt wiped into corners of his face. Some readers are mistaken to look for the kind of psychological realism one finds in Tolstoy or George Eliot—the art of Dickens is in the prose, in the details and images. 

I note that all of these descriptions come from Esther Summerson’s narrative (Bleak House alternates between her and the omniscient narrator). Now she is a very good writer, a very funny writer.