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.