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. 


  1. Here's a sociological explanation of the "flatness" of Dickensian characterization from Terry Eagleton

    "If Dickens is an urban novelist, it is not just because he writes about the city, but because he writes about it in an urban kind of way. His prose style is alive with the swarming energies of his surroundings, full of hyperbole, extravagant gestures, unpredictable connections, rapid thumbnail sketches, melodramatic exclamations, abrupt shifts of tone and theatrical display – rather than, like Jane Austen or George Eliot, given over to the painstaking unravelling of human complexities. If Austen’s is an art of the cameo, Dickens’s is one of the poster. He is thus a living refutation of the conventional view that the former is inherently superior to the latter. Characters emerge from the narrative only to evaporate again, rather as they do on Oxford Street. It is an art of the streets rather than simply about them: graphic, flamboyant, amplified, sometimes brash and shamelessly manipulative. Like a street performer, Dickens’s effects need, so to speak, to be visible from the back of the crowd. His mode of characterization, as Raymond Williams astutely observes, belongs to the street as well, in the sense that the way he perceives men and women – vividly but externally, caught in a single posture or defined by one or two idiosyncratic features – is the way we take in passing strangers on busy street corners. These figures are at once animated and enigmatic, expressive but hard to decipher. So if ‘realist’ means ‘true to the situation’, these two-dimensional figures are actually more realist than fully rounded ones.

    We all no doubt seem a little threatening or eccentric to each other before we come to open our mouths and speak; and the modern city, unlike the small village, is the place where most of our encounters consist of seeing rather than speaking, glimpsing each other as objects rather than conversing as fellow subjects. We consume impressions of each other rather as we consume commodities, with no more knowledge of what went into the production of other people than we have of how a pork pie was assembled or how the sewers beneath our feet were built. We are aware that behind the appearance of each of these enigmatic creatures lies a subjective life much like our own; but because we cannot see this life as a whole, subjectivity itself comes to seem opaque and inaccessible, like a secret which each of us carries furtively concealed on our persons."

    1. That's an interesting passage, though I have a few questions:
      1/ What does it mean to write in an urban kind of way? An art of the streets?
      2/ What do the art of the cameo and the art of the poster mean?

    2. By cameo he means the art of the engraving. He is basically contrasting depth and flatness.

      I think by art of the streets he is arguing that our mutual interaction with other people in an urban environment is generally superficial, anonymous and mostly based on external characteristics, mannerisms, and forms of speech. What a person really is on the "inside", what is called intersubjectivity, is closed to us.

      By contrast one can say Jane Austen or Henry James are interested in "the art of the living room". People in these novels know each other and based on what they know, they constantly interpret what is going on inside other people's minds. Although there also, the drama happens because what they interpret turns out to be ultimately wrong.

    3. I see. Thanks for that, I didn't know that sense of "cameo".
      The thing you say about Jane Austen and Henry James makes sense, I suppose Edith Wharton is similar.
      What phrase would you use for Tolstoy?
      When I was rereading Anna Karenina, I was thinking that we could never know another person as well as we know Tolstoy's characters.

  2. Eagleton's idea fits my sense, that I've always found Dickens's characters to be as realistic, or more so, than those of other writers. I have met a number of his characters. I may even be related to a few of them.

    Di is right that at least by the time if Bleak House even the types are no longer really types. He individualizes them so strongly.

    I would love to know which Dickens novels Esther had read.

    1. Which of Dickens's characters have you met?
      I kinda want to compare Dickens & Balzac but it wouldn't be fair, so I would have to read something big & important by mature Balzac.

    2. Oh I have met so many. But Dickens creates so many characters.

      Hugo is probably closer to Dickens in the sense we are discussing here than Balzac.

    3. Yeah I meant the characters in the Balzac I read were more like types, but I was thinking it may be an unfair comparison.

  3. I've been thinking about what you two said. Jane Austen, George Eliot, & James may be grouped together, & Dickens has a different style, a different approach to characters
    Why is it that I, an Austen fan, get in the flow of Dickens easily but struggle with James & George Eliot?


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