Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"useful to myself, and interested, and attached to life again" Esther tells us about Esther

By and by my strength began to be restored. Instead of lying, with so strange a calmness, watching what was done for me, as if it were done for some one else whom I was quietly sorry for, I helped it a little, and so on to a little more and much more, until I became useful to myself, and interested, and attached to life again.

I'm about 65.5% of the way through Charles Dickens' 1852-ish novel Bleak House. It occurred to me yesterday that whenever Esther Summerson appears in a scene, that scene is narrated by Esther herself. In other words, we only have her word for how others behave in her company; we only know the opinion of Esther that other characters hold via Esther's reportage of their speech. Nobody else gets to talk about Esther (except for Guppy, who has her image engraved upon his heart, but of course Mr Guppy is essentially a stranger to Esther and only loves her for her beauty, while it lasts; and Lady Dedlock, who similarly doesn't know Esther in actuality). If this were a Nabokov novel, I might begin to get suspicious about all of this.

But it's not a Nabokov novel, it's a Dickens novel, and we take Esther for the person she presents herself to be. Mighty Reader pointed out yesterday that, while Esther is an actual round character--rare for a Dickens hero--she is still essentially passive. Things happen to her. Esther wants nothing but to be good, which is one of the themes of Bleak House to be sure, but like in the story of Mr Oliver Twist, the story happens around Esther Summerson. She suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, none of which she's caused. Again, that's one of the themes of the book so this is an observation rather than a complaint, you.

There is no personal villain in Bleak House, by which I mean there is no character who becomes the focus of Dickensian Evil and sets himself against the hero in person. This is no surprise because Dickens novels (at least the five and six-tenths Dickens novels I've read thus far) aren't structured around a conflict between hero and villain. Society, and the lazy selfish ills thereof, is the villain in Dickens, and it is here or there personified and victimizes a great many people of various levels of innocence. I don't know why I'm writing any of this; anyone who has read Dickens knows this. Bleak House isn't The Hunger Games or Harry Potter and the Side Order of Fries or whatever. Dickens wrote complex social novels and wrestled with the ongoing battle between Good and Evil. Dickens' novels, entertaining and sentimental as they are, also serve as a scourge upon England, a whip to drive the moneylenders from the temple. I think here of John Ruskin's fear for the future of England and I can see that he and Dickens both shared that fear. Both writers wished to wake England up to the truth. But Ruskin retreats into an imagined past and begs England to move backward with him into that fantasy (at least he does in his books on art and architecture; I will have to better familiarize myself with his essays on economics or hope someone will add an illustrative comment here). Dickens attempts to drive England into his imagined future. Both men, I'm pretty sure, failed. That failure in no way diminishes their separate accomplishments in the world of letters. Etc etc etc. I've gone well past my point so here I stop.


  1. Just a little bit suspicious. That is fair.

    I am getting to the point in Great Expectations, late in the book, where the story is taking on more of a "hero and villain" structure, but it is curious how unimportant that kind of structure is for Dickens, even when the novel has a blatant villain like Quilp or Rogue Riderhood or that feline fellow from Dombey and Son. They are among the least effective villains in all of literature.

    The villain in Bleak House does manage to - well.

    I believe Ruskin's economic and social essays support your point. He is on the path that leads to Tolkien's hobbits.

  2. I forget that Great Expectations is all in first person. Not that Pip is particularly good or innocent; he's a wastrel and all of that. Who's the villain in that one? Combreysomething? Interesting that the villain goes after the father figure instead of the child there.

    Plenty of villainous types in Bleak House: Hortense the maid, Vholes the lawyer, Tulkinhorn, Skimpole, Smallweed--Smallweed is an excellent evil muppet; I'm very fond of him.

    Tolkien, I think, was suspicious of industry and scientific/technological progress. Maybe he had a loathing for factories, too. [Trot out stereotypes of the effects of the World Wars upon civilized Englishmen.]

  3. The irony (or is it paradox) is that Bleak House is so similar to and different from Dickens' other novels. Esther is much more interesting than the 3rd person narrator. And what is this about no villain? Hmmmmm.

  4. Oh, no no no! I prefer the 3rd-person narrator! He's much more fun than Esther. Though as the book continues along, she starts to become like that nameless narrator. Her language is getting quite similar to his* and her remarks about the character flaws in the weaker cast members are becoming sharper every chapter.

    * Why "his," I wonder. That nameless narrator is not Charles Dickens any more than Esther Summerson is Charles Dickens; they are both imaginary characters created by the author. No reason to assign a masculine gender, yet I did. Hmm.

  5. Funny comments... Ruskin on the road to hobbits seems very true. Smallweed as excellent evil muppet I like as well.

    Tolkien's childhood was pastoral and green but swept away--that'll do it to a writer. Never forgive! Not when they drag down the party trees of life!

  6. That's right - bad old Compeyson. You hardly see him. He is barely a character at all. Probably for the best.

    Mrs. Omniscient is certainly a better writer than Esther. Just for the candle with a flame like “a great cabbage head and a long winding-sheet.” Esther would never have come up with that. Hey, Dickens reuses the winding-sheet in GE, although not the cabbage. Anyway, Esther becomes a better writer as she goes along, or else Dickens becomes less vigilant about distinguishing the two parts, or both, but she is no Charles Dickens! Nor is David Copperfield, nor is Pip.

    When I was a young fellow, I was confused by the anti-climatic end of Lord of the Rings where evil men industrialize the Shire, previously a model Arts & Crafts society, but now I find it hilarious.

  7. It was a cold, wild night, and the trees shuddered in the wind. The rain had been thick and heavy all day, and with little intermission for many days. None was falling just then, however. The sky had partly cleared, but was very gloomy--even above us, where a few stars were shining. In the north and north-west, where the sun had set three hours before, there was a pale dead light both beautiful and awful; and into it long sullen lines of cloud waved up like a sea stricken immovable as it was heaving. Towards London a lurid glare overhung the whole dark waste, and the contrast between these two lights, and the fancy which the redder light engendered of an unearthly fire, gleaming on all the unseen buildings of the city and on all the faces of its many thousands of wondering inhabitants, was as solemn as might be.

    That passage sounds like Mrs. Omniscient to me, not like Esther, but it's Esther who writes it.

    Last night I got to the section where Jarndyce writes his letter to Esther, and Esther replies in the affirmative. I must say I'm disappointed. And a little creeped out.

    The "Scouring of the Shire" section of LotR is just an appendix, best skipped.

  8. Eh, close to Mrs. O., but see her in action at the beginning of Ch. 40, for example, about four paragraphs in, starting with "This present summer evening" and going on for several more paragraphs.

    Gee whiz, that's a good passage.

  9. Some of the omniscient sections are among the best prose I have ever read in my life. This is an amazing book. Also, some of the best scenes ever written. Tulkinghorn's midnight confrontation with Lady Dedlock is a great piece of work: so restrained and careful, so still, and Dickens avoids the danger of making the chapter claustrophobic by opening that window to the leads and letting the stars and the bright moonlight into the scene. Beautiful craftsmanship, real artistry there.