I am almost at the halfway point of Bleak House, and from the start of the novel, I knew that I would fall in love with Dickens’ style. At the opening lines, Dickens illustrates his favorite, most criticized and most constant character, the city of London, and through this characterization, manages to skewer the Court of Chancery and all of its ridiculousness. From there begins an extensive use of characterization as a tool to create satire, social commentary, humor, tragedy, and other literary devices. Truly, Dickens is a master of characterization, and utilizes numerous varied characters in his novel to serve a multitude of purposes.
In order to illustrate how Dickens’ characterization is used for different purposes, I will share some examples from Bleak House which represent his style of characterization.
Dickens is very humorous, creating many caricatures via his characters. One of my favorites is Mr. Guppy, an ambitious law clerk, who practices his legalese regularly in conversation. While eating dinner with his two friends, he slips in phrases like “Gentlemen of the jury,” and when asking for one’s opinion, he phrases it as “if you were put in the box, would you agree?”.
Satire of Aristocrats
The Dedlocks represent the aristocracy in Bleak House, and Dickens often turns his shrewd eye upon their meaningless airs. When writing about Lady Dedlock, he refers to her as “my Lady,” as in “my Lady Dedlock has been bored to death,” (186). It’s just so boring being rich, and there’s nothing to do. Dickens’ Lady is so bored, she can’t even read! “She is fatigued with reading. Has almost read a page in twenty miles.” Poor thing.
Sir Leicester, her husband, is old and gouty and proud of it.
Sir Leicester receives the gout as a troublesome demon, but still a demon of the patrician order. All the Dedlocks, in the direct male line, […] have had the gout. It can be proved, sir. Other men’s fathers may have died of the rheumatism, or may have taken base contagion from the tainted blood of the sick vulgar, but the Dedlock family have communicated something exclusive, even to levelling process of dying, by dying of their own family gout. […] It is among their dignities. (264)
Social Commentary on the Poor and Uneducated
We learn about what it means to be very poor via the characterization of the section of London called Tom-all-Alone’s and one of its inhabitants, poor Jo, the street sweeper.
a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their own possession, took to letting them out in lodging. Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As, on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so, these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever, and sowing more evil in its every footprint than Lord Coodle, and Sir Thomas Doodle, and the Duke of Foodle, and all the fine gentlemen in office, down to Zoodle, shall set right in five hundred years–though born expressly to do it. (266)
Jo lives here, but works on the streets of London, often noting “I don’t know nothink.” Dickens makes a rather sad commentary on poor Jo when he considers,
It must be a strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows! To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postmen deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language–to be, to every scrap of it, stone blind and dumb! (267)
Lightning Quick Switches in Mood and Tone
Via characterization, Dickens is able to keep the reader on their toes as he switches from humor to tragedy to social censure.
One such example of this is during the pages of chapter 11, when a jury is gathering witnesses for the coroner’s inquest of the mysterious and dead Nemo.
It is very amusing on page 178, when Mrs. Piper, a neighborhood woman, rushes in as a witness. Dickens narrates: “Anastasia Piper, gentlemen. Married woman. Now, Mrs. Piper–what have you got to say about this? Why, Mrs. Piper has a good deal to say, chiefly in parentheses and without punctuation, but not much to tell.” Sure enough, she has little to say, and uses parenthetical expressions often with no punctuation. She does tell the coroner about Jo, though, who is then brought in.
Jo’s relation to the dead man begins the tragic tone. He weeps for the man who was always kind to him, and once he leaves the scene, Dickens gets rather sentimental in his rumination on the dead, nameless man:
If this forlorn man could have been prophetically seen lying here, by the mother at whose breast he nestled, a little child, with eyes upraised to her loving face, and soft hand scarcely knowing how to close upon the neck to which it crept, what an impossibility the vision would have seemed! O, if, in brighter days, the now-extinguished fire within him ever burned for one woman who held him in her heart, where is she, while these ashes are above the ground! (182)
and then Dickens seethes at his pathetic burial as the body is taken to
a hemmed-in churchyard, pestiferous and obscene, whence malignant diseases are communicated to the bodies of our dear brothers and sisters who have not departed; while our dear brothers and sisters who hang about official backstairs–would to Heaven they had departed!–are very complacent and agreeable. Into a beastly scrap of ground which a Turk would reject as a savage abomination, and a Caffre would shudder at, they bring our dear brother here departed, to receive Christian burial. (183)
So, as a reader, I went from chuckling, to sad, to angry in a short amount of time while reading about this nameless dead man. This was done through the characterization of locals, the body itself, and London.
Synchronicity among All Characters
I am so glad that I started a character list at the get-go of reading this novel, as every single character plays a part, and even the seemingly unimportant characters pop up throughout the story. Dickens even hints at the many coincidences that will appear throughout the novel when he asks, “What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!” (266).
Surprising connections between characters occur throughout the novel, and many times I have had to refer to my character list as I exclaim internally “I know him! Wait, who was he again?”
One example of this occurs with Jenny. Jenny is a poor woman living near Bleak House in Hertfordshire whom we meet when Esther visits her home on a philanthropic visit. The reader barely learns her name in this scene, but pities the woman as Esther discovers that the baby she is holding is dead. Another woman is present and exclaims “Jenny! Jenny!” and all mourn the loss of the infant.
Flash forward a couple hundred pages to London, where a man named Mr. Bucket and Mr. Snagsby are seeking out Jo in Tom-all-Alones, and come across two women with their husbands passed out drunk on the floor of a tiny, dingy apartment. One woman is holding a baby, which Bucket takes an interest in, and he and the reader find out that this woman is not the baby’s mother, but loves it as if it were, as she lost her own baby recently. Sounds familiar, and the suspicion is confirmed when the other woman exclaims “Ah, Jenny, Jenny!” What a coincidence. These women know Esther from Hertfordshire, and also know Jo in London, helping connect two different storylines. This occurs quite a bit in the novel.
I am a huge fan of characterization (whenever I see a meme question that pits plot against characterization, I always choose characterization), so I am really pleased with my reading of Dickens. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better character writer, and the way he manipulates characterization to serve multiple purposes in his novel astounds me. I am eager to read more Dickens in the future and be introduced to many more of his very lively characters!