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Bleak House: A Wedding

Bleak House: A Wedding

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January 26, 2024

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

II have to apologize for all the material that I’m skipping in the posts on Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Truly, one could never do it justice. It contains a world of descriptions and personalities and consequences. It’s like looking at all of humanity in a microscope. Though large, the book reads more like a play than novel. Dickens’ ability to depict human nature continues to astound me.

Now that we’re at Chapter 30, roughly halfway through the novel (you read that correctly), we finally get to celebrate a wedding. Caddy Jellyby’s wedding occurs at roughly the halfway point in Bleak House. A sorrier crowd for celebrations could not exist since the celebrants are the whole host of the charitable characters, none of which find a wedding to be worth their time. Though the reader feels truly happy for Caddy and her soon-to-be husband Prince, the gathering could not be more ridiculous.

The wedding will take place in the Jellyby home, which Esther has already described as being beyond filthy. Fit neither for children nor guests, it must now accommodate everyone. Caddy and Esther do their best to spruce it up. At one point, Mr. Jellyby even tried to help until he saw the amount of trash. Lists can be a wonderful tool when done well and Dickens does not disappoint. Esther details the scene as follows:

“Poor Mr. Jellyby…became interested when he saw that Caddy and I were attempting to establish some order among all this waste and ruin and took off his coat to help. But such wonderful things came tumbling out of the closets when they were opened – bits of mouldy pie, sour bottles, Mrs. Jellyby’s caps, letters, tea, forks, odd boots and shoes of children, firewood, wafers, saucepan-lids, damp sugar in odds and ends of paper bags, footstools, blacklead brushes, bread, Mrs. Jellyby’s bonnets, books with butter sticking to the binding, guttered candle ends put out by being turned upside down in broken candlesticks, nutshells, heads and tails of shrimps, dinner-mats, gloves, coffee-grounds, umbrellas – that he look frightened, and left off again.”

Though the trash intimidates Mr. Jellyby, Caddy and Esther persevere. They prepare rooms, children, and clothing in time for the wedding. Esther notes, “The guests were few, but were, as one might expect at Mrs. Jellyby’s, all devoted to public objects only.” Dickens uses this event as a continuation of the discussion of charity. The juxtaposition between Esther’s guardian, John Jarndyce, and the rest of the overly aggressive, outspoken philanthropists exhibits how they exist wholly outside of reality.

The scene consists of Mr. and Mrs. Pardiggle who brag about continual monetary donations. Mr. Quale, always prepared to cheer on any charitable idea, brings a woman who hopes to improve the woman’s role in society. She negatively views Caddy as subordinating herself to man. Mrs. Jellyby, mother of the bride, attends the wedding perhaps in body only, constantly focused on distant concerns in Africa. Finally, Prince’s father, Mr. Turveydrop was also in attendance. His ego seems to be a counterpoint to all the philanthropists, more worried about his dress, status, and comfortable lifestyle.

The chapter sparks strong notes of irony. None of the philanthropists even get along. Everyone believes themselves to be on a higher plane than all the rest. Esther comments, “One other singularity was that nobody with a mission – except Mr. Quale, whose mission…was to be in ecstasies with everybody’s mission – cared at all for anybody’s mission.” Of course, John Jarndyce rounds out the group. Though Esther never includes him in the comparison, he clearly demonstrates one who sacrifices silently, one whose charitable deeds may actually impact real futures, and who capably deals with reality. Esther writes,

“My guardian, with his sweet temper and his quick perception and his amiable face, made something agreeable even out of the ungenial company. None of them seemed able to talk about anything but his, or her, own one subject, and none of them seemed able to talk about even that as part of a world there was anything else; but my guardian turned it all to the merry encouragement of Caddy and the honour of the occasion, and brought us through the breakfast nobly. What we should have done without him, I am afraid to think, for all the company despising the bride and bridegroom and old Mr. Turveydrop – and old Mr. Turveydrop, in virtue of his deportment, considering himself vastly superior to all the company – it was a very unpromising case.”

After reading this section, I continue to wonder about the notion of charity. I pose the following questions:

1] Who demonstrates frivolous behavior?

2] Does Dickens disdain all frivolous behavior?

3] What are the unwritten ethical rules surrounding charitable actions?

4] Why does Chapter 30, a section of Esther’s Narrative, focus almost solely on Caddy’s wedding?

5] How does love intersect with charity?

Photo credit: Shutterstock/ALICIA GARSIDE

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