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Charity and Esther’s Narrative

Charity and Esther’s Narrative

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.

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January 12, 2024

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

It is impossible to continue our conversation of charity, without a brief exploration of Esther’s Narrative. Chapter 13 of Bleak House is titled “Esther’s Narrative” and is the first of eleven chapters dedicated to her story. Though it purports to be about Esther, the chapter actually begins with a discussion of Richard’s vocation. Esther, in her usual humble manner, claims that it might have been good for guardians or educators to put more effort into discovering Richard’s preferences, rather than forcing him down an intentionless path. Richard was a good student but never learned to apply himself and as a result has trouble motivating himself to find a profession now.

After much discussion, Richard decides upon a medical path, and so the four (Ada, Esther, Richard and Mr. Jarndyce) make a visit to Mr. Badger, a medical doctor who intends to mentor Richard. The strangeness of this visit cannot be overstated. Much time and discussion is dedicated to the fact that Mr. Badger turns out to be Mrs. Badger’s third husband. The Badgers repeatedly invoke the prior two dead husbands as if deities until they become felt presences for the reader and everyone else. Upon leaving the Badgers’ house (perhaps even inspired by the Badgers talk of love), Ada and Richard finally confess their love to Esther. Esther, ever unruffled, promises to speak to Mr. Jarndyce about it.

The love affair of Richard and Ada is only peripherally relevant to Esther, however. Chapter 13 also includes a bit more about Mr. Guppy who claims to have fallen in love with Esther. His unwanted attentions toward Esther border on creepy and make her feel very ill at ease. Finally, the chapter ends with an enigmatic little paragraph which feels like more private than all the rest. Esther writes:

“I have omitted to mention in its place that there was some one else at the family dinner party. It was not a lady. It was a gentleman. It was a gentleman of a dark complexion – a young surgeon. He was rather reserved, but I thought him very sensible and agreeable. At least, Ada asked me if I did not, and I said yes.”

Esther speaks about others with such awareness, yet her personal story is much more closely guarded. Perhaps the silence in this enigmatic aside tells us more than the words. Still, we must ask the following questions:

1] What themes run throughout “Esther’s Narrative”?

2] What is Esther’s narrative?

3] Who is Bleak House about and why? (Perhaps, compare this chapter with the introductory paragraph of Chapter 9, “Signs and Tokens”)

Though we have figured out little in the way of Esther’s complicated narrative, we must return to the question of charity. Merriam-Webster offers these possible definitions for charity: generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering; benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity; and lenient judgment of others. We might be able to place all of these definitions within Esther’s reach, and certainly her guardian’s as well. Other characters come out less favorably, however.

Chapter 15: “Bell Yard” returns us once again to the London charitable circle. Esther mentions Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle, but now also introduces Mr. Gusher and Mr. Quale. The latter, apparently, has a mission to wholly support “everybody else’s mission.” After Esther’s somewhat sarcastic treatment of these figures, she continues:

“Mr. Jarndyce had fallen into this company in the tenderness of his heart and his earnest desire to do all the good in his power; but that he felt it too often an unsatisfactory company, where benevolence took spasmodic forms, where charity was assumed as a regular uniform by loud professors and speculators in cheap notoriety, vehement in profession, restless and vain in action, servile in the last degree of meanness to the great, adulatory of one another, and intolerable to those who were anxious quietly to help the weak from failing rather than with a great deal of bluster and self-laudation to raise them up a little way when they were down, he plainly told us.”

All of these characters distastefully overstate their charitable intentions, proud braggarts, rather than altruistic. In other words, Dickens definitely scorns those who give only to boost their own ego. Esther concludes the list by returning to Mr. Skimpole as a counterpoint. Somehow, Mr. Skimpole refreshes Mr. Jarndyce whereas the others tire him. Though she agrees about the others, Esther herself cannot quite understand Mr. Skimpole’s effect on her guardian. She concludes: “What he was to my guardian, he certainly was not to the rest of the world.”

Personally, I thoroughly enjoy the way that Mr. Skimpole turns money on its head. For example, in Chapter 15: “Bell Yard,” when Mr. Skimpole purchases only the finest meat on credit (fully aware that he will not pay) he reasons with the butcher: “My good fellow…pray, let us reason like intellectual beings…. You HAD got the lamb, and I have NOT got the money. You couldn’t really mean the lamb without sending it in, whereas I can, and do, really mean the money without paying it.” In other words, Mr. Skimpole believes that if he had money he would pay it, but since he does not, then the strong inclination and wish to pay should suffice. Conveniently, it’s the thought that counts. When the butcher presses charges, Mr. Skimpole says that the butcher was “influenced by passion, not by reason.”

Mr. Skimpole is such an enigmatic foil of all other charitable characters, that he is positively refreshing. He functions as both jester and sidekick. Perhaps this is what Mr. Jarndyce sees in him. In order to better understand this relationship, we might ask:

1] What does Mr. Jarndyce see in Mr. Skimpole?

2] How does Esther compare Mr. Jarndyce, Mr. Skimpole, Mr. Quale, and Mr. Gusher?

3] What point does Dickens want to make with these characters?

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Nikki Zalewski

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