Harrison Middleton University

Charity in Bleak House

Charity in Bleak House

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.


December 29, 2023

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

Charity takes center stage this time of year. In Bleak House also, charity becomes a sort of character. Even limited to the first six chapters, Dickens explores a variety of charities. The protagonist, Esther Summerson, is introduced as an orphan in the care of her godmother who is a deeply religious woman. Esther’s godmother sees nothing but sin in the young girl and therefore treats her austerely. Esther, in turn, is raised to believe her life unworthy, though she does not understand why.

However, upon her godmother’s death, John Jarndyce agrees to be her guardian. As Esther transitions to her new home, she meets her new companions, Ada and Richard. On their trip to Jarndyce’s Bleak House, these three spend a night in the home of Mrs. Jellyby. In the Jellyby home, Esther begins to truly explore the meaning of charity. While African charities consume all of Mrs. Jellyby’s time, she demonstrates a complete ignorance of her own house and children who appear dirty, hungry, disheveled, and, at times, lost. As a result, Esther realizes that it is more important to take care of the home first, and the outer world second.

When the three companions finally arrive at Bleak House, they are met with another character, Mr. Skimpole. Mr. Jarndyce refers to Mr. Skimpole as an adult child, simple and ignorant of the world, accomplished as an amateur, yet completely without ambition. Mr. Skimpole incurs debt but relies on the charity of those around him. This strange and hilarious character twists notions of charity in such a way as to confound and entertain the reader. Only Charles Dickens could have written a character of such incongruities.

For example, upon Mr. Skimpole’s arrest, he asks for money from the young Esther and Richard. They pay his debts and he delights in having helped them participate with charity. Mr. Skimpole says, “It’s only you, the generous creatures, whom I envy…I don’t feel any vulgar gratitude to you. I almost feel as if YOU ought to be grateful to ME for giving you the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of generosity. I know you like it. For anything I can tell, I may have come into the world expressly for the purpose of increasing your stock of happiness.” In other words, according to Mr. Skimpole, charity connects directly with happiness. Esther believes as much, but finds herself feeling uncomfortable about the situation. Mr. Skimpole dazzles her with his innocence, energy, childlike happiness. While he believes himself to provide a necessary service to the community in the form of a charity case, Esther cannot understand him. Furthermore, Esther and Richard are embarrassed by Mr. Skimpole’s debts, yet Mr. Skimpole himself seems completely at ease and unaffected. This strange little scene from “Chapter 6: Quite at Home” inspired the following questions.

In the spirit of a book club, I propose the following questions as based upon the first six chapters of Bleak House. These are meant to develop the idea of charity.

1] Why does Mr. Skimpole’s childishness dazzle Esther?

2] Why doesn’t Mr. Skimpole feel shame or guilt about his debts? Likewise, why doesn’t Mrs. Jellyby care about their personal finances and household duties?

3] Why do Richard and Esther feel shame when confronted by Mr. Skimpole’s debt collector?

4] Initially Mr. Jarndyce is upset with Esther and Richard for having paid Mr. Skimpole’s debts. However, Esther reminds him that Mr. Skimpole is a child, a thought which soothes Mr. Jarndyce. Why does the idea of Mr. Skimpole as a child actually calm Mr. Jarndyce?

5] How do Mrs. Jellyby’s actions and behaviors compare with Mr. Skimpole’s?

6] Based on these six chapters, how would you define charity?

Photo credit: Shutterstock/REDPIXEL.PL

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