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Concluding Charity in Bleak House

Concluding 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.

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February 9, 2024

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

It’s with bittersweet feelings that I write the concluding post on Bleak House. What a fun book! If you haven’t followed along with our pace, I do recommend reading, listening, or watching. There are many excellent versions. It’s filled with Dickensian wit, insight, and detail. I say Dickensian because only Dickens could write something so global in perspective while also fleshing out characters, adding depth and movement and division in the narrative style that he does. (Though I have not done it justice, I heartily recommend it to book groups!)

Bleak House is ambitious from start to finish. We began in the mud and fog of Chancery Lane where the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit has lingered for more decades, perhaps more centuries, than anyone can remember. Now, we conclude with Esther Summerson married and installed in the new Bleak House. The final chapter speaks directly to us, her readers and companions of so many pages. She says,

“Full seven happy years I have been the mistress of Bleak House. The few words that I have to add to what I have written are soon penned; then I and the unknown friend to whom I write will part for ever. Not without much dear remembrance on my side. Not without some, I hope, on his or hers.”

Esther’s faithful narrative stitches the book together as if one of Emily Dickinson’s fascicles. She both is and is not the focus of the book. Rather she functions like a still point in the turning world, as T.S. Eliot might say. Everything that happens in Bleak House can be associated with her life. According to some, Dickens set about writing Bleak House with this in mind: “It might be worthwhile, sometimes, to inquire what Nature is, and how men work to change her, and whether, in the enforced distortions so produced, it is not natural to be unnatural.”

Dickens presents Esther Summerson as the moral center of the novel. At one point, Mr. Woodcourt notes how many people find themselves devoted to her: “You do not know what all around you see in Esther Summerson, how many hearts she touches and awakens, what sacred admiration and what loves she wins!” In his estimation, Esther Summerson’s charity and kindness have truly made the world a better place. Though she was unable to effect any change in Richard, she did help him maintain hope and dignity. Though she was unable to save Jo, she gave him a place to rest and treated him as a human, rather than the animal that everyone else sees. Though she was never able to undo her mother’s sins, she listened to her story and tried to envision her life’s complexities. In other words, despite the fact that Esther never moralizes or preaches, she does embody empathy, honesty, fairness, charity, and goodwill.

While there is surely a little bit of Dickens in each character, I have come to view him most closely in Inspector Bucket who constantly leads us on, opening our eyes more and more with each movement. I choose to close my topic of charity with Bucket’s estimation of Mr. Skimpole’s character. In Chapter 57, part of Esther’s Narrative, Bucket reveals that he bribed Skimpole into telling him the whereabouts of Jo. Skimpole, Bucket says, who claims to have no understanding of money knows enough to take money. He eagerly accepts Bucket’s bribe. Mr. Bucket concludes: “Whenever a person proclaims to you ‘In worldly matters I’m a child,’ you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One. Now, I am not a poetical man myself … but I’m a practical one, and that’s my experience. So’s this rule. Fast and loose in one thing, fast and loose in everything.” While we still can’t fathom what Mr. Jarndyce sees in Skimpole, we now know that Skimpole’s game is up, charm and innocence replaced by deceit and greed.

Later, we learn that Mr. Skimpole’s memoir proclaims that Mr. Jarndyce is the epitome of greed, a ludicrous notion to anyone who knew Jarndyce. Skimpole was neither a good friend, nor a good person. In the end, Skimpole’s deceit causes plenty of harm. He endangers Richard by connecting him with Vholes. Skimpole gives away Jo’s whereabouts, causing much confusion and worry for Esther. And he willingly receives every charity while others go hungry and poor. I could go on.

As we come to the conclusion, I simply want to know if charity always noticeably benefits someone? Or, can a charitable act, well-intentioned and meaningful, go astray and still be considered charity?

With that final question, I say goodbye to this dense, thick novel brimming with action, characters, and dialogue. It’s been my constant friend, beginning with the holiday season and concluding just after Dickens’ birthday. This is a fitting end. Thank you for reading with me!

Photo credit: Shutterstock/slexp880

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