January 19, 2024
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Though I am skipping over many undiscussed gems throughout Bleak House, we must move forward. The current focus on charity intertwines in various characters’ narratives in unexpected ways. Rather than exciting the expected awe or reverence, charity in this book is bandied about and thrown in the reader’s face as if a tomato at the stage. Dickens forces the unforeseen, maybe to demonstrate the simple notion that things are not often what they seem.
For example, we have discussed Mr. Skimpole already – an adult child who lives off of the kindness of others. Mr. Skimpole feels that his existence is a gift to people of means because being charitable often makes one feel good. Therefore, those that keep Mr. Skimpole afloat are actually performing a necessary, charitable, and vital service to humanity, or so goes the thought of Mr. Skimpole. Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps people do feel good about supporting him, and perhaps that is the definition of charity. Yet, charity does not always appear like a financial transaction, does not always appear charitable, and may sometimes be the opposite of expectation.
Chapter 18 transports the main characters to Mr. Boythorn’s house (who just happens to live next to Chesney Wold, home of the Dedlocks). Mr. Boythorn, a boisterous, energetic, loud friend of Mr. Jarndyce, happens to have a mortal dislike of Sir Leicester Dedlock. In Chapter 18, Dickens uses a short conversation between Mr. Boythorn and Mr. Skimpole in order to develop ideas of charity.
Mr. Boythorn and Sir Leicester Dedlock have always been at odds. Sir Leicester’s arrogance and heritage disturb Mr. Boythorn. He sees only selfishness and greed in Sir Leicester. In fact, Mr. Boythorn finds the arrogant old man exceedingly repugnant. Mr. Skimpole, however, is delighted by Dedlock, claiming that he would be happy to accept charity from such a man. Mr. Skimpole says,
“Here I am, content to receive things childishly as they fall out, and I never take trouble! I come down here, for instance, and I find a mighty potentate exacting homage. Very well! I say ‘Mighty potentate, here IS my homage! Easier to give it than to withhold it. Here it is. If you have anything of an agreeable nature to show me, I shall be happy to see it; if you have anything of an agreeable nature to give me, I shall be happy to accept it.’ Mighty potentate replies in effect, ‘This sensible fellow. I find him accord with my digestion and my bilious system. He doesn’t impose upon me the necessity of rolling myself up like a hedgehog with my points outward. I expand, I open, I turn my silver lining outward like Milton’s cloud, and it’s more agreeable to both of us.’ That’s my view of such things, speaking as a child.”
Mr. Boythorn, momentarily speechless, finally replies, “Is there such a thing as principle, Mr. Harold Skimpole?”
Mr. Skimpole feels comfortable accepting charity from whatever source can be found, which Boythorn would call an unprincipled error in judgment. In fact, Mr. Skimpole finds that creating a source of charity for Sir Leicester might actually improve the nature of the giver. So once again, Mr. Skimpole finds that charity (in all shapes and sizes) makes the world a better place. In Mr. Skimpole’s mind, he is actually performing a service to society. Mr. Boythorn, however, sees nothing but a lack of principles in the one who receives money from such a foul-natured individual as Sir Leicester. Mr. Boythorn sees nothing but a devil in Sir Leicester, and anyone who does a deal with the devil comes out the worse for wear. In his estimation, both giver and receiver become tainted. He raises the important question of principle. What does it mean to be principled? In Bleak House, both Sir Leicester and Mr. Boythorn harbor such ill-will toward each other, that neither can be said to be improved by their shared boundary.
Mr. Skimpole seems mystified by the notion of Mr. Boythorn’s invocation of principles. He replies, “Upon my life I have not the least idea! I don’t know what it is you call by that name [of principle], or where it is, or who possesses it. If you posses it and find it comfortable, I am quite delighted and congratulate you heartily. But I know nothing about it, I assure you; for I am a mere child, and I lay no claim to it, and I don’t want it!”
In view of this conversation, I ask: How is principle connected with charity? Are there (written or unwritten) rules involved in charitable actions?
Finally, a quick turn to the end of Chapter 19. The police harass the poor homeless Jo, who must be swept down the sidewalks as if a piece of trash. Jo complains, however, that he’s got nowhere to go. Mr. Chadband, after feasting at Mr. Snagsby’s table in a most gluttonous, glutinous way, preaches to the young Jo. He calls the boy a glorious case “because you are capable of receiving the lessons of wisdom, because you are capable of profitting by this discourse which I now deliver for your good.” Mr. Chadband will preach about spiritual profit and peace to Jo. Jo, in turn, must receive these lectures as the only hope of improving his own life. The trouble is, Jo has nowhere to live and no food. So, the question is, what change will best improve Jo’s life: a change in mindset or in circumstance?
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Casimiro PT