Themes, Motifs & Symbols
The Search for Love
Almost every character in Bleak House is searching for love, a search that proves to be equally rewarding and difficult. Esther quietly searches for love, even though she seems too busy taking care of others to think much about her own romantic situation. She refrains from focusing on her romantic feelings in her narrative, often revealing her feelings only through her stammering evasions of the subject. When she first meets Mr. Woodcourt, she barely mentions him or describes him, which is in stark contrast to the thorough treatment she gives everyone else who crosses her path. Only when her search for love is over, culminating in her marrying Mr. Woodcourt, does she devote explicit attention to it. Other characters carry on their searches more openly. Caddy Jellyby gleefully marries Prince Turveydrop, for example, and Rosa and Watt Rouncewell intend to marry.
The search for love is not successful for everyone, and it even ends with heartbreak for some. Mr. Guppy tries and fails to become engaged to Esther, making two ridiculous proposals that Esther roundly rejects. Esther accepts Mr. Jarndyce’s proposal, but he calls off his search for love when he acknowledges that the love between them is not the kind of love that will make Esther truly happy. Ada, although she finds true love with Richard, is eventually heartbroken when Richard dies. Sometimes the search for love is literal, and these searches never end well. For example, Lady Dedlock engages in a literal search for love when she tries to find out where her former lover is, and Sir Leicester endeavors to find Lady Dedlock when she disappears from Chesney Wold. Whether pleasing or tragic, the search for love always proves to be a force that changes characters dramatically.
The Importance and Danger of Passion
In Bleak House, passion is both important and dangerous, sometimes healthy and satisfying, sometimes harmful and destructive. Many characters recognize the importance of passion for a fulfilling life. For example, Mr. Jarndyce and Esther worry when Richard can’t find a career. Both hope he’ll settle on a career that he’ll feel passionate about, but Richard flits from one thing to the next, never finding anything truly compelling. Esther recognizes the importance of passion in love, which is why she cries as she decides to accept Mr. Jarndyce’s proposal—she loves him, but not in the passionate, romantic way she’s dreamed of loving someone. Even Mr. Jarndyce understands the importance of passion. Although he knows he and Esther could have a happy life together at Bleak House, he also knows their love is built on affection rather than passion. He releases her from her acceptance and settles her with Mr. Woodcourt, who he knows is Esther’s true love.
Although passion is a key element in a fulfilling life, it can be destructive when it is taken to an unhealthy level. Mrs. Jellyby, who is obsessed with her “mission” to help Africa, is criminally negligent of her family and has removed herself from them so much that she barely cares about Caddy’s engagement and wedding. Mrs. Pardiggle, the charity worker who forces her young sons to give up their money for her causes, is oblivious to her sons’ unhappiness and can’t see that she is an intolerable person. More sinister is the violent passion Richard feels for the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. For the first time, he is excited about something, willing to devote himself wholeheartedly to it and make it his single goal. This passion was absent from all his previous pursuits, but it is not welcome or healthy here. Rather than enliven and satisfy him, it robs him of reason and moderation and, eventually, his life. Passion, though essential, can be dangerous when it becomes all consuming.
The Ambiguous Definition of “Mother”
Throughout Bleak House, the role of mother is filled by women who often are not “real” mothers at all. Charley, a child herself, cares for her two young siblings, all of them orphaned and struggling. Jenny and Liz, the brickmakers’ wives, care for each other’s children. Liz cares for Jenny’s child when it is sick, and after it dies, Jenny takes to calling Liz’s child her own. Lady Dedlock reveals a motherly side in her affection for Rosa. And Mrs. Rouncewell becomes a kind of mother figure to Sir Leicester when he becomes ill at the end of the novel.
Esther is undoubtedly the character who best knows the true flexibility of the title “mother.” Esther fills the role of mother for several people, including Ada, Richard, Caddy, and Charley. To a lesser extent, she mothers Jo, Jenny’s sick baby, and Peepy Jellyby—in other words, nearly every child who crosses her path. When Ada has her child after Richard dies, Esther is so involved in the child’s upbringing that the child says it has two mothers. Esther herself is raised by Miss Barbary and Mrs. Rachael, neither of whom is her “real” mother. Occasionally, other women tend to Esther, including Mrs. Woodcourt, the women at the inn she meets when she goes in search for Lady Dedlock, and, in a reversal of roles, Charley, who tends to Esther when Esther gets smallpox. Lady Dedlock, Esther’s real mother, is actually the least motherly figure in Esther’s life. Their interaction is fleeting, and though Esther finds comfort when Lady Dedlock hugs her, it is temporary at best. When Lady Dedlock disappears, Esther takes up the mothering role once again, frantically searching for Lady Dedlock in the middle of the night.
Secrets are everywhere in Bleak House. The most dramatic secret belongs to Lady Dedlock, who must hide her past transgressions to save her and her family’s reputations. Her secret takes on a life of its own, eventually roaring into her life and leading to her death. Esther has secrets, despite her generally reliable narration. For example, she doesn’t tell us right away about her feelings for Mr. Woodcourt or his feelings for her, although she drops some vague hints. Mr. Jarndyce has secrets as well. He had always planned to make Esther his wife, although he never revealed those plans to her until he wrote a letter to her. Later, he secretly arranges her reunion with Woodcourt. Some characters are not so good at keeping their secrets. For example, Ada and Richard try to hide that they’re falling in love, but they are not really successful. They are better at hiding the fact that they got secretly married. Mr. Tulkinghorn and Inspector Bucket make their livings from other people’s secrets. Tulkinghorn makes it his mission to find out what Lady Dedlock is hiding, and Bucket is charged with the task of investigating her. The success they have in uncovering the truth suggests that no matter how determined one is to keep a secret, that secret isn’t safe from anyone obsessed with exposing it.
Suicide appears several times in Bleak House, and the deaths and attempted deaths emphasize the sense of desperation that exists at the heart of the novel. First, we learn of Tom Jarndyce, who committed suicide over the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit. Indeed, the suit proves dangerous to anyone who gets too wrapped up in it. Richard, who becomes obsessed with the suit at the expense of his and Ada’s happiness and wellbeing, eventually dies. Although he didn’t kill himself per se, one could argue that he worked himself to death. Suicide is often referred to in passing, such as when George and Grandfather Smallweed discuss a seemingly successful man who tried to kill himself, and when Tulkinghorn reminisces about a friend who hanged himself. At one point, when Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock are having a difficult conversation about the secret, Tulkinghorn fears that Lady Dedlock will jump out the window and kill herself. When Bucket confronts Mademoiselle Hortense about the murder, he fears that she’ll try to jump out a window as well. Lady Dedlock ultimately kills herself by fleeing into the cold night, which was undoubtedly her intention when she set out.
Children are everywhere in Bleak House, but they are rarely happy or adequately cared for. First, we have the “wards of Jarndyce” themselves—Ada and Richard—shipped off to a cousin they’ve never met. The Jellyby children are woefully neglected by Mrs. Jellyby, who is more concerned with her African “mission” than with her family. The children are filthy, hungry, unhappy, and cold. The Pardiggle children are no less unhappy, as their obnoxious mother forces them to give all their money to her charities, oblivious to their discontent. Charley and her two siblings are orphaned, and Charley, a mere child, must work to support them. Finally, there is the street urchin Jo, moving from place to place and always, it seems, in someone’s way. Some of these children do find care and happiness: Ada and Richard have a happy home at Bleak House; Caddy Jellyby finds a gentle husband; and Charley, and later her younger sister, Emma, become Esther’s maid. The same cannot be said for Jo. He finds temporary kindness and shelter at Bleak House but is quickly intimidated by Bucket into leaving and dies soon after.
The East Wind
The east wind represents any vexing event, person, or possibility that upsets or threatens to upset Mr. Jarndyce. Mr. Jarndyce, steadfast and good-natured, rarely expresses displeasure with anyone or voices his unhappiness or worry. Instead, when he is agitated, he remarks that the wind is in the east, and those who know him understand what he means. Mr. Jarndyce refers to the east wind frequently when Esther first meets him, but as the novel progresses, the wind, so to speak, seems to die down. At one point, Mr. Jarndyce even tells Esther that there can be no east wind when she is around, which reveals the extent of her influence on him and in Bleak House. The use of wind to represent troubling issues also suggests how changeable and unpredictable life can be. Just as the wind can change direction without warning, lives are set on new courses when secrets are revealed or when long-absent people return unexpectedly.
Miss Flite’s Birds
Miss Flite’s remarkable collection of caged birds represents the unfortunate people who have been trapped after becoming involved with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. Miss Flite, who has followed the suit faithfully for years and has never stopped expecting a judgment, plans to release her birds when the judgment finally comes. The lawsuit, however, has gone on so long that the birds keep dying, at which point she then gets new ones, which eventually die as well. The birds, dying before a judgment is rendered, represent the people who have also died while waiting for a judgment, including members of Miss Flite’s family. Miss Flite has given her birds names that suggest the things that have also died as Jarndyce and Jarndyce has droned on, such as Hope, Joy, and Youth, or that have been brought about by the suit, including Waste, Ruin, Despair, Madness, and Death. Miss Flite does eventually release the birds after Richard dies and the suit has been dismissed, but their freedom comes at the expense of many lives.
Mr. Woodcourt’s Flowers
The flowers Mr. Woodcourt gives Esther before he goes to sea initially represent a secret burgeoning love but later represent a past that can never be revisited. Esther doesn’t tell us very much about the flowers, only hinting at who gave them to her and what they signify. After her face has been scarred by smallpox, however, she confronts the flowers directly in her narrative. After Mr. Woodcourt gave them to her, she dried them and saved them in a book, but she now feels as though she shouldn’t keep them since she looks so different from before. Instead, she decides to keep them to remember the past, not as a romantic keepsake from a man she once loved, but as a reminder of the woman she used to be and the possibilities that had been open to that woman but have now been lost forever. Esther doesn’t make many overtly romantic gestures in the novel, so this admission of her affection for Mr. Woodcourt, as well as the suggestion that she really does mourn the loss of her beauty, makes the flowers all the more significant. Later in the novel, after accepting Mr. Jarndyce’s proposal, she burns the flowers, which testifies to the depth of her devotion.
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