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Discuss the role of women in Bleak
House, particularly their roles within their marriages.
Women play a vibrant, active role in Bleak
House and are often the dominant spouse in their marriages.
First, there is Esther, our narrator, who claims to not be clever
but is a respected source of advice and a close confidante for all
those in her circle. She is our guide through the story, and she
fulfills this role skillfully, manipulating the narrative for greater
dramatic effect and taking on the responsibility of conveying events
as accurately as possible. Ada, though young and naïve, demonstrates
an unshakeable devotion to Richard. Although she seems oblivious
to the foolhardiness of his pursuit of the Chancery suit, she is
actually fully aware of the danger and has a mature understanding
of her role as his supporter. Lady Dedlock, though seemingly vapid
and haughty, actually harbors the secret of an entire past life,
including a passionate love affair and a child, that she experienced
before marrying Sir Leicester. The fact that she must keep this
past life concealed—and does so quite successfully for many years—gives
richness and depth to her character. Although her relentless, unfounded
suspicions make her ridiculous, and although she is a nuisance to
all, as well as a bane to Mr. Snagsby, Mrs. Snagsby demonstrates
her own kind of feistiness.
Just as Ada proves to be a strong partner for Richard,
other women, including Lady Dedlock, Mrs. Bagnet, and Mrs. Bucket, prove
to be integral partners in their own marriages. Sir Leicester is weakened
irreversibly when Lady Dedlock’s secret is revealed, although he
is affected more by her disappearance than by the secret itself.
Mrs. Bagnet is such a dominant force in her marriage that she serves
as Mr. Bagnet’s voice; when he needs to speak, he constantly looks
to her to do it for him. He tries to maintain “discipline” by not praising
his wife to her face, but this is a perfunctory effort. If discipline
is needed, Mrs. Bagnet is clearly the one who will administer it. Mrs.
Bucket, although she has a more equal partnership with Inspector
Bucket, proves to be a staunch assistant in Bucket’s investigations.
She is the one who tracks Mademoiselle Hortense and collects the
evidence that eventually bring Bucket’s case to a close. Although
men are generally the ones who “take action,” they are clearly driven
by the strong women who stand behind them. The exceptions to this
claim are Jenny and Liz, who, although they prove to have minds
of their own, are ultimately overpowered by their husbands’ reliance
on the use of violence. They have the capacity to be strong partners,
but the men linked with them don’t have the ability or desire to
treat them as such.
How do the two narrators work together
to tell the story of Bleak House?
Dickens provides two different perspectives
and two different vantage points in time to lead us through the
story of Bleak House. There are two narrators of Bleak
House: a third-person narrator who tells the story in the
present tense, and Esther, a first-person narrator, who tells the
story in the past tense. Although each narrator tells a somewhat
thorough tale, neither narrative is complete on its own, and the
narrators rely on each other to flesh out events and characters
and to fill in the blanks that the other leaves. Esther, for example,
is concerned primarily with the principal people in her own life:
Mr. Jarndyce, Ada, Richard, Caddy, Charley, Woodcourt, Skimpole,
and Boythorn, among several others. These characters interact with
and are greatly affected by characters Esther doesn’t know or know
well, such as Tulkinghorn, Snagsby, Bucket, Lady Dedlock, and Sir
Leicester. It is the third-person narrator’s duty to follow these
characters and give us their stories, weaving together many disparate
storylines and clues. We get the sense that there is a lot going
on behind the scenes that Esther doesn’t know about, but she tells
her part of the story as thoroughly as she can. It is not her job
to know everything, and she relates only the parts of the story that
directly affect her and her loved ones.
Telling the story from two different vantages points in
time heightens the suspense, raises the intrigue, and pulls us more
deeply into the tale. Esther’s narration is compelling, but she
tells it from a point seven years in the future, when we know that
the events she conveys are long over. Esther knows the whole story,
with its twists and turns and surprises, and we have to rely on
her to reveal information when—and if—she chooses. As a result,
we have the sense that we’re being led. On the other hand, the present-tense
sections told by the third-person narrator have an immediacy and
urgency that Esther’s narrative lacks. In the chapters where the
narrator takes over, Dickens plucks us from our safe point in the
future and places us right into the story itself. The narrator leads
us through events as they happen; there is little to conceal since,
for the most part, we see what the narrator sees, when he sees it.
We’re in the story, rather than beyond it. Together, Esther and
the third-person narrator draw us in and out of the tale, from one
point in time to another, creating a whole world that we’re both
experiencing and reading about at the same time.
Describe the role of servants in the
story of Bleak House.
Servants play a vital role in the events
that take place in Bleak House, and they sometimes
serve as catalysts for new turns of events to unfold. Young, quiet
Rosa doesn’t say much for herself, but when she is dismissed from
Chesney Wold, the tenuous agreement between Tulkinghorn and Lady
Dedlock comes to an end. Lady Dedlock sends Rosa away coldly, but
she is actually trying to protect her: if Rosa is still her protégée
when her secret is revealed, Rosa’s chances for a good marriage
will be destroyed. Tulkinghorn is enraged that Lady Dedlock would
raise suspicions by dismissing Rosa, and he warns her that he will
reveal her secret soon. Guster, the Snagsbys’ maid, who is given
to having violent fits, plays a pivotal role as well because she’s
the person to whom Lady Dedlock gives a letter as she flees. When
Bucket, Woodcourt, and Esther procure this letter from Guster, they
are able to find Lady Dedlock. Mrs. Chadband, meanwhile, whom Esther
knows as “Mrs. Rachael,” was Esther’s caretaker as a child; Mrs.
Rachael is one of Esther’s earliest memories. Her role in the novel
is small, but her appearance in Snagsby’s shop suggests that the
past is slowly edging into the present, and that Esther’s upbringing
and childhood, so unknown to her, will soon be revealed. Mrs. Rouncewell,
the devoted housekeeper at Chesney Wold, is more of a constant presence
than any kind of agent of change, but she stays on at Chesney Wold
with her son, George, even though the others have left, to make
sure that Sir Leicester is not alone.
Mademoiselle Hortense plays the most significant role
of any servant in the novel—she murders Mr. Tulkinghorn, then frames
Lady Dedlock for the murder. Mademoiselle Hortense has a long list
of grievances against Lady Dedlock, which are rooted primarily in jealousy.
When Rosa arrives, Lady Dedlock pays more intimate attention to
her than she ever paid to Mademoiselle Hortense, which enrages her.
Away from Chesney Wold, Mademoiselle Hortense is given to complaining
angrily about Lady Dedlock, and she is unable to hold her tongue
when Tulkinghorn threatens to send her to prison. Mademoiselle Hortense,
who has endured what she perceives as slights and injustices throughout
her employment with Lady Dedlock, takes drastic steps to right these
wrongs and get revenge. Even though Tulkinghorn would have revealed
Lady Dedlock’s secret regardless of Mademoiselle Hortense’s actions,
Mademoiselle Hortense’s bitter revenge took that revelation in a
different, more violent direction.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bleak House!