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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bleak House!