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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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 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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bleak House!