nationalism as the enlargement of human sympathy

I finished Bleak House last night. It’s such an enormous and complex novel that one could talk or write about it forever. But I have a job. So I’ll just offer one thought about Dickens’ moral imagination.

I read Bleak House as nationalistic. Of the many dozens of characters, I believe only one is foreign: the French maid Hortense. She is completely wicked and a Francophobe caricature with her ridiculous accent and irrational passions. A more important character, Mrs Jellyby, foolishly engages in charity work overseas while neglecting her own English household and community. In the end, she is “disappointed in Borrioboola-Gha, which [turns] out a failure in consequence of the king of Borrioboola wanting to sell everybody–who survived the climate–for rum.” The model of British manhood, Allan Woodcourt, is forced by economic necessity to travel abroad, where he experiences a “terrible shipwreck over in those East Indian seas.” He plays the hero in this crisis and “saves many lives”–presumably British lives.

This drawing of boundaries and discounting of outsiders is unappealing. But Dickens may also be skeptical about the wisdom of trying to help people whom one doesn’t know. (This is Esther Summerson’s explicit view, and she is the moral center of the novel.) The nationalism of the novel is not by any means imperialistic. It is isolationist, and perhaps driven by modesty.

Besides, the drawing of boundaries can mean an enlargement rather than a restriction of one’s moral commitments. Bleak House dramatizes the interconnections among British people. One could cite literally hundreds of examples, but one stark one [warning: plot spoiler coming] is the death of Lady Dedlock. She has been the most fashionable and elegant aristocrat in the land, but she expires in a pauper’s graveyard dressed in the clothes of a peasant whose baby had died from preventable disease. Her body is literally mistaken for that of someone at the opposite end of the social spectrum.

The leading idea of the novel is that all British subjects are one family and they must take care of one another. This is nationalism as mutual responsibility. It’s not a state-centered nationalism that favors political leaders or big bureaucratic programs. In fact, Bleak House seems disturbingly cynical about Parliament and the government as possible sources of reform. Instead, the ideology (if there is a single ideology in this polyphonic book) is one of non-fundamentalist Christian solidarity. That’s not my favorite ideal for our times–but we’d be better off if we had it.

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