debating Bleak House

Steven Maloney has a thoughtful post about moral issues in Dickens’ Bleak House. He cites two of my posts on the same subject, so this is a bit of a back-and-forth. I would summarize my thoughts about the novel as follows:

1. Mrs. Jellyby illustrates how an author’s judgment of a character can be correct even though the same author’s choice of that character is problematic. I find Mrs. Jellyby awful, as does Dickens. She is callously unconcerned about her own family because she is obsessed with an obviously foolish charitable scheme in Africa, a place of which she knows nothing. No doubt there were women like that in Dickens’ day, when paths to national political and civic leadership were reserved for men. But bourgeois women were also struggling to play useful public roles despite a powerful cult of domesticity. Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch–for example–is a great soul largely squelched by her narrow opportunities for improving the world. So it bothers me that Dickens would choose to portray a woman who should just stop worrying about society and serve her family better.

Steven makes a fair point that a whole range of characters populates Bleak House, and both the men and women exhibit various levels of social and domestic responsibility. The fact that Messrs. Skimpole and Carstone are as irresponsible as Mrs. Jellyby reduces the misogyny of the novel. Yet there is no female character with any capacity for social improvement–despite the terrible needs that Dickens portrays–and that seems a flaw.

The general category that interests me here encompasses fictional characters who have genuine virtues or vices, but whose description reinforces a harmful stereotype.

2. I think that Bleak House is a nationalistic novel, encouraging readers to broaden their sympathies to encompass all Englishmen (while stopping at the coasts of England). That’s certainly not my favorite ethical stance, but it’s better than a narrower frame or a vacuous and sentimental concern for human beings in general. Such nationalism is a form of solidarity, not just empathy. Building the nation-state as a community of mutual concern was an arduous task that could still fail today. Bleak House (and the liberalism it represents) improved the world.

Steven makes an important observation about Mr. Skimpole, who professes literally not to understand his social obligations. That creates an interesting problem for moral assessment. I think Steven is right that Skimpole is ultimately a charlatan and his kind of non-understanding is either inexcusable or spurious.

I’ve written much more about the ethical interpretation of literature in Reforming the Humanities: Literature and Ethics from Dante through Modern Times (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

This entry was posted in fine arts, philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.