By Trudy A. Martinez
The imagery in Bleak House reveals a revelation of possibilities that petitions both a pessimistic and an optimistic existence. The beginning is the end. The end is the beginning of judgment. The words paint a picture, a warning of a possible end, giving a pessimistic view of that city coming into judgment. The four elements: earth, water, fire, and air that frame the beginning of the earth in the Holy Bible also frame the desolate beginning of Bleak House with its possible end. The middle links the beginning and the end through the characters representative of both good and evil who guide the societal participants at all levels of existence to their destination in life or death. In the end, the ending is a new beginning, mending a separation between man and woman, joining them in both love and marriage; this scene paints an optimistic view of a promise land free from destructive imagery.
Dickens inaugurates his imagery by using a verb style hypotaxis where the ranking is done for us while the all-knowing narrator informs the reader of any judgment lest we be guilty of judging. His play on words in the hypotaxis style creates an image of the beginning of the end with all of the four elements at work. For instance, the weather issues forth the mud, symbolizing corruption, where the “foot passengers . . . slipping and sliding” in and out of their faith add “new deposits” of “crust” to the earth. The retirement of the water (a symbol of the pure at heart ascending to Heaven) is seen “hanging in the misty clouds” protected from the fog that weaves in and out, spreading corruption everywhere at all levels of society and to all its classes, while at the same time, destroying the natural elements. The pure at heart are protected from the destruction and blindness created because they are housed within the structure of a prepositional phrase “as if they were up in a balloon.” Hovering above and “Peeping” down upon a pestilence in progress (Dickens 49). The fire issues forth its aftermath: the “smoke making a soft black drizzle with flakes of “soot” raining on and “mourning . . . for the death of the sun” (Dickens 49). The air, suffering from the effects of the death of the sun, produces a “haggard and unwilling look,” forming a gaseous appearance that looms “through the fog in divers places (Dickens 49)” toward those who are deserving of God’s judgment.
Period writers arm themselves with His judgment, prophesying the coming of the bridegroom who, ridding the earth of the “Megalosarus,” a dragon simulating the devil, brings about the death of the elements. Why else would “the two speechless gazers” after “justice was done” bend “themselves down to the earth, as if in prayer” in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles? Were they not made aware of His presence? Was it just a coincidence that Adam’s occupation was a carpenter capable of winning over the priestess Dinah presented as if she was pure and innocence in Adam Bede or was it merely that the author, George Eliot’s vision blurred? I think not! After all, the all-knowing narrator allows her to confess in the novel, hinting of her defect and her judgment before God:
“The mirror is doubtless defective: the outlines will sometimes be disturbed, the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you as precisely as I can what that refection is, as if I were in the witness-box, narrating my experience on oath (174).”
Others in the same period present and depict London in a similar light, exposing situations deserving of God’s judgment, while at the same time, teaching the eye to hear as if fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah (Matthew 13:13-17) while focusing on the position of woman in society. For example, Blake’s central concern was the Infants cry, pointing to the sin of man as the reason for the Harlot’s curse we hear while he hears the Harlots (plural) curse (swear) because of the tear (separation) of the Infants tear from their rightful place. Blake teaches his reader to hear with their eyes through the transparent chiasmas he creates. Similarly, one must question whether the Harlot’s curse put upon Lady Deadlock in Bleak House is actually man’s curse for allowing and bringing about her separation from her child, Esther.
Mrs. Rouncewell announces that the sound of the Ghost’s Walk must be heard when she tells a child, “I am not sure it is dark enough yet, but listen! Can you hear the sound upon the terrace, through the music, and the beat, and everything? This sound she says, “You cannot shut it out” (Dickens 141). And then again one might ask how was the blind man in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary able to see Emma’s sin and rebuke her for it when he could only hear? Could it be he is a messenger sending forth a rebuke to all of us so that we will become aware of the writing on the wall and hear with our eyes the same beat and music being played for us by God Almighty from the break of His day? Although each instance centers in on a different aspect of woman’s existence, all communicate a need for change.
Bleak House calls to mind the sin of Eve and the need for the removal of false images before the sight of God. For instance, Esther’s aunt, her godmother, assumes the role of a god, issuing forth judgment when she says, “Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers” (Dickens 65). Further evidence of her role as a god is given through her paralleling herself to Christ: “I have forgiven her,” she said, “I, the sufferer” (Dickens 65). But only God in Heaven can truly forgive and Christ already paid with his life by suffering for our sins. Why then is Esther’s aunt taking on such a role? Why is Esther made to suffer at the hands of another and a woman at that?
In essence, Esther asks these questions herself when she reads the book of St. John to her aunt and exclaims, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her! (Dickens 66)” At this point, an abrupt switch from the verb style Esther reads from the Holy Bible to the noun style hypotaxis where the aunt’s role is cast within a different structure. Esther is “stopped by her godmother’s rising, putting her hand to her head, and crying out in an awful voice, from quite another part of the book . . . “ (Dickens 67). Here again, there is an abrupt change; this time to a verb style as she attempts to assume a different role, deceiving the child and freeing herself from her confinement. Unfortunately, the role she attempts to assume is that of a false god, using God’s words as her own, warning Esther of destruction: ‘ “Watch ye therefore! Lest . . . he find you sleeping” ‘(Dickens 67), and forgetting that God is an angry God and a jealous God; the aunt makes the mistake of overly extending her influence, and she unthinkingly spouts out: “And what I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch!” Consequently, God struck her down. He Judged her instantly.
At once, the verb style returns to a noun style when the aunt is spoken of by the naïve narrative of Esther, but the noun style works against its subject: Esther’s emotional plea to her aunt, the anaphora: I + kissed, [I] + thanked, and [I] + prayed, [I] + asked, [I] + [asked], [I] + entreated, failed because the aunt had over stepped her bounds by assuming the character of the antichrist and was, therefore, instantly judged.
Esther avoids an immediate judgment because she is still a child, investigating the choices available to her with the words of her aunt still ringing in her ears: “Pray daily that the sins of others be not visited upon your head, according to what is written” (Dickens 65). From this point, the novel becomes Esther’s bildungsroman as she moves from an unfavorable light toward a more favorable one. Just as Esther moves, the written word moves. For instance, noun style changes to a verb style, the hypotaxis style, where everything is determined for us, changes to a parataxis style where the choice is left up to us; and we are made able to link good to the bad as if administering a pill to cure its ills.
The change in Esther, just as the change in the written style of the words on the page, becomes apparent in Esther when she administers a pill to herself. Here, she stresses self-denial and a willingness to seek and discover the answers. The absence of prepositional phrases, the jailed structure that inhibits choice, highlights the change in the structure just as it highlights the change in Esther and favors her for her choice of thinking of others first:
“I don’t know how it is; I seem to be always writing about myself. I mean all the time to write about other people, and I try to think about myself as little as possible, and I am sure, when I find myself coming into the story again, I am really vexed and say, ‘Dear, dear, you tiresome little creature. I wish you wouldn’t!’ But it is all of no use (Dickens 163).”
It is of no use not speaking of Esther because speaking of Esther is the only way to reveal the methods and the formula for change and its reward or damnation. The others around her paint the picture of how things are going to be. For example, Mr. Skimpole is seen receiving his reward for his faith. The table was set for him: “There was honey on the table, and it led him into the discourses about the Bees. . . He protested against the overwhelming assumptions of bees.” The status the “busy bees” sold their souls for was given him by them. He stood firm and did not allow them to be a model. The station of the bees “was ridiculous:” a “position, to be smoked out of your fortune with brimstone” (Dickens 143).
Mr. Jarndyce guides Esther from the fire and smoke to discovery of the unknown and to her pleasure as if throwing water on her, baptizing her, and awakening her from a sleep. Esther tells us that the signs were “At first,” only “faintly discernible in the mists,” and acknowledges that “above them . . . later stars still glimmered” (Dickens 142). Is it just a coincidence that Esther is sent for and brought out of the mist “On the” very “day, after” her false image, the “poor good god mother, “the antichrist, “was buried,” and “the gentlemen in black with the white neckcloth reappeared,” announcing: “My name is Kenge . . . you may remember it, my child; Kenge and Carboy, Lincoln’s Inn?”(Dickens 67).
Does he not call to mind one holding the balances in his hand? He sure appears so on the page for Kenge first appears in the noun style and then abruptly switches to the verb style when he speaks. It stands to reason that just after Jarndyce announces “that Boythorn,” who was “the loudest boy in the world, and now the loudest man”, was coming down on a visit that he and his guests “observed the favorable omen” (Dickens 166). The opposite occurs on page 66 when the one that was, the god-MOTHER OF HARLOTS is struck down after trying to steal the thunder of the words of THE KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.
We are told by Boythorn, “We have been misdirected” by “the most intolerable scoundrel on the face of the earth” (Dickens 166). Mr. Boythorn asks, “Is there anything for me from your men, Kenge and Carboy?” after he identifies Sir Leicester as Sir Lucifer and “calls attention to” the controversy of trespass., concerning “the green pathway” that Sir Leicester claims right away to but that is “now the property of Mr. Lawrence Boythorn”(Dickens 166-170). Did not he state: “No closing of my path, by any Deadlock!”
In contrast, Richard, thinking only of himself, “one of the most restless creatures in the world” takes a different route: He goes from what is considered a favorable light to an unfavorable one. Richard stresses self-love and a willingness to accept a different calling: “. . . The inclination of his childhood for the sea” (Dickens 163-164). Unlike Esther, Richard’s speech moves from a verb style to noun style. For example, Richard says: “So, cousin . . . We are never to get out of Chancery!” And the style abruptly changes to a noun style as he continues to say: “We have come by another way to our place of meeting yesterday, and – by the Great Seal, here’s the old lady again!”(Dickens 97) His choice was that of the easy way out as if he could change the direction the wind blows.
Finding that he has to work for his place, he places his confidence in the world whose outward appearance of luxury and fashion veils the inward corruption. The same becomes his religion and the High Lord Chancellor becomes his idol. This is evidenced when he confides in Esther:
“So I apprehend it’s pretty clear . . . that I shall have to work my own way. Never mind! Plenty of people have had to do that before now, and have done it. I only wish I had the command of a clipping privateer, to begin with, and could carry off the Chancellor and keep him on short allowance until he gave judgment in our cause. He’d find himself growing thin, if he didn’t look sharp! (Dickens 164)”
Hence, Richard becomes the kindling that fuels the wheels of corruption, thinking his dream of success lies just around the next turn as the wheels forever grind him further down toward his desolate destination of destruction and death. For example, his guide toward destruction, Mr. Vholes issues forth all manners of lies, eating upon Richard’s very flesh as if he were a cannibal (Dickens 605). And then again, he listened to the wrong voices when Mr. Vholes says, “A good deal is doing, sir. We have to put our shoulders to the wheel, Mr. Carstone, and the wheel is going round” (Dickens 607):
“I ought to imitate you, in fact, Mr. Vholes? Says Richard, sitting down again with an impatient laugh, and beating the Devil’s Tattoo with his boot on the patternless carpet” (Dickens 607).
In the beginning of the end, all the pestilence that was weaving through the streets in the fog was directed toward “the Lord High Chancellor” who having:
“A foggy glory round his head, softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains . . . outwardly directing his contemplation to the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog” (Dickens 50),
Let his house become desolate and unworthy of praise.
Quite the opposite of the Chancellor, Mr. John Jarndyce who converts his inheritance of a Bleak House left to him by his ancestors to a house of beauty by ridding the inside of its corruption of dirt with the application of a little water as if sent from God to bear witness of Truth.
Jarndyce compares the likeness of the former state of Bleak House to that city, burning in brimstone and the House built to fulfill the bridegroom’s coming, a promise, to the bride (earth). For what other reason would everyone at Bleak House view Mr. Boythorn’s coming as “the favorable omen,” confirming Jarndyce’s role as the Baptist when he says, “Now, will you come upstairs” and Boythorn answers:
“By my soul, Jarndyce, . . . if you had been married, I would have turned back at the garden-gate . . .I wouldn’t be guilty of the audacious insolence of keeping a lady [bride] of the house waiting all this time, for any earthly consideration. I would infinitely rather destroy myself – infinitely rather! (Dickens 166-168).”
The end is left for the reader to decide whether it is a new beginning or an actual judgment of earth. Jarndyce sums it up:
“I have never lost my old names, nor has he lost his; nor do I ever when he is with us, sit in any other place than in my old chair at his side. Dame Trot, Dame Durden, Little Woman! – all just the same as ever; and [Esther] answer[s], Yes, dear Guardian! Just the same . . . (Dickens 934).”
The hypotaxis style changes to a parataxis verb style on page 892, leaving the reader to interpret how to avoid judgment by linking back the participants in the society to see where each went wrong.