The Influence of Place on Character in Bleak House
As is made obvious by the title, Charles Dickens puts a lot of emphasis on places in his novel Bleak House. The buildings in the novel are not merely physical structures; they acquire traits and act as the living characters. Places take on a life of their own. Characters shape their environment, but the environment also begins to influence the characters. Thus, the spirit of a place can begin to inhabit them, and no strata of society are exempt.
One of the first places introduced is the great estate of Chesney Wold. The frigidness and sense of decay that lingers about the place tells the reader this is a dying place with a dying breed of people. The distant and disaffected aristocracy is in its autumn, and few are the passionless and haughty leaders of this fading world. Dickens sets an isolated and ominous scene:
The weather, for many a day andnight, has been so wet that the trees seem wet through [. . .]. The shot of a rifle loses its sharpness in the moist air, and its smoke moves in a little tardy cloud towards the green rise [. . .] there is a general smell and taste as the ancient Dedlocks in their graves. (8)
Descriptions of dullness and lifelessness give the reader the clue that Chesney Wold is inhabited more by the dead than the living. It is no surprise, then, when Dickens says that Lady Dedlock is “bored to death” (8). There is almost nothing living here. Nonetheless, it is easy to see how Lady Dedlock and Chesney Wold are meant for each other. Dickens tells the reader about the languid lady of the manor:
My Lady Dedlock, having conquered her world, fell not into melting, but rather into the freezing mood. An exhausted composure, a worn-out placidity, an equanimity of fatigue not to be ruffled by interest or satisfaction, are the trophies of her victory. (9)
The description of her perpetual apathy, coupled with her childlessness, make her seem just as barren and empty as the place she makes her home. It is not the English countryside, though, that keeps Lady Dedlock in her half comatose state. As she returns from Paris, the reader learns, “Concert, assembly, opera, theatre, drive, nothing is new to my Lady, under the worn-out heavens” (142). No matter where she goes, Lady Dedlock carries the boredom of life with her. It matters not if she is in London, Paris, the English countryside, or anywhere else. Her problem is that she is half-dead, so everywhere she looks she finds nothing akin to the excitement of life.
As the nature of her shame comes more and more into the light, Chesney Wold sinks farther into darkness and despair. Images of judgment and damnation creep in as shadow and flame move across the ailing Chesney Wold. Dickens describes the place as the sun sets—in more than one way—on the manor:
But the fire of the sun is dying. Even now the floor is dusky, and the shadow slowly mounts the walls, bringing the Dedlocks down like old age and death. And now, upon my Lady’s picture over the great chimney-piece, a weird shade falls from some old tree, that turns it pale, and flutters it, and looks as if some great arm held a veil or a hood, watching an opportunity to draw it over her. (525)
Like any secret long held, Lady Dedlock cannot bear the shame to suffer anyone knowing her illicit past. Chesney Wold, so long her collapsing home, now looks forward to sharing her disastrous fate. As the noose begins to tighten, Lady Dedlock’s home continues to mirror her. To the world, she is the same remote, proud woman and Chesney Wold is “a glorious house of gold” (524). However, as she tells Esther, “think of your wretched mother, conscience-stricken, underneath that mask! Think that the reality is in her suffering, in her useless remorse” (476). Just as Lady Dedlock’s doom draws nearer, so too does Chesney Wold fall into gloom. Dickens writes, “the shadow in the long drawing room upon my Lady’s picture is the first to come, the last to be disturbed. At this hour and by this light it changes into threatening hands raised up” (525). The inside of Chesney Wold trembles and fills with fearful darkness just like Lady Dedlock.
As all things meet their end, the house of Lady Dedlock crumbles not long after she meets her demise, cold and ashamed. The last time the reader sees Chesney Wold, Dickens introduces it with the words “There is a hush upon Chesney Wold in these altered days” (811). Lady Dedlock has gone down to the house of the dead, and Sir Leicester is in poor shape; it is obvious the age of the aristocracy has passed beyond recovery (811). Therefore, the author shows the house is “less the property of an old family of human beings and their ghostly likenesses, than an old family of echoings and thunderings which start out of their graves at every sound, and go resounding through the building” (814). Chesney Wold is being lulled into the final sleep of oblivion. The closing view of the estate confirms this belief: “passion and pride, even to the stranger’s eye, have died away from the place in Lincolnshire, and yielded it to dull repose” (815). Chesney Wold goes to its grave shortly after Lady Dedlock goes to hers.
Rag and Bone
Other places, unfortunately, outlive their masters; Krook’s rag and bottle shop is one such place. Perusing the morbid collection of wares in the shop, Esther notes, “Everything seemed to be bought, and nothing to be sold there” (46). The reader’s suspicions about Krook and his greed only grow when, as soon as he appears, he asks, “Have you anything to sell?” (47). Clearly, Krook covets for no end than to possess for the sake of possessing. The black hole of his shop is dark and swallows up everything Krook can lay his hands on from law books and rusty keys to bones and bags of hair (47-8). None of these things have any inherent value to him, nor does he wish to sell them to make any money. His greed, then, lies solely in the power of possessing something not for monetary gain but only because he craves to possess things. Likewise, Dickens points out the greed of Chancery by having Miss Flite say, “[Krook] is called among the neighbours of the Lord Chancellor. His shop is called the Court of Chancery” (48). A creepy and covetous character, the reader hopes to have seen the last of him and his decaying eye-sore when Krook spontaneously combusts (424). Dickens, though, is reluctant to leave the prototype pawn shop alone.
When the building falls into the Mr. Smallweed’s ownership, the reader sees Krook’s legacy of avarice lives even in the rag and bottle shop. When Guppy enters the place, Dickens again brings images of the infernal regions to describe Krook’s shop:
[They] can at first see nothing save darkness and shadows; but gradually discern the elder Mr. Smallweed, seated in his chair upon the brink of a well or grave of wastepaper; the virtuous Judy groping therein [. . .]. The whole party, Small included, are blackened with dust and dirt, and present a fiendish appearance [. . .] likewise, it is ghostly with traces of its dead inhabitant, and even with his chalked writing on the wall. (519)
The references to “darkness,” “dirt,” “graves,” “fiendish appearance,” and ghosts all imply Krook’s place the gift shop of Dante’s Inferno. The building itself is a vortex of junk collected and kept for the sake of collecting and keeping it. The older Smallweed, already greedy, seems to become even more grasping as he pushes his grandchildren to toil in the filth for something of value. Krook’s heritage of avarice is added to Smallweed’s own greed and miserliness. However, even the will found in Krook’s shop to resolve Jarndyce and Jarndyce is ultimately valueless since all the money in the case has been consumed by Chancery (807). The greed of Krook and his shop, then, are pointed out; coveting will never produce any real gain. One will never be at peace since, the more one has, the more one desires to acquire more possessions.
Tom-all-Alone’s, however, is the place where the most energy is expended shaping the lives of those who dwell within it. Everything about the place is neglected. The physical disrepair is noted by Dickens, but few others:
Twice, lately, there has been a crash and a cloud of dust, like the springing of a mine, in Tom-all-Alone’s; and each time a house has fallen. These accidents have made a paragraph in the newspapers, and have filled a bed or two in the nearest hospital. (205)
Little is known or done about the darkness and evil of the place. When Mr. Snagsby—the middle-class Everyman—ventures there with Bucket, he is disgusted and shocked. Nothing in his life prepared him for the horrors lurking in his own backyard.
Mr. Snagsby passes along the middle of a villainous street, undrained, unventilated, deep in black mud and corrupt water—though the roads are dry elsewhere—and reeking with such smells and sights that he, who lived in London all his life, can scarce believe his senses. (288)
Everything about Tom-all-Alone’s is dark, diseased, and unclean in physical and moral senses of the word. What makes the situation worse is the place had been falling apart next door, but everyone turned a blind eye to it.
Perhaps because its wretchedness and evil is so manifested, Tom-all-Alone’s is the most thriving, expansive and organic location in the whole novel. The street of woe, like a child of abusive parents, becomes an abuser in its own turn. Dickens describes the place waxing in brutality:
Darkness rests upon Tom-all-Alone’s. Dilating and dilating since the sun went down last night, it has gradually swelled until it fills every void in the place [. . .]. But [Tom-all-Alone’s] has his revenge. Even the winds are his messengers, and they serve him in these hours of darkness. There is not a drop of Tom’s corrupt blood but propagates infection and contagion somewhere [. . .]. There is not anatom of Tom’s slime, not a cubic inch of any pestilent gas in which he lives, not one obscenity or degradation about him, not an ignorance, not a wickedness, not a brutality of his committing, but shall work its retribution, through every order of society[.] (582-3)
The place becomes alive with a name, “Tom,” and with desires for vengeance. In the dilating of the darkness, the reader can hear the black heart of Tom-all-Alone’s beat, carrying its plague of reprisal to everyone. None shall be spared the caress of Tom’s leprous hand, not even Esther Summerson. The scholar Joseph Gold points out the theme that a place is more than its physical structure:
None of these is fixed, of course. Richard and Gridley carry Chancery with them everywhere they are “In Chancery” and it is in them [. . .]. So Jo carries Tom-all-Alone’s with him and literally spreads it, in the form of smallpox, to those he meets even far away. (189)
It is important to note neither of these situations is particularly positive; they end in someone’s injury or death. It happens that Tom-all-Alone’s seems the most far-reaching, most influential, and most devastating of them all. The dark street fills with people who are diseased and abnormal, making Tom-all-Alone’s darker. In turn, the place lashes out crushing and infecting those within its bounds, like Jo. However, sickness and death are not respecters of the social order and set their grip on Esther, Charley, and “every order of society, up to the proudest of the proud, and to the highest of the high” (583). Again, Dickens points out people and their environments mutually shape one another. People can live in buildings, but building can live in people as well. Therefore, the reader is cautioned to choose one’s home carefully and to always keep watch over one’s neighbors, lest they bring their bleaker house with them.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. NewYork: Bantam Books, 1992.
Gold, Joseph. Charles Dickens: Radical Moralist. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
- Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens is to Victorian England what Shakespeare is to Renaissance England. Dickens has produced some of the most memorable writings in the English language, including such well known works as A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver T
© 2009 Seth Tomko