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"The Church’s Social Responsibility" in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (Part 3)

Updated on October 22, 2016

Bleak House

Esther Summerson

Esther Summerson

Let’s now consider three characters whose work represents a view of social responsibility closer to the Dickens ideal.

Not shown as a regular churchgoer, Esther Summerson represents the first model of good behavior that this paper will consider. Since her childhood she had always striven “to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted, and to do some good to some one, and win some love for myself if I could” (Dickens 31). Mota observes that she is “occupied with the lives of those within her domestic circle, and the rest of the world is meaningful to her only as a reflection of this smaller society” (191).

Besides her befriending of Caddy Jellyby on the day that so distressed the young girl that she cried out, “I wish Africa was dead,” (Dickens 60) and then later, “I wish I was dead . . . I wish we were all dead. It would be a great deal better for us” (62), Esther shines as a compassionate servant in the brickmaker’s household. After Mrs. Pardiggle leaves the house, making “a show that was not conciliatory, of doing charity by whole-sale,” Esther stays behind and, accompanied by Ada Clare, seeks to comfort “the woman sitting by the fire” whose baby lay on her lap (133).

Discovering that the baby had died, Esther as narrator, reports that she takes “the light burden from her lap; did what I could to make the baby’s rest the prettier and gentler; laid it on a shelf and covered it with my own handkerchief. We tried to comfort the mother, and we whispered to her what Our Saviour said of children” (134). Later that night, she returns with Ada “to bring ‘some little comforts’ to the grieving woman” (135-136). Her manner and words present the reader with a day and night contrast to her elder “missionary.”

Even more heart-warming is Esther’s selfless outreach to Jo, a young, homeless boy. With her maid Charley Neckett as her companion, she visits Jo in Tom-All-Alone’s and attempts to shelter him at Bleak House. While making her way home, she repeatedly expresses genuine concern for the young boy: “But I said to Charley that we must not leave the boy to die,” and later, “I asked him to come with us, and we would take care that he had some shelter for the night” (492). Her compassion costs her a great deal; not only does she contract smallpox and suffer a near-death sickness from her encounter with him, but she becomes severely scarred for life because of the ravages of the disease. Yet her example of sacrifice—one facet of the author’s gospel-- is a welcome sight in Dickens’s world. A second example of compassion follows right on Esther’s heels.

Dickens's Opinion Of Catholicism

What facet of Catholicism did Dickens appear to despise?

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John Jarndyce

John Jarndyce,” according to Guinn, “seems to be the model of the silent Angel, quietly meeting the needs of the helpless” (140). He quietly bears with a multitude of committee members who “wanted to do anything with anybody else’s money” (123). Here Dickens’s hatred of Catholicism manifests itself:

. . . in Bleak House he declares that Mr. Jarndyce was besieged by people seeking money for charity and some ‘were going to raise new buildings, they were going to pay off debts on old buildings, they were going to establish in a picturesque building (engravings of proposed West Elevation attached) the Sisterhood of Mediaevel [sic.] Marys (qtd. in Thompson 36).4

Guinn lists numerous examples of Jarndyce’s philanthropy: becoming the guardian of Richard, Ada, and Esther, rescuing the orphaned Neckett children, “hiring the oldest sister Charley as a companion to Esther, sending the boy Tom to school, and arranging for the infant to be taken in by a neighbor” (140). Later, Jarndyce shelters Jo and attends his deathbed; he does the same with Gridley. This compassionate man visits George Rouncewell in prison and “is certainly attempting to feed and clothe the hungry . . .” (141). He fulfills the social responsibility of one who practices his faith: “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress . . .” (James 1:27).

Allan Woodcourt

Allan Woodcourt

The last character to be considered who exemplified right behavior is Allan Woodcourt. Besides showing friendship to Richard Carstone, whom he tries to help through his obsession with Jarndyce & Jarndyce, Woodcourt is with Jo, offering him some Christian hope at his death. As a physician, he could do nothing more for him; but as a sincere man of compassion, Woodcourt ministers effectively to the dying lad, lending his kind presence to the scene before leading the boy part of the way through the Lord’s Prayer (Dickens 732-4).

Mota points out that Jo’s death brought together a Christian community of sorts, of which Allan Woodcourt was a significant part. Yet he also spells out a significant fact: “ . . . all the charity and benevolence of these well-meaning people cannot prevent Jo from dying; the social disease of irresponsibility and selfishness seems powerful enough to render ineffective the response of people such as Allan Woodcourt” (195).

Dickens himself takes this occasion to deliver biting criticism of English social institutions and public alike, sparing none: “Dead, your Majesty. Dead my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day” (734). He makes his point eloquently.

In Dickens’s eyes, these latter three apparently met his criteria for true religion; but their display of morality, compassion, and personal sacrifice are his standards, not God’s. Regardless of how noble and "good" an individual may appear, no one who disbelieves the cardinal doctrines of the faith can rightfully claim the name “Christian.”

© 2015 glynch1

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