Crows, maggots and oysters: Dickens, Bleak House

I’ve been teaching Dickens this term. I don’t find much to say about Hard Times, with its skewering of Utilitarian selfishness and ‘fact’ displacing ‘fancy’. These strong points are weakened for me by the unpleasant hatchet job on trade unionism. Dickens rightly fulminates against the oppression of the ‘Hands’ by their greedy, bullying, heartless ‘masters’, and the injustices in the social system of the time (it was finished in 1854). His depiction of a union organiser as a windbag rabble-rouser, on the other hand, leads to the distressing conclusion that the workers will be ok provided they have imaginative outlets: principally circuses.

There’s too much sentimentality, too, a trait Dickens found hard to tone down.

Bleak House is another matter. Here we find much more nuanced social criticism, and the huge canvas and cast of characters is deployed with panache. Let me close this short post with a fairly random quotation that illustrates what he’s capable of when he resists the temptation to sentimentalise. This is from Book 1, ch. 10: ‘The Law Writer’, which introduces yet another apparently minor character and his circle, but a person who, like all the other secondary figures, plays an important part in the plotting and thematic coherence of the novel:

The day is closing in and the gas is lighted, but is not yet fully effective, for it is not quite dark. Mr. Snagsby standing at his shop-door looking up at the clouds sees a crow who is out late skim westward over the slice of sky belonging to Cook’s Court. The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Garden into Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

 

Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now, and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts. But its roomy staircases, passages, and antechambers still remain; and even its painted ceilings, where Allegory, in Roman helmet and celestial linen, sprawls among balustrades and pillars, flowers, clouds, and big-legged boys, and makes the head ache–as would seem to be Allegory’s object always, more or less. Here, among his many boxes labelled with transcendent names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn, when not speechlessly at home in country-houses where the great ones of the earth are bored to death. Here he is to-day, quiet at his table. An oyster of the old school whom nobody can open.

That motif of the crow recurs throughout the narrative, serving as a device to connect the contrasting locations, from the lowly law stationer in his shady, dank court, to the grand ‘house of state’ of the pompous, corrupt lawyer Tulkinghorn. In Bleak House Dickens brilliantly links the high and the low (even street crossing sweeper Jo, effectively a beggar, who ‘knows nothink’, plays a key role in the puzzle. Everyone knows something, but what they don’t know is usually more important. There are secrets everywhere. Even the painted Allegory on the ceiling signifies more than its surface reveals.

That simile of the lawyers lying ‘like maggots in nuts’ is crude but it works. To move on to ‘an oyster of the old school’ mixes the image improbably, but Dickens is in such fine form here he gets away with it: Tulkinghorn, like Allegory, can be two things simultaneously – maggoty in his insidious law-scheming, and oystery in his clammed-up secret-guarding.

This is a far stronger, richer novel than Hard Times: the moral outrage isn’t negated by dodgy political prejudices and myopia.

He’s still not very convincing in his women characters, though.

Bleak House title page

Title page of the first edition (1853) illustrated by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne) via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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16 thoughts on “Crows, maggots and oysters: Dickens, Bleak House

  1. You shine a light in a bleak place Simon. This is one of my favourite novels although I was much moved by Little Dorritt too. I think I would enjoy being in your class.

  2. Perhaps my favourite Dickens(along with Little Dorrit and GE) So many wonderful themes: the Chancery, the poor child, the “sherlockian sleuth”…Despite a few flaws, mainly due to Esther’s narrative, it really is a masterpiece. I don’t know about his women not being convincing. Mrs Jellyby, for instance, looks pretty real to me; the world is full of Jellybies, people who close their eyes to the misery around them and prefer to help complete strangers at the other end of the world. And, after all, unlike Trollope, Dickens is not a realist. Little Dorrit is more an allegory than a real woman.

    • Izzy: I think the alternating narrative viewpoints is one of the more interesting aspects of the novel’s structure; the anonymous main narrator is far from omniscient, often focalising through one of the characters in the scene, especially Lady Dedlock, and using present tense – for what’s past isn’t entirely known; this is counterpointed by Esther’s first-person narrative, full it’s true of her rather annoyingly self-deprecating ‘who’d want to hear my opinions’ sort of thing. This creates some interesting effects, like the ‘bored to death’ melancholy of Chesney Wold in Lady D’s pov, followed by Esther’s delight in its beauties later on. And I agree the secondary women characters are strongly drawn – but they tend to represent types, like Mrs J (though it seems Dickens did have real-life models for many of his characters in this novel). Esther is one of his best central female characters, but like most of the rest, she has to end up in a romantic attachment with a man in the end. But you’re right; this is far from realism: it’s a moral fable-romance, so I shouldn’t be so hard on him. It is a wonderful novel. That’s two votes now for Little Dorrit, too – good choice.

  3. I wasn’t criticizing Esther’s narrative as a structural device, on the contrary. I just meant that at times Dickens seems to forget that he is not the narrator and that, suddenly, Esther’s style becomes undistinguishable from his own.

  4. “lawyers lie like maggots in nuts” is great.

    but tulkinghorn, unlike the nuts, – is an oyster who cannot be opened.
    phenomenal.

    with dickens, it’s the combination of the sweep and the detail.
    have loved bleak house with a passion since i was 16.

  5. Just love this:

    “Everyone knows something, but what they don’t know is usually more important. There are secrets everywhere.”

    The wonderful use of the images to “show not tell” the limits on a character’s POV. Crows, maggots in nuts, oysters. Yes, Dickens is not perfect, but Lord, he is a genius!

  6. Count me in too – I love Bleak House, and am always in awe of Dickens’ genius. But I also agree on the women – when you compare them with the female characters in Trollope and Wilkie Collins they come off very badly.
    I’ve always found George Orwell’s analysis of Dickens to be perceptive and helpful – he makes sense of his concern for welfare, and genuine compassion, but at the same time his basic conservatism – as you describe with Our Mutual Friend. Everything would be better if the kindly philanthropists and upper classes were just in charge, and could generously look after the deserving poor…

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