The shattering of Sir Leicester

As late in the novel as page 627, Sir Leicester maintains his complacent belief that his point of view trumps all others. “He is an honorable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man,” we learn on page 68, and to ensure we understand the severe limitations on his understanding of justice, the narrator explains that Sir Leicester “regards the Court of Chancery, even if it should involve an occasional delay of justice and a trifling amount of confusion, as a something, devised in conjunction with a variety of other somethings, by the perfection of human wisdom, for the eternal settlement (humanly speaking) of every thing. And he is upon the whole of a fixed opinion, that to give the sanction of his countenance to any complaints respecting it, would be to encourage some person in the lower classes to rise up somewhere” (71-72).

So when he hears that Mr. Tulkinghorn has been shot, Sir Leicester conflates Tulkinghorn’s murder with an assault on what he assumes to be a rational, admirable system of justice. He conflates the individual with the system and, in an egregious misunderstanding born of entitlement and complacency, considers Tulkinghorn’s murder to be a threat to everything that makes England great.

At the aforementioned 627, he pronounces without hesitation that, “If it were my brother who had committed [Tulkinghorn’s murder], I would not spare him.” I believe him entirely. Yet his complacency, his sense of entitlement, his sense of all stability in life are all shattered when he learns that Lady Dedlock was involved, somehow, in the events preceding that murder (635).

My questions: at what point does shock give way to humane compassion? In which passage does Sir Leicester recognize his ethical responsibility to support and love his wife regardless of any wrongdoing? And how is the ethical importance of Sir Leicester’s realization linked to Emily’s question about the difficulty of reading the passage on 641-648?

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Difficulty of Reading

We talked, several class periods ago, about how Dickens deliberately makes this novel difficult to read. I particularly felt this tension towards the end, as the plot twists were finally unwinding, and as I could see resolution happening. So as one character is explaining something to another, something that brings understanding and resolution, the speech drags on in such confusing ways! The chapter where Mr. Bucket explains his theories to Sir Leicester is particularly confusing in this way (632-48). Mr. Bucket’s narrative about his thought process interrupts our discovery of what he has found out. Perhaps in this instance it increases reader suspense? I’m reminded again of the comparison of parts of this novel to a crime novel (watching the detective explain the whole thing).

But over all, I am curious about what Dickens’s purposes are in making it such an arduous read. It does pay off–we find answers! But does he want to discourage us along the way? Test the limits of audience trust? Flaunt his incredibly elaborate plot scheme? Provide verisimilitude–life is just complicated like that?

locks and keys

Here are a few questions students have asked this morning, privately, whose answers might benefit others in the class.

Since in the Victorian era some people, including Dickens, considered spontaneous combustion a plausible cause of death, does that mean Krook’s death is not intended to be funny?

  • My reading is that Krook’s death is equal parts funny and creepy. There’s nothing about that character that makes me mourn his loss, and his one blood relation in the novel, Mrs. Smallweed, can’t grieve for him anyway, since she has dementia. So Krook is the perfect person to combust spontaneously. Although some, including Dickens, did think this was a plausible cause of death, it nonetheless has both ludicrous and metaphorical elements to it. Given that, how would you read it as metaphorical? Which parts of the passage seem funny?

Why does Mr. Tulkinghorn’s office have a painting of Allegory on the ceiling, and why does Dickens refer so frequently to that fact? (see page 167 for example)

  • The key to this lock will appear later in the novel. For now, I believe, a good reading is that Mr. Tulkinghorn’s inscrutability has some significance. His behavior is allegorical. We don’t know yet what the allegory is, but we know that there’s more to Tulkinghorn’s role in the novel than meets the eye.

Just before Mr. Gridley dies at the Shooting Gallery, why does Mr. Bucket show up disguised as a doctor (pp. 340-41)?

  • Mr. Bucket is there on official business to arrest Mr. Gridley. He uses the disguise so that Mr. George (a big, muscular soldier) doesn’t physically prevent his entering the premises. As soon as he sees Mr. Gridley is dying, though, Mr. Bucket shows his proclivity for humane compassion. He continues talking about the warrant to try to rouse Mr. Gridley in a good-humored way, not because he is any longer serious about arresting Gridley (343-344). See also Bucket’s method of making arrests

When Charley becomes Esther’s maid, why does Esther cry? Is she unhappy that Charley is living at Bleak House (p. 330)?

  • Esther cries “for joy” (330) when she learns that Mr. Jarndyce has lent financial help to three more indigent children, as he had done for her in a similar situation. Mr. Jarndyce has sent the five-year-old Tom to boarding school, has placed the eighteen-month-old Emma with a caregiver named Mrs. Blinder, and has hired Charley away from being the Smallweeds’ housekeeper so that she can live at Bleak House and be Esther’s maid. Charley notes that Mr. Jarndyce chose to wait a little bit between the time he met them (pp. 230-231) and the time he took them under his care because, as they were so young, they might want some time to get used to the idea of being apart for a little while (330).

Why is Hortense important?

  • Hortense was Lady Dedlock’s lady’s maid, which is a high honor for a domestic servant. But when Lady Dedlock was caught in the thunderstorm, she sent for Rosa to come fetch her in the carriage (266-68). Hortense was offended by being outranked by Rosa, and immediately quit. She is full of vindictive and energetic spite against Lady Dedlock.
  • It’s crucial to see Hortense’s similarities to Mrs. Snagsby. Both are capable of–in fact passionately fond of– relentless surveillance. Hortense has likely by this point in the novel picked up on the fact that Lady Dedlock has given birth to a child out of wedlock before her marriage to Sir Leicester Dedlock. She still needs to prove it, however. This is why she tries hard to persuade Esther to hire her at Bleak House: so she can be close to the action and, when the time is right, she can skewer Lady Dedlock’s reputation.