“His manner was–what man’s is not–so much that of one who would love and cherish and defend her, under any conditions, changes, charges, or revelations, that her gloom lessened as she basked in it” (chapter 29; p. 199)



“You are a poem,” Will tells Dorothea (223). If Dorothea is a poem, feminist critics have pointed out for decades, then she has no agency; she’s just someone else’s creation, lovely but passive. I find this a striking contrast to the parallel we discussed in class between Dorothea’s relationship to art and her relationship to Mr. Casaubon’s mind.

Dorothea originally thinks a husband should be above her, beyond her. She takes a similar attitude to art. Relevant passages named in our discussion include those on 79, 193, 206, 391, 421.  She assumes that she doesn’t understand art, doesn’t relate well to it, because she isn’t smart enough: “I am too ignorant to feel” (79). And Will, full of innuendo the artless Dorothea misses entirely, explains that, although many people appreciate art only after acquiring a massive knowledge base (206), he believes it is best simply “to love what is good and beautiful when I see it. But I am a rebel: I don’t feel bound, as you do, to submit to what I don’t like” (392).

the squirrel’s heart beat

“The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies…. A picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment…. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” –George Eliot (1856)

“That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” –George Eliot (1872)


Old and Young: Casaubon and Lydgate

Think about Eliot’s tone of voice when she describes The Key to All Mythologies. Is it ironic? Affectionate? Admiring? How does Eliot want us to think and feel about The Key to All Mythologies? Think about whether The Key to All Mythologies is analogous to Lydgate’s medical research. Consider the Key to All Mythologies’s two biggest fans: Casaubon and Dorothea. What does each of them value in that work? Why does each of them consider it worth writing? What does Dorothea’s reverence for Casaubon’s great work tell us about who she is and where their relationship is headed? (this is not a simple answer)

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?

Bucket’s method of making arrests

We have discussed the fact that Bleak House displays positive outcomes of institutional reform, including that of law enforcement. Inspector Bucket is one of the novel’s most important, memorable, and appealing characters, and I am not aware of any passages in which Dickens mounts an implicit or explicit critique of Bucket’s methods. But what do we think, as twenty-first-century readers, about Bucket’s method? See for example his arrest of Mr. George, which begins with a cordial visit to the Bagnet household during the “old girl”‘s birthday (593ff.). Bucket is disarmingly pleasant, polite, and kind, imaginative and attentive to the children, friendly with George. “He drinks to Mrs. Bagnet with a warmth approaching ot rapture, engages himself for that day twelvemonth more than thankfully, makes a memorandum of the day in a large black pocket-book with a girdle to it, and breathes a hope that Mrs. Bucket and Mrs. Bagnet may before then become, in a manner, sisters. As he says himself, what is public life without private ties? He is in his humble way a public man, but it is not in that sphere that he finds happiness. No, it must be sought within the confines of domestic bliss” (595). Exactly one page later Bucket, having left the party amicably with George, “twists him into a public-house and into a parlor, where he confronts him, and claps his own back against the door…. ‘You must consider yourself in custody, George…. There has been a murder in Lincoln’s Inn fields–gentleman of the name of Tulkinghorn. He was shot last night. I want you for that’ ” (596-97).

Is this an ethical procedure? Is it progressive, compared to harsher methods? Is it cruel? See the Bagnets’ bitter resentment on 620 and 622. (I infer bitterness from the fact that Mr. Bagnet speaks his own mind–surely a measure of how strongly he feels on this occasion.) Does Dickens suggest the Bagnets are right to be insulted? Has Bucket not played a trick on them? What kinds of judgments are we asked to make about Bucket’s methods?

Individuals, systems, reform

Dickens writes this novel midway through the nineteenth century, which was the Age of Reform. Professions of all sorts were scrutinized and subjected to rigorous, if sometimes misguided, reform efforts. Here are a few highlighted in Bleak House:

Reform in medical practice: Richard’s mentors in medicine, Mr. Badger and Allan Woodcourt, display the characteristics of the new generation of doctors: concern for proper qualifications, social responsibility toward the poor, and above all, compassion

Reform in military service: Richard’s instructor in military life, Mr. George, along with his friend the ex-artilleryman Mr. Bagnet, together represent the new army policy to engender a professional competence among both enlisted men and officers.

Reform in law enforcement: The efficient but humane Mr Bucket of the detective police and his four colleagues in chapters 11 and 57 all exemplify in their businesslike attitudes the principle of ‘omnicompetence’ Edwin Chadwick embodied in the Police Acts of 1829 and 1839 to strengthen the new professional force.

Law is the one profession that is shown to be embedded in the past, functioning as a milestone against which to measure the advances made by other, faster-moving professions. NB: Tulkinghorn works alone, as an individual within a broken system, empowered by tremendous wealth and social status, and checked by no authority higher than his own.