Posted by: Rachel Czwartacky | September 26, 2011

Esther Summerson: traded in for a newer model?

Something we’ve touched on briefly in the last couple of classes has been just what people were doing with these newfangled photograph things that became fairly ubiquitous, fairly quickly. And one thing people were doing was collecting them and giving them away – now that you could have multiple copies of a portrait, it was easier to distribute, which played into the whole cult of celebrity and carte de visite phenomenon, where ordinary citizens could pass around photographs of famous people or give photographs of themselves or their family away.

Or give the people themselves away? At the end of Bleak House, doesn’t Mr. Jarndyce essentially do just this with Esther? As though she were a trading card, or a popular photograph, he trades her away to Mr. Woodcourt and his second-best Bleak House, retaining, instead, the elder Mrs. Woodcourt and the companionship of Ada. And, fairly enough, it seems like Mr. Woodcourt is a much better match for Esther (even she might admit that) and no parties involved come out at the end having been wronged, but this entire exchange in the last few chapters feels like just that – an exchange, but of women, not just their images.

Copies of portraits and photographs had an impact on culture in that it became much easier to mass produce these images. But throughout Bleak House, Esther is treated as one in a million, an irreplaceable “little woman.” So why now, at the end, is she treated like a precious, but tradable, icon?


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