The world in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is one of perpetual visuality. There are several themes of visuality that Dickens explores in this novel but I would like to pay close attention to one in particular. Let us step away for a moment from the visuality of portraiture, the physical essence of another thing or person. Do we paint a portrait in our mind when we look at others? Does that moving image become a part of our memory? The eyes of the viewer can form an invisible frame around the action that unfolds before them. You are not just looking at a static pose or display. You are witnessing the moment, “everyday life.”
Many characters in the novel, specifically those in the middle and aristocratic classes, have a particular fascination with those of the working class. They display a desire to help the “poor;” to provide charity. But more often it seems that most find interest in “looking” rather than acting. Poverty is viewed as a performance. Rather, the act of viewing and pretending to provide charity is a performance in itself.
Before I pull examples from the text, let us first look at the portrayal of the working class in paintings and what role it served, especially in the aristocracy.
As luck would have it, I am taking 19th Century European Art this semester. Recently we discussed the different categories painters needed to create within L’academie des beaux arts in Paris during the 18th and early 19th centuries. One level of painting was titled “genre painting,” the painting of “everyday life.” The painting above is entitled “Broken Eggs” (1756) by Jean-Baptiste Greuze. This “genre painting” is meant to capture the struggles of the working class. The woman in white comes from a seemingly impoverished family. Long story short, she has been impregnated by the man talking to her mother, a man of a higher class. The reason why I am bringing up this painting is because, originally, this painting would not have been seen by the “people.” It would have been hung at the “Salon” where hundreds of painters would display their work for the King of France. These paintings were made only for the eyes of the King along with the selected few from the aristocracy. Through this painting, Greuze is giving them a glimpse into the “real” world of the common people. The aristocracy could marvel over the plight of the working class without having to be a part of the working class.
Here is another painting by Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1739) entitled “Back from the Market.” Again aristocratic spectators can marvel over the exhaustion of servitude. They can look but they don’t have to touch. It becomes more about the act of charity, rather then the charity itself.
Going back to Dickens, certain characters marvel over the “spectacle” of the working class space. Mr. Jarndyce comments on these types of people by splitting them up into two classes: “one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all” (124). The best example of a character who is all noise and no action is Mrs. Pardiggle.
Mrs. Pardiggle is a character who takes great pleasure in displaying her charitable escapades. She is immediately described as a woman who takes up an enormous amount of space, both physically and vocally. She even uses her children as accessories, to prance around from poor house to poor house, like the disciples following Christ. The entire Pardiggle family, in her words, runs a “charitable business”(126). “I am a woman of business. I love hand work, I enjoy hard work. The excitement does me good. I am so accustomed and inured to hard work, that I don’t know what hard work is” (127). These words are repeated frequently, especially when she takes Esther, Ada and Richard to the house of an impoverished working class family. Her charitable endeavors are seen as hypocritical when she boasts of hard work and lack of fatigue while the family in front of her truly knows the meaning of hard work and endless fatigue.
When they enter the room, Esther observes that it is a “damp offensive room – a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire; a man lying at full length on the ground, smoking a pipe; a powerful young man, fastening a collar on a dog; and a bold girl, doing some kind of washing in very dirty water…nobody gave us any welcome” (130). This visual of “everyday” working class life is not only described through words but given life with the drawing attached to the text. We can now see what Esther can see. This creates a window within a window; the reader is looking at Esther and the family, while Esther is looking at them.
What does this do? As the reader, are we any better than those who look but do not help? In the sketch we can see that the family does not bother paying attention to these spectators. “There an’t’ any more on you to come in, is there…Because I thought there weren’t enough of you perhaps,” (130) comments the man lying on the floor. This comment suggests that there are more people like Mrs. Pardiggle who enjoy barging in on working class life in order to flaunt their charitable nature. In the image, we see Mrs. Pardiggle sitting on a chair, like the Queen, surrounded by her well-dressed sons. This comes in direct opposition to the worn down family. While Mrs. Pardiggle claims to be full of energy, she is the one who is resting.
There are several instances in Dickens’ novel that speak to this theme of the working class spectacle. But one another moment that fully captures this idea is the treatment of the simple minded Jo. In Chapter 25 we are swept over to Cook’s Court, home of the Snagsby family. Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby and Inspector Bucket have gathered together to watch the overzealous Mr. Chadband attempt to save the soul of the “unfortunate” little Jo.
Jo has already been a person of interest in Inspector Bucket and Mr. Snagsby’s investigation. He has been pushed and pulled from one class level to the next. He is constantly being looked down upon as an unfortunate and poor creature. Whenever a character is finished talking to him, they throw him coins. In Chapter 25 we learn that the reverend Mr. Chadband had seen the boy on the streets and has decided to make a religious spectacle of him.
“As affording a subject which Mr. Chadband desires to improve for the spiritual delight of a select congregation, was seized by Mr. Chadband and threatened with being delivered to the police, unless he showed the reverend gentleman where he lived, and unless he entered into, and fulfilled, an undertaking to appear in Cook’s Court to-morrow night…” (408-409).
In the parlor at Cook’s Court, Mr. Chadband captures everyone’s attention by making Jo the latest subject of his religious teachings. “My human boy come forward,” (409) says Mr. Chadband. Emphasizing his humanness almost makes him less human in comparison to the others in the room.
“We have here among us, my friends, a Gentile and heathen, a dweller in the tents of Tom-all-Alone’s, and a mover-on upon the surface of the earth…devoid of parents, devoid of relations, devoid of flocks and herds, devoid of gold, of silver, and of precious stones, because he is devoid of the light that shines upon some of us” (411).
This moment of humiliation for Jo is captured in the drawing on page 413 (image below). We see Jo with his head down, sitting in the smallest chair, while Mr. Chadband stands tall as an authoritative figure. Despite the Snagbys’ questionable opinion over the reverend, they sit back and watch this scene transpire.
Mr. Chadband is using Jo, based on the above quote, to fulfill what he believes to be his religious duty. He is not doing this in a private setting, but in the parlor. He wants an audience in a social space. Does he really want to “save” Jo or does he want to display his own piety? He describes Jo as a “heathen,” one who does not follow the right religious path, another non-human term. Jo is also “devoid” of something, specifically of middle/upper class luxuries, “the light that shines upon us.” This could be wealth, social standing, religion and “morality.”
Overall, this scene speaks to the spectacle that Jo has been transformed into. He is the lowest of the low, according to Mr. Chadband. He is lower than the working class, in that he is classless. Therefore he becomes a source of pity and fascination. Jo then becomes a project for religious charity. But as has been discussed, is Jo ever really helped? Does he even want help? Probably not. The family that Mrs. Pardiggle visits does not want her “help” either. The working class family and Jo both know that vanity and fascination are often in the guise of charity.
Charles Dickens is most certainly making a commentary on the concept of charity at the time. All talk and no action. But has that changed? To bring this idea of vanity and charity into modern times let us look at a commercial.
The following commercial is for Stop Hunger Now from 2008. The commercial has several guest appearances from well known celebrities. Think of this commercial in terms of what we have discussed. It is possible that the celebrities care about the charity they are promoting but how far are they willing to go? Many of them are minor celebrities who wouldn’t normally be seen on a regular basis. Are they trying to promote themselves by promoting this charity? As the viewer, are we more focused on their faces than on the issue being discussed?