Bleak House | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Bleak House | Motifs


Character Names

Dickens's use of characters' names to represent their personality traits is well known, and he made no exception in Bleak House. For example, Mr. Gusher is a popular motivational speaker, so it is likely a lot of talk pours out of him and possible that he also gushes emotionally. Carstone is a type of sandstone containing a lot of iron, so it's harder than some other types of sandstone, which is generally easy to shape; but like carstone, Richard Carstone seems impervious to any attempt to reshape him to learn a profession or even to persuade him to ignore the Jarndyce case. Miss Flite keeps birds in cages, thus preventing them from using their power of flight.


Dickens introduces the world of fashion in Chapter 2, using the term to refer to the idle rich, many of them members of the aristocracy. Like Chancery, the world of fashion is isolated and insulated from the real world. Unlike Chancery, the fashionable set contains "many good and true people." The problem is that they live separately from the "larger worlds," and their fashionable clothing and lifestyle are signifiers of this divide; their clothes starkly contrast with those of the lower classes. The world of fashion stands not only apart but also in stasis. In Bleak House the representatives of the world of fashion are the Dedlocks and their circle of acquaintances. Some people want to be a part of this world, and the result is a dangerous new form of dandy, whom Dickens describes in Chapter 12 as wanting to turn back time to a feudal system in which the "picturesque and faithful" poor know and accept their place. He provides an example of the traditional dandy in Mr. Turveydrop (Chapter 14), whose sole interest is to look and act fashionable but whose worst crime is to live off the work of his son and daughter-in-law.


There is a lot of death in Bleak House, but that is an accurate reflection of the time. Suicide, however, is a motif that links to the two main plot elements—the Jarndyce case and Lady Dedlock's past—and it points out the sense of despair central to the novel. In Chapter 1 the narrator says, "old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane," a death directly attributable to the Jarndyce case. Mr. Tangle tells the Chancellor that Richard and Ada's grandfather committed suicide. And Richard dies as well, arguably from overwork—his obsession with the lawsuit is the death of him. Lady Dedlock, too, submits to despair, disappearing into the dark; clearly her purpose is to die. There are many other mentions of suicide throughout, all building the sense that there is no way out of the novel's ponderous predicaments.

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