Bleak House: Language Technique To Create A Character Individuality

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As a writer, Dickens was a master of the use of language and vocalised dialect resulting in the creation of characters that evoke speech that is instantly recognisable but ultimately unique. He was known to walk the streets of London, alone and at night while listening to the hectic life that surrounded him during his nocturnal journeys around the city. He even wrote using an omniscient narrator in The Old Curiosity Shop ‘it affords me greater opportunity of speculating on the characters and occupations of those who fill the streets’ (p.43). His abundant love of the metropolis is brought to the fore with his sketches of characters that he observed. Through the eyes of his characters the reader shares the highs and in the case of Jo the sweeper the lows that life brought to the under belly of social life across London.

There can be no doubt that the character of Jo the street sweeper is taken from the lower echelons of society and through his dulcet tones it is possible to hear the overabundant accent of working class 19th century London. The reader is first introduced to Jo through the third person narration of Esther Summerson who is charitable in helping a destitute family. The family have also kindly assisted Jo who is deathly ill, through his fevered words Dickens makes the character speak in a confused manner that shows a lack of lucid thought. The boy uses repetition in trying to get his point across to Esther about him not wanting to go back out into the ‘cold wet night’ (p.488).

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Dickens has Jo sat on the floor of the house muttering ‘I won’t go no more to the berryin ground’ (p.489). The repetition of ‘berryin’ ground is a possible variation of burial ground that is carried by the London or Cockney accent of Jo. His inability to correctly pronounce the location of the place he and Lady Deadlock visited shows two distinct possibilities, namely it shows a primal sense of fear of the cemetery. It is also possible that through his illness he could be unable to speak coherently due to his fevered state of mind brought on from the beginning of smallpox. From these two occurrences happening to Jo we can feel empathy towards the young boy as he is clearly struggling with what is going on around him while Esther is present in the house.

Throughout the extract in question it is possible to analyse the two distinct voices that Dickens often used through out his work, namely the cockney and the upper class or, educated voice.

Jo and the brick makers family clearly belong to the former category which the reader should come to understand through the way they collectively defer to Esther as ‘Lady’. The use of a title applied to Esther seems to place her above all the family members with both Jo and Charley using the title. Charley even hints towards a possible friendship with her referring to Esther as ‘This is my lady, Jo’ (p.490) as though her use of ‘my’ it could be perceived as a suggestion of ownership.

The reader may be naturally drawn to the pitiful character of Jo but it is Esther who is seen to lead with her using a number of leading questions while trying to establish how best to help the family. Her questions seem to be based on the origin of where Jo came from and what could be done to help him ‘When did he come from London?’ (p.490). Esther asks Charley this while attempting to work out a timeframe of Jo’s recent history which could lead to answering how he ended up in such a predicament, while also meeting the as yet unnamed other lady. Jo’s answer is foreshadowing with him seeing familiarity between Esther and Lady Deadlock who was the other person who accompanied Jo in the cemetery.

Dickens cleverly inserts this contrast with Jo identifying a likeness between Esther and Lady Deadlock as later on it is revealed they are both related as estranged mother and daughter. The subtile way of introducing Lady Deadlock into the narrative of the story could be seen as a juxtaposition between the characters of Lady Deadlock and Esther, but one that is not suspected at first due to Jo’s fevered repetitious delirium ‘she looks to me the t’other one’ (p.490). However, with Esther leading the scene with her direct questioning of Jo’s health and wellbeing the subject is soon overwritten and forgotten. Through Esther’s narration the reader observes first hand the scene in question as it unfolds, therefore allowing the reader to sympathise with the characters. This is also prevalent throughout the story whenever Esther is providing narration helping to create a connection between the reader and the characters.

Throughout Bleak House, Dickens climatic descriptions of London indicate a sense of pathetic fallacy towards the city as though it is a living, breathing entity in its own right. Through the imagery that Dickens provides setting a tone of being a place of poverty with a feeling of decay and obscurity provided by the metaphorical ‘London particular’ (p.51 ). Creating an idea that the elements somehow control the characters within the story by the negative implications arising through a lack of clarity and clouded decision making. This alludes to the law making process within Chancery, also through this narrative strategy it is also evident at Chesney Wold with the constant rain fall that ‘the liveliest imagination can scarcely apprehend’ (p.103). The heavy rainfall provides a feeling of entrapment that directly effects Lady Deadlock into action by her moving away from Chesney Wold and fleeing to London. This dramatic device eventually forces Lady Deadlock and Esther to fatefully meet showing how the weather is used to alter events through sudden changes in emotional circumstance.

The weather is also used ambiguously by John Jarndyce when referring to the east wind possibly as a way of suggesting something he perceives is wrong. His apparent inability to be direct with people could be a result of mental health issues that he hides behind by him using analogy in regards to the weather and negativity ‘I am always conscious of an uncomfortable sensation now and then when the wind is blowing in the east’ (p.84). Dickens use of climate as a narrative device often sets the tone of a scene which helps to create greater immersive detail. Chapter Six starts with Esther’s optimistic narration of her leaving the city behind which is mirrored by her using a change in the weather ‘and still brightened as we went westward’ (p.79). Possibly Dickens is suggesting the improvement of the weather is metaphorically linked to leaving London behind.

As an antithesis, the opening of the scene in which the extract is taken displays London seen again through Esther’s first hand viewpoint as ‘Towards London, a lurid place overhung the whole dark waste’ (p.488). From this rather bleak description it alludes to the foreshadowing of something that is negative or evil from which we later on find out is the point when Esther succumbs to smallpox contracted from Jo.

To conclude, Dickens appears to trap his characters through his use of climate that either imprisons them in murk and mire or slows the pace of life down to its slowest ebb. From a realistic point of view we can easily believe Esther’s narrative as true as the reader travels with her on her almost bildungsroman journey. From the extract it is possible to see how much she has already developed as she strives to care for the people she meets. This makes her a figure of positively through which Dickens maintains throughout the story narrative of Bleak House.                         


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