AN ABSTRACT OF THE THESIS OF
Tamara L. Van Ras for the degree of Master of Arts in
English presented on May 23, 1994.
Title: Women's Voices: The Emergence of Female Identity
in Bleak House and Little Dorrit.
Redacted for Privacy
Dr. Elizabeth Campbell
Dedicated to recording, portraying, and indicting
the social inequities that he witnessed in nineteenth
century Victorian England, one of Charles Dickens' many
concerns was the roles assigned to women both in the
public and private spheres.
The purpose of this thesis is to examine the
narratives of Amy Dorrit and Miss Wade in Dickens' Little
Dorrit and Esther Summerson in Bleak House to explore the
ways in which each woman conforms to, subverts, or
rejects her socially prescribed roles as she seeks to
create her own identity while simultaneously complying to
the duties and roles assigned her.
This study focuses on the oral and written
narratives of these women exploring their words, stories,
and symbolic imagery.
It also contextualizes their
narratives while answering the critical question: How
does individual identity emerge amid rigorously
circumscribed social roles?
The Emergence of Female Identity in
Bleak House and Little Dorrit
Tamara L. Van Ras
Oregon State University
in partial fulfillment of
the requirements for the
Master of Arts
Completed May 23, 1994
Commencement June 1995
Redacted for Privacy
tProfessOr of English
n charge of major
Redacted for Privacy
epartment of English
Redacted for Privacy
Dean of Graduate/ chool
Date thesis is presented
May 23, 1994
Typed by Tamara L. Van Ras for
Tamara L. Van Ras
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Background: Dickens and the Victorian
ideal of womanhood
AMY DORRIT: THE FANTASY OF IDENTITY
MISS WADE: THE PERVERSION OF IDENTITY
ESTHER SUMMERSON: THE HIDDEN FACE OF IDENTITY
CONCLUSION: DICKENS AND IDENTITY
THE EMERGENCE OF FEMALE IDENTITY IN
BLEAK HOUSE AND LITTLE DORRIT
Background: Dickens and the Victorian ideal of womanhood
A man with many missions, Charles Dickens concerned
himself with a variety of social ills that plagued
Victorian England, many of which are reflected in his
novels: the plight of the poor, educational inequities,
class consciousness, the orphaned child, moral
corruption, and so on.
Although he was a masterful and
diligent social critic, he was also a product of his
times, shaped by the very Victorian mores that he
The pinnacle of Dickens' literary career coincided
with the height of the Victorian era, spanning the 1850s
England was enjoying unprecedented prosperity
and leisure time was on the rise for the middle and upper
This increased prosperity and leisure helped
create even sharper distinctions between the socially
prescribed roles of men and women than had previously
Industry was a man's world and the home
belonged to woman; men went warring at work while women
kept the home fires burning.
It became a mark of status
for women to remain in the home and for servants to
perform household chores.
In Victorian People and Ideas,
Robert Altick writes
Woman's serfdom was sanctified by the
Victorian conception of the female as
a priestess dedicated to preserving
the home as a refuge from the abrasive
outside world. Convention dictated a
rigorously stereotyped personality.
She was to cultivate fragility, leaning
always on the arm of the gentleman who
walked with her in a country lane or
escorted her in to dinner. The woman
of the well-off middle class lived, in
effect, under one of those capacious
glass domes which protected parlor brica-brac--stuffed birds, ornate shells,
papier-mâché constructions, wax fruit
and flowers--from dust.
The Angel in the House, to borrow [Coventry
The ideal Victorian woman was nurse, mother, virgin,
angel, and goddess all in one.
A product of his times,
Dickens, too, viewed women as angels of the house who
were meant to nurture their families and redeem men's
Because Dickens subscribed to the social
prescriptions governing women's lives, he has often been
charged by his critics with portraying women characters
in his novels as flat and static, devoid of depth or
Thus, characters like Any Dorrit in Little
Dorrit are regarded as dull and unrealistically too good,
while Miss Wade in the same novel is too monstrous, and
Esther Summerson of Bleak House is too coy.
My interests lie in exploring particular narrative
events, namely, Amy Dorrit's fairy tale and Miss Wade's
letter to Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit, and Esther
Summerson's narrative in Bleak House, to examine the ways
in which each woman negotiates the demands of her
socially prescribed responsibilities and her personal
desires for identity, independence, and voice.
I wish to
argue, first, that each of these women's narratives can
be viewed as narratives of socialization that bear
witness to their emerging identities; second, that each
narrative both challenges and affirms its sociological
context; third, that each narrative informs the
character's struggle with feminine and Victorian ideals;
and last, that each of these narratives simultaneously
exists as a part of Dickens's own narrative of
socialization, so that just as Dickens critiques his
society, he also confirms and conforms to its codes.
maintain that by reading these women's narratives as
narratives of socialization, their emerging identities
will be revealed, illustrating that they are, in fact,
multi-dimensional, changing, realistic representations of
And as they reveal themselves, so, too, Dickens
reveals his attitudes about women, about socially
prescribed gender roles, and about his own identity.
My discussion of Bleak House and Little Dorrit as
narratives of socialization is informed in part by the
articles of Janet Carey Eldred and Peter Mortensen who
assert that "[w]hen we read [narratives of
socialization], we study how the text constructs a
character's ongoing, social process of language
Narratives of socialization are
accounts of a character's attempts to operate within
their society, and they reveal how language shapes and
creates individual identities.
Personal narratives and storytelling events such as
those of Amy Dorrit and Miss Wade in Little Dorrit and of
Esther Summerson in Bleak House can be described as
narratives of socialization because they embody the
speaker's attempts to construct language and identity
within the framework of a given society.
More than a
record of observations and experiences, the narrative
illuminates ways in which the speaker perceives the self.
The narrative is more than a descriptive account of
It also serves as a means for situating the self
within a social context, for writing, recording,
exploring, and acknowledging the existence of the self in
a manner that counteracts or at least counterbalances the
negative effects of self-renunciation (a major component
of the Victorian ideal of womanhood).
By examining the
content of the narrative, both what is and is not spoken,
and by examining the forms and contexts of the narrative,
the struggle for language acquisition and personal
identity begins to bubble to the surface.'
narratives of these women, then, illustrate how each
woman resists and submits to the process of socialization
and, simultaneously, affirms or denies the self.
narratives, therefore, serve as both confessional and
evasive self-disclosures, exemplifying the divided self
and the inherent difficulties of articulating identity.
Esther Summerson and Amy Dorrit are the embodiment
of feminine Victorian ideals, and, on the surface, they
appear to be mirror images of one another.
themselves to dutiful service, are industrious,
charitable, and self-sacrificing.
They renounce their
own dreams and desires and dedicate themselves to
familial care and sustenance.
They are identified by
themselves and others in terms of their roles and
relationships, but not in terms of individual personhood.
Although initially they appear to be prototypes of
Victorian femininity, their struggles for identity, for
independence, and for voice keep rising to the surface.
Beneath their calm exteriors run undercurrents of dreams,
desires, difficulties, and disappointments.
sacrifice and self-renunciation take a toll on the
individual psyche, and the need for identity,
independence, and voice will assert itself in dreams and
Hiding in the shadows of their fantasies
and stories are attempts, even by these self-effacing
Victorian women, to write themselves into being, to find
words and acts that will articulate and acknowledge their
existence and identities.
As we examine the narratives
of Amy and Esther, and the narrative of their negative
counterpart, Miss Wade, we will explore the symbolic
imagery of their dreams and fantasies, looking behind
veils, into mirrors, and past the shadows to witness the
emergence of their identities as they attempt to subvert
and conform to their social roles.
2. AMY DORRIT: THE FANTASY OF IDENTITY
Although Dickens wrote Bleak House before writing
Little Dorrit, I wish to begin by examining the
narratives in the latter novel first.
For it is my
assertion that Amy Dorrit and Miss Wade each embody
certain characteristics that are present in Esther
Esther, in fact, can be viewed as the
engenderer of the other two, and this may be more readily
apparent if we first explore the narratives of her
Therefore, I will begin with Amy Dorrit's
fairy tale as told to the retarded Maggie in Little
I contend that this tale exemplifies Amy's
negotiation of her world through the use of fairy tale
imagery and language.
Amy Dorrit is the youngest child of William Dorrit.2
Born in the Marshalsea Prison where her father has been
imprisoned for debt, she is nicknamed the "child of the
The care of her improvident father, her
superficial older sister, and her shiftless older brother
falls on Amy's shoulders.
In a typically Dickensian
inversion of roles, Amy becomes the parent of the family,
earning money for the family's basic needs, keeping house
for her father, and finding employment for her two older
Throughout much of the novel, Amy is a quietly
industrious background fixture:
"[t]o pass in and out of
the prison unnoticed, and elsewhere to be overlooked and
forgotten, were, for herself, her chief desires" (337).
She never asserts herself except in the aid of others and
even then she goes about her duty unobtrusively and
She is reserved and timid, seldom speaking
except when spoken to.
A notable exception, however, is
the fairy tale she tells to Maggie, a retarded woman of
twenty-eight with the mental capacity of a ten-year-old.
With Maggie, Amy is open and demonstrative, as a mother
to her child.
Amy's fairy tale is an attempt to pacify
Maggie and a means of avoiding Arthur Clennam, the man
with whom Amy is secretly in love.
It is a brief story
about a king who has everything, a princess who knows
everything, and "a poor little tiny woman" who spins at
her wheel every day (Little Dorrit 341).
has the power of knowing other people's secrets and asks
the tiny woman to remind her why she hides a shadow.
tiny woman replies that the shadow is the remembrance
left her of a very good man who has gone away; this
shadow is not missed by anyone else and will sink with
her into the grave upon her death.
The fairy tale becomes an allegory for Amy's life.
Amy is the "poor little tiny woman." Like the tiny woman
who spins at her wheel alone all day, so Amy works with
her needle, preferring solitude and isolation.
shadow of the man she loves is all she can hope to retain
of Arthur Clennam; the only evidence of her love for him
is the secret/shadow she will take to her grave.
surface, Amy's tale is meant to entertain Maggie, but it
becomes a way of mediating reality, of controlling her
desire for a man whom she believes will never come to
feel for her as she feels for him.
She tries to gain
power over herself and her circumstances by imagining a
reason to accept her fate.
Her tale allows her to keep
her love (the shadow) while losing the lover.
All of the implications of the fairy tale do not
become apparent, however, until one explores the context
that prompted the tale and the context within which the
The fairy tale is the text.
that prompts the fairy tale text is a conversation
between Amy Dorrit and Flora Finching, Arthur Clennam's
During the course of the conversation, Amy,
in her usual fashion, says very little, but absorbs all
that Flora gushes forth.
Flora intimates that her love
affair with Clennam may soon be rekindled, and Amy
accepts it as a foregone conclusion that what Flora
presupposes will come to pass.
In "The Blighted Tree and
the Book of Fate," Nancy Metz suggests that "in a way the
two narratives [of Amy and Flora] share the same
They each work out in fiction the
of what to do with 'the shadow of Some one
who had gone by long before.'"3
Flora unwittingly sets
the stage for the fairy tale, and in response to this
context, Amy puts aside any hope of realizing her own
relationship with Clennam.
Within the text of the fairy
tale she moves him out of her reach, as "[s]ome one [who]
had gone on to those who were expecting him" (Little
Once Flora sets the stage for the fairy tale, what
remains to be set is the scene in which the tale is told.
When Arthur Clennam comes to pay Amy a visit, Amy induces
Maggie, with the promise of a fairy tale, to tell Clennam
she is ill and cannot see him.
When Maggie returns, the
There is a suggestion that Amy is
improvising as she narrates, for the tale is as spare of
fanciful detail as the room in which it is told.
barren room parallels the barren existence of the tiny
woman, and Amy spins her tale as the little woman spins
at her wheel, both in virtual solitude.
Interestingly, Amy imparts her secret to the
antithesis of the all-knowing princess.
She reveals the
most about herself to the one person who is least capable
of perceiving the revelation, the uncomprehending Maggie.
Although Maggie misses the personal tie between the tale
and its teller, Amy's connection to the tale is revealed
in part by Maggie's questions and interjections.
mistakenly concludes that the "poor little tiny woman,
who lived all alone by herself" (341)
Maggie's interruption, we learn that the tiny woman is
quite young, the first clue, besides the diminutive size
of both, that ties the fictional character to Amy.
Maggie assumes that the tiny woman might be afraid
because she is young and alone, without a protector.
as the tale unfolds it becomes clear to the reader that
the tiny woman is, indeed, afraid.
In fact, the little
woman is afraid of losing her shadow lover and of its
hidden existence being discovered, fears that parallel
Amy's fears of loss and discovery.
The reader, then, rather than Maggie, witnesses
Amy's personal struggle to articulate her proper role
within the framework of her fantasy.
For Amy orates a
tale of the perfect life, i.e., the king who had
everything he wanted and the all-knowing princess who
understood her lessons even "before her masters taught
them to her" (341).
In "Domestic Fictions: Feminine
Deference and Maternal Shadow Labor in Dickens' Little
Dorrit," Sarah Winter claims that this image is Amy's
fantasy for herself and her father, "a perfect father-
daughter family" in which labor and the control of desire
need not be practiced (246).
And Metz suggests that "the
fiction enables Amy to flirt with despair and hope,
entertaining alternate visions of her destiny" (235).
But, as Winter goes on to argue, while "[m]embers of the
ideal, aristocratic family are charitable and wise,
the 'head' of a 'fallen' family must defer and control
the hidden and painful desires constantly generated by
shadow labor" (246).
Thus, Amy may fantasize about the
perfect family, but she must function in the realm of
reality as the daughter of a fallen father.
Amy's personal narrative, couched as a fairy tale,
illustrates her struggle to regain control over her
emotions, to reassert her beliefs in duty and service to
her family through self-renunciation and self-sacrifice.
She struggles with the difficulty of choice, giving up
what she desires for the sake of a mere shadow.
her oral tale she authors a vision of her future that
deviates only marginally from the tale of her past,
choosing self-sacrifice for the sake of love.
also struggles with language and the power that language
has to both create and destroy.
Because Amy's audience,
Maggie, doesn't grasp the relationship between tale and
teller, the feelings Amy hides within the narrative
The story is merely entertainment to
For Amy, it is an attempt to articulate her
desire while concealing her identity.
But because Maggie
doesn't apprehend Amy's relationship to the tiny woman,
nothing is revealed to Maggie by having heard the tale;
it is merely an oral fiction that Amy can (and later
does) shrug off.
As the tiny woman sinks into the
silence of the grave, so Amy's feelings and experiences
sink into silence as well.
Despite the ambiguities inherent in Amy's story, the
attempt to give voice to an identity and to negotiate a
social course of action defines this tale as a narrative
The tale acts as both a response to
and a product of external and internal circumstances.
Amy's attempt to school herself through the course of her
fantasy to obey duty rather than desire reflects her
position within the larger context of the novel, for she
constantly searches for the means to train herself and
her siblings, to find places and occupations where they
can be at least self-supporting, and, at most, of service
Repeatedly, she is identified as an
"industrious little fairy" or as a "little Mother" by
those characters that surround and rely upon her.
nicknames have a sort of silencing effect, for they deny
her her name, mute her identity and make her seem more
shadow than substance.
She epitomizes the woman and the
child who is seen and not heard, a prime example of the
nineteenth-century ideal woman/child whose sole purpose
is a quiet devotion to duty in the service of others.
She is the deferential child to her father and to her
surrogate father Clennam, and she is the tender and
nurturing mother to her family and friends.
tiny woman in the fairy tale, Amy hides the shadow of her
The fact that Amy was born and raised in the
Marshalsea Prison is telling, for imprisonment is a
central theme in the novel. Just as her father has been
physically imprisoned there, she is imprisoned within her
silence and within her place in society, and always, her
place is in the background patiently serving others.
Although Amy is imprisoned more by her own consciousness
than by the Marshalsea, ultimately her attempts at
socialization are successful, for her fantasy helps her
find her place, and, by living up to the Victorian
feminine ideal, she is rewarded with her shadowy lover,
3. MISS WADE: THE PERVERSION OF IDENTITY
The inverse of Amy's devotion to duty presents
itself in the character of Miss Wade, illustrating
One of the few
imprisonment of a different kind.
independent women in the novel, Miss Wade has bought her
But the price is dear for she
autonomy by her own means.
must live frugally, and she becomes embittered by her
social status and scornful of her superiors.
being self-sacrificing, Miss Wade is self-centered;
rather than looking outward to discern what she can do to
make the lives of those around her easier, she looks
inward and discerns only the poison that rises within her
This poison erupts from within and spews
itself upon all those who would show her affection.
neurotic obsession with perverting the intentions and
attentions of others is clearly evident in her letter to
Arthur Clennam in which she outlines her perceived
mistreatment by peers and employers:
I was told I was an orphan.
perceived (here was the first disadvantage
of not being a fool) that [the other girls]
conciliated me in an insolent pity, and in
a sense of superiority.
hardly make them quarrel with me. When I
succeeded with any of them, they were sure
to come after an hour or two, and begin a
They were always
forgiving me, in their vanity and
The blight of her illegitimacy and subsequent abandonment
clearly resides within her own mind.
In "Miss Wade and
George Silverman: the Forms of Fictional Monologue,"
Carol Bock remarks that Miss Wade is "isolated from other
people by [her] idiosyncratic perceptions of reality
[and] by behaving in a manner that [she] believe[s] is
self-suppressive but which can only be construed as
morbidly egocentric" (113).
On three separate occasions
within the body of her letter, Miss Wade notes that
others have marked her as having an "unhappy temper," a
phrase that she construes as "an easy way of accounting
for everything" (730), and therefore, she feels herself
to be the object of condescension and damnation.
Miss Wade's narrative, which Dickens appropriately
titles "The History of a Self-Tormentor" is, in fact, the
history of a woman refusing to be socialized into the
role of the model, dutiful, self-renouncing woman. On the
one hand, Miss Wade desires and achieves independence
just as she resents those who would seem to pity and
condescend to her.
On the other hand, she perverts the
affection shown her by others into derision and vanity,
yet it is she who is full of scorn and pride.
desires equality and respect, yet she can neither forget
nor forgive her blighted past, nor accept her station and
its inherent responsibilities.
She cannot forgive anyone
who seems to hint at her station, yet she cannot rise
above her own perceptions of what her station is.
Miss Wade's letter works as the antithesis to Amy's fairy
tale, illustrating the tragic consequences of a woman who
shirks her duty by sacrificing others for the sake of the
Commenting on the introduction of Miss Wade's
narrative into the "thematic framework" of the novel,
Miss Wade's narrative functions as an
exemplum illustrating the psychological
and ethical dangers of rampant personal
The role of Miss Wade's
narrative can be understood within the
broader context of ethical purpose.
[H]er narrative has a fable-like effect,
for it makes a cautionary statement by
depicting Miss Wade as a victim of her own
unlicensed, and therefore perverted, self
This self-will, however, seems to manifest itself only
after Miss Wade learns, as a child of twelve, that she is
an orphan, that the grandmother who has reared her is
not, in reality, her grandmother, and that she has no
From this moment on she "carried
the light of that information both into [her] past and
into [her] future" (Little Dorrit 728).
The truths of
her childhood have been shattered, leading us to a second
recurring theme in her letter.
In the opening paragraph of Miss Wade's epistle, she
makes the pronouncement that she is not a fool:
I have the misfortune of not being a fool.
From a very early age I have detected what
those about me thought they hid from me.
If I could have been habitually imposed
upon, instead of habitually discerning the
truth, I might have lived as smoothly as
most fools do.
Yet her letter is filled with scenes in which the reverse
is true, when she did not grasp the truth and in which
she was fooled or perceived herself to be made foolish.
Indeed, much of her misery seems to stem from the moments
in which she feels she has been played for a fool.
prides herself on her abilities to apprehend the natures
of others, to see beneath surface civilities, and to
discern the underlying meanings of others' words and
Yet she constantly misreads those cues.
feels shame because she so ardently loved her childhood
friend and fellow student, Charlotte.
Charlotte has been false towards her, she feels foolish
for having loved such a "stupid mite" (726).
congratulates her on her engagement to his wealthy
friend, she feels he is "full of mockery" (732), and that
her engagement has made her ridiculous.
It is a great
irony in her narrative that she identifies with Gowan and
claims him as a kindred spirit, as someone who
understands her and shares her knowledge of other people.
But Gowan, somewhat reflective of Skimpole in Bleak
House, is as great a fool and as foolish as Miss Wade.
Having once been fooled about her status and her
parentage, she spends the rest of her life trying to
thwart others from fooling her again; however, Winter
points out that "Miss Wade's discernment of the truth and
her indictment of social hypocrisy, despite Dickens' own
similar criticisms, finally are shown to result merely
from her bad attitude" (248).
The fact that Miss Wade
transfers her love to Gowan, a man whose mockery and
cynicism are surpassed only by his indolence, illustrates
how self-deluded she is.
The aversion to being fooled, coupled with her
unhappy temper and the circumstances of her birth, are
the major components that form Miss Wade's character.
first, we sympathize with Miss Wade because her early
circumstances seem to legitimize some of her feelings of
She does not sustain our sympathy,
however, for, finally, she chooses to be unhappy and to
torment others as she has tormented herself, and Dickens
shapes our reading of her story by the very title of the
chapter in which it unfolds.
"The History of a Self-
Tormentor," as Bock suggests, is "an illustration of the
novel's thematic interest in psychic self-imprisonment"
(114), an interest of which we have already seen
evidenced in Amy Dorrit.
As with Amy's fairy tale, examining the context that
inspires Miss Wade's letter further illuminates the
necessity for her narrative, and reveals that she is
portrayed as Amy's negative counterpart.
claims she has written to Clennam so that he may
understand the depths of her hatred for Pet Meagles, a
woman with whom Clennam has pondered the possibility of
Pet has married Gowan; thus, to
Miss Wade she is the winning rival.
Secondly, Miss Wade
feels disdain for Pet's parents who tried to keep the
marriage from occurring, and the implication that Gowan
is unworthy of Pet further aggravates her.
has repeatedly expressed admiration for Pet, it is in
keeping with Miss Wade's temperament to torment him with
her hatred of his beloved.
Miss Wade claims an interest in Tattycoram, the
Meagles' servant, because she sees in Tatty a reflection
She tells Mr. Meagles, "What your broken
plaything is as to birth,
She has no name,
Her wrong is my wrong" (378).
employed as a domestic, has a disposition and station
similar to Miss Wade's--unhappy with her lot in life, and
resentful of the treatment she receives from her
Furthermore, it was to Pet that Tattycoram
acted as a sister/companion.
By taking Tattycoram in
tow, Miss Wade not only acquires a protégé that she can
rear in her own image, but she also has a means of
hurting Pet and her family.
Underlying her reasons for
writing Clennam and her association with Tattycoram, lie
her mutual needs to be understood and to rail against her
But neither effort gains her any reward or
According to Winter, Miss Wade acts as Amy's
negative shadow because she refuses to do her duty and
defer to others:
Miss Wade's fate demonstrates what seems
to be the novel's message of domestic
in order to achieve and
maintain a reasonably "happy" temper, one
must learn to accept the imposition of
Thus, it would appear that one is not born with an
"unhappy temper," but rather, achieves and maintains it
by resisting "the imposition of domestic fictions."
Miss Wade (and likewise Tattycoram) is to achieve the
reward of a cheerful disposition, she must accept her
station; she must accept the adopted role to which she
was assigned; and she must perform her duties within the
service of her household.
Bereft of friends because she
refuses to accept her position, her life becomes a
wasteland containing only contempt for others and torment
The wasteland of her inner life is also reflected in
her exterior world.
Each time Clennam seeks her out, he
finds her in incommodious abodes.
In London, she resides
in a "dingy house, apparently empty" (374) with a dark
and "confined entrance" (375).
In Calais, he finds her
A dead sort of house, with a dead wall
over the way and a dead gateway at the side,
where a pendant bell-handle produced two
dead tinkles, and a knocker produced a dead,
flat, surface-tapping, that seemed not to
have depth enough in it to penetrate even
However, the door jarred
the cracked door.
open on a dead sort of spring; and he closed
it behind him as he entered a dull yard,
soon brought to a close by another dead wall,
where an attempt had been made to train some
creeping shrubs, which were dead; and to make
a little fountain in a grotto, which was dry;
and to decorate that with a little statue,
which was gone.
Whether she chooses such places to live because they help
to perpetuate her rage, or whether they are merely the
lodgings she can afford, her surroundings reflect and
reinforce her inner self.
For within the dead house
lives a woman who lacks the depth of fellow-feeling, who
is dull and dry and rotting in spirit.
within the confines of such a dead house, she writes her
history to Clennam.
The only advantage to Miss Wade's existence is that
she need not submit to the will and whim of others.
refusal to conform allows her to be autonomous, though
She seems willing to pay such a price for her
autonomy, however, and this need for autonomy, couched as
spiteful self-disclosure, is the reason she chooses to
write her history down in the form of a letter, rather
than telling it to Clennam in a face-to-face interview.
By giving her history in epistolary form, she retains
control of the narrative, unencumbered by outside
influences or interruptions, and she maintains authority
over her own text by controlling her audience.
as Lisa Delpit suggests in "The Silenced Dialogue," our
private experiences may be the only aspect of our lives
in which we can maintain authority:
We must keep the perspective that people
are experts on their own lives.
certainly aspects of the outside world of
which they may not be aware, but they can
be the only authentic chroniclers of their
There is much of the outside world which Miss Wade fails
to apprehend; nevertheless, this does not altogether
negate her experiences, and her experiences give her
But this power, as Mr. Meagles
power over Tattycoram.
points out, is a perversion of sisterhood, and he warns
Miss Wade against reproducing herself and her hatred in
Tattycoram (Little Dorrit 379).
Through Tatty's eyes,
Dickens gives us a final look at Miss Wade and her
peculiar and frightening behavior:
I was afraid of her from the first time I
I knew she had got a power over
me through understanding what was bad in me
It was a madness in me, and she
could raise it whenever she liked.
that people were all against
me because of my first beginning; and the
kinder they were to me, the worse fault I
found with them.
I made it out that they
triumphed above me, and that they wanted to
make me envy them.
I have had Miss
Wade before me all this time, as if it was
my own self grown ripe--turning everything
the wrong way, and twisting all good into
Tatty's monologue seals our dislike for Miss Wade, for we
witness not only Miss Wade's self-torture, but her
torture of Tattycoram as well.
Tatty's monologue also
sets up Mr. Meagles' reiteration of the Victorian
precepts of deference and devotion to duty, pointing to
Little Dorrit as someone worthy of imitation.
dialogue between Tatty and Mr. Meagles, according to
Winter, teaches Tatty "part of the secret about how
Little Dorrit is repaid for her deferential emotion work:
it is a simple exchange--when you give deference you get
deference back" (248).
Thus, the ideology of Victorian
womanhood is reinforced once more by praising Amy at the
same instance in which Miss Wade (and by implication her
independence) is disparaged.
Affirming Amy also affirms
the social codes within which Dickens was writing-
conforming to the ideologies of class hierarchies and
As Robert Altick observes:
In Victorian England the concept of
"deference"--willing acknowledgment that
the people in the classes above one's own
were justly entitled to their superioritywas so strong that it was proof against all
the subversive and disintegrating forces
which were brought to bear against it.
Although in the character of Miss Wade Dickens dabbles
with the idea of a woman stepping outside the boundaries
of social convention, ultimately she proves to be a
Refusing to be dutiful or
deferential, Miss Wade succeeds in living independently
only by becoming a warped personality and by shunning
society and its class structures with its inherent
Miss Wade refuses to be socialized, and
because she rejects and perverts the Victorian ideal of
womanhood, she becomes a social outcast.
4. ESTHER SUMMERSON: THE HIDDEN FACE OF IDENTITY
In Bleak House, Dickens writes the story of another
woman whose circumstances of birth and position parallel
those of Miss Wade's and Tattycoram's, but whose
disposition is more in keeping with Amy Dorrit's.
John Jarndyce takes Esther Summerson (whose benefactor he
has been for years, although unbeknownst to her) into his
home to act as companion to his ward Ada Clare, he gives
"her a clear role to fulfill," as Frances Armstrong
writes in Dickens and the Concept of Home, "to prevent
her from feeling patronized and embarrassed" (117).
Esther is every bit as deferential and duty-bound as her
successor, Amy Dorrit.
However, because approximately
half of the events that unfold in the novel are narrated
in the first-person by Esther, we are witness to Esther's
personal struggles and inner trials to a much greater
degree than we are witness to Amy's struggles in Little
In Esther we will witness the struggle between
devotion to duty and a need for independence and identity
that is missing in Little Dorrit.
For in Little Dorrit,
the separation between good and evil, right and wrong,
selflessness and selfishness is definitively apportioned
between Amy and Miss Wade.
Esther's childhood parallels Miss Wade's on at least
neither knows her parentage, and both are
raised by women who are other than they seem, for Miss
Wade's grandmother is no relation to her at all, and
Esther's godmother is really her aunt.
Each woman begins
her life in a web of deception that will color her
perceptions of herself and her relationships to others.
But while Miss Wade's childhood might have been pleasant
had she not self-righteously condemned others, Esther's
childhood is made miserable by her godmother, Miss
Barbary, who condemns her because of the circumstances of
Nevertheless, Esther, unlike Miss Wade,
blames herself for her strained relations with her
Indeed, from the opening lines of their
narratives, their different natures are apparent, for
while Miss Wade begins her letter by complaining to "have
the misfortune of not being a fool" (Little Dorrit 725),
Esther begins by apologizing for not being clever (Bleak
Esther's earliest perceptions of self-identity are
colored by her godmother's treatment of and reaction to
Miss Barbary is cold and distant, and as harsh and
cruel as her name suggests, making Esther feel that she
fills a place in the house "which ought to have been
The origins of her birth are kept secret
When she is told that she is her mother's
shame and her mother is hers, and that it would have been
better had she never been born, Esther feels guilt and
shame, but remains confused about her origins.
under the shadow of a disgrace she can neither name nor
understand, and she recognizes that her life has brought
no joy to others and no love to herself.
Esther's childhood experiences sow the seeds of a
negative self-image, as frequently throughout her
narrative she makes allusions to being a nonentity.'
isn't allowed to attend her classmates' birthday parties,
and her own birthdays pass by unacknowledged and
Her godmother treats her coldly and
She feels insignificant, unloved, and
undeserving of love. The one possession upon which Esther
can bestow her love is her doll.
Raised in a house full
of secrets to which she seems excluded, Esther shares
secrets of her own with the doll.
The doll becomes a
repository for Esther's confidences, a solitary and
But the doll cannot alter Esther's self-
image; indeed, it seems to unconsciously confirm Esther's
feelings of nonexistence for even as she pours her heart
out to it, it stares blankly ahead "as at nothing" (62).5
Just as Amy Dorrit's fairy tale is imparted to the
uncomprehending Maggie, so Esther imparts her confidences
to the doll.
Each attempts to acknowledge and create
identity, but each chooses an audience who cannot offer
Each articulates her desires, fears, and
secrets, authoring the self into being, but the
articulation falls on deaf ears.
The act of speech in
each instance is an act both of self-creation and selfrevelation and an act of self-denial; a means of
acknowledging and articulating the existence and desires
of the self, yet withholding expression to a
Such self-disclosure negates their
personal identities because the objects of their
narratives are uncomprehending.
Their claims of
existence and identity remain locked within the confines
of the self, a simultaneous expression of sound and
The subject, meaning, and identity of the
narrative remain buried, hidden within the speaker, and
therefore, the speaker is neither perceived nor affirmed
by an other.
Moreover, each speaker associates her secretiveness
with the need to "bury" the self.
Amy buries her
identity in the anonymity of a fairy-tale little woman
spinning at a wheel, a woman who is dead and buried along
with the shadow of her lover at the end of the tale.
Esther buries her identity by literally burying the doll,
the repository containing her hopes and fears.
burial is especially curious because it takes place
several days before Esther is to leave her childhood home
behind forever following the death of her godmother.
Esther takes with her some boxes and a bird in a cage,
but leaves behind her treasured doll.
By burying the
doll, she not only buries her treasure, but she also
buries her childhood self and all her hurts, fears, and
"The [burial] ceremony," as Alex Zwerdling
remarks in "Esther Summerson Rehabilitated," "reveals her
guilt about any form of self-indulgence, even such a
sorry substitute for maternal acceptance" (434).
continues to live under the shadow of an unknown
disgrace, and in the shadow of her godmother's words:
"Submission, self-denial, diligent
work, are the preparations for a life
begun with such a shadow on it.
are different from other children, Esther,
because you were not born, like them, in
common sinfulness and wrath. You are set
Esther resolves "to be industrious, contented and kindhearted, and to do some good and win some love"
Although she has ample reason to complain
against her godmother's treatment of her, she blames
herself for the lack of feeling in others.
Wade, Esther internalizes the actions and words of
others, and, rather than blaming them, she is selfreproachful.
Yet there is a critical difference between Amy's
fairy tale and Esther's confessions to the doll:
Esther's confessions are revealed to another when she
writes her part of the narrative for the reader.
autobiographical narrative is the continuation of selfdefinition, of writing herself into being.
begins, after all, under the title of "A Progress," and
so it is--a progress towards identity.
But just as
Esther's narrative is a search for identity, so also is
it a confession of disappointment, loss, and struggle.
The confession gives voice to her own process of coming
into language, but it also allows her to evade what she
doesn't wish to acknowledge.
This evasion is made
apparent by her frequent apologizing for reentering the
tale she is supposedly telling about others and by her
apologies for making critical observations regarding the
characters of others.
She discerns, for example, that
Jarndyce's friend, Skimpole, is a shiftless parasite, and
that Richard Carstone, Ada's betrothed, lacks a work
ethic and is obsessed instead with the Jarndyce suit in
the hopes of getting rich quick.
Although she glosses
over and apologizes for these observations, they are
critical to the narrative, lending clues to Esther's
beliefs and values, and therefore, to identity, since
character and identity are inextricably linked.
of identity is bound up in our perceptions of other and
in others' perceptions of us, and we internalize the
characteristics and characterizations with which others
Consciously and unconsciously, these
characterizations help define our identities.
need to apologize for her observations signals her lack
of self-confidence about her own judgments.'
Some of these characterizations are evident in other
female characters within the novel who act as
counterpoints and complements to Esther.
Ada Clare, for
example, the young woman for whom Esther acts as a
companion, is Esther's alter ego.
Esther transfers all
the characteristics of goodness, kindness, self-
renunciation, and physical beauty to Ada, and when Ada
compliments Esther's good deeds, Esther insists that all
the merit lies with Ada.
She loves Ada unconditionally
and devotedly, finding in her a kindred spirit.
relationship between Ada and Esther is reflexive, each
seeing in the other the ideal image of selflessness.8
But the self also becomes divided by the transference of
selfless acts to another, so that Esther sees herself as
flawed and Ada as the embodiment of goodness.
Esther's identity becomes partially entwined with and
dependent upon Ada's.
Counterpoint to the benignity of Esther and Ada are
Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle.
Esther notes that both
women believe themselves to be devoted to the duty of
social work, but she also notes that their devotion to
the public sphere creates havoc in the private home.
Mrs. Jellyby's household is constantly on the verge of
total chaos and collapse, her children are unwashed and
untended, her cupboards and crockery are in disrepair,
and her husband is forgotten and neglected all for the
sake of sending support to missionaries in BorrioboolaGha.
Equally ineffectual is Mrs. Pardiggle, a woman who
insists she never tires and is intent on "rapacious
benevolence," and who drags her discontented young family
from house to house through poor neighborhoods reading
religious tracts and sermonizing (150).
selfless duty is clearly a Dickensian theme, devotion to
public duty at the neglect of private duty is clearly an
evil in the eyes of Esther and Dickens for it threatens
the collapse of both the private and public spheres.
Furthermore, as the children of Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs.
Pardiggle illustrate, neglect of home and family lead to
dysfunction and deficiency in moral character, creating
ill-tempered children who seek to dissociate themselves
from their parents.
Although Victorian feminine ideals
allowed for women to participate in charitable community
work, such work was never meant to interfere with a
woman's work in the home.
husband and hearth.
Her first priority was to
Esther and Dickens both confirm and
conform to this ideal.
The home, to both Dickens and
Esther, should be the foundation upon which the nation is
Thus the character and identity of a nation built
upon foundations of neglected households and resting on
the shoulders of neglected children, threatens to topple
in upon itself.'
Throughout Esther's narrative, the question of duty
keeps arising because the question of identity remains
Like Amy Dorrit, Esther is determined to be
content, dutiful, and self-sacrificing.
however, Esther frequently struggles with her role in the
Jarndyce household and with the shadow of her past and
her parentage, searching for familial connections:
[My fancy] wandered back to my godmother's
house, and came along the intervening
track, raising up shadowy speculations
which had sometimes trembled there in
the dark, as to what knowledge Mr Jarndyce
had of my earliest history--even as to the
possibility of his being my father--though
that idle dream was quite gone now.
Although Esther constantly pushes such musings aside,
they continuously resurface as evidence that Esther can
neither forget her current status within the household,
nor cease to wonder at the mysteriousness of her origins.
Frequently mystified and distracted by events that occur
around her and the feelings that they inspire within her,
Esther constantly wrestles with her wish to be good and
dutiful--denying her identity--and with her desire for
Even when she manages to put down
concerns regarding her identity, circumstances around her
force the issue to the forefront once again.
It is not surprising, then, that the veiled ladies,
who keep appearing and disappearing in Esther's narrative
and within the larger narrative framework of the novel,
bear an uncanny resemblance to Esther and tell us
something about her identity.
The illiterate, poverty-
stricken, and orphaned Jo has the misfortune to witness
these mysterious comings and goings.
The first veiled
woman he meets gives him a sovereign to take her to the
burying ground in Tom-all-Alone's.
He meets what appears
to be the same veiled woman again at lawyer Tulkinghorn's
office, though he notices that her hands and rings are
He sees the veiled lady a third time while
staying at the brickmaker's house.
Esther is this third
lady, who, having never met Jo before, is surprised by
his response to her.
He expresses not only his
confusion, but the reader's confusion as well when he
cries, "She looks to me the t'other one.
It ain't the
bonnet, nor yet it ain't the gownd, but she looks to me
the t'other one" (486).
Because Jo is in the throes of
fever, Esther attributes his remarks to delirium.
when police detective Bucket appears on the scene trying
to solve the mystery of the veiled ladies and the murder
of Tulkinghorn, Esther once again finds herself in the
middle of a muddle of confused identities.1°
Esther has learned of her parentage from Lady Dedlock,
Esther is forced to keep her mother's identity locked
away to protect the Dedlock family.
But when Lady
Dedlock's story comes to light and she flees the Dedlock
estate, she confuses identity once more by exchanging her
dress for that of the brickmaker's wife, Jenny.
flight and pursuit of Lady Dedlock which follows
parallels Esther's inner flight from and pursuit of
Esther has both sought after and
hidden the truth of her origins, and just at the moment
of discovery, when it seems possible for her to
acknowledge her mother's existence, she loses her mother
Just as she has buried a piece of herself in
burying the doll, she must now bury another portion of
her life and her identity with her mother.
Esther's divided self and the confusion of identity
are manifested in a number of ways throughout her
narrative as the episodes with the veiled ladies
The veil acts as a mask, concealing the
identity of the wearer.
It also confuses identity
because the woman behind the veil cannot be identified by
others, so that what appears to be one woman is really
Jo's perplexity exemplifies the fractured
reality created by this confusion of identities.11
the fracturing of reality--the splitting off between what
appears to be real and what is real--is again apparent
when Esther discovers her mother's body but believes it
to be the body of the poor brickmaker's wife--"Jenny, the
mother of the dead child" (868).
Bucket explains that Jenny and Lady Dedlock exchanged
clothes so that Lady Dedlock could escape detection,
Esther's mind cannot reconcile his words with her first
I could repeat [Detective Bucket's
explanation] in my mind too, but I had not
the least idea what it meant.
I saw before
me, lying on the step, the mother of the
She lay there, with one arm
creeping round a bar of the iron gate, and
seeming to embrace it.
She lay there,
a distressed, unsheltered, senseless creature
who had come to this condition by some
means connected with my mother that I could
Esther is capable of repeating Detective Bucket's words,
but she is incapable of grasping their meaning.
fallen woman appears to be Jenny, the mother of the dead
child and a mirror image of Lady Dedlock who had believed
her child was dead; but the reflection is reversed.
Esther realizes it is her mother who lies before her when
she lifts "the heavy head, put the long dank hair aside,
and turned the face" to see her mother, "cold and dead"
Her mother's hair serves as another veil-
confusing appearance and identity.
As Esther lifts this
veil of hair from her mother's face and discovers her
real identity, the reader is reminded of a similar
incident in which Esther's appearance was veiled beneath
a mass of hair.
Before examining this earlier unveiling, we should
explore what precipitates the event.
Perhaps the most
obvious clues to Esther's divided self are revealed
during and following her long illness.
In the midst of
her fever, Esther confuses her past and present selves,
at one moment believing herself to be at school, then at
her godmother's and then at Bleak House, "oppressed by
cares and difficulties adapted to each station [and] by
the great perplexity of endlessly trying to reconcile
She envisions herself toiling up "colossal
staircases" (544), endeavoring to reach the top, but
continually turned aside.
Such fevered laboring is
indicative of the body trying to fight its way back to
health, but it also illustrates the psychological battle
that she constantly wages between duty and selffulfillment.
The feelings of oppression, which she has
repeatedly repressed in her attempts to be dutiful and
obedient, manifest themselves in her fever-induced
Particularly symbolic is the dream in which she
sees herself as part of an unbroken circle:
Dare I hint at that worse time when
strung together somewhere in great black
space, there was a flaming necklace, or
ring, or starry circle of some kind, of
which I was one of the beads! And when
my only prayer was to be taken off from
the rest, and when it was such inexplicable
agony and misery to be a part of the dread(544)
Again, her prayer might appear to be the physical
expression of illness--the desire for death and the end
of painful suffering.
But she prays "to be taken off
from the rest," implying a need to be disassociated from
the others in the circle.
Implicated within that desire
to be disconnected is a longing for independence, the
separation of the self from the circle, and the removal
of burdensome relationships and responsibilities that
have oppressed her.
Surely the self is asserting its
need to be set apart from others, but whether in need of
isolation or in need of recognition is unclear.
frequently expressed the desire to "win some love" for
herself, yet the wish to be taken off from the rest, the
cry that to be part of the "dreadful thing" is "such
inexplicable agony and misery," seems to point more
toward a need for isolation.
Within the circle identity
is muted, obscured, transferable from one bead to the
Apart from the circle, the bead not only draws
attention to itself, it can move independently of the
other beads that are strung together.
Bound up in her
desire for separateness may be a fear of dependence and
Since her origins have been a mystery to her
most of her life, she may fear being defined by others,
or she may fear having her identity defined in terms of
relationship to another.
Esther herself is disturbed by her dreams and their
signification, illustrating her self-division by
acknowledging that she is "almost afraid to hint at that
time" in her "disorder," but inferring that to record
such "afflictions" might "alleviate their intensity"
While she assures the reader that she doesn't
recall these events to make others unhappy or because she
is unhappy, her assurances insure that the reader must,
indeed, wonder about her happiness.
And although she
notes that it might be better not to speak about her
fevered dreams, she makes this admission only after her
dreams have been revealed.
Once again, the appearance of
the divided self is represented both in her need to share
the dreams and in her need to apologize for them, and
depicts the inner struggle between succumbing to
socialization and asserting individual autonomy.
Concurrently she seeks to reveal and conceal.
anonymous reader, Esther's revelations might serve as
explanation for her words and actions.
To reveal herself
to strangers would be of no consequence, yet the need to
protect her loved ones (and perhaps also herself) causes
her to gloss over or undermine the importance of her
dreams and feelings as if, or in case, her narrative
should fall into the hands of someone she could hurt.
Just as she tried to reconcile her "cares and
difficulties adapted to each station," so she tries to
reconcile her dreams with her waking conception of
At one moment the veil is lifted to
reveal identity, then dropped again to conceal it.
Once freed from the fever, however, appearance and
identity continue to be problematic for Esther.
Realizing that all of the mirrors have been removed from
her rooms, she begins the process of reconciling herself
to the prospect that her appearance must, indeed, be
quite altered by the ravages of the disease.
first she hasn't the courage to ask for the mirrors to be
returned, she carefully watches the reactions of others,
trying to gauge her disfigurement by the reflections that
cross their faces.
When Esther asks her maid Charley
about the missing mirrors, Charley leaves the room and
Esther hears her stifle a sob.
And when her guardian is
allowed to see her for the first time, he sits with his
hand momentarily covering his face.
While Esther treats
these incidents lightly, the mere mention of them attests
to the impact they have on her self-image.
Esther claims to being resigned to her altered
appearance, the fact remains that she doesn't ask for the
mirrors to be restored to their places.
Neither can the
reactions of her maid and her guardian have offered her
any hope that she might not be as altered as she fears.
Consider also that she continues to refuse her beloved
Ada admittance into her rooms, preferring to talk to her
from behind a window-curtain:
Yet I never saw her; for I had not as yet
the courage to look at the dear face,
though I could have done so easily without her seeing me.
Her acclaimed resignation is clearly a fiction.
of the reflexive nature of the relationship between Ada
and Esther, to see Ada, still beautiful and unscarred by
disease, and, more importantly, to see Ada's reaction to
her appearance, would be a little like looking in the
Clearly, Esther is not yet capable of that act.
Not until she is removed to Chesney Wold is she able
to look into a mirror, but again, appearance is hidden
behind a series of veils.
Before she can gaze upon her
reflection, she contemplates her blessings, placing
before her mind's eye a sort of mental filtering screen
through which to view her appearance.
Then, she lets
down her hair, creating a physical screen or veil through
which to filter the view of herself.
mirror is also veiled, covered in a little muslin
To look upon her reflection, she must first
draw back the curtain, and then the veil of her own hair:
I put my hair aside, and looked at the
reflection in the mirror, encouraged by
seeing how placidly it looked at me.
was very much changed--0 very, very much.
At first my face was so strange to me,
that I think I should have put my hands
before it and started back.
Esther's psychologically divided self seems almost to
become a physical division.
The face in the mirror seems
to belong to someone else who "placidly" looks at her.
Throughout much of Esther's narrative, she has sought to
efface her role and accomplishments, trying to fade into
the background while foregrounding the kindnesses and
good deeds of others.
Now, Esther would have us believe
that she is literally defaced, her former self not merely
hidden, but erased entirely.
As Richard Gaughan writes
in "'Their Places are a Blank': the Two Narratives in
Bleak House," "Esther has lost in her disfigurement the
only sure source of her identity--her face" (90).
reflection in the mirror is a stranger to her.
Psychological, physical, and symbolic mirroring play
a crucial role in much of Esther's narrative.
already discussed the reflective nature of Esther's and
Ada's relationship as a kind of psychological, though
unconscious, mirroring of the admirable qualities of each
But other reflective images also come to mind.
Caddy Jellyby and Charley Neckett become mirror images of
Esther's industrious and good-natured service to others
by following her example and instruction and by placing
others before themselves and endeavoring to care for
The reverse of the vituperative Miss
their loved ones.
Wade who tries to make Tattycoram an acolyte in her
perversion of honest affection, Esther has taken each
young woman under her wing and replicated matronly
devotion and motherly affection.
A physical and symbolic mirroring occurs when Esther
sees her mother, Lady Dedlock, for the first time.
Although she is completely ignorant of her bloodconnection to Lady Dedlock, Esther is acutely aware of an
"association" (304) with this woman, and, once again,
mirror and mirrored images are foregrounded.
Even in the
brief moment that her gaze meets Lady Dedlock's, Esther
is immediately transported back to the "lonely days" at
her godmother's house, "to the days when I had stood on
tiptoe to dress myself at my little glass, after dressing
my doll" (304).
Within the space of a few seconds (and
four paragraphs of narration), a flurry of images and
I knew the beautiful face quite well,
in that short space of time.
very strangely, there was something
quickened within me
to the days
when I had stood on tiptoe to dress myself
at my little glass, after dressing my doll.
But why her face should be, in a
confused way, like a broken glass to me, in
which I saw scraps of old remembrances
[D]id Lady Dedlock's
I could not think.
face accidentally resemble my godmother's?
It might be that it did, a little; but the
expression was so different
could not be that resemblance which had
struck me. Neither did I know the loftiness and haughtiness of Lady Dedlock's
face, at all, in any one. And yet I -I,
little Esther Summerson, the child who
lived a life apart, and on whose birthday
there was no rejoicing--seemed to rise
before my own eyes.
All of the most symbolic elements of Esther's fractured
identity are present.
The doll, the stern face of her
godmother, the uncelebrated birthday are all parts of
herself and her past that she has tried to bury.
image represents the unknown of who she is and of what
she is guilty--why she must find comfort in a doll, why
her godmother is so removed, why her birthday goes
All of these images are recalled upon seeing
Lady Dedlock's face.
Yet the critical image is the
reflection of her own face in that of Lady Dedlock's.
However, as Cynthia Northcutt Malone asserts in "'Flight'
and 'Pursuit': Fugitive Identity in Bleak House,"
the mirror-like moment offers no steadily
reflected image of the self that might
confirm a coherent and unified identity;
instead, this moment splinters the "I,"
exposing its divisions and multiplicity,
refracting it in "a broken glass" (110).
Esther is confronted with an image that is both familiar
and strange to her, much as she will be confronted by her
own reflection the first time she looks in a mirror after
Another symbolic reflection of Esther occurs in the
final chapter of the novel in which she notes that her
goddaughter and namesake, Caddy's baby, is both deaf and
Throughout the course of her narrative, Esther has
been deaf to compliments directed towards herself.
at the end of the novel, she refuses to believe that she
merits the praise of others, claiming to "owe it all" to
her husband (935).
She has been "dumb" regarding her
parentage throughout much of the novel, and remains mute
for most of the novel even when she learns of her
Finally, her godchild, described
previously as "a tiny old-faced mite" with "curious
little dark veins in its face, and curious little dark
marks under its eyes, like faint remembrances of poor
Caddy's inky days" (736), seems marked by the sin of
familial neglect (resulting from her grandmother
Jellyby's devotion to Africa13) as Esther is marked by the
illegitimacy of her birth and the neglect of her
In each instance--in Caddy and Charley, in
Lady Dedlock, and in Caddy's baby--Esther, whether
consciously or unconsciously, seeks the location of self
in the images of others.
The last important clues to Esther's search for self
lie within the language of her narrative.
Not only is
her identity obfuscated by mirrors and veils, but also by
the words she chooses and the events she portrays in the
In Dickens and Women, Michael
writing of her narrative.
Slater convincingly argues that her language--"her selfcompliment paid to her
deprecating flutterings about any
her painfully contorted references to [Allan]
Woodcourt" with whom she is in love, her repeated
apologies for talking about herself, all point to an
"authentic-sounding mimicry of
a certain kind of
in which the sufferer is always struggling
with a crushing sense of
her own worthlessness"
Much of this sense of worthlessness is implicit
in the use of the subjunctive mood which is present from
the opening pages of her story ("I never loved my
as I felt I must have loved her if I had
been a better gir1"14) to the end of her narrative when
she leaves the reader "even supposing" whether she is
prettier than ever, as her husband asserts (935).15
"'I'll Follow the Other': Tracing the (M)other in Bleak
House," Marcia Goodman writes, "[Esther] is disfigured or
beautiful, depending on how we read her, but she is
neither with any certainty" (166).
She remains faceless
just as for much of the novel she has been nameless.
Malone contends, "'Esther Summerson,' is only a
pseudonym" upon which "accrues a wealth of nicknames"Dame Durden, Mrs. Shipton, Old Woman, Little Woman, and
so on (113).
The language of naming serves as another
veiling of Esther's identity.
Reflecting the struggle to describe others and her
relationships to others, Esther's narrative can never be
more than a faulty personal perspective.
Esther is still
in the concurrent processes of self-identification and
socialization, still becoming aware of who she is and
what she desires, still defining her social
responsibilities and her individual identity, as the
ending of her story attests.
What Suzanne Graver calls
Esther's "anxiety of authorship" is,
I believe, her
attempt to write herself into being within the swirling
vortex of multiple voices (13).
These voices, both
public and private, have tried to define and sometimes
deny her identity.
Who she is and what she is becoming
are the result of her conforming to, subverting, and
rejecting these definitions and denials.
language, suggests Gaughan,
is the language of alienation, but it is
the alienation produced by a multiplicity
that cannot be resolved into simple
confrontations or choices. Esther, like
the characters associated with her, is
damaged by the conflicting claims of the
many languages that go into making her up
She bears the scars of this damage on her
face and incorporates her alienation into
the very fabric of her narrative.
It is no wonder then that Esther has often been charged
with being coy and oblique (Graver even charges her with
being static16), but few of us, I would argue, could tell
the story of our own lives and relationships and be fully
cognizant of the implications of our words, actions, and
Furthermore, the fact that Esther is
writing to an unknown audience, in conjunction with the
third-person narrator (whose identity and connection to
Esther are never revealed to the reader), must only add
to her difficulties with storytelling.
Unlike Amy Dorrit
and Miss Wade who are each narrating to an identified
audience of one, Esther's story is being written for the
Whatever Esther chooses to reveal,
then, must be done in such a manner that not only
protects her own areas of vulnerability, but also
protects the vulnerability of her loved ones--the
ultimate end of the well "socialized" narrativecomplying with the codes of duty and deference.
because Esther is trying to discover and make sense of
her own history, she must also recognize and come to
terms with some of the flaws in herself and others, and
as she does so, she bears witness to the damage that such
flaws and human errors can cause.
Some of the
slipperiness of Esther's text, therefore, is born out of
her desire to both protect and discover, to conceal blame
and culpability while revealing the damage that results
from human failings.
Her narrative cannot help but be
the natural by-product of faulty and limited personal
Thus, Bleak House is the story of damaged lives
resulting from destructive social practices.
But it is
also the story of the house itself and its inhabitants,
Esther in particular, who rise, phoenixlike, from out of
the rubble of human and social failure to create family,
fellowship, and an environment in which the scars of
social suffering can be nursed and, perhaps, mended.
because Esther strives to conform to the socially
prescribed Victorian ideal of womanhood, she, like Amy,
is rewarded with the lover she desires.
socialization is, therefore, successful.
Her process of
5. CONCLUSION: DICKENS AND IDENTITY
Like his heroines Esther Summerson and Amy Dorrit,
Dickens, too, was concerned with identity.
He was also
aware that many factors shape individual identity and
that childhood events and traumas can have lasting
affects on the adult psyche.
His own traumatic childhood
haunted his adult life and provided the impetus for many
of the settings, events, and characters within his
His father's imprisonment in the Marshalsea
Prison for debtors and his own removal from school at the
age of twelve so that he could be sent to work in a
blacking factory to help support himself and his family
were critical experiences that left lasting marks on the
As biographer Edgar Johnson notes in Charles
His Tragedy and Triumph, Dickens's early
experiences were so painful that he would later reveal
them only to his close friend John Forster.
No emphasis can overstate the depth and
intensity with which these experiences
ate into his childish soul.
But it is more than a mere unavailing
ache in the heart, however poignant, and
however prolonged into manhood, that gives
the Marshalsea and Warren's Blacking their
significance in Dickens's life. They were
Some of Dickens' experiences are certainly portrayed in
Little Dorrit, as events in Amy's life parallel some of
the Marshalsea setting, Amy's profligate
father, the family dependent upon a child for its
The marks of psychological trauma are also
evident in Dickens's portrayal of children and diminutive
women/girls as "poor little mites" who are abandoned by
their families either physically or emotionally or both
Such emotional abandonment is present in
Little Dorrit and both physical and emotional abandonment
are present in Bleak House.
In Dickens and the Parent-
Child Relationship Arthur Adrian sums up Dickens'
connection to his characters:
That Dickens kept returning to the
theme of the delinquent parent and the
homeless and alienated child in search
of identity is evidence
own boyhood had left impressions never
to be obliterated. His own past neglect
became inseparable from the general
character of the age.
The very metaphors Dickens uses in his novels are
suggested in his personal life as well.
shadow, for instance, are recurrent images in Little
Dorrit and Bleak House.
As Little Dorrit ends with Amy
and Arthur descending from the church down into the
street, "pass[ing] along in sunshine and shadow" (895),
the symbolism of Amy's fairy tale comes full circle.
Like the tiny spinning woman, Amy (as sunlight and good
angel) has her husband, Arthur (as shade or shadow),
whose adulthood, like Dickens's, has been haunted by
events in his childhood.
In Bleak House, Esther
Summerson, as sunshine and good angel, ministers over her
own copy of Bleak House, as the original emerges from
under the shadow of the Chancery suit that has ensnared
so many lives.
Dickens, too, wrestled with shadows and
was ministered to by his own good angels, his wife's
sisters Mary and, especially, Georgina (to whom a number
of Dickens scholars liken Esther). 18
In Bleak House and Little Dorrit, Dickens explores
female identity, self-division, and the roles to which
women were assigned in Victorian England, but he does so,
I believe, with an eye toward his own needs.
Dickens felt a sense of emotional abandonment by his
parents, particularly his mother, informs his
characterizations of Amy and Esther who are figuratively
and literally abandoned.
And, according to Michael
Slater, "Making the child invariably female increased
both the heroism and the pathos, so providing an adequate
fictional representation of Dickens as he essentially saw
himself in the domestic aspect of his life from
But having identified with Esther and
Any in their childhood miseries, Dickens creates in them
the Victorian characteristics of ideal womanhood that he
seems to have found lacking in his relationships with his
mother and his wife.
As Johnson asserts, Dickens
"increasingly felt an 'unhappy loss or want of
something'" (625), of never having known that "one
in life," that "one friend and companion"
In Amy and Esther he seeks to create that friend
and companion, the ministering angel who protects and
The values of the heart--sympathy, love,
selfless care for and commitment to
others--which were identified with woman's
domestic sphere, were to counteract the
negative psychic and moral effects of
aggressive, competitive, marketplace
Dickens's relation to
the women in his own life--particularly
his mother who failed him and his sisterin-law, Georgina, who selflessly served
him--makes clear how much he desired
Clearly Dickens' idealized female characters conform to
the prescribed social codes by which women were governed.
Yet equally clear is his acknowledgment of the price that
women must pay in sacrificing themselves for their
Nevertheless, like the characters in his novels,
Dickens is trapped within self-perpetuating systems of
Perhaps his critique of society is
only possible because to be a victim of social injustice
and corruption is to be victimized by an impersonal
bureaucratic mechanism, and therefore, to lash out
against it is to lash out at no one in particular.
to critique one's own family, to acknowledge
victimization by the corruption and sins of one's close
relations, becomes too personal an indictment to make
The perpetrators have faces and names.
indict the family, then, the accuser must use subterfuge
to protect one's self and to deny personal complicity
So fairy tales and "coy" narratives
are born to help the victim survive social and familial
Yet one must also adhere to social strictures and
gender and familial roles or risk being outcast.
to author one's own identity requires a balancing act
between social prescription and personal freedom.
Like his fictional female counterparts, Dickens
sought to create his own identity, and like them, he,
too, suffered from the "anxiety of authorship" (Graver
Yet perhaps it is this anxiety of authorship that
makes Dickens' novels and characters so enduring, for we
continue to search for ways to stand out from the crowd
without standing apart, to be noticed for our
individuality without being ostracized for our
That we continue to read these women, as we
continue to read their author, with such sympathy for
their lot, attests to the difficulties of creating
individual identity and of allowing it to emerge and
survive amid the processes of socialization.
My discussion of Little Dorrit and Bleak House as
narratives of socialization is also informed by
the articles by James A. Berlin, "Literacy,
Pedagogy, and English Studies: Postmodern
Connections," and by Lisa D. Delpit's "The
Edgar Johnson notes that the character of William
Dorrit was likely patterned after Dickens's own
father, John, a "tremulously tragic" figure who,
like Dorrit, was imprisoned (briefly) for debt (35).
Metz (233) and Little Dorrit (341).
Cynthia Northcutt Malone specifically addresses
Esther's familial identity noting that the "'I' that
asserts self-recognition gives way to an indefinite
'some one,' and at last, to 'no one'" (115).
See also the articles by Richard T. Gaughan (8889), Cynthia Malone (116-117), and Alex Zwerdling
(434) for more discussion of Esther's doll and her
relationship with it.
Zwerdling, for example,
asserts that the doll is a symbol of Esther's
"'selfishness,' her need for someone who loves her
Zwerdling contends that Esther is "wounded by her
godmother's speech, but not crushed" and he argues
that she has "a supremely practical turn of mind,
and her first impulse is to formulate a strategy for
survival" by altering her godmother's dictum to a
Zwerdling argues that
Dickens and Esther as
perceptiveness but in
"the difference between
narrators lies not in their
their self-confidence about
My discussion of the reflexive relationship of
Ada and Esther is informed by Cynthia Malone's
and Alex Zwerdling's discussions. Malone
argues that "Ada represents the 'I' that Esther has
lost" (112), while Zwerdling contends that Ada is
Esther's "idealized second self" (431).
For extended discussions of Dickens's views of the
home and parent-child relationships, see Arthur
Adrian's Dickens and the Parent-Child Relationship,
and Frances Armstrong's Dickens and the Concept of
For a broader discussion of Detective Bucket's and
Lady Dedlock's relationship to fugitive identity see
Marcia Renee Goodman's "'I'll Follow the Other':
Tracing the (M)other in Bleak House" and Cynthia
Malone's "'Flight' and 'Pursuit':
in Bleak House."
Goodman (154-155) and Malone (108-110) make some
connections to the third-person narrator as well.
Malone writes "the plot itself functions as a
concealing surface" (108).
My discussion of Esther's fevered dreams is informed
by the articles of Richard Gaughan, Marcia Goodman,
and Alex Zwerdling.
Goodman claims that "Mrs. Jellyby's many letters
lead to an angry, deprived, ink-stained daughter and
in turn to her deaf and mute baby girl" (165).
Bleak House (63).
I am grateful to Dr. Betty Campbell for pointing out
that even Esther's husband's name, Allan Woodcourt,
suggests the subjunctive mood.
Although I agree with Alex Zwerdling that Esther is
not a static figure, Graver's argument is worth
See Arthur Adrian (29) and Edgar Johnson (44) for
discussion of Dickens's remark "I know that all
these things have worked together to make me what I
See also Alexander Welsh's The City of Dickens (141248) and Dianne F. Sadoff's Monsters of Affection
for a brief synopsis and discussion of Welsh's
description of women in Dickens' novels as good
angels and as angels of death (51-69).
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