Romaine 1. Charles Dickens and the Sublimity of Squalor in Bleak House. by Erienne Romaine

Romaine  1       Charles  Dickens  and  the  Sublimity  of  Squalor  in  Bleak  House       by  Erienne  Romaine   Romaine  2     “Fog everywhere...
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  Charles  Dickens  and  the  Sublimity  of  Squalor  in  Bleak  House       by  Erienne  Romaine  

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“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into cabooses of collier brigs, fog lying out on the yeards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Grennwich prisoners, wheezing by the fireside of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes of people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all around them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds” --Charles Dickens  

When Bleak House was published serially between 1851 and 1853, Charles Dickens’ London was simultaneously a site of the dazzling advancements of the industrial revolution and a place of horrific poverty, pollution, prostitution, and despair. Unprecedented wealth from a booming population and a vast empire that spanned nearly one third of the globe created a burgeoning middle class and the birth of consumerist society. While this wealth was abounding for many as they enjoyed a degree of social mobility hitherto unknown in Britain, many more were forced into hours of dangerous, completely unregulated and underpaid factory labor or resorted to prostitution and thus lived in their squalid, disease-ridden states. In response to this unprecedented wealth and profound gap between the middle and lower classes in the city, came an unprecedented amount of charitable efforts throughout London. Despite these tremendous economic anxieties and social issues facing the Victorians, there was an overall sense of optimism and progress amongst the middle class. The Victorian era is sometimes dated as beginning in 1832 (5 years before Queen Victoria assumed the throne) with the passing of the Great Reform Act in Parliament. This act added new representatives to

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previously unrepresented counties and significantly lowered the requisite value of land needed to vote, thus extending the vote to nearly sixty percent more men than before. After the more than a quarter-century of great agitation and severe political discontent following the French Revolution known as the Romantic era, many Britons felt as though they were making real progress towards a better, more ethical society. Even as Great Britain continued to conquer and subjugate India, vast swathes of Africa, and the Middle East, missionaries were sent by the hundreds to these lands and were supported by just as many charitable societies formed for their moralizing efforts. Charles Dickens was just as much a part of the Victorian wave of charitable efforts and obsession with progress, being particularly involved with a project to “reform” and “redeem” the “fallen women” who had resorted to prostitution; he partially founded Urania College, an asylum for prostitutes. Paradoxically, then, Bleak House satirizes this charitable fervor by pointing out the ways in which it was overshadowing other Victorian values of family and propriety. The caricaturized situations of such satire provide an opportunity for the sublime aesthetic by way of depicting decay, an aesthetic move with inherently sublime qualities. Taking frequent and long rambling walks about London in addition to assisting with Urania College, Charles Dickens was keenly aware of the Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy of London’s middle class wonders and lower class squalor. In Bleak House, particularly, Dickens seems to be voicing his concerns over London pollution—“In all my writings, I hope I have taken every available opportunity of showing the want of sanitary improvements in neglected dwellings of the poor” wrote Dickens in his preface to Martin Chizzlewit in 1849 (Bleak House 901). Dickens begins Bleak House with a dramatic rendering of London pollution as a monstrous, miasmatic fog that permeates the entire landscape. Dickens takes pains to portray this

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fog in such a superlatively overwhelming manner so as to underscore his perceived severity of the problem of pollution. Such exaggeration and caricaturizing—conveying a sense of alarming excess— is his satirical tool: the fog is exaggerated to the point of omnipresence. Additionally, Dickens presents other examples of satirical caricatures such as the characters of Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle whose excessively evangelical, hyper-charitable do-gooderism is exaggerated to the point of a destructive neurosis. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case and all that is associated with the Chancery courts is exaggerated to the point of a most absurd and confounding disarray. When viewed as merely satirical, these exaggerations seem to do nothing more than question and criticize. There is something interesting that happens aesthetically, however, when all of these depictions of excess in London life—especially the various industrial byproducts— are portrayed as being so vast; the fog and the profusion of Chancery’s detritus take on a certain grotesque grandeur that achieves an element of sublimity. Many of Dickens’ caricatures, and their overpoweringly entropic environments, invoke the sublime in fascinating ways, revealing the fluidity of the aesthetic category “sublime,” and wrenching it from its historical exclusivity with Nature/natural phenomena. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the implication of creating a sublime squalor— Dickens’ depiction of a sublime squalor is problematic because it is simultaneously aesthetically pleasing and satirically condemnatory. It brings up questions about the stability of satire and how Dickens’ use of it may work to reinforce and exploit the barriers of class while appearing to question them. In order to understand how Bleak House may contain elements of sublimity, it is important to review the “sublime,” and work towards defining it, thus establishing a theoretical framework through which to address Bleak House. “Sublime,” as an adjective, is defined in the OED as “Of flight: soaring, ascending” or “set or raised aloft; high up.” In the context of aesthetics, this lofty flight describes the

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experience of the viewer. The sublime is most often experienced when one is confronted with something beyond comprehension or something that is completely overwhelming. David Norris explains the sublime nicely as “the qualities of wildness, grandeur, and overwhelming power which, in a flash of intensity could ravish the soul with a sudden transport of thought or feeling” (1). Imagine, perhaps, the feeling that one tends to experience when viewing the Grand Canyon… when the sheer depth of it is puzzling and one tries to fathom how many thousands of years must have passed for a river to carve such a wide, intricate, and stunning chasm. One may feel lost, humbled, horrified, and invigorated all at once in their confrontation with such an amazing scene. It seems easiest to explain the sublime in terms of human encounters with nature. In fact, until very recently sublimity has been exclusively tied to nature, and what makes the sublimity of Bleak House so compelling and disturbing is that products of man and civilization appear to be inspiring the sublime. Longinus’ “On Sublimity” marks the most extensive early text on the sublime. Longinus’ sublime has been considered the rhetorical sublime and is thus described in the context of argument rather than aesthetics (where later extrapolations would place the concept of sublimity). Longinus’ sublime describes the effect that a certain quality of good oration has on its listeners. The sublime manifests in argument when an orator is able to “tear everything up” and display his “whole power at a single blow,” thereby uplifting the listener (137). Longinus is somewhat unclear about whether the sublime is strictly a product of natural genius or can be learned. Nonetheless, Longinus’ classical conception of the rhetorical sublime posits—at one point— that it consists of a greatness which is a “natural product,” “like a whirlwind” that is quite distinct from “art” which can be taught, thus feeding into the Nature/Reason binary that would become so central in Romanticism and Romantic constructions of the sublime (137).

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In the eighteenth century, Longinus’ sublime would undergo a great revival and revision, beginning gradually to move the concept’s locus from the external object of sublimity to the internal psychological process of the sublime experience. In 1757, Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful anatomizes various qualities of the sublime in terms of how they affect the viewer/subject. Paul Crowther summarizes Burke’s sublime as “anything which can occasion pain or terror or some kindred passion” (8). Burke seeks to describe the sublime in terms of a psychological phenomenon that provokes or threatens one’s sense of self-preservation in an aesthetically pleasing way, thereby causing what Crowther calls a “moderated state of terror” and a “weak state of pre-conscious pain” (8). This sublime pain is inspired by the “overwhelming properties of objects [that] test and strain our perceptual faculties” (Crowther 8). For example, Burke mentions obscurity as a sublime quality that is perceptually overwhelming. Although Burke attempts to examine the sublime very generally and in broad terms, like Longinus, Burke privileges nature as being the chief (source) of sublimity. In his discussion on obscurity, Burke claims that art which contains dark or obscure images is sublime if it contains “images… exactly similar to those in nature; and in nature dark, confused, uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form the grander passions” (58). Writing not long after Burke, Immanuel Kant would continue to move the focus of analysis from the sublime object to the sublime subject. Kant would write Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime in 1764, but would ultimately write most extensively on the sublime in his Critique of Judgment in 1781. Kant continued to privilege nature in his construct of the sublime like his predecessors. That being said, Kant departs from previous constructions of the sublime in that he focuses not so much on the inherent properties of things which create sublimity, but rather the “subjective

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capacity for feeling,” and insists that the sublime is a moral and virtuous experience to be inspired by anything that constitutes “a mode of reverence” (Crowther 15). Kant describes this experience as “enjoyment with horror” (371), identifying oceans, waterfalls, rivers, volcanoes, hurricanes, mountains, and lightning as likely inspirations for the sublime experience because they surpass the capacity for “comprehension” in their magnitude and power, and instead appeals to the imagination’s infinite capacity for “apprehension” (135). Kant specifically states that manmade things cannot be sublime, but despite this assertion, the primarily subjective and internal nature of his construction of the sublime enables the possibility of more varied contexts in which the sublime may be experienced. Even though Kant privileges nature in his examples of what could invoke the sublime, the most significant aspect of Kant’s sublime is that he defines it as a deeply subjective, almost psycho-spiritual phenomenon that is dependent upon the individual viewer/experiencer; Kant’s move creates the possibility for the sublime to be experienced beyond nature, or rather under any circumstances in which the individual may experience incomprehensibility, incalculability, vastness, and infinity. The portrayal of a profusion of industrial consequences and by-products that loom so monstrously in Bleak House’s Victorian London challenges the nature-specific concept of the sublime that Kant attempts to hold on to, thereby testing the limits of Kant’s more subjective formulation of the sublime. Bleak House presents urban images and situations in their exaggerated, larger-than-life satirical rendering that offer a vision of boundlessness or infinity that Kant likely thought only to be possible in nature. The sheer amount of disarray that exists from industrialization is so great that it verges on boundless in Bleak House. The overflow of named characters astonishes the reader; the pervasiveness of the fog creates an obscure space in which the reader struggles through incomprehensibility; “Bleak house” itself, the home of Mr. Jarndyce, is a baffling puzzle of

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infinite permutations, like the unfathomable fractal complexity of the natural world, that confronts the reader with overwhelming incalculability, “one of those… irregular houses where you go up and down steps out of one room into another, and where you come upon more rooms when you think you have seen all there are” (62); there is a terror that exists in the poverty of the seemingly peripheral characters of Jenny and the brick-maker, or the hopeless cesspool that is the lower-class borough of Tom-All-Alone’s, or the squalor of the excessive evangelist’s (Mrs. Jellyby’s) home. The average middle-class Victorian reader could safely appreciate or even find a degree of pleasure in Dickens’ urban scenes from the comfort of their station; women and children serve as ruins amidst the languor of Bleak House, embodying the decay of traditional Victorian values as they are overtaken by the excesses of their society. When Kant was writing about the sublime, he likely could not have anticipated the scope of capitalism and its impact on the environment and the human subject; he likely could not have imagined that such a degree of terrorizing vastness could materialize not at the capricious whims of Nature, but rather at the “rational” hands of man. In the opening chapters of Bleak House, Dickens moves toward creating a potentially sublime unnatural object by synthesizing Nature with the by-products of the Victorian triumph of Reason— industry and progress— by creating an aesthetic space for vast, man-made terrors that have grotesquely comingled with nature. London pollution in Bleak House becomes the synthesizing bridge between a nature-specific sublime and an industrial or Dickensian sublime because it combines elements of both nature and man-made products. For example, Dickens describes the “smoke lowering down from chimney-pots” that makes “a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes” (5). Nature and industry combine to the extent that they become inextricable, where smoke and soot become snow and snow may as well

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be soot. The famous fog of Bleak House is another prime example of this terrifying synthesis. Thomas Miller, a contemporary of Dickens, describes the London fog as being as thick as “yellow peas-pudding,” writing that it seemed as though “all the smoke which had ascended for years from thousands of London chimneys, had fallen down all at once, after having rotted somewhere above the clouds” (902). For Dickens, such sickly stuff was most overpowering in its vastness. Burke and Schiller saw sublimity in the ocean, Wordsworth in a field of never-ending daffodils. But for Dickens, it is that Turneresque immensity, ungraspable by Reason, which charges his fog with the sublime. “Fog everywhere,” he writes, going on to list a dozen places that the fog has penetrated (5). He paints an urban panorama in which the fog is such a terrific and pervasive force that it is omnipresent, perhaps even “absolutely great… and beyond all comparison,” as Kant supposes the sublime to be (Kant 131). The Dickensian fog is sublime in its incomprehensible vastness, and also as a sublime agent that shrouds everything in a kind of indeterminate opacity, creating the frightening and disturbing obscurity which Burke identifies as sublime. Besides presenting industrialized nature as sublime, Dickens also depicts sociocultural impacts of industry’s excess as sublime. At the heart of Bleak House is a court case called Jarndyce versus Jarndyce which is supposedly a case involving multiple parties who are attempting to get a share of the legacy of the deceased Tom Jarndyce; the exact nature of the case is never completely explained, but its seemingly never-ending, cyclical, self-defeating nature is described throughout. The courts of Chancery that deal with this case shroud London in boundless industrial disarray, evidenced by the dizzying proliferation of paper surrounding them. Next to Chancery, Krook’s rag and bottle shop has accumulated an absurd abundance of legal debris… heaps of book-bags, parchment scrolls, and law-papers. Nemo, the legal copyist, lives

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in a messy “wilderness of ink,” and newspapers permeate the landscape much like fog does (124). Sambudha Sen notes the contribution of paper to the urban aesthetic, “Newspapers are ubiquitous in the world of Bleak House, [including] masses of registration… records of Chancery, Post Office directories, [and] even registers of the moneylender or the law stationer” (Urban Aesthetic 491). The overwhelming, ubiquitous presence of paper is a sublime force to be reckoned with, engulfing the emblematic Jarndyce case and everyone associated with Chancery in the bureaucratic minutiae of a civilization too far advanced and too industrialized. In this way, the very paper that is meant to create order and to inform becomes a vehicle by which chaos and confusion is spread to the degree that it actually defies or transcends reason. The excess of bureaucratic and legalistic detritus leads to the potentially sublime experience of an incomprehensible immensity. The chaotic outgrowth of progress and its industrial content in Bleak House would not necessarily have been considered sublime prior to the Victorian era. For example, Kant claims that the sublime cannot exist in products of art (such as buildings and columns) because they are meant to accomplish a human end (136). According to Kant, anything with a “determinate end” cannot be charming or terrifying because it has already been rendered the object of human reason and no longer poses the threat nor possesses the mystery necessary for the charm or attraction of the sublime. Kant assumes that anything with a determinate end could not be “monstrous” enough to be sublime, proposing that, “an object is monstrous if by its magnitude it annihilates the end which its concept constitutes” (136). The Victorian fever-pitch of progress, however, was beginning to annihilate the “end which its concept constitutes,” by moving from comfortable, industrialized plentitude and civilized order to disturbing and alienating excess or even ruination. The Jarndyce case has reached precisely such a degree of alienating excess, and the

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sublimity of this alienating excess can be best understood in terms of Thomas Weiskel’s work on the sublime; Weiskel’s post-structural formulation of the sublime elucidates a confrontation with excess through a lack of determinate meaning or signification. That is, the breakdown of meaning and the void created by what Weiskel calls a “semiotic discontinuity” opens up the possibility of infinite meanings and significations. Weiskel’s The Romantic Sublime defines the sublime as essentially “that moment when the relation between the signifier and the signified breaks down and is replaced by an indeterminate relation” (ix), creating a “semiotic discontinuity”. In this concept,Weiskel completes Kant’s movement from an external locus of the sublime to one that is essentially internal. He has done this by presenting the sublime moment as that point when the subject recognizes the lack of fixity or coherence in his own system of constructed meaning, thus presenting a paradigm-shattering kind of incomprehensibility. In other words, the subject becomes aware of the inconsistency of the relationship between the signifier and the signified which reveals the gaps and limitations of reason itself. In the absence of Reason, the subject can do little more than rely on his supposedly infinite imaginative capacity, but even this encounter with one’s own infinite capacitites is terrifying in its sheer incalculability. This idea of encountering one’s own infinite capacities is echoed in Kant’s concept of the sublime that contains both the terrifying, humbling realization of one’s mortality and the empowering, individualizing power of discovering one’s own infinite imaginative capacities: “The satisfaction of the sublime in nature is thus… a feeling of the deprivation of the freedom of the imagination by itself, insofar as it is purposively determined in accordance with a law other than that of empirical use. It thereby acquires an enlargement of power which is greater than that which it sacrifices, but whose ground is hidden from it, whereas it feels the sacrifice or

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deprivation and at the same time the cause to which it is subjected (152). Applying Kant to Weiskel’s concept , the experience of a semiotic discontinuity is found in the feeling of terror over having its “ground hidden from it” (ie the overwhelming, self-eclipsing, incomprehensible aspect of the sublime) while also becoming engulfed in one’s own conscious sense of experiencing that incomprehensibility through their own expanding, enlarging imagination. In Kant’s estimation, because the subject temporarily sacrifices its sense of self, the imagination of the subject assumes primacy and gains an enlarged power only to overwhelm itself by its own greatness. Semiotic discontinuity becomes sublime because what comes to the fore in the subject’s experience is self-referential. The sublime object, for Kant, is ultimately a sublime subject. Semiotic discontinuity occurs, then, when a subject relates to the supposed sublime object as something “other,” that subjugates the self and overwhelms it, when in actuality, the subject (or his imagination) is his own cause for the overwhelming, sublime feeling. Weiskel describes this sublime process as a “psychology that sress[es] its own limits” (17). The Jarndyce case presents a semiotic discontinuity because, as a judicial affair, it is supposed to be a symbol of progress and civilization, but it has annihilated its own ends through excess to the point that “the parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises” (8). The lack of understanding— the seemingly complete aporia that befalls the parties to the Jarndyce case— indicates the movement into the sublime experience of the “monstrous” that Kant describes, in addition to embodying a Weiskelian “semiotic discontinuity.” The Jarndyce case is meant to signify justice, allotting all of the parties involved their rightful share of Tom Jarndyce’s legacy, but in reality, it promises no fortune for anyone:

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“It’s about a Will, and the trusts under a Will—or it was, once. It’s about nothing but Costs, now” (88). The misinterpretation of the Jarndyce case and its “semiotic discontinuity” creates the opportunity for a sublime experience in that it offers an ideterminate, unattainable relation to the subject… the “negative relation of unattainability [that] becomes the signifier in the aesthetic order of meaning” (Weiskel 23). Another example of semiotic discontinuity in Bleak House is the various metaphorical ruins that are dispersed throughout the novel. Ruins are an actualization of semiotic discontinuity because they are a representation of nothingness; ruins make what is no longer present visible; they reflect the infinite void left by the destabilization of the symbolic order that is “signifier” and “signified.” For example, the Venus de Milo at once represents an ancient figure of Venus and the fragmentation/dissolution of the Venus figure. The statue in its ruined state signifies the figure of Venus, but as a signifier is not wholly Venus. Additionally, ruins serve as a sublime object because they are the embodiment of decline and thus present the subject with intimations of the infinite. Dylan Trigg sheds light on how decay and the infinite are connected by pointing out that “perfection” is derived from the Latin “perficere” which means “to bring to an end” (95); perfection is the terminus or superlative conclusion of anything that may qualified, whereas infinity is the terminus or superlative conclusion of anything that may be quantified. The aesthetic appeal of decay, then, is that because it approaches end as terminus, it simultaneously implies perfection and infinity. Being sublime, decay not only provides an exhilarating and elevating glimpse of the infinite; it induces terror in its implications of mortality. That is, in order to reach perfection/infinity within a JudeoChristian construct, one’s earthly existence must necessarily decay, eventually leading to termination. Dickens conveys the decline of Victorian values through multiple metaphorical ruins in Bleak House, but these ruins at the same time evoke a sublime, terrifyingly wondrous

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aesthetic response. Dickens’ use of the ruin as allegory for Victorian values in decline is most evident in Miss Flite’s birds. Miss Flite is a somewhat senile old woman who is obsessed with the Jarndyce case. Having watched it unfold for most of her life, she desperately waits for the day when she may be awarded some part of the Jarndyce fortune. During an encounter with Esther, she explains that for many years she has kept birds in cages and will liberate them the day that a decision is made in the case. Many birds have died in the process, but Miss Flite continues to replace them with new generations. The birds are named “youth,” “hope,” and “beauty,” each embodying a certain virtue. Miss Flite insists on keeping these birds covered up and refuses to “admit [the] air freely” to them because there is a cat who preys upon them (54). This image of birds being deprived of air mirrors the depictions of the suffocating fog. The birds embody virtues which are suffocating and decaying at the hands of the industry and the alienating excess of progress that preys upon them. In addition to the birds, Dickens uses various characters as embodiments of Victorian virtues that are in a state of decay, including Mrs. Jellyby and her decaying sense of family and Victorian gender roles. With the rise of factory labor as opposed to home industry, bourgeoisie Victorian society began to splinter across gender lines when it came to the division of labor. Men were supposed to be the ones to fend for the family in the dirty, dog-eat-dog world of hard manual labor and business, and women were supposed to serve as beacons of morality that serve as dutiful, selfsacrificing mothers and who transform the home into a sacred place wherein the man could redeem and rejuvenate himself. Judith Lowder Newton’s concept of gendered “separate spheres” in Women, Power, and Subversion: Social Strategies in British Fiction, 1778-1860 has become prevalent among scholars in analyzing the gender roles during the Victorian era. In many of

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Dickens’ novels, and also in Bleak House, Dickens depicts passive men and overbearing, hardworking women who demonstrate a decaying sense of Victorian gender-roles and familial expectations. John Ruskin enunciates the ideal separate spheres for the Victorian family in his essay, “Of Queen’s Gardens” published in 1865: “The man, in his rough work in open world, must encounter all peril and trial;— to him, therefore, must be the failure, the offence, the inevitable error: often he must be wounded, or subdued; often misled; and always hardened. But he guards the woman from all this; within his house, as ruled by her… [and she] need enter no danger, no temptation, no cause of error or offence. This is the nature of home—it is a place of Peace… it is a sacred place” (1615). Mrs. Jellyby has come up short in her obligations to maintain a place of peace and order in her home. In Bleak House, Mrs. Jellyby is an allegorical ruin of ideal womanhood, disturbing the sacred separate spheres of woman and man and embodying as syndecdochal/allegorical ruin the gender roles of an entire society in decay. When Richard, one of the central characters and warden of the Jarndyce case, inquires who Mr. Jellyby is, Kenge replies, “I know nothing whatever of Mr. Jellyby… He may be a very superior man; but he is, so to speak, merged… in the more shining qualities of Mrs. Jellyby” (35). By outworking her husband into social oblivion, Mrs. Jellyby has barred Mr. Jellyby, to apply Ruskin, from “guarding” his wife from all of the “peril and trial” in the male-exclusive sphere of work (Ruskin 1615). The Victorian archetype of the ideal, innocent, domestic woman—along with the strong and protective patriarch— is made into one of the many sublime ruins of Bleak House by Mrs. Jellyby’s excessive and overzealous participation in the moral obligations of industrialization (the African project). Similarly, Richard serves as earnestness in ruin, overtaken by the excess of progress (as bureaucracy and

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industrial outgrowth) emanating from the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, thereby depriving his innocent and infantilized wife, Ada, from fully realizing her ideal Victorian gender role. Mrs. Jellyby represents the ideal Victorian female gender role in decline, also, in the complete neglect of her children. Mrs. Jellyby’s home is Victorian domesticity that has been ruined because of an excess in imperial evangelicalism. She spends so much time writing letters for an African mission that her home and children are in a state of chaos and distress; “it was difficult to avoid treading on [the children] in the dark… one of the poor little things fell downstairs— down a whole flight..., with great noise. Mrs. Jellyby, whose face reflected none of the uneasiness which we could not help showing in our own faces, as the dear child’s head recorded its passage with a bump on every stair… received us with perfect equanimity” (37). Mrs. Jellyby is the antithesis of the hyper-idealized Victorian mother that she is morally and socially obligated to be. When motherhood and domesticity were supposed to be “the zenith of a woman’s emotional and spiritual fulfillment,” Mrs. Jellyby was so excessively concerned with the moralizing missions abroad that her domestic duties as mother and wife were brought into a state of decline (Abrams 5). Industrial, capitalistic forces arguably brought about the sudden excess of imperial evangelicalism, as in, the sudden influx of wealth that it created caused large swathes of the new, ballooning middle class to feel moral anxiety over their materialism. To lessen the guilt of storing more and more of their treasures on earth, many Victorians focused on saving those who were far more damned than they would be: the savage, Godless populations abroad. The evangelical excess leading to the domestic decline in the case of Mrs. Jellyby is itself a sublime object (as ruin) in Bleak House. Furthermore, the idea that the forces of ruination are capitalistic and industrial, rather than natural, contributes to the alternative variety of the sublime evident in Bleak House.

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The infantilized nature of the Victorian ideal wife speaks to the survival of the ideal innocent child as well. Dickens depicts this Victorian ideal as, likewise, in a state of ruin in Bleak House. In Mrs. Pardiggle’s children, any innocence they may once have possessed has been replaced with “dark visage[es]” and malice, corrupted by their mother’s alienating excess of dogooderism. Mrs. Pardiggle practices an oxymoronic variety of charity described as “rapacious benevolence,” forcing her husband and her children to donate everything that they earn to various charitable causes until they are left “ferocious with discontent” (94). The pressures of capitalism, made imminent for the Victorians by industrialization, at once created material excess and the condition of severe lack. In other words, a capitalistic sublime is expressed by the Pardiggles’ situation; the perverse charity that Mrs. Pardiggle exercises is a self-perpetuating, infinite cycle that causes as much suffering as it alleviates, a futile attempt to bridge the gap between excess and poverty that has become so wide that charity collapses in on itself and consumes the charitable. Perhaps realizing the ethical complication of the capitalist system, Dickens portrays this inverted generosity and the cyclical nature of capitalism in the form of Mrs. Pardiggle who gives to charity by stealing from her family. Both the concept of charity and generosity as ruin and the infinite, cyclical nature of capitalism invoke the sublime. Viewed as ruin, these various Victorian values in decay throughout Bleak House accomplish the same aesthetic effect as more literal Romantic ruins such as Shelley’s Ozymandias or Wordsworth’s Tinturn Abbey, but Dickens complicates the sublime space in ways that the Romantics would not have (explicitly) done. The British Romantics often elevated and privileged the lower classes, reveling in the “universal birth… of mankind” (Wordsworth 58) and attempting to create literature that was accessible to the common and the genteel alike. Whether or not Romantic poets consistently succeeded, the sublimity of their literature was

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intended to be accessible to the lower-class. Dickens, on the other hand, erects clear barriers around the sublime space that limits it to the middle class viewer in Bleak House. The non-industrialized poor are forced onto the periphery of Dickens’ sublime space. Accompanying Mrs. Pardiggle on her charitable visit to the brickmaker’s house, middle-class Esther observes that “between us and these people there was an iron barrier” (99). Because the brickmaker and his family are completely excluded from the benefits of industry’s triumph of reason and progress, they cannot appreciate the sublime experience of its vastness or of its decaying powers. If the proliferation of paper/reading material is a symbol of industry’s vastness, then the brickmaker identifies himself as opposed to and devoid of that experience by vehemently professing the illiteracy of his family: “Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t… there an’t nobody here as knows how to read it… if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby” (99). Illiteracy stands as a barrier between his family and the sublime experience of the ubiquitous newspapers and the wilderness of ink. Furthermore, Mrs. Pardiggle’s gift of a baby’s book is an act of middle-class infantilization of the poor that establishes a patronizing and alienating relationship between the middle-class and the poor. To this effect the poor and charity for the poor are portrayed as a certain novelty for the middleclasses; the poor are outliers that are just another part of the overall industrial landscape of Bleak House which can be accessed as an object for the middle classes’ sublime experience. The phenomenon of the poor as sublime object in Bleak House is best illustrated by Esther’s interactions with the brickmaker’s wife, Jenny. Esther experiences a certain pleasure from viewing Jenny’s horrific poverty, and encounters a semiotic discontinuity when attempting to empathize with someone of a lower class. During the course of her visit to the brickmaker’s house, Esther witnesses the death of Jenny’s infant. Upon the death of the infant, another

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member of the family (a woman) runs in to console Jenny. When Esther first beholds this woman, she describes her as “an ugly woman, very poorly clothed… [having] no grace about her,” but once the woman started weeping Esther says “she wanted no beauty” (101). Once Esther witnesses the genuine suffering of this old woman, she is able to have a pleasurable experience in finding her beautiful. Esther is almost able to empathize with the paupers, saying it was “touching to see these two women… so united; to see what they could be to one another” (101). Soon, however, Esther enters into that sublime experience that Weiskel calls the “semiotic discontinuity in the inexplicable passage between one order or discourse and another” (17). Esther acknowledges this discontinuity by ultimately concluding, “What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God” (101). Momentarily, Esther feels empathy for the weeping women and is about to symbolically pass into another order (a sympathy for the lower class) when she is confronted by an inexplicable, incomprehensible discontinuity between herself as bourgeoisie and the family as proletariat. Esther experiences the sublime in attempting— but ultimately failing— to traverse the construct of class division; the lower classes and its mystery is a sublime commodity to which she has access. Esther is able to experience the horrors of the poor as sublime because she is sufficiently removed from the fear of actually experiencing the real danger of their suffering, a key component of the sublime that both Burke and Kant address. Kant posits that “it is impossible to find satisfaction in a terror that is seriously intended” (144), and Burke claims that “terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close” (42). From the comfort of her station, Esther can experience the brickmaker family scene as sublime. Esther possesses an appropriate amount of emotional distance from the terrors that the brickmaker family experiences because her economic situation is so much more secure.

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Realizing that Esther’s encounter with the brickmaker family could potentially be seen as sublime because of her economic distance, one begins to wonder about the metatextual implications of such a development in the novel. In other words, the phenomenon could be referencing the potentially sublime experience that Dickens provides his overwhelmingly middle-class readership by portraying such dramatic and monstrous scenes of urban poverty. Even considering Esther’s encounter as a satire of middle-class prejudice toward the lower classes, Dickens’ middle-class readers could have either experienced disgust over Esther’s distance or they could have derived a certain guilty pleasure from voyeuristically peering into a world so different from their own. Or, disturbingly perhaps, they could have experienced some strange combination of both horror and disgust and pleasure in viewing the brickmaker family’s squalor and poverty. Dickens tends to be remembered as a champion of social justice who insisted that attention be paid to the poor and disenfranchised, particularly in his novels Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and Bleak House. That being said, his contemporaneous popularity may also have been a case of voyeuristic middle-class guilty pleasure. The middle-class fascination with the grotesque features of the city, and their eagerness to consume representations of it are reflected by Pierce Egan’s preface to Life in London: “The author… has chosen for his readers a Camera Obscura View of London, not only for its safety, but because it is so snug, and also possessing the invaluable advantages of SEEING and not being seen” (2). He expresses a middle-class desire to experience the city without all of its inconvenient and uncomfortable characteristics found in the actual city. The success of Charles Dickens and his industrial novels may speak to such middle class desires to peer into the great grotesqueness of the urban space—including the lives of those most impoverished within that space— from the comfort of their station. This middle-class impulse to find pleasure in such

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grotesque literature, even under the guise of satire, may be explained beyond morbid curiosity by Nietzsche’s concept of shadenfreude. Writing at the same time as Dickens, Nietzsche contemplated the pleasure that one may take in others’ suffering which he captures in his concept of schadenfreude. “Schaden” meaning “harm” in German, and “freude” meaning joy, schadenfreude literally translates to “harm-joy”. Writing about Nietzsche’s take on schadenfreude, John Portmann says “Nietzche believes that we have been socially conditioned to view the setbacks of other persons in terms of our own well-being. Ever worried that people around us may be flourishing more than we are, we view their suffering as a chance to even the score” (108). The social conditioning that Nietzche posits would certainly have been exacerbated, if not established, by the fervent competition of high capitalism in the late nineteenth century. The hegemonic space that Dickens creates for industrial sublimity in Bleak House follows along the lines of Nietzsche’s concept of schadenfreude because it allows for the sublime experience (the joy) while still maintaining class-distinction (the harm, or economic competition through which one sees someone else’s losses/harm as another’s gain). An earlier example of middle or upper class morbidly curious, guilty pleasure in the lower orders’ dire situation may be seen in Marie Antoinette’s peasant village wherein she would dress as a peasant and play in her constructed peasant village for fun. On a similar score, in the late eighteenth century, the construction of hermitages was popular amongst the higher orders. In landscaping their manor gardens, multiple upper-class families constructed “hermitages” on their property so that they could (at least appear, perhaps to) house their very own homeless person. In fact, according to Gordon Campbell explains that the British gentry would often hire hermits to live in them. Of course, providing a hermitage may also be seen as a humanitarian effort,

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however, they were also seen as an aesthetic commodity. Viewing Bleak House’s scenes of urban poverty and immense industrial detritus as sublime offers an alternative reading of Dickens’ Victorian project and its unconscious implications. In choosing industrial squalor as his subject, and invoking the sublime with it (even unintentionally), he performs oppositional acts: on the one hand, Dickens criticizes the squalor as a charitable and conscientious Victorian; on the other hand, he aestheticizes the squalor as an artist as well as commodifies the squalor as businessman. The scholarly consensus about Bleak House is that it is Dickens’ attempt at the fledgling mystery novel genre and that it is in many ways a call to reform through satire. Not only does Dickens satirize the ineffectual British courts and the increasingly ugly, hostile industrial landscape, he is supposedly satirizes earlier Romantic forms of the urban panorama and mocks its optimism in viewing the city as sublime in any way. Tanya Agathocleous argues that the urban panorama was a cosmopolitan-sublime visual form (see figure 1) that had a linguistic counterpart in the Romantic period, as evidenced by sections from book 7 of William Wordsworth’s The Prelude: The endless stream of men, and moving things, From hour to hour the illimitable walk Still among streets with cloud and sky above, The wealth, the bustle and the eagerness, The glittering Chariots with their pampered Steeds, Stalls, Barrows, Porters; midway in the Street The Scavenger, who begs with hat in hand, The labouring Hackney Coaches, the rash speed (7.158-165)

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Wordsworth’s representation of the city through his poetic panorama conveys a degree of sublimity in its sheer size and scope. Wordsworth focuses on the magnitude of London’s populace—the density of the population, and celebrates its burgeoning, widening spectrum of diversity. At another point in The Prelude, Wordsworth catalogues some of this overwhelming diversity that would later be famously employed by Walt Whitman, mentioning the Italian, Jew, Turk, Swede, Russian, Spaniard, the “Hunter-Indian” of “remote America,” the Spaniard, Moors, Malays, Lascars, the Tartar, the Chinese, and “Negro Ladies,” all inhabiting this mighty and dizzying urban space (7.229-243).

(Figure 1: Thomas Hornor’s painting, “Panoramic view of London,” example of the “urban panorama” in its visual form, 1821)

Agathocleous argues that Wordsworth’s panorama is sublime because he “articulates

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[his idea]… of the ‘unity of man,’ one that he returns to over and over again in relation to the sublime” (105). Agathocleous claims that Wordsworth accomplishes a “magical feat of turning London from a chaos of difference and dissolution into a spectacle of unity and identification,” (104) whereas “Bleak House casts suspicion on the panorama…, undermining its association with legibility and community” (109). Agathocleous reads the industrial overgrowth in Bleak House as a satirical sublimity; or a mockery of the Romantic impulse to see the city as a sublime space during a time when the city had become far more horrific and destructive than ever before. That being said, because Dickens is placing his satire of the Romantic phenomenon of the urban panorama in his contemporary Victorian context, the Victorian landscape and its capitalistic by-products are cast as sublime—and rather convincingly so—even if it is in a satirical way. Indeed, Dickens’ satiric mode only contributes to the sublime opacity of the novel. In other words, the way that satire creates doubt and uncertainty for the reader positions Bleak House as an object of indeterminate relation to the reader. In his Satire: A Critical Reintroduction, Dustin Griffin posits that satire should not necessarily be thought of monologically wherein the satirist’s function is strictly to attack and achieve moralizing or didactic ends. Griffin questions the conventional theoretical construct of satire, pointing out that most scholars have hastily assumed that satire is dependent upon a very clear and fixed moral structure: “the satirist, in this view, [must be] quite certain of his own moral position; he also assumes such certainty in his readers… [requiring] a fairly widespread agreement about what man ought to be” (35). The binary of “right” and “wrong” would have had to be very clear amongst Dickens’ readership in order for it to be completely successful as a moralizing satire alone. However, many Victorians were anything but certain about the right way to address poverty. Despite the many charitable efforts of Victorians, there was still disagreement over their

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effectiveness and even their moral merit. Griffin sees satire as far more dynamic than the way it has commonly been characterized, arguing that satire brings to the fore the reader’s sense of uncertainty more than it instills a new, certain position. “If the satirist’s job is to assure us, in no uncertain terms, that the established norms about good and bad, right and wrong, are solidly in place, one wonders how satire ever attracted any mature readers or retained their interest,” Griffin writes. Bleak House should be viewed as similarly dynamic because of its potential for sublimity… it is not simply a monological satire meant to horrify and attack, it contains an unconscious aesthetic appeal that may speak to the selfish and ambivalent impulses of the middle class as well as appealing to their sympathies. Dickens’ sublimity of squalor is fraught with the anxieties and unconscious desires of the middle class, revealing the complex potential of aesthetics. With the sublime expressing in so many deeply subjective ways, from confrontations with monstrosity and incomprehensibility, to the subtler sublime nature of ruination and decay, to the psychological response to semiotic discontinuity, there is potential to see the sublime as a much more conflicted and materiallybased experience than previously thought. The sublime can be contingent upon class, psychology, gender, and cultural context. Furthermore, the more dynamic view of satire seems to be a perfect medium through which the sublime can be subtly altered and expressed.

Works Cited

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Abrams, Lynn. “Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain” BBC History. Sep. 2001. Web. Agathocleous, Tanya. Urban Realism and the Cosmopolitan Imagination in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Cambridge UP. Print. Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry. New York: Oxford UP. 1990. Print. Campbell, Gordon. The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Garden Gnome. Oxford: Oxford UP. 2013. Web. Crowther, Paul. The Kantian Sublime: From Morality to Art. New York: Oxford UP. 1989. Print. Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. New York: Norton. 1972. Print. Egan, Pierce. Real Life in London. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. New York: Cambridge UP. 2008. Print. Lowder Newton, Judith. Women, Power, and Subversion: Social Strategies in British Fiction, 1778-1860. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 1981. Print. Miller, Thomas. “The London Fog” Bleak House. New York: Norton. 1972. Print. Morris, David B. The Religious Sublime: Christian Poetry and Critical Tradition. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press. 1972. Print. Portmann, John. When Bad Things Happen to Other People. New York: Routledge, 2000. Web. Ruskin, John. “Of Queen’s Gardens” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. E The Victorian Age. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. 2012. Print. Schiller, Friedrich. “On The Sublime” Web. 4 Mar. 2013. Sen, Sembudha. London, Radical Culture, and the Making of the Dickensian Aesthetic. Columbus: Ohio State UP. 2012. Print. Sen, Sambudha. “Bleak House, Vanity Fair, and the Making of an Urban Aesthetic.” Nineteenth Century Literature. Mar. 2000: 480-502. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.

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Trygg, Daniel. The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006. Print. Weiskel, Thomas. The Romantic Sublime. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1976. Print. Wordsworth, William. The Prelude Or Growth of a Poet’s Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Print. Wordsworth, William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “Lines Written at a Small Distance From my House, and Sent by my Little Boy to the Person to Whom They are Addressed” Lyrical Ballads. London: London Duckworth and Co., 1798. Web.