A Toad’s Narrative: The Unique Realism of Charles Dickens
by Caroline King
Literary realism is not so much a movement, as it is not bound by a specific period of time or group of writers, but is instead primarily defined by a unifying perspective. In this critical essay I attempt to define the realist perspective within the context of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. This essay was written in response to the prompt: How can a novel in which a character spontaneously combusts be labeled realist? The prompt reveals why this novel is an especially fascinating case study in literary realism; the events of Bleak House are, unsurprisingly to those familiar with Dickens, fantastical. However, despite the novel’s imaginative plot, the perspective of Bleak House is realist in its depiction of Victorian England. The novel is co-narrated by a third person omniscient narrator and a first person narrator named Esther Summerson—an orphan girl. The third person narrator, not discussed at length in this piece, is cynical, while Esther is unassuming and kind. I argue that it is Esther’s individual experience that contributes most to Dickens’s literary realism through her empathy with the downtrodden characters. Her perspective allows the reader to enter her world, which is characterized by poverty and disease.
Dickens’s Bleak House is a realistic novel composed of convoluted plotlines, half-truths, and loose ends. Adding to this confusion is Dickens’s alternation between two narrators with entirely different voices and points of view. The third person omniscient narrator is cynical, sometimes cruel, and withholds information from the reader. In contrast, first person narrator Esther Summerson is, like the reader, left without answers. Further contrasting the two narrators, Dickens characterizes orphan Esther as unassuming and optimistic, thus giving her narration an (often irritating) rose-colored tint. Because of the nature of first person narrative, trained readers will likely be tempted to label Esther an unreliable narrator; however, if the reader suspends the question of Esther’s reliability, he can instead focus on how Esther’s narrative contributes to the novel’s main themes, not despite but because of its bias.
The primary concern of Bleak House, like most of Dickens’s novels, is the appalling treatment of the working class, the impoverished, and the orphan children in Victorian England. While Esther is personally optimistic, the novel itself is realist in its accurate portrayal of harsh Victorian realities. Intriguingly, this dichotomy is Dickens’s medium for achieving literary realism. From Esther’s encounters with several minor characters such as the brickmakers, Jenny, the Neckett children, and Jo, unpleasant truths are elucidated. Through Esther’s eyes, we are transported to London as it really was, complete with every harsh truth of which Dickens was acutely aware. Where Esther’s narrative overlaps with the impoverished, the underpaid and overworked, and the orphans is where Dickens’s realism reaches its peak poignancy.
Literary realism is more complicated than representing something as truthfully as possible, although that is an important component. The fact that a novel containing a character that spontaneously combusts can be labeled realist demonstrates the complexity of the term. Ambrose Bierce defines realism in his satirical Devil’s Dictionary as “the art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm.” Despite its satirical intent, this definition is insightful when assessing Dickens’s unique realism. Bierce’s condescension aside, his definition is especially fascinating in the case of Bleak House.
Esther Summerson is the toad, London, her nature. Although in this definition the word toad is meant to connote the lowly, part of what makes Dickens’s realism remarkable and unusual is that it maintains the integrity of portraying the ugly realities of the lives of the impoverished without patronizing the poor. Rather than expressing pity for the impoverished characters she encounters, Esther instead elevates their kindness and humanity. In contrast to the third person omniscient narrator, Esther belongs to the world she describes. Like a toad depicting its habitat, orphan Esther, diseased Esther, lonely Esther, depicts the orphans, the diseased, and the lonely. While her point of view is indeed limited, Esther offers a perspective that the third person narrator cannot. The third person narrator can cite the facts about the inefficiency of the Chancery and the inequality among the classes. Esther shows readers the poverty that is as rampant as the London fog.
Esther’s unique narrative voice does not detract from the realism of the novel but rather heightens it. Dickens is especially skilled at writing imaginative characters (the malevolent dwarf Daniel Quilp of Old Curiosity Shop comes to mind). Colorful characters like these made his novels widely popular. Esther Summerson’s individuality as a character lends her narration an authenticity important to realism. Literary critic Ian Watt’s praise of Austen’s characterization in The Rise of the Novel is applicable to Esther: “Her [Austen’s] novels have authenticity without diffuseness or trickery, wisdom of social comment without a garrulous essayist, and a sense of social order which is not achieved at the expense of the individuality and autonomy of the characters” (qtd. in Schwarz 62). Watt later asserts that literary realism is often achieved through individual experience (Schwarz 60). For Bleak House, Esther’s experience enables the novel to achieve its most effective literary realism.
Esther’s elevation of the humanity of the poor over their circumstances is clear in her narration of characters Jenny and Liz. These two women are the first faces of poverty in the novel. Liz has “no kind of grace about her, but the grace of sympathy” (Dickens 110). She is so destitute that her only grace is in sympathy. This description is void of any idealizing of suffering. Rather than portraying the women as stoic and strong sufferers, Dickens, through Esther, paints a more realistic portrait of their hopeless state. Their suffering does not create strength; it is too severe. Dickens avoids idealism at every turn. The senseless death of a child does not evoke stoicism in a parent but unrelenting despair. Esther’s observation about the embrace between Jenny and Liz illustrates not only the severity of their destitution, but also the reason Esther’s narration is so crucial to Dickens’s realism:
I thought it was very touching to see these two women, coarse, and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another; how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God. (Dickens 101)
The third person narrator is clearly angry about the injustice in Victorian England. In contrast, Esther’s tone is not one of anger but of understanding. She does not see poverty from a bird’s eye view like the omniscient narrator. Her understanding of poverty comes through sensory experience. Esther empathizes with these two women, because, while her situation is in no way the same, she too has felt crushing abandonment and loneliness. Jenny and Liz are described as united because “what the poor are to the poor is little known” except to themselves. Thus, Esther is also united with them. She shares in their pain, and for this reason, her perspective of poverty offers a purer realism than that of the novel’s co-narrator.
True to his commitment to a realistic portrayal of Victorian England, Dickens has Esther continue to come across sufferer after sufferer, and the novel offers little in the way of relief from the resulting bleakness. The fate of the Neckett children is enough to break any reader’s heart as it certainly breaks Jarndyce and Esther’s. Charley is described as “childish in figure but shrewd and older-looking in the face” (Dickens 188). Her childhood dies with her father, as she is forced to work as a washer for hardly any pay in an effort to support her two younger siblings. Esther observes, “she might have been a child, playing at washing, and imitating a poor working-woman with a quick observation of the truth” (Dickens 188). A child living in the way that Charley does is so unnatural that she looks as if she is merely imitating a working-woman. Orphan children like Charley, Tom, and Emma do not have the privilege of a natural childhood owed to all children. They are victims of a broken system that fails to protect children, presenting them with virtually no means of survival. Ironically, their father was a debt collector, heaping more misfortune upon the innocent children. They are blamed for their father’s actions and inherit his reputation in the same way that children born of poor parents inherit their poverty. The scapegoating of the Neckett children is a tangible representation of the cyclical nature of poverty. Children born of poverty, like Jo, had almost no chance to break free from it.
Bleak House is not about poverty but the impoverished—it is with Esther’s story and the stories she is told that Dickens constructs his social commentary. As Esther watches Charley run away at the end of chapter 15, she observes that she “saw her run, such a little, little creature, in her womanly bonnet and apron, through a covered way at the bottom of the court; and melt into the city’s strife and sound, like a dewdrop in an ocean” (Dickens 195). Even sadder than Charley’s story is the fact that it is but a drop in a vast ocean of similar struggles. The ocean encompasses all of London’s “strife and sound.” Our understanding of this ocean comes most poignantly through these drops, through all of the many minor characters Esther encounters over the course of the novel. Dickens’s realism relies not on the ocean but on the drops he so masterfully styles in the same way he beautifies the common “toads.” What better creature to describe nature than a toad? What better person to tell the true story of Victorian orphans than an orphan?
Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil’s Dictionary. Public Domain. Web.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1977. Print.
Schwarz, Daniel R. “The Importance of Ian Watt’s “The Rise of the Novel”” The Journal of Narrative Technique 13.2 (1983): 59-73. Web.
Caroline King is a senior at UGA studying English and Sociology. Currently she is planning to teach high school as well as freelance write after graduating in May of 2017. She hopes to one day pursue a Ph.D. to teach at the collegiate level. Her academic influences include Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Sarah Kay.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank my professor and advisor Dr. Richard Menke for encouraging his students to balance sound, text-supported analyses with creativity.
Citation style: MLA