Thursday, January 31, 2013

Book Review: Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853) More About Those Wacky Characters

There's a particular character I want to discuss, because she is one of Dickens' finest drawn characters.  Mrs. Jellyby is just horrible.  So terrible you will just love her.  When we switch back to one of her scenes, you cringe to read it, but read it you must.

She has a husband and a family, but her first priority seems to be ignoring them.  The African village of Borrioboola-Gha is her obsession.  She's a philanthropist, of sorts.  I guess you could call her that.  I don't know if the Borrioboola-Gha villagers would call her that.  And her family certainly does not.  A memorable scene is when we're introduced to her oldest daughter, Caddy.  She looks miserable - woebegone, you could call her.  She's writing out letters in the service of her mother, covered in ink, and generally unkempt.  In fact, her whole family is in disarray, the children run wild, the house is a mess, and their finances are dwindling as she spends them all into bankruptcy.

One of the finest comments is when Esther says Mrs. Jellyby's eyes have a habit of seeming to look a long way off, as if "they could see nothing nearer than Africa!"  Perfect.  Her daughter is right in front of her, pleading for attention and not getting it.  Even to the very end, this woman never sees her wrongs.  Her husband is plunged to bankruptcy by her own spending, and she dismisses the matter by stating Mr. Jellyby is having some financial trouble, as if the man did it himself, is the only one responsible, and the only one affected by it.

I love this woman.  I hate her, but who can really hate such a well created literary figure.

Her husband is a classic study.  He's almost left out of the story entirely, and Dickens is either a master of personalities or perhaps he had someone in mind.  Only a timid, noninterfering man like that could allow a wife to fester and grow into such blind idiocy.  Well, I guess I don't know which happened first, the man was beaten down by her own strong will, or the other way around.  Or perhaps they simply found each other as suited for one another.  But the best description of Mr. Jellyby comes in typical Dickens' form by Mr. Kenge - "I don't know that I can describe him to you better than by saying that he is the husband of Mrs. Jellyby."

That line made me laugh.

Of course, she gets tiresome eventually.  What readers want from a character like that is for her to either evolve during the course of the novel, or to have her comeuppance.  Mrs. Jellyby gets neither.  

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