Background. Esther was born out of wedlock. I'll try not to spoil too much, but the average reader is going to guess that in the first chapter narrated by Esther. The problem is that we live in Victorian England. Or rather, this novel lives in Victorian England. So did the audience. Dickens did not envision 21st century people reading this thing and shaking their heads over the cruelness of society to believe a child is somehow responsible for how she was conceived. Change that to 'the backwardness of society'.
Back to the evil aunt. She doesn't love Esther, and Esther wants desperately to be loved. As a child she tries so hard to be nice to her aunt, apparently believing the lack of love is due to her own shortcomings. But try as she might, she cannot win the aunt's love. Neither can she win the love of the housekeeper. They are quite a pair. I will say it's hard to imagine people like that in today's society, but I suppose they exist.
So poor Esther has this horrible childhood, and is eventually carted off to live away from her childhood home, never to return. We're given a pitiful story of her burying her doll in the backyard. Her childhood has died. Sheesh! That's really pathetic! Dickens did his work as a writer bringing the emotions to the forefront, making the reader feel sympathy, anger, and a lust for revenge towards the evil aunt and her evil housekeeper. I mean, anytime a writer invokes children's pain, that's a sure hit. And he hit the mark dead on. The problem is it almost seems too much, too hard to believe. But I can't find fault with that, because I've heard of worse stories in today's society.
Anyway, the main problem is that Esther later becomes this workaholic, just walking around trying to help everybody. Here is Mr. Woodcourt asking her about her recent illness.
"I was grieved to hear that you had been very ill."
"I was very ill."
"But you have quite recovered?"
"I have quite recovered my health and my cheerfulness," said I. "You know how good my guardian is and what a happy life we lead, and I have everything to be thankful for and nothing in the world to desire."
I felt as if he had greater commiseration for me than I had ever had for myself. It inspired me with new fortitude and new calmness to find that it was I who was under the necessity of reassuring him.
Hell, are you kidding me? She just recovered from freakin' small pox! Yet Esther's only concern in the world is that she would never appear concerned about herself. And if so, then she must fortify herself, and work even harder to hide her feelings! Push them down, Esther! And when you think you just might explode, push them down even harder.
Okay, exaggeration, but the problem remains that Esther is over-the-top trying to never show concern for herself. Even to her closest, dearest friends, she never confides in them, but always fortifies herself, and determines to be a good girl, to work harder at being calm and blah blah blah.
She is so good, so pure, so perfect. But we never see below that layer. We never see depth of character. Does she get angry? She has every right to, but Dickens doesn't give us that. We don't see frustration, or bitterness, or despair. Dickens knows how to draw that in a character, we've seen it in other books. But not with Esther. That was his choice.
But for me, cut them and make them bleed. Hurt them, show them struggle, give them internal conflict. And then above all, show them overcome. That's what we want. That's a character worth remembering.
And now for Esther's mom. Well, heck, if you didn't want spoilers you're probably cursing me right now, dag-nabbit! Sorry about that. But to discuss this character we have to say it. So stop reading if you don't want to know.
Esther's mom is...drum roll please. Her mom is...oh, the suspense! It's Lady Dedlock. What a name, sheesh. I won't bore you with background details. What I want to say is this is a tragic character if ever Dickens created one. She is destined by society to die. Why do I say that? Because in Victorian England, and in Dickensian novels, women who have sex outside of marriage come to a bad end. That's just how it was. And yes, I have ranted about this before and will again. So I'll skip it for now and just give you my gripes about Lady Dedlock.
For the modern reader, it makes no sense that she would discover she has a daughter - a grown daughter - would meet her and and tell her who she was, and say they must never meet again and she must be unhappy and all the rest. I've watched enough tv to know how things work. It's supposed to be fun! It's supposed to make you feel good. Didn't you guys watch Tangled? I mean, come on!
But in those olden days, Lady's simply did not do that. For starters, this wasn't just a lost child, but a lost child born out of wedlock. That was something to be hidden away. That forbidden love was to be the downfall of a poor young woman. She must never again be welcomed in polite society. This is the hardest part of the book to be accepted by the modern reader. This part, if anything, you will have trouble with. I want to rewrite the ending just to show how much better things would be today. It’s a shame, beyond the obvious callous and old fashioned attitude, it’s a shame because it adds a certain predictability to a novel, taking away any idea of surprise. You know, as a reader, any ideas for happy endings with that person will not take place.
But Sir Leicester Dedlock (I know, Dickens kept misspelling "Lester" as "Leicester"). Anyway, Sir Dedlock, although he loves his wife and would protect her, can't find out about her past indiscretions. I understand that to a point. I'm not saying that's not how it was in Victorian England. I'm saying the modern reader has different societal expectations.
When Lady Dedlock's horrid secret is revealed, she runs away. Her apparent goal is to make it to the gates of the cemetery where her old lover is buried. There she plans to just...die away. And when they find her, she is dead. Now hold on there! Do you have a death certificate to show the cause of that demise? Methinks it a bit suspicious. I'd like to inspect the coroner's report. It always seems like people in Victorian times were just dying away with no reason given. Did she overdose on laudanum? Arsenic? What? Did she freeze to death? Convenient that she reached her goal just in time. Why didn't other people freeze to death as well? The people chasing her seemed okay. Maybe they had frostbite and lost a toe or something but we weren't told about it.
I'm tired of that old plot, the person who has committed the unpardonable sin against Victorian sensibilities will die. Sometimes the writer gives a reason, sometimes not. The reason doesn't matter so much. I mean, were 19th century people just a bunch of weaklings that dropped dead all the time from "exhaustion" and "shock" and "tight corsets"? I would have thought they were a stronger bunch, with better immune systems and the like. But I guess I am mistaken.
I wonder if Dickens, while writing this, had some ideas of giving Lady Dedlock a happy ending. I wonder if he changed his mind due to readers’ responses, or if he knew all along that the woman was an evil, sinful whore and must be made an example to all good and prudent women. This one worked out in typical Tess-like fashion. Big surprise.
The novel had to have conflict. For Victorians, this was the perfect conflict. Sure, I get it. But this particular conflict just doesn't carry well into modern times.