Appearances can be deceiving in Bleak House, and the identity that a person presents to the world does not necessarily represent their inner life or their real personality. Many of the novel’s characters use this to their advantage, while others are at odds with their appearance and long for their true self to show through their physical or public exteriors. Dickens uses these contrasts between interiors and exteriors to demonstrate that appearances should not always be trusted, and that inner beauty is always preferable to false sentiments and calculated masquerades.
Many of the characters in Bleak House are the opposite of what they appear to be and use these deceptions to their advantage. Mr. Skimpole, a friend of Mr. Jarndyce, presents himself to the world as an innocent “child” who understands nothing about the financial or practical realities of life. Mr. Skimpole is delightful company because of this and is always a welcome guest because he is so whimsical and entertaining. However, beneath Mr. Skimpole’s light-hearted facade, he is really a ruthless individualist and cares only for his own pleasure at the expense of everybody else. Mr. Skimpole happily allows his friends to pay his debts for him and furnish him with money and food, and doggedly pursues his own interests even when this causes harm to others. For example, when Esther takes the sick urchin, Jo, into Mr. Jarndyce’s house, Mr. Skimpole has no sympathy for the boy and is only concerned about the threat to his own health. Mr. Skimpole therefore suggests that they put Jo back on the street. When the others refuse, Mr. Skimpole secretly gets his own way when he accepts a bribe from Mr. Bucket, who wants Jo on an investigative matter, and lets Mr. Bucket take Jo away in the middle of the night even though he is very ill.
Although Mr. Skimpole’s behavior is mercenary and selfish, Mr. Jarndyce—among others—is completely taken in by Mr. Skimpole because he maintains such a convincing facade of innocence, and because Mr. Jarndyce wishes to see the best in people. Although Mr. Skimpole does understand the nature of a bribe, Mr. Jarndyce cannot believe this because Mr. Skimpole has convinced him that he simply does not understand money. In contrast, Esther sees through Mr. Skimpole’s exterior and suspects that he is a calculating individual underneath his show of naivety. Dickens suggests that, while it is noble to give people the benefit of the doubt, it also pays to question people’s outward facades, especially if a person’s claims do not line up with their behavior.
Meanwhile, other characters in the novel feel trapped by their external identities, which influence the way that others treat them. In order to maintain her social position as a representative of the stately Dedlock line, Lady Dedlock must constantly present a poised face to the world. Underneath, however, Lady Dedlock is a woman racked by guilt and pain. She conceals her extreme emotions under a facade of boredom, as though she has been “frozen,” in order to hide her secret (the birth of her illegitimate child) and to protect herself from predatory characters like Mr. Tulkinghorn who wish to use her disgrace to their advantage. Although Lady Dedlock does not necessarily wish to be seen this way, she is constantly pursued by “the fashionable intelligence,” who are obsessed with observing her comings and goings. This suggests that Lady Dedlock has been so successful in constructing her exterior identity that she is now completely trapped by it. The “fashionable intelligence” (a group of fashionable individuals who know all the happenings among the rich and famous) are, obviously, shallow and are not interested in her inner life, but only in gossip and scandal; they have no sympathy with Lady Dedlock when her image slips. Lady Dedlock is able to temporarily conceal her identity at the end of the novel, when she disguises herself as the brickmaker’s wife, Jenny, to escape from the police, who she knows are hunting her for Mr. Tulkinghorn’s murder. In her disguise as a poor, friendless woman, Lady Dedlock’s true identity is temporarily revealed, as she flees from public scandal and disdain. Through Lady Dedlock’s tragic demise, Dickens demonstrates that people’s external identities are not always a choice but are sometimes constructed to avoid the judgement, ridicule, or cruelty of others.
The best outcome, according to Dickens, is for the world to recognize one’s true face, regardless of one’s external identity or appearance. This ideal outcome is the fate of Esther, whose face is scarred by the illness she catches from Jo on the night she brings him into Mr. Jarndyce’s house. It is implied that Esther’s face is scarred beyond recognition, but Esther’s character is not changed by this event, and she continues to pour love and acceptance onto others. Esther, who has struggled with self-acceptance because of her abusive childhood, finally receives validation when Mr. Woodcourt reveals his love for her. Although Esther had nursed private hopes that Mr. Woodcourt would fall in love with her, she gives up all thought of this and accepts another marriage proposal, from Mr. Jarndyce, when her face is changed by her illness. Mr. Woodcourt is away on a voyage overseas during Esther’s illness and she assumes that, even if he had been attracted to her before, he will now never love her because of her changed appearance. Esther’s inner beauty shines through, however, and, when Mr. Woodcourt returns, he reveals that he loves her regardless. He recognizes both her inner and outer beauty, which she herself cannot see, and through their blissful union, Esther is finally rewarded for her life of selfless and compassionate dedication to others, which reveals her true nature and her inner self to the world.
Identity and Appearance ThemeTracker
Identity and Appearance Quotes in Bleak House
A whisper still goes about, that she had not even family; howbeit, Sir Leicester had so much family that perhaps he had enough, and could dispense with any more. But she had beauty, pride, ambition, insolent resolve, and sense enough to portion out a legion of fine ladies. Wealth and station, added to these, soon floated her upward; and for years, now, my Lady Dedlock has been at the center of the fashionable intelligence.
We observed that the wind always changed when Mrs. Pardiggle became the subject of conversation; and that it invariably interrupted Mr. Jarndyce, and prevented his going any farther, when he had remarked that there were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.
We were looking at one another, and at these two children, when there came into the room a very little girl, childish in figure but shrewd and older-looking in the face—pretty-faced too—wearing a womanly sort of bonnet much too large for her, and drying her bare arms on a womanly sort of apron. Her fingers were white and wrinkled with washing, and the soap-suds were yet smoking which she wiped off her arms. But for this, she might have been a child, playing at washing, and imitating a poor working-woman with a quick observation of the truth.
What connection can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabouts of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard step? What connection can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together! Jo sweeps his crossing all day long, unconscious of the link, if any link there be. He sums up his mental condition, when asked a question, by replying that he ‘don’t know nothink.’
What should I have suffered, if I had had to write to him, and tell him that the poor face he had known as mine was quite gone from me, and that I freely released him from his bondage to one whom he had never seen!
Even in the thinking of her endurance, she drew her habitual air of proud indifference about her like a veil, though she soon cast it off again.
‘I must keep this secret, if by any means it can be kept, not wholly for myself. I have a husband, wretched and dishonoring creature that I am!’
‘I dread one person very much.’
‘Not a friend. One who is too passionless to be either. He is Sir Leicester Dedlock’s lawyer; mechanically faithful without attachment, and very jealous of the profit, privilege, and reputation of being master of the mysteries of great houses.’
‘I am resolved. I have long outbidden folly with folly, pride with pride, scorn with scorn, insolence with insolence, and have outlived many vanities with many more. I will outlive this danger, and outdie it, if I can. It has closed around me, almost as awfully as if these woods of Chesney Wold had closed around the house; but my course through it is the same. I have but one: I can have but one.’
The way was paved here, like the terrace overhead, and my footsteps from being noiseless made an echoing sound upon the flags. Stopping to look at nothing, but seeing all I did see as I went, I was passing quickly on, and in a few moments should have passed the lighted window, when my echoing footsteps brought it suddenly into my mind that there was a dreadful truth in the legend of the Ghost’s Walk; that it was I, who was to bring calamity upon the stately house; and that my warning feet were haunting it even then.
Heaven knows what he sees. The green, green woods of Chesney Wold, the noble house, the pictures of his forefathers, strangers defacing them, officers of police coarsely handling his most precious heirlooms, thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him. But if such shadows flit before him to his bewilderment, there is one other shadow which he can name with something like distinctness even yet, and to which alone he addresses his tearing of his white hair, and his extended arms.