Dickens clearly sees the value of following one’s passion, as his characters who do not feel a calling in life are somewhat lost and forlorn throughout the book. However, there is a distinction made between a calling—a cause or profession one feels naturally drawn to, which one follows to a moderate and balanced degree—and an obsession. Bleak House is peppered with characters who are driven to distraction by their various obsessions, which consume their lives and drive them mad, and unregulated passion leads to disastrous consequences throughout the novel. The book suggests that a genuine calling, however, when it is honestly chosen and industriously achieved, is a benevolent and useful way to contribute to society.
Lack of professional direction, or the lack of purpose in life, can have a negative effect on people’s wellbeing. Many of the characters in Bleak House are searching for meaning in their lives and turn to professional and social endeavors to give themselves a sense of place within society. Characters who do not feel a professional or social calling of this kind are often slightly adrift within the novel. One example of this is “the trooper,” George, an ex-soldier who makes a series of bad investments and inadvertently saddles his loyal friends, and Mrs. Bagnet, with debt because he cannot find a stable calling in life after the army. Lack of professional direction is also a problem for Richard Carstone, who cannot decide which industry he wishes to train for and tries several before giving up entirely. Richard cannot choose a discipline because he doesn’t feel a particular passion for any of them. Mr. Jarndyce, Richard’s guardian, warns Richard against relying on passion alone and tries to advise Richard that if he studies hard in the profession of his choosing, even if it is not his preference, he will reap the rewards in the future and feel a sense of fulfilment. Richard disregards Mr. Jarndyce’s advice, however, and Richard’s lack of purpose gives way to a misguided obsession. Dickens suggests that it is better to choose a direction in life than to rely on passion alone, which, if unchecked, may leave one open to being taken in by false or illusory ideas.
In the novel, extreme passion easily transforms into obsession. Without a profession to discipline and distract him, Richard becomes obsessed with the lawsuit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, from which he expects an inheritance. He is so consumed with his delusional hopes of hypothetical inheritance that he does not see the reality of the situation: that Jarndyce and Jarndyce is unlikely to be resolved and that, in the meantime, he is bankrupting himself for no good reason to pay his legal fees. Richard’s situation is echoed in the character of Gridley, a poor man who lives near the court and who spends a large part of his life trying to demand a verdict from the Chancery court. Gridley’s obsession ultimately consumes him, and he dies miserable and penniless, having never heard a verdict on his case. Even beyond the court, characters are troubled by obsessions. Mrs. Snagsby, the wife of Mr. Snagsby, who runs a stationery shop near Chancery, becomes consumed with passionate jealousy and obsessed with the idea that her husband has fathered an illegitimate child: the unfortunate street sweeper, Jo, with whom Mr. Snagsby is friendly. Her misguided belief leads her into a paranoid obsession, and she follows her husband (who is innocent) everywhere looking for signs of his guilt. Driven by their passions, these characters begin to stray into strange behaviors. Dickens suggests that a passion that is not moderated, or does not have a good foundation in reality, can easily turn into an unhealthy fixation.
At its worst, obsession can lead to madness. Dickens demonstrates this through the character of Miss Flite, an elderly lady who religiously attends the Chancery court to await the outcome of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Miss Flite goes mad while she obsessively waits for a verdict in the case, and her example serves as a warning for other characters, and for the reader, about the close relationship between obsession and madness. Following in Miss Flite’s footsteps, Richard gradually succumbs to his obsession with Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and he, too, goes mad. Like Miss Flite, he begins to attend court daily with the vague notion that he will hear news regarding his suit. He eventually dies when the case is terminated, and it is announced that all the money owing to the plaintiffs has been eaten up in legal costs.
Richard’s tragic demise through lunacy and obsession is directly contrasted by the stable and disciplined life built by Mr. Woodcourt, the surgeon whom Esther marries. Like Richard, Mr. Woodcourt also feels a lack of direction early in his life and career, but unlike Richard, Mr. Woodcourt makes a diligent and concerted effort to make the best of his chosen career as a doctor. While Richard suffers because of his poor life choices, which are based on unrestrained passion rather than on disciplined and practical ideas, Mr. Woodcourt grows to cherish his profession, which provides a solid living for himself and Esther and contributes in a positive way to society. Overall Dickens takes a moderate view, suggesting that discipline and diligence are good protection against the pitfalls of obsession, delusion, and madness, which can easily distort any type of passionate preoccupation.
Passion, Obsession, and Madness ThemeTracker
Passion, Obsession, and Madness Quotes in Bleak House
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest, near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation: Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery. Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth.
This is the Court of Chancery; which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire; which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse, and its dead in every churchyard; which has its ruined suitor, with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress, borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance; […] there is not an honorable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, ‘Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!’
‘We are never to get out of Chancery! We have come by another way to our place of meeting yesterday, and—by the Great Seal, here’s the old lady again!’
A little way within the shop-door, lay heaps of old crackled parchment scrolls, and discolored and dog’s-eared law- papers […] One had only to fancy, as Richard whispered to Ada and me while we all stood looking in, that yonder bones in a corner, piled together and picked very clean, were the bones of clients, to make the picture complete.
She partly drew aside the curtain of the long low garret-window, and called our attention to a number of bird-cages hanging there: some containing several birds. There were larks, linnets, and goldfinches—I should think at least twenty. ‘I began to keep the little creatures,’ she said, ‘with an object that the wards will readily comprehend. With the intention of restoring them to liberty. When my judgment should be given. Ye-es! They die in prison, though. Their lives, poor silly things, are so short in comparison with Chancery proceedings, that, one by one, the whole collection has died over and over again.’
‘How much of this indecision of character,’ Mr Jarndyce said to me, ‘is chargeable on that incomprehensible heap of uncertainty and procrastination on which he has been thrown from his birth, I don’t pretend to say; but that Chancery, among its other sins, is responsible for some of it, I can plainly see. It has engendered or confirmed in him a habit of putting off—and trusting to this, that, and the other chance, without knowing what chance—and dismissing everything as unsettled, uncertain, and confused.’
Mr Guppy suspects everybody who enters on the occupation of a stool in Kenge and Carboy’s office, of entertaining, as a matter of course, sinister designs upon him. He is clear that every such person wants to depose him. If he be ever asked how, why, when, or wherefore, he shuts up one eye and shakes his head. On the strength of these profound views, he in the most ingenious manner takes infinite pains to counterplot, when there is no plot; and plays the deepest games of chess without any adversary.
Everything that Mr. Smallweed’s grandfather ever put away in his mind was a grub at first, and is a grub at last. In all his life he has never bred a single butterfly. The father of this pleasant grandfather, of the neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, was a horny-skinned, two-legged, money-getting species of spider, who spun webs to catch unwary flies, and retired into holes until they were entrapped. The name of this old pagan’s God was Compound Interest.
‘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 never shall forget those two seated side by side in the lantern’s light; Richard, all flush and fire and laughter, with the reins in his hand; Mr. Vholes, quite still, black-gloved, and buttoned up, looking at him as if he were looking at his prey and charming it. I have before me the whole picture of the warm dark night, the summer lightning, the dusty track of road closed in by hedgerows and high trees, the gaunt pale horse with his ears pricked up, and the driving away at speed to Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
Mr. Vholes gives it a rap, and it sounds as hollow as a coffin. Not to Richard, though. There is encouragement in the sound to him. Perhaps Mr. Vholes knows there is.
They gradually discern the elder Mr Smallweed, seated in his chair upon the brink of a well or grave of waste paper; the virtuous Judy groping therein, like a female sexton; and Mrs Smallweed on the level ground in the vicinity, snowed up in a heap of paper fragments, print and manuscript, which would appear to be the accumulated compliments that have been sent flying at her in the course of the day. The whole party, Small included, are blackened with dust and dirt, and present a fiendish appearance not relieved by the general aspect of the room.