The 19th century was a period in which philanthropy (charitable contributions to social causes) was considered extremely important and fashionable. Many people in both the middle and upper classes felt that society had a responsibility to take care of the poor and to end the squalor and destitution that was rife among the lower classes. This attitude also extended beyond British borders as well, and many Victorians felt that it was Britain’s responsibility to manage populations abroad where Britain had colonies. Although Dickens was a prominent social campaigner and contributed significantly to social causes such as the abolition of child labor, Bleak House demonstrates Dickens’s view that charity begins at home, and that individual acts of kindness are more effective than showy philanthropic missions to improve society.
The 19th-century fashion for philanthropy, both in Britain and abroad, distracts from genuine social problems. Dickens is critical of the vogue for philanthropy which encouraged many Victorians to throw themselves passionately into a wealth of social causes. Although their efforts are vigorous, many of the philanthropists in Bleak House—symbolized by Mrs. Jellyby and her friends—seem more interested in appearing charitable than in really helping the causes with which they are involved. One example of this is Mr. Quale, who is adamant that philanthropy is essential to the proper organization of society, but who does nothing but talk about the causes adopted by others, which obviously achieves nothing practical. This suggests that many Victorian philanthropists are caught up with the idea of social organization but do little to really contribute to changes within society.
Dickens also makes the point that many of the charitable missions taken up by 19th-century philanthropists focus on parts of the British Empire located outside of Britain. Mrs. Jellyby personifies this, as she is obsessed with “saving” Africa, where Britain had several colonies. While Mrs. Jellyby focuses on Africa, however, her home is left in chaos; her children are neglected, and her husband is nearly bankrupted by her philanthropic efforts. Mrs. Jellyby’s children represent the lower class in Britain, who remain in poverty while Britain squanders its efforts abroad. Dickens uses Mrs. Jellyby’s house to criticize British colonial expansion, which he viewed as a waste of the country’s money, but which many Victorians viewed as a philanthropic mission to “save” countries that did not live under British rule. Dickens criticizes this attitude and suggests that Britain should fix its own society before it interferes with countries abroad.
Philanthropy, when it ignores the needs of those it aims to help, can become a hindrance rather than a source of relief. Dickens parodies zealous but ultimately harmful philanthropists through the character of Mrs. Pardiggle. Mrs. Pardiggle is a fiercely determined do-gooder who goes to poor people’s houses and reads the Bible to them for the improvement of their souls. This was common practice in the 19th century, and many middle-class philanthropists engaged in this type of didactic charity to in an effort to help the poor, whom they thought of as sinful and corrupt. Although the brickmaker she visits tells Mrs. Pardiggle that he does not understand what she reads and that he will continue to drink and beat his wife regardless, Mrs. Pardiggle insists that she is there for the family’s own good. At the same time, however, she seems oblivious to the obvious practical wants of the family and is only concerned with their spiritual education. Her presence, in turn, exacerbates the family’s problems, as the brickmaker is aggravated by Mrs. Pardiggle and this makes him more likely to drink and hit his wife.
In contrast, Esther, who accompanies Mrs. Pardiggle on this visit, is sensitive to the immediate needs of the family and comforts the brickmaker’s wife, Jenny, who is mourning the loss of her baby. Esther’s simple act of kindness—she covers the dead child’s face with a handkerchief—provides gentle and unobtrusive comfort to the woman. Esther, unlike Mrs. Pardiggle, does not assume that she knows what is best for the family and instead performs an act of kindness because she sees their suffering. Dickens suggests that this is the attitude that the Victorian public should emulate, not Mrs. Pardiggle’s aggressively didactic philanthropy.
Genuine acts of kindness improve society, whereas mandatory philanthropy can make people uncharitable. Mrs. Pardiggle’s children are extremely resentful of the philanthropic efforts that their mother forces on them. It is unlikely that these children will grow up to pity the poor—whom their mother aims to help—but that they will feel cheated because of their own neglected upbringing and, therefore, will not be generous or interested in taking up social causes themselves. Dickens implies that when charitable behavior is mandatory, rather than spontaneously and willingly carried out, people will grow to resent it and it will cause selfishness in society, rather than increase kindness and belief in social responsibility. In contrast to this, practical acts of kindness, when they are performed because of a genuine desire to help, are extremely beneficial to society. For example, when Mr. Jarndyce hires Charley (the orphan of a debt officer who is forced to work to support her younger brother and sister) to be Esther’s maid, he removes her and her siblings from a dire situation and allows them to lead a comfortable and dignified life. Mr. Jarndyce is extremely averse to being thanked for his many acts of generosity and runs from any suggestion of praise. Through Mr. Jarndyce, Dickens makes a broader narrative comment that should not perform charitable acts for show but instead try to help those in need when one can. Unlike Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle, Mr. Jarndyce puts the needs of the people he helps first—above his own vanity—and, therefore, his help is more effective because it does not foist itself on others when it is unwanted but waits for opportunities when it can be of selfless and genuine service.
Philanthropy, Social Responsibility, and Kindness ThemeTracker
Philanthropy, Social Responsibility, and Kindness Quotes in Bleak House
She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman, of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if—I am quoting Richard again—they could see nothing nearer than Africa!
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.
‘I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she is a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin, instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty—it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby.’
Mrs. Pardiggle, who had been regarding him through her spectacles with a forcible composure, calculated, I could not help thinking, to increase his antagonism, pulled out a good book, as if it were a constable’s staff, and took the whole family into custody. I mean into religious custody, of course; but she really did it, as if she were an inexorable moral Policeman carrying them all off to a station-house.
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.’
Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As, on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever, and sowing more evil in its every footprint than Lord Coodle, and Sir Thomas Doodle, and the Duke of Foodle, and all the fine gentlemen in office, down to Zoodle, shall set right in five hundred years—though born expressly to do it.
One other singularity was, that nobody with a mission—except Mr Quale, whose mission, as I think I have formerly said, was to be in ecstasies with everybody’s mission—cared at all for anybody’s mission. Mrs Pardiggle being as clear that the only one infallible course was her course of pouncing upon the poor, and applying benevolence to them like a strait-waistcoat; as Miss Wisk was that the only practical thing for the world was the emancipation of Woman from the thraldom of her Tyrant, Man. Mrs Jellyby, all the while, sat smiling at the limited vision that could see anything but Borrioboola-Gha.
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!