Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Bleak House as an Allegory of a Middle-Class Nation

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Bleak House as an Allegory of a Middle-Class Nation

Article excerpt

The political iconography of modern nations is inherently connected to the French Revolution that displaced the king's body with the feminized image of the Nation as the sacred center of power. As a result of the French Revolution, female allegories of the nation became increasingly popular. They were used in numerous linguistic and visual representations of the nation, which was portrayed as the moral alternative to old European regimes. (1) Bleak House was written when the British ancien regime remained in power despite the rapid industrialization of the country, and through the female allegory of Esther Summerson's "progress" it uncovers the incongruity between the outdated aristocratic state and the middle-class idea of a nation.

As a result of her moral progress, Esther overcomes the stigma of her illegitimate birth and turns into the "queen" of those middle-class virtues Dickens defines as the desired national norm. Esther's journey exemplifies the middle-class idea of self-improvement, the ability to overcome vanity, egotism, and passion through reason. This ability for self-improvement is opposed to the aristocratic essentialism, the idea that legitimacy is determined by heredity instead of personal merits. The national norm exemplified by Esther represents the ideal "middle" middle-class position, which excludes any excesses as characteristically anti-national; it is based on the balance between duty and personal happiness, self-respect and self-sacrifice, intuition and reason. On the other hand, the aristocratic state and its law are depicted in the novel as elitist, inefficient, irrational, and morally unsound.

Moreover, according to the novel's logic, despite their antagonistic relationship with the aristocracy, the middle-class industrialists (represented by the novel's iron magnate, Mr. Rouncewell) increasingly associate themselves with the oppressive aristocratic state thus betraying the "heroic" ethos of the early stage of capitalism. Despite their efficiency, the middle-class police and industrialists do not provide a worthy alternative to the British ancien regime in the novel because their efficiency remains formal and unsubstantiated by ethical concerns, an indispensable element of any nation-building process. Dickens uses Bleak House as an architectural metaphor for the nation, a metaphor with a double meaning. On the one hand, it represents the present bleak condition of Great Britain oppressed by its aristocratic state and emerging industrialism. On the other, Esther's Bleak House at the end of the novel embodies Dickens's idealistic vision of the middle-class nation. At the same time, Esther herself allegorizes Britannia, an icon of the nation's justice, industry, prosperity, and happiness.

Split between the depiction of contemporary reality and an idealistic vision of the nation, Bleak House vacillates between realist and pre-realist (allegorical) modes of representation. Dickens's novelistic description of Britain's social and political condition is embedded in the allegory of Esther's individual moral and spiritual progress as the way for national salvation. The allegory of Esther's moral quest, using such famous allegories as The Pilgrim's Progress and Divine Comedy as its models, is related to the highly unrealistic ending of the novel in a pastoral bourgeois idyll made to stand for the harmonious union between the state and the nation, the middle and the lower classes, in which the lower classes are contained and edified by Allan Woodcourt's medical and Esther's educational guidance. According to Walter Benjamin, allegory is the form that embodies the melancholic condition of human post-lapsarian existence, "not to be named, only to be read, to be read uncertainly by the allegorist" (225), and, as such, it gives the novel's ending an air of uncertainty despite Dickens's allegorical didacticism. In other words, the novel's allegory is not only responsible for the didactic edifying ending, but also questions and undermines this ending at the same time by pointing to its highly unrealistic status in the atmosphere of emerging industrialism. …

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