Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Broken Mirror, Broken Words: Autobiography, Prosopopeia and the Dead Mother in Bleak House

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Broken Mirror, Broken Words: Autobiography, Prosopopeia and the Dead Mother in Bleak House

Article excerpt

Is autobiography somehow always in the process of symbolically killing the mother off by telling her the lie that we have given birth to ourselves?

- Barbara Johnson(1)

Our topic deals with the giving and taking away of faces, with face and deface, figure, figuration and disfiguration.

- Paul de Man(2)

In Dickens's Bleak House (1852-53), generic conventions of domestic novel, detective novel, and autobiography collide in the narrative of Esther Summerson, whose quest for identity is structured through her desire to reunite with her missing, mysterious mother. In fact, Esther "loses" her mother a total of three times in the course of the novel; these "deaths" provide both the structuring principle and the central crisis of Esther's fictional autobiography. In this essay, I will argue that each of these moments presents the conditions of "loss" in different terms, and that each time, Esther is increasingly confronted with the question of her own implication in her abandonment. The extent to which Esther consents to and even comes to desire loss is directly proportional to her ability to master the terms of the autobiographical narrative. In other words, Esther's ability to represent herself as a subject, as an agent, is dependent on her status as a mourner; there is a direct relationship between abandonment and articulation, and specifically, between the death of a mother and the birth of an authorial subject.

Throughout Bleak House, and particularly throughout the fiction of Esther's autobiography, Dickens represents maternal death as a problem of narrative, a challenge to the construction of a bildungsroman or a domestic fiction. For the teleology of Bleak House is "Bleak House," the strangely sanitary dream world of the novel's conclusion. But this domestic dream world is an embattled construct, for the universe of the larger novel consistently destroys any pretense to conventional "family values." Esther's autobiography runs parallel in the text with the omniscient narrative of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the story of the Chancery suit which locates contention within the family even in its name, and provides the pathologized model of domesticity which pervades the densely populated world of the novel. Throughout the text, in fact, orphanage and anomie remain the status quo. The centrality of such characters as Jo and Esther, alienated from any domestic structure but virtuous nonetheless, sets the stage for the systematic dismantling of family pathologies in favor of virtue born of resistance.

Yet in a world in which children are the only true adults and in which such adults as Mr. Skimpole are guilty of the most outrageous abandonment of responsibility, it is the novel's mother-figures who receive most of its venom. Mrs. Pardiggle and Mrs. Jellyby in particular represent the clearest instances of misplaced priorities and malign neglect, as they exploit and ignore their many children in favor of "causes," feeding the children of Africa, Borrioboola-Gha, and the Tockahoopo Indians while neglecting their own. The ever-watchful Esther observes the Jellyby household: "Mrs. Jellyby, whose face reflected none of the uneasiness which we could not help showing in our own faces, as the dear child's head recorded its passage with a bump on every stair Richard afterwards said he counted seven, besides one for the landing - received us with perfect equanimity. 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!"(3) Mrs. Jellyby's misplaced ethic is captured in the title of the chapter in which she is introduced: "Telescopic Philanthropy." The novel is unambivalent about assigning blame specifically to her, as when her daughter Caddy plans her escape: "If I ever blame myself, I still think it's Ma's fault. We are to be married whenever we can, and then I shall go to Pa at the office and write to Ma. …

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