Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Belligerent Instruments: The Documentary Violence of Bleak House

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Belligerent Instruments: The Documentary Violence of Bleak House

Article excerpt

Introduction

"Aunt in fact, though not in law" (33). With this cutting phrase, the lawyer "Conversation" Kenge reveals to thirteen-year-old Esther Summerson two secrets concerning her identity: she was born out of wedlock, and her deceased guardian, the woman she called godmother, was in truth her maternal aunt Barbary. By stealing the newborn Esther from her sister to raise herself while concealing their consanguinity, Miss Barbary both embraced and made real the legal fiction that Esther was filius nullius, a child of no one. Through her actions, she colluded with the performative violence of the law that in naming Esther "bastard" and "illegitimate" had also rendered her officially undocumented, legally bereft of family. (1) As wounding as the truth of Esther's documentary nonexistence may be, however, her lack of a family name and absence from the legal record confer upon her one oblique benefit: they keep her outside the pernicious and protracted lawsuit Jarndyce and Jarndyce, heard by the "monstrous" (251) Court of Chancery, to which her maternal family is party.

In his seminal 1971 introduction to Bleak House, J. Hillis Miller called the novel "a document about the interpretation of documents" (11) in which the social ills it anatomizes originate with systems of signs. Building on Miller's analysis, I argue that documents in Bleak House frequently function as weapons, deployed with aggressive intent to work material harm. By minimizing physical violence and foregrounding repeated instances in which characters channel greed, cruelty, or the will to power through paperwork, Dickens in Bleak House reconceives the representation of conflict, the sine qua non of novelistic plotting. Investing the written word--both public and private documents, but particularly those created, sanctioned, or appropriated as evidence by legal authorities--with the power to derange or destroy, legally and bloodlessly, he builds a case for paper's calamitous potential.

While literary violence-by-document has an ancient provenance, that of Bleak House merits examination for a few reasons. (2) First, its prevalence suggests that Dickens is groping toward, or experimenting with, the means to depict an emergent species of wrongdoing that at once captures his imagination and exceeds his grasp; the ensuing century and a half has validated his insight (conscious or otherwise) that what has come to be known as indirect or structural violence was destined to grow in scope and force. The second reason relates to the first: because the conceptual framework and attendant vocabulary of indirect violence did not yet exist in 1853, Dickens of necessity makes his point by other means. In so doing, he produces many of the novel's most widely remarked-upon rhetorical performances and moments of affective intensity: its complex and sustained networks of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, personification and epithet, as well as its most emblematic scenes of suffering, all work in the service of making visible the reality, and staking a claim for the dramatic potential, of indirect violence. At the same time, the historical impossibility of articulating this central narrative apparatus, when coupled with the constraints imposed by the formal or generic conventions of the mid-nineteenth-century novel, particularly with regard to characterization, causation, and closure, attenuates the collective impact of these performances. I do not wish to claim that Dickens intended them to have any such impact; my concern is to analyze the fugitive insurrectionary energies that such representations contain and the ways in which the imperatives of genre work to disable them. Acts of documentary violence in Bleak House, I will argue, are nodes of contradiction that simultaneously encode the novel's warring impulses and convey its most powerful truths.

As narrator and character, Esther Summerson embodies, enacts, and comments upon these manifold contradictions. …

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