Monday, December 15, 2014

“Don't leave the cat there!” - Bleak House is alive

I mentioned a passage where Esther Summerson describes London as reflecting the sadness of her friend Ada by having “more funerals… than I had ever seen before.”  Bleak House must be among the most triumphant examples of the pathetic fallacy in literature, beginning with the extraordinary London fog in the first paragraph, the fog which has engulfed all of southeast England and is said to emanate from the law courts, and perhaps from one specific case, the one at the center, or just off of the center, of the novel.

The fog is not itself alive on that first page.  Or is it – “fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck”?  That is a malignant fog.  Aside from that, though, there are the gas lamps on the same page, the first real example of what I mean: “as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.”

The fog is left behind at the end of Chapter 5.  Three hundred pages later, back in London we have a “[w]intry morning” that “look[s] with dull eyes and sallow face” upon the city.  A couple of chapters later is a favorite of mine.  There are visitors at Sir Leicester’s country house, a series of dismal cousins, so the fires are roaring.  They “wink in the twilight on the frowning woods, sullen to see how trees are sacrificed.”  Bleak House temporarily becomes an eco-novel.  My real favorite is two pages later – same house, same fires: “Bedroom fires blaze brightly all over the house, raising ghosts of grim furniture on wall and ceiling.”  As a metaphor for shadows, this is outstanding, but in this novel the suggestion that even the furniture is imbued with a soul is not so far-fetched.

At least the crows are normally living creatures, so this is not so strange, in fact it is observed crow behavior:

The rooks, swinging in their lofty houses in the elm-tree avenue, seem to discuss the question of the occupancy of the carriage as it passes underneath, some agreeing that Sir Leicester and my Lady are come down, some arguing with malcontents who won't admit it, now all consenting to consider the question disposed of, now all breaking out again in violent debate, incited by one obstinate and drowsy bird who will persist in putting in a last contradictory croak. (Ch. 12)

But that solitary crow is an unusual specimen.  “Drowsy,” why drowsy I wonder.  This is part of the crow theme, attaching Lady Dedlock and her home to particularly crow-like lawyer, one of the novel’s villains.  And it is part of the larger bird theme.

Countered, all too briefly, by the cat theme, or at least by the junkman Krook’s terrifying cat.  Esther, attentive to London’s ugliness, notices “the sweeping out of shops, and the extraordinary creatures in rags, secretly groping among the swept out rubbish for pins and other refuse” (Ch. 5).  She is foreshadowing Little Jo, but only a few pages later the cat is introduced: “The cat leaped down and ripped at a bundle of rags with her tigerish claws, with a sound that it set my teeth on edge to hear.”  In a rag and bottle shop, this is not so odd, although given that a few pages earlier the bundle of rags was a person – well ,even this may not mean too much until we jump to Chapters 9 and 10, containing the death of the opium addict Nemo, where the repeated word is not “rags” but “ragged,” and as everyone else leaves the room:

“Don't leave the cat there!” says the surgeon; “that won't do!”  Mr. Krook therefore drives her out before him, and she goes furtively downstairs, winding her lithe tail and licking her lips. (Ch. 10)

Why won’t that do?  How does the surgeon know?  Who does that unnamed surgeon turn out to be anyways?  And is one of Miss Flite’s canaries named “Rags”? (Yes).

Now I think I know where I am going with this.


  1. Yes, there is much to be gained by focusing on the animals motif. I wonder if the nonhuman qualities ascribed to humans could also be fertile territory.

    I will sometimes read a text -- once I detect a seemingly insignificant motif -- by being too focused on the motif and subordinating all other qualities. I remember a grad school paper in which "a month's mind" in The Way of the World became the critical core of the whole play for me.

    Bleak House deserves similar micro-focus as it is nearly too large for macro-focus. IMHO.

  2. That's right - the metaphors move in both directions.

    Too large - even understanding some of his tricks, I am amazed that even Dickens could keep it all straight.

    I haven't read Congreve for years. That would be fun, to revisit him.

    1. If you revisit Congreve, and if you are interested in the "month's mind" angle, see my article in The Explicator (57.4) Summer 1999.

      And today I would welcome your "reading list" advice at Beyond Eastrod. I am adrift between books for a variety of reasons, so I have thrown out an "SOS" request.

    2. I left a reply with a few 19th century candidates. This is not an area of strength for me.

  3. " “Drowsy,” why drowsy I wonder. "

    I wonder whether Dickens had at the back of his mind - or even at the front of his mind - that famous passage from Macbeth where the crow in close conjunction wiith drowsiness

    Light thickens; and the crow
    Makes wing to the rooky wood:
    Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;

  4. Oh, that has to be it, there are echoes through the whole passage.

  5. "But that solitary crow is an unusual specimen."
    no it isn't; it's a normal crow.
    I don't know about America, but in England crows and rooks are different species- crows solitary, rooks social. "A rook on its own is a crow and a group of crows are rooks." is the non-ornithologist's way to tell them apart.

  6. Ah, then the error is mine, because the word "crow" is mine. It should be "solitary rook," who seemed unusual for his drowsiness, but see above. I should make more errors; I have already learned quite a bit from this one.

    I do not believe we actually have rooks in America, and the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is actually highly social. These two facts together are what has led me to mistakenly identify European rooks with American crows.