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August 24, 2008

the moral evaluation of literary characters

I'm on p. 521 of Dickens' Bleak House--hardly past half-way--but so far Mrs Jelleby is proving to be a bad person. Like many of my friends (like me, in fact) she spends most of her days reading and writing messages regarding what she calls a "public project"--in her case, the settlement of poor British families on the left bank of the River Niger at the ridiculously named location of Borrioboola-Gha. Meanwhile, her own small children are filthy, her clothes are disgraceful, her household is bankrupt, her neglected husband is (as we would say) clinically depressed, and she is casually cruel to her adolescent daughter Caddy. Caddy finds a man who pays some attention to her, but Mrs Jellyby is completely uninterested in the wedding and marriage:

Mrs Jellyby's friends dominate the wedding breakfast and are "all devoted to public projects only." They have no interest in Caddy or even in one another's social schemes; each is entirely self-centered.

Within the imaginary world of Bleak House, Mrs Jellyby is bad, and her moral flaws should provoke some reflection in the rest of us--especially those of us who spend too much time sending emails about distant projects. The evident alternative is Esther Summerson, a model housekeeper who cares lovingly for her friends and relatives and refuses to interfere with distant strangers' lives on the ground "that I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated ...; that I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others ..."

Fair enough, but we could also ask why Dickens decided to depict Mrs Jellyby instead of a different kind of person, for instance, a man who was so consumed with social reform that he neglected his spouse, a woman who successfully balanced public and private responsibilities, or a woman, like Dorothea Brooke, who yearned for a public role but instead devoted her life to the private service of men. Both the intention and the likely consequences of Dickens' portrait are to suppress the public role of women.

The general point I'd like to propose is this: the moral assessment of literary characters (lately returned to respectability by theorists like Amanda Anderson) requires two stages of analysis. First one decides whether a character is good or bad--or partly both--within the world of a fiction. And then one asks whether the author was right to choose to create that character instead of others.

August 24, 2008 3:50 PM | category: none


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