Jo, the Crossing Sweeper

I would like to introduce you to Jo, the orphaned crossing sweeper.

Introducing Jo.

Jo is a crossing sweeper, a boy of indeterminate age, no education, no family or parentage, or even friends.  He is virtually homeless, with only a corner in Tom-All-Alone’s to call his own, Jo roams through the city, earning what little he can by sweeping the streets clean for those who wish to cross them.  Despite his lack of connections, he joins our story in several places, acting as a connecting figure in the novel. Jo functions as a plot device, but also as a strongly symbolic figure of the effects of poverty and neglect.

Here he is, very muddy, very hoarse, very ragged. Now, boy! But stop a minute. Caution. This boy must be put through a few preliminary paces. Name, Jo. Nothing else that he knows on. Don't know that everybody has two names. Never heerd of sich a think. Don't know that Jo is short for a longer name. Thinks it long enough for HIM. HE don't find no fault with it. Spell it? No. HE can't spell it. No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school. What's home? Knows a broom's a broom, and knows it's wicked to tell a lie. Don't recollect who told him about the broom or about the lie, but knows both. Can't exactly say what'll be done to him arter he's dead if he tells a lie to the gentlemen here, but believes it'll be something wery bad to punish him, and serve him right—and so he'll tell the truth. Bleak House, XI, ‘Our Dear Brother.’

5 things you need to know about Jo

  • An orphan who sweeps the streets for pennies
  • Carries a broom wherever he goes
  • ‘Lives’ at Tom-All-Alone’s, the worst slum in London
  • Connected to everyone (make a list)!
  • Catches smallpox and infects Charley and Esther

Describing Jo.

Jo, as orphan, is a symbol of poverty and social neglect. He only has one name, the word, Jo. He lives, if it can be called living, in a corner in Tom-All-Alone’s, and pays his rent with meager earnings from sweeping the streets for those who wish to cross them.

Lacking family, friends, education, and any kind of official or institutional role, Jo is outside of society, so to speak, and is considered a vagrant. When he walks the streets of London, even if he sits for a moment, he is told to ‘move on’ by officials. He moves on a surprising amount, even walking all the way to St Albans, while suffering from smallpox. Even when dying from tuberculosis, he walks through London.

Mr Dickens describes Jo in some detail, emphasizing his isolation, his ignorance, his poverty.  He suggests that although Jo has a good heart, he is almost less than human: so neglected are his education and apprehension. He cannot read, he cannot write; lacking these skills further places him outside of society.

It must be a strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows! To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postmen deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language—to be, to every scrap of it, stone blind and dumb! It must be very puzzling to see the good company going to the churches on Sundays, with their books in their hands, and to think (for perhaps Jo DOES think at odd times) what does it all mean, and if it means anything to anybody, how comes it that it means nothing to me? To be hustled, and jostled, and moved on; and really to feel that it would appear to be perfectly true that I have no business here, or there, or anywhere; and yet to be perplexed by the consideration that I AM here somehow, too, and everybody overlooked me until I became the creature that I am! It must be a strange state, not merely to be told that I am scarcely human (as in the case of my offering myself for a witness), but to feel it of my own knowledge all my life! To see the horses, dogs, and cattle go by me and to know that in ignorance I belong to them and not to the superior beings in my shape, whose delicacy I offend! Jo's ideas of a criminal trial, or a judge, or a bishop, or a government, or that inestimable jewel to him (if he only knew it) the Constitution, should be strange! His whole material and immaterial life is wonderfully strange; his death, the strangest thing of all. Bleak House, Chapter XVI, ‘Tom-All-Alone’s'.

Jo as a type of character, and representing specific issues.

Jo is very much a symbolic character. As an orphaned and homeless child, he is the object of sympathy, and a figure of great pathos. Mr Dickens uses him to highlight the poverty under our noses, and to point to present needs at home. Jo, though he does not know it, and is of course not evil himself, symbolizes the evils of poverty and the pervasiveness of its diseases and influence across society.

In Jo the novel urges its central moral point, which lies in exposing the shocking conditions of the poor as well as the deep connectedness of poverty and the impoverished to life as a whole – to bring to light, but also to make sense of, Jo’s existence within a larger web of significance. Rae Greiner, ‘Bleak House: Pastoral,’ in Critical Quarterly, 55:1, 75-93; 86.

In his encounters with characters ranging from Mr Snagsby through to Lady Dedlock, Jo is an innocent who connects different plot elements, bringing people together, or innocently supplying information that enables them to act in different ways.

As an innocent symbol of the evils of poverty, then, Jo is a familiar figure to readers of Mr Dickens’s work.

Jo’s Role in Bleak House.  

But despite these disadvantages, Jo plays an important role in Bleak House, as a connecting figure among the threads of various stories. Jo knows both my parents, for instance: Nemo (Captain Hawdon), the soldier-turned-copywriter and opium addict, who dies in Mr Krook’s apartment building. It is Jo who shows my mother, Lady Honoria Dedlock, to Nemo’s grave, in Tom-All-Alone’s. It is Jo who dimly connects her with me. It is Jo who travels to the country, seeking refuge from his illness, and whom I and Charley Neckett nurse. It is Jo, whom my eventual husband, Allan Woodcourt, eases to a peaceful death in his final illness, and Jo who tells him the story of Lady Dedlock’s visit to the grave of Captain Hawdon.

Even a summary as brief as this shows how important a part Jo, simply as an agent of plot, plays in bringing together certain characters and threads of narrative. But Jo is also the sufferer and the outcast. He not only helps the action by testifying at the inquest on Nemo, acting as a guide to Lady Dedlock, helping Tulkinghorn in his investigations, bringing Mrs Chadband and Guppy together, spreading the disease of Tom-all-Alone’s to Charley Neckett and Esther Summerson, and accidentally giving Allan a hint of Esther’s disfigurement and a clue as to why she severed relations with him; he is also chivvied, victimized, made use of, ignored and abused. …. Jo is a symbol. He is half-starved and crushed to death by an apathetic, irresponsible, acquisitive, self-interested society. He symbolizes Social Victim, and is vitalized by the cross-patterning of theme and social satire. Trevor Blount, ‘Poor Jo, Education, and the Problems of Juvenile Delinquency in Dickens’ Bleak House’ Modern Philology. Vol. 62, No 4 (May, 1965), 325-339, 327.

Jo is therefore a connecting figure in terms of plot, and in terms of expressing the connections among the layers of society.

Jo’s function as a connector amongst the layers of society in the huge city of London seems to be at odds with his homeless and lonely state. As a symbol of neglect and exploitation, however, he is everywhere. When he dies, Mr Dickens points to the reader to think about the many Jos ‘dying all around us every day.’ Jo’s good heart, despite his neglect and misery, his suffering from the ill treatment of hypocritical characters such as the Reverend Mr Chadband, and the parasitic Mr Skimpole, mean that we are firmly on his side. We can tell a great deal about a character from how they treat Jo—I am proud that my dear Allan Woodcourt does his best to ease him into a Christian death, and that my dear guardian, Mr John Jarndyce, offers him sanctuary.  But how sad I am at his death, as an individual, and as a representative of the poor souls who die in penury every day.

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day. Bleak House, Chapter XLVII, ‘Jo’s Will'.
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