Introduction: Themes

Themes and Motifs: Introduction.

As doubtless other literary instructors have advised you, through all literary productions run themes and motifs: moments of repeated preoccupation or resonant images that hold a text together, and reveal ways of thinking about the world or story presented.

Mr Dickens is a writer whose use of themes and ideas seems to be intuitive rather than planned. In what follows, we will consider a few of the themes and motifs of Bleak House. The terms overlap a little: a theme is a preoccupying idea that runs through the novel, while a motif a ‘conspicuous element, such as a type of incident, device, reference, or formula, which occurs frequently in works of literature.’ (M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 169). Themes are therefore more general, while motifs are more specific.


We commence with large themes: Mr Dickens is preoccupied with the idea that there are systems in place in Britain that do not work. In Bleak House, these systems are the political, legal, and charity systems. These systems connect, at the larger level, with social problems, in that they fail to solve those problems. The social problems that are key in Bleak House are poverty and poor sanitation. Overlapping these thematic preoccupations are problems of ideology, which means the different types of beliefs that pervade a society and affect how ordinary people lead their lives. Some examples include ideas about social class, and the relationship between the powerful and the not so powerful. In Bleak House, one good example is that of the role of women in the novel, and in the world.


There are so many motifs to choose from in Bleak House! I focus on two: the handkerchief and the mirror. One is a plot device—the handkerchief that travels from character to character, operating as a symbol of the ways that society is interconnected, and the ways that disease spreads through society. The other, the mirror, is a device that encourages introspection, reflection, and considerations of identity. This last affects me explicitly—as a character whose identity is continually in question, I find myself looking in my mirror for answers.

I am sure you will think of many more themes and motifs in this novel—it is after all so capacious and complex!

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