Social systems in Bleak House are a major theme of the novel.
Mr Dickens’s work is characterized by a propensity to critique the systems of society of his time. Major social systems in Bleak House that come under scrutiny are: the legal system (as exemplified by Chancery), the political system (as exemplified by Sir Leicester Dedlock and the Boodles), and the system of charity and philanthropy (as exemplified by Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle).
Systems in General.
In general, Mr Dickens regards with some skepticism the institutions that play important roles in British society. Though his writing is so entertaining, it is also full of savage indignation, especially where he perceives injustice, corruption, or systems that have gone awry. In general, Mr Dickens is on the side of the individual, who must make his or her way in the world, and may be affected by those systems in different ways. An individual can be thwarted at every turn by a system, as Mr Dickens felt he was in his dealings with the legal system during his attempts to control copyright of his writing.
He also turned his fury against the pirates, in particular a firm positively flaunting the name of Lee and Haddock, who had brought out a version of A Christmas Carol. . . .He took them to court, and received judgement against them. … But Lee and Haddock declared themselves bankrupt, and Dickens found himself mired in a chancery suit from which he could not get out without dropping all charges, which he did. It cost him £700, which he had to write off. …. This is a fine example of the way in which Dickens is us: he too is baffled and foiled by the law. He, unlike the rest of us, then goes on to write Bleak House. Simon Callow, Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. London: Vintage, 2012, p. 144.
(I think of my dear Richard Carstone here!) Many minor characters in Mr Dickens’s novels choose to become part of the system, losing their individuality as they identify increasingly closely with the system they are a part of. (I think of the Mr Vholes, and Mr Tulkinghorn, men so associated with the professional pursuit of the law that they forget to do what is right.)
Chancery and the Legal System.
As I have already mentioned, Chancery is Mr Dickens’s name for the law system that has its centre in Westminster, in the City of London. But we are concerned here with what it represents as a system. Mr Dickens uses the image of fog to indicate his opinion—it is a system that is opaque and impenetrable. It is a place where one cannot see what is happening, and where that darkness, that fogginess, indicates that the system seems designed to delay, rather than to reach, any decision.
The systems in Bleak House, like Chancery, seem to prevent action rather than to help things happen. Mr Dickens uses images of wastage, stasis, and delay to indicate the problems. The system of law, like Mr Vholes, seems to exist only to support itself, rather than to solve problems. The judges involved, the lawyers, the clerks, all play their part, and do their jobs, but the system prevents them from ever being effective, and ever resolving a case. (I am sure that Mr Dickens’s view is a little extreme, but one can understand his frustrations!)
It makes sense to talk of Bleak House, not as the tragic story of Lady Dedlock and her illegitimate daughter, but as a crushing indictment of the failure of Law to observe the human need for justice. Philip Hobsbawn, A Reader’s Guide to Charles Dickens, London: Thames and Hudson, 1972, 150.
As you know, I have witnessed the delays and frustrations of the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce lawsuit, where a missing document (eventually found in the litter of Mr Krook’s Rag and Bottle Warehouse) finally solves a case after generations of inaction and circumlocution. It is my opinion that had that document not been found, Jarndyce vs Jarndyce would have outlasted Chancery itself! (A pity that it was too late for my poor dear Richard.)
Parliament and the Political System.
What hope does Chancery have of being effective, when Parliament is also so ineffective? Though Sir Leicester Dedlock appears to have some amiable characteristics (his love of my mother being one of them), he and his fellow Lords preside over a parliamentary system that prevents change and development in the country. In the years prior to Bleak House, the vote was extended to include men who owned property, but this was only a very small proportion of the population of Britain. Between 1832 and 1848, a movement called Chartism, sought to extend the vote to all working men. Mr Dickens is clearly aware of this movement, and sympathetic, especially because of the privileged inaction of Parliament. Though Sir Leicester is not a bad man, his assumptions of privilege and his desire to retain the status quo, make him a poor leader when there is great need for social change.
Philanthropy and the Charity System.
There is no organized social welfare in the days of Bleak House, but Mr Dickens is one of many writers who thinks that something needs to be done about the state in which the poor are living. The piecemeal and unfocused way in which others go about trying to make things better, however, is of concern. In the figure of Mrs Jellyby, who performs what I think of as ‘telescopic philanthropy,’ we see charity that is focused too far away, on the far reaches of the British Empire. Mrs Jellyby ignores the suffering that occurs under her nose, in the streets of London, but more importantly, she neglects her family for her cause. Similarly, Mrs Pardiggle offers a type of intrusive charity, whereby she tells the poor how to live, without offering useful assistance. Mr Dickens favours the approach that I, and my husband, and Mr Jarndyce take, of offering assistance that is needed, and in individual cases. But obviously much more needs to happen, and in (ironically) a more systematic way!