Esther and the Detectives

Andrei Baltakmens
Dept of English
University of Canterbury
Christchurch, New Zealand

Deep South v.2. n.3. (Spring 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by Andrei Baltakmens

Letters, wills, instructions, notes, affidavits, bills, submissions: Bleak House is obsessed with the problem of written evidence. Thus, the novel's contests are about documents - the Jarndyce will, the Hawdon letters - and the discovery of each new document raises the hope of some sort of definitive corroboration, as in the comparison of hand-writings by which Nemo's true identity affirmed. But behind this is the fear that documentation will eventually obscure the objects that it was meant to represent: in short, that the condition of Chancery will obtain. Marked by this impulse and this fear, what, then are we to make of the novel's two-fold narrative? Is it possible to see these two accounts in some way meeting with, confirming, and formally elaborating each other? In this novel of mysteries of connection, we must question the nature of the connection between Esther and her unknown, demi-omniscient counterpart whose authority is similar to that of the police detective, Bucket - the mystery of Esther and the detectives.

Someone called Esther Summerson, and another that I shall call the recorder, since both he and Esther are narrators, share the pages of Bleak House. Their differences are immediately apparent. Esther is fussy, domestic, coy, less linguistically skilled, fundamentally personal, as opposed to the remote, impersonal recorder. Esther's world is orientated towards people: it is relationships that both concern and define Esther. Where Esther represents affection and emotional warmth in the novel, the narrator is not without personality. Though the third person point of view detaches the traditionally "masculine" recorder from the other characters in the novel he is, by turns, angry, sardonic, contemplative or melancholy, possessed of a range of moods and emotions. More subtle and intriguing, then, are the differences in their modes of apprehension and their degrees of knowledge.

Both Esther and the narrator know, and come to know, in disparate ways. Esther is the more limited. Her domain is that of lived experience, direct, human learning. Most alarmingly, she is also often averse to inquiry, a passive learner who is content to let others, such as John Jarndyce, dole out information to her when and as they please. Esther is not naturally incurious; there is always an inward, psychological desire to know, as evidenced by the fact that, as she tells us, she almost always dreams of her godmother's house, a place that is connected in her thoughts with "shadowy speculations" of her "earliest history" (p.131). But in a novel of active detectives, Esther is a poor investigator.

In as much as Esther suppresses knowledge, she is also an unreliable informer. Frequently her description of others, especially the novel's hypocrites, parasites and incompetents, are couched in avowals of ignorance and confusion. Her observations are also framed in a form of irony that is often very close to false modesty, as when she observes Mr Turveydrop bestow his blessing on Caddy: "The benignity as he raised his future daughter-in-law and stretched out his hand to his son (who kissed it with affectionate respect and gratitude), was the most confusing sight I ever saw" (p.382). In her modesty, by which Esther both denigrates herself and seems, covertly, to draw attention to her own value, Esther is at her most cloying:

"when some cried, 'Esther, dear, say good-bye to me here, at my bedside, where you first spoke so kindly to me!' and when others asked me only to write their names, 'With Esther's love;' and when they all surrounded me with their parting presents, and clung to me weeping, and cried, 'What shall we do when dear, dear Esther's gone!' and when I tried to tell them how forbearing, and how good they had all been to me, and how I blessed, and thanked them everyone; what a heart I had!" (p.75). Esther thus insists that she is universally praised without cause, but relates this praise at length.

Esther's defenders (such as Alex Zwerdling, A.E Dyson and Anny Sadrin) have long noted that the psychology of this is coherent and believable. For Esther, carrying the guilt of her very genesis, is "'set apart'" (p.65), never entirely willing to believe that the love and respect due to her as a human being is a right, but rather something that must be constantly worked for and reinforced, and so she is compelled to offer up these tokens to the reader as proofs of the position that should automatically be hers. Esther's ever-present lack of certainty about her own worth implies that her narrative unreliability stems, fundamentally, from her lack of knowledge of herself.

It is this self-knowledge, posed in the problem of origins, that this unreliable narrative moves towards. Esther uncovers the identity of her mother, thus approaching the origin of her sense of disgrace and difference. Yet the more Esther knows, the more dangerous knowledge is to both Esther and her mother, the more knowledge is both to be sought after and resisted, affirmed and denied. We see these contradictions when Esther encounters Lady Dedlock after her illness and the connection between them is recognised. This leads to Esther's crisis of alienation:

"when my echoing footsteps brought it suddenly into my mind that there was a dreadful truth in the legend of the Ghost's Walk; that it was I, who was to bring calamity upon the stately house; and that my warning feet were haunting it even then. Seized with an augmented terror of myself that turned me cold, I ran from myself and everything..." (p.571).

Closest to discovering herself, Esther rediscovers how profoundly she is set apart by fear and guilt. Her only option is to flee from herself. There is consequently a reversion, as Esther swings across the axes of guilt and innocence: "I knew I was as innocent of my birth as a queen of hers; and that before my Heavenly Father I should not be punished for birth, nor a queen rewarded for it" (p.571). The text however, will revert once more to the iteration of Esther's search for and discovery of her mother, and it is here that Esther's developing narrative closes with that of the detectives.

Esther does develop her talents as a narrator through the novel. This is evident, firstly, in her growing consciousness of the temporality of her narrative position. Telling the story retrospectively, she is carefully arranging events in the proper sequence, fending off premature revelations, concealing and doling out information. The sophisticated symbolism of Esther's portrayal of Rick being driven on a hearse into the gathering darkness of a sunset by the vampiric lawyer Vholes (p.591), anticipates his eventual wasting and death in Chancery. This shows Esther's growing artistic command of narrative structure, but the narrative must still navigate the complex torsion between Esther and the detective narrative that infiltrates hers.

Much of the detective narrative lies outside of Esther's narrative, in the domain of the recorder, whose power over space constrained within a present-tense matrix makes him an exemplary field of observation who presents clues for decoding by the reader. From the opening, in which events and persons seem so dissociated that there is no difference between "a little mad old woman in a squeezed bonnet" - Miss Flite, of course - and "another ruined suitor, who periodically appears from Shropshire" - Gridley - and "a sallow prisoner" (p.51) who will never reappear in the text, the recorder gradually presents, sifts, focuses, and develops the evidentiary structure of the novel. Everything that seem dislocated in the beginning gradually comes to assume significance.

Though Esther is committed to both temporal order and her location in space, the recorder is free, within certain limits, in both dimensions. The present-tense position of the recorder allows the him to manipulate time within certain bounds; thus, in the first few pages of the second chapter the recorder is able to present Lady Dedlock in Paris, her place in town, and Chesney Wold almost simultaneously. Yet because the recorder's simultaneity means that no instant in time can be shown as distinct from any other instant (they are all aspects of now) the recorder is strangely limited in time, able to present the present in all its detail, but only vaguely conscious of sequence, and unable to know the future in the way that Esther, who is telling her story from the future, does have knowledge of forthcoming events[1]. Instead, the recorder emphasizes his command over dimensions in space, as he is able to follow the flight of a crow: "Mr Snagsby standing at his shop-door looking up at the clouds, sees a crow who is out late, skim westward over the slice of sky belonging to Cook's Court. The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln's Inn Garden, into Lincoln's Inn Fields" (p.182). Omniscient in space, yet constrained in time, the recorder at first resembles the fashionable intelligence, "which, like the fiend, is omniscient of the past and present, but not the future - " (p.57). This fiend represents another iteration of what Audrey Jaffe calls Dickens's Asmodean fantasy [2], the legitimized fictional power to observe the private workings of society without regard to spatial limitation.

In its power to invade the domestic and reveal the secrets contained there, we might associate the Asmodean fantasy with mystery. But, invasive knowledge of households is the domain of Tulkinghorn, whose ambiguous powers reside in his mastery of secrets.

"He is surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences; of which he is known to be the silent depository. There are noble Mausoleums rooted for the centuries in retired glades of parks... which perhaps hold fewer noble secrets that walk abroad among men, shut up in the breast of Mr Tulkinghorn" (p.58).

Mr Tulkinghorn is a Chancery lawyer. It is as his agent that we first encounter Inspector Bucket, materialising like the fiend of the fashionable intelligence itself:

"Mr Snagsby is dismayed to see, standing with an attentive face between himself and the lawyer, at a little distance from the table, a person with a hat and stick in his hand, who was not there when he came in, and has not entered by the door or by either of the windows" (p.361).

Bucket is always marked by his association with Tulkinghorn and the legalistic devices of Chancery. For the police force, and the problematic of knowledge, is, like mystery itself, bound up in the expression of fear, a tension between the invasive processes of knowledge and urban control, and the integrity of the individual.

Bucket, like his police officers, exerts mastery over the urban domain, a domain that in the nineteenth century was both entirely new and a locus of complex fears. The London projected and fictionalised by Bleak House is a London "in Chancery", represented through Chancery properties like Tom-All-Alone's that are depicted as frightening and inexplicable suburban hells populated by sub-human vermin. Just as the mystery of an urban enclosure demands the control of Bucket and his police officers, the mastery that they assert and the facts that they command formulate unease in the middle-class subject who comes to perceive them. Yet despite Bucket's implication in Tulkinghorn's system of secrets and repression, and the role of the police force as agents of the court of Chancery, the two develop a kind of logic of interpretation that moves apart, for whereas Tulkinghorn ends up murdered and entirely silenced, Bucket assumes a wider and wider control over the text.

Jo's terrified avowal of Mr Bucket that, "He's in all manner of places, all at wunst" (p.690), aligns Bucket with the recording voice, since it identifies his control over space and his singularity in time. And thus there are Bucket's demonic powers, his hypnotic finger, his near immanence: "Time and place cannot bind Mr Bucket. Like man in the abstract, he is here today and gone tomorrow - but, very unlike man indeed, he is here again the next day" (p.769). Steadily, Bucket approaches identification with the voice of the recorder as his command over the mystery extends until the point where his case, which is almost identical to the denouement of the novel, is complete. At his triumph, Hortense calls him "'a Devil'" (p.795). And so he ascends:

"There, he mounts a high tower in his mind, and looks out far and wide. Many solitary figures he perceives, creeping through the streets; many solitary figures out on heaths, and roads, and lying under haystacks. But the figure he seeks is not among them, Other solitaries he perceives in nooks of bridges, looking over; and in shadowed places down by the river's level; and a dark, dark shapeless object drifting with the tide, more solitary than all, clings with a drowning hold on his attention" (p.824).

Here, Bucket's breadth of vision, his mastery of the urban scene, the rivers and bridges, his knowledge of all figures moving within them, equates him with the recorder; but his moment of triumph is also his failure. The one object that he seeks, despite the comprehensiveness of his vision, is invisible to him. Bucket therefore turns to Esther, and the two modes of narrative achieve fusion.

Naturally it is Bucket who draws out Esther, who exercises his superior knowledge to engage her in the crisis, but Bucket's role has already altered. After the death of Tulkinghorn he is more and more an independent agent who asserts his will-to-knowledge in a manner that is profoundly different from the lawyer's. As he assures Sir Leicester: "let me beg you not to trouble your mind, for a moment, as to anything having come to my knowledge. I know so much about so many characters, high and low, that a piece of information, more or less, don't signify a straw" (p.782). Thereafter Bucket solves the Tulkinghorn murder. Observing Hortense's letter-writing, taking back the letters, even matching the wadding from the pistol shot, Bucket takes control of the text and its scattered clues, collating them and presenting an intelligible whole. Despite his powers, though, he is not able to contain the crisis. Lady Dedlock is forewarned and flees.

Thereafter, Bucket's goal is entirely different, for rather than being charged with the legalistic duties of detection, proof and arrest, his is a mission of compassion. His interpretative powers are turned to the incomplete text of Sir Leicester's instructions: "Sir Leicester writes upon the slate. 'Full forgiveness. Find - '" (p.820). This message transcends the guilt-ascribing function of the law and Chancery, and for the first time it may be that the doctrine of forgiveness rather than judgement can offer a counter-weight to the inert mass of the institution. Once the detective has stepped outside of his institutional role, his powers and his authority are no longer equal to the task. He needs Esther, as it is only her unique subjective presence that will allow him to complete his mission of redemption:

"If I follow her alone, she, being in ignorance of what Sir Leicester Dedlock, baronet, has communicated to me, may be driven to desperation. But if I follow her in the company of a young lady that she has a tenderness for - I ask no questions, and I say no more than that she will give me credit for being friendly" (p.823).

The detective voice can only communicate its message in the company of the personal, and so the narrative is delivered over to Esther.

Esther, like Snagsby before her, must undergo her descent into the underworld of the urban scene. Her journey with Inspector Bucket is her immersion in urban mystery, in those fearful enclosures that are primarily represented in the novel by Tom-all-Alone's, but are ubiquitously the scene of the repressed, the secretive, the unutterable. Thus, Esther's experiences are oblique, expressed in terms of the labyrinth and a series of discrete, dreamlike impressions:

"I was far from sure that I was not in a dream. We rattled with great rapidity through such a labyrinth of streets, that I soon lost all idea where we were; except that we had crossed and re-crossed the river, and still seemed to be traversing a low-lying, waterside, dense neighbourhood of narrow thoroughfares, chequered by docks and basins, high piles of warehouses, swing-bridges, and masts of ships" (p.827).

It is in this dreamlike scene that the terror of guilt, shame and the dissolution of the self finds expression in the bill: "'FOUND DROWNED'" (p.827), which evidences not only Esther's fear for her mother but the corrosive blurring of objects in the opening of the novel. The London that Esther sees is the London of urban mystery, oppressive, dreamlike, indistinct: "The river had a fearful look, so overcast and secret, creeping away so fast between the low flat lines of shore: so heavy with indistinct and awful shapes, both of substance and shadow: so death-like and mysterious" (p.828). The mystery of Chancery has here formally connected, through the images of shadows, fog and obscurity, with Esther's quest.

In questing for her mother, in replaying the investigatory process, the narrative gropes towards resolution. This burst of detective activity suggests that Esther is finally drawn towards some definitive confrontation between herself, her repressed self, and the mother. Esther's narrative is taut and powerful, without her usual obliquity. Esther is able to show her inner strength and persistence; she is patient and remarkably enduring. As Bucket observes: "'I never see a young woman in any station of society - and I've seen many elevated ones too conduct herself like you have conducted yourself, since you was called out of your bed. You're a pattern, you know" (p.857). And for the first time, Esther must take the initiative. She acts the detective with the brickmakers' wives, pressing them with questions. She finally implicates herself, takes responsibility for the connection, even to the point of berating Bucket: "'You will not desert this lady we are in search of; you will not abandon her on such a night, and in such a state of mind as I know her to be in!'" (p.841). Esther has become her own detective as the narrative moves towards connection with the mother, and this act of discovery is her moment of maturity.

The narrative, after the delay of the false trail, gravitates towards its centre: the graveyard that is the final locus of dissolution, the true heart of the fog where all things tend towards death. For Esther, both the physical and the psychological seem to lose their definition, for this is the point of maximum crisis, where all things become inherently mysterious because objects and impressions are no longer divisible:

"I have the most confused impression of that walk. I recollect that it was neither night nor day; that morning was dawning, but the street-lamps were not yet put out; that the sleet was still falling, and that all the streets were deep with it.... I recollect the wet house-tops, the clogged and bursting gutters and water-spouts, the narrowness of the courts by which we went. At the same time I remember... that the stained house-fronts put on human shapes and looked at me; that great water gates seemed to be opening and closing in my head, or in the air; and that unreal things were more substantial than the real" (p.867).

This breaking and confusion of categories is, however, different from the static waters lying in flood around Chesney Wold (p.56), and the thaw, the opening of water gates in Esther's mind, contradicts the "freezing mood" (p.57) of Lady Dedlock, for the catastrophe is also potentially a transformation.

That transformation is never to be entirely realized. Bucket, for all his mastery, has come too late. Esther has come too late. As Esther sees Lady Dedlock lying in the mud, she sees, through an analogous dissociation which is similar to every other connection which proliferates through the novel, "the mother of the dead child" (p.868). In this phrase Esther recognizes the complex of the mother of the child, herself, who had been better not born, and at the same time allows the guilty mother to die in order to requite the sins of the guiltless child. Thus Esther moves to the woman she convinces herself is Jenny still searching for a clue, a further point of intercession with the mystery: "She lay there, who had so lately spoken to my mother.... She who had brought my mother's letter, who could give me the only clue to where my mother was; she, who was to guide us to rescue and save her" (p.868). The mystery will not be solved; there will be no final confession from Lady Dedlock that will explain the crimes of an irremediable past. Bucket and Esther have located the mother on the edge of the gate, on the threshold of the irrecoverable loss of all meaning, but the solution is here circumscribed. Neither they, nor narrative, can pursue the mystery any further.

Bucket and Esther, though able to briefly unify the novel's modes of perception, to bring the institutional and the personal into complementary rather than supplementary relationship, do not definitively succeed, but find that mystery dissipates even as they approach closest to it. Thereafter, Bucket is able to retrieve the final will in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and Esther is permitted, perilously, to imagine that the suit may eventually end well. But Jarndyce and Jarndyce will exhaust itself, making the last will irrelevant, the papers in the suit will be thrown into the street, finally equated with the mud, and Esther's new world can only begin in the aftermath of the death of Richard Carstone.

Marianna Torgovnick, among others, finds a resurgence of the old Esther's immature style in the last chapters, in what she calls Esther's "sentimental performance" (53). It is true that Esther wins exculpation but is denied ultimate self-realization, and that in the last few pages of the novel we glimpse an Esther who is virtually as cloying as her former self. She will always be fundamentally dependent on others for her own sense of self-worth. But as the novel progresses, Esther is not always coy about her own desires, merely subtle. At the height of her search for her mother, she reaches sincerely for Allan. "'Don't leave me now!'" (p.897) she cries, and in this dream-quest, the slightest impulse is definitive. Earlier, the only time Esther's narrative has ever shifted from herself has been to narrate Woodcourt's visit to Richard - this is a telling hint at intimate insight, if we could read it. Esther has always narrated her self obliquely, inviting us, like John Jarndyce, to know her better than she knows herself. Her last utterance hovers on this same coyness, this half-realised knowledge:

"I did not know that; I am not certain I know it now. But I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent face that was ever seen; and that they can very well do without much beauty in me - even supposing -".

Breaking off, Esther delays discovery, terminating Bleak House in eternal supposition. This ambiguous narrative gesture is suggestive in terms of the novel's fascination with issues of secrecy and knowledge. Ultimately, the reader cannot know whether Esther has regained her former looks, or merely demures to the flattery of a loving family. She keeps a truth from the reader, retaining a little fragment of a secret which goes directly to the complex clue of her appearance. For Esther, this is a kind of self possession, since she exercises here a knowledge and mastery over this mystery, the secret of her appearance, holding in potentiality an unknown, ending with an enigmatic symbol that asserts her own control over narrative and subjectivity. Esther is Esther to herself; scarred or otherwise, it is not for us to know.

Bleak House, in its obsessive searches for letters, wills, written proof, foregrounds the problems of interpretation, evidence and documentation, forcing us to inquire into the relationship between its paired modes of narration. Esther, in the domain of lived, retrospective experience, narrates the story of her quest for the mother, and for her originating sense of guilt, gaining authority and knowledge as a writer. Similarly, the voice of the recorder, singular in time but unlimited in space, develops out of the incoherence of the text a legible evidentiary framework. This development is apparent in the gradual separation of the police voice of Inspector Bucket from the mechanisms of Chancery and the Chancery lawyer, Tulkinghorn, even though the urban mystery they confront will always generate a powerful sense of unease. Both modes of narration, however, ultimately confront their limitations. Even Bucket's near omniscient vision is not enough to complete his mission without Esther, and so in the chapters where both characters are seen acting together, their joined quest is a metaphor for the internal synthesis of the novel's modes of reading. In this quest, we see Esther at her most mature and self-assertive. This synthesis is limited in its success when confronted by the novel's ultimate, ineluctable mysteries - the death of Lady Dedlock represents the limits of human knowledge. Neither Bucket nor Esther can be said to fully solve the mysteries that surround them. This is not to say that a measure of coherence cannot be won from this disturbing and chaotic work. The productive cooperation between Bucket and Esther, the institutional and personal, illustrates the possibilities of the imagination and reason, the affirmation of the struggles of narrative process. Thus, despite her resumption of a sentimental mode, Esther's final enigmatic gesture is a suitable end to Dickens's most mysterious novel.


[1] I am aware that the recorder takes up a semi-prophetic stance in his warnings of "Spontaneous Combustion" (512), or preaching over the death-bed of Jo: "dying thus around us every day" (705), but the warning or prediction is discernible only as a causal inference, not, properly speaking, as foreknowledge. [2] Jaffe writes: ":Asmodeus [a demon], who could fly above houses yet remain invisible to their inhabitants, was Dicken's model for the 'semi-omniscient' (his phrase) presence behind Household Words, and persists, as narratorial model, throughout Dicken's work". Audrey Jaffe, "Omniscience in Our Mutual Friend. Journal of Narrative technique17-1 (1987) p. 95

Works Cited and Consulted

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot. New York: Knopf, 1984

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Penguin Classics, 1985

Dyson, A.E. "Esther: Better not Born?" The Inimitable Dickens. London: Macmillan, 1970.

Jaffe, Audrey. "Omniscience in Our Mutual Friend Journal of Narrative Technique. 17-1 (1987): pp 91-101.

Miller, D.A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Miller, Hillis J. Charles Dickens: The World of his Novels. Cambridge Ma.:Harvard, 1958.

Sadrin, Annie. "Charlotte Dickens: The Female Narrator of Bleak House". Dickens Quarterly 9-2 (June, 1992): pp 47-57. Torgovnick, Marianna. Closure in the Novel. Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1981.

Zwerdling, Alex. "Esther Summerson Rehabilitated". PMLA 88 (1973): pp 429-39.

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