Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Bleak House--A Character Analysis

Recently I found some papers I wrote some time ago, and thought I would share here.  

Dickens Novels--Bleak House
The Amoral Childhood of Harold Skimpole

Harold Skimpole is one of the eccentric strays of John Jarndyce's establishment in Bleak House. Like Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle, he is a beneficiary of Jarndyce's charity; even more, Jarndyce seems to have great personal affection for him. He not only accepts, but seems to admire) Skimpole's self-proclaimed innocence;

He is grown up--he is at least as old as I am--but in simplicity, and freshness, and enthusiasm, and a fine guileless inaptitude for all worldly affairs; he is a perfect child. (Riverside 51)

Esther Summerhill, however, like the reader, comes to suspect that Skimpole's naiveté is merely a screen for his amoral nature. When Skimpole first appears, Jarndyce introduces him as "a mere child," and at first he seems as charming and attractive as a well-mannered, well-educated child can be. He plays the piano, sings, makes fancy-sketches, even composes a little music. He values good food, good wine, and good conversation. His first encounter with "Coavinses" is humorous, as he endeavors to demonstrate that he ought not to be held accountable if his means don't allow him to carry out his good intentions: "Not having the means to pay his bills, he substituted the will for the deed" (156).

When he describes his inability to hold down a job as personal physician to a German Prince, one can't help smiling at the word-picture Skimpole paints.

...when he was wanted to bleed the prince, or physic any of his people, he was generally found lying on his back, in bed reading the newspapers, or making fancy-sketches ...and couldn't come. (53)

He speaks with brilliance and humor of his adventures, but with a certain detachment, as if he were speaking of someone else. He makes clear to us and to Esther that he is completely free of the "duties and accountabilities of life" which circumscribe Esther's existence, but he never makes clear how this state of affairs has come to be.

Skimpole goes through life depending on the generosity of others to solve his problems. He doesn't hesitate for a moment to take advantage of Esther's generous nature, allowing her to give up her hard-earned and pitifully small life savings to prevent his arrest. He doesn't even has the grace to be thankful, but attempts to demonstrate that it is he who has conferred the favor:

I don't feel any vulgar gratitude to you. I almost feel as if you ought to be grateful to me for giving you the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of generosity. (54)

He repeats this idea when visiting Neckitt's orphaned children, rejoicing that he has enabled Neckitt to "bring up these charming children in this agreeable way, developing these social virtues!" (165). Indeed, it is the idea that Skimpole has not brought up his own children properly, that they have had to tumble up on their own somehow, that prompts Jarndyce to indicate some slight uneasiness about the effects of Skimpole's behavior on others. And when this man-child is juxtaposed with real children, our patience begins to wear quite thin.

When poor Jo is discovered, too weak and sick to travel, Skimpole's cool indifference to his plight is truly objectionable:

You had better turn him out....He's not safe, you know.... Give him sixpence, or five shillings, or five pound ten--and get rid of him!(330)

It is one thing to fail to respond to a wealthy German prince, who has other avenues to pursue for assistance, and may be treated humorously. But the cool, callous manner in which he refuses to assist the helpless Jo is revolting. Esther comments, "The amiable face with which he said it, I think I shall never forget" (331). Esther seems quite prepared, later, to believe without hesitation that Skimpole not only accepts money from Richard, who has nearly exhausted his funds, but has accepted a bribe to introduce Richard to the human bloodsucker Vhole.

The curious thing is Jarndyce's reluctance to see Skimpole for what he is. Even when kind-hearted Esther has given up any attempt to justify or overlook Skimpole's lack of morality, Jarndyce continues to speak of him with kindness and admiration. Ada finally asks the question that has been in the reader's mind for so long: "What made him such a child?"

...he is all sentiment, and --and sensibility---and ---and imagination. And these qualities are not regulated in him, somehow. (405)

Despite our clear understanding of Skimpole's character, Jarndyce clings to his belief that "there is nothing mercenary...with him. He has no idea of the value of money." (406)

In the end, Skimpole stands revealed by his own words: ""I have no common sense...I am not at all respectable, and I don't want to be" (403). He is a butterfly, bright and gay, flitting from flower to flower, enjoying the beauty and color, taking what he needs, but contributing nothing. For John Jarndyce, apparently, Skimpole's good qualities are sufficient, but Esther, and the reader, can't help remembering his lack of sympathy, genuine good will and generosity. For them, the wind remains in the east.

1 comment:

Linda said...

Jan... this is just fantastic and I'm so glad you posted it. I feel like I got to know you better by reading your words here.

It's interesting that there simply isn't any true confession or apology. Was Stympole what we would call a narcist today? Moving from flower to flower and taking as desired? Reading that makes me uneasy... such good writing!

Refresh my memory... Did you write reviews professionally? This reads like something I would see in a magazine.

Just awesome, Jan. Thanks for sharing this! ; )