Bleak House and the art of characterisation
Mrs. Piper, Nemo, Alexander James.
Bleak House makes a drama out of characters who range from baronet to police inspector to road sweeper. Unlike previous novels, there is less caricature and more depth to the people of Bleak House. Harold Skimpole could have a novel to himself. Mr. Tulkinghorn is a unique archetype of sadism. Even Nemo, who is never actually alive in the novel,—he is talked about by other characters,—tells as real and vivid: working through the night, writing in a strange and recognisable style, making opium in a teapot in his empty, grimy room with its single portmanteau.
Bleak House organises the plot around a court case because in the 1850s a court of law was one of the places where everyone, from all levels of society, could be brought together. When Nemo dies, a smaller court convenes—the coroner’s inquest, above a pub. Studying this scene, from chapter eleven, will show us how Dickens creates his characters, from the anonymous background figures through to central figures in the plot.
This coroner’s court, like Cooks’s Court where Nemo lived, is a microcosm, just like the Court of Chancery: this death is a small case within the large case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a microcosm within a microcosm. Jeremy Bentham had proposed a panopticon, a prison where everyone could see each other. In Bleak House the panopticon is covered in fog and smoke “which is the London ivy.”
Dickens used mystery plots to pull the ivy back and see everyone that lived underneath.