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Bleak House Week 4: Esther Esther Esther.

I can't focus on anything in this section but Esther's fever dreams and Lady Dedlock's revelation to her.

Esther suddenly falls ill with smallpox. In her feverish state, the things she's tried so hard to repress come forward: 


"While I was very ill, the way in which these divisions of time became confused with one another, distressed my mind exceedingly. At once a child, an elder girl, and the little woman I had been so happy as, I was not only oppressed by cares and difficulties adapted to each station, but by the great perplexity of endlessly trying to reconcile them."

Our awesome narrator has grown up without a mother — without even a mother FIGURE since Miss Barbary and Miss Rachael were such bucket trolls to her — and she instead becomes a mother to everyone around her. This confuses her actual role in life. She never allows herself to go through the adolescent phase -- she suddenly goes from being a child to an older adult (something also suffered by Charley, but she is "saved" by Mr. Jarndyce and Esther).

This situation of Esther's confusing role is not helped by all the people around her who are so eager to fit her into it, calling her Dame Durden and Old Woman. Esther gladly goes along with this and represses all her problems and issues with self-care by caring for others. When this repression is no longer possible due to her body's weakness, the true cataclysmic upheaval of her mind is made clear.

“Dare I hint at that worse time when, strung together somewhere in great black space, there was a flaming necklace, or ring, or starry circle of some kind, of which I was one of the beads! And when my only prayer was to be taken off from the rest, and when it was such inexplicable agony and misery to be a part of the dreadful thing?” 

She speaks also of a staircase in her dreams that she must keep climbing. While there can be multiple interpretations of these (as is the nature of dreams),  one is certainly that barely kept beneath the surface is Esther's constant thought that she should not have been born. It's been remarked that she comments more than seems usual about how loved she is — my opinion there is that she behaves no differently than all insecure people. They comment on how much everyone loves them/how good they are at something/etc because maybe they can make others believe it even if they can't.




The staircase and the flaming ring represent life. And Esther does not wish to take part in it. She is 20-years-old, and the stress of trying to be everything to everyone has taken its toll on her psyche.

All this leads to something that is so distressing for me as a reader. I've held Lady Dedlock as one of my favorite literary characters for so long, and reading Bleak House this time around, I'm finding myself just...frustrated by her. I'm hugely angry with her. I think her actions are near unconscionable, or at the least almost criminally thoughtless.

With “’O my child, my child, I am your wicked and unhappy mother!’”, Esther suddenly gains the mother she has lacked her whole life . She wants to be the child so much — she says it “frightened me to see her at MY feet.” She endeavours to pour out to her mother all of the emotion she has felt for her throughout the years; now, perhaps, she can shed the caretaker role she has used to repress and hide things for so long.

But no. Why should that happen. The moment Esther promises to forgive her mother all and stand by her and love her no matter what, she is rejected. Lady Dedlock maybe means well, but by telling Esther of her existence and then denying her the right to acknowledge their connection or even to see her again, she inflicts much more harm on her daughter’s psyche than good. 


Yeah, you, Dedlock

After telling her of her fears concerning Mr. Tulkinghorn, she leaves and Esther — not yet fully recovered — must not only resume her former position, but now carry her mother’s burden along with that. Rather than Lady Dedlock helping to alleviate her daughter’s pain and psychological stress, she increases it a hundredfold. As Esther walks back with Charley following the encounter, she makes herself think “of every sacred obligation that there was upon me to be careful and collected....I felt as if I knew it would have been better and happier for many people, if indeed I had never breathed."




 Let's also look at the fact that the very very first thing Esther feels when Lady Dedlock reveals herself to be her mother is "a burst of gratitude to the providence of God that I was so changed as that I never could disgrace her by any trace of likeness."

This is a DAMAGED GIRL. It's so easy to overlook that and just see sweet "Oh, you play that quadrille splendidly, Caddy" Esther. Dickens has created a complex heroine who is hugely damaged, and no one in the book quite seems to realize how much. They're carrying on like it's a normal Dickensian novel while Esther comes close to having a psychological breakdown.

Lady Dedlock's reveal to and then immediate abandonment of her daughter is far worse than if Esther had continued to think she was dead. That scene infuriates me now, where before it instilled me with pity for Lady Dedlock. No one can help you? Try trusting people. You wanted to see your daughter after she was sick? Be less selfish and keep yourself out of her life.

Esther has no mother. Esther has no prospect of a mother. All I want is for someone to take the burden off her shoulders, and tell her she is loved for herself — not for what she does, or the role she takes.

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