Jarndyce’s Sexual Ambiguity and the Renewal of Dickens’ Bleak House
In Bleak House, Charles Dickens places great emphasis on the necessity of order in the household. The harmonious Bagnet family stands as a prime demonstration of an ideal Victorian family. Matthew, a former military man, maintains strict order while still engaging in a traditional relationship with his wife. In reference to the respect of his wife and family he states,
The time will come, my boy…when this hair of your mother’s will be grey, and this forehead all crossed and re-crossed with wrinkles—and a fine old lady she’ll be then. Take care, while you are young, that you can think in those days, ‘I never whitened a hair of her dear head, I never marked a sorrowful line in her face!’ For of all the many things you can think of when you are a man, you had better have that by you, Woolwich! (554)
Dickens means for the reader to understand that the advice Matthew instills in his son and the tenderness he displays for his wife are ideal in Victorian society for the male head of the household. Having a secure wife, respectful children, and order are all crucial to the Victorian man. Specifically, in reference to his wife, Bagnet confesses: “Think as high of the old girl—as the rock of Gibraltar—and still you’ll be thinking low—of such merits. But I never own it before her. Discipline must be maintained” (544). Bagnet thinks so highly of his wife and gets along with her so well that she even speaks for him in public, but he, being masculine, does not doubt his affection for her nor does he expect she to him. Therefore, he does not need to “own it before her,” and by being a true patriarch he maintains discipline in his household.
Dickens further comments on the importance of the man in the household through the Badgers. Mr. Badger openly embraces Mrs. Badgers having two former husbands because they are commendable examples of masculinity. He states that they are “Most remarkable men!…Captain Swosser of the Royal Navy, who was Mrs. Badger’s first husband, was a very distinguished officer indeed. The name of Professor Dingo, my immediate predecessor, is one of European reputation” (205). Bagnet brags of the former men in his wife’s life because he understands the necessity of fulfilling the masculine role. Dickens’ emphasis on the home brings the role of the man and the ability to perform masculinity to the forefront of the novel. A man’s full investment in his family and wife largely depends on his satisfaction with his part in heterosexual relationship and role as a responsible father.
John Jarndyce challenges the role of masculinity and maintaining order in the household. Though he is a bachelor, he still must act as a father for his wards, Ada, Richard, and essentially Esther Summerson. According to John Tosh in A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Vicotiran England, “Domesticated husbands and supportive wives…become central to the self-image of the Victorians” (54). Without a wife, “anxieties, disappointments, and shocks” arise, resulting in crises of masculinity (Lane). In regard to John Jarndyce, we have to consider his success as a man by evaluating his ability to maintain order in the household. To keep order in the home means controlling female sexuality and ensuring the success of male children. In addition, regardless of the “web of relationships they found themselves in,” men also have to fulfill their “sense of what was right and proper for themselves as men” (Tosh 1). Jarndyce struggles with the aforementioned duties, so we can assume that he also becomes hesitant when he assesses what desires he truly believes proper for him as a man.
Dickens’ emphasis on the maintenance of order in the home and the crucial role a man plays in it brings us to question John Jarndyce and his ability to perform masculinity and even heterosexuality. Primarily, his tumultuous role as a father results from his failing to ensure Richard’s success, and therefore makes him responsible for Rick’s tragic death to a certain degree. Because he remains unmarried and surrenders his fiancé to the most elevated example of masculinity in the text, Alan Woodcourt, we have to question his role as a counterpart in a heterosexual relationship. Questions should also arise when we consider his choices of male companions: Lawrence Boythorn and Harold Skimpole. Christopher Lane states in The Burdens of Intimacy: Psychoanalysis and Victorian Masculinity, that “men experience homoerotic desires through their mutual inability to fulfill the masculine ideal expected of them,” such as their role as husband or father (36). Boythorn, a bachelor, and Skimpole, a perfectly idle man and failure as a father and husband, both share intimate friendships with Jarndyce at specific places in the text. John Jarndyce’s sexual ambiguity and inability to perform the masculine role result in the tragedy of Richard and the near tragedy of Esther. Once he realizes the danger of his ambiguity, he abandons the attempt to fit the mould of a model patriarch to remain ambiguous and allow Bleak House to be renewed through the true representation of masculinity: Alan Woodcourt.
Jarndyce’s neglect of his responsibility to ensure the success of Richard reflects his sterility as a father and casts a negative light on his performance as a masculine figure. After failing to gain skill as an apprentice in medicine, Richard ponders a career in law and for the time being, and thinks highly of Jarndyce, saying “he is the finest fellow in the world, Esther! I must be particularly careful, if it were only for his satisfaction, to take myself well to task, and have a regular wind-up of this business now” (281). Early on in Rick’s trials, he respects Jarndyce as a father figure and wishes to succeed for both he and his part. The relationship seems secure until Richard expresses his desire to pursue the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, something John himself prefers to remain clear of and does not respect Richard’s decision to do otherwise. In fact, Jarndyce becomes terrified at Richard’s ambitions, speaking out as following: “For the love of God, don’t found a hope or expectation on the family curse! Whatever you do on this side the grave, never give one lingering glance towards the horrible phantom that has haunted us so many years” (389). The estrangement between father and ward grows when Jarndyce strongly advises the termination of Rick and Ada’s engagement. From this point forward, Richard continues to be pulled further and further into the vortex of the poisonous case, falling faster and faster toward ruin while John remains idle.
Jarndyce’s idleness and inability to control Richard’s success undoubtedly leads to his death, placing the responsibility in Jarndyce’s hands, even though Woodcourt attempts to correct him. Jarndyce tells Esther: “Richard mistrusts and suspects me—goes to lawyers, and is taught to mistrust and suspect me…But again, I say, with all my soul, we must be patient with poor Rick, and not blame him” (559-60). After he expresses his acknowledgment of Rick’s distrust and downward spiral, Esther picks up on Jarndyce’s idleness and therefore resolves to take matters into her own hands and “by some means, to see Richard when [she] grew strong, and try to set him right” since Jarndyce has been unsuccessful from the beginning (561). Even Miss Flite sees the need for Richard’s restraint, having seen the end of many men who were involved in Chancery. She warns, “Let some one hold him back. Or he’ll be drawn to ruin” (567). The person that needs to hold him back would be the father figure, but Jarndyce remains idle throughout Rick’s turmoil. Because of his lack of control over the success of his ward, Richard announces to Esther that he is “not accountable” to Jarndyce (592). Richard’s abandonment of faith and trust in Jarndyce reveals the break that has ensued in the father-son relationship. Earlier in the novel, as mentioned earlier, Richard wished to succeed on behalf of Jarndyce and the fulfillment of their relationship. Now, he wishes no such thing as he devotes his life to the case. The true man who must step in and assist Richard, then, is Alan Woodcourt, who embodies the masculine role and pines for Esther. As a successful surgeon responsible for the wellness of numerous characters in the novel, he reigns supreme as caregiver and selfless love. In regard to Rick, he promises, “Before heaven, I will be a true friend to him! I will accept him as a trust, and it shall be a sacred one!” (707). Dickens has Woodcourt step in as the father figure to contrast Jarndyce’s failure with Richard and ultimately his failure to perform the masculine role. Alan’s help comes too late, and before Richard dies Esther laments, “There is a ruin of youth which is not like age; and into such a ruin, Richard’s youth and youthful beauty had all fallen away” (926). Richard’s youth leaving him refers of course to his life and also to his early belief in Jarndyce, which has deteriorated.
John Jarndyce not only fails as a father, but he also shows little to no interest in being successful at the role of husband; instead, he takes up intimate friendships with men who also fail to fulfill the masculine role. If we recall Christopher Lane’s theory that close relationships between men who have failed to fulfill the roles expected of men (husband and father) are ideal grounds for homoerotic desires, we can view the relationship between John and men such as Skimpole and Boythorn as hinting at Jarndyce’s sexual ambiguity. As Amelia Yeates and Graeme Smart state in “Introduction: Victorian Masculinities,” men are perceived as “powerless and asexual” when they exploit emasculation in roles “other than husband, father, or economic producer.” John Jarndyce, Harold Skimpole, and Lawrence Boythorn are prime examples of Dickens’ emphasis on emasculated man, and John happens to have a close relationship to both men.
Harold Skimpole, adored by Jarndyce through the majority of the novel, is an enabled man who loves his perfectly idle role as a father, and also shows no desire to enter the professional world though he is trained in medicine. As Esther describes Skimpole’s children, “It was evident that the tree daughters had grown up as they could, and had had just a little hap-hazard instruction as qualified them to be their father’s playthings in his idlest hours” (677). In addition to his abandonment of his children’s successes, Skimpole views life through the eyes of a child; in other words, he chooses to be seen as a child to prevent being seen as an inadequate man. The liberation from the roles of masculinity results in the man becoming a “consumptive victim,” such a point being clearly demonstrated in the character of Skimpole (Yeates and Smart). Delightfully oblivious, he sighs, “There should be no brambles of sordid realities…It should be strewn with roses; it should lie through with bowers, where there was no spring, autumn, nor winter, but perpetual summer” after which Jarndyce “patted him on the head with a smile” (93). When Skimpole, Esther, and John converse about Richard’s debt, Jarndyce explains the situation and lays his hand “emphatically on the sleeve of Mr. Skimpole’s dressing-gown” and Esther notes he is “quite delighted by the manner in which he had vindicated his childish character” (675-6). Jarndyce not only seems delighted and entertained by Skimpole acting as a child, but he affectionately welcomes and excuses such absurdity. The mutual idleness as a father figure and questionable masculinity clearly forms the affectionate bond between Jarndyce and Skimpole. Jarndyce has another close relationship with a flawed masculine figure: one who chooses to cover his failures by demonstrating his apparent masculinity at any occasion possible.
Another ambiguous pairing of men that showcases not only John’s flawed masculinity but his ambiguous sexuality is Jarndyce’s relationship with Lawrence Boythorn. As Jacques Lacan notes, “a virile display” gives men a feminine aspect and reveals vulnerability (qtd. in Lane).Therefore, an overzealous portrayal of masculinity is no more than a compensatory action for a weakness in one’s confidence as a man. Boythorn pronounces his male strength and dominance at every whim in an attempt to regain his masculinity when he in fact is metaphorically sterilized by being a bachelor without children. He boasts of his manly feud with Leicester and of his “man-traps and spring-guns…while his bird was hopping about his head; and he laughed, ‘Ha ha ha ha ha!’” (289). His overly masculine conversation topic becomes almost effeminate due to the presence of his pet canary. He laughs overzealously in an attempt to showcase his strength as a man. However, even Esther questions his marital status which makes the reader question his sexuality. Jarndyce responds to Esther by telling her that Boythorn was married but once and his wife had “died to him” (685). Such devastation must affect Boythorn deeply, resulting in his vulnerability that remains hidden behind his masculine display. Jarndyce’s relationship to Boythorn, another flawed man, remains close throughout the novel, resulting in more ambiguity in regards to Jarndyce’s sexuality due to his failure to engage in a heterosexual relationship.
More of an act of masculine authority than romance, Jarndyce’s engagement to Esther reveals his doubts about sexuality and love. As Tosh states, the greater a man’s dependency on a woman for “counsel and comfort,” the greater the strain on his sense of masculine self-sufficiency and the more he feels the need to exercise his “domestic authority” (71). After relying on Esther for emotional support and holding Bleak House together, he faces a crisis of masculinity and needs to attempt to fulfill his role as a husband and father. By proposing to Esther, he can essentially hold both titles. If the reader looks closely at Jarndyce’s proposal, however, cracks of doubt appear. To introduce the topic, Jarndyce asks Esther, “Do I look as If I suppressed anything, meant anything but what I said, had any reservation at all, no matter what?” (689). He clearly doubts himself and hopes that Esther will not sense his hesitation with the matter, and we can assume that he has in fact suppressed something: his ambiguity toward his sexuality. To doubt one’s love or sexuality creates large problems in the rest of his or her life. As Sigmund Freud theorizes, “A man who doubts his own love may or rather must doubt every lesser thing” (qtd. in Lane 42). Assuming this to be true, we can see Jarndyce’s doubt even clearer when he presses Esther by asking, “Can you fully trust me, and fully rely on what I profess?” (689). Since he doubts whether or not Esther will even trust his proposal, he must be wary of the fact that she may have picked up on his hesitation toward sexuality in general. Eventually, Esther begins to pick up on Jarndyce’s feelings of doubt, confessing that the proposal “had made no difference between us…I feared I might not quite have been all I had meant to be, since the letter and the answer” (791). Because Esther has virtually done no wrong since the proposal, we can only assume her feelings of doubt come from John and not herself. Hence why Esther has to pry Jarndyce for their wedding date, to which he finally responds that their marrying will make him a “man more exulting and more enviable than any other man in the world” (943). Jarndyce’s drawn out response to Esther and his over confident wish for himself as a man shows that he has given the wedding much thought and, in turn, most likely faced immense amounts of doubt and perhaps guilt. Doubting his own love, then, would result in his doubting of the household order and his role as a man among all other things, explaining why he sees the need to give Esther to Alan so that Bleak House can become fertile and whole again.
After Jarndyce’s doubt causes strain on their relationship, he must allow Esther to be with Woodcourt, a true masculine form, so that Bleak House can be made new and spared from further tragedy. Jarndyce’s surrender of Esther to Woodcourt represents Dickens’ need to restore patriarchal order in the text. Dickens gives Alan Woodcourt the ideal qualities for a man so the reader can contrast him with Jarndyce and critique John’s flawed patriarchy and sterility. After Miss Flite explains to Esther that Woodcourt was shipwrecked, she gushes “There, through it all, my dear physician was a hero. Calm and brave, through everything” (568). In response, Esther confesses that “I felt so triumphant ever to have known the man who had done such generous and gallant deeds; I felt such glowing exultation in his renown; I so admired and loved what he had done” (569). In addition to being the ideal hero figure, remember that Woodcourt also filled in for Jarndyce’s place as a father for Richard in addition to a romantic suitor for Esther. She fondly recalls the moment he confesses his love for her, that what she thought was “pity and compassion, was devoted, generous, faithful love.” (937). Pained with regret, Esther cannot return his love verbally, but insists to him that she will never forget his confession, and “while my heart beats, it can be insensible to the pride and joy of having been beloved by you” (939). As readers know, she pines for Woodcourt in return and is drawn to his fertile, fully masculine qualities. Jarndyce recognizes that his self-doubt and ambiguity have already caused the tragedy of Rick, and the only way to spare Esther from tragedy and remain ambiguous is to give her to Woodcourt. Trying to preserve his role as a father instead of a husband, he comforts Esther as she weeps on his breast by saying “I am your guardian and your father now. Rest confidently here” (964). He has to emphasize that he is just now becoming her father because until this point he had relied on her for emotional support through his ambiguity. Because she is safely with a true masculine figure, his sexual ambiguity can ideally do no more harm. When he gives Esther to Woodcourt, he can safely proclaim: “This is Bleak House. This day I give this house its little mistress; and before God, it is the brightest day in all my life!” (965). Bleak House, then, has been restored through the fertility and validity of Esther and Alan’s relationship, and it is the brightest day in Jarndyce’s life because his struggles with doubt, for the time being, do not bring harm to others.
John Jarndyce’s failure to fulfill the role of husband and father along with his intimate relationships to other flawed men result in the reader being able to clearly identify his issue with sexual ambiguity. Because Dickens places great emphasis on the order of the home, he cannot allow Bleak House to be overseen by a sterile patriarch; hence the need for Alan Woodcourt’s stepping in, wedding Esther and having children. Jarndyce gives up his engagement to Esther so he can remain ambiguous without causing any more harm, such as his role in Richard’s tragic death. If he were to marry Esther, order would not be restored because he cannot successfully fulfill the role of husband, though his role as father is partially regained through his redeeming act with Esther at the very end of the novel. Dickens’ comment on the need for the fulfillment of the masculine role in Bleak House cannot be ignored, this being the reason for titling the novel after the house at its center and our attention being drawn to the bachelor at its head who must give up his position to a man more capable.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Penguin, 1996. Print.
Lane, Christopher. The Burdens of Intimacy: Psychoanalysis and Victorian Masculinity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.
Tosh, John. A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England. New Haven: Yale UP, 1999. Print.
Yeates, Amelia and Smart, Graeme. “Introduction: Victorian Masculinities.” Critical Survey 20.3. 15 April 2013. Web.