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Bleak House Commentary Essay

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The following is an analysis of a passage from Charles Dickens’ novel, Bleak House, in which a bleak and dreary atmosphere is conveyed.

The first thing that is mentioned by the narrator in the first paragraph of the passage is mud, and this plays a significant part in the depiction of a filthy, dirty environment. The beginning line, ‘As much mud in the streets…and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill’ uses hyperbole to suggest that the streets are so muddy that it’s almost like the beginning of the world, and it wouldn’t be strange to see a dinosaur roaming around because of that. Also, the line ‘Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers’ is an exaggeration of how the streets are so dirty that one cannot tell the different between the mud and the dogs, and even horses are up to their eyes in it. This shows us just how much mud and grime there is, and how dirty everything is.

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Another aspect in this passage is the dreariness and the bleak environment. This is expressed in the line ‘Foot-passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud…’

Firstly, the line ‘jostling one another’s umbrellas’ suggests that the place is so overcrowded and uncomfortable that people are all bumping into each other, and that their ‘ill temper’ is spread like a disease every time they come into contact, and it stirs in us a sense of claustrophobia because the people are all packed together. This adds to the implication that it’s a miserable and unpleasant place to be. Also, the fact that the foot-passengers are using umbrellas suggests that it is or has been raining, strengthening the general feeling of gloominess.

Furthermore, the fact that the part of the line ‘…slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke)’ is written in parenthesis suggests the sarcastic voice of the narrator, that he is mocking the foot-passenger’s ill temper and derisively commenting on the cold and depressing atmosphere, and this in turn reinforces that very fact. The use of sibilance in ‘slipping and sliding’ further increases the effect of the dismal environment.

The following line, ‘Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun’ is very effective in expressing how unpleasant the place is. The fact that the smoke is ‘lowering’ down, instead of drifting upwards as it normally does, implies that the atmosphere is so oppressive that even smoke can’t escape and is being pushed down.

In addition, there is a personification of the soot and snow, as they have ‘gone into mourning’ for the ‘death of the sun’. This could be an implication that the place is so gloomy and polluted that you can no longer see the sun, and that is why it has ‘died’, and is also why everything is black. This effectively intensifies the feeling of despair and dreariness that is hanging over the city, and the bleakness of the environment.

The second paragraph of this passage concentrates mainly on fog and how it has been personified into a shadowy demon from which there is no escape.

The first line of the second paragraph begins with ‘Fog everywhere’, and this alone is a very abrupt, aggressive statement that makes us feel, once again, slightly claustrophobic, as though there is fog pressing in all around us and that there is no escape from it.

Subsequently, the lines ‘Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides,’ and ‘Fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck’ are examples of how the fog is personified, and made to seem sinister, omnipresent, like an oppressor that takes pleasure in attacking weak, vulnerable people like ‘ancient Greenwich pensioners’ and the ‘shivering little ‘prentice boy’.

Another very effectual line is ‘Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds’. The use of the verb ‘peeping’ is very interesting because it means the people are looking quickly or secretly over the bridges, and it creates a sense of nervousness and apprehension, as though the people are frightened of the fog, thus making the fog seem all the more threatening. In addition to this, the use of ‘parapets’ may not be just a reference to the sides of the bridge, as it also makes us think of castles, and so people peeping over parapets makes it seem as though they are under siege or under attack from an army of fog, which goes back to the allusion that the fog attacks weak or vulnerable people.

Furthermore, the last part of the line, ‘as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds’ conveys a sense of helplessness, because when you’re in a balloon you have very limited control, and this has been used as a metaphor to suggest how the people have no control over the fog and that they are trapped by it. Once again, this creates the feeling of claustrophobia and makes it seem overwhelming as there is so much fog and there’s no way out.

The structure of these this passage is very interesting to note. The first paragraph is almost conversational, as though the narrator is describing to us the many events of the day, while the second paragraph suddenly switches to more somber, grave narrative of the fog, and this affects us and makes us feel uneasy of the fog. This is also partly because the passage is written in the present, and so it involves us, makes us feel as if we are there in the dreary environment. Additionally, the elongated syntax of the sentences mirrors the long, miserable day and the never-ending fog, and this intensifies the gloomy feeling we get from it.

In conclusion, this passage from Bleak House uses many different techniques such as personification, hyperbole and tone of voice to effectively express the dirty and gloomy environment and the general feeling of misery and despair.

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