The primary images of Bleak House are those of smoke, fog, dirt and rain that underlie the streets of London, Chancery, and the Lincolnshire home of the Dedlocks. These images are central to the conception of a world that is undergoing dissolution; a world full of corruption that is universal and inescapable. The corruption and dissolution apply not only to physical locations, but also to the very fabric of society, a society which is centered in Chancery and which spreads, like pestilence, to all human relationships.
The invasive nature of this corruption cannot be ameliorated by the traditional social agencies which would be expected to provide relief and protection against social ills. Within the universe of Bleak House, the courts, Parliament, the aristocracy, philanthropic agencies, and organized religion, are powerless against the unrelenting tide of dissolution represented by the smoke, fog, and dirt emanating from Chancery.
Against this backdrop of an ineffective social order, Dickens provisionally adopts a view that personal relationships and personal responsibility are methods which mitigate the social ills described in the novel. Yet even the well-intentioned actions of people acting in a responsible and charitable manner are ineffective in solving large-scale social ills, and can only provide assistance and relief to a limited number of people within the novel.
Bleak House, as one of Dickens’ “mature” novels, views social reform, representative government, and the effectiveness of the courts in a more realistic light than his earlier works. These earlier novels recognize that evil occurs, but conceive of evil as particularized in individuals or in specific or isolated institutions. In Bleak House, Dickens paints a picture of an evil that is not isolated in individual characters or institutions, but is universal.
We are introduced to the central images of Bleak House early in the work when we see the people of London making their way upon the muddy streets “when tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud” (Dickens B. H., 3). We are then presented with the second element of corrosion, the “fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city” (Dickens B. H., 3). Finally, we are taken to the center of the fog, dirt…