In literature, as in life, troubles and suffering tend to be emotionally powerful and to arouse our interest and compassion — to some extent even when the sufferer is a far-from-admirable person or character. We are not shown, in any detail, the inner suffering of Honoria Dedlock, but at least we know that her suffering exists. With Esther Summerson, even this source of interest in the character is mostly lacking. Except for her earliest years, when she was being raised by her rather unfeeling aunt (Miss Barbary), and during a short period of dismay and self-doubt after the scarring of her face by smallpox, Esther has lived a life far from rich in the drama of troubles and suffering. She dwells, throughout most of the story, in security and comfort and looks forward to a happy marriage with her guardian. Then she acquires even better prospects when her husband turns out to be Allan Woodcourt, who seems to be both dashing and solid. But the difficulty Esther experiences when she is trying to keep the identity of her mother a secret is not intense or long lasting.
Esther is also too uncomplicated to be one of the great heroines of literature. Complication makes for lifelikeness. It also challenges us intellectually — we are drawn into a deeper engagement as more and more of a character’s complexity is presented to us, for the simple reason that we have to make some effort to understand it, to see the personality as a whole. And in reading, deeper engagement is another term for interest.
In her uncomplicated, unfailing goodness, Esther is more of an ideal than a “convincing” character, one that might have been based on a real-life individual. Matters are made worse by the fact that much of the story is narrated by Esther; we have the nagging feeling that much of what she observes and reports is more complicated — hence, more interesting — than her uncomplicated perspective allows us to see.
Most of the heroines (or female principals or protagonists) of Dickens’ books are somewhat unsatisfying in this way. What may be virtuousness in life becomes faultiness in fiction: The ideal becomes the unreal. But is there more to the matter? Is it possible that, at least to some extent, we dissociate Esther from all reference to real life and consciously or “instinctively” experience her as the ideal, as the Eternal Feminine, archetypal femininity, a Cinderella or Good Daughter or Beloved Bride figure? If so, then despite her limitations with regard to real-life women, she would affect us and not be a wholly wasted literary portrait.