Mr. Jarndyce is a “stock” character — that is, one seen repeatedly in literary works down through the ages and immediately recognizable. Such a character is sometimes a “rich uncle,” sometimes a magnanimous aristocrat, sometimes a reformed miser like Dickens’ Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. His mainspring is always generosity and the desire and ability to assist and protect anyone less fortunate than himself.
Stock or “type” characters can be quite interesting despite their familiarity. Shakespeare’s big boastful fat man, Falstaff, is one of the most fascinating characters ever created even though he is a perfect type of the stock character known as the miles gloriosus, the braggart soldier, a type already familiar to playgoers in ancient Rome. Shakespeare, however, endows Falstaff with great individuality, making him a “round” character — that is, a highly developed stock character. Dickens makes no such endowment; as with Lady Dedlock, Tulkinghorn, Ada, Richard, and, in fact, virtually all of the characters in Bleak House, Mr. Jarndyce is viewed from the outside only. He is as obscurely benevolent as Tulkinghorn is obscurely malevolent. What made him so kindly and caring? Innate disposition? Circumstances? Something that happened to him at one particular time? We never learn. In fact, we learn considerably less about this individual in his concreteness than we do about Esther Summerson. And since he is even more purely, or at least more maturely, good than Esther is, we find ourselves nagged by another question: Can any human being be as faultless, as sensible, capable, self-controlled, and completely benevolent as John Jarndyce? Perhaps he is not quite flawless, not completely godlike; he does, once in a great while, make a slight mistake, and sometimes he becomes worried or upset (“the wind is from the east”). Do these tiny humanizing touches make him a credible character after all? And do we at some level perceive and appreciate him as the archetypal Good Father?