Critical Essays The Fog

A literary work does not necessarily become depressing or morbid simply because some of its subjects are gloomy, painful, or even grisly. Shakespeare’s Macbeth gives us scene after scene of dark atmospheres, crime, natural and supernatural evil, horror, and insanity, yet the play has remained immensely popular for four centuries. Everything depends not on the subject itself but on the writer’s treatment of it, meaning technique (manner of presenting the story) and prose style (choices in word, phrase, and sentence).

Heavy, persistent fog is not something that tends to lift spirits and brighten faces. In a story, such a fog may even serve as a symbol of institutional oppression and human confusion and misery. The fog that Dickens creates for Bleak House serves him in exactly that way. And yet it is not, after all, a real-life fog, but a verbal description of the real-life thing. How that depiction is managed — in other words, “expression” — becomes the crucial point, the real issue.

If, by plunging us again and again into the London fog, Dickens is trying to depress us, he is on shaky ground: All of us tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain. If the writing — taken up with an open mind and given a fair trial — really depresses us, we are quite likely to stop reading and declare Dickens an impossible, unreadable author.

But if we examine our actual response to the densely foggy and otherwise “implacable November weather” Dickens describes, we will find it to be something different from sheer depression or enervation. Our response — the one Dickens wants us to have — is probably complex and ambivalent. True, Dickens sees the foggy mire of the London streets as a nuisance, an unpleasantness, a source of vexation and dispiritedness. But he also finds such an extreme condition interesting: Because they are rare or unusual, extremes in almost anything tend to generate interest. The fog is striking, piquant; it even has something of the glamour of the mysterious. In short, Dickens is an artist who delights in imagination and who is in charge of his material as he imagines and writes things down — he is enjoying the fog he creates, and that enjoyment is inevitably conveyed to us as we read. In fact, part of what Dickens delights in as he puts the fog together word by word is his very ability to describe so interestingly. We, in turn, admire (if only unconsciously) Dickens’ mastery of the craft of writing — and admiration is a far from unpleasant thing for us to experience.

There are even more obvious elements of the positive in Dickens’ clear paragraphs about the fog. There are witticisms and jesting figures of speech, as in the idea of meeting up with a “Megalosaurus” or of the soot being like snowflakes “gone into mourning . . . for the death of the sun.”

In sum, though Dickens certainly does make his fog symbolize muddles and miseries, and thus tie it in with his themes of social criticism, that isn’t the whole story. In the final analysis, our experience as we read is an experience not of fog itself, but of “expression — of the words that create the fog.” We find the fog not so much depressing as interesting and admirable. It’s a vivid creation, and the sentences and phrases that create it crackle with imagination, alertness, and energy.