Like every sizeable work of fiction, Bleak House is built around several themes (also called motifs) — that is, insights, concepts, attitudes, or simply explorations of certain aspects of human experience. A novel built very strongly around a clearly formulated and debatable or controversial theme is sometimes called a thesis novel (a “propaganda novel” is one type of thesis novel). Bleak House has a strong and obvious theme whose point may, in fact, be more debatable than Dickens realized; yet the book is not a thesis novel, or at least not a clear example of one. Foremost, Bleak House is a romance — affairs of the heart for Esther, Ada, and Caddy figure very prominently — and it is a murder mystery, as well.
In an artistically sound (well-constructed) book, all of the major and minor themes, or motifs, should be closely related and thus enhance the book’s unity. The most obvious (yet not necessarily the ultimate) theme in Bleak House is that of the undeserved suffering created by the High Court of Chancery, in particular, and by venal, self-serving lawyers (like Tulkinghorn), in general. An example of a minor theme (also called a side theme) is Dickens’ implied criticism of people who might be well intentioned but who neglect their homes and families in order to be (or try to be) charitable to distant people about whom they know little.
This novel, like many other works of Dickens, balances themes of social criticism with motifs dealing with the truths of personal experience. Esther Summerson, one of the principal characters, is relatively little affected by the deplorable workings of the Chancery Court. In the main, her story centers around her initiation into life — her discovery of her own identity, and the development of her emotional relationships with Lady Dedlock, John Jarndyce, Allan Wood-court, and others. The book’s “happy ending” (happy for Esther, Ada, Allan, Mr. Jarndyce, and some others) is a theme itself. The ending implies that although the evil of the world is formidable, happiness remains a possibility, perhaps even a likelihood, especially for those who are both pure of heart and responsibly persevering. Another implied theme is that romance is important and is not necessarily an illusion or merely a momentary thing.
Dickens’ ultimate attack is not on the Chancery Court. The workings (or misworkings) of Chancery do, as Dickens makes perfectly clear, constitute a major evil; Dickens savagely condemns that particular institution. But a larger issue is involved. Chancery itself — in fact, the whole system of Law — is also a symbol. Similarly, the fog is a symbol of Chancery and also of all similar institutions and operations; in other words, both Chancery and the fog symbolize the “dead hand” of the past — of custom and tradition.
The dead hand of the past is a hand that continues to kill in the present. The point has never been better made than by Edgar Johnson in Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1952), which remains the greatest of all biographies of Dickens: “both law and fog are fundamentally symbols of all the ponderous and murky forces that suffocate the creative energies of mankind. They prefigure in darkness visible the entanglements of vested interests and institutions and archaic traditions protecting greed, fettering generous action, obstructing men’s movements, and beclouding their vision.”
Dickens’ task is to write in such a way that the reader feels that some issue larger than that of corrupt lawyers and a local London court is at stake. That Dickens succeeds in making us feel (rather than merely reason out) the ultimate theme, the destructive heaviness of the dead hand, is proved by the fact that Bleak House is still a “living” book.
About one point here, readers need to be perfectly clear. Though progressive-minded in various ways, Dickens is no past-hating revolutionary or social leveller. In attacking the dead hand of the past, Dickens is by no means rejecting all of the past, all of the British or Western tradition. We have to remember that Dickens had plenty of traditional, or “conservative,” bones in his body. He rejoiced in many aspects of tradition — that is, of the past living on (if at the same time modifying) into the present. He understood the necessity of legal codes and institutions, he supported established religion, he celebrated the British monarchy, he delighted in the British tradition of cheerful politeness and in many other “inherited” features of British (and Continental) civilization. What he despises and rejects in Bleak House is the dross of the past, the institutionalized selfishness and coldness that survive within the tradition.