Social Commentary on Physical Attractiveness in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House Across cultures and across time, surface beauty has been idealized and integrated into societies to the extent to which it is almost necessary to determine one’s societal rank or role. In many cases, those who are considered more beautiful are given luxuries that those who are less fortunate are kept from. In a time when both looks and money ruled the social scene, Charles Dickens in his novel Bleak House makes an opposing argument.
Dickens claims that the preoccupation with physical beauty is rivial and is not as significant as it is believed to be in the time of garish looks and materialism because it does not always guarantee either a secure or happy future. The novel serves as a form of satire for Dickens because he makes a social commentary on the disadvantages of beauty as opposed to the ways in which having good looks can be beneficial. Both Ada and Esther are beautiful, however Ada is conventionally pretty while Esther is relatively plain.
Dickens uses examples throughout Bleak House however, in which Esther fairs better than Ada because of the triviality of appearance, even when others exaggerate it’s importance. Readers can benefit from the commentary that Dickens makes because he helps to emphasize that materialistic values such as those placed on the importance of surface beauty are incorrect. As early as the beginning of the novel, Dickens begins arguing that beauty is not as important as people believe it to be.
An emphasis for character over a trait as shallow as surface appearance is introduced when the strange old woman outside Bleak House, who the reader later learns is Miss Flite, gives the reader a bit of foreshadowing when she encounters Richard, Ada, and Esther for the first time, ad youth, and hope. I believe, beauty. It matters very little now. Neither of the three served, or saved me” (Dickens 47). The reader can infer that Miss Flite refers to youth, hope, and beauty as Richard, Esther, and Ada, respectively. According to Miss Flite, neither youth, hope, nor beauty served or saved her.
Essentially, she is making the argument that it does not matter if each of the young wards possesses a great deal of youth, hope, or beauty because it will not benefit them in the end. Miss Flite’s prediction is correct in that Ada and Richard both fall at the end of the novel; Richard ies because he is consumed by the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, while Ada forever mourns Richard’s death. In this case, being considered pretty does not ultimately serve Ada well because she does not end up as happy as Esther does at the end of Bleak House.
While Miss Flite correctly predicts the falls of Richard and Ada, she fails to acknowledge that hope can serve one and save one, specifically Esther. Esther’s hope after she contracts smallpox is the driving force behind her ability to overcome her adversity and realize that surface beauty is really not that significant to her life. Esther is one ot the only characters in Bleak House that recognizes the triviality ot the materialistic emphasis put on physical appearance because she undergoes a transformation of looks herself.
When Esther finally gains strength after being ill with smallpox, she appreciates her strength and newfound positivity for the world around her. Because Esther is concerned with her recovery and not with her appearance, she is able to look past the unease that she at first feels towards discovering her new face, “l found every breath of air and every scent, and every flower and leaf and blade f grass, and every passing cloud, and everything in nature, more beautiful and wonderful to me than I had ever found it yet” (571).
Esther’s narrative about her first realizations when she recovers is innocent and displays her appreciation for her tenacity. After gaining enough strength to re-enter her world, Esther goes through a kind of rebirth. Not only does she change in physical appearance, but she changes as a character as well. The hope that has always been a vital part of her helps her recover and she largely alters her outlook on her world and life.
As shown in this assage, Esther takes a more positive approach to the world around her because of her rebirth. It is important to note that Esther finds these aspects of nature that are beautiful and wonderful because air, scents, flowers, grass, clouds, etc. are not materialistic or manmade. In Esther’s eyes, nature is beautiful and she allows herself to be more open to her own transformation of appearance because looks that are possessed by those like Ada are not examples of pure beauty.
While Esther may not be as conventionally pretty as Ada, she has the talent of appreciating beauty in its atural and pure form, whereas Ada submits to a more orthodox form of prettiness. Esther recognizes that her transformation after her illness allows her to be beautiful in a new and different way. From the novel’s start, Esther informs the reader that she is nothing special: she is plain, average, and does not believe to have much potential for the future.
However, after contracting and recovering from smallpox, Esther is able to recognize beauty in herself and in a way that is unlike the ideals for conventional beauty at the time. Esther is even thankful for her appearance after her bout with smallpox, whereas a haracter as materialistically shallow and pretty as Ada might have an opposite reaction; “l had never been a beauty, and had never thought myself one; but I had been very different from this. It was all gone now.
Heaven was so good to me, that I could let it go with a few not bitter tears, and could stand there arranging my hair for the night quite thankfully’ (572). Even though Esther recognizes that she has never been exceptionally beautiful and now most likely never will be, she also realizes that physical beauty comes in multiple forms. Esther finds herself to have emerged from her illness as a “different” type of beauty. While she does not resemble Ada’s prettiness, she is thankful for the way she recovered.
The reader can assume that Esther is not conventionally beautiful, but that she is handsome in a unique way, which is emphasized by her confidence. Instead of crying bitter tears for herself, Esther proves Dickens’ satirical commentary and claim by crying for Joy that she is uniquely beautiful, due in part to her character. Esther is Dickens’ medium for satire surrounding beauty in the Victorian Era. Simply because Esther is not conventionally attractive does not mean that Esther is a character of any less importance than those ho are considered more beautiful.
For example, Esther ends up much happier than Ada at the novel’s end and even confirms to Ada on page 73 that sne is, “well indeed, and very happy’ with the way she recovered after smallpox. In fact, Esther ends up the “happiest of the happy’ (986) at the end of the novel, while Ada continues to mourn Richard. Although Esther’s beauty is unique in the way that beauty was not idealized in the Victorian Era, it is appreciated by Mr. Woodcourt. Before marrying Woodcourt, Esther worried that he only admired her because he pitied her, but she learns that Mr.
Woodcourt loves her for who she is, regardless of appearance. This unconditional, immaterial love that Woodcourt has for Esther brings her extreme happiness and further proves the argument that Dickens makes about beauty. After being married for several years, Esther expresses her worry for Woodcourt’s love because of her appearance, but Woodcourt is able to assuage her discomfort: “l thought it was impossible that you could have loved me any better, even if I had retained [my old looks]. ‘ ‘And don’t you know that you are prettier than you ever were?
I did not know that; I am not certain that I know it now. But I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent face that ever was seen; and that they can very well do without much beauty in me – even supposing -” (989) Esther communicates to Woodcourt that she worried that he might have never loved her because of the way she looked after her smallpox, however he soothes her worries by telling her that she is prettier now than she ever was before.
Dickens knows that pockmarks leftover from smallpox are not considered very ttractive, but Woodcourt sees past Esther’s imperfections and knows that she is pretty in a distinctive way and she is beautiful because of her nature. This is significant because it solidifies the belief that surface appearance is not as important as society made (and still makes) it seem. In addition, Dickens makes it clear through character relationships that Esther’s qualities are more important to Woodcourt than Ada’s physical beauty is to those surrounding Ada.
Esther identifies in the last paragraph of the novel that everyone surrounding her is beautiful and handsome, et “they can very well do without much beauty’ in her. In this sense, the strongest aspect of Esther’s character is her ability to recognize that she does not need to be conventionally beautiful on the outside for others to appreciate her. In Esther’s case, possessing good looks is neither important nor essential for social acceptance because she is surrounded by people who love her and is ultimately very happy.
Ada, on the other hand, is an example of conventional surface prettiness, yet she does not end up nearly as happy as Esther in the conclusion of the novel. After Richard’s eath, Ada is understandably devastated and mourns her loss for essentially the rest of her life. However, Esther notices a significant change in Ada. It is implied that after Ada loses Richard, her outlook on beauty shifts. Instead of valuing her physical appearance and idealizing her pretty looks, Esther begins to believe in a more pure form of beauty, one that resembles the beauty of Esther.
Esther takes note of Ada’s shift, “l think my darling girl is more beautiful than ever. The sorrow that has been in her face – for it is not there now – seems to have purified even its innocent xpression, and to have given it a diviner quality’ (988). Even though Ada has suffered a tremendous loss and expresses sorrow in ner tace, Esther notices at tn this sadness gives Ada a “diviner quality. Because Ada spent her entire life idealized and protected by others due to her physical beauty, she developed a sense of innocence and naivet?© that blinded her from seeing inner beauty possessed by characters like Esther. Ada’s materialistic view on physical appearance prevented her from achieving a pure state of mind until she loses Richard. After realizing the sorrow that “purified” er face, Ada is able to achieve a beauty more like Ada’s; a beauty that is immaterial and can tell much about one’s happiness.
Although Ada lost her Richard, her new type of beauty and her love for Esther allows her to realize a cleaner and purer happiness. Both Esther and Ada possess different types of beauty in the beginning of Bleak House yet both seem to move towards a similar type at the novel’s conclusion. Knowing nothing but shallow, physical beauty, Ada develops into a naive character but learns of a “diviner” state after losing Richard. Esther only realizes her own natural, unique attractiveness after she contracts smallpox.
In both cases, Ada and Esther learn about themselves and about the meaning of real beauty, a concept that Charles Dickens illustrates throughout Bleak House. When physical attractiveness was a determining factor in social standing, Dickens commented that beauty does not really do much benefit for one’s life even though it is emphasized so much. Readers can all learn from the novel that the materialistic importance put on surface beauty is simply a social preoccupation and, in no way, determines one’s worth. The only truly beneficial beauty to one’s life is an attractive character.