115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Other of the Family: Esther’s Orphaned Narrative in Bleak House

Hyun Ah Kim, Independant Scholar

I turn to Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and its protagonist Esther Summerson to examine the tension between the social approval an orphan lacks and the concomitant resistance to incorporation into that society to which she has never belonged. Her narrative shows her visualizing herself as an Other that is not so willing to be assimilated but will not be severed from the world either.


In this paper, I begin by looking at the orphanhood that not only deprives Esther of a normative family structural unit but meaningful emotional interaction, and I point out Esther’s desire to enter the role of a sympathetic companion to others from then on. The sentence of illegitimacy in the form of emotional abuse Esther encounters in her life early on alerts Esther to the impossibility of lovability in the label of the orphan. 

One of the other orphans in the novel, Richard Carstone, remarks at seeing his beloved cousin Ada Clare that  “We will not call such a lovely young creature as that, who is a joy to all mankind, an orphan. She is the child of the universe.” Richard and Ada’s guardian John Jarndyce replies, “The universe…makes rather an indifferent parent, I am afraid.” While an assumption like Richard’s celebrates the beauty and kindness of Ada, he thoughtlessly removes Ada’s orphanhood from her identity. It does not question that loveliness and joy lies outside orphanhood. And it is he who leaves Ada a poor, pregnant widow at the end of the novel, failing in his efforts to provide her with monetary inheritance or familial security. 

Cheryl Nixon, tracing the orphan narrative from literary and legal texts from the eighteenth century on, points out that the orphan, in its most specific sense, refers to a child who has lost his or her father, who can provide legal, economic, and educational support. Thus Richard’s description of Ada reinscribes orphanhood in a system that takes this definition as a natural, hereditary rule, in that “universe.”

What is that child of the universe? More specifically, what kind of “indifference” does that universe possess? Does Richard’s expression implicitly relegate orphanhood to something naturally outside the idea of a coherent universe of beauty, or does it subversively enmesh orphanhood into the universe alongside the society that rejects it? Does not orphanhood establish itself as another existence as motivated as, if not more, than the legitimate one? Dickens, the unnamed narrator, and Esther all contribute to the creation of the “insider’s outsideness that enables the autoethnographic perspective,” as James Buzard puts it and suggests that Esther’s experience reflects an alternative critical response to the state of the social milieu that surrounds her. 

In her childhood one-way conversations with her doll, Esther fails to imagine herself as a meaningful existence and yet, by realizing a party that does not perceive her, simultaneously succeeds in laying out the grounds on which her narrative will problematize and rewrite the terms of appropriateness, domesticity, communication, and relationships. The orphan remains an orphan, yet it is not orphaned in its attempt to create a relationship—rather, its attempt must now find other ways of connection than the one it is not allowed to have. Esther manifests a desire for legitimate narrative that nevertheless already resists smooth and willing integration into normalcy, reticent but not truly supporting a structure that presumes integration into normativity as a standardized rewarding experience.