Fractal Myth

Equity in Bleak House ~ symbolism, metaphor and allegory.

[Michelle Chapman ©2002]

References to law perform many roles in Dickens' Bleak House. Their main function involves an exploration of "the tension between authority and individualism that pervades Victorian thought."(1) Of particular interest is the symbolic and metaphoric use of cats and birds, allegorically drawing attention to the predation of the 'equitable' Court of Chancery on the domesticity of ordinary citizens. This essay explores the specific symbolism of Krook's cat and Miss Flite's birds, and draws attention to the metaphoric construction of lawyers as cats and citizens as birds, in order to demonstrate Dickens' allegorical critique of the law of equity. Equity is a system of jurisprudence supposedly based on principles of natural justice and fair conduct. It purports to mitigate the common law's inflexibility by giving expression to morality 'inherent' in human nature. In Bleak House, Dickens leads us to question the nature of equity and its application by looking behind the surface action of the plot. His investigation exposes flaws in the legal system of his time, pointing out problems in equity's formal application by the courts in contrast to its successful implementation in the informal world of the family.

In Bleak House, the cat is constructed as a rapacious creature. Its carnivorous cunning colours our perception of the law with which it is symbolically associated. The primary cat in the novel, Lady Jane, is the constant companion of the Lord Chancellor's 'double'.(2) Leaving aside the obvious criminal connotations of Krook's name, his explicit association with Chancery enhances the symbolic dimension of his cat's personality:

The cat ... ripped at a bundle of rags with her tigerish claws ...
"She'd do as much for anyone I was to set her on," said the old man. "I deal in cat-skins among other general matters, and hers was offered to me. It's a very fine skin, as you may see, but I didn't have it stripped off! THAT warnt like Chancery practice though, says you!"(3)

Though proud of her ferociousness, Lady Jane actually owes her survival to Krook's individual domestic affection for her. For Miss Flite, however, Lady Jane is the ravenous "wolf"(4) at the door. Her discovery: "that [Lady Jane's] natural cruelty is sharpened by a jealous fear of [Miss Flite's birds] regaining their liberty"(5) echoes strongly in the reader's mind. The liberty of Miss Flite's birds is postponed until she receives judgment, which is in turn delayed as the professionals of the court are equally "greedy for ... lives."(6) We see this explicitly in the real Court of Chancery, where the only possible fate for a prisoner is "being sent back to prison."(7) The symbolic relationship between Lady Jane and the law is heightened by her association with two deaths. After Nemo's death, the reader is covertly invited to consider the carnivorous implications of the cat's conduct, compared and contrasted with the motives and desires of Mr Tulkinghorn and Mr Krook:

"Don't leave the cat there!" says the surgeon; "that won't do!" Mr Krook therefore drives her out before him, and she goes furtively downstairs, winding her lithe tail and licking her lips.
"Good night!" says Mr Tulkinghorn, and goes home to Allegory and meditation.(8)

Lawyer Tulkinghorn, in his pursuit of Lady Dedlock's secret, appears as "sly, and full of malice"(9) as the green-eyed cat, while Krook, like his "brother"(10) the Chancellor, is out for whatever he can get: "[t]here's no great odds betwixt us. We both grub on in a muddle."(11) Given the schism between law and domesticity, it feels emotionally significant that Lady Dedlock's love-letters to Nemo are hidden, by the illiterate Krook, in Lady Jane's bed.(12) In turn, Krook's death by spontaneous combustion is directly linked to the need for reform in Chancery.(13) From his cat's reaction, we glimpse how such reform might be met by proponents of legal equity: "snarling"(14) and "leaping and bounding and tearing about ... like a dragon."(15) Lady Jane's symbolic representation of the predatory nature of law, and its lack of concern for its victims, is further enhanced by passing reference to another of her species: in the domestic chaos of Mrs Jellyby's establishment, Mr Jellyby is obliged to forego his breakfast because the cat drinks his milk.(16) Throughout Bleak House, this negative portrayal of feline characteristics, primarily embodied in Lady Jane, creates an unpleasant impression which symbolically informs our attitude to the legal 'carnivores' who serve the 'other' Lord Chancellor.

In contrast to a feline freedom of movement, the symbolically significant birds in Bleak House are usually caged. This condition is implicitly portrayed as necessary domesticity, protection from the predatory instincts of cats and other uncaged birds.(17) Facing constant peril from Krook's cat, Miss Flite's aviary manifestly represents a population subject to destructive suits like 'Jarndyce and Jarndyce': "[s]cores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why..."(18) There is a clear parallel between those involved in the celebrated case and Miss Flite's "poor silly things"(19) born and dying unreleased. Miss Flite herself is keenly aware of the symbolic connection between herself and her birds, both in life(20) and, potentially, in death.(21) In her gentle, madcap way, she suggests that not only is the law (as embodied by Chancery practice) antithetical to peaceful domesticity, but that, if listened to, the claims of home and family potentially have the power to disrupt the law's hold over its victims:

"I can't allow them to sing much," said the little old lady, "for (you'll think this curious) I find my mind confused by the idea that they are singing while I am following the arguments in court. And my mind requires to be so very clear, you know!"(22)

The clarity of Miss Flite's mind is constantly questioned, but in the names she bestows upon her birds, she demonstrates her perspicuity. Intoned like a magic charm, their names embody equity's inequity, while their symbolic representation of Chancery's victims is strengthened by the addition of two more to the flock:

"I call them the Wards in Jarndyce. They are caged up with all the others. With Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach!" ... Her manner of running over the names of her birds as if she were afraid of hearing them even from her own lips, quite chilled me.(23)

After this symbolic caging of the 'Wards in Jarndyce', the word 'bird' disappears from the text for the next five chapters. Its reappearance has extreme emotional impact, for although the birds have finally been released, it is no occasion for celebration:

He slowly laid his face down upon her bosom, drew his arms closer round her neck, and with one parting sob began the world. Not this world, oh not this! The world that sets this right.
When all was still, at a late hour, poor crazed Miss Flite came weeping to me and told me she had given her birds their liberty.(24)

The symbolism of the birds is thus inflated to encompass the victims of Chancery, the comforts of domesticity, and hope for a better life, either in this world through the kindness of fellow victims, or in the next through the promise of Christian salvation. Another symbolically important bird equally deserves mention, Lawrence Boythorn's canary:

To hear Mr Boythorn presently expressing the most implacable and passionate sentiments with this fragile mite of a creature quietly perched on his forehead, was to have a good illustration of his character, I thought.(25)

This little bird illustrates the symbolic connection between caged songbirds and domesticated (as opposed to predatory) humans. Boythorn proves himself worthy of his canary's trust through his constant care for others, despite his vehement involvement with the legal system. Blessed with a reforming spirit, Mr Boythorn gives law as much trouble as it gives him: "My eye, miss," [Mr Guppy] said in a low voice, "he's a Tartar!"(26) Like John Jarndyce, and many other caring characters, Boythorn functions in contrast to Chancery, an example of true equity in daily life, confirming our positive interpretation of his bird's symbolism. Invariably associated with characters of high ethical standing (including Esther),(27) the caged birds in Bleak House suggest legal equity's present and potential victims, despite domestic equity's efforts to protect them.

The coded references to law encompassed within Dicken's symbolic construction of actual cats and birds are enhanced by his metaphoric representatIon of lawyers as catlike and citizens as birdlike. Feline resemblances are most obvious in Mr Tulkinghorn and Mr Vholes, two Chancery lawyers who relentlessly tease their prey to death. When Mr Tulkinghorn sits beneath Allegory's pointing finger sipping "radiant nectar, two score and ten years old,"(28) the reader can almost feel him purring, while the sense of feline inscrutability surrounding him strengthens the metaphor: "[m]ore impenetrable then ever, he ... mellows as it were in secrecy, pondering at that twilight hour on all the mysteries he knows."(29) These metaphorical feline associations are even more explicit for Mr Vholes in his cat-and-mouse(30) pursuit of Richard Carstone (reported here by Esther):

As he gave me that slowly devouring look of his ... he gave one gasp as if he had swallowed the last morsel of this client, and ... glided away.(31)

Significantly, both lawyers also have avian associations, Tulkinghorn as "a dingy London bird"(32) and Mr Vholes as "a bird of ill-omen."(33) This is a marked contrast to the tame songbirds of domestic happiness, reminding us that lawyers and citizens, unlike cats and birds, are the same species, and emphasising the unnaturalness of their predatory relationship. This is underlined by the use of Vholes to argue speciously against legal reform: "[m]ake man-eating unlawful, and you starve the Vholeses!"(34) Mr Vholes' domestic need to support his family does not justify his capitalisation on others' weakness and misery. This is confirmed by Mr Guppy. As a predatory lawyer he is less than effective, his legal ruthlessness instinctively subordinated to his domestic tendencies:

Mr Guppy, going to the window, tumbles into a pair of love-birds, to whom he says in his confusion, I beg your pardon, I am sure.(35)

Half-bird, half-cat, Mr Guppy manages to be merely a small fish in a big pond. In contrast to the few 'nasty' characters metaphorically constructed as 'catlike', Bleak House accommodates a profusion of attractive domestic 'bird life', explicitly and implicitly introduced. Ada is affectionately called "my bird,"(36) while Esther shows the metaphorical link between tame birds and "cheerful"(37) domesticity. As with Miss Flite, Esther is aware of the resemblance and feels personally threatened:

He looked so disagreeable and his cat looked so wickedly at me, as if I were a blood-relation of the birds upstairs...(38)

Mrs Bagnet on her mission of mercy is an angel of domestic equity, preferring: "a primitive sort of perch ... [t]rilling it out like a kind of bird, with a pretty high note."(39) By procuring the presence of George's mother she allows him to exchange potential criminal imprisonment for the golden birdcage of domestic duty. That this confinement is for protection rather than punishment shows clearly in the case of Charley's little family, literally locked up for safe keeping.(40) This may seem irrelevant to the role played by references to law in Bleak House, but the accumulation of imagery offers a bleak assessment of legal equity, suggesting a preferable alternative may be found in the 'birdhouse' of domestic equity.

On an allegorical level, the references to law encoded in Dickens' symbolic and metaphoric presentation of cats and birds are given full significance. Discovering what this means can be difficult, as allegory is notoriously hard to grasp:

Here ... lives Mr Tulkinghorn ... where Allegory ... makes the head ache - as would seem to be Allegory's object always, more or less.(41)

Dickens has, however, provided us with a number of clues and connections, from Allegory's finger pointing at the poetic justice of Mr Tulkinghorn's murdered corpse(42) to poor Miss Flite's finding Chancery justice "so ve-ry difficult to follow."(43) In the Preface he informs us: "I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things,"(44) confirming that the connections and similarities discernible in Bleak House are more than mere coincidence. In his references to law, Dickens is presenting an artistic investigation, not a technical critique, and his arguments speak more to emotion than logic:

To see that Court yesterday jogging on serenely, and to think of the wretchedness of the pieces on the board, gave me the headache and the heartache both together. My head ached with wondering how it happened, if men were neither fools nor rascals; and my heart ached to think they could possibly be either.(45)

As George Orwell as pointed out, "in reality his target is not so much society as 'human nature'... if men would behave decently the world would be decent."(46) This is apparent in the distinction between 'catlike' legal equity and 'birdlike' domestic equity. Legal equity is constructed as unworthy of the name, its proponents refusing to look beyond their own interests, or take responsibility for their own actions:

I am told ... it's the system. I mustn't look to individuals. ... I mustn't go into Court, and say, "... is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice and am dismissed?"(47)

Transposing this problem into a symbolic and metaphoric predator/prey relationship increases the reader's acceptance of it as a "monstrous wrong."(48) By comparing the failure of legal equity with the triumph of domestic equity on an allegorical level, Dickens shows that domesticated 'birds' should be protected and cherished by legal 'felines,' not tormented and destroyed for profit. As he implicitly reminds us, there is one species here, not two.

As a Victorian social problem novel, Bleak House doesn't offer any concrete solution to the problems raised in the novel's references to law. It does, however, illustrate Chancery's defects, both on a conscious level within the plot and on an unconscious level in the allegory of cats and birds, which presents a sharp contrast between public and private equity. The allegorical web woven is complex and interconnected, with many more threads to be teased out (if only space allowed). Symbolically, Dickens attaches emotional associations to the physical characteristics of actual cats and birds, making them represent the abstract concepts of legal and domestic equity. These resemblances are metaphorically overlaid onto characters, illustrating their position as legal or domestic, predator or prey, cat or bird (although there is also a predator/prey relationship within the domestic category of 'bird', it is largely irrelevant to this discussion of the role of law in the novel). Finally, all these associations combine to suggest a deep moral interest in the inequitable effect of the law of equity, and to argue the need for reform - of individuals, if not the system itself.


1. Petch, S., 'Legal', Law and Literature Unit Reader, p.217.
2. Dickens, C., Bleak House, pp. 69 & 234.
3. ibid., p.70.
4. ibid., p.74.
5. idem.
6. idem.
7. ibid., p.19.
8. ibid., p.171.
9. ibid., p.74.
10. ibid., p.70.
11. idem.
12. ibid., p.824.
13. ibid., p. 519.
14. ibid., p.517.
15. ibid., p. 635.
16. ibid., p.64.
17. ibid., p.235.
18. ibid., p.16.
19. ibid., p.74.
20. ibid., p.566.
21. ibid., p.74.
22. idem.
23. ibid., p.922-923.
24. ibid., p.979.
25. ibid., p.143.
26. ibid., p.149.
27. ibid., p.36.
28. ibid., p.352.
29. idem.
30. ibid., p.629.
31. ibid., p.975-976.
32. ibid., p.661.
33. ibid., p.696.
34. ibid., p.623.
35. ibid., p.463.
36. ibid., p.389
37. ibid., p.692.
38. ibid., p.76.
39. ibid., p. 839 - 841.
40. ibid., p.244.
41. ibid., p.158
42. ibid., p.750.
43. ibid., p.66.
44. ibid., p.4.
45. ibid., p.78.
46. Orwell, G., Charles Dickens, Chapter 1, (Copy on file with author).
47. Dickens, C., op. cit., p.251.
48. ibid., p.5.


Primary Sources:

Dickens, Charles
Bleak House
(Penguin Classics, 1853, 1996)

Secondary Sources:

Orwell, George
Charles Dickens
(1939, collected in Inside the Whale, 1940)
(Copy on file with author).

Petch, Simon
ELS 378 Law and Literature Unit Reader
University of New England English Department

(The Simon Petch text quoted in this essay cannot be properly referenced, having been accessed as a photocopied excerpt. Accordingly, I have acknowledged the section of course notes from which the excerpt was taken.)

Marker's comments.

88% - Michelle, this is a superb essay - astute, wide-ranging and beautifully written and argued. Your analysis of the use of cat and bird symbolism as a vehicle for the exploration of principles of equity is fresh, detailed and compelling. Can I add one more example? - Hortense, who has:

a certain feline mouth, and general uncomfortable tightness of face, rendering the jaws too eager, and the skull too prominent. There is something indefinably keen and wan about her anatomy; and she has a watchful way of looking out of the corners of her eyes without turning her head, which could be pleasantly dispensed with - especially when she is in an ill-humour and near knives.
(Chapter 12)
She is linked by Esther with the revolutionary women watching the violent justice dispensed by the guillotine during the terror in France. And she is linked with Krook's cat by the similar appetite with which she longs to devour Mrs Bucket:
"I would like to kiss her!" exclaims Madamoiselle Hortense, panting, tigress-like.
"You'd bite her, I suspect," says Mr Bucket...
Does the gender of the cat - she is insistently female - complicate your reading of her significance in the novel?

Congratulations on an essay that was a delight to read!
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