Posted by: phane20c | September 15, 2010

Bleak House Women

In class we had touched on the subject of gender portrayal and stereotyping -particularly of women- in the portrait of Lady Delme and in the poem My Last Duchess. As I began reading Bleak House I kept an eye out for Dickens’s representation of women, which is (unfortunately) notoriously sexist. There are numerous examples of sexism and stereotyping of women in the novel, ranging from the women characters (especially Ada) being depicted as weak, emotional, easily overwhelmed, etc., to Richard Carstone needing to “protect” and “help” Esther and Ada, to the the women characters (again, especially Ada) being represented as something to the effect of angelic little creatures. Indeed, the women are often described as “little.” It seems Ada’s main contribution to the novel is her physical appearance. Then look at Esther: she is the poster child of modesty. Whenever a man is talking she seems to keep her mouth shut and be constantly full of self doubt. The men characters, on the other hand, are often described as exquisite speakers who “love to hear themselves speak.”

Esther and Ada are represented as being completely moral and selfless and being very fond of children. These are classic examples of the ‘ideal’ woman. There is one part where Mr. Jarndyce inquires what is to become of Richard Carstone. It is expected that as a man, he ought to make a living for himself and see the world. The only thing expected of the women, however, is to be married. In the part where Esther is proposed to, she is told she will “gain” his “fortunes” if she will consent to marriage.

I typed ‘Dickens and sexism’ into my browser and loads of articles popped up. There is a book by Michael Slater entitled Dickens and Women:

Critic John C. Ward summarized the negative criticism of Dickens’s female figures when he wrote: “it is commonplace to observe that Dickens’s view of women is sentimental, sexist, patriarchal and derogatory.”


  1. I completely agree and often feel that Bleak House would have been interesting in characters like Ada had more of a backbone. I know that Dickens had trouble with his marriage in that he didn’t feel his wife was an adequate house-keeper and blamed her for having too much children. Therefore perhaps his female characters’ could be a way of showing the stagnation that occurs when women are overly passive. Although Esher is quite passive her importance is that when she takes action it’s effective. In contrast characters like Ada really on everyone else to take care of them. Even at the end it’s suggested that Esher acts as a mother to Ada’s son and Dickens could be trying to show what women loose when they become so passive that they’re merely display.

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