Posted by: wmellin | October 15, 2011

Facebook: A Contemporary “Jarndyce and Jarndyce?”

From Dickens to Conan Doyle to Benjamin, we have discussed many kinds of value: economic, domestic, emotional, maternal, aesthetic, reproductive, and evidentiary (the latter three being related in ways in which I will not go into here). In Bleak House, certain aspects of value that appear in the present tense narrative are absent from that of Esther. These aspects come together in a dynamic way to piece together the world inhabited by the novel. Our lives are similarly constructed by these concepts of value in flux with one another, and this question of value has recently been on my mind each time I log into Facebook. What kind of value does Facebook have? What is the value of my time spent on Facebook?

I doubt that I will offend many readers if my response to both questions is, “little to none.” Many Facebook users claim to hate the social networking site and violently complain when it is upgraded, yet still tune into their respective News Feeds. They keep up with what I like to call “Facebook errands:” sending birthday wishes, RSVPing to events, checking updates from their friends and pages to which they now “subscribe.” It is ironic that we routinely invest time for something in which we find so little value.

Facebook is like a 21st Century Jarndyce and Jarndyce, an aporia into which we are drawn but at the center find emptiness. Aporia, a word we discussed in class to describe both the case and the novel, is defined by The Oxford American Dictionary as “an irresolvable internal contradiction.” The word captures both Dickens’ characters’ involvement in the suit and our attitudes towards Facebook, not to mention the suit and the site themselves.

The greatest “internal contradiction” I see in this contemporary parallel is the disconnect between reality and hope for reality: a continual waiting for something to come out the nothing that attracts followers. Richard spends a large portion of the novel continually working to improve both his understanding and the organization of the Chancery suit. During this time he misses out on engaging in meaningful, fleshed out relationships with Ada, Esther and others. He develops connections with single-minded people like Mr. Vholes while cutting his ties with Mr. Jarndyce. It is fittingly ironic that Richard is so intimately connected with the name Jarndyce and the legal characteristics which it represents, but increasingly estranged from the actual person.

The end of the 2010 film “The Social Network” finds the character Mark Zuckerberg in a similar position. Sitting alone in a conference room, he repeatedly clicks the refresh button as he waits for a girl he used to date to accept his friend request. His focus on and investment in developing a superficial network of impersonal interaction – redefining the notion of a “friend” – has eclipsed opportunities for him to make personal connections, valuable friends. Richard is, of course, is more a victim than a pioneer of that which consumes him, but each character remains semi-isolated and unfulfilled at the story’s end. Ada still loves and marries Richard, but their relationship is more one-way and less dynamic than it was in its early days.

Richard initially gets involved in the suit because he feels that he is being treated unfairly; he wants his fair share. Facebook users are familiar with the egocentricity of the site: we post statuses (stati?) and comments about our lives, often carefully phrased so as to get the greatest reaction from friends. Jarndyce and Jarndyce similarly has regular followers, such as Miss Flite, who are interested in the outcome of the suit – but how much does it really matter to them? Could they not do something of greater use than attend to a suit that has cyclically gone nowhere for years? Lawyers involved in the case continue to belabor details when they might be more productive in taking up an entirely new case.

At the close of the novel, the suit dwindles into nothing: the entire inheritance is used up to pay the bill. Miss Flite frees her many birds – a symbolic release of the wards and all others held back by the court – but the lives of Ada, Esther and Mr. Jarndyce continue as they always have. For those both deeply connected and nearly ignorant of the suit, life goes on, unchanged. Facebook similarly has very little effect on the “real” life outside of it. As it occupies no real physical space, it easily dissolves and disappears into a blank computer screen: on a Saturday night, we close our computers and resume spending time with our friends in person.

In regard to making the most of, or getting the most value out of the present, both Jarndyce and Jarndyce and Facebook are extremely wasteful uses of time and, in the former case, money. This is the aporia: since the center is empty and of no value, then all the means spent getting to that end are empty as well.

So if emptiness is the center of the main subject of both, why do we continue to read Bleak House, a novel about the repercussions of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, or update Facebook?


  1. While I have not seen “The Social Network,” I completely agree with your statement about Facebook simulating the wastefulness of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dickens’s “Bleak House.” Facebook is not expensive like the case is, but it is worth our time, which is valuable. Both are like an empty black hole, sucking time and energy out of us and our normal lives. However, it is very much “real.” I for one do not like what Facebook has done to our culture, but I continue to be an active user, to keep up with my “friends.”

    Your sentiment about Richard’s curious actions within the case really resonated with me as well. He showed the same attention-grabbing nature many Facebook users assume when they post hundreds of pictures, in order to display how wonderful their lives must be. Many people post statuses to feel better about themselves, to feel a part of something, and shamelessly market themselves. On a larger scale, I think Facebook additionally shows the random connections through people in a given society, by displaying “people we may know” and counting the “mutual friends” we have with someone. As “Bleak House” introduced more connections between a quickly expanding cast of characters, society norms, fame (or the notion of being famous for nothing), and reputation all play a role in these subplots, just as Facebook may create this for us in present society.

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