A Rain of Ink: Metafiction in Charles Dicken’s Bleak House

Bleak House by Charles Dickens is a printed text and the book frequently reminds readers of that fact, so that readers can not accept the text literally, but are goaded into carefully and skeptically examining the two narratives and the various documents central to the story.

The world of the novel is soaked in ink. The view from Lady Dedlock’s window is “alternately a lead-coloured view, and a view in Indian ink” (8). Miss Jellyby’s fingers and face are covered with ink stains and she complains that she “can’t do anything hardly, except write” (41). The desk and table of the “law-writer” Nemo, are described as a “wilderness marked with a rain of ink” (122). The homeless boy Jo, when asked about the inquest, refers to it as the “ink-which” (208).

The constant reminders of ink force readers into an awareness of the ink on the pages that they hold in their hands; it jars them out of the illusionary world of the story and makes them aware that they are reading. The references to ink, therefore, are metafictional. The Oxford English Dictionary defines metafiction in part as, “Fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work.”

Other details also emphasize the textual nature of the book. The members of the High Court of Chancery bar are butting their heads against “a wall of words” (2). Mr. Kenge says that in the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce “every contingency, every masterly fiction, every form of procedure known in that court, is represented over and over again” (19, italics added). Esther goes to live in the town of Reading.

Recognizing such metafictional references is essential for a richer understanding of Bleak House because writing and documents are central to the plot of the novel. The endless court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce revolves around a disputed will. The central mystery of the novel (in the first five installments) involves a document copied by a man named Nemo, whose name means “no man,” an appropriate appellation because he is a man lacking any identifying papers of his own that might explain where he comes from, who he is, or what relevance he has to the story. References to ink, words, fiction, and reading encourage the reader to examine Bleak House as carefully as the characters examine the documents in the story.

Close reading is especially important because readers are confronted with two narrators who tell the story from different perspectives. The first narrator, who is somewhat invisible at first, is unnamed, although he refers to Lady Dedlock as “my lady,” which might imply that he is part of her household. Since we do not know who he is, we cannot know what relation he has to the characters and events he is describing.

In contrast, the narrative in the third chapter abruptly shifts to Esther, who is clearly established as a character with a particular point of view. In the first line of that chapter, Esther states that “I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever” (14). Readers may wonder for a moment if Esther was also the narrator of the first two chapters, but the word “beginning” goads readers into becoming aware of the less obvious narrator of the first two chapters. The phrase “my portion of these pages” begs the question: who assigned her to write that portion? Was it the narrator of the first two chapters? Is he (I am guessing his gender) directing and controlling Esther’s version of the story?

Her overly modest insistence that she is “not clever” (14), repeated four or five times in the first two pages of the chapter, causes readers to question and qualify her statements about herself, since she writes quite clearly and intelligently. Unlike the chapters told by the unnamed narrator, chapters 13, 23, 30, 43, 50, 57, 59 and 64 are clearly labeled, “Esther’s Narrative,” the only repeated chapter title, yet the label “Esther’s Narrative” was not used for every chapter she narrates. Most significantly the first chapter was not labeled as her narrative, even though that is the moment where such an identification would have helped a reader recognize the shift in narratives. In any case, the two narratives and the puzzling absence of identification of the first narrator, as well as the constant reminders of ink and reading, should put the reader on guard so that they read carefully and cautiously.

There are some textual references, however, that do not fit so easily into the framework I have just outlined. For example, Miss Flite, the madwoman, goes to court every day with her documents, “principally consisting of paper matches and dry lavender” (3). Referring to matches and lavender as documents might push the reader into accepting a broader definition of “documents” for the purposes of the novel. On the other hand, it might only be a proof of her madness or a comic detail.

In any case it is the reader who must decide how to read Miss Flite’s documents because we are given no other clue. Later, we learn that the dead Mr. Coavins was a “follerer,” shunned by society for his profession. This is not clearly a metafictional reference, yet the word “follerer” is not listed in the Oxford English Dictionary or on the web. If the word was invented by Dickens, then it is part of his fiction. As such, it forces readers to imagine for themselves what Coavins’ socially-unacceptable work might be, in other words to participate in the creation, the writing of the story. Readers are encouraged not only to read carefully but to read actively.

In short, self-referential details to ink and text and the dual narratives makes a reader to conscious of the act of reading, encouraging close and skeptical examination of the documents and narratives. Other more problematic textual references suggest that it is ultimately up to the reader to interpret the text, to make sense of the inky world of Bleak House.

For more metafictional masterpieces, read “The Top Twenty One Metafictional Works: The Story That Swallows Its Tale.”

Works Cited
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

“metafiction, n.OED Online. December 2001. Oxford University Press. 18 Feb. 2010 .

6 thoughts on “A Rain of Ink: Metafiction in Charles Dicken’s Bleak House”

  1. I love Dickens, but I haven’t read Bleak House. You’ve got me interested. I love the description: “The world of the novel is soaked in ink.”

    BTW, I found an online discussion about “follerer” and there were several interesting thoughts about what it might mean. This one made the most sense to me:

    “Yes, it is the same as ‘follower’. Earlier in the chapter, Mr Jarndyce speaks of ‘a follower, or an officer, or something’ when referring to Charley Neckett’s father, known as ‘Coavinses’. He was a sheriff’s officer and his work was to follow debtors with a view to their being arrested and sued. He was
    shown doing this to Skimpole in Chapter VI. ‘Pursuer’ is another word for it. Though it’s obviously an unpopular line of work (and Dickens’s
    own father was imprisoned for debt when Dickens was a boy), Mr Jarndyce says, “We make such men necessary by our faults and follies.”

    1. The interpretation of “follerer” is debatable, but I wish you had told me that Mike before I turned in my paper. Unlike a blog that can be changed, or qualified in the comments, a paper is final. And I love Dickens too. Whenever I read him out in the world, people comment and tell me stories about him and describe their favorite books and explain his importance. Hooray for Dickens!

  2. Your paper, of course, provoked my curiosity enough to make the search. I would probably never have follered the term, much less heard of it, if not for your paper. So in that respect (as well as the reasons you gave) your paper must stand as it is, prior to my response–as its ultimate source. Otherwise my comment, my search, my enlightenment on the subject (such as it is) would neither make sense, nor exist.

    This now has reached the status of a metacomment.

  3. Thanks for clarification Mike. I am currently reading this book and was searching for the meaning of follerer but didn’t find any..

  4. The definition of follerer is perfectly acceptable and will allow be to rest easy and carry on with this superb, if disturbing, book. The bit about Charley for instance gives a very clear view of how bad life was back then, before people like Dickens exposed it

  5. Mr. Skimpole tells them that his debt collector has been arrested, calling him Coavinses (the name of a debtors’ prison), and that his new debt collector has taken possession of Mr. Skimpole’s house. Mr. Jarndyce agrees to visit the place where the former debt collector lived. First, they stop at Cursitor Street, Chancery Lane, where Mr. Jarndyce inquires about a “follower” (someone who follows and arrests debtors) who has died. The man’s name was Neckett. They then go to an alley called Bell Yard where they find the chandler’s shop where Neckett had lived. The woman there gives Esther a key to the

    From spark notes, a critical source for literary theorists! —

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