image: girlwithherheadinabook.com

Strong Female Characters: Esther Summerson

For those of you that don’t know, Esther Summerson is one of the central characters in Charles Dickens’s 1853 novel, Bleak House. Set round about the 1830s, the novel is broadly about a long, drawn-out case in the English legal system – but as with most Dickens novels it also covers all sorts of stuff on class, poverty, morality and love. Esther herself is at the centre of all this, as the narrator of part of the novel and Dickens’s only female first person perspective. The book, originally serialised when Dickens was at the height of his popularity, is widely recognised to be one of his best novels, and Esther herself has been the subject of much criticism and debate in the 160 years or so since its publication. So no pressure.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Esther is a pretty reactive character. Most of the action in the novel is not a result of events she has set in motion – instead, stuff just happens and Esther has to deal with it. She gets palmed off to Mr Jarndyce when he becomes her guardian and her life changes very rapidly – she makes the best of it, eventually becoming his housekeeper and making friends with some of his other charges, but didn’t set this up herself. She nurses her maid when she contracts smallpox, and ends up catching it too. She finally gets to meet her birth mother, after having been raised in a loveless home without knowing her parents, but her mother is the one who sets up the meeting and she forbids Esther to ever seek her out again. As you can see, none of these significant events are the result of Esther’s own actions.

Most of Esther’s story is her trying to make the best of the terrible, terrible hand she’s been dealt. This is really the only way that she can exercise control over her life. Unlike Jane Eyre, who actively wants to be her own person and make something of herself, Esther never considers taking her situation into her own hands. When she’s dissatisfied with something, she very rarely takes it upon herself to change things – instead she tends to wait around for a situation that will allow her to make a choice to change things. When she’s presented with these opportunities she can and does take control of her life in a way that will make her happy – such as turning down the proposal of the insufferable Mr Guppy – but she doesn’t go out of her way to find these opportunities for herself. It’s very useful to draw a parallel with Jane Eyre here as both are similar characters, having grown up in loveless and parentless environments. But whereas Jane actively looks to get out of her situation – and has been doing so since the age of about eight – Esther waits to be taken out of it, and never once considers leaving on her own.

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And what better way to illustrate this than with a cat gif? (image: imgur.com)

There’s quite a few situations in Bleak House which could be construed as active or reactive depending on how you read Esther’s motivations. But overall, I don’t think it’s too much of a reach to say that while Esther does have some influence over her own life, she certainly doesn’t go looking for it, and the big narrative events are always set in motion by other characters. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

We don’t really know much about Esther’s hobbies, but she’s something of a homebody who takes satisfaction in very domestic pursuits. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined. Esther’s goals vary depending on her situation, but tend to be focussed around domestic or small-scale accomplishments – she wants to nurse her maid back to health, for example. As far as her beliefs go, Esther quite firmly believes that she is an entirely unremarkable and unimportant person, going so far as to say that she is neither clever nor interesting. This is a direct result of her neglectful upbringing, and something I’ll go into in more detail later on. She also believes that charity should begin at home, has a strong sense of duty, and doesn’t seem to think much of the boundaries of class when dealing with the poor. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Esther is quiet, modest, demure, kind, helpful and compassionate, with a self-deprecating streak a mile wide, and she remains this way through much of the novel. As far as her skills go, we don’t hear a whole lot about them, but we know she’s a good housekeeper whose organisational skills tend to rub off on other people.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A kind, helpful and compassionate young woman wants to make the best of her life, despite her abusive upbringing.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Esther doesn’t make loads of decisions, but does have a reasonable amount of agency in her life. That said, a significant amount of the decisions she makes do revolve around her love life. While she does get to do things that don’t revolve around who she might end up marrying – like caring for the poor, for example – a substantial amount of the big decisions she’s asked to make are about potential suitors. Esther has three of these in the novel: Mr Woodcourt, who’s the textbook definition of ‘a nice young man’, Mr Guppy, who’s both annoying and shallow, and Mr Jarndyce, who is her guardian/adopted father figure/bringer of a thousand daddy issues.

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That’s a liiiiiittle bit tricky. (image: giphy.com)

All of these three men ask her to marry them at some point in the novel. Esther agonises over them to varying extents, but gives them her answer and that is usually that. The trouble is that while Esther doesn’t actually think about these three all that much in the novel – especially when you consider how long the book is – their proposals are some of the only opportunities Esther is given to make a decision that will actually change her life. This presents a bit of a problem because while Esther certainly has other concerns and motivations, she doesn’t always get a chance to act on them. It gets better as the novel goes along, but there’s a lot of stuff that Esther just doesn’t get a say in. It’s a question of what you, as a reader, consider more valuable – the fact that Esther has other concerns in her life, or the fact that she rarely gets an opportunity to act on them. I can see both sides of the coin, so I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Esther does develop over the course of the story. She becomes more confident, more outspoken (although never to an unladylike extent) and learns to tell people off when they deserve it, much to the reader’s satisfaction. By the end of the book she’s much less restrained and much more comfortable with herself, which is pretty solid development on all counts.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Esther also has a pretty serious weakness – her almost total lack of self-esteem. This is a direct result of her emotionally abusive childhood. She is an illegitimate child, raised by her mother’s sister in secret, and spent a good chunk of her formative years being told that she was worthless, that she corrupted people, and that she didn’t deserve love.

This is actually pretty rare in Victorian fiction, particularly as there was a significant stigma around being an illegitimate child. This is child abuse depicted as child abuse, which leaves lasting scars. Esther’s own self-deprecation is something she struggles with all through the novel – and which gets worse after she’s disfigured by smallpox. It seriously gets in the way of her own happiness, as she firmly believes that even though she loves him, Mr Woodcourt would never marry her due to her disfigurement, and she resigns herself to a loveless marriage to Mr Jarndyce as she believes that is the best offer she’ll ever receive.

However, what makes this kind of tricky is that for much of the novel, the other characters treat this as a virtue on Esther’s part, rather than what it really is – some serious psychological scarring. Much is made of the fact that Esther is so modest and humble and never presumes anything of anyone – even though this is a direct result of what amounts to childhood trauma, Esther’s humility is talked about as if it is one of her best qualities. Sometimes, this bleeds into the narration itself, and modern readers are left wondering if Dickens himself didn’t see Esther’s total lack of self-esteem as a good thing.

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Fun fact: the nopetopus is also my patronus. (image: giphy.com)

A lot of this is due to nineteenth-century social norms, which tend to ruin a lot of things I like. Modesty and humility were considered incredibly attractive in women, and often taken to ridiculous lengths – for example, women weren’t even supposed to act surprised when they received a proposal, as a proper Victorian woman would never consider herself attractive enough for a man to want to marry her. I’m not sure how often this would’ve happened in practice but if you flip through any nineteenth-century etiquette book that’s what you’ll find. And it’s certainly true that Dickens himself may have held some of those views, as he had notoriously sketchy relationships with the women in his life.

While there’s no denying that this is a serious flaw, and one which regularly leads people to take advantage of her, it’s also portrayed as a part of Esther’s appeal by both the characters and the author. It’s a tough line to walk, so I’m going to give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Esther does have influence on the plot, but it’s usually a pretty passive kind of influence. Essentially, she is a significant player in the book not because of the things she does, but because of the way she is. In this respect she has quite a lot of influence – mainly because a lot of the other characters want to be like her or be with her – but there’s no getting past the fact that she doesn’t really do much. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

 

Whichever way you look at it, there’s no getting away from the fact that Esther is the perfect Victorian woman. She’s kind, she’s nurturing, she’s demure, she’s humble, she’s religious, and she’s utterly content with domestic life. She’s the archetype of ‘the angel in the house’ – the gold standard that housewives everywhere were once forced to adhere to.

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And Betty isn’t going to take it any more. (image: giphy.com)

This is taken to near ridiculous extents. Esther is so perfect and demure that she never causes any trouble: not even after losing her looks, not even after she watches her friends Richard and Ada slip slowly into debt, not even after she meets her birth mother for the first time in her life and is told that she can never see her again. Esther reacts like the perfect Victorian lady would in all of these situations – she’s sad about it, of course, but she’s never angry, or confused, or upset. She doesn’t dwell on her misfortunes, and she’s had plenty, she just gets on with cleaning up the house or making other people’s dinner.

This would all be fine if it was at least acknowledged that this is how Esther copes with things – it’s no secret that a lot of people take comfort in normalcy after going through something disruptive. But the thing about Esther is that she’s so perfect that nothing really seems to disrupt her at all. Actually being bothered by the things that happen to her would be inconvenient for the people around her, and heaven forbid that a Victorian lady should so much as dream of exposing her emotions to other people.

The upshot of all this is that she doesn’t feel like a real person. Anger, confusion, and sustained sadness were simply not features of the ideal Victorian woman, and that’s why Esther doesn’t exhibit these. Everything she does is perfectly in line with Dickens’s ideal – and that’s why she won’t pass this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Esther has plenty of relationships with other female characters. She becomes friends with Ada, one of Mr Jarndyce’s wards, when she’s employed as her companion, and becomes a kind of mother figure for her. She takes her maid, Charley, under her wing, nursing her through smallpox and bearing no resentment when the disease disfigures Esther herself. She does a similar thing with Caddy Jellyby, the neglected daughter of a philanthropist, but resents her mother for not taking better care of her. And, of course, there’s her mother – who she loves and values despite her absence from her life, even when she tells her they cannot meet. These are just a handful of the relationships Esther has with other female characters, so she definitely passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

Esther is a well-rounded character with believable strengths, weaknesses, goals and beliefs who develops throughout the story and has relationships with other female characters, but ultimately that wasn’t quite enough for her to pass my test. She’s an incredibly passive character who fits several gender stereotypes down to the ground – and ultimately, this means she just doesn’t seem like a real person.

Next week, it’s the ninetieth post on Strong Female Characters, and anything with that number in it is going to make me feel old. I’ll be going back to the comparison format and looking at a modern classic – Alice in Wonderland. Alice, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

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4 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Esther Summerson”

  1. Great analysis. You definitely put your finger on why Dickens’ ideal female characters upset me: they’re incredibly neurotic, have ridiculously low self-esteem, and have this morbid devotion to abusive father figures (this gets really disgusting in Nicholas Nickleby and Dombey and Son)–and yet Dickens celebrates this. He thinks this is what women should be like. Well, I have a lot of the same problems. I don’t have any abusive father figures, but I struggle with anxiety and depression, with the result that I have a severe martyr complex and can’t help letting people walk all over me. It is not something to admire or celebrate. It’s horrible; it’s something that’s ruined lots of opportunities in life for me. And here’s Dickens telling me that these problems that have ruined my life are actually good things that make me a model of the perfect woman. The sad thing is, it can’t all be blamed on the time period, because there are plenty of Victorian heroines who actually act like human beings. I’m thinking Dickens had an incredibly sick mind where women were concerned.

  2. Hi,
    I play Miss Esther Summerson at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco. We are in the middle of rehersals so your blog post is very timely for me as I am trying to work out how to portray her in that enviornment.
    I really thought your analysis is spot on. I probably would have given her more points on her ability to stand up for what she believes in in spite of societial concequenses. There are several moments in the book where this comes through, starting at the Jellybys. But I wanted to let you know I found your blog very helpful.

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