The prime narrator of Bleak House is a young lady named Esther Summerson, one of Charles Dickens's most memorable creations. She's an orphan with a mysteriously checkered background. Tragic disease robs her of physical beauty. But her kindness, patience, and selfless modesty make her utterly lovely. Her character begins to emerge already in Chapter 3 when as a young girl Esther is told on her birthday that she has an unspeakably sinful past and can never be like other children:

I went up to my room, and crept to bed, and laid my doll's cheek against mine wet with tears, and holding that solitary friend upon my bosom, cried myself to sleep. Imperfect as my understanding of my sorrow was, I knew that I had brought no joy at any time to anybody's heart and that I was to no one upon earth what Dolly was to me.

Dear, dear, to think how much time we passed alone together afterwards, and how often I repeated to the doll the story of my birthday and confided to her that I would try as hard as ever I could to repair the fault I had been born with (of which I confessedly felt guilty and yet innocent) and would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could. I hope it is not self-indulgent to shed these tears as I think of it. I am very thankful, I am very cheerful, but I cannot quite help their coming to my eyes.

There! I have wiped them away now and can go on again properly.

In Chapter 8 Esther catalogs, in typical self-deprecating fashion, the reasons that she is unqualified to become a missionary:

That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself.

Esther observes reather poetically in Chapter 23:

... And I looked up at the stars, and thought about travellers in distant countries and the stars THEY saw, and hoped I might always be so blest and happy as to be useful to some one in my small way.

In Chapter 35 Esther suffers from a near-fatal fever:

For the same reason I am almost afraid to hint at that time in my disorder — it seemed one long night, but I believe there were both nights and days in it — when I laboured up colossal staircases, ever striving to reach the top, and ever turned, as I have seen a worm in a garden path, by some obstruction, and labouring again. I knew perfectly at intervals, and I think vaguely at most times, that I was in my bed; and I talked with Charley, and felt her touch, and knew her very well; yet I would find myself complaining, "Oh, more of these never-ending stairs, Charley — more and more — piled up to the sky', I think!" and labouring on again.

Dare I hint at that worse time when, strung together somewhere in great black space, there was a flaming necklace, or ring, or starry circle of some kind, of which I was one of the beads! And when my only prayer was to be taken off from the rest and when it was such inexplicable agony and misery to be a part of the dreadful thing?

Perhaps the less I say of these sick experiences, the less tedious and the more intelligible I shall be. I do not recall them to make others unhappy or because I am now the least unhappy in remembering them. It may be that if we knew more of such strange afflictions we might be the better able to alleviate their intensity.

As she recovers, face horribly scarred, Esther remembers her birthday long ago:

When my guardian left me, I turned my face away upon my couch and prayed to be forgiven if I, surrounded by such blessings, had magnified to myself the little trial that I had to undergo. The childish prayer of that old birthday when I had aspired to be industrious, contented, and true-hearted and to do good to some one and win some love to myself if I could came back into my mind with a reproachful sense of all the happiness I had since enjoyed and all the affectionate hearts that had been turned towards me. If I were weak now, what had I profited by those mercies? I repeated the old childish prayer in its old childish words and found that its old peace had not departed from it.

And eventually, Esther does find her happy ending. Part of it reminds me of a sweet line in the movie The Truth about Cats and Dogs:

She is beautiful, but that's not why I love her. I love her for who she is and if she weren't beautiful, it wouldn't matter. You know how someone's appearance can change the longer you know them? How a really attractive person, if you don't like them, can become more and more ugly? Whereas someone you might not have even noticed, that you wouldn't look at more than once, if you love them, can become the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. All you want to do is be near them. I love her, and it doesn't matter what she looks like.

(cf. JohnJarndyce (15 Jul 2007), HaroldSkimpole (22 Jul 2007), LawrenceBoythorn (9 Aug 2007), DickensianGirls (3 Sep 2007), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicEntertainment - 2007-09-11

(correlates: DickensianGirls, Career Choice, Franklin on Pride, ...)