In Bleak House, as in Dombey and Son, death functions as a touchstone of reality. It is a measure of the wretchedness of man’s earthly sojourn, awful and profound, but — and this is much to the point — more kindly than the torments imposed by society. One of Esther Summerson’s earlier memories is of a sombre birthday, the only recognition of which was her godmother’s remark after dinner: ‘It would have been far better, little Esther, that you had had no birthday; that you had never been born!’ When Caddy Jellyby gives her first confidence to Esther, her misery bursts from her uncontrollably: ‘I wish I was dead!... I wish we were all dead. It would be a great deal better for us!’ The bricklayer’s wife, Liz, thinking of her friend Jenny’s dead baby, says: ‘Ah, Jenny, Jenny!... better so. Much better to think of dead than alive, Jenny! Much better!’ And of her own child, sleeping, she says: ‘If he should be turned bad, ‘spite of all I could do, and the time should come when I should sit by him in his sleep, made hard and changed, an’t it likely I should think of him as he lies in my lap now, and wish he had died as Jenny’s child died!’ Mr Jarndyce, horrified to find that Richard has based all his expectations on the outcome of the chancery suit, says: ‘Whatever you do on this side the grave, never give one lingering glance towards the horrible phantom that has haunted us so many years. Better to borrow, better to beg, better to die!’
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