(Note – I read the book “blind”, that is with no idea what it contained. I wrote the essays immediately after reading, so they are first impressions.)
I’ll admit Mr. Skimpole provided a bit of riddle for me from the beginning. He shows up just after we are truly introduced to Mr. Jarndyce (we had met Mr. J once before and had heard of him often, but we had only just begun to actually know him when Mr. S shows up). He is a character that is very often in Esther’s narrative but never, I believe, in the third person narrative. The thing is, I never really figured out his purpose. I know that sounds odd, but even though Dickens wrote a whole telephone book of names into his novels, each one has a purpose, and the more they show up, the more important the purpose. Mr. S. is one of the biggest characters in Esther’s narrative but did not figure in either of the big plots (the law suit, Lady Dedlock’s mystery) nor did he further any subplot at all.
So what was Mr. Skimpole’s purpose?
When he was first introduced, although all of the characters made a big deal about how welcome he was and how much they enjoyed his company, I personally resented him a little since I wanted to know the main characters more at this point, and not this “child”. Of course it was only a few pages later when he totally took advantage of Esther and Richard that I could be justified at all in these feelings.
We all know that Mr. Dickens was a master at manipulating emotion, so I know that bit of resentment came from him. And since it was Esther’s narrative, even though she only said nice things about Mr. Skimpole, Mr. Dickens wanted to plant that Esther was a little resentful at the man for getting in the way of her getting to know Mr. Jarndyce better.
As time went on, I grew to dislike Mr. S. more and more and understood that Esther did as well. At first she didn’t mention it, but later she would admit it, at least if you read between the lines. And by the end, well, she did let her true feelings out a bit.
But at the beginning? No, only kind and good words were used.
Oh, Charles Dickens, this is you at your most subtle, and I think at your very best! You got me to dislike this character when only good things were said about him!
My first instinct was to think he was the anti-Mr. Jarndyce. They were about the same age, but different in so many ways, including points where Mr. J. might not seem perfect… Despite all of his good points, Mr. J is a little moody, is predisposed to be dark on occasion. Mr. S is light, bright and always fun to be around. He is outgoing and the life of the party.
But the more I thought about, the more I decided that Mr. S. is actually the anti-Esther.
There are some similarities.
Esther had nothing after her “godmother” passed away (the word “desolate” was used) and Mr. J. took her in. He was kind and giving to her and in ways she owed everything to him.
Mr. S. had nothing and lived 100% on Mr. J’s charity and kindness. He owed everything to him.
Although Esther was self-depreciating, she was, in fact, charismatic and pretty much was liked and admired by everyone. People were natural attracted to her, even after she “lost her looks”.
Mr. S. was charismatic and everyone loved him, at least at first blush they did. After the first blush, many put him at a distance, but most seemed genuinely happy to have him around.
Esther was, I am sorry, neurotic. She had a deflated sense of self-worth and much of what she did she did in hope that she could have some little value in life and perhaps even be liked, nay, even loved, though she might not be deserving (in her opinion). Her first words in the book are that she isn’t clever, something she proves false from the very next paragraph.
Mr. Skimpole was very neurotic and everything he did in life was done from that center. His mental illness, though, was Esther’s opposite – he believed himself the worthiest individual to have ever lived. Everyone, and everything, was on Earth for no other reason than his pleasure, and he got irritated when something did not give him pleasure – they were going against HIM personally.
Esther was truly intelligent and had a creative side.
Mr. S. was actually quite intelligent (except for numbers, or at least the oddball pre-decimal British monetary system) and was highly creative, even if he had zero ability to carry any creative task to completion.
I’m going to go over some facts about Esther and talk about some of her traits.
From the time she was very small she was put to work and always worked (she taught at the school where she was sent to learn, and becomes Mr. J’s housekeeper after she left the school). She had a huge sense of responsibility, not just for her work, but for the people around her. She had great empathy for the people around her, be they the top of society or the little piece of human trash known as “Jo”. She had deep compassion. She felt her one and only purpose was to serve people, even those who were her servants, like Charley. She was selfless and giving to a fault, often putting others above herself (see that part about being neurotic). Although she was quick to laugh, she was also quick to cry and could be quite serious to the point that her friends nicknamed her after very dull and serious characters. She was, in some ways, love itself.
Mr. Skimpole was idle and had never worked. He had zero sense of responsibility, not for himself nor for others, including his children. Mr. S. was the most selfish person in existence, making Lord Dedlock look humble in comparison. Sir Leicester was anything but humble! And yet… (see my next post). Mr. S. would take and take, even if he knew for a fact that the person he took from had nothing to give, even if he knew that it might literally kill the other, he would take just to satisfy a passing fancy. He had absolutely zero care, empathy or compassion for another individual on the face of the Earth. Every person existed only to make him happy. If a person could not make him happy, he had no use for them. Love had no meaning to this person, Mr. Skimpole. He was anti-love, which is not hate, it is worse – it is not caring at all for the other, only for self.
The big issue with Mr. Skimpole was that he did everything with eyes wide open. He knew he was hurting people. For instance, he knew that he was filling Richard’s head with false hope, and continued to do it because it entertained him to have Richard happy. He knew the effects of his actions, and yet he still did them. He may have “been a child”, but he wasn’t naive. He found “being a child” too convenient because if he stuck to it, he always, always got what he wanted.
And Mr. J would always bail him out.
I guess it would be possible to feel sorry for him – he was obviously very neurotic, possibly psychotic. He was obviously extremely ADHD and could not continue one task for more than a few minutes. Well, except for sitting a dreaming. He did have an issue with math, though when he talked, it was obvious that his issues centered around the fact that he couldn’t take the time to learn how to make change in that oddball system (which, in ways, Dickens might have been poking fun of – that system was odd and I was never able to learn it! But I never had to use it, just read about it (I visited England after the decimal system was put in place)). It is possible that he was autistic to some degree, or even that he had lead poisoning as a child (very common in the 19th century), which causes anti-social behavior. Although Mr. J. helped him from all of his self-created problems, you can say Mr. J. was an extreme enabler and actually made the problem worse – the best thing for Mr. S would have been for him to pay his own way, even if it meant spending most of his life institutionalized. What difference would it make if there were people around him to laugh at his jokes? He destroyed all that was given to him anyway. Ah, but he said that the world owed him 100% freedom…
Anyway, with all of the other bad characters in the book, it is odd that I liked Mr. Skimpole the least. But if you see him as the anti-Esther, who, of course is the most likeable person in the book, well, it all makes sense.
Long after writing this, I read an opinion that Mr. Turveydrop was a similar type leach, but in many ways worse, living an extravagant lifestyle off of the back of one who couldn’t afford it (his son and later daughter-in-law), while Mr. Skimpole was attached to Mr. J., who could. But Mr. Skimpole played a much bigger part in the book.
Warning – some might find this part offensive (it is rated PG-13). Dickens was a genius for names. Most of his characters have very fitting names, and often humorous. In Bleak House we have Bucket, who gathers information and keeps it in his bucket mind. We have that small fry, Guppy. I mean, Lady Dedlock? Esther Summerson? I’m sure you can see Skim-pole as someone who uses a long pole to skim everything he can off of the surface. However…
I’ll admit that it wasn’t until I went back to research a few items for this little essay that I noticed it was an “m” instead of an “n”. I had read the entire book reading this name as “Skinpole”. Now, I don’t know what bad names they used for people back in Dickens’ day, but I am sure calling a man a “penis” was not a compliment, and in today’s terms, I don’t think anybody would doubt that Mr. Skim(n)pole was a complete and total Dick. I am 100% certain that it was no accident that the name did resemble “Skinpole” and that Dickens had similar thoughts about this character…