Looking a Long Way Off
I’m only a little way into Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by his Mrs. Jellyby. The reader gets a first impression of her from the “biography” given by Mr. Kenge.
“Mrs. Jellyby,” he says, “is a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public. She has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects at various times and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa, with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry—AND the natives—and the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population.”
In typical fashion Dickens mixes irony with description. Her “remarkable strength of character” is directed “entirely to the public.” Her “extensive variety of public subjects” is qualified by “until something else attracts her.” And we find she has interest in the “coffee berry”, but also the natives, he quickly adds (assuming that this interest in the coffee berry and the settlement of “our superabundant home population” is entirely consistent with a sincere interest in the natives).
We are left with a picture of a woman who is entirely and singly preoccupied with her own “quest” for social action, wherever that quest may currently be directed. We also guess that this singleness of mind may stem from misguided sense of moral earnestness which is driven by her fancy and lacks a thorough consideration of other relevant factors. This picture is only confirmed by later character development.
Our first encounter with the JELLYBY House is portentous; a small confused crowd of mostly children is gathered. We are told “One of the young Jellybys been and got his head through the area railings!” and that the “young Jellybys are always up to something.” From the very beginning the contrast between Mrs. Jellyby and Miss Summerson is apparent in that the former’s attention is elsewhere, and the latter takes responsibility.
The first actual description we are given of Mrs. Jellyby is that she is a “pretty, very diminutive, plump woman of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if—I am quoting Richard again—they could see nothing nearer than Africa!” She has “very good hair but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it.”
She asks excuse for the state of the house, saying, “you find me, my dears, as usual, very busy; but that you will excuse. The African project at present employs my whole time.”
When Peepy falls down the stairs and comes to his mother for comfort, it is again Miss Summerson who comforts him as his sobs slowly subside. But ironically it is Miss Summerson who is made to feel shame as Mrs. Jellyby expresses her gratification at her work. “It IS gratifying,” said Mrs. Jellyby. “It involves the devotion of all my energies, such as they are; but that is nothing, so that it succeeds; and I am more confident of success every day. Do you know, Miss Summerson, I almost wonder that YOU never turned your thoughts to Africa.”
Mrs. Jellyby is not at this point a well developed character, but seems to be another emblem of a point that Dickens is trying to make, namely that difficult, earnest, and respectable effort is no guarantee of moral aptness. Dickens makes the lesson very clear in the mouth of Miss Summerson later when she says, “We thought that, perhaps, it is right to begin with the obligations of home, sir; and that, perhaps, while those are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them.”
I suspect, however, that the vice of Mrs. Jellyby cannot be summarized simply by saying she picked the wrong thing to do. I suspect that there is a deeper issue that we too deal with. Mrs. Jellyby embodies a sort of moral myopia that Rebecca DeYoung characterizes as sloth. DeYoung objects to the view that sloth is simple laziness. To the contrary, sloth can be characterized by vigorous activity. Citing the desert fathers, she claims that sloth is not a sheer lack of inertia, but rather “a failure of effort…linked to a lack of love.” The old term for it was akedeia (acedia), literally “lack of care.” Fundamentally, this is a inner condition, a resistance to the demands of love.
It is worth noting that Mrs. Jellyby’s “love” operated in the abstract, for “coffee berries,” for “the natives,” for “the population.” Peepy’s actual bleeding knees and sobs did not command her attention. This is why I called it a “moral myopia,” echoing Dickens’ allusion to her eyes. This vice is about that to which we attend, what we see.
What seems to be driving this acedia or sloth in the case of Mrs. Jellyby is also familiar to us. Her efforts were gratifying. The first word we hear about her is a word of commendation. She sees what is far off because when she does, she receives mountains of correspondence and encouragement. Soothing Peepy’s sobs, on the other hand would be thankless. So this is a moral myopia which is driven by common social sentiment.
What’s also worth noting is that its unlikely Mrs. Jellyby ever made a conscious decision to put “the natives” over Peepy. What’s more likely is that she finds herself caught up into this moral inattention. This might give us pause to ask, are we morally shortsighted? Where are we resisting the demands of love for “the natives”?