Friday, February 10, 2012

Lights Shining in the London Fog

Bleak House begins and ends in the London fog. Those two words sound romantic to some Americans; one company sells coats and umbrellas on the good feelings associated with the phrase. But the London fog of the nineteenth century was not a meteorological phenomenon involving water vapor. It was smoke – the black smoke of an Industrial Revolution in full stride. In Bleak House, the so-called fog fills the streets, surrounds St. Paul’s, covers signs like a poison ivy, and hides secrets.

But of course Dickens finds light in the darkness. The story includes in its roster a number of good-natured fools and avuncular guardians, and its narrative includes healthy portions of satire. On top of the happiness and humor, Dickens superadds his usual moral lessons, all of which blaze out in the London fog, which comprehendeth not the light. Take this passage from Esther’s narrative, for instance, in reference to the teen-age love of her friends Richard and Ada:
They went on in their own wild way for a little while--I never stopped them; I enjoyed it too much myself--and then we gradually fell to considering how young they were, and how
there must be a lapse of several years before this early love could come to anything, and how it could come to happiness only if it were real and lasting and inspired them with a steady resolution to do their duty to each other, with constancy, fortitude, and perseverance, each always for the other's sake.
Notice that Dickens and his Esther approve of emotional love; Esther enjoys the young couple’s romantic silliness too much to stop it. But she understands that it has a proper place subservient to a love of persevering service to others, and that it only leads to happiness if it inspires this higher love. How might the statistics of our culture be different if more of us understood that romantic feelings themselves don’t constitute happiness, that true love is a commitment, and that people in relationship each have duties to act for the other’s sake!

In another shining passage, Esther reminds us that goodness doesn’t just stand strong in the storm but sometimes even depends on it:
It was grand to see how the wind awoke, and bent the trees, and drove the rain before it like a cloud of smoke; and to hear the solemn thunder and to see the lightning; and while thinking with awe of the tremendous powers by which our little lives are encompassed, to consider how beneficent they are and how upon the smallest flower and leaf there was already a freshness poured from all this seeming rage which seemed to make creation new again.
Our lives seem little indeed in the face of the “tremendous powers,” but the flower, even smaller than our little lives, finds freshness and new life in the raging storm. May we always sense the creation in the wind and see the light through the fog.

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