A “Bleak” Analysis

Diagnosis: Infectious Jo-itis

For this analysis of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, I would like to look at an aspect of a character who when I first encountered him in the story, I didn’t really perceive him as a character of major importance.  But as I read further into the book, he assumed greater influence in my perception of his role.  I’m speaking of Jo, the unassuming boy with the broom.  Jo is a character, who when first encountered, has the feel of a bit-part player; one of those extras in a movie who lucks out and gets a line or two in one scene, before fading into obscurity.  But as the story unfolds, we come to realize that Dickens is using Jo as a key element in the progression of his plot.  Jo is being used as an agent of infection and not just in the medical sense.  He infects many of the major players with sickness, compassion, and perhaps most importantly, knowledge.

The most obvious mode of “Jo-itis” is, of course, when he infects Charley and Esther with what we assume is smallpox.  This infection plays as an important plot point because of the scarring that Esther must live with after her recovery. It changes how she is perceived and how she perceives herself.  Something that is a little less obvious is that as he is infecting Esther with smallpox, he is also infecting her with compassion.  She is so worried about him when she finds him at Jenny’s, that she endangers herself by taking him to Bleak House to nurse him.

Indeed, compassion seems to be a more virulent symptom of “Jo-itis”.  While Charley and Esther are the only ones in the story that contract smallpox from Jo, practically everyone that encounters Jo, with the exception of Inspector Bucket, fall ill with a good case of compassion for the boy.  Nemo, who “wos wery good to me, he wos” (163), is the first in the story to have compassion for Jo.  But he is not the last by far.  The list of afflicted is quite extensive; Mr. Snagsby, George, Phil, Allen Woodcourt, Mr. Jarndyce, Lady Dedlock, Jenny, Ada, and of course Esther and Charley, all fall victim.  In a fine example of Dickensonian irony, Rev. Chadband seems to exhibit a false-positive for the symptom, “preaching” compassion for Jo, without actually having any.  And Inspector Bucket, being immune to this symptom, only wants Jo to “move on”.

The least obvious and perhaps most insidious symptom of “Jo-itis” is the knowledge he spreads.  Everyone that comes in contact with him gains some knowledge of the secrets that surround the characters.  Lady Dedlock learns of Nemo’s sparse existence and final resting place from Jo.  Mr. Tulkinghorn’s suspicions are confirmed when Jo mistakenly identifies Hortense as Lady Dedlock.  Bucket gains knowledge from Jo, as well, and perhaps this is why he is so insistent that Jo “move on”.

Jo is far from just a “bit-player” in Bleak House.  He is a major part of all that goes on.  Dickens very successfully uses him to push the other characters into the arrangement needed to resolve the plot to its final conclusion.  “Jo-itis” runs rampant through the story and it is a good thing.  It challenges the idea that infections are always bad, making us think about the interactions between people and the sometimes unlooked for results that are visited upon us.


Works Cited: Dickens, Charles, and Gill, Stephen Charles.  Bleak house. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.



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