03 Sep Jo’s Mistreatment, Misfitness, and Misfortune: The Illegitimacy of Illiteracy in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House by Larissa Zhong
Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853) paints a diverse cast of characters against the foggy backdrop of Victorian London, of whom the least fortunate is Jo, an impoverished, illiterate, orphaned boy who works as a crossing-sweeper. Dickens sets forth Jo’s mistreatment, misfitness, and the myriad of misfortunes he suffers in London quite plainly; between the lines, however, are these unfavourable circumstances as the consequences of his illiteracy rather than his orphancy. This notion is proven by other characters’ repeated dismissal of Jo throughout the novel, his exclusion from London as a society that operates on reading and writing, his suffering of misfortunes that Esther is exempt from despite their orphancy, and the circumstances of his death as the culmination of his illiteracy.
Though Dickens portrays Jo rather kindly (Evans), he is frequently dismissed and mistreated throughout the novel because of the illegitimate status implied by his illiteracy. Jo’s introduction in Bleak House declares his illiteracy before broaching his orphancy or poverty, suggesting that its importance is paramount: “Name, Jo. [ … ] Don’t know that everybody has two names. [ … ] Don’t know that Jo is short for a longer name. Thinks it long enough for him. He don’t find no fault with it. Spell it? No. He can’t spell it” (Dickens 181). In this passage, the omniscient narrator points out that “Jo” (181) is a nickname or an incomplete name, and because such a one-syllable, unclassifiable name indicates a peripheral character, others are inclined to treat him with little respect in the classist society that Bleak House depicts. Unfortunately, Jo’s illiteracy impedes his ability to recognize this. Furthermore, the emphasis on Jo’s inability to spell his own name, especially considering the significance Dickens allots to character names throughout the novel (Evans), reveals one of the many consequences Jo suffers because of his illiteracy—the absence of a legitimate name invalidates his identity in London, which allows others to mistreat him and dismiss him without repercussions. For example, the Coroner of the High Court of Chancery refuses to “receive his evidence” after Jo presents his witness statement on Nemo’s death: “‘This won’t do, gentlemen! [ … ] Put the boy aside’” (181). This is Jo’s first appearance in the novel, and his first scene as one that portrays him as a “rejected witness” (181) emphasizes his character as one of trifling status who receives little respect.
Jo’s illiteracy further renders him a social misfit in London. Jo’s character was apparently inspired by a young boy named George Ruby, an orphaned, illiterate crossing-sweeper in London around the time Dickens was writing Bleak House (Slater). An article written in March of 1851 recounts George’s summoning in court as a witness to some offense (L.R.), bearing considerable similarities to Jo’s court testimony in Bleak House. Thus, it is well grounded to interpret the article about George as if it were, in part, written about Jo:
[George] did not know how to read or write [ … ]. ‘I knows how to sweep the crossing!’ And straight-away the boy felt as if there was some link between his questioners and himself, as if he was not wholly an outcast from the social system, as if he had a place and a position in the world, and as if he had a right to be in it (L.R.).
George’s orphancy is not mentioned, but his illiteracy is: “He did not know how to read or write” (L.R.). Unlike George, Jo is never granted a sense of belonging, however fleeting, that might ease his sense of misfitness. Jo’s illiteracy denies him the connection that most other Londoners share through reading and writing, thereby excluding him from the very society in which he resides. He is “wholly an outcast from the social system” (L.R.), which is made painfully clear in the following passage:
It must be a strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows! To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postmen deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language – to be, to every scrap of it, stone blind and dumb! (239)
This passage depicts Jo’s isolation from London as not necessarily a consequence of his orphancy, but of his illiteracy—he is illiterate in a society that operates and depends significantly on reading and writing. As a crossing-sweeper, he is familiar with the pocket of London he most often occupies, but he remains unable to discern the writing on street signs and storefronts. This evokes a sense of exclusion from the knowledge and familiarity that other characters share, throwing Jo to the outskirts of London society. The significance of literacy in London is further exemplified in the High Court of Chancery, an institution overflowing with written documents and where educated men work, most characterized by the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, which sets the events of the novel in motion. Such a portrayal of the Court foregrounds the importance of literacy in London society and substantiates the notion that Jo’s misfitness follows from his illiteracy. To this end, the omniscient narrator puts Jo through a moment of dehumanization: “He goes to his crossing and [ … ] all that unaccountable reading and writing, which has been suspended for a few hours, recommences. Jo and the other lower animals get on in the unintelligible mess as they can” (240). This passage avers that as soon as Londoners commence their day, the importance of reading and writing is reinstated and Jo is immediately returned to his state of misfitness; he cannot participate in their activities nor understand the business they concern themselves with. Jo is then compared to and considered a member of the “lower animals” (240) rather than a member of London society, revealing that his illiteracy outcasts as well as dehumanizes him. This description ostracizes him and stresses his misfitness.
A comparison between Jo and Esther, an illegitimate child who believes she is an orphan until she is a young adult, further shows that Jo’s unfavourable circumstances are the consequence of his illiteracy rather than his orphancy. Esther is undeniably more fortunate than Jo because she is literate. Esther’s literacy legitimizes her and qualifies her for occupations more respectable than that of a crossing-sweeper, empowering her to assert herself as a member of London society and control her narrative through writing, which are privileges withheld from Jo. In this sense, Jo suffers many misfortunes from which Esther is exempt. For example, Jo is unqualified to work as much else than a crossing-sweeper and relies on coins donated to him by passersby as his exclusive source of income, whereas Esther is appointed Ada’s governess and the housekeeper of Jarndyce’s estate. These occupations require a certain level of literacy, such that she can fulfill responsibilities such as overseeing mail and “examining tradesmen’s books, adding up columns, paying money, filing receipts” (160). Esther’s literacy also empowers her to mingle with characters across socioeconomic classes, whereas Jo’s illiteracy manifests in his speech such that it is often difficult for others to comprehend him. For example, his speech, as transcribed by the omniscient narrator, is often riddled with misspelled words, odd grammar, and excessive contractions: “It an’t her hand, nor yet her rings, nor yet her woice. But that there’s the wale, the bonnet, and the gownd, and they’re wore the same way wot she wore ‘em, and it’s her height wot she wos, and she giv me a sov’ring and hooked it” (471). Accordingly, because of his illiteracy, Jo is resigned to a little-respected occupation and unrecognized as a member of London society. These are misfortunes from which Esther is exempt because she can read and write. Fascinatingly, the pinnacle of the antithesis between Jo’s and Esther’s circumstances lies in the narration of Bleak House itself. As the novel’s first-person narrator, Esther controls her narrative in writing to her readership and can voice her experiences with the sense of permanency that is granted by writing. Contrarily, Jo cannot write his own will nor an apology on his own accord, his illiteracy depriving him of voice and expression even on his deathbed.
The poignantly composed scene depicting Jo’s death is the culmination of the mistreatment, misfitness, and misfortunes he suffers throughout the novel as consequences of his illiteracy:
“Wot I wos a thinkin on then, Mr. Sangsby, wos, that wen I was moved on fur as ever I could go and couldn’t be moved no furder, whether you might be so good p’raps, as to write out, wery large so that any one could see it anywheres, as that I wos wery truly hearty sorry that I done it and that I never went fur to do it; and that though I didn’t know nothink at all, I knowd as Mr. Woodcot once cried over it and wos allus grieved over it, and that I hoped as he’d be able to forgiv me in his mind. If the writin could be made to say it wery large, he might” (572-573).
Jo is never privileged with the opportunity to validate his identity and experiences by preserving it in writing, and consequently, he asks Mr. Snagsby the favour of delivering his apology on his behalf. His inquiry whether “the writin could be made to say it wery large” (573) again draws on his illiteracy, showing that he does not understand the difference between visually large writing and writing denoting significance. This further sets him apart from London society and emphasizes his misfitness because his comprehension of reading and writing deviates from that of most other Londoners. Furthermore, Jo’s repeated emphasis on “wery large” is indicative of the repeated dismissal and marginalization he endures throughout the novel, and unlike Esther, whose influence is blatant as the novel’s first-person narrator, this is Jo’s final effort at making himself heard—but even then, he cannot write for himself. Dickens illustrates the unforgiving circumstances of Jo’s life and death in such a way that ultimately portrays Jo’s mistreatment, misfitness, and misfortunes as consequences of his illiteracy rather than his orphancy; Jo’s inarticulately spoken will, therefore, embodies the deprivation of opportunities and privileges he experiences throughout the novel, revealing that the consequences of his illiteracy haunt him even in his final moments.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Broadview Press, 2011.
Evans, Heather. Seminar in Literary Interpretation: Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Queen’s
L.R. “I Sweeps the Crossing.” Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal. Conducted by William
and Robert Chambers, no. 377, Mar. 22, 1851, pp. 177-178.
Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. Yale University Press, 2009.