In many ways Charles Dickens’ Bleak House could be considered a thesis on goodness –goodness as a basic, human trait.
There is no evil in the book as such, just varying degrees of goodness: the good, the very good, the not-so-good and the absolute failures at goodness. Failing at goodness, or being bad, is not the same thing as being evil. Failing at being good still aspires to the good, whereas evil has a marked intention to destroy, or at least sully, all goodness.
From our perspective, Dickens’ thesis may seem naïve, but that is undoubtedly because our contemporary world has a far more cynical view of humanity than the 19th century did. Instead of going beyond good and evil , and despite all our relativity, we seem to be more immersed in the polarity between benevolence and malevolence than ever before, today our narratives are full of evil criminals, serial killers, psychopathic mafias, and deranged, corrupt politicians.
In Dickens’ work, if there is a contrast of models it is between Bleak House and Chesney Wold. Bleak House represents purposeful goodness, while at Chesney Wold a kind of purposeless, hedonistic nihilism reigns. Comparing this to our own world, we could say that it is the spirit of the Chesney Wold that has triumphed, seeping out of the confines of the manor to infect all levels of society. Today, there is the same Chesney Wold feel in the apartment blocks of the middle and working classes as there is in the palatial halls of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat.
Personally, I do not think Dickens was being naïve in his thesis on goodness. It is clear that to be good one needs to adopt an attitude and that circumstances determine how easily that attitude can be adopted. Humanity, therefore, will be very good as long as it can be. When society, civilisation, or simple fortune do not allow goodness then, yes, the good attitude will crack and fail, and a society of failures at being good will be formed, and this will fester until it turns into something genuinely evil. Buried in Dickens’ work, therefore, is a development of the following basic idea: humanity will progress, as humanity, only when individual human beings are provided with the means to fulfil their own human potential. In Bleak House it is all about developing our human potential to be good.
Dickens probably wrote Bleak House because he had seen how this ethical development of humanity was being trampled on by the juggernaut of anti-humanity economics. If ethics is a human concern, the political development of our capitalist-enslaved economic system is a movement away from all general concerns toward our humanity. We hear the terms freedom and democracy bandied around constantly, but in actual fact, both of these concepts lack authentic humanitarian weight in this anti-ethical civilisation that capitalism has spawned.