Though unnamed, the infectious disease in Dickens’s Bleak House (1852–53) is definitely smallpox. The fever, delirium, blindness, and scars that Esther suffers from are the main symptoms of smallpox, and she easily identifies her disease. The process of Esther’s contraction of smallpox reflects both facts and falsehoods about the medical environment at the time Dickens was writing this novel. First, in Dickens’s lifetime, the effect of vaccination was widely accepted. In 1840, the Vaccination Act was passed in Britain, and Dickens was a supporter of vaccination though there were also many opponents. Esther’s tragedy exemplifies the limited and partial medical knowledge of the educated public in Dickens’s time because she diagnoses her disease well but getting vaccinated does not occur to her even though she would have had access to it. Second, Dickens’s choice of victims of the infection does not entirely agree with common medical knowledge. The history of smallpox goes back to 1141 BC, when Ramesses V died of the disease. Since then, smallpox has attacked rich and poor alike. However, in Bleak House, smallpox spreads among the poor and servants. Charley and Esther are infected while nursing, but Jarndyce and Ada are safe from risky physical contact with the invalid thanks to their social standing. The chain of infection in Bleak House suggests the inequality of contracting an infectious disease: this disease selects its victims and the poor and powerless are much more vulnerable than their social betters.
Akiko Takei, Chukyo University, Japan
Stream: Literature/Literary Studies
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