‘Tom all-Alone’s - paragraph 8

Jo lives—that is to say, Jo has not yet died—in a ruinous place known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone's. It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people, where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants who after establishing their own possession took to letting them out in lodgings. Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As on the ruined human wretch vermin parasites appear, so these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever and sowing more evil in its every footprint than Lord Coodle, and Sir Thomas Doodle, and the Duke of Foodle, and all the fine gentlemen in office, down to Zoodle, shall set right in five hundred years—though born expressly to do it.

This passage from Bleak House concerning Jo, the crossing-sweeper -  that ‘outlaw with the broom’ -and where he is housed, follows a description of the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Lord and Lady Deadlock, who possess not one but two houses. Hence, its juxtaposition to, and total contrast with,  the wholly different conditions of Jo’s life comes as a shock to the reader;  so does the statement ‘Jo lives, that is to say Jo has not yet died’, as though his life is nothing but a postponement of death.

            In the opening chapter of Bleak House we are introduced to ‘crust upon crust of mud’ in the London streets. All Jo knows is that it is hard work to keep his crossing clear of this mud, for as he says ‘he don’t know nothink’, and we already know that he can’t read.  So it has been established that Jo merely exists, and that life has little to offer him where he abides, in Tom -all-Alone’s. The adjectives denote the horror and decay of this wretched dwelling-place - ‘black’, ‘dilapidated’, ‘tumbling’, ‘crazy’,  ‘ruinous’. As if this were not enough, we learn that the place contains ‘by night a swarm of misery’. The collective noun ‘swarm’ is not usually applied to humans, but here neatly sums up the overcrowded, insect-like condition of these miserable people - they have become a nameless mass - a ‘crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards’. They are parasite-ridden in this dank place, and one can almost hear the rain dripping on them.

            Dickens continues this insect imagery by describing the ‘maggot numbers’ as they coil themselves to sleep. In these fetid, insanitary conditions, is the evil that they sow merely illness which they suffer, or does necessity force them to commit evil to keep body and soul together? In either case, who can help them? Dickens comes down very hard on elevated society - the Sirs, Lords and Dukes with all their privileges - who could do much to help the poor. He mocks them in the onomatopoeic, foolish  names he gives them -‘ Coodle’, ‘Doodle’, ‘Foodle’,... ‘Zoodle’, almost as though they are interchangeable.

            In the very dense writing of this passage, Dickens describes unsentimentally, but not unsympathetically, the nights Jo must pass in this hell-hole, along with others, the ill-housed, ill-educated, ill-fed, down-trodden outcasts. His cutting criticisms of the evils of the social system of his time are obviously an integral and important part of the book, for Dickens, before he chose the name Bleak House, had thought of incorporating ‘Tom-all-Alone’s’ into the title.

April 2022