What the Dickens?: The intolerable Mr. Tulkinghorn

There is a long line of fantastic Dickens bad guys — the sort that make your skin crawl and your fingers itch to close around their throats, the kind that you abhor but are also fascinated with, ranging from the brutal antics of Bill Sykes to the nuances of Ralph Nickleby, but in my humble opinion only one of them reigns supreme as the nastiest villain ever to intrude on Dickens’ gloomy London:

Mr. Tulkinghorn of Bleak House.

What makes him so decidedly different from the other tremendous evil-doers in the author’s extensive volumes is that he has no motivation other than sheer meanness. He has no reason to treat people the way he does, yet he does it because of the sense of empowerment he gets out of it — and when he discovers a niche in the armor of the formidable Lady Dedlock, he goes after it with a fierce passion that rivals the affections of a lover. His motives are never fully explained even in the novel, leaving us wondering just who kicked this fellow’s cat when he was a kid, and what kind of psychosis that brought into his twisted mind. In fact, by the time he meets his satisfactory end, the audience doesn’t quite know who to blame — or rather, to thank, considering his list of enemies is rather extensive. From the street urchin he mistreats to the scoundrels he double-crosses, to the magnificent woman he is emotionally blackmailing, Mr. Tulkinghorn is without redeeming value and deserves his fate — and more.

I have been sewing the last few days in an attempt to finish a Colonial gown prior to our Independence Day celebrations and so did what anyone else would have done under the circumstances and on a gloomy weekend — I put in Bleak House. I have discovered it’s quite another sort of story when you are listening to it rather than watching it, apart from the odd glance up now and again, and while Tulkinghorn still fascinates and repulses me on equal measure, I’m starting to pick up on the nuances of the character and the performance. He has an unusual tension with Lady Dedlock — it is not romantic as much as it is full of something else I cannot quite distinguish, but that rather resembles loathing. I rather suspect that Tulkinghorn, having been with the family for many years, disapproved strongly of the match between Sir Lester and Honoria. That he has, for many years, nurtured contempt for her, because she is “beneath” the position but acts as if she has always been in it, dismissive and bored with him when in reality he sees them as on equal footing due to her lack of aristocratic birth.

So when the opportunity arrives to torment her, he does it with enthusiasm — it is not that he intends to tell her secret, but that he loves having her terribly frightened of him; that he essentially loves binding her to his will, and when she continues to act in defiance by sending her maid away after he has forbidden her to, it encourages his wrath. Their scenes together are undeniably creepy, even predator-like in their intensity, as he stalks her around the room with his eerie eyes. In that regard I guess he does have a kind of motivation, a subtle form of revenge for her having ignored him for so long, but at the same time — this is how Tulkinghorn treats everyone, so that may very well not be it. Dickens has created an enigma for all time, the question, “What drives him??” Scholars have debated for decades, modern viewers turned out in vast numbers to speculate (“He’s sexually frustrated!” “He loves Lady Dedlock and she spurned him!” “He’s just a bloody mean old thing!”), but all we can really do is grasp at air. No one knows what motivates him, what made him so callous and cruel and just plain nasty.

I remember watching this on television in increments and reaching That Particular Episode in which he meets his end. I was so shocked I literally came up off the couch and scared my poor cat half to death by screaming, “YES!!!” I then spent the next week in torment agonizing over just who was responsible and hoping it was not the person I thought it was. (Yes, I am being cryptic in the knowledge that people do exist who have never watched it. Poor things.)

Being something of a collector of fascinating villains, Mr. Tulkinghorn ranks with the best (or should I say worst?) of them. Not unusually, my collection is populated with Dickens inventions, which makes me wonder — what was it about the author that allowed him to see the darker side of human nature? Many do not like Dickens for this very reason, that his stories are often so dark in tone, but I find it fascinating that a Victorian author was able to break free from the constraints of society and bring light to the very real issues of the time: child abuse and workhouses, the abuses of the judicial system (never more apparent than at the end of the story, in which we discover that lawyers have succeeded in destroying the Jarndyce legacy), issues of forced marriages, the corruption that sudden wealth brings, and of course individuals who merely set out to make each other miserable. I like brutal honesty as much as mild-mannered fluff, perhaps in many senses more, which is why I navigate to Dickens. One can never read through or watch an adaptation of one of his novels without being left with much to ponder. Is it his magnificent, complicated, surprising stories that fascinate us so much, or is it his unforgettable cast of odd, dangerous, sinister, and sometimes downright mad characters?

One may never know, but the legacy of Dickens and his infamous high word count lives on, sometimes from a screen in the midst of a sewing-strewn living room.

3 Replies to “What the Dickens?: The intolerable Mr. Tulkinghorn”

  1. Really enjoyed this review. Have done the audiobook 3 times and loved it each time. Mr Tulkinhorn is one of my favorite characters.

  2. I just read the book, and what you say about Tulkinghorn seems very perceptive. His motives are so obscure, but it makes sense to identify power as the driving one, particularly since Dickens emphasizes how so much importance attaches to him because of the secrets that he knows. My only regret was that he was not properly humbled before his departure: how I longed to see him find out what it was like to be defenseless!

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