Bleak House

bleak-houseI have been in thrall to Bleak House for the past week or so. I haven’t wanted to do anything else. As soon as my kids are in bed (four-thirty! No dinner! Just kidding, kind of) I’ve been back at it, desperate to find out what happens next in this glorious, chunky, complex, dark masterpiece of a novel.

This is the story of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the epic law-case that has dragged on through generations, with ruin in its wake. This case — the cause of which no one even remembers any longer — has lost fortunes, lives, loves, and sanity, corrupting those it touches even briefly. Into the shadow of Jarndyce and Jarndyce come the two orphaned wards of the case, cousins Ada and Richard, and young Esther Summerstone, brought from her own mysteriously orphaned past to be a companion to Ada. These three come to live at Bleak House itself, so named for its unhappy associations, with their kindly and honorable cousin, John Jarndyce.

On the other side of the London world are Lord and Lady Dedlock and their household. The beautiful Lady Dedlock, under her mask of fashionable indifference, hides a secret about a former lover and an illegitimate child — a secret that could destroy her marriage and her reputation. Their lawyer, Mr. Turveydrop, who knows all the ins and outs of everyone’s business, may know more than he’s telling — about this secret, and much more besides.

And this is just the beginning of what the eternal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce sets in motion among the huge cast of characters. There’s Mr. Bucket, the police detective (one of the first in fiction); Mrs. Jellyby, who is so devoted to charitable causes that her entire household goes to rack and ruin under her very nose; Harold Skimpole, who is a mere child about money (but doesn’t mind taking it from others); little orphaned Jo, who doesn’t know nothink; and dozens of others. As the plot moves along, going from Esther’s curious childhood to the slow, relentless grinding away of Richard Carstone to a murder mystery to a romance, none of the threads are permitted to drop. Dickens doesn’t waste a single character, nor allow himself the luxury of a deux ex machina even once in the space of 800 pages. Everything comes together — everything — among people you care for, in a way that makes a powerful vision of life under the law.

I’m a Dickens fan (though I have novels I like much better than others), but I am the first to admit that his characters, particularly minor ones, are often types — caricatures — rather than fully-fleshed human beings. Look at Mr. Micawber, for instance, or Rogue Riderhood. They don’t change through the course of the story, and despite their memorable nature, they exist more to illustrate a point than anything else. Of course, there are characters like this in Bleak House (Mrs. Jellyby is a case in point.) But this is one of the first novels I’ve read by Dickens in which I started out thinking I knew what sort of person a character was, and revised my opinion as the book went on. Harold Skimpole, for instance, is introduced, apparently in good faith, as a charming, delightful fellow, completely unworldly, with no more sense than a baby of time or money. Dickens has the capacity to make this kind of person utterly lovable; I was prepared to love him. Yet as time went on, I found to my surprise that I didn’t, quite. (I won’t reveal exactly why.) The characterization was complex in a way that I haven’t always found elsewhere in Dickens, and it was complex even in his women (and I often feel, with only a few exceptions, about Dickens heroines the way some people feel about Hitchcock’s blondes.)

The style of the narration was also fascinating. It alternates between Esther’s first-person narration and third-person narration in the present tense. This present-tense narration has an unusually urgent, dark quality to it, and Dickens uses sentence fragments and exceptionally beautiful descriptions to create the brooding feel that haunts the whole book.

Finally, the book was drawn together, not only by its plot and style, but by its themes. Of course, on the face of it, it would appear that the corrupt practices of the law are the main theme of this novel. But what Bleak House is really about is parents — good parents, bad parents, no parents, those who are in loco parentis. From the wards of the court, whose “parent” is the corrupt giant Jarndyce and Jarndyce, to poor Caddy Jellyby, who has been raised without love or care by a mother who thinks only of African children, to Lady Dedlock and her abandoned, illegitimate child, to little orphaned Jo, fathers and mothers and children are on every page. The notion that good fathers and good mothers — not good blood, because many of these relationships are with guardians or adoptive parents — make good children, and that bad or absent parents make miserable or dead children, is everywhere repeated. And despite the grim legacy of the law, Dickens rejects the idea that the sins of the father will be visited, willy-nilly, on the son; he claims redemption (if not, necessarily, a happy ending.)

Out of the nine Dickens novels I’ve read, this rates up in the top two. It’s a masterpiece. If you’ve been waiting to read it, stop waiting.  Whatever you’re looking for in a truly great novel, it’s here.

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17 Responses to Bleak House

  1. Kristen M. says:

    I fully agree. I had put off Bleak House for so long but once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. It was incredibly good. It’s in my Dickens top 3 right now … I don’t think I could narrow it any more than that.

  2. Teresa says:

    I think you know that I’m not a great Dickens fan, but I do love this book. The miniseries that came out a few years ago is pretty good as well. (It’s been long enough since I read the book that I couldn’t say how faithful it is, but it was enjoyable.)

  3. Danielle says:

    I’m about 200 pages into Bleak House. I should be picking it up more often than I am, but I have too many books demanding attention at the moment. It’s only the second Dickens novel I’ve read. I’ve enjoyed what I read and look forward to getting back into it. Loved the BBC adaptation of it, too!

  4. Jenny says:

    Kristen — Isn’t it wonderful? I was surprised at how modern it felt (for lack of a better word) and how much it drew me in. I usually give Dickens 50-100 pages to grab me, but this had me hooked from the beginning.

    Teresa — I can see how someone who isn’t a big Dickens fan would feel differently about this one. It’s darker, and the style is different from others of his that I’ve read. I am really looking forward to the BBC adaptation!

    Danielle — I look forward to your review of it when you finish!

  5. CB James says:

    One of my favorites. I’ve read it twice times and intend to read it at least once more before I die. You’re right about the characters. I wish there were more modern novels with characters like Dickens’s. I just saw the movie version of The Reader, and while I liked it, I kept thinking how small it was. It really only has two characters. Dickens would have told the same story with a fleshed out cast of at least 30.

  6. Catherine says:

    I love Bleak House. I enjoyed it as an undergrad but even more the second time around just reading for pleasure.

  7. Jenny says:

    CB — Odd as it may seem to say, I think one of the few people who writes like Dickens today is Stephen King. Huge novels with enormous casts of characters — something like The Stand or Desperation, for instance. But if you don’t like a taste of horror… :)

    Catherine — sometimes I regret not taking any English classes as an undergrad! I read so many French novels, but I’m only now getting to wonderful works like this one.

  8. Melanie says:

    “In thrall” — what a perfect description of reading Dickens! I still have this one as a to-read, but I am so wanting to get to it. Have you read Our Mutual Friend yet? Which are your top Dickens?

  9. peter says:

    I am reading Bleak House too. I am a big fan of Dickens. I would put it in my top three Dickens novels, my other two favourites being Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend.

    I was speaking to someone recently who argued that the television adaptation of Bleak House were actually better than the books. I of course disagree. While tv adaptation can be great, as is the case of the recent adaptation of Little Dorrit, they can never replace the verbal pyrotechnics that Dickens creates on the page. In fact, I would argue that book and adaptation are actually different things, and set out to do create different effects, so that one can never compare like with like.

    By the way, Jenny, do you have any favourite French novels? I am a big fan of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu and Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale.

  10. Great review. You’re right, Skimpole is at the center of the meaning of the novel.

    Thomas Pynchon is the most Dickensian contemporary writer I know of. Big books with casts of thousands – he even uses the silly names. Neither his purpose nor his effects are much like Dickens’s, but he borrows plenty of Dickens’s techniques.

    Or maybe Salman Rushdie is more Dickensian. Or Zadie Smith. Or…

  11. Jenny says:

    Melanie — read it! I put this one off for a long time, and it’s fantastic. Our Mutual Friend is still my favorite, and this comes second now. (I think Dombey and Son might be third.)

    Peter — thanks for the thoughts on the adaptation, which I’m in the process of watching now. I agree that they’re two separate animals. Favorite French novels of mine… too many to include them all, but I love Liaisons dangereuses, almost anything by Colette, Le chevalier de la charrette, Moi, Tituba, sorciere noire de Salem, La chartreuse de Parme… Maybe I should stop there!

    Amateur Reader — thanks for stopping by. I am so glad you don’t think I’m crazy about Skimpole. He just kept nagging at me. I haven’t read any Pynchon yet. Onward and upward!

  12. peter says:

    Harold Skimpole is a fascinating character. I know we are supposed to take it for granted that Dickens disliked Skimpole, but I wonder if he really did. OK, Skimpole might be irresponsible and all the rest, but in his own strange way he is a harmless character. He has no aggenda, he does not buy into the power and ego struggles of other characters, and perhaps most importantly he does no harm to anyone. It might be argued that he was a bad parent and husband, but I think the fact of Skimpole being such a benign character and a non invasive influence on his family would have countered this aspect.
    What do other readers think?

  13. peter says:

    By the way, Jenny, which adaptation are you watching? The earlier one with Dianna Rigg as Lady Dedlock, or the more recent one with Gillian Anderson in that role.

  14. peter says:

    Melanie, Our Mutual Friend is perhaps my favourite too. What I most like about the book is the theme of redemption. It is also a beautiful love story.

  15. Skimpole is not harmless. He is directly responsible for Jo’s death. See Chapter 31 and Chapter 57.

  16. Jenny says:

    Peter — I’m watching the 2005 adaptation, with Gillian Anderson, and a very good job she does, too.

    Spoilers ahead:

    I have to say that, while I don’t think Skimpole is actively malevolent, I do think he’s a malign influence — a purely self-interested, utterly manipulative character without a shadow of pity or care for others. Not only is he responsible for Jo’s death, as Amateur Reader points out, not only does he care nothing for the well-being of his family (those he should care for most of all), but he takes money from those who can least afford it and encourages hope in Richard, who can so ill afford hope. The fact that he’s open as the sky about his manipulation doesn’t make him a good person, it makes him a better manipulator, without loyalty and without honor. By protesting that he is a “child,” he forces others into the role of parent, no matter how ill-suited they are to that position, the better to take what he wants from them. A beautifully sketched portrait of a certain kind of evil.

  17. peter says:

    Jenny and Another Reader, thank you both for your thoughs. I suppose that I was playing the devil’s advocate, so to speak, apropos Skimpole. I was looking for different perspectives.

    Jenny, I’ve seen bits of the adaptation with Gillian Anderson and they looked good. I will have to watch it all. I like your taste in French literature. Speaking of which, for some unknown reason, a few days ago I suddenly recalled Benjamin Constant’s novel Adolphe.

    I recently enjoyed the BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit. Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend are both great love stories.

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