Not so bleak, actually

April 29, 2007

Bleak House (1853)
Charles Dickens (Duckworth, 2005)
894 p. First reading.

Congratulations are, I think, in order. Reading Bleak House has been a long haul. In one or another edition I carried it with me for several months, through three countries on two continents; in return it carried me on one long and wonderful journey.

It is one of Dickens’ mature novels. His choice to tell the story through two different narrators, one in the first person and the other in the third, seems strange at first, but succeeds, especially as he is able to give each of them a distinctive voice. The plot is not as episodic as those that I have read previously, and several long-range connections are essential to the eventual structure of the story.

This is great storytelling, of course, and I suspect the novel will be even more satisfying upon re-reading than it has been upon first acquaintance. On the other hand, the complexity of the story requires that the reader pay attention, and catch the details, and remember them, even if he happens to be dozing off mid-chapter on trans-atlantic flights or struggling to focus through a fog of babbling foreign tongues. If he should fail in this respect, he will find himself puzzled – and join me, please, it heaping scorn upon his head – he will be puzzled, I say, at the sudden appearance of a letter, or a name, that mysteriously exerts an occult force over all the characters and events of the story. He will be surprised to discover that a character who came and went and hardly seemed worth remarking comes again, half a lifetime later, and doesn’t go, and carries the plot, and says and does things that leave the reader with a nagging suspicion that maybe, just maybe, he is missing something, something lurking in the mists of time that bears directly on the present, but for the life of him he can’t recall it. This could happen, if the reader is sufficiently inattentive, and shame on him!

In fairness, this careful accounting of all the characters and their bearing on one another is no easy feat in Bleak House. The index lists around sixty characters in total, most of whom are there for a reason, and at least a dozen of whom could be accounted fairly central to the story. At the very center, of course, is Esther Summerson, sometime narrator and a strong, attractive figure around whom to build a story. If Nicholas Nickleby was an ideal young man, Esther is the corresponding young woman: modest, sensible, generous, intelligent, and good. I liked her very much. I also liked a number of those closest to her: Mr. Jarndyce her guardian, Mr. Woodcourt her love interest, Mr. Boythorn the boisterous friend of Jarndyce. For a while I was charmed by the fluttering peculiarity of Mr. Skimpole, a self-professed “mere child” whose incapacity for responsibility is convincing, and even delightful, at first, but which at last seems too self-conscious to be genuine, thus souring his image considerably. Among the other best-drawn characters are Mr. Tulkinghorn, the villanous lawyer whose implacable will motivates the novel’s central tragedy, and, in a more minor but still memorable role, Mrs. Jellyby, who will serve hereafter as the literary exemplar of a certain kind of moral disorder.

The story has its evil characters, of course – I’ve just mentioned Mr. Tulkinghorn – but the novel is striking for its wealth of good people: Esther, her friend Ada, Mr. Woodcourt, Mr. Jarndyce, poor Jo, Mr. Bucket, Mr. Boythorn, George Rouncewell, even Sir Leicester – all are either consistently admirable or, at the least, rise to the occasion at key moments. Their goodness if of a particular sheen: fresh, unaffected, transparent, like that of a child.

I suppose it wouldn’t be a Dickens novel if there weren’t a social reform aspect to the story, and in this case the target of his ire is the English court system and its interminable argumentation and wastefulness, all carried on, it seems, without regard for the common good or the good of its clients. It might seem an easy target, but the critique is done with great satiric wit, and salted with sorrow, and adds good weight and gravity to the story.

Dickens disposes of one character by having him spontaneously combust. This was apparently done in good faith, so we can let it pass.

Though I think I still prefer David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby, I really enjoyed Bleak House. It is written on an ambitious scale, has a broad emotional pallet, is full (to overflowing!) with interesting characters, the finest of whom is happily at the very center, and closes with a bittersweet feeling. It has romance, intrigue, comedy, an exciting chase, and a murder mystery all bundled up in one story. I hope I can one day read it again.

One Response to “Not so bleak, actually”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    I recently watched the most recent adaptation of Bleak House by the BBC with a group of friends. It is really well done.

    “Dickens disposes of one character by having him spontaneously combust. This was apparently done in good faith, so we can let it pass.” — I think that Krook’s death is one of the greatest in all of literature — so appropriate!

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