Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Thoughts at the End

Bleak House (published serially 1852-1853) is a sweeping saga of epic proportions. Charles Dickens obviously planned the plot carefully, especially by providing introduction and characters for the bulk of the first third of the novel, so that the last third of the novel would swiftly move to a satisfying conclusion that ties all the previously unconnected threads together.

Because of its imposing nature (the novel in print is nearly 1000 pages), its abundance of memorable characters, and Dickens’ elegant writing style as he created the settings, Bleak House is not a novel for every reader. The beginning is confusing especially. But for the careful and interested reader who takes the time to sink into the details and immerse oneself in the foggy and confusing murk that is 1850s London, Bleak House provides a number of keen insights in to the impact of social class on life and the changing nature of social class in those years, especially in the context of a satiric look at the Court of Chancery and the practice of law in nineteenth century England in general.

Of course, the novel addresses a number of other social issues. For example, Dickens approaches gender roles to some extent (in Bleak House, Dickens writes with a female first person narration, and some of the women’s struggles are ones men probably would not deal with) and, as is typical of Dickens, the plight of the orphan and the poor is central.

But to me, the bulk of the issues he describes seem to hearken back to a changing upper class in Victorian England. One wealthy family has a secret to keep hidden, a secret that probably would not be detrimental to their reputation had they not been upper class. Another gentleman lives in poverty due to his own misguided hopes. The exaggerated and sometimes ridiculous caricatures of other supposedly upper class persons also bring more questions to the front of the reader’s mind: what makes a gentleman and a lady? Why? How do persons of the different classes differ?

Bleak House is crammed with rather depressing commentary on both the lives of the poor and of the rich, the hazy nature of the law courts (specifically Chancery), and a frank discussion of illegitimacy. This gives Bleak House a rather depressing tone: the marvelously written first chapters, which capture the fog and dirt of Victorian London, are a pretty accurate foreshadowing of the hopelessness many the characters will face. And yet, I personally found Bleak House anything but depressing. The residence of John Jarndyce which was called Bleak House was full of cheer, charm, and pleasantness. Further, as the story of Esther’s life became uncovered, her satisfaction in life seemed only to improve. And while there were, I admit, a number of unhappy ends in the novel, for the most part, I found the ending a satisfying resolution to a lengthy and deep story (albeit a satire-rich ending).

Although I not certain Bleak House will end up on my list of favorite Dickens’ novels (I believe that will still include Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol), it’s certainly one I will enjoy sinking my teeth in to again in a few years. There’s a reason it’s a classic, and it is certainly a novel that is meant to be reread and pondered and enjoyed time and again.

From this point, this post contains spoilers for Bleak House.Continue Reading

Half Broke Horses and The Glass Castle (reread) by Jeannette Walls (Brief Thoughts)

In her memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tells the story of her neglected childhood, from her father (who is usually drunk) to her mother who is (I believe) mentally ill. With her obvious inner strength and intelligence, Ms Walls rises above poverty and discrimination to become a successful writer.

Lily Casey Smith, the protagonist in Walls’ fictionalized memoir of her grandmother called Half Broke Horses, is likewise fantastic. She shows what sterner stuff the Walls children must have been made of and the inherited strength and ability that Jeannette had going for her.

I really enjoyed reading The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses back-to-back because both showed how determination and ability can help one through difficult situations. Although Lily Casey Smith did not suffer from such dire poverty as Jeannette did, she did face emotional and trying situations.

Also, as I reread The Glass Castle, I was struck this time by some of the positive things Rose Mary and Rex did for their children. There is no doubt that Jeannette and her siblings had a neglected childhood in the midst of dire poverty. Yet, Rose Mary and Rex were full of creativity. They challenged their children beyond their abilities, such as requiring Jeannette to do her first grade math in binary. Although in Jeannette’s teen years Rex was drunk more often, during her early childhood years, he played games with her to help her dispense with her fears, to not become attached to things, and to be independent and self-sufficient.

Lily likewise was a great example as she taught the people in various communities what they needed to learn, not letting herself be intimidated with those who tried to bully her. From the first scene in her story, where she’s saving herself and her sister from the flash floods, I loved Lily’s strength.

The Glass Castle is a book I’ve read a few times in the past and I read through Half Broke Horses quickly simply for fun,  so I’ll keep my thoughts brief. I don’t have much to say about the two books this time around, other than I loved them. I know I’ll revisit both of them again in the future, especially when I want a reminder of what it means to be strong in the face of adversity.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (Brief Thoughts)

As my son sat watching Dora the Explorer, I thought of my recent read of Fahrenheit  451 (1953).

“Say, ‘backpack!’” Dora said.

“Backpack,” Raisin responded.

“Louder!” Dora’s friend prompted.

“Backpack!” Raisin yelled.

And this is just what Guy Montag’s wife (did she garner a name? It slips my mind now) does all day long in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian America: she talks to the television, which responds. How long until our televisions are able to insert our name when they ask us a question? How often does our Facebook family garner priority over calling them on the telephone and actually talking to them in real life?1

Montag’s life alternates between nights with his empty-headed woman and his job as a fireman, which is not, as you may think to put out fires, but to burn books. Books, you see, are full of dangerous ideas that make people unequal when one cannot understand them. In his dystopian novel, Ray Bradbury considers a society that fails to embrace knowledge and the pursuit of it. In his futuristic society, television and other technologies are mind numbing, and reading is against the law. Bradbury seems careful to intimate that the society has become that way because the majority wanted it that way, not because a dictator suddenly changed things: as society gravitated away from reading, they shunned it in favor of the technology.

As with many dystopias, the society portrayed is an exaggeration of the possibilities for own society. Yet, I saw the relevance to our era, especially as I considered my son yelling at the television. As a book lover, I enjoyed watching Montag come to terms with his society. There are also some great bookish quotes the echoed the power of literature I’ve always felt.

There is nothing magical in [physical books] at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they sticked the patches of the universe together into one garment for us. (Professor Faber to Guy Montag , part 2, page 82)

How grateful I am to live in an era where books are so plentiful – and I am able to read them!

Note: I read the Del Rey/Ballantine edition, which I own.

  1. Disclaimer: I don’t use Facebook, but I suspect my twittering could be comparable to the Facebook obsession…

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (Brief Thoughts)

Upon my third dedicated attempt to read The Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, I loved it! I was in the right mood to read it, and I gave myself a fixed block of time to get started in it.

However, since I finished reading it on my Kindle app for Android two weeks ago, I accidentally deleted all of the notes and markings I’d made as I read. I had not yet reviewed my notes or typed them out since I’d finished. Therefore, I am now rather stumped as to how to proceed in “reviewing” my impression of Wollstonecraft’s arguments, given that anything I say or quote now may not have been my original thoughts when I first finished reading the book.

This gives me further motivation to read the book again. Wollstonecraft’s prose is rather dense, and she is arguing against Rousseau’s comments and philosophies, which were unfamiliar to me. She seems to me to repeat herself. And yet, much of what Wollstonecraft argued resonated with me. I also loved her bits of sarcasm. Except, given her era, I’m certain she did not intend it to be funny. She’s completely serious.Continue Reading