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. (more…)