Bleak House (published serially 1852-1853) is a sweeping saga of epic proportions. Charles Dickens obviously planned the plot carefully, especially by providing an 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 into 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 different classes differ?
Bleak House is crammed with rather depressing commentary on both the lives of the poor and 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 of 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 am 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 into 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.
As I indicated above, the resolution(s) to Bleak House was quite satisfying for me. I had felt a bit squeamish about the Mr. Jarndyce—Esther romance; I just couldn’t see them together. So I enjoyed the romantic selflessness of Mr. Jarndyce at the end at the new Bleak House (although it seemed a bit odd that he didn’t give Esther the ultimate choice: he decided for her?). The ironic resolution to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, that Esther and Mr. Woodcourt were unable to enter the courtroom for that final scene, seemed perfect; that and the “no one wins” resolution seemed to reemphasize the ridiculousness of the entire process, a parallel for the ridiculousness of the class distinctions that so many of the upper-class characters were concerned about, from Lady Dedlock to Richard Carstone.
As I finished the book, a few things shocked me. Lady Dedlocks’ flight and ultimate death outside the graveyard caused me to gasp when I realized she was actually dead; being the romantic I am, I had hoped she and Esther would survive and develop a relationship. Likewise, Richard’s fate saddened me. Again, I had wanted to see Richard and Ada finally find peace in the aftermath of Richard’s obsession.
But I concede that in both of these cases, Dickens’ resolutions made sense. Lady Dedlock was obsessed with hiding her “low class” secret and would not have given up her upper-class status with any degree of joy or satisfaction. I think the whole point of Lady Dedlock’s story in the novel was that her obsession with hiding the past took away the joy of life in general. Likewise, Richard’s depressing fall seemed appropriate given the commentary that Dickens was making about the pointlessness of Chancery and the quest for a fortune that actually changed wealthy gentlemen into less than the upper class.
When I think of “social class distinction” and the issue of the blending of the social classes that Dickens seems to be emphasizing, I can’t help but find comparisons and contrasts between characters in the novel. The upper class was full of contradictions. Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle offered “charity” that was anything but. But then, of course, Mr. Jarndyce’s benevolence, Mr. Snagsby’s bottomless pocket full of half a crown pieces, and Esther’s consideration of Jenny and Jo (among others) exemplify the other extreme of what charity from the upper classes can be. Sir Leicester Dedlock was offended that Mr. Rouncewell wanted to marry Rosa when she was not a servant, and yet, if I’m not mistaken, Honoria Barbary was working as a servant or at least was lower class when Sir Leicester fell in love with her. Their relationship developed from a very similar situation to Mr. Rouncewell and Rosa.
Ah! All the characters to address: Tulkinghorn, whom I disliked with a passion. (I must admit I didn’t understand the overall significance of his murder and the detection to solve it.) Mr. Smallweed is “fluffed up” every now and then as he sinks into his chair. Harold Skimpole: the most horrible character I met in the novel, and yet one I’m seriously never going to forget. The man named Guppy, another I’ll never forget. Esther’s godmother, tells her she should never have been born. Caddy Jellyby, her husband Prince Turveydrop, her brother Peepy, and her “model of deportment” father-in-law. In short, although it took 300-400 pages to feel a little less confused about these characters, by the end of the 1000 pages, I felt like they were people I’ll never forget “meeting.”
Further, there were things I didn’t quite grasp in my whirlwind one-month read of the novel: why the two narrators? Why did Miss Flite and her birds appear? Why the ghost walk? Why would Mr. Boythorn have wanted to marry Miss Barbary, who didn’t seem to be a likable person? Why did Dickens want to name the novel “Tom-All-Alone’s” when that seems such a small part of a greater saga?
My classics book club read Bleak House for our meeting last night. The reaction was mixed. Most did not finish it, some because they didn’t like it, but others mostly because they simply ran out of time in the two months since our last meeting.
If you’ve read the book and you’d like to respond to some book club-ish questions, here’s the list I compiled the other day in preparation for our book club meeting. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments here or on that other site. Although I have said a lot about this novel on my blog, I’d be happy to engage in yet more discussion here or there about Bleak House if you have an opinion about the underlying themes or characters or so forth.