Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Thoughts at the Middle

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Note: this post contains “spoilers” for the first 60% of Bleak House.

I have a book club discussion on this book next Wednesday night, so I have been pushing myself to read quickly: this has been my main reading material this week (after I finished 2 Henry VI, that is — more on that tomorrow, maybe).  At any rate, reading Bleak House in long one-hour stretches in the evening has been very helpful to get me accustomed to the confusion that is Chancery (I’m not worrying about it, as many of them suggested I shouldn’t) and the multitude of characters. I’m now about 60% finished.

There are two things that are making Bleak House one of the great novels I’ve read. One is the writing: I love the frequent metaphors that bring the setting to life. The second aspect is the characters. There are so many of them, but they are rather memorable in their own ways, and I enjoy disliking the villains, like Mr. Smallwood and Mrs. Jellyby (what an awful lady!), and cheering for the wonderful “heroes” of the book: John Jarndyce who is so very good, Esther who likewise deserves a great end, and even poor Caddy Jellyby (now Turveydrop) who seems so sincere in her desire to have a happy life despite her mother. These characters that I love have really let me sink into the story.

I must admit: I did reference a character list in the past week. As some cautioned, this provided very detailed spoilers, so I knew the connection between Lady Dedlock and Esther before it was revealed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t “believe” in spoilers, but I do somewhat wish it could have mysteriously unfolded to me, much as the secrets in The Woman in White were enjoyed on my first read. Nevertheless, I liked seeing how it was going to come: the discussions between that man named Guppy (great name) and Lady Dedlock made complete sense to me, while if I hadn’t known what the underlying secret was I may have been confused as I’d felt in the beginning. So it was a nice experience to read it, knowing the secret, but it may be nice the other way too. I still stand by the “no such thing as a spoiler” philosophy. The story is great regardless.

And yet, last night, Mr. Dickens just about lost me. In the last chapters I read of the novel, Mr. Krook’s death by spontaneous combustion just about did me in. It was so ridiculous and “out there” that I wondered if Dickens was trying to turn this novel into science fiction. I referred to the footnotes in my Penguin copy of the book (I’ve been reading on my nook) and found an explanation in an appendix that explains the inclusion of the phenomenon in this novel.

For the purposes of the novel, however, perhaps the signal point is in the narrator’s observation: “The less the court understands of all this, the more the court likes it’ (Chapter 33). Not only does Krook’s grisly end give a narrative and symbolic parallel to the theme of self-destruction also played out by Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Chancery, but it is equally surrounded by enticing mystery.

I can really appreciate the symbolic irony of the mysterious death. I must also admit that this portion of the novel sent me on a hunt for more information about spontaneous human combustion. See the Wikipedia page about it, as well as a post about a 2010 and a 2011 possible death.

Personally, I think there must be an alternative explanation for these deaths (as well as those throughout history). I hope Bones does an episode about it (I’m currently watching season 4 with my husband; will it come up at some point?)

At any rate, despite the supernatural science in the novel, I’m enjoying watching the scenes unfold. I’m looking forward to a resolution! And I suspect already that this may be a Dickens novel to revisit.

What do you think about spontaneous human combustion? I’m very curious about it, although I’m kind of with one of the scientists quoted in Wikipedia: if it’s so reasonable an explanation, how come it doesn’t happen more often than 200 times in 300 years?

Reviewed on January 11, 2012

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I have no idea if spontanoeus combustion is possible, but I laughed aloud when I read that part of this post. Ha! I kind of skimmed so I wouldn’t get detailed spoilers, so I (happily) didn’t see which character combusts. Something to look forward to!! 😀

    Maybe all the spontaneous combustion is caused by a forgotten cigarette? Sherlock Holmes would know. Too bad he couldn’t make a showing in Bleak House. 🙂

    • Jillian » I thought you had read this? I guess you started but didn’t finish? Anyway, the whole way it’s called Spontaneous combustion is it can’t be explained by a forgotten cigarette, etc. But I too have a hard time imagining it as possible…

  • For some reason, I loved the spontaneous combustion scene! I don’t think it’s really possible, but to see something so unexpected in the middle of a Dickens novel? It was wonderful! I had to re-read that part a few times to make sure I wasn’t making it up. Normally I would probably rag on the writer for doing something so out of place, but it just works for some reason. I did the same thing you did though; I immediately started looking up info on spontaneous combustion!
    I think the characters are really what make this novel one of my favorites. I can still clearly picture most of them and often think about them when reading other novels.

    • Lindsey » I did find the spontaneous combustion scene rather odd for a Dickens novel. I had known it was coming and I’m still undecided what I think of it. But I certainly won’t forget it! And I totally agree re: the characters.

  • I loved Bleak House, so many great characters! I remember the first couple chapters being a little brutal, all the court/law talk, but after that it was great.
    Lol at the spontaneous combustion. I think readers were pretty annoyed with how ridiculous that was when it was originally published and Dickens tried to defend himself with lots of newspaper cuttings of it actually happening

    • Shannon » I think a reread would help me to see that the court/law talk wasn’t so essential…I wish he hadn’t started so deep like that simply because I don’t think knowing the details of Chancery was THAT important. But then, he sure set the bleak scene at court up pretty well. I’m curious to see how a reread will help me to enjoy that aspect of the novel without being so overwhelmed.

  • I love Jillian’s recommendation of getting Sherlock Holmes in on this mysterious combustion bit. 😉

    That was the scene that lost me completely. I just didn’t understand WHY it was there! But the fact that you like this makes me want to give it another chance….one day.

    • Allie » ah, see I am not a Sherlock Holmes fan so I thought more in terms of modern-day TV! But that’s a good point you and Jillian made there. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this book so much, but I can totally understand. There is a lot of stuff in it that could make it or break it for the reader….

  • ‘Bleak House’ is a wonderul book, one I’ll be rereading many times in the years to come 🙂 People run away from it because of the length, but it’s just so readable, much easier to consume than many 400-page novels.

    • Tony » I found it less readable than other Dickens novels, but in general I really liked it too! Definitely one to reread to appreciate the subtleties of the complex story and language!

  • I’m glad you’re enjoying Bleak House so much! I thought Mrs. Jellby just awful too, caring so much about her mission and neglecting her own family and the cares of others around her. I thought the spontaneous combustion bit was a hoot. Whether or not people do actually combust like that, the jury is still out on it as far as I’m concerned.

  • I really enjoyed the spontaneous combustion scene. I think it is a great example of Dickens’ writing. I have also seen on a TV science show that all the known cases of spontaneous combustion are in fact not spontaneous at all, and this is also explained in a footnote in the Penguin edition of Bleak House.

    • Ed » I saw a note about it in my Penguin edition, as I indicated in the post above. In my edition, though, they didn’t say it didn’t happen it just said they didn’t know for sure and it didn’t really matter because Dickens made his point about the unknown/mysterious death appealing to those on Chancery.

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