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?