After surviving Bleak House I am a Charles Dickens hold out.
You can’t say I didn’t try. Every day for two weeks, between 12:30 and 2 pm I watched over a room of sleeping 3-year-olds and with nothing else to pass the time I slogged my way through this 900-paged behemoth.
I tried to comprehend what was happening in the first chapter. I tried to understand what the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit was all about. But once it became apparent that such an understanding was beyond hope – and besides the point – I gave myself up to the numbing chaos of the evil, swirling London fog and the rest of the novel passed before my eyes like disjointed scenes in a phantasmagoria in which I drifted in and out of consciousness and sometimes what even felt like a coma.
And no, believe it or not, the book isn’t all that “bleak.” It’s just mind numbingly oblique.
Part of the obliquity is intentional, for sure. The main premise (if there is one) is an ongoing lawsuit called Jarndyce and Jarndyce that no one quite understands. No, scratch that: no one remotely understands, and that is to include the reader. We figure it involves an inheritance of money of some sort, because some of the characters are hopeful in benefitting from it, but for the most part, it’s a miserable mess. Dickens, true to his brutally repetitive fashion, slams us over the head in his opening chapter with the hopelessness and the futility of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case and runs the London fog metaphor ragged.
Many fans of Bleak House point to the fact that in this novel Dickens’ outlook is darker and more cynical and mature, and he gives a scathing critique of the High Court of Chancery, the court of law at that time, and its hopelessly bureaucratic shortcomings. He describes the members of the High Court of Chancery as, “mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might.”
Anyone who’s been through a divorce, a serious health problem or other unfortunate life event might well relate to the despair that comes with too much red tape. The message is important. But unfortunately, the most piercing and profound passages in Bleak House are tiny nuggets lodged in a mountain heap of descriptive rambling.
The narration is divided between a generic 3rd person observer and the 1st person observations of our heroine, Esther Summerson. The contrast between the darker 3rd person and Esther’s hopeful and guileless voice is no doubt intentional, and it makes for some admittedly interesting perspective. I found myself preferring Esther’s warmer and more personable voice – even though it is not as objective and omniscient – to the 3rd person vignettes concerned more with side plots.
Esther enters the story when her cruel godmother dies and she becomes the ward of Mr. Jarndyce and close friends to a pair of cousins, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Richard and Ada are also connected to Mr. Jarndyce and they hope to benefit from the lawsuit’s outcome. In the meantime, Esther lives a blissfully contented life as housekeeper to kindly Mr. Jarndyce and never utters a peep of complaint or negativity- even after her face is ravaged by smallpox.
Through both Esther’s eyes and the narrator’s we inspect a parade of various characters ranging from sweet to pathetic to absolutely grotesque. True again to Dickens fashion the parade is a long one, and the names are cartoonish and full of hard consonants – from Mrs. Pardiggle to Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby. You could almost measure the “caricature” factor from the names themselves: note that “Esther Summerson” and “Allan Woodcourt” are much nicer and more believable names, as they are nicer and more normal people.
Then there are the ambiguous in-between types, like the dogged detective Mr. Bucket and the mysterious Lady Dedlock and the sad and shocking mystery that surrounds her. Long as Bleak House is, it does have a beginning, middle and end, and I must admit, a fair and fitting conclusion that will not have the reader in stitches.
The novel, overall though, was a fail for me personally. I will try to highlight the main reasons I hold this opinion.
- The characters in Bleak House are mainly caricatures. Caricatures work fine for bad people, but not for good people.
It is debatable whether it’s good or bad (or neutral) for characters to be caricatures. Obviously there is a case to be made, otherwise Dickens, who is the caricaturist of them all, wouldn’t still be so bloody popular.
In some cases, the over-the-top-ness of his characters manage to induce a giggle or two while still revealing a truth about human nature. This is in the best cases. A good example would be Harold Skimpole, the bafflingly irresponsible and good-naturedly selfish “eternal child.” Harold is so out of touch with reality and all things normal and adult that he doesn’t pay his bills because he thinks money is silly. However, he has no objection to other people giving him money, either as a bribe or bail, and uses such absurd logic to do so that he actually surpasses hypocrisy to the point of being straight-up loony. The crusty detective Bucket calls him like he sees them:
“Whenever a person proclaims to you, ‘In world matters I’m a child,’ you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One.”
Unsurprisingly, Skimpole reveals his true colors in the end by lashing out at Mr. Jarndyce and calling him “selfish,” when in fact Mr. Jarndyce is quite the opposite and simply doesn’t cater to Skimpole’s bizarre sense of entitlement. Pretty sure we’ve all met a Skimpole or two in our lives who drove us almost as crazy.
Two other good examples of extreme negative caricatures are the pathetic parental figures, Mr. Turveydrop and Mrs. Jellyby. Mr. Turveydrop affects generosity to his son Prince for “allowing” him to marry Caddy Jellyby when in reality he is a shameless sponge who lives off his poor son’s hard work and really doesn’t have a right to stake a claim. It’s a shameful scenario in which the parent-child relationship is reverted, and one we have probably all seen but hope not to see again.
Mrs. Jellyby is even more wicked. The perfect picture of hypocrisy, she is absorbed in lofty charitable work in overseas Africa while ignoring the needs of her own children. She is cold, even emotionally negligent to her daughter Caddy, and Caddy’s friend Esther observes in Mrs. Jellyby “a serene contempt for our limited sphere of action.”
These are successful examples of extreme, even cartoonish and darkly humorous characters who exemplify the worst of human nature. Dickens has a bone to pick with such people and in Bleak House makes it abundantly clear that there is a special place in hell for anyone who oppresses children – especially their own.
The problem of caricature comes when we get to the good guys. You can laugh at someone who’s horrible, but a saint? They’re neither funny, believable or unique. Not unlike the famous sentence from Anna Karenina, “all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” you could say that while bad people can be bad in different ways, a perfect person is going to be boring because he or she will have every imaginable virtue with no exception.
Take Mr. Jarndyce. For the first half of Bleak House I kept waiting, almost with dread, for something unfortunate to rear itself in the man. He is just too nice and too kind, generous, patient and benign, almost like Santa Claus or God himself. And then I finally realized that was the point and that that Mr. Jarndyce is a God-like archetype. When he makes an incredibly generous gesture near the end of the novel that surpasses all his prior generous gestures you sort of do a double take. “Really? Who is this guy?” Clearly something who belongs in a snuggly fairy tale world of black and white.
Mr. Jarndyce has got nothing on our flawless heroine, Esther Summerson, however. Dickens has a reputation for unrealistically perfect young female characters that grates even on his fans, and Esther is no exception.
Here is an example in which Esther is singing the praises of her eternally gracious guardian, Mr. Jarndyce:
My thought was how could I ever be busy enough, how could I ever be good enough, how in my little way could I ever hope to be forgetful enough of myself, devoted enough to him, and useful enough to others, to show him how I blessed and honored him.
When she comes to live in her new home provided by Mr. Jarndyce after her wicked godmother dies, she declares, “If a good fairy had built the house for me with a wave of her wand, and I had been a princess and her favored god-child, I could not have been more considered in it.” How…sweet.
Esther rejoices in the kindness shown to her by others, and in return passes along such kindness down to the poorest and most unfortunate souls with unflagging zeal. She has no care or consideration for herself in even the most important matters. She is so self-effacing as a narrator that she focuses all her attention onto other people and events that she almost becomes invisible at times. Her humility is refreshing to a point, but believable or relatable it is not.
I would argue that good, exemplary characters do not need to be without flaw in order to be such. It is insulting to a reader’s intelligence to think that they should be perfect if we are to emulate them in any way, but here it could be a difference in taste. And if Esther Summerson and Mr. Jarndyce had a taste, it would be that of bubblegum bonbons.
- Melodramatic vignettes with side characters get old fast
I have a serious confession to make. I actually scrolled through the Cliff Notes summary after finishing Bleak House because I just spaced too many of the scenes with the minor characters.
Normally I can focus. Normally I can at least attach a name to a person. But Bleak House has what feels like 137 characters and most of them are so outrageously weird and off-beat and so haphazardly slipped into the scene that if you blank out for just a moment or two, you might not even realize what’s going on. That London fog really must be potent.
When I try to recall the full cast of Bleak House, all I can recall mainly are snatches of lurid scenes and images: a dejected mother sitting at the fireside with a dead child in her arms, a drawn-out argument between two minor characters with goofy names ending in –iggle or – aggle or –uggle, a street urchin named Jo who is probably more important than I realize, a crazy old lady, a kid named Peepy who never seems to talk, and of course, Mr. Krook who spontaneously combusts and leaves gore all over his room. Some of this stuff is more central to the plot, but a lot of it is filler.
Cliff Notes was sage enough to point out that Bleak House was written before the age of TV and Internet, when such rambling side plot action would have been more entertaining than annoying. It sadly appears that I am too much a product of my time, although I do see how some readers might actually find the eccentricity enjoyable.
- The plot is flawed and the book is just too long. Sorry.
Sometimes it seems like Dickens had two ideas in his mind: one was a murder mystery, and the other a political rant. Ideally he should have tied them together, such that the murder and secret identity mystery were directly related to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. With the build up of the sinister feeling around the lawsuit in the beginning of the novel you are really getting ready for something tangled and twisted, but in the end, it sort of fizzles out. There are some characters who are hurt by its outcome, but that’s directly due to the foolish decisions they made and it hardly seems tragic.
The murder mystery and secret identity plot also fizzle out and reach rather abrupt conclusions, and the emotions of the characters affected are surprisingly subdued. Perhaps such mystery plots were still new at the time and Dickens was fiddling and experimenting. I can understand that.
But at the end of the day, the book is just too long. There probably are some books in this world that deserve to be 900 pages, but Bleak House isn’t one of them. The scope of action could be much tighter, more centered and impacting, and directly related to that, the characters would be fewer. But then it wouldn’t be a Charles Dickens novel and so we go back to differences in tastes. One thing Dickens did have a talent for was the whimsical use of words, and I’ll part with this funny little rant of Mr Jarndyce:
The whole thing will be vastly ceremonious, wordy, unsatisfactory, and expensive, and I call it, in general, wiglomeration. How mankind ever came to be afflicted with wiglomeration, or for whose sins these young people ever fell into a pit of it, I don’t know; so it is.
Whether or not Bleak House is an example of literary wiglomeration is up to you, but I will say, it’s a fun word I might start using from now on.