I picked up _Bleak House_ (1853) after hearing several critics refer to it as Dickens’ masterpiece. While I have not yet read _David Copperfield_ (1850), the author’s personal favorite among his books, and can claim only a limited knowledge of Dickens, I keep in mind G. K....
I picked up _Bleak House_ (1853) after hearing several critics refer to it as Dickens’ masterpiece. While I have not yet read _David Copperfield_ (1850), the author’s personal favorite among his books, and can claim only a limited knowledge of Dickens, I keep in mind G. K. Chesterton’s assessment of the novel I consider in this review: it is his best novel, but not necessarily his best book. In other words, _Bleak House_ may not be marred by the formal imperfections found in Dickens’ most popular works, such as the implausible _Oliver Twist_, but then there is something so fascinating about these imperfect works that the reader gives the author a break. Here’s Chesterton again: Dickens was a great writer, even if he wasn’t a particularly good writer. Length is also a factor to consider. When I was in college, I was assigned _Great Expectations_. The professor told us it was not Dickens’ best, but it was short enough to be manageable, and he considered it superior to _Hard Times_ and _A Tale of Two Cities_, two other popular choices with educators. As a result, the 1,000-page _Bleak House_ is the masterpiece few people read.
Like that other literary monster, Tolstoy’s _War and Peace_, _Bleak House_ is not one book, but several. The story, to begin with, is split into two threads. An omniscient narrator relates events in the present tense, while Esther Summerson, the novel’s heroine, narrates events from her perspective in the past tense. In addition, _Bleak House_ contains several genres. This is a legal drama, a romance, a detective story, a bildungsroman or sentimental education, and indictment of social injustice, and perhaps much more. Dickens, however, does not go into lengthy philosophical considerations the way Tolstoy does in his longest work. _Bleak House_ drags at times, and several passages could be shortened or directly omitted, but all in all, this is a compelling humanistic story.
What lies at the heart of _Bleak House_ is not human. The story revolves around Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a Court of Chancery case that has been going on for years as a result of conflicting wills. The case is, in a sense, a pretext for the story, as it gives unity to the novel. _Bleak House_ is the story of several characters whose lives are directly affected by this legal monstrosity. The main characters are Esther, introduced as an orphan at the beginning of the novel, and the distant cousins Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. These three are eventually taken in by John Jarndyce, master of the estate known as Bleak House. John, Richard, and Clare are related, and hope to receive a large sum of money once the case is settled. John regards the case as a curse, while Richard puts his hopes in it, and becomes increasingly involved in the proceedings as the story develops. Other important characters are Lady Dedlock and her husband Sir Leicester, inhabitants of Chesney Wold, and their lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn. Revelations about Lady Dedlock complicate the plot and tie these characters to Esther and her friends. Finally, one must mention Allan Woodcourt, whose crucial role I will let the reader discover for him/herself.
Like many other Dickens novels, _Bleak House_ presents many colorful secondary characters. Dickens paid so much attention to these “background” figures that, were it not for the fact that they appear sporadically, one feels they would eclipse the protagonists. One of the first to appear is the comic Harold Skimpole, who claims to know nothing about money as it flies out of his hands, and only wishes for the world to let him live his life. There’s also the elderly Miss Flite, who keeps several birds in cages and plans to set them free as soon as the court case is settled. Others worthy of mention are the alcoholic, illiterate Mr. Krook, who walks around with a cat on his shoulder; the young crossing sweeper Jo; Mr. George, a former soldier who owns a shooting gallery; and the detective Mr. Bucket.
“The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself,” the narrator points out in the second half of the novel. “Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.” _Bleak House_ condemns an institution that has escaped the control of the human beings who brought it into existence. This is, then, a surprisingly modern novel. Dickens is a master at portraying the ways in which we may become trapped in our own labyrinths. The point he makes about the English Court of Chancery applies to many human institutions, including our current socioeconomic system. We build a structure in order to shape chaos into order, and spend the rest of our lives maintaining that structure, which comes to control and devour us.
A Dickensian axiom also present in _Bleak House_ might be stated thus: hard times bring out the best and the worst in human beings. Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce will lead the characters to sympathy, love, sacrifice, hostility, envy, blackmail, and murder. Some will find their destiny as a result of the case; others will let themselves be consumed and destroyed by it. One of the characters in this novel--I won’t say which one--is simply one of the most correct, virtuous human beings ever portrayed in literature. Some will deem this character too good to be believable. I choose to think there are such people in our world. Dickens never fails to give me hope, even though his stories rarely end well for all the characters involved. _Bleak House_ is a hopeful novel, but it is also incredibly sad. It is, furthermore, often perplexing. The most famous example of this occurs in the exact middle of the novel, as a character dies by spontaneous combustion. Critics have read this event as a metaphor for long court cases, the costs of which consume the very same assets the parties are fighting over.
_Bleak House_ may not be Dickens’ most enjoyable novel, but it is formally outstanding and offers a variety of memorable characters and situations. Nabokov felt that splitting the narrative in two by adding Esther’s first-person thread was a mistake. I couldn’t disagree more. Without Esther’s narrative, the novel would have been quite dull. If you’re new to Dickens, I recommend beginning with _Great Expectations_ or _Oliver Twist_. While you will definitely notice the flaws, these novels are page-turners. But by all means, make _Bleak House_ the second or the third Dickens novel you read. It would seem that one should love the imperfect Dickens before one loves the perfect Dickens. He is, in this sense, like the beast in “Beauty and the Beast.”
If you’re looking for a physical copy, I recommend the Penguin edition. (My picture shows the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition; the text is the same as that of the paperback version.) It includes a preface by Terry Eagleton, an introduction and sufficient notes by Nicola Bradbury, and three appendices, one of which reproduces some of Dickens’ working notes for the novel.
My next Dickens novel will be _David Copperfield_.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy the book!