Bleak House is a significant and enjoyable book that, in many ways, is the quintessence of what a Charles Dickens novel is all about. This is the story of Esther Summerson, a young girl who is apparently orphaned. Esther is initially raised by an emotionally abusive aunt. Later, the benevolent John Jarndyce takes her in. Esther establishes close bonds with Jarndyce’s younger cousins, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. She also encounters a host of additional characters and becomes enmeshed in their worlds.
As the narrative progresses, it becomes apparent that Esther’s mother is still alive. She is the aristocratic, haughty, guilt ridden and depressed Lady Dedlock. This complex character steals the show, as the secrets of her mysterious past and her inner demons occupy much of the narrative. As Lady Dedlock’s early life begins to catch up with her, she becomes the victim of the prying and malicious lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn. Numerous additional developments ensue, including Esther’s permanent scaring as a result of smallpox.
One of the most important plot threads is the unending saga of the legal case Jarndyce verses Jarndyce. The case, which at its root is the disposition of a large inheritance, is intricately complex, has dragged on for decades and has played a part in the ruination of lives. One of the basic themes of the book is the pernicious nature of the English court system.
In one of my favorite passages in the book, Dickens describes the history of the matter,
“Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.”
There is a lot more plot here. Multiple parallel and interrelated stories, themes and legions of characters abound. Like the aforementioned case, this book is too extensive and complex to summarize or analyze its themes in a single blog post. Suffice to say, it is in many ways typical Dickens.
Such is a Dickens novel that characters are colorful and larger than life. Some are paragons of virtue, while others are insidious villains. A few inhabit complex and intriguing gray areas, particularly Lady Dedlock. The novel is also full of fascinating descriptions of London and its surrounding environs. Settings range from fabulous halls of the rich and aristocratic to the darkest corners of the vilest slums. The book also brims over with emotion. At times, it is genuinely affecting, and at other moments, it is almost laughably too sentimental.
I will be posting one or more additional entries focused upon some points of the book that I find particularly interesting. This novel truly encapsulates both what is great about Dickens as well as his flaws. If one is prepared and desirous to step into the intertwined, fanciful, philosophical and complex world that Dickens weaves, this is a great place to begin or continue the journey.
Some Thoughts About Esther
Esther is an interesting character indeed. She puts the welfare of others first, and endures hardship for the benefit of those around her. The point of view of the novel alternates between the first person narratives of Esther herself and the perspectives of a cynical but compassionate third person voice.
When describing herself she is constantly and persistently putting herself down. She questions whether she deserves the love of others. As a result, she harps upon the fact that her purpose in life is to make others happy.
At one point she comments upon a declaration of love by a suitor,
"it is a great thing to win love, it is a great thing to win love! I am proud of it, and honoured by it; and the hearing of it causes me to shed these tears of mingled joy and sorrow— joy that I have won it, sorrow that I have not deserved it better; “
After her disfigurement, she observes to herself,
"And so Esther, my dear, you are happy for life. Happy with your best friends, happy in your old home, happy in the power of doing a great deal of good, and happy in the undeserved love of the best of men."
These are just a few examples. I think that Esther’s self-deprecation can be attributed to her upbringing, in which her aunt constantly diminished her worth.
However, there may be something else going on here. When speaking in her own inner voice, Esther is a bit too focused on how selfless she is. There is so much insistent modesty that one gets the impression that Esther does not really believe it all. This gives her a hint of inner self-righteousness, perhaps self-deception, that she never shows to the world.
Without a doubt, Esther is an extremely virtuous and selfless person. In no way is Dickens portraying her as spiteful or pernicious. However, if I am correct, she is just exhibiting a little imperfection, perhaps human weakness, in her thoughts.
I have read no criticism or analyses of Esther’s character thus far (This was true when I wrote this). I may be mistaken about my impressions. It may be that I am seeing complexity that is not really there. Either way, Esther is a marvelous character.
Since I wrote the above I have read some criticism and commentary on this work. It seems that there are many interpenetrations upon Esther’s character. I am taking a stab at my own take on one aspect of her persona here. I ask my readers to indulge me and look upon the above as an impression; perhaps something of an educated guess, at what Dickens was trying to get at.