Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bleak House - Charles Dickens

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.

All of the above can be applied to Dickens elsewhere, but at least when it comes to the limited number of Dickens novels that I have read (A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend), it all comes together better here. The characters, both those who are simplistic and those who are more complex, seem to be better drawn out. The plot is well constructed and stays engaging over hundreds and hundreds of pages. Dickens’ wonderful prose as he describes nature’s interplay with humanity, when he takes a sarcastic and comical view of human folly and when he extolls the virtues of noble souls is at a high point here. Ultimately, this is a great novel. If one is inclined to like Dickens, it is a must read.

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.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Did you happen to read anybody who you thought was especially good about Esther's role as a writer?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - I do not think so. However, if I recall at some point in the narrative she depreciated her own efforts at writing. When I think about it I think that she was a a really good writer.

If you know of some worthwhile commentary please do tell.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The issue is on my agenda for my next visit to the novel, which will be soon, I hope. But I have never really read anyone else on the subject, and I should.

Dickens solved his problem of dull female heroines with one stroke. The first person makes her interesting almost all by itself. I think the complexity you wrote about is definitely there.

Suko said...

Esther sounds like an intriguing and complex character. I enjoyed your thoughtful post, Brian. I believe I have a copy of Bleak House on hand from my school days. (I may even have my notes on it somewhere.)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Indeed Esther is not dull. As for her being a really good writer I think that one would expect this based on the meticulousness that she tries to project onto the world in other areas of her life.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - It would be interesting to go back and look at those notes if you can find them!

Caroline said...

This is high on my list of 19th Century novels to read. I don't really know a lot about it as I tend to avoid reading criticism of books I haven't read yet but I'm very curious to "meet" Esther.

Anonymous said...

I have nothing much to add because I am not inclined to read Dickens. I did read Great Expectations and liked it, but now I shiver at the mere mention of his name.

However, there is a Bleak House read-a-long at Reading Rambo. If you are still of a mind to discuss this book in February, you should follow along. You can look in my sidebar for a link to her blog.

Reading Rambo adds a whole new dimension to read-a-longs and you will for surely enjoy the posts that are produced by her and her friends.

silverseason said...

We missed the plane to Spain and had to spend the night in an airport hotel, waiting for the morning flight out. I had a paperback copy of Bleak House and became so absorbed, reading in the hotel and on the plane, that I was actually sorry to reach Barcelona before I finished the novel.

I have read a lot of Dickens and Bleak House is the best. It has humor. Think of the contrast between the dutiful Esther and the do-gooding Mrs. Jellaby. It would be good material for a standup comedian.

As to Esther's character, it is always hard to depict good people to be as interesting as bad people, and Dickens does it well. He wins our sympathy by the account of Esther's background and lets us see how bravely she deals with the effects of the smallpox. The friendship between Esther and the Jellaby daughter is also very moving.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The "whole new dimension" at Reading Rambo, is it animated gifs?

LMR said...

Several years I tried to read Bleak House, I gave up because I could almost see the excess of words dripping down the page off thick layers of verbosity. I've always had this problem with Dickens.

But that passage about the case droning on sounds so good. Perhaps I should give it a new try.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Nancy - Indeed this is a page turner. I did find Mrs. Mrs. Jellaby initially very funny but in the end almost tragic. I will have more to say on that one in my next post.

Esther, for all her self references to being unlovable, seems to be one of those people, at least in adulthood. That everyone seems to love. I actually thing that this is reflective of real life.

Brian Joseph said...

HI Miguel - Without a doubt Dickens is long winded. i tend top appreciate his generous use of words. He seems to have a lot that is aesthetically pleasing and worthwhile as he spreads words upon a page. I think that this is a matter of personal taste and it is difficult contend whether this is good writing or bad.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I think that you know that I am same way. I do not like to read much about a book until I have read it and now that I blog, actually written something. I would love to know what you think when you get to this.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle - i will say that I liked this one a lot better then Great Expectations. I will check out Reading Rambo.

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Tom and Belle - I have not looked at the sire but the name "Reading Rambo"may be the best bookish term that I have heard in decades!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle - I must ask, why do you shudder at the thought of reading Dickens?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle - I must ask, why do you shudder at the thought of reading Dickens?

Anonymous said...

I don't know why I shudder, but there is a genuine physical reaction. I may have to save him for my rocking chair days.

As for the read-a-long, there will be plenty of gifs (which I find slightly annoying), but Reading Rambo is a very intelligent, sharp reader and her commentary is insightful and funny all at the same time.

You will leave the read-a-long thinking about the book differently than when you went in.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle - Very interest about the physical reaction. There are a few authors that I feel the same way about.

Read alongside are great and I will try to participate.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Thinking about a book differently - that is just why I read blogs. So Reading Rambo is now in my blog reader. Thanks for the introduction. She seems like a cousin of Dead White Guys and books I done read.

Harvee said...

I have not read this book of Dickens, but I can see some similar themes from his other books. Maybe it's just the view of the England of the times. Enjoyed your analysis.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I read a lot of Dickens years ago, but nothing recently. I can't remember if I read Bleak House.

Your character analysis of Esther is intriguing. I had always thought Dickens characters were a bit cartoonish in order to make his over all point of good vs evil.

You, however, present Esther as more complicated, with mixed motives. She is good but maybe a little too self-conscious about it. I would like to read this book and see what I get out of it.

Thanks for the review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - as I begin to read more Dickens I see that he definitely repeats themes as well as plot devices. For instance, his works are filled with orphans who run into a mix of very cruel and very kind adults.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I think that cartoonish is a really good word for Dickens's characters. Esther transcends that, if only by a little bit. Even if my assessment of her is off base, there are some interesting things going on with her.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

I haven't read this book (yet) but one day...I definitely want to read more Dickens - Our Mutual Friend is sitting patiently on a shelf, waiting.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi delia - I thought Our Mutual Friend was underrated, but that Bleak House was better. I would love to read what you thing when you read either.

James said...

An excellent commentary on Bleak House. Your discussion of Esther Summerson is insightful and makes me want to reread the novel just to experience her character again. Another favorite aspect of Bleak House for me was the wonderful and exciting immersion into the world of Inspector Bucket, one of the first ever police detectives. He sets the tone for the police detectives to come..
All in all one of Dickens best novels.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Inspector Bucket was indeed an innovative character. I will discuss him a bit in my second post on this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Inspector Bucket was indeed an innovative character. I will discuss him a bit in my second post on this book.

JaneGS said...

I am looking forward to rereading Bleak House one of these years--I've read it twice. The first time I loved it, the second time, not so much, but I think I will appreciate it again on the third time.

I'm interested in what you say about Esther--she's actually one of the more interesting of Dickens' heroines, who tend to be boringly saintly. I think you are right in that Esther has a slight edge to her--although it might not have been intentional on the part of Dickens.

Great review--lots to chew on!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Though I have not read all of major works, it seems that the consciousness is that Esther was his most interesting heroine. Even if the hint of self righteousness is not there. Her psyche does exhibit some not so simple corners.

Violet said...

I've tried to read Bleak House a few times, but I don't really get along with Dickens and I tend to stall about half-way through his novels. It was the word "chancery" that drove me nuts in Bleak House. I hope to finish it one day, though. I think that in Esther, Dickens satirises the Victorian notion of the The Angel in the House, and there's a lot of irony in what Esther thinks and says. As I see it, she is a means to draw attention to the self-sacrificing role of women in Victorian culture, and to make people think about the inherent issues. I really like the BBC series of Bleak House. It's worth a watch if you come across it. I look forward to the rest of your posts on this mammoth book. :)

Anonymous said...

Hello Brian, sorry to be late to the party, but Bleak House is among my very favourite novels, and I can't resist joining in, late as I am.

I think Esther is a superbly realised character. She has spent much of her childhood having it drummed into her ear that her very existence is an abomination. So when she is later offered love, it is no surprise that it means so much to her. In her position s ward, she is naturally grateful: it is only thanks to the charity of Mr Jarndyce that she is not indigent (and Dickens presents us horrifying pictures of what indigence means). Modern readers are often put off by her constantly congratulating herself for her virtue; but I think Esther needs to convince herself that she is worthy of the love she is receiving. I find this all very convincing.

But as her narrative entwines with that of the third-personnarrator (and whis, unlike Esther's is in present tense), a curious pattern seems to emerge: even as Esther is congratulating herself on imposing order on her own world, the other narrative voice shows us a world in which no order can be imposed. And every time we return to esther's narrative, we see it in the context of the other one. One of teh most thrilling (and frightening) moments of the novel occurs when Richard Carstone disappears from Esther's narrative, and appears in the third-person narrative.

I look forward to reading your future posts on this novel.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Indeed this is a big book.

Come to think of it, the word chancery was repeated over and over again!

I have not seen the BBC series but really want to see it. Though it looks like much of the cast is noteworthy, I really want to see Gillian Anderson as Lady Deadlock.

Esther really is open to many Interpretations. I think that you may be on to something with the satire angle.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri -

No worries as to the timing of your comment. As always it is insightful.

Indeed, Esther can be seen as a case study of a person whose self esteem has been savaged in childhood.

The alternating narration does indeed to hold some keys to this novel. Though I did not think of your interpretation before, I think that you may be on to something. I have been thinking of writing something else about Dickens in another context where I am trying to pin down what seems to be a chaotic worldview.

Lindsay said...

I used to love Dickens, but it is many many years since I've picked up one his novels and read it to the end. This is one that I haven't read, though I do think I own a copy. Thanks for an insightful post Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - I think many read Dickens when they are young. Though some disagree, I think he is well worth going back to.

Unknown said...

I'm a huge fan of Dickens, and plan on reading his entire works. I haven't gotten to Bleak House yet, but I'm really excited to do so.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - I too have ideas about reading most, but probably not all of the Dickens novels. Though I really should not be pre - judging like this, I am thinking that Bleak House might have been the high point of his works.

Maria Behar said...

(I deleted the previous comment because of typos. Lol.)

In spite of the fact that I have only read two Dickens novels -- "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Oliver Twist" -- I consider myself a fan of his. That's because I always know, just from reading one novel (or two) by a particular author, whether or not I will like said author. In the case of Charles Dickens, I have to say that I don't like his books. I LOVE them!! I loved "Oliver Twist", which is the first one I read, the first one that told me that I was going to love this writer. Then I read "A Tale of Two Cities"; that novel sealed my opinion!

His prose is stunning, for one thing. I'm thinking of the famous opening of "A Tale of Two Cities": "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." Such elegance of style! Such unparalleled mastery of the English language!! And his characterizations are excellent! His characters, in fact, are among the most memorable in English literature, as well as world literature! So, definitely, I'm a Dickens fan!!

This is one book of his that I haven't read, a fact I must certainly do something about!

Your thoughts regarding the character of Esther are particularly interesting. I already like her, and feel sorry for her, too.

As for his ability to describe settings, Dickens also excelled in this area. The London of his time is the one I picture whenever 19th-century England is mentioned,

I must admit to even loving his tendency to be a little sentimental at times. Being a romantic, sensitive soul, I can hardly criticize such a thing! Lol.

In short, I am now asking myself why I have never read this particular can never read too much Dickens, I think!!

Thanks for the great commentary!! : )

Maria Behar said...

P.S. I neglected to comment on the alternate narration aspect. This is really fascinating! I was not aware that Dickens had ever done such a thing. He was way ahead of his time with this technique, if I'm not mistaken. Nowadays, this is a more commonly-used narrative style. I don't think it had been used before Dickens, and not for a long time after he used it, either. Again, I could be mistaken...

Anyhow, it's further proof of what a great writer he was!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Thank you Maria, as always you are too kind.

I never read Oliver Twist but must get to it. I must admit that Dickens has taken a bit of time to grow on me, but as he does I am beginning to love him too.

I am beginning to form a theory on his characters. These characters, while not always multidimensional are brilliant, oddball and over the top. Thus they are innovative and masterful creations. But so many writers have imitated Dickens's characters unnecessarily. It has become a sign of bad, cliched and lazy writing. That I believe causes some of the backlash.

On the other hand Anthony Trollope, a contemporary of Dickens took some shots at Dickens unidimensional characters as I explored here:

Like all people Esther has her demons, however, and it may not have been apparent in my commentary, she is both full of life and decent, so she is not too much of an object for pity.

Thanks for the super comment!

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