Friday, July 9, 2010

Optional Work: Bleak House

I just want to start off by saying that this book is long. I realize I am stating the obvious, but I still fell like it needs to be said and that this truth cannot be overstated. I chose the Barnes and Noble edition which includes original illustrations, a map of Dickens’ London, and a timeline of Dickens’ life and the important events that happened during his lifetime. This edition is 817 pages long, and, in true Dickens fashion, the book really doesn’t start to get moving until about page 395. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book…I just had to pace around my tiny apartment a few times after finally finishing it because I felt as if I was waking up from a coma…but a good coma…if there is such a thing.

Like many of the novels that will appear in this blog, Bleak House could belong to a multitude of different genres. The one I have decided to go with are satire, romance, melodrama, social criticism, and even detective fiction. I will speak more about satire and social criticism in the history section when I come to Dickens’ feeling about the English judicial system of his time.
When talking about romance as it pertains to Bleak House, the best example I can think of from the book that exemplifies this genre is the relationship between John Jarndyce and Esther Summerson. John Jarndyce is perhaps one of the most noble and upright men that Dickens ever created. He essentially comes to Esther’s rescue after the death of her godmother. He educates her, and then gives her a comfortable place to live with him and his wards, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. It is later revealed (spoiler alert!) that he long had the intention of making her his wife and sharing with her his life at Bleak House. Throughout the novel, Esther expresses both to Jarndyce and the reader how utterly grateful she is to him, and how she owes her very life as it is to him. It is a different take on the common tale of a knight coming to the rescue of a maiden.
Bleak House is a melodrama in that Dickens does appeal to your emotions by making some people unbelievably good (Esther and Jarndyce), and others downright vile (Harold Skimpole). I would also like to argue that some scenes and plot points are exaggerated as well. My main example for this (spoiler alert!) is the eerie scene in which the illiterate Mr. Krook is found to have been a victim of spontaneous combustion. Before his body (or lack thereof) is found in his apartment, there is constant description of Guppy and Jobling smelling something in the air and various odd substances drifting from the sky. When the body (or lack thereof) is found, it is really just a smoking mesh with a much freaked out cat nearby. In my edition, an illustration accompanies the description, making the scene that much more complete. Of course, spontaneous combustion as a means of death is its own exaggeration, as many people do not believe in its possibility, and it is extremely difficult to prove.
The novel crosses over into detective fiction whenever Mr. Bucket appears to investigate either the murder (spoiler alert!) of Mr. Tulkinghorn, of the whereabouts of either Lady Deadlock or the ruined Mr. Gridley. Most of the action involving Inspector Bucket takes place near the end of the novel, and it really is interesting to see how Dickens has him put together his clues and evidence in order to figure out who the real culprit is.

The one theme I could really attach myself to when it comes to this book was greed. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit that remains at the core of the novel has been going on for years and has consumed pretty much all of the money the winner of the judgment is supposed to receive due to legal fees. As the novel goes on, it becomes apparent that almost everyone, with the exception of John Jarndyce, that becomes at all involved in the lawsuit becomes obsessed with it and ceases to be able to live a normal life. The likeable (spoiler alert!) Richard Carstone slowly becomes more and more depressed and pathetic as he refuses to let go of his false belief that when the lawsuit is over, he will be rich and will be able to adequately provide for his new wife. He refuses to head the advice of Jarndyce and even starts to belief that his guardian is selfish and an enemy.
Another example of greed in the novel is the despicable Harold Skimpole – a friend of Jarndyce and a sponge off of anyone who lets him. He claims to know nothing of money in order to clear his own conscious whenever he gets into debts and can’t pay them back. Someone always ends up paying the debts for him, and he goes on living and never learning from his mistakes because he doesn't really want to. He even has no problems sponging off of people he knows cannot afford even their own debts, much less his. I think for me, the moment I decided I despised his character is when he leaves his house in order to avoid an encounter with a debt collector; meanwhile, his wife and kids remain at the house and they are left to deal with the debt collector on their own.
There are other characters that exemplify greed in the novel, but for me, these two definitely take the top two spots.

Dickens began monthly serialization of Bleak House in March of 1852 and finished in September of 1853. The fictional lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is emblematic of what Dickens seemed to believe were the failures and flaws of the British judiciary system. These were flaws Dickens himself saw both when he worked as a law clerk, and when he himself was a litigant seeking to enforce copyright on his books. Of course, there were Chancery lawyers and judges who believed that Dickens’ social criticism was exaggerated; however, Bleak House did help spur an ongoing movement for legal reform that was occurring as he was writing the novel, and went well into the 1870s. The Six Clerks and Masters mentioned in Chapter One were abolished in 1842 and 1852. This would mean that Bleak House would have to have been set before 1842.

Next week I will dive more deeply into the characters of Bleak House and how their histories and plot lines interweave with one another. While reading the book, I felt like I was introduced to characters and plot lines in a sort of circular motion as one character’s circumstance would lead to the introduction of another, and their’s would lead to the introduction of someone, and so on and so forth until eventually the reader was brought back to the character the whole cycle started with. This can make the novel both fun and frustrating – any novel that begins with a list of characters immediately puts me on edge as it would not be included unless they felt like the reader would need it.

No comments: