Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

In which I make a gross miscalculation, and am saved by the power of public domain.

I was at a book sale. I bought a volume entitled "Charles Dickens, The Complete Works, Bleak House, 1"  I understood this to mean that Bleak House was the first novel in the set; maybe they were arranged alphabetically?  Alas, no. When I reached the end of the volume, page 435, I was obviously nowhere near the end of the novel. None of the plotlines were near resolution. This was definitely Bleak House volume I of II. And to make matters worse, it was Sunday, and I was supposed to start reading my next book on Monday. Help!  Hurray for the Gutenberg Project. I went online and downloaded a pdf of Bleak House, plowing through the rest of it on Sunday and Monday. Phew...

This was the fourth Dickens novel I've read this year, the previous ones being Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Hard Times. In the past I have also read A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol. So many people have said that Bleak House is their favorite Dickens novel, that perhaps my expectations were too high. When I initially finished it, my opinion was lukewarm. Now, the plots were excellent, as were the characters. This book is full of people you will love to hate. The two parts I wasn't thrilled about are as follows. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

First, the character of John Jarndyce seemed one-dimensional. He was very important to the plot, but the reader doesn't really get to know him or sympathize with him. Because he is wealthy and benevolent, many of his actions have a deus ex machina appearance. When the other characters are in a bind, Jarndyce will help them out. I couldn't see much motive or internal conflict in him although, to be fair, the novel is like that in its treatment of the other characters too. I guess because he is a major character I wanted to see more of his internal life. Secondly, the death of Richard appears very Victorian and hysterical to me, a 21st century reader. He becomes mentally consumed by the court case and ends up contracting a fever and dying of consumption. I know the idea of people driving themselves to illness and death through emotional turmoil was more common then, but this particular scenario didn't satisfy me.


Now, don't let my two disappointments cause you to think that the book wasn't worth reading, or that I didn't enjoy it. I certainly liked it better than Hard Times (my least favorite by Dickens so far) or Oliver Twist. A Tale of Two Cities is my old favorite, but I haven't read it in so long that I don't think I can rightly compare it with these. At this point I'm not sure whether Great Expectations or Bleak House is my favorite, but after having read six of his works I definitely have a more multidimensional view of Dickens as an author. I know I've said this before, but I strongly recommend reading multiple works by a single author before formulating your opinion of him/her. If I had only read Hard Times, I would have a very different opinion of Dickens than if I had only read Bleak House. 

Narrator, heroine: Esther Summerson
Bored to death: Lady Dedlock
The wards of the state: Ada and Richard
Telescopic philanthropist: Mrs. Jellyby
Fool you love to hate: Harold Skimpole
Prototypical detective: Inspector Bucket
Benevolent guardian: John Jarndyce
Sleazy lawyer: Mr. Tulkinghorn
Funny fop: William Guppy
Unfortunate victim of spontaneous combustion: Krook
There but for the grace of God goes Oliver Twist: Jo
There was a lot of: lawyerly ridiculosity, letters, meetings, dialogue
There should have been more: plum puddings.  just kidding.
This book makes you want to: mind your own business, clean out your closets, avoid lawyers
This book makes you glad you don't have to: sue anybody if you don't want to, be illiterate

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