• Bleak House by Charles Dickens
• Hardcover: 1069 pages
• Publisher: Heron Books, No Publishing Date available (originally published in 1853)
• ISBN: 1300203016R3
• Genre: Classic; Victorian Novel
• Recommended For: Anyone who enjoys classic novels rich with characters, plot twists, masterful language and tone, and satire.
Quick Review: Earns a 94 %, or 4.7 stars out of 5. Check out my rubric for my detailed assessment. Bleak House Review Rubric
Truly canonical and a classic. What all great literature should strive for: a balance of well-constructed plot, lively and real characters, perfection in tone, language, and style, and a multitude of themes that forces the reader to ruminate.
How I Got Here: I found some beautiful hardcover copies of Bleak House (split into Part 1 and 2) at a used-bookstore, and decided that I would kick off my Classics challenges with this novel. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since November!
The Book: Goodreads’ Synopsis
Bleak House opens in the twilight of foggy London, where fog grips the city most densely in the Court of Chancery. The obscure case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, in which an inheritance is gradually devoured by legal costs, the romance of Esther Summerson and the secrets of her origin, the sleuthing of Detective Inspector Bucket and the fate of Jo the crossing-sweeper, these are some of the lives Dickens invokes to portray London society, rich and poor, as no other novelist has done. Bleak House, in its atmosphere, symbolism and magnificent bleak comedy, is often regarded as the best of Dickens. A ‘great Victorian novel’, it is so inventive in its competing plots and styles that it eludes interpretation.
‘Perhaps his best novel … when Dickens wrote Bleak House he had grown up’
G. K. Chesterton
‘One of the finest of all English satires’
My Analysis and Critique:
I have written so much on Dickens this month, and as Bleak House is near-perfect as a novel, I will categorize my praise into literary elements:
Plot: Simply amazing. Dickens made use of cliffhangers, detective-style story-telling, and gave closure to all characters and storylines. Surprises abound. I thought the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case might still be going on at the end, but that too was resolved, to my (and the characters’) surprise. Part comedy, part caper, part melodrama, part romance–all good!
Characters: The most amazing characters! Not a single one (well over 50, in my self-made character list) was minor, and each had their own well-defined voice. For more on Dickens’ use of characterization, read my previous feature post.
Theme: So many ongoing and critical themes! The mess of the legal system. The social inequities of London. Misguided philanthropy. The varying types of love. So much to ruminate over in this book. I loved it!
Setting: So often praised for his plot, characters, and themes, I think Dickens’ use of setting might often be overlooked. As I mentioned in a previous post, London is, in itself, a character in this novel. Dickens explores and showcases all sorts of areas in London: Chancery Court, Tom-all-Alones, and the townhouses of the wealthy. Other scenes come to life as well- the rich countryside of Jarndyce’s Bleak House and the homeland of the Dedlocks and Boythorn, Chesney Wold. He even spends a short time in a factory town in the north. All were alive and well-illustrated in this novel.
Style: Dickens’ voice, his satire, his comedy, his disgust and joy, really make this story real, as if you are gathered around Dickens, listening to him tell it. It really makes you envious of those Victorians who lined up to listen to his public readings. He was a very gifted writer; his words are put together as well as Shakespeare’s, and they are a treasure. Like Shakespeare, I think Dickens is one I will want to read again, if simply for his phrasing and the delight I feel at his genius use of language.
One Minor Gripe: Esther. Esther takes turns with Dickens as narrator in this novel, and many readers are terribly annoyed with her. I am not as annoyed by Esther’s sweetness and naiveté as other reviewers, but I do have one issue with her. At the mid-point of the story, she has some belief that a certain man has been in love with her, but won’t love her anymore for certain circumstances (as Mr. Guppy would put it). So, tragically, she gives up this potential romance and goes on being a constant shoulder to everyone around her.
The problem is, I never saw where she got this idea of a budding romance. She certainly had a crush on him, but there was no evidence in the storyline to show that the feelings were reciprocated. We (she, and I, the reader) barely ever even saw him! Well, I saw him more than she did, when Dickens was narrating, but she wasn’t there! From what I saw, they had barely ever had any dialogue and saw each other only a few times at this point. I’m not sure if this was a flaw in Dickens’ plot or characterization. So, I blame Esther. She’s making things up in her head. That’s all there is to it!
My discussion on the Court of Chancery (a major part of the story): “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”
My reflection on Dickens’ use of characterization in Bleak House: Dickens: The Master of Characterization
My reflection on Dickens’ views on philanthropy: “Spasmodic Benevolence”: Dickens and Philanthropy