Bleak House

Monday, April 23, 2012

Bleak House
by Charles Dickens

If Dickens was on facebook, my relationship with him would be “It’s Complicated.” After a decade of reading his books I feel like I’ve developed an appreciation and love for his work. I read and enjoyed Christmas Carol and Tale of Two Cities, but I really didn't like Oliver Twist. Great Expectations and David Copperfield were the turning point for me. I adored both of those books and I think because of that, my hopes for Bleak House were incredibly high.

I was extremely excited about Bleak House, it’s often called Dicken’s masterpiece. Even the name is gothic and mysterious and it has Dicken’s only female narrator. But I should have remembered that Dicken’s work was originally printed in monthly installments in the paper and he was paid by the word. This beast clocks in at more than 1,000 pages.

I made a major mistake when I read Bleak House. I was reading Moby Dick and Cloud Atlas at the same time. Both of those books are a lot to process on their own without adding in the wordy Mr. Dickens and his 702 characters and their crazy names! If I’d focused only on Bleak House and I think I would have enjoyed it more. The plot is so convoluted and I felt like I was trying to keep everyone straight for the whole first half of the book. The plot grew on me once I had a chance to get to know a few of the characters.

Like all good Dickens novels there is a huge cast with intertwining story lines. There are orphans and rich people, lawyers and lords. It’s hard to jump right into these books because you really have to get to know everyone first. It takes such a long time to figure out who everyone is and really get into the story.

The whole book revolves around a complicated court case called Jarndyce v Jarndyce that has stretched on for decades. There has been no resolution; people have gone broke and committed suicide over the case after hanging their hopes on its outcome and hoping they would inherit the massive fortune.

Half of the book focuses on the wealthy Lady Deadlock and her elderly husband. She lives an unhappy life, filled with secrets, in the old mansion called Chesney Wold. We bounce back and forth between an omniscient narrator who tells her story and the character of Esther, who narrates in the first person.

The book’s second plot line involves Ada and Richard, cousins who are both wards of the case. Their fates and fortunes are unknown until the case is resolved. Esther is a young woman who has been raised by her aunt. A man named John Jarndyce decides to take Ada and Richard into his home and he hires Esther as a companion for Ada.

All of that and I haven’t even touched on half the characters! There’s the mysterious Nemo, manipulative Tulkinghorn, the Jellyby family with their distracted mother and sweet daughter Caddy, Lady Deadlock’s crazy maid Hortense, Mr. Snagsby, combustible Krook, loyal George, wonderful Allan Woodcourt, Esther’s maid Charley, Inspector Bucket and more! Obviously I wasn't kidding when I said this novel had an overload of characters and subplots.


At first I had some serious issues with the main characters. Esther was just a bit too nice and accommodating. She sounds a bit like Jane Eyre whenever we read chapters that she’s narrating, but she doesn’t have the same spunk or view of self-worth. I wanted her to stand up for herself or decide to pursue something that she loved. The moments I liked her best were the ones where she held someone else (like Mr. Skimpole) accountable for their actions.

Richard was just hopeless, why wouldn’t he give up the case! It was so distressing to watch him waste away as he threw his money towards the case. I wanted so badly for him to understand that his life was with Ada and she was worth so much more than the case.

Mr. Skimpole was captain creepy pants with his “I’m just a child” nonsense and I wanted to smack him in the face. People like that are just the worst. I love how Dickens can create such wonderful villains, sometimes they are evil because they are weak and devious, instead of being outright bad people. Mr. Guppy was another odd one. He believed he fell in love at first sight, but it was really just a shallow infatuation that brought out his stalker qualities.

The entire Jarndyce v Jarndyce fortune was eaten up by court costs just as they finally figured out who the money was going to go to. I couldn’t believe it when that happened! I was shocked when Esther got smallpox too. There were all these major plot points that caught me off guard and I really liked that.

I thought Esther was going to end up with her guardian until the very last moment and I was pissed! I am so glad it didn’t turn out that way or I might have hated it.

Oh yeah, someone dies of spontaneous combustion… seriously. I was a bit surprised by that.


BOTTOM LINE: I think this is one that will undoubtedly benefit on a reread. After I got through the first third I really enjoyed it, but it was much tougher than most of the Dicken’s I’ve read up to this point. If you’re thinking about dipping into his work, don’t start here. I would recommend reading Great Expectations or David Copperfield and seeing if they work for you.

Dickens builds wonderful stories and gives readers some of the best characters (both good and bad) that they’ll ever encounter. I know that I’ll continue to work through his catalogue and I’ll reread this one in a few years.

SIDE NOTE: I would highly recommend the 2005 BBC miniseries of Bleak House. I watched it after finishing the novel and it was excellent.


Jessica said...

I think Im going to read this one next year, I have a copy but I also have Clarissia and Les Mes on the go so I dont think I could cope with Bleak House!

Glad you liked it

Amanda said...

I hosted a readalong of this one about 18 months ago and couldn't stand it! I tried watching the BBC series and that made it even worse. All the caricatured characters who kept coming back and saying/doing the same just wasn't my cup of tea, I guess. I gave up on Dickens after that. I hadn't liked A Christmas Carol, and I'd enjoyed Great Expectations, but Bleak House just turned me off Dickens completely. :/

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jessica - Les Mis is such a good one! Enjoy it.

Amanda - I really struggled with it. It really didn't come together for me until almost 3/4 of the way through. Don't give up on Dickens completely though! I would recommend you try David Copperfield if you liked Great Expectations. It's my favorite of his books.

Kristi said...

My experiences with Dickens have been mostly positive, but like you, I wasn't a fan of Oliver Twist. I think Great Expectations is my favorite. Bleak House is on my list to read.

I understand what you mean about having to focus on the Dickens and not split time. I did that with David Copperfield (read it over six months and read several other books in between) and I think it lessened my enjoyment. It was hard to keep track of all of the threads not reading it consistently.

mari said...

Interesting review. I have read a lot of Dickens and he's definitely one of my literary heroes (note to self: might be time to reread A Tale of Two Cities!). Bleak House was one I hadn't read and when I was recently under the weather, I watched the BBC series you mentioned. Wow! All of those characters. Keeping track of them was a bit challenging but what a story. And I think I heard somewhere that he only wrote one draft of the entire story. Do you know if that's correct? anyway, I'm putting this on my to-read list. So glad you liked it.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

kristi - I definitely don't think I would have loved David Copperfield like I did if I'd read it over a long stretch of time.

mari - I hadn't heard that before, but that's impressive if it's true! It really was worth it in the end if you're already a fan of Dickens, but it's not a great place to start with his work.

Sarah Reads Too Much said...

I will attempt this at some point in the next few years, but I'll have to prep with something else. Though I am encouraged by the fact you didn't much like Oliver Twist either!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sarah - Whenever there's a book that intimidates me, readalongs always give me a good motivator to read it.

Brona said...

I loved the spontaneous combustion chapter - a laugh out loud moment!!
Along with Skimpoles The House that Jack Built story!
Brona's Books

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Brona Joy - I couldn't believe there was spontaneous combustion in Dickens!