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Book Review: Charles Dickens' Bleak House

Five or six months after starting it, I have finally come to the end of Charles Dickens' Bleak House. The word count? above 360,000; some editions must be 1,000 pages long. The one I read ended on page 665. In July I took it to New York with me. In September it accompanied me to Pittsburgh. In December it made the trip to Michigan. Click the "Dickens" tag if you wish to see what I've already written about it.

I confess that for weeks at a time it lay undisturbed, while my mind was busy with other things. I don't think that the leisurely pace at which I read it has much to do with the novel not being "gripping." The novel had its mitts on my attention, especially near the end. I think it's more a symptom of a certain style of writing: circuitous, wordy, serpentine. It seems to me that, more than today, nineteenth-century readers read to pass the time. The idea of "getting to the point" had not yet evolved (or perhaps devolved). They read novels and wrote letters; we surf the internet and send text messages. I'm a twentieth-century reader: I can handle novels, however baggy they may be. But, I confess that sometimes my mind starts to wander, mid-sentence, sending me back. I hadn't read any Dickens since I was a teen, and then I wasn't fond of him. So this was something new and wonderful for me.

Curiously, the novel's language reminds me of the Spanish Renaissance and Baroque (Antonio de Guevara, Cervantes, Gracián) with its bipartite and tripartite clauses, its binary oppositions, and its alliterations.

For example, a character who is "zealous and active" would in the same sentence be contrasted with another who is "languid and routine."

Typical alliterations. When the Smallweeds occupy the late hoarder Krook's establishment they spend their time: "digging, delving, and diving into the treasures of the late lamented." Richard's "heart is heavy with corroding care." Unfortunate characters eat "dismal dinners and leaden luncheons."

Dickens also has a knack of coming up with clever metaphorical imagery. Richard, being pulled into the vortex of the Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce court case, finds himself "fighting with shadows and being defeated by them." Here's one of his similes: "That engaging old gentleman is still murmuring, like some wound-up instrument running down."

Dickens' foreshadowing of the coming demise of the evil lawyer Tukinghorn reaches poetic heights. Tulkinghorn goes to bed: "And truly when the stars go out and the wan day peeps into the turret chamber, finding him at his oldest, he looks as if the digger and the spade were both commissioned."

While not in these words, I have often mentioned that I'm not fond of archetypes in art. Humans tend to have in them both good and bad, in varying proportions. So often times when characters are purely good or purely evil it's a turn-off. And yet, Dickens' novel is full of good and evil characters and somehow it works. Esther and her guardian John Jarndyce are good, as are many other characters. Tulkinghorn is sinister, while Krook and the Smallweeds are greedy and miserly. Maybe he pulls it off by giving the characters certain weaknesses or tragic misfortunes. Anyway, I must make an exception to my precept for this book.

The challenge in any novel of this magnitude is to weave many narrative strands together. This Dickens does masterfully. The book may have been meant as a critique of the cumbersome English justice system (indeed, Jarndyce and Jarndyce ends when the fortune that was being contested is completely eaten up in court costs), but it is also Esther Summerson's coming of age tale. It is a mystery, in which the characters' pasts are slowly unearthed. It is a sort of detective novel avant la lettre in which Inspector Bucket identifies Tulkinghorn's murderer. Bucket is certainly a precursor to Colombo, but without the latter's rumples. Dickens tells his story through two main narrators: an omniscient, third-person narrator, and Esther herself, who narrates in first-person.

There are many more things to be said of the novel, but this is merely a short review. Someday I will return to Dickens; I just wonder if he has another novel that can match the greatness of this one. Highly recommended. Take your time.



September 2019



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