Monday, September 28, 2015

Bleak House

Bleak House – Charles Dickens

Granted, reading a massive novel by Charles Dickens such as Bleak House has its trials. Dickens satirizes pompous lawyers’ prolonging lawsuits to line their pockets and selfish do-gooders whose children go hungry and wild. But nowadays such satire strikes us as just antique. In our litigation-loving society, we don’t need warnings to keep the hell away from courts.

Dickens employs an almost bewildering number of characters. When he introduces a new major character, lawyer Vholes, on like frickin’ page 500, even the staunchest reader cries, "Uncle!"
Dickens pits the impossibly good (Esther Summerson, John Jarndynce, Allan Woodcourt) versus the impossibly bad (Tulkinghorn, Krook, Vholes).

The book is not overlong, but it at times feels long to us post-moderns who don’t revel in joyous reunions (Esther and Ada, Mr George and the Iron Master) and death scenes with kids like the Victorians did.

Dickens' humor also makes us post-moderns uncomfortable rather. The Victorians took in stride jokes about toddlers falling down stairs and getting their heads caught in iron fences, angry stressed kids striking out, and demented old people. More sensitive, we post-moderns have to make sure we're alone before we laugh

Many of the characters are case studies in obsession. Sometimes it is just a bee in the bonnet, like when Mrs Woodcourt, Allan Woodcourt's widowed mother, puts people off by talking about Welsh royal ancestors too much. Old Mr Turveydrop is driven by attention to proper deportment. In other cases, the obsession is common but more acute. William Guppy stalks Esther after she rejects his proposal. Sir Leicester Dedlock is a conservative who bases his unthinking pride on family and station, which is acted out by keeping people in their place. A third group is the crazy obsessed. Richard Carstone, Miss Flite, and Mr Gridley are all driven mad by their suits in Chancery. Mrs Snagsby is irrationally jealous of her blameless husband and makes their domestic life a hell (hmm, maybe this marital torment is supposed to comic?). 

Though it took me about 200 pages to settle into Dickens’ pace, I really became absorbed in this novel The characters of Inspector Bucket and the sly man-child Harold Skimpole are unforgettable. The descriptions rapidly show characters, rooms (especially squalor), landscapes, and slums. The chase scene near the end rivets us, we are not reading about Esther and Bucket in the pursuit, we are in the carriage with them as the snow and sleet fall. Incredible. Dickens' power to enthrall, to enchant still stands.

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