Bleak House

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Bleak House- Charles Dickens

I had to read this book for my course, otherwise- I freely yet shamefully admit- I probably wouldn’t have done. I read some Dickens in year ten (before my literary tastebuds had fully developed, granted- do they ever stop developing?!) and I wasn’t very keen, so when I found out that one of Dickens’ longest novels was required reading, I was far from thrilled.

Bleak House is a book with a lot of faults. Many of the characters are flat- especially the protagonist, Esther Summerson. The blurb of my copy calls her “psychologically interesting” but I disagree. She’s a complete Mary-Sue and far too much of a goody-two-shoes for to be likeable, plus she exhibits an annoying amount of false modesty; for example, she claims that she doesn’t find herself beautiful, but goes on to describe at length how many others find her so. Yet saying that, towards the end of the novel an unexpected depth to Sir Leicester Dedlock, who at first seems to be nothing more than a pompous old fool. His declaration that he is on “unaltered terms” with Lady Dedlock in spite of some shocking revelations about her reveals him to be a man unparalleled in nobility, forgiveness and unconditional love. His speech is one of the most moving moments of the book and even brought a tear to my eye, whereas I was previously indifferent to the Dedlocks.

The novel is also very unusual, plot wise. It’s experimental, and there’s a lot going on that you’re not told about until later. There are many plot threads and so many characters that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, or it would be if they weren’t all so unusual. Bleak House is a satire on the English Chancery, a social commentary and a prototype of the detective novel. There’s also a very unusual relationship at the centre of it, between Esther and Mr Jarndyce, who becomes a father figure, then a romantic interest and then a father figure once more. It’s most bizarre and a little bit Freudian, and Esther’s romantic feelings towards Jarndyce aren’t much discussed- we know she regards him very highly as a father figure and seems to have to real objection to marrying him, even though we know there’s someone else she’d prefer (we’re just not told who). Perhaps it’s due to her perfect and uncomplaining nature or perhaps she’s confused herself, but either way a bit more exploration would have been nice, Mr Dickens.

I’m glad I’ve read Bleak House, but I’m not sure I’d read it again. I found that the last two hundred pages were very interesting as the story really developed- a reward for wading through the previous five hundred- and the ending was satisfactory, but I could never really bring myself to particularly care for any of the characters. Then again, Dickens isn’t famed for his round, psychologically complex characters so maybe that’s to be expected. I’d recommend this novel if you’re interested in narratology or the evolution of the novel, or a Dickens fan, but if you don’t fall into any of those categories then I wouldn’t expect you to find it particularly enjoyable.

Have YOU read Bleak House? What were your thoughts? I’d love to know, so please leave me a comment!

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