Friday, November 7, 2008

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Bleak House is a masterpiece of a story. Like most of Charles Dickens' novels the book has a central plot, a lead cast, and many supporting characters that have their own stories carefully woven back and forth with the main plot. The result is a complex and very detailed story -- a classic. That being said, I will attempt to summarize the plot and characters of Bleak House in four points before closing with my overall thoughts of the book.

First, Bleak House is told by two narrators. The first is an unnamed person who relates the story in real time, though not what is thought or felt by the characters, just what is seen and heard. The second narrator is the sweet and lovable orphaned, Esther Summerson. Esther's story is told in the first person and generally in the past tense. Even though the story bounces back and forth between these two narrators there is little to no confusion. Dickens is successful in keeping the story fresh and allowing the reader to learn more than what would be possible with only one of these narrators.

Second, the plot centers around the interminable case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has been plodding on in the English court system for many years and will continue to do so until the end of time as many believe. But there are also some who believe the judgment is coming soon. But unfortunately this belief often leads to an unhappy end. The book’s subplots include love and romance, several mysteries, a murder and a critique of both society and the court system.

Third, the title -- Bleak House -- is also the name of John Jarndyce's home. John Jarndyce inherited the home from a relative who, despairing over his loss of wealth and the never ending court case, committed suicide some years earlier. At the beginning of the book Esther, along with Richard "Rick" Carstone and Ada Claire (both wards in the Jarndyce case) come to live at Bleak House where John Jarndyce is their kind and generous guardian.

Fourth, the "plot" thickens as the reader becomes acquainted with the rest of the lead cast and supporting characters. A few such people include: Sir Leicester and Lady Deadlock, who live at Chesney Wold, a country estate, and who are distantly connected with the Jarndyce case. Then there’s Tulkinghorn, the very loyal and yet menacing lawyer who serves Sir Leicster and inflicts trouble on others; Krook the landlord and keeper of a junk shop who meets with a bizarre death; Nemo, a poor law writer, who dies early in the story shrouded in mystery; Miss Flight, a slightly-crazy woman who keeps birds in cages to be set free on the "day of judgment"; Mr. Guppy, a silly law clerk in love with Esther; Harold Skimpole a "simple child"; Inspector Bucket, the detective who solves more than just a murder; and of course Dr. Alan Woodcourt, Mr. George, and Jo, each who play a special role in the story.

Not only is Bleak House complex, it is also at times wordy. But don’t let that stop you from reading this book, or any book by Charles Dickens. You may wonder how such writing could ever have been so popular, but it makes sense when you take in account the form of the book and the era in which it was written. Almost all of Dickens' books, including Bleak House, were written in serial form with two to three chapters published each month over the course of a year and a half. Read in such small segments and over such a long period of time Bleak House was easily digested and made for great entertainment in an era when there was no electricity or television and readers had longer attention spans and less to distract them.

I took my time reading Bleak House, although I often found myself plowing through chapter after chapter, eager to find out what was going to happen next. In the end, it took me a little over a month to read the book. This may sound daunting to some readers, but for the determined reader this book is worth the time. While I have not read every book by Charles Dickens, I do believe it is safe for me to say Bleak House is not just a masterpiece, it is likely his best work. There are so many elements to the story and the characters are rich both in description and conversation. I loved this story. It was a little work to get through it, but I am proud to have read the book and it will remain a life-long favorite.

For those of you who love classics, love Dickens, or love a good long read I highly recommend adding Bleak House to your personal library.

For those of you who are nervous about reading a 989 page book written in 1853 consider borrowing a copy from your library, or better yet, buy an inexpensive copy that will permit you to take your time reading. It’s ok if it takes you a couple months read, in the end you’ll be glad you did.

For further aide in reading checkout the following suggestions:

- Watch the movie first. Masterpiece Theatre (PBS and BBC) produced an excellent miniseries based off the book. I watched it last year and it was very well made. The actors, the costumes, the sets -- all where excellent! Having now read the book I can also say the film stayed very true to the book, albeit a few minor details. I normally read a book and then watch the film, but I confess, this is one that I am glad I did the opposite. Having seen the miniseries first helped me keep straight in my mind the numerous characters and their stories while I read the book.

- Another idea is to read a chapter and then read the Cliff Notes for that chapter. By reading them in this order you will not spoil the surprises in each chapter, but will be able to review what you’ve read and see if you’ve missed or misunderstood anything. There were a few times while reading that I did refer to the online Cliff Notes just to make sure I understood the previous chapter correctly.

- Last, a word of caution. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT read the summary on Wikipedia until after you have either seen the movie or read the book. Wikipedia's summary and description include numerous spoilers and it’s a surefire way to spoil the suspense of the book. If you are looking for a good place to find out "Who's who" and your book doesn't include a list, then check out Masterpiece Theater's listing. Not everyone in the book was included in the movie, but almost everyone was. It really helped me when I couldn't remember a name.


Chris said...

Insightful review.

I've wondered whether or not Dickens thought that his serialized story (this one or others) would be bound together under one spine? Or was serialization just another way of being published over time without the expection of the entire thing existing as one book?

There are other monster-long books (like Don Quixote) that weren't initially published as one piece but started out in smaller chunks. Were all of Dickens' novels serialized?

Jena said...

Oh, I have an old copy of this one that my mom got me for Christmas one year. I'm not a Dickens fan, but I will be a little less apprehensive to try this one now. Thanks for your thorough review!

Anonymous said...

I too enjoyed this book. The miniseries is awesome! I watched it first and although it took away some of the suspense for me, it aided me in understanding it better.

Rebecca Reid said...

I've only read a couple Dickens' books -- Tale of Two Cities, Christmas Carol -- but I really want to read more! Which would you recommend next? Is Bleak House a good start? Obviously you liked it!

I'm excited to jump into a Dickens classic!

Carrie said...

ha! Well, good for you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

I, on the other hand, will likely never attempt another Dickens again in my lifetime. I probably will re-read A Christmas Carol every now and again but that'll do it for me.

I just DON'T enjoy Dickens. But I'm sure he would appreciate the fact that some do.

GREAT review! Very thorough and insightful. I think I would agree with you that it's a good idea not to read Wikipedia if you are focused on working through the book. On the flip side, it does help iron out who all the characters are. But you are right- the spoilers are rather overwhelming.

Sarah M. said...

Chris - No, not every book was serialized. A Christmas Carol wasn't, for one. There are a few more, but I am not sure which.

Rebecca - I confess, I've only finished Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, and Bleak House. I started Oliver Twist once, but never finished it. I want to and I also want to read David Copperfield. Bleak House is LONG so if you're up for a lengthy read, then go for it! I didn't like Great Expectations at first... but it grew on me. It is shorter than BH, but in my opinion of the two, BH is my favorite.

NOTE: If you want a description of who's who without the spoilers go to Masterpiece's website. Not all the characters are included in the film, but most are and this might help.

Noel De Vries said...

I listened to Audible's excellent narration of Bleak House earlier this year, and I agree, it's super. But I'd argue that David Copperfield is Dickens' masterpiece. I adore David Copperfield.

Thanks for the review! It's nice to know other people still read classics like Bleak House!

Laura said...

I read Bleak House 30 years ago at the age of 17 and it launched my love for Dickens' novels. I have read all but 4 now, and my least favorite is Oliver Twist. My favorite is Martin Chuzzlewit, although Bleak House and Dombey and Son rank right up near the top also.

I guess Dickens is not for everyone, though. I know many people who don't enjoy his works at all, or who have read one or two and did not like them.

Thanks for the good review - I want to go back and reread it Bleak House now!

hopeinbrazil said...

Through the years I have started many Dicken's novels without finishing them. My most recent effort was Great Expectations and I surprised myself by really liking it. Bleak House is actually on my TBR list because I'm very interested (at the moment) in books written during England's Industrial Revolution. Thanks for a good review of the book. Now I'm not dreading it so much. =)

Sherry said...

I'm going to read this one someday. Maybe I should do as I read someone else did and read one DIckens per year. I love Great Expectations and David COpperfield and Tale of Two CIties, but it seems intimidating to think of starting another Dickens that I haven't already read.

Elen said...

Great review!

I had to read Great Expectations in school, and I didn't like it that much. I've reread it since and appreciated it more, but it's not a "fun" read.

I read Bleak House this summer and shocked myself by falling in love with it. It was funny and creepy and the length suited it. I'm so glad I gave it a try.

Kya said...

Very thorough review, I read this for classics challenge too. It does take some time to get through but Dickens' writing is wonderful.

thebluestockingsociety said...

Congrats on finishing a Lit Flicks Challenge selection! I'm actually reading this book right now. I've slowed a little, but you've inspired me to push on through!

Jessica @ The Bluestocking Society

Girl Detective said...

Bleak House is on my TBR list, too, and got there after i read about it in Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, which has some compelling analysis and high praise of it. Prose's book is worth checking out, even for non-writers.

TheBlackSheep said...

A Dicken's fan myself, I agree with your helpful hint of seeing the miniseries first. That's what got me to give the book another go. I was put off with the wordiness and the boring diatribes about Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which are really only a reflection of reality and help one to understand why father Jarndyce committed suicide! Once I got ahold of Esther's story though, reading became much easier and it's become one of my favourite books.

I can also recommend listening to books like this instead of trying to read them if you're having trouble getting through them. A good reader can really make the characters come alive which makes the story a lot more interesting. It can help you get past the wordiness that does seem to pervade in Dicken's writing. He's a great writer once you get into him.