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.