Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bleak House

Title: Bleak House
Author: Charles Dickens
List: #79 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Yes.

After enjoying Oliver Twist so much, I was really looking forward to reading Bleak House. Unfortunately, I was almost ready to give up after reading the first two chapters. In these chapters, Charles Dickens employs an unidentified third-person narrator who tells the story in flowery, wordy language. He goes into too much detail and does not do much to convince the reader that the story is worth an investment of time. Instead, he sets up the boring setting of the English Court of Chancery where cases never end and the smallest legal maneuver takes years and costs excessive amounts of money. Now, this setting of the scene is necessary for the rest of the book, but does not do much to foretell the exciting story that develops over the next 65 chapters. (And keep in mind that this criticism of the boring legal setting is coming from an attorney!)

Fortunately, the third chapter starts with a breath of fresh air with a new, first-person narrative. The woman who takes over the story, Esther, is modest, charming, intelligent, and witty. She describes the events in a manner that makes you want to keep reading until you unravel the mystery that surrounds her. Esther’s narrative is interrupted at times by the formerly boring third-person narrator, but, having dispensed with most of the dull details in the first chapter, even those chapters are interesting as they reveal more about the characters and the tangled web woven around them.

As I hinted above, the Chancery Court is an important setting for this novel. Although not much action takes place “in Chancery,” Chancery looms over the lives of the characters. First, a bit of explanation. England’s Court of Chancery was a civil court of equity in England that was formed in the middle of the 14th century and existed until the mid-19th century. It handled cases involving matters such as trusts, land law, the administration of the estates of lunatics, and the guardianship of infants. Because this is a Dickens novel, he was of course trying to deliver a critique of some part of English society. Here, it was a critique of the excessively slow pace, large backlogs, and high costs of Chancery, symbolized by the all-consuming case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which has spent years in Chancery and has possibly consumed the entire amount of the disputed estate in costs.

The characters in the novel are all somehow connected to or parties in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, and while some characters have the wisdom to ignore the progression (or lack thereof) of the case, others become consumed with trying to bring the case to an end in their favor. We also meet other minor characters who have similarly devoted, and lost, their lives to the hopelessness of Chancery.

But while Chancery is certainly an important backdrop to the case, and certainly affects the lives of all the characters either directly or indirectly, the more compelling story is that of Esther. The mystery surrounding her birth and origins propels the story forward and creates the excitement necessary to keep reading. My only criticism of Esther is a complete lack of self-confidence (apparently praised as “modesty” in Dickensian times) that does not allow her to accept people’s love for and praise of her as reflections of her own merits. Fortunately, people keep telling her how wonderful she is rather than neglecting to show their appreciation.

And so we come to the crucial question: Was Bleak House worth reading? Happily, my opinion entirely reversed itself in Chapter Three and I can wholeheartedly say that it is. It is a well-rounded, exciting novel that is perhaps slightly more mature than Oliver Twist and that is worthy of the praise of being called Dickens’s greatest novel.

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