The Most un-Bleak House in All of Literature {Classic/Character Analysis}

{By Hermione Montrose}

{Note: This post was originally written in the August of 2017…and I just never got around to publishing it. Procrastination is a problem, okay? I decided to publish it anyway, even though my opinions on Dickens and his female characters and the like have evolved a bit since last August, and so if I had written this post more recently a few things would probably be different…but no matter. I think that the majority of what I wrote here still stands as a fairly competent analysis of Bleak House, and I hope you enjoy reading it!}

You’re standing in some little independent bookstore, clutching several old tomes to your chest. Because the universe is kind, a stranger comes up to you and you start in on some lovely bookish chat.

“So, what are you currently reading?” you ask.

“Ah, I felt like doing a little light-reading, and so I’m reading some Dickens right now.”

If someone had said this to me a year ago, I would have called them insane. Charles Dickens is considered LIGHT READING? I’m sorry, what planet are you from?

Now, I get it. I just finished Bleak House by Charles Dickens a few days ago, and yes, I would consider it “light-reading,” (though it did take me over two weeks to plow through all six-hundred pages. In my defense, I was also reading two other books at the time). I’m not saying this in an effort to make myself into some literary snob, but because I think it’s important to clarify what kind of classic you’re talking about when you go to review one. Charles Dickens is a master of storytelling; first and foremost, he is always concerned with the motion of his prose, and its emotional power over the reader. Secondly, Dickens had some clear problems with his fellow Victorians, and the subtext of Bleak House is primarily satirical.

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This is a direct contrast to a writer like Virginia Woolf, whose work I would definitely not consider “light-reading.” I read my first Virginia Woolf earlier this summer (Mrs. Dalloway), and I was absolutely blown away by the complexity of her prose. Though I do not at all agree with Woolf’s philosophies (sorry, I’m not a feminist), I was so intrigued by everything that came up in her text that I took pages and pages of notes. This for me is “heavy reading”—a classic that is so thick, and so self-conscious of its own experimental prose, that it demands the reader to be fully engaged. I am quite excited to read more Virginia Woolf in the future (and to disagree with her about everything she says about men and life and gender roles…).

Suffice to say, I do not think it possible to simply read an author like Virginia Woolf (or James Joyce, as another example); to fully grasp her meaning the reader must consciously analyze every page. That, at least, was my experience with Mrs. Dalloway. In contrast, I think it is entirely possible to read a Dickens novel and enjoy it purely as an act of storytelling, without doing any analyzation of the text at all. But why on earth would I write a blog post if I didn’t intend to analyze Bleak House? (Let’s be honest, I wouldn’t.) The point I’m trying to make here is this: Bleak House is versatile. It loses none of its prowess when read outside of the realm of Literary Theory, but it is such a rich text that if one did want to pick it apart, they’d have loads of material of work to with.

The only other Dickens I’ve read is Great Expectations, and so I’ll probably end up drawing a lot of comparisons between that and Bleak House. I’m mentioning this just in case I came off as some Charles Dickens expert who’s read every novel of his is existence. (Eh, hopefully someday…)

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So without further ado, let us dive into the most un-bleak House history has ever known. (Significant spoilers ahead—and I will be approaching Bleak House in this review with the assumption that my readers have either already read the novel or have some basic grasp of its characters/plot. If that does not apply to you, then you should either read the book before you finish this post (it’s worth it!) or look up a summary online. Here’s the link to Goodreads, but given that this is a classic, the summary provided will probably be rather vague. Best of luck, chaps.)

I would have enjoyed the emotional aspect of Bleak House considerably more if I had read it as a Victorian.

Doing so would have afforded me the shock value that the plot is meant to carry: Lady Dedlock had a child? Out of wedlock? *Gasp*. Unfortunately, such a plot twist would be considered rather moot today. But that point in itself is moot, as Bleak House is so solidly Victorian that its story would simply not exist if transposed into any other time period. Like many great works, its more spiritually-inclined themes transcend the nature of Time, but the novel is structured around a society that is physically obsolete.

The London of Dicken’s time provided a great venue for social criticism. This is most obvious in the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce—a ridiculous court case that represents the corrupt nature of the Law. Does his heavy criticism of the courts make Dickens a revolutionary, or—heaven forbid! —an anarchist? Hardly. Bleak House makes it obvious that while Dickens supported English Tradition, he saw that it was necessary for Tradition to be reformed in order to cast off some of the evils that the system was slowly acquiring. This is most clearly symbolized in the character of Richard—a young man whose prospects are ruined because of his unhealthy fixation with the Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce case. The case has also birthed a row of bleak houses in the way of Toms-All-Alone, the slum that house the unfortunates of the novel.

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The unfortunates themselves are of great importance, though only the women and children are shown in a human light (the men of the lower class seem to be primarily violent silhouettes, who take their misery out on their wives). Jo, the young street-sweeper, is necessary to the novel not only as a plot device (for his person is the connecting link between many of Bleak House’s ubiquitous subplots), but he is also a humanization of the poor. Where is your compassion, Dickens seems to be demanding of his readers, when waifs such as Jo are dying out in the street every day? Only the truly Good characters in the novel help Jo; others, such as the Reverend Charbrand and Mrs. Jellby, are either painted as religious hypocrites or as persons so concerned with their Mission Work that they miss helping the truly impoverished.

It is interesting how Jo, as the very lowest member of society, is brought into contact with Lady Dedlock, who is, of course, representative of high society. Strict class boundaries are deeply embedded into all of the characters: Jo is insistent of his ignorance and worthlessness because that is the character he was born into. The Dedlocks are elitists, the personification of Tradition (naturally because it is Tradition that keeps them at the top), and like their manor Chesney Wold (the true “Bleak House” of the novel), they come off as stuffy, cold and empty. Dickens, however, is not entirely merciless to the upper class; Lord Dedlock is shown to possess real love and compassion for his wife, even after her illicit past comes to light.

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Bleak House is unique in that its countless subplots all run seamlessly together into a primary narrative. Half the book is told from an omniscient third person point of view, and these chapters mainly deal with the logistical side of the aforementioned social criticism. It is through the cynical eyes of the invisible narrator that the reader is first introduced to the harsh mockery of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, and characters such as Mr. Tulkinghorn and Mr. Snagsby, whose professions are intertwined with the Chancery court. The softer, emotional side of the book comes out through the narration of Esther Summerson.

Esther Summerson is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock, though the two are linked in more ways than this. Esther acts as somewhat of a dramatic foil to Lady Dedlock; while the former is haughty, proud and cold, Esther is kind, self-deprecating, and overly humble. Esther is not an overly likable protagonist, especially when put on par with modern heroines. When first introduced to Esther, I found her insufferable. I wondered if  I was doomed to hate all of Dicken’s narrators, as I couldn’t stand Pip from Great Expectations either, though at least Older Pip is aware of his younger counterpart’s faults. Esther seems an angel—or at least she is determined to portray herself as an angel.

Once I began to view Esther as an unreliable narrator, her persona made much more sense. Esther was raised in a cruel household; from birth she was told that she was shameful, sinful, and pointless. It can come as no surprise that Esther emerges from the environment of her youth with a deep-seated insecurity, and that when she is suddenly thrust into a loving, supportive home, she works overboard to be considered worthy of love. She is especially determined to portray herself as the epitome of goodness, this being most obvious in the thin cracks that arise between the Older Esther’s first-person narration of the story and the implied reality of the situations that Younger Esther faced. Over the course of the novel, Esther gains a voice for herself and grows into self-confidence. Though she will never be a cynic, she is no stupid optimist either—Esther does not shy away from recognizing evil in people, as evident in her skeptical attitude toward Mr. Turveydrop.

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My attitude toward Esther was also altered by something I read on Deborah’s blog (The Road of a Writer). In a post that chronicled her love of fantasy, Deborah briefly touched on the aspect of heroines, stating that she is sick of heroines written to be flawed and uninspiringly realistic. Heroines are meant to be role models, the post says, as we certainly need fictional standards of Good from which to draw encouragement. (I agree with her overall argument in part—but the topic of heroines is something for a later post. Anyway, thanks very much for your fantastic post, Deborah, and you should all go visit her blog!)

When I applied Deborah’s philosophy of “heroines as role models” to Esther, it seemed obvious to me that Esther was written the way she was so that she could act as a role model to the average Victorian girl. In addition to her outwardly positive attitude, Esther is an ideal housekeeper (and later, housewife). She is earnest in all her work, careful with money, and takes full pride in her duties. Though she loses her beautiful face halfway through the novel, she presses onwards, and—in the end—still gets her love interest. Esther’s sudden ugliness may be partly an additional branch of social criticism (as the Victorians, like most cultures, had a standard measure of beauty, and women who didn’t fit the mold lost their chance at marriage), and partly a way for Dickens to showcase the perseverance of his heroine’s spirit. It is also a humanizing gesture for Esther’s character:  although she attempts to write herself as serene even under extreme illness, the frequent tears that Esther sheds over the loss of her beauty show that she does possess some degree of vanity. Likewise, it is significant that Esther’s thoughts, at the closing of the novel, again turn to the effects of her illness, and though she decides she has more than enough beauty in her life to make up for what she herself lacks—she can only ever be a woman, and her appearance will always matter to her at some level.

All that being said, I can confidently state that while Esther is by no means my favorite heroine, I can respect her composition. I much preferred Lady Dedlock to Esther, as Lady Dedlock reminded me a bit of Estella from Great Expectations (another character who I very much enjoyed).

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Two last notes to make:

On the Romances—The most convincing relationship that existed in Bleak House was that of Allan Woodcourt’s love for Esther, and her love for him. I feel that—from what I have read—writing romance seems to be Dickens’s one main shortcoming. Ada and Richard’s relationship, especially, was pleasant and kind, but it held no sensuality, no hint of passion. The reader was very nicely informed that these two were in love (and this love was certainly believable), but nothing was personally felt to assure the reader of a romantic attraction. The same is true of Caddy Jellby’s love for her husband—their romance seems almost childish, playing off of much tell and very little show.  Esther’s love is made tangible by its omission from the text; whenever Esther has cause to bring up Allan, she conspicuously brushes over him to the extent where one can almost feel her blushing.

It is a valid point to consider that the stifling nature of the romance is largely due to the setting—it all feels very Victorian, and for good reason. But surely even the Victorians had sex. (Ada does end up pregnant, after all.) I am inclined to feel that while Dickens is a master of many elements of the novel, creating sexual tension is not one of them. It is not as if romance cannot be felt in a classic—for proof of this, I direct you to Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

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On the Settings—Though I felt more at home in the foggy marshes of Great Expectations, Dickens’s sketch of London in Bleak House was very…bleak. I find that the settings of Dicken’s novels often work as the extension of a given character or plot: grime and fog are present not only in London, but also present (symbolically so) in the Chancery court system. Bleak House is comfortable, open, and well-run, much like its inhabitants. All of Dicken’s places are sincere—they are light, they are dark, they are good, they are bad—and yet no place is without its undercurrents. The prose in Bleak House built up tangible cities and forests in my mindscape, and even now, I can easily pull myself into the novel’s aura.

One particular passage that stood out to me for its descriptive merit:

“Though some of the fiery windows beautiful from without, and set, at this sunset hour, not in dull grey stone but in a glorious house of gold, the light excluded at other windows pours in, rich, lavish, overflowing like the summer plenty in the land…But the fire of the sun is dying. Even now the floor is dusky, and shadow slowly mounts the walls, bringing the Dedlocks down like age and death…All that prospect which from the terrace looked so near has moved solemnly away, and changed into a distant phantom. Light mists arise, and the dew falls, and all the sweet scents in the garden are heavy in the air. Now the woods settle into great masses as if they were each one profound tree. And now the moon rises, to separate them and to make the avenue a pavement of light among high cathedral arches fantastically broken.”

–Chapter forty, page 381.

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I am very much looking forward to reading more of Dicken’s work in the future, though next time, I shall have to pace myself so I don’t drag out the process for three weeks (I was getting sick of reading the book near the end, to be perfectly honest). I think I’ll plan on doing A Tale of Two Cities** as my next Dickens read, although it may have to wait until next summer. Anyway, thank you very much for reading my long and possibly dramatic (yes, okay—it was dramatic) analyzation of Bleak House.

**ACTUALLY, I am currently reading A Tale of Two Cities for school, and I’m really enjoying it (though I probably would have enjoyed it more if I had read it independently…). ALSO, there’s a BROADWAY MUSICAL and I had no idea this even existed until a couple of days ago when Chelsea mentioned it on her blog…so THANK YOU CHELSEA because the Broadway ATOTC is sooo pretty and has kind of a Les Mis flair to it. As far as reading more Dickens this summer…I think not. I want to read Gone With the Wind and a couple of other classics I own but haven’t read yet. But the next time I DO read Dickens, I’m thinking Hard Times. Anyone have any other suggestions?

What do you think__Bleak House

Have you read Bleak House? (Or any other Dickens novel??) Am I the only one who found Esther rather annoying? Does anyone have any suggestions for another Dickens novel or Classic I should plan on reading soon???

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Lily says:

    You should read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. It has a very Dickens-like feel to it. (Collins and Dickens were friends)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I’m trying to read more Victorian lit, so I’ll definitely keep it in mind.
      ~Hermione

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I skipped over most of your post because I haven’t read Bleak House, but I am hoping to soonish.
    But A Tale of Two Cities is awesome, isn’t it? Let me know what you think when you finish it! And I definitely agree that the musical has a very Les Mis vibe and that’s probably why I like it so much. It’s a very underrated musical, in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve always thought of Dickens as a pretty solid writer for an introduction to the Victorian era/Victoria Lit because EVERYTHING he writes (from what I’ve read so far obviously) is just so…Victorian. It really makes for a great contrast when you read stuff like the Bronte sisters (I’ve read Wuthering Heights and I LOVED IT and I’m halfway through Jane Eyre) because you can so clearly see why those books hit the market with a such a bang because their very tone (and their characters AND their romances) is so subversive and edgy compared to the stock Victorian stuff, i.e. Dickens. And also Dickens is just a really good traditional storyteller, so reading his work sometimes feels like you’re reading Storytelling 101 For Writers lol.

      Yeah, thankfully we’re almost done with ATOTC in class because I really want to get to all the drama at the end…it’s definitely not my *favorite* classic (I honestly like stuff that’s a little more subversive and subtextually sensual…and I like RoMaNCes and Dickens doesn’t write the kind of romances I like to read. I mean, just think Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester vs. Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay…where’s the PASSION and the FIRE?)…but I still really did enjoy it. I’m hoping to do somewhat of a review of it on the blog, maybe with a focus on the female characters? Because the other thing Dickens did SO WELL in ATOTC was capturing the mob mentality…and how he described the storming of the Bastille as an ocean of passion and fury…like I said, you can’t get *Storytelling* much better than that.

      And yeah, totally agree that the ATOTC musical is underrated. I mean, it’s techinically more French Revoltution than Les Mis is..so…? ANYWAY. If you ever do read Bleak House, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
      ~Hermione

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am rather partial to Charles Dickens, but I have not read Bleak House! I did watch a film adaption that I enjoyed.
    I really liked Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. I love Dickens’ writing style and ability to create ridiculous characters. I hope to read more Dickens in the future.
    AH, YOU HAVE DISCOVERED THE MUSICAL OF A TALE OF TWO CITIES, HOW EXCITING! I love discovering obscure musicals that I end up loving.
    Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, Dickens certainly does have a knack for wacky characters…and I agree, love the writing style…it feels like someone is telling you a story aloud. And oh my GOODNESS I am so shocked at all the musicals that are so fantastic but nobody knows about. I found Jane Eyre a couple months ago and it is SO BEAUTIFUL. And I saw your post (very relatable btw)…I had no idea there was a Secret Garden Musical?? Must look this one up next!!!
    ~Hermione

    Liked by 1 person

    1. AH, I LOVE THE JANE EYRE MUSICAL. Yes, you should definitely look up the Secret Garden musical, it is so beautiful!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Listening to it right now. ♡♡♡♡♡♡ I loved the book in elementary school but I had forgotten all about it. Will have to reread it now!
        ~Hermione

        Liked by 1 person

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