Bleak House by Charles Dickens book cover
Bleak House (1853) is one of Charles Dickens's most rich, complex and voluminous novels. The plot centres around a long-disputed case heard by the court of chancery. Jarndyce and Jarndyce is concerned with inheritance and, having out-lasted its original claimants, the new generation of Richard Carstone and Ada Claire become the wards of Jarndyce – those in the position to profit if the case can ever be settled definitively. Esther Summerson, an orphan raised by her Aunt, provides the narrative in Bleak House, interchanging with an omniscient narrator. Miss Summerson, along with both Richard and Ada are sent to live at Bleak House with the current bearer of the Jarndyce name, Mr John Jarndyce. From here Dickens draws in a huge array of characters: the calculating lawyer, Mr Tulkinghorn, the hapless clerk Mr Guppy, the vile money-lender Smallweed, the haunted Lady Dedlock, the scrounger Harold Skimpole, the incessant do-gooder Mrs Jellaby who neglects her own family, the affable Inspector Bucket, and not forgetting the poor, neglected street-child Jo. The main characters of Esther, Richard, and Ada brush up against these characters and more as numerous plot lines are drawn most exquisitely together, with Esther desperately trying to uncover the secret of her lineage, and Richard, to his detriment, being drawn into the court case and the clutches of the lawyers involved.

One of the key targets in Bleak House is the British legal system of the day, where civil justice could take preposterous periods of time for decisions to be made, and which Dickens exposes and denigrates most eloquently. With the system lining the pockets of the lawyers and those who had the power to influence the process there was very little incentive to reform the convoluted system, thus claimants were almost entirely powerless – it is this imbalance that Dickens sought to expose, and indeed, in the period when Bleak House was written and published the legal system did reform some of its less palatable processes.

Identity is another of the book's major themes, and this is borne out most clearly by Esther's search for her unknown parentage. Esther, who not only feels a sense of disconnect due to her status as an orphan, but who is also left in an ambiguous state of employ at Bleak House: a maid or governess of sorts, but never clearly defined, not quite part of the family, but not distinct from it either.

Through Esther Dickens a presents a model of morality which is to be strived for. Esther takes responsibility for herself and others around her, unlike the ill-informed philanthropy of the likes of Mrs Jellyby, who disregards the well-being of her own family whilst she writes letters and chases hopeless causes for distant Africans. For Dickens then, caring for those in proximity should be of great importance to a progressive society. Poor Jo symbolises the Social Victim – disregarded and even abused by an apathetic and self-interested society who have little time for the plight of their social inferiors, his case is a warning from Dickens as to the ills of society. But Dickens acknowledges that positive philanthropy, whilst right, is not always easy. In helping Jo when he is ill Esther falls seriously ill with the same affliction. Nevertheless, Dickens maintains that this is the right sort of philanthropy – the personal kind, unlike the telescopic variety pedalled by Mrs Jellaby.

Parental responsibility is also important in Bleak House with a number of parents either absent or doing little to better the future of their children. But Dickens sees progression and evolution as a product of individual endeavour and merit, rather than of birth or lineage, and the characters who show their moral worth, with a few exceptions, are rewarded regardless of their position or parentage. At the same time, however, it's important to note that Bleak House paints a society where individuals are indifferent to one another; greedy and opportunistic, taking little care for the social outcasts which make up a large part of the population. By Dickens standards there is a harsh malignity to the world, and there is little sense of optimism on a societal level at the novel's conclusion, with few signs of improvement, and an inevitable sense of suffering which seems tightly woven into the tapestry of existence.

The complex structure of Bleak House is quite breath-taking – to keep so many strands well-ordered and tied together so neatly is an achievement indeed. However, one must also acknowledge that this is not Dickens's most tightly worked novel, with plenty of digressions and overly verbose passages, and as ever Dickens utilises an inordinate amount of characters; a myriad of vivid caricatures inhabiting the weighty tome.

However, Esther and the omniscient narrator provide a sense of order to the plot, with Esther and her story bringing the personal and emotional to the story, the third-person narrator free to inculcate the reader with the key social and economic critiques that Dickens weaves into the plot. Esther is insufferably, one-dimensionally good, and the reader may find her narrative a little tedious at times. She also proves unrealistically perceptive, particularly given that she is telling the story in the past tense and at a distance of seven years.

If some of Dickens's characters lack psychological complexity then his landscapes do not. One of Dickens's greatest feats in Bleak House is the recreation of the living, breathing labyrinth that is London; full of life and action, where rich and poor live side by side. The urban landscape is drawn as an epic panoramic, alive with small events of significance, which Dickens focuses in on one by one. For Dickens the city represents the modern world: constantly transforming, complex, and full of contradictions. Like writers of the Gothic, Dickens is simultaneously fascinated and appalled by the landscape he writes,and Bleak House draws on many Gothic traditions.

Another element of the writing worth picking out is the inclusion of a murder investigation near the novel's conclusion. Detective Bucket's pursuit of the murderer is one of the earliest examples of crime fiction – a genre that has gone on the become one of the staples of genre fiction.

Bleak House then draws together such a variety of strands as to draw a rich, and multi-layered portrait of Victorian society – a huge undertaking for both author and reader – this is undeniably one of Dickens's finest achievements. Pulling together many of Dickens's key philosophical ideas and representative of his later, darker, fiction, Bleak House might be considered the definitive Dickens novel; not necessarily his greatest, but the novel that best encapsulates Dickens as a novelist.

I'm developing a bit of a love-hate relationship with Dickens; I find some of his writing incredibly frustrating, but for the most part I appreciate his novels. It's taken me a while to digest Bleak House, and the sheer scale of the thing is pretty staggering.

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