Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 19, 2014

on Bleak House

I was recently telling a friend on Twitter who had just read Bleak House that when I first read it and got to the end I thought, “Is it over already?” Bleak House is 900 pages long. Why do I love it so much? This is hard to say.

It’s a book with a deep passion for social reform, and especially cries out against the condition of London’s slums. As Dickens wrote while working on Bleak House,

I have always been convinced that this reform must precede all other Social Reforms; that it must prepare the way for Education, even for Religion; and that, without it, those classes of the people which increase the fastest must become so desperate, and be made so miserable, as to bear within themselves the certain seeds of ruin to the whole community.

But a novel dedicated to such reform is a tricky thing to write, and will, as Dickens knew perfectly well, always be in danger of descending into preachiness or sentimentality. (A danger that Dickens often succumbed to, of course.) Dickens addressed this problem by a truly remarkable formal innovation, the division of the storytelling between two voices. The first narrator, who has no name and doesn’t participate in the story, offers a world-weary, cynical, sometimes embittered voice. Here he is from the book’s first chapter, describing Chancery Court:

On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord High Chancellor ought to be sitting here — as here he is — with a foggy glory round his head, softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains, addressed by a large advocate with great whiskers, a little voice, and an interminable brief, and outwardly directing his contemplation to the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog. On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be — as here they are — mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might. On such an afternoon the various solicitors in the cause, some two or three of whom have inherited it from their fathers, who made a fortune by it, ought to be — as are they not? — ranged in a line, in a long matted well (but you might look in vain for truth at the bottom of it) between the registrar’s red table and the silk gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters’ reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. Well may the court be dim, with wasting candles here and there; well may the fog hang heavy in it, as if it would never get out; well may the stained-glass windows lose their colour and admit no light of day into the place; well may the uninitiated from the streets, who peep in through the glass panes in the door, be deterred from entrance by its owlish aspect and by the drawl, languidly echoing to the roof from the padded dais where the Lord High Chancellor looks into the lantern that has no light in it and where the attendant wigs are all stuck in a fog-bank! This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give — who does not often give — the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”

To this voice Dickens offers the strongest possible contrast, the unworldly, innocent, utterly (pathologically?) self-effacing Esther Summerson, who speaks like this:

I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever. I always knew that. I can remember, when I was a very little girl indeed, I used to say to my doll when we were alone together, “Now, Dolly, I am not clever, you know very well, and you must be patient with me, like a dear!” And so she used to sit propped up in a great arm-chair, with her beautiful complexion and rosy lips, staring at me — or not so much at me, I think, as at nothing — while I busily stitched away and told her every one of my secrets.

My dear old doll! I was such a shy little thing that I seldom dared to open my lips, and never dared to open my heart, to anybody else. It almost makes me cry to think what a relief it used to be to me when I came home from school of a day to run upstairs to my room and say, “Oh, you dear faithful Dolly, I knew you would be expecting me!” and then to sit down on the floor, leaning on the elbow of her great chair, and tell her all I had noticed since we parted. I had always rather a noticing way — not a quick way, oh, no! — a silent way of noticing what passed before me and thinking I should like to understand it better. I have not by any means a quick understanding. When I love a person very tenderly indeed, it seems to brighten. But even that may be my vanity.

The truth of the story Dickens wants to tell is found not in either of these voices but between them, or at their intersection. Neither is adequate alone. There’s a kind of implicit dialogue going on throughout the book between these two characters, a contest of outlooks, a fundamental disagreement about how to perceive and interpret the world. I think this is the single most remarkable thing about Bleak House.


  • Dang it, Alan, quit reminding me of all the great books I really ought to read someday!

  • To me, the greatest genius of this book lies in the way that Dickens demonstrates how hurt comes from a desire to help. (In fact I wrote a seminar paper about it as an undergrad.) So Esther's saintliness is demonstrated, as you say, as pathological even while being admirable, and her desire to help spreads the disease she was fighting. And the Court of Chancery itself is a symbol of how a benevolent impulse-- the desire to give from beyond the grave-- becomes a source of despair and brokenness when encased in the human connections that any bureaucracy really is.

  • That's a really good point, Freddie. It's interesting that Esther is actually aware of this problem. When Mrs. Pardiggle attempts to enlist Esther in serving (or more accurately lecturing) the poor, here's Esther's response:

    "I first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself. All this I said with anything but confidence, because Mrs. Pardiggle was much older than I, and had great experience, and was so very military in her manners."

    Throughout the book Dickens presents all moral influence — positive and negative alike — as a kind of contagion, something infectious. The problem is that we bring both our sickness and our health with us wherever we go.

  • I think the central metaphor that runs through his work is of London/the city as that moral influence made corporeal; it must have been really striking to experience Victorian-era London and have all of this physical infrastructure making it more and more clear how every road led back to more human beings. What really distinguishes Bleak House is how he abandons the Bill Sykes kind of monster in exchange for the sadder and more true-to-life villain of ambient neglect. Robert Donovan wrote that Bleak House "offers a jungle with no predators, only scavengers." Which I think is pretty close to perfect.

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