Bleak House by Charles Dickens — book review

9780307947192.jpegWhile the first few chapters of Bleak House are rather entertaining, the fifty chapters that follow? Not so much.

There is a lot of ‘jumble and jargon’ going on in Bleak House. Having genuinely loved Great Expectations I am rather disappointment by this novel.
The humour present in Bleak House consists mostly in the narrative painting its characters as utter fools and in the usage and repetition of funny names (such as Boodle, Coodle, Doodle, Goodle, Hoodle, Joodle, Koodle, Loodle, Moodle, Noodle, Poodle, and Quoodle….highly amusing stuff, right?).

This mammoth of a novel presents its readers with a dizzying constellation of subplots that are allegedly unified by the absurd and never-ending court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
The novel intertwines two narratives: one is from the heroine’s, Esther Summerson, perspective, while the other one is the classic omniscient narrative. These two narratives have rather clashing tones: Esther’s chapters convey her ‘kind’ worldview (and alongside her we are supposed to feel pity for everybody she encounters and everything that happens) while the third-person one makes fun of everybody and everything. In one we are meant to take seriously the characters and their dramas, while in the other we are made to see the story’s many players as little more than laughing stocks.
Only one scene truly struck me as bleak. Every single other ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ thing after that? Those scenes were laughable. Character drop dead for no good reason, and their deaths have no emotional impact on other characters or the narrative itself.
Scenes that should be of key-importance are sped through, yet we linger on recursive dialogues and jumbled monologues. The interactions between Dickens’ various characters are extremely formulaic, so much so that one could always predict the way certain discussions or exchanges would end.
Whereas in Great Expectations I came to care for the all the characters—whether they were simple, ambitious, or somewhat removed—Bleak House seems to be populated by impossibly static characters. In spite of the many life-changing events they experience, they seem not to undergo any actual character change or development. They all have their fixed role, and they stick to it. They also one or two catchphrases which they seem to say whenever they make an appearance. They are unfunny caricatures who always behave in a certain silly way or say a certain silly thing. Within their first few appearances readers know that they are parodies, so why constantly repeat their ‘catchphrases’ or clumsily emphasise their vices/hypocrisies?
Rather than finding them amusing or clever, they annoyed me to no end. We have two or three virtuous young women, a lot of incompetent men, a few not-so-charitable charity-obsessed women, one or two cunning men, the ‘I know nothing’ or ‘I’m just a child’ type of characters…they all irked me. Their silly names failed to amuse me and I struggled to keep them straight in my mind as they all played a similarly clown-ish role.
Rather than focusing on parodying the legal system, Dickens’ attention seems to be all over the place Any aside or digression will do. Whether these digressions and ramblings are amusing or relevant…that seems of no concern. I soon came to regard these narratives as little more than words piled on words piled on words (ie. there was no, nil, nada, suspension of disbelief on my part).

The most dislikable thing about Bleak House is its heroine. I’m glad she’s Dickens’ only female narrator as her characterisation is utterly ridiculous (is this really how Dickens’ thinks that women are/were?). I guess this an early example on how to write an unbelievable female lead. Perhaps a third person narrative could have made her less insufferable…
Esther Summerson is a paragon of purity. She is self-effacing, kind-hearted, empathetic, self-sacrificing, forgiving, innocent, a true Mother Teresa.
I know that characters such as her can have a certain function in a narrative…usually however they are not the narrators and they are not to be taken seriously. Here it seemed that readers are not only meant to believe in Esther’s existence but also like her. Personally, I’d rather read from the perspective of an unscrupulous social-climber or an ambivalent dark horse than from this type of demure and saintly young woman. Throughout the narrative Esther appears as the embodiment of perfection. Esther does no wrong and everyone loves her. She spends her narrative saying ‘dear’ this and that or feeling ‘sad’ or ‘pity’ for others. She gave me a massive toothache and I was relieved to see her narrative draw to a close.
Also, this might seem like I’m being unnecessarily picky, variations of the word ‘tremble’ appear 35 times. I probably wouldn’t have minded if the word had been attached to different characters. In Bleak House 99% of the trembling is done by none other than our heroine, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes Esther Summerson.
This book had a potentially intriguing storyline. Sadly the mystery is lost in an ocean of subplots, side-stories, and never-ending digressions. Dickens’ serious themes—such as extreme poverty, child neglect, domestic abuse, class disparity—are diluted and overshadowed by his humour. His satire is all bark and no bite, his heroine is trying, the legions of secondary characters are forgettable and mildly annoying…all in all this was an unnecessarily long and rather forgettable novel.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

There is something incredibly endearing about this novel. From the very first line, Dickens draws us in, making us Pip’s confidantes, so that we eagerly follow him on his journey.

The first section of this novel, revolves around Pip’s childhood, and Dickens manages to reflect the young age of his protagonist onto the narrative itself: there is a youthful element despite that Pip is telling us of these events retrospectively, and while he sometimes foreshadows things to come, the element of surprise and discovery is not lost. I particularly enjoyed this first part: the Gargery household is a vivid and somewhat nostalgic portrayal of Pip’s childhood home, however imperfect it may be.

“In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small”

The neighbours and routines add a layer of authenticity to the setting and to the story: the relationships between the various characters were always engaging. Miss Havisham…well, Dickens sure knows how to create a compelling yet eerie character. The feelings she evokes in the reader are further emphasised by her household. There is an almost surreal, magical, element to her.
Pip’s growth of character is…not exactly for the best. But, we do see glimpses of his regret, and we are made to empathise with his situation. His newly found ambition, made possible due to his sudden ‘great expectations’ will cause both us and him sorrow. I was particularly saddened by his rebuttal of Joe.

“As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good. I lived in a state of chronic uneasiness respecting my behavior to Joe. My conscience was not by any means comfortable about Biddy.”

But it isn’t all gloom and doom. Pip does inspire sympathetic feelings, especially through his new friendships such as the ones he has with Herbert and Wemmick. I was pleasantly surprised by Magwitch’s storyline, and I was all too glad to see Pip’s opinion of him change.

I was supportive of Pip’s love for Estella, despite the latter being a cold and unlikable character. Dickens, however, skillfully manages to make such a distant and detached character admirable:

“What?” said Estella, preserving her attitude of indifference as she leaned against the great chimney-piece and only moving her eyes; “do you reproach me for being cold? You?”
“Are you not?” was the fierce retort.
“You should know,” said Estella. “I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success, take all the failure; in short, take me.”

He makes his own characters aware of their reputations and behavior. And Pip too realizes Estella’s difficult personality. He evades falling into the ‘love struck fool’ trope because he is not oblivious to the fact that his feelings for Estella are quite irrational:

“Estella was the inspiration of it, and the heart of it, of course. But, though she had taken such strong possession of me, though my fancy and my hope were so set upon her, though her influence on my boyish life and character had been all-powerful, I did not, even that romantic morning, invest her with any attributes save those she possessed. […] The unqualified truth is, that when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be. Once for all; I loved her none the less because I knew it, and it had no more influence in restraining me than if I had devoutly believed her to be human perfection.”

It is easy to relate and identify with Pip partly due his intrinsically likeable nature: no matter what he does or do, he never causes hatred or contempt. We are made to ‘feel’ for him even in those situations where he himself is to blame. He is at the very chore of this novel: there is an immediate connection made to him due to very nature of his character. Sensitive, somewhat naive, not always thoughtful, but possessing a soulful mind, he is a fully fleshed individual.
The plot, later on, is not quite as engrossing as it initially was, but, overall, it was a compelling tale of friendship and moral values. Touches of humor lighten the topics touched plus, Dickens knew how to phrase things. I appreciated and rooted for the novel’s nuanced protagonist and the memorable cast of characters supporting his tale.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars