Monday, June 18, 2007
Books: Dickens' Bleak House - Classic Detective Story
I am nearly done reading Bleak House now. It's amazing how quickly the final 400 pages of this novel reads. At this point the story is driven by plot but I am going to resist speaking specifically of the events so as not to ruin it for those who haven't read it yet. I hope that doesn't make this too oblique.
I can really see the seeds of the classic detective story being sown here. There is, as I've mentioned, a question of the origins of the central character Esther Summerson, that sits at the center of the mystery, but Dicken's has deftly woven a complex plot where that mystery is inseparable from questions of class and character explored in this novel. Our personal origins are often a source, too, of strong emotions - so the mystery here matters deeply to the central character and, by extension, to us. The final chapter of this novel are proving very suspenseful - not despite the 700 page set-up but because of it. In one later chapter Dickens has the detective, who I never expected to become the character he did, assemble many of the people in question - as in a classic English detective story, for example Agatha Christie's Poirot calls all the suspects into the drawing room. I smiled as a I read it and wondered to myself - is this the first time this has happened in a story? If someone knows the answer to that I hope they'll tell me. Dickens also masterfully provides an emotional pay-off by the detective using Esther in a sense to help tie up the ends of her own mystery - I won't say any more, but I found it very satisfying!
Lady Dedlock, another very important character I have mentioned before, is also revealed in a startlingly complex way. A haughty member of the upper class, known for her aloofness, Dickens' allows us a window on her inner life that is very observant and touches on the questions of identity that this novel wrestles with, as I mentioned in an earlier post. She is an interesting counterpoint to Esther as a character.
Dickens also accomplishes something in this novel that I admire in any type of artistic creation. He takes the many disparate threads he has established over many pages and brings them all together. I thought that Zadie Smith did this amazingly well in On Beauty. There is a scene late in that novel that I also marveled at because she sets up characters through their behavior so well, that by the time they are all assembled in the same place, you can imagine how they will behave together and I found myself dreading certain events that then seemed inevitable, and hoping for others. I also won't spoil the plot in that book, although Howards End will do that for you, since the book is modeled on it, so read that one first! But Dickens does the same with his denoument in Bleak House and I'm definitely reading for plot now, but simultaneously I'm realizing how well I know these characters and the feelings I have invested in them. This will likely be my last post on this book, so I'll end with my admiration for it and my hope that you will enjoy reading some day if you haven't yet. Here's an on-line resource site if you like those kind of things. Once I'm done, I'm going to rent the dvd of the BBC adaptation which I understand is really well done.