I've begun Bleak House, actually I'm about half-way through, as the first book of my Summer Reading Challenge. I'm sort of re-reading it - I had to read it in an undergraduate course called Dickens and Dostoyevsky in which we had so much assigned - The Opium Eaters, Oliver Twist, Anna Karenina, Dostoyevsky's short stories, Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment AND Bleak House - that something had to go. I read half of Bleak House, which I couldn't stand at the time, and asked my friend Pam to tell me the rest of the story. If I recall right, I did at least as well as she on the final and she wasn't too happy about that. I think I'm just at the point of the story where I'm not re-reading anymore.
Now that it isn't an assignment, I am loving it! I'm struck by three things in Dickens' writing. Well more than three, but I’ll write about three:
1) He writes from passion. This man is driven by mission - he sees injustice and hypocrisy in the world and he writes about it. I can't think of a better reason to write. But he doesn't lecture us at all, he writes a great story so that we actual want to read on and find out what happens. I'm finding this one a page-turner.
“This boy,” says the constable, “although he’s repeatedly told to, won’t move on-”
“I’m always a moving on, sir,” cries the boy, wiping away his grimy tears with his arm. “I’ve always been a moving and a moving on, every since I was born. Where can I possible move to, sir, more nor I do move!”
“He won’t move on,” says the constable, calmly, with a slight professional hitch of his neck involving its better settlement in his stiff stock, “although he has been repeatedly cautioned, and therefore I am obliged to take him into custody. He’s as obstinate a young gonoph as I know. He WON’T move on.”
“O my eye! Where can I move to!” cries the boy, clutching quite desperately at his hair, and beating his bare feet upon the floor of Mr. Snagsby’s passage.
“Don’t you come none of that, or I shall make blessed short work of you!” says the constable, giving him a passionless shake. “My instructions are, that you are to move on. I have told you so five hundred times.”
“But where?” cries the boy.
“Well! Really, constable, you know,” says Mr. Snagsby wistfully, and coughing behind his hand his cough of great perplexity and doubt; “really, that does seem a question. Where, you know?”
“My instructions don’t go to that,” replies the constab le. “My instructions are that this boy is to move on.”
Do you hear, Jo? It is nothing to you or to any one else, that the great lights of the parliamentary sky have failed for some few years, in this business, to set you the example of moving on. The one grand recipe remains for you – the profound philosophical prescription – the be-all and the end-all of your strange existence upon earth. Move on! You are by no means to move off, Jo, for the great lights can’t at all agree about that. Move on!
Social criticism and humor and pathos are all wrapped up together in this one little scene. It sounds like bureaucracy hasn’t changed in 150 years.
2) The psychology of the characters and the story telling are complex and completely modern. I know some site Dickens as the ultimate caricaturist, but I think his best characters are boldly drawn but stop just short of caricatures, you really get them and can laugh out loud at their behavior.
Mr. Snagsby is sure he is being used by an influential lawyer, yet he can’t quite put his finger on how. His behavior becomes distracted. His wife, seeing her husband distracted is sure that her husband is keeping something from her:
To know that he is always keeping a secret from her; that he has, under all circumstances, to conceal and hold fast a tender double-tooth, which her sharpness is ever ready to twist out of his head; gives Mr. Snagsby, in her dentistical presence, much of the air of a dog who has a reservation from his mater, and will look anywhere rather than meet his eye.
Isn’t that marvelous – ‘dentistical!’ Mrs. Snagsby begins to go through her husband’s pockets, his letters, his safe, putting together a completely false story:
Mrs. Snagsby screws a watchful glance on Jo, as he is brought into the little drawing-room by Guster. He looks at Mr. Snagsby the moment he come in. Aha! Why does he look at Mr. Snagsby? Mr. Snagsby looks at him. Why should he do that, but that Mrs. Snagsby sees it all? Why else should that look pass between them; why else should Mr. Snagsby be confused, and cough a signal cough behind his hand? It is as clear as crystal that Mr. Snagsby is that boy’s father.
It proceeds from her husband being distracted to his having a secret, out-of-wedlock child, which bespeaks volumes on her character. What would a modern couples’ therapist say about this!
Sometime the character insights are profound. Richard is around 19 years-old. He has been made party of an interminable case stuck in the Court of Chancery for years and years that is at the center of this novel, because he is a descendent of one of the original plaintiffs. Knowing he will one day have money, he tries medicine, the law, and the army – beginning each with enthusiasm – knowing it will be the answer - but each one fails to live up to his expectations and he quits. His happy-go-lucky façade combined with his inability to “settle down” causes Jardynce and Esther much worry. Their heart-to-heart chats about this young man, whom they both love deeply, read like contemporary pillow-chat of 21st century parents.
It’s another modern touch that this novel presents the story not in one voice, but in two – a personable, omniscient narrator gives us a third-person view on much of the story – on London, on a tremendous number of characters who, by the half-way point in the book, are being brought closer and closer together. This tends to be the more humorous voice. But we learn most about the core of central characters – Esther,
3) Now, I mean this in a good way, by this novel reminds me of nothing so much as serialized television. It is driven by plot – i.e. you want to know what will happen next, it’s characters are oversized, it comments on the issues of the day – the corrupt Court of Chancery, the immense inequity of the way those with and without live their lives, and it’s massively entertaining. His books are assigned in school now and Dickens has achieved the ranking of “classic,” but really these are popular entertainment, and the parallels with our own day in every realm – from social injustice to the hypocrisy of human behavior – are striking.
I am just loving this book.