Charles Dickens – Bleak House (1852-3)

Esther Summerson, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare are all orphans that have the benefit of being cared for financially by Mr. John Jarndyce, who brings them all together at Bleak House when they come of age. Ada is beautiful and boring, Richard is handsome and aimless, and Esther is diligent and plain. Esther becomes “mistress of Bleak House,” eventually marrying the young doctor Allan Woodcourt, but not before she discovers that she is the daughter of Lady Dedlock, the wife of the very rich and powerful Lord Leicester Dedlock, owner of Chesney Wold. Richard and Ada become engaged at a young age, and Richard devotes his life to unraveling the case, only to die when the case is solved and all inheritance money is taken up in expenses.

Other important characters: the lawyer Tulkinghorn, the detective Bucket, the spontaneously combusted Krook, the hyperbolic Boythron, the loyal soldier Mr. Geroge that turns out to be the son of the maid of Lord Dedlock, the crazy Miss Flite with all the birds, the young and homeless Jo that makes everyone sick, and Henry Skimpole, the “noble savage” that refuses the space-time logic of capitalism.

Property: Esther essentially marries a house. Jarndyce and Jarndyce case is sustained through flow of property—like capital, it requires movement, exchange. Bleak House is also easily transplanted, becomes signifier of traditional bonds, but is not rooted to land. Contrast this to Dedlock’s ideal England and one can see this as story of aristocratic decline, the repeal of the corn laws (the immaculate 53 cf. Barchester Towers), etc. (connect this with Parade’s End and Tietjens as Tory, etc.)

Narration – oscillates between omniscient narrator (present tense, social satire, spans geographical space and geological time) and Esther Summerson (deliberately self-limited, acutely aware of “epistemological limits” that double as socially defined gender conventions.) 3rd person is focused on objective conditions of society, while 1st person becomes increasingly imbricated in those concerns as the narrative progresses…convergence would be similar to something like David Copperfield’s conclusion, but via spatial coordinates.

Comedy – Impetus to produce (alphabetical list of names and other excess, bordering on absurdity)….as desiring-production in contrast to Freudian desire (in terms of construction and resolution of plot). At hinge moments (such as incipient critique of Chancery) the narrative starts to get absurd.

Genre – A peculiar mix of romance, detective story and realist novel. At time chaotic, but more often than not, locked in productive competition, leading towards ambiguous mixture. In general, realism becomes increasingly about character as the 19th century wears on: the psychological or sympathetic mimesis of Eliot and James is in the distance…but for Dickens, institutions, historical, etc. are still recalcitrants objects of representations that cannot be worked out via psychological focalization.

Plot – Chapters strung together like set pieces, plot emerges in small increments at the end of the chapters…as novel progresses, the plot begins to take over more and more of each chapter. Or the describes as inverse, where characters take on the body of the plot as they put on more flesh. Think about plot itself in terms of survival – with Chnacery case as prime example: achievement of steady-state. Further, plot is generated by 3 mysterious absences: the missing legal document, Esther’s past, Jo’s sickness (secret is social system that has given him disease, that then spreads)

Law – Opening sequence describes antediluvian London’s Chancery court system – contrast with Hugo’s description of Notre Dame (both make use of evolutionary language.)

Boythorn is a parody of William Savage Landor – ridiculous hyperbole and chivalry – a good example of Dicken satirical style, along with Chadband’s speechifying—note that all this comes mostly through omniscient narrator, and rarely through the restrained lens of Esther. Chadband is parody of florid novelistic prose that doesn’t go anywhere.

Richard Carstone fits the aimless male type: Deronda, Edward Ferrars, etc…is taken over by labor rather than taking on labor—perhaps because there is no metabolic exchange???

Skimpole – Dickens send up of the socially innocent ‘noble savage’

Bucket – precursor to Sherlock Holmes, disaffected and indifferent, pure plotting machine – terrifying attention to detail, an ability to “plot” which amounts to unraveling the plot – see Peter Brooks on the necessity of repetition.

Individual/System – Dickens shows the friction between individual agency and systematic recalcitrance. In generic terms, one can see the romantic Bildungsroman struggling for life, but being swallowed by Victorian conventions. This stands in reverse relation to otherwise “progressive” social reforms that democratize society and allow for the ascent of Mr. George’s brother, for example, and the marriage that flows from his monetary success… The relating between these vectors (political, economic) is by turns ironic, contradictory, and coincident.

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2 responses to “Charles Dickens – Bleak House (1852-3)

  1. Interesting summary of Bleak House: I also find Mr. Bucket to be a furerunner of Sherlock Holmes

  2. I would like to add to this fascinating summary of one of my favorite books that neither Bucket nor Holmes are thinking mashines a fact which is illustrated by Bucket’s wife Mrs. Bucket who assist him in Bleak House and by the fact of Holmes’s interests and that of Irene Adler. Read the stories properly before judging, please!

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