Charles Dickens — Bleak House

Bleak House is probably among my five favorite books, and definitely my favorite book of Dickens’. It was the book that I read that changed my opinion of him… from my dislike of high school to, well, being the author of one of my five favorite books.

This is a novel that is a sharp critique of the Chancery system, but it’s also about family histories and secrets and all sorts of other things. Esther Summerson is a young girl raised by a grim and dour guardian, told only that she was the eternal shame of her mother, who is dead. Richard and Ada are two young cousins, wards of the interminable chancery suit known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The moody John Jarndyce himself becomes the guardian of these three young people. Lady Honoria Dedlock, a bored and fashionable queen of the social heights, wastes away at Chesney Wold, bored by life but guarding a mysterious and potentially deadly secret. And the monstrous Tulkinghorn, a menacing lawyer, is on her trial…

All of these and more are a number of the stories that Dickens manages to weave into Bleak House. There are innumerable minor characters, pleasant and grotesque, the comically self-important Mr. Guppy to the vile Smallweed, the brave but potentially criminal Mr George and the cunning “child” Harold Skimpole, the hyperfocused politico Mrs Jellyby and her long-suffering daughter Caddy, creating a veritable army of worming subplots that all somehow interconnect with each other. It may be a story of the horrors of the Chancery Court, with the suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce destroying lives and youth and fortunes, but in a way it is about the people around it, their lives, their hopes, their downfalls.

The narrative of the story is rather an accomplishment as well; it alternates between Esther Summerson’s voice, self-doubting and loving and probably everything good and innocent, and slightly annoying because of it, and an omnipresent (but not quite omniscent–the narrator can only describe the actions and appearances of the characters, never their thoughts) third person narrator, with the most scathing and sarcastic voice that you could hope for.

Bleak House is a monstrously huge book, both physically and emotionally, and it’s one of my favorites for a reason. The sheer mess of human futures wound up together, the wonderfully evocative and sardonic writing, all of it, makes it a book that I can re-read endlessly and always find something new within its pages. If you have never read Dickens before, or if you think that you don’t like Dickens, this one is the book that might change your mind.

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