Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1047
Bleak House was first published as a serial and appeared in book form in 1853 at the height of Charles Dickens’s career. Preceded by Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844) and followed by Hard Times (1854), the work comes early in the group of Dickens’s great novels of social analysis and protest. A major critical anatomy of mid-nineteenth century England, Bleak House shows some signs of concessions to audience taste in the use of pathos, melodrama, and a somewhat strident moralism. However, Dickens manages to weave out of these a controlled assessment of the corruption at the heart of his society.
At the center of the novel’s intricate plot is the lawsuit of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. To this frame, Dickens adds an interlocking structure of subplots. On one level, the plot is a series of thin detective stories woven together so as to involve all strata of society. Character after fascinating character appears in episodes that are each of gripping interest; in Dickens’s masterly resolution, no earlier action or detail remains extraneous.
The third-person narrator of most of Bleak House is a sharply ironic commentator on the political, social, and moral evils that abound in the book. There is no ambiguity in the narrator’s stance toward the selfishness and irresponsibility he recounts (though he is not quite as sardonic or homiletic as the narrator of Hard Times), but this stern tone is both relieved and reinforced by the introduction of a second first-person narrator, Esther Summerson. While some critics consider the dual narration an aesthetic flaw, they concede that the two voices contribute different perspectives. Esther represents a sympathetic and morally responsible attitude that is rare in the world of Bleak House. She is a compassionate insider who represents a model that is, if sometimes sentimental, a corrective to the false values of society.
As the lawsuit of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce lumbers to a close after years of litigation, a gallery of characters emerges, each revealing how the moral contagion spread. With his talent for caricature, Dickens creates memorable minor characters to people the corrupt world. There is Mr. Chadband, who is a preacher enamored of his own voice; Mrs. Pardiggle, who would feed the poor Puseyite tracts rather than bacon; Mr. Turveydrop, who is the model of deportment and little else; Mrs. Jellyby, who supports noble causes while neglecting her own children; and Mr. Skimpole, who is the model of unproductivity. Many of these characters betray the varieties of egoism and irresponsibility that leave society stagnant and infected. Perhaps the most striking is Krook, the junk dealer and small-scale surrogate of the Lord Chancellor, who dies of what Dickens calls spontaneous combustion. Krook is a microcosm of the self-destructive tendency of a diseased society.
Despite Dickens’s talent for plot and character, Bleak House is primarily a novel of image and symbol. The first chapter insistently sets the moral tone as it repeats its images of fog and mud that surround the Court of Chancery and, by extension, all of English society. The fog, which captures all in a miasma from which there seems no escape, is a symbol of the Chancery, and the court itself, with its inert, irresponsible, and self-destructive wranglings, is a symbol of the calcified social and economic system strangling English life. The case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce is the model of the social canker. Characters sacrifice their lives to its endless wrangling, and in succumbing to the illusory hope of instant riches, they forfeit the opportunity to accept individual responsibility and make something of themselves. The conclusion of the suit is Dickens’s ironic commentary on...
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the futility of such vain hopes.
People and places in Bleak House so consistently have symbolic value that the novel occasionally verges on allegory. The cloudiness and rain that surround Chesney Wold symbolize the hopelessness of the nobility. Even the name of its inhabitants, Dedlock, is a sign of the moral deadlock and immobility of the ruling class. At the other end of the social spectrum, the dirty and disease-ridden part of town known as Tom-all-alone’s is a symbol of the vulnerability and victimhood of the lowest classes. In a gloom of one sort or another, many characters act as detectives searching out the guilty secrets and hypocrisies that permeate this world.
On the more positive side is Bleak House itself, where the kindly John Jarndyce, who keeps aloof from involvement in the lawsuit, presides over a more orderly and benevolent demesne; but the contagion cannot be kept even from there, as is symbolized by the admirable John Jarndyce’s periodic fits of depression and frustration, which he attributes to the east wind instead of the real cause, conditions in the world at large. Moreover, Ada and Richard bring the lawsuit into their uncle’s house; Richard is another victim of the anachronistic system that destroys those who participate in it and feeds on the inertia, complacency, and hypocrisy of the whole society. Finally, when Esther contracts smallpox from Jo as a result of having been kind to him, Dickens is showing the interrelatedness of all levels of society. Jo is at the bottom but his misfortune becomes the misfortune of many as his contagion spreads through the social fabric. The implication is that the unfeeling society that creates Jo and Tom-all-alone’s cannot protect itself from those victims.
Dickens offers no programmatic, revolutionary solution. If there is a solution, it is to be found in people such as John Jarndyce, Esther, and Allan Woodcourt. Jarndyce symbolizes the selflessness that is needed if injustice is to be rectified. Esther Summerson, as her name implies, is a bright antidote to the fog and rain. Her housekeeping keys are a sign of her commitment to domestic duties and an acceptance of responsibility. Woodcourt, too, is the kind of active individual society needs. The marriage of Esther and Woodcourt is a vindication of what they have to offer, as is John Jarndyce’s generous acceptance of their love. The new Bleak House in which they live is full of the joy and the goodness that can reform society. The novel does not offer the easy optimism of radical political solutions, because it is only this revolution in the heart of humankind that Dickens believes can cure society.