Bleak House

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

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Among the many orphans of a society that refuses to take paternal care of its weak and helpless, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare could be called the novel’s protagonists. But their tragic love pales in significance beside the fate of the beautiful and haughty Lady Dedlock, whose mysterious secret threatens to shake the aristocracy out of its irresponsible stupor.

Along with almost everyone else in the novel, Lady Dedlock is caught up in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a infamously protracted case in the Court of Chancery which provokes some of Dickens’ most brilliant satire. But he is doing more than urging the reform of legal institutions. Chancery symbolizes an entire social system. Linking the novel’s extraordinary array of comic and grotesque characters, it also links Lady Dedlock to her illegitimate daughter, Esther Summerson, the housekeeper of an eccentric philanthropist named Jarndyce. When the villainous lawyer, who tries to blackmail Lady Dedlock, is murdered, the truth comes out, despite the efforts of Inspector Bucket, the English novel’s first detective hero.

Experimental in form, the novel is narrated from two alternating and very different points of view. One narrator is an anonymous observer, while the other is Esther, so humbly virtuous that she cannot understand the impersonal forces that are destroying her friends and are nearly fatal to her. The central symbol of those forces is the London fog, emanating from the Court of Chancery and carrying the misery and disease of the slums into the homes of the rich. In Bleak House Dickens for the first time identifies his real enemy not as individual evil but as what he calls “the system.”

Bibliography:

Dyson, A. E., ed. Dickens: “Bleak House”: A Casebook. New York: Macmillan, 1969. A collection of criticism and supplemental readings. Includes historical information about the working class in England and other social concerns of the novel, several early reviews and comments, and eight very readable studies.

Nelson, Harland S. Charles Dickens. Boston: Twayne, 1981. After four chapters of overview, Nelson uses Bleak House as a model to demonstrate how Dickens wrote all of his novels. This accessible guide includes plot summaries of other novels discussed.

Newsom, Robert. Dickens on the Romantic Side of Familiar Things: “Bleak House” and the Novel Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. Discusses the implications of Dickens’ comment in the novel’s preface that he “purposely dwelt on the romantic side of familiar things.”

Shatto, Susan. The Companion to “Bleak House.” Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988. Lengthy but very useful to have while reading the novel. Detailed explanations, including allusions to earlier literature, definitions of unusual terms, and identifications of proper names from history—things Dickens’ first readers would have known but with which later readers need help.

Storey, Graham. Charles Dickens, “Bleak House.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An excellent introduction, intended as a textbook. Focuses on the novel as a social commentary. Includes a chronology that pairs events from Dickens’ career with dates from history and a guide to further reading.

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