The last book I loved was Bleak House by Charles Dickens. It was one of those books I had been putting off reading for forever, because even though I love Dickens, and usually try to get through one or two of his books a year, that one is just SO long (even by his standards) and the plot—it’s ostensibly about a dragged-out court case—just didn’t seem all that interesting. I finally ended up reading it because of Harold Bloom. I was working my way through his book, The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages, and I had come to a chapter that focused on Dickens’s Bleak House and Eliot’s Middlemarch. I really didn’t want to read the chapter and have the whole plot of BH given away by Bloom’s discussion, but I also didn’t want to skip the chapter. So, I put down the 500-page book and picked up the 1000-page book, and basically read it for the same reason you’d read a footnote. Isn’t that ridiculous? Well this footnote took a month of my life, and was worth every minute.
Bleak House is a magnificent book, surprising and delightful and heartbreaking and wild. And the language! Dickens is at the top of his game as a writer here. There are passages that just beg to be read out loud, and I could swear that some of the chapter openings are written with some kind of metrical structure. You don’t usually think of Dickens as a “language writer,” but there are parts of this book that Cormac McCarthy would be deeply pleased by, as well as some grand lists that seem to anticipate the coming of Donald Barthelme by a hundred years or so. (Dickens’s influence on Barthelme would be a fascinating essay, btw, though it’s not—alas—going to get written this morning.)
Bleak House has got this weird parallel-plot structure—it’s a mystery story—and even though it’s among his longest and most intricate stories, it actually feels a lot more focused than some of his other books. Reading it, you feel like Dickens was at the top of his powers at every level, not just as a prose-stylist and/or a storyteller but also as a social critic. Whereas some of the prison-reform passages in Little Dorrit, and the how-the-other-half-lives elements of Hard Times, are admirable (and, of course, Dickens was right about those issues), they read like political pamphlets, and don’t add anything to the story-proper. Not so in Bleak House, where Dickens’s disdain for London high society and the labyrinthine and crushing structure of the Chancery Court (just to name two) are the very engine driving the whole train. As big as it is, there’s really nothing extraneous in Bleak House. He didn’t slip some messages into this book—the book itself is the message, and that message is damning. Some of the passages in Bleak House are the most aggressive and merciless Dickens I’ve ever encountered. It’s stunning.
Perhaps because he understood this, he balanced his own narrative with a second one, that of Esther Summerson, the book’s main character, who is given occasional chapters in which to relate her own story. It’s a very economical division of labor—Dickens lets Esther tell us everything about her own experience, and he tells us all the other things that are going on that she can’t know or see. But he never intrudes on her right to speak for herself, and I think this is really the key to understanding how important she is not just to the book but to its author, as well as to why the book itself is such a marvel.
My reward for actually finishing Bleak House was that I got to read the Bloom chapter on it, and I should admit that my analysis owes more than a passing debt to his. I’m really glad that I decided to take the Long Detour of reading BH, because as expected Bloom doesn’t worry or warn about spoilers, and you can’t really talk much about a novel like Bleak House without beginning to reveal things. My own attempt here to avoid spoilers basically means not discussing the plot at all, but I can tell you a bit about characters. As Bloom rightly points out, Dickens characters tend to be vivid and memorable, but they’re usually two-dimensional and they almost all lack the ability to change. Their core natures are often broadcast to us by their very names. The fascinating thing about Esther Summerson is that she’s a fully developed personage of the sort that if you’d asked me before I read BH, I would have told you Dickens was incapable of creating. She’s a really real person, walking around in a world of more typically Dickensian caricatures and cartoons. And that’s not to denigrate the caricatures and cartoons, who are some of the most memorable characters in all of literature (Uriah Heep, anyone?) and BH has some of the great ones, including the ice-cold Lady Dedlock, boisterous Boythorn with his pet bird perched on his head, the layabout Harold Skimpole, weaselly Mr. Guppy, and my personal favorite: Tulkinghorn the lawyer, the very incarnation of the black void at the heart of the law.
But back to Esther. It’s all well and good that Dickens managed to transcend his limits long enough to create a fully human character, but how does she fare as a three-dimensional object careening through a flat world? Well, first it’s important to say clearly that Dickens is a great writer, all the time, and so “flat” is a reductive way of thinking about what he does, and he’s not nearly as limited as I’m probably making him sound. But the second, and real, answer is that Esther’s belief in the characters is what makes them real. She is so real, that if she accepts their reality—she does—then that’s good enough for us, and the whole world of Bleak House never flickers out of focus when you’re reading it.