Goodreads: Bleak House
Jarndyce v Jarndyce has been the joke of the legal system for years as it never progresses but cannot be stopped. When Mr. Jarndyce invites two of his relatives, Ada and Richard, to live with him as his wards, he hopes to protect them from the family curse, the court case that has sapped the life and the strength from so many before them. Esther Summerson, orphaned at birth, also comes to live with them, provided for by Mr. Jarndyce’s great charity. But when the secret of her past begins to come to light, one woman’s mistake will have unforeseen consequences for many different lives.
Bleak House is classic Dickens, featuring all the convoluted plotting, depictions of gritty London, scathing critiques of social injustice, and sentimental depictions of women that any fan could want. As with many of his books, this one is so carefully plotted that most readers will predict the ending long before they finish all 800 pages of the story. It is a testimony to Dickens’s writing ability that he need not rely on suspense alone to keep his readers, but can immerse them so fully in his world that they will follow the characters they have come to know and love through to the end–even when the end cannot be good.
Dickens, of course, has a reputation for featuring characters who often seem more like caricatures, but even when he depicts a character most notable for his or her haughtiness or greed or near-sightedness, he still manages to give the illusion of a fully-realized individual behind the signature trait. Mrs. Jellyby, for example, perhaps one of his most famous creations in this novel. represents all the men and women who ignore the social justice under their noses in favor of serving (not efficiently, one suspects) the unfortunate abroad. Even though she could be reduced to a stereotype, a mere comment on the state of England in Dickens’s day, Mrs. Jellyby still manages to make her character known in the small space allotted her. She is neglectful, callous, demanding, and utterly clueless. She is a woman, whom I suspect, many have met in their own lives.
Perhaps that is the true secret of Dickens. His characters may seem like caricatures, and yet we recognize them. We all know that woman who ignores her family, that man who pretends he does not care about money only so he can spend the money of others. We have seen greed and pride and desperation. Dickens only gives us what we already knew was there, but he makes us look a second time. He makes us wonder if things could be different.
And Dickens seems to say, yes. His protagonists, especially Esther, shine out as examples of people who care about the plight of others and who move themselves to help, sometimes at personal cost. Dickens’s women have a reputation for being sentimentalized (how many times must we listen to Esther pretend she “doesn’t want to talk about herself” even though she’s writing her own autobiography?), but they also represent possibility. The possibility that someone whom society considers weak can use the means at her disposal to effect change. Maybe they don’t all have to be sickly sweet about doing so, but I have to applaud their efforts nonetheless. And, besides, the men get a little stereotyped, too, from the generous and fatherly Jarndyce to the heroic and handsome doctor Allan Woodcourt.
Bleak House is a sweeping look at the London of Dickens’s day, as well as at the changing times that forced its men and women into new and sometimes unexpected roles. From the orphaned street sweeper to the grand lady in the countryside, he depicts his characters with a keen eye and extreme sensitivity, illustrating the secret bonds that connect us all. This work is considered one of his best–and it deserves to be.