Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bleak House

Maybe it's just that the Dickens I've read has been so spread out -- beginning at some point with A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities -- but I seem to forget from novel to novel how richly the characters are drawn and how funny he is. It's been quite a long time since I've read any Dickens, so Bleak House again surprised me.

One thing that struck me was how contemporary the social satire feels. I suppose people have hated lawyers ever since there have been lawyers, making this plot, which turns on a famous suit in the Chancery Court, immediately accessible to any reader awash in a sea of courtroom dramas and high-profile cases, where justice -- if it comes at all -- is too little and too late.

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.

The other primary target in Bleak House is the hypocritical do-gooders who are very interested in helping the miserable in far-flung places while ignoring the suffering close to home (Mrs. Jellyby); those whose chief interest is in lecturing the poor about their morals instead of offering material help (Mrs. Pardiggle); and those in power who argue about the problem but never do anything (Parliament). Meanwhile the destitute live evilly in slums like Tom-all-alone's:
In the midst of which dust and noise, there is but one thing perfectly clear, to wit, that Tom [personification of the poor] only may and can, or shall and will, be reclaimed according to somebody's theory but nobody's practice. And in the hopeful meantime, Tom goes to perdition head foremost in his old determined spirit.
Some sections of the story are told in the first-person narration of the protagonist, Esther Summerson, a rather saintly character with mysterious origins and a lonely childhood, who becomes one of the wards of John Jarndyce -- a wealthy, older gentleman who is a party to the most famous and long-running estate battle in the Chancery Court: Jarndyce and Jarndyce. It is the sort of case that has become a joke in the creaking machinery of the judicial system -- one that has ruined and wasted lives already and will also swallow up the youth of Richard Carstone, a Jarndyce cousin also in the care of the benign John, along with a young female cousin, the beautiful Ada, to whom Esther is devoted.

The central mystery of the novel is Esther's parentage and tied to that mystery is a murder. Solving these and tying up the loose ends of Jarndyce and Jarndyce speeds the last third of the novel along and brings to the forefront one of the best characters, Inspector Bucket. While Dickens isn't credited with being the father of the detective novel, he ushers the genre in by creating one of the first fictional detectives. Polite to a fault, garrulous, and with eyes everywhere, Bucket reminded me of no one more than the t.v. detective Columbo. He even has the wife who is much talked of, but who never really appears in the foreground. I couldn't get Peter Falk out of my head as I read!

Dickens is known for being a little over-the-top in pulling the heart strings, but I have to admit, it worked on me at least a couple of times. One instance in particular was touching because it came so unexpectedly: from a character, so rigid and pompous revealing an amazing capacity for compassion and forgiveness. Dickens created some great stock characters -- all of one virtue or vice -- but he was most successful when characters were allowed to show those contradictory impulses and traits that make them more fully human.

Bleak House is simply a treat if you don't let its length put you off. It has inspired me to work my way through the Dickens' oeuvre eventually.

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