Literature Commentary: Bleak House

31 Aug

(Originally published February 1, 2009)

I used to think all Charles Dickens novels were boring. Not so. Once I read such classics as “A Tale of Two Cities” and “David Copperfield”, I was addicted. There’s just a certain elegance and beauty to his writing that’s rare in more modern literature. While he sometimes uses a few too many words in his descriptions, the sheer sweeping grace of his plots and characters more than compensate for such deficiencies.

Of course, some of his works (namely, “The Pickwick Papers”) are cumbersome, dull, and ultimately pointless. I wasted several hours of my life slogging through 800 pages of Pickwickian nonsense. Definitely one to avoid. So is “Bleak House” – my most recent Dickens read – more akin to “A Tale of Two Cities” or “The Pickwick Papers”? The answer: neither.

“Bleak House”, as the name implies, often veers toward the grim and morbid. Dickens provides scathing social commentary on the bureaucratic English legal system throughout the book. With excruciating detail, he describes how a nearly interminable lawsuit destroys the lives of nearly all those connected to it.

The primary character, Esther Summerson, is more of a bystander than a participant in the action of the novel. Scenes from her first-person viewpoint are intercut with loosely connected vignettes written, oddly, in the present tense. I didn’t appreciate this particular narrative choice – by deviating too much from standard literary practice, several important scenes failed to hold my interest.

The novel takes about 700 pages to really get interesting. Then, as in several of his other works, Dickens starts killing off his characters. As a lover of tragic literature, I can certainly appreciate a well-written deathbed scene or dramatic confrontation – and the finale of “Bleak House” doesn’t disappoint. The only question is whether or not it’s worth reading through pages of tedious, irrelevant information to get to the important events.

From a worldview standpoint, Dickens certainly says some interesting things about the consequences of sin and the effect of a guilty conscience. The author’s prose really shines when he explores the motives of a specific character without introducing too many irrelevant subplots, and “Bleak House” certainly has some memorable moments.

So is “Bleak House” worth your valuable time? Yes and no. If (like me) you love British literature and don’t mind sifting through unimportant information to get to the heart of the conflict, then “Bleak House” is for you. Otherwise…your reading time is probably better invested elsewhere.

A mix of literary gold and dross.

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Posted by on August 31, 2009 in Classic


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