Bleak House serial cover
First serial, 1852

Bleak House

Novel, 1853
approx. 388,000 words
On Greatest lists
Notable lines
First line

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborne Hill.

Great lines

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

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.

"A word in earnest is as good as a speech."

Last line

But I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent face that ever was seen, and that they can very well do without much beauty in me—even supposing—.

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The author

Chances are, you think of Charles Dickens in one of two opposite ways. As the writer, the very icon of the great and popular author for the masses, against whose work all subsequent.... more

Bleak House


The best of novels, the worst of novels

Bleak House has its ardent admirers who declare it among Charles Dickens's masterpieces, as well as its detractors who call it one of his most grotesque potboilers.

The author's strengths are here in spades: memorable characters, a clever twisting plot, pointed social commentary. Plus some of the most lively passages of innovative writing seen to date—and more creatively expressed than most of Dickens's work.

On the other hand, about those memorable characters.... Too many of them!

Literally dozens of them. So many that taken altogether in one novel, they're hard to remember. You're constantly flipping back through pages when a Boythorn or a Bagnet or a Jellyby or a Jobling re-appears, trying to recall ... wasn't that the maid of the gentleman who's a friend of the lawyer for Jarndyce's nephew...?

It's been complained the characters of Bleak House, like the denizens of any Dickens novel, are one dimensional. What makes most of them memorable, it is said, is that they are cartoons, individuated with one or two outlandish characteristics that Dickens highlights whenever they come on stage. Meanwhile, the leading characters—in this case, including the orphaned Esther Summerson, her guardian John Jarndyce, and her friend Ada Clare—are too bland, all uniformly and unrealistically good-hearted souls.

These charges are justified, but unimportant in my opinion. Stickler for realism as I usually am, I also recognize that in works of fiction—in works of artifice—something has to give in order to condense and emphasize, or else we would have just unexamined and unenlightening reality. With his colourful characters and his simplistic narrators, Dickens is able to get to important truths about the world in which they and we live, whether the insights concern quandaries of the heart or tragedies of social injustice, each of which is central to Bleak House.

But it's just so long. Read a short, quick-moving and still colourful novel like Hard Times and then move on to the painfully drawn-out Bleak House (which actually was published a year earlier) and you'll wonder how the same man could have authored both. Bleak House is Dickens's most Shakespearean novel in that every character speaks what they are thinking. Speechifies rather. What they're thinking and why they're thinking it. And why they're saying what they're thinking.

Except, of course, when it serves the purpose of the plot for the other characters or for the reader not to know what they are thinking. Lady Dedlock (another wonderful Dickens name) keeps her deep, dark secret from almost all the other characters until her death and from the readers until the time is dramatically ripe. Inspector Bucket misdirects us all until he is ready to uncover the murderer. Even the narrating Esther who effuses over day-to-day trivia hides crucial plot points. It's difficult at times to understand exactly how her diary entries are to be taken, as sometimes they seem to be written as events are taking place (how is this done?), while other times they seem to be written in retrospect with knowledge of what is to come.

I wonder if Dickens purposely drags out the exposition and dialogue of Bleak House to reflect his theme of the slow pace of the soul-destroying British justice system at the time. And not just the judicial process is satirized. The parliamentary establishment, the corrupt political process, the class system and the plight of the impoverished—especially children—come in for some of the most clever ridicule. But it would be a bad joke to make readers experience the desperation of many of the characters by spinning out the prose to seemingly interminable lengths, wouldn't it?

I don't know if this is beyond Dickens. Perhaps another intuition about his purpose here is more correct: perhaps, writing in installments for the periodicals of his day, he was every week casting about in one subplot or another, writing his heart out for this or that scene, producing as much as he could in the hopes that out of all the words something significant would emerge to take over the novel as a whole. I'm not sure he ever found this unifying direction, but his greatness as a writer brought up numerous insightful and entertaining moments.

After all, many seem to find Bleak House a grand entertainment, despite all that's been said negatively about it here. Truth be told, any of the individual scenes are brilliant small plays, complete with minute stage directions. And if one takes time with the entire novel, living in it for an uninterrupted period, all the pieces manage to hang together somehow. Like many of the greatest British novels of the nineteenth century, Bleak House provides a sweeping view of all levels of a society with diverse interests and numerous subplots.

And yet Dickens manages to pull the threads together for a satisfying conclusion. Or rather, for several satisfying conclusions.

If you get that far.

— Eric