Bleak House ~ Charles Dickens


Bleak House is the second Dickens’ book on the 100 book list. It was a bit disturbing because the narrative is written from two perspectives: one is Esther Summerson’s narrative written in the first person in the past tense, the other from an omniscient narrator perspective in the present tense. You switch from one to the other and it took me some time to adjust.

The story’s built around the long running case Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which is a case of conflicting wills. Through it, we’re introduced to the Court of Chancery, which exists outside the court of law to deal with such things as wills and estates. Dickens introduces many characters whose lives are determined and organized around the cases because of the length of time to deal with each of them.

We follow the story of Esther Summerson, an orphan, who’s brought into Mr. Jarndyce’s care to be companion to Ada Clare, a ward in the Jarndyce case. Ada’s cousin (far removed though how far we’re not really told) Richard Carstone is also being taken in by Mr. Jarndyce.

Bleak House is a wonderfully complex story, layered with a number of subplots, which are somehow all tied to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, or at least to one of its protagonists. The two narratives never quite meet although they run in parallel and definitely are linked.
Let’s be honest, some parts felt overlong and confusing to me. Some characters are verbose but speak in ways that don’t really appeal to me. Most of the parts with Reverend Charland for example were a pain to go through.

Esther is Dickens’ only female narrator and it’s interesting how modest and self-effacing she is. Sure it might be due to the childhood she lived or maybe it’s because it’s a reflection of Victorian expectations of young women to be humble. She describes herself as not being clever, yet she has an understanding of other people and their nature that proves the contrary. She’s the first to see the budding love between Ada and Richard. She’s the one who realizes that Richard is a dilettante who can’t commit to anything.

Beyond the critic of the judicial system and the fate of its many ‘victims’, Bleak House is an extremely rich story. One could argue it is a love story but it goes beyond that. As with every one of his novels, Dickens teaches us something about the society he lived in. Its shortcomings and its opportunities. There’s also in many ways a morale there: Richard never seems to commit to anything just because he expects to be rich; he doesn’t heed the lessons of his guardian who tells him that wealth comes from working at something, earning it. So a lesson that one needs to work to achieve any kind of success instead of expecting it to fall on your lap? Who knows?

I enjoyed the book for all that it took me some time to finish it.
Have you read it?
Did you enjoy it?

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