Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bleak House

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

This summer I took it upon myself to take a Continuing Studies course at Stanford taught by the dean of the MLA program, in which I am now enrolled. She'll be teaching some of my later courses, in the second year of the program, so I thought it would be good to establish my relationship with her early. Incidentally, her area of expertise is Victorian literature, which just so happens to be MY area of "academic interest." The summer course, "Bleak House: From the Slums of London to the Haunted Parks of Lincolnshire" was irresistible to me. For all my professions of adoration for Charles Dickens, I am ashamed to admit that I've only read (now that I've completed Bleak House) four of his novels. That's certainly enough to acknowledge and respect his tremendous talent, and I have embarked on a quest to read all of his works.

Of the Dickens novels I have read, Bleak House stands as the most triumphant, a truly brilliant novel that defies expectations, not only for the fine writing and deft storytelling, but pure entertainment value as well. It's a story of the connections that are made in a society that has become rife with corruption and degradation. With the law and an interminably long civil case setting the background, we are introduced to a wide and diverse cast of characters who seem to be connected to each other in more ways than we can imagine. (My professor emphasized throughout our course that on a second reading, the connections are even more profuse and evident!) It is told in two separate (well, seemingly separate) narratives, one through the voice of Esther Summerson (Dickens' only female narrator!) the other through an omniscient narrator.

To summarize the story in the briefest way possible, Esther Summerson is an orphan of unknown parentage who is taken under the wing of John Jarndyce, an heir of the infamous Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, along with two other young innocents who have some interest in the case, Richard and Ada. Alongside this central story of Esther is the mystery surrounding Lady Dedlock, the wife of Sir Leicester Dedlock, a member of the steadily dwindling aristocracy. Lady Dedlock has a potentially devastating secret, and the the ruthless, heartless attorney Tulkinghorn is set to discover the specifics of the secret.

At the time that Dickens wrote Bleak House, London was steadily become more of an urban center. Progress was everywhere, though squalor was increasingly evident. The rich were getting richer, but the poor were getting poorer-London had grown rapidly, but without a plan to take care of its citizens. It was a world without health or clarity. The upper and middle classes seemed to either have no idea how bad things could get, or chose to ignore it. In the core of London, poverty and disease were rampant. In writing Bleak House, Dickens wanted his readers to "Take a better look at the rotten world in which you live." Throughout the novel, we meet all kinds of characters who are representatives of that world. Jo, the poor crossing-sweeper, angelic in his simplicity; Mrs. Jellyby, a shocking and silly example of philanthropic stupidity; Harold Skimpole, who proposes to know nothing about everything and lives his life dependent on the charity of others; Allan Woodcourt, a kindly doctor who feels a burden for those suffering around him; and Inspector Bucket, the incorrigible detective who is intent on ferreting out the truth, but in a more hopeful and true way than Tulkinghorn. Though Dickens seems to criticize almost every element of society, from religion to the courts, he builds a story that is difficult to turn away from.

As it turns out, Esther is the illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock, who had believed that Esther died at birth. Esther's father, dies a penniless opium addict, and she never learns of his existence. Lady Dedlock is devastated to learn that her child is indeed alive, and heartbroken at the pain that would be caused by the public revelation of these facts. The reader is never made privy to the details of Lady Dedlock's relationship with Esther's father; suffice to say they certainly loved each other and were seemingly separated by unknown societal concerns.

There is much more to the story than this central mystery, and I shouldn't like to take away from the powerful significance of the cast as a whole. I would like to include a few of my favorite passages in this post.

Mr. George, sharing with the Bagnet family his feelings about leaving his mother many years ago:

"The time will come, my boy," pursues the trooper, "when this hair of your mother's will be grey, and this forehead all crossed and re-crossed with wrinkles-and a fine old lady she'll be then. Take care, while you are young, that you can think in those days, "I never whitened a hair of her dear head, I never marked a sorrowful line on her face."

Sir Leicester at the time of his realization about Lady Dedlock's secret and his ensuing devastation at her flight:

It is she, in association with whom, saving that she has been for years a main fibre of the root of his dignity and pride, he has never had a selfish thought. It is she whom he has loved, admired, honored, and set up for the world to respect. It is she, who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love, susceptible as nothing else is of being struck with the agony he feels. He sees her, almost to the exclusion of himself; and cannot bear to look upon her cast down from the high place she has graced so well.

And, even to the point of his sinking on the ground, oblivious of his suffering, he can yet pronounce her name with something like distinctness in the midst of these intrusive sounds, and in a tone of mourning and compassion rather than reproach.

This last passage is the most poignant to me-I was moved to tears as I read, and still feel choked up as I revisit the words. My professor shared a most wonderful belief about Dickens with us-he believes in the power of the human heart, to redeem us all. I think of that when I read about Sir Leicester's suffering. I know, because I read the book, that Lady Dedlock did indeed love her husband-the story isn't really so much about her love for Esther's father, but so much more. And yet, she crumbled under the weight of the pain and love in her heart.

I could continue to write about Bleak House, and these few mere words are not justice enough for it-I merely wanted to document a bit about what I learned, and share some of the words that I cherished most.

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