Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What I Loved About Bleak House

Even though I didn't love Bleak House as a whole, there were certain aspects that I did love. I promise to keep the gushing to a minimum!

One thing that I love about Dickens in general (and Bleak House did not fail me here) is his ability to comment upon what he sees as society's woes. In Bleak House, Dickens takes on the British courts (Chancery), the dangers of pursuing money at the cost of everything else, supposed do-gooders who do more harm than good (Mrs. Jellyby, he's talking to you!), and, of course, his old favorite, the treatment and abuse of the poor and disadvantaged. CSL2041 Photo Credit
Not surprisingly, Dickens' battle with money, the pursuit of wealth, and the cost of irresponsibility with one's means is a topic he returns to over and over again in his novels. He focuses particularly on the corrupting power of wealth in Bleak House. What is interesting about this is that it is as much the expectation of wealth as it is wealth itself that Dickens shows degrading and destroying lives in this story. The wards of court in Jarndyce and Jarndyce become a stark example of how dangerous it can be to live for the fleeting hope of wealth rather than determining to do good honest work for good honest money.

I've mentioned several times how much Richard's story saddened me (okay, let's be honest: this storyline made it nearly impossible for me to read this book the first three times I attempted it), and Dickens is at his best in showing how a bright, fresh, energetic, lovely young man (the representation of "Youth" to Miss Flight) is slowly but surely ground down in the milling wheel that is Chancery and Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Richard's naive belief and hope that Jarndyce and Jarndyce will end in favor of himself and Ada produces some of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the novel and provide Dickens with some of his strongest warnings against the danger of believing that wished-for wealth is better than actual happiness and security, however simple that happiness and security may be.

Along with Dickens' general delight in language, I have always loved his invention and use of very character-appropriate names. My favorite names that reflected character in Bleak House belonged to the main characters: Richard brings to mind nobility, honor, and goodness, and his name only serves to highlight how low he falls before he sees the truth that Mr. Jarndyce was trying to guide him towards the whole time. Ada's name means noble, and noble she truly is. She is sweet, kind, trusting, and wholly supportive, for better or worse, of Richard.

Really, however, it is Esther and Allan whose names fit them best and hint to the reader that they will indeed be together in the end. Even though it is not her true name, Esther is known as Esther Summerson her entire life, and she truly embodies many of the qualities of summer: A Summer meadow
Photo Credit
she is warm and kind and seems to exude light and goodness. It is only fitting, then, that she should be pursued, loved, and won by a man named Allan Woodcourt, whose name also brings to mind peace, simplicity, and true beauty.
Forest Path Photo Credit

The Deadlocks are also very aptly named: Sir Leicester Deadlock is trapped in the expectation of his family tradition and legacy, but, it turns out, he is not completely defined by them: he is not so "dead" that he will not marry a vaguely unsuitable woman (the mysterious Honoria Barbary), and marry for love, no less; even more shocking is the fact that he comes to love her so much that he forgives her affair and illegitimate child and wishes only that she would have come back to him so he could forgive her in person.

JoAnn of Lakeside Musings made an interesting comment on Book Psmith's post on Little Dorrit: she said that Dickens is an author that she had to trust while reading Bleak House; she had to let herself follow him where he would go, knowing that he would deliver eventually. I find that this very accurately sums up my experience with Bleak House. It may not have been my favorite, but I'm glad that I trusted Dickens enough to eventually follow this story through to its end.


JoAnn said...

Now this is the post I wish I'd written about Bleak House! The social commentary and characters names are two of my favorite things about Dickens. You've chosen perfect photos, too.

Stacy said...

Okay...this is too weird but I just had a conversation with myself this morning while getting ready for the day about Dickens' name for his great and fitting they are, and how sometimes one character can have up to three names conferred upon them (i.e. Pip). Dickens is the best when it comes to memorable names for memorable characters. Bleak House is on my TBR list for 2011. Your review has tempered my excitement a bit but I am still hopeful since you gushed about the book as well as saying it wasn't a favorite:)

Read the Book said...

That's very sweet, JoAnn! And I can't wait to hear what you think of the BBC miniseries.

Stacy, isn't it funny how those little coincidences happen? And let me assure you that a large reason I didn't love Bleak House was because I already knew the story. If you go in blissfully ignorant, I think you'll be okay. And if nothing else, you can always turn to Little Dorrit (and Arthur Clennam *swoon*)!