Bleak House Day 1 – Overview

(Note – I read the book “blind”, that is with no idea what it contained.  I wrote the essays immediately after reading, so they are first impressions.)

This first real post of the challenge is just a quick review of the book, looking at it from a few angles.

The main story of Bleak House follows a civil lawsuit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  From the beginning we find out that this has been going on for decades and most of the principal players are long dead.  Although this is, in ways, the primary story and goes from beginning to end, in other ways it is just the glue that holds the rest of the book together.

There are many smaller stories and subplots, but the main story, after the lawsuit, is that of Lord and Lady Dedlock, and particularly Lady Dedlock and some mysteries surrounding this lady.  Oh, and Esther’s story, of course, but her story is in many ways just incidental to the main story lines of the law suit and Lady Dedlocks mysteries (I introduced Lady Dedlock and her mysteries here.)

The book follows two narratives.  One is given by Esther Summerson (in first person), a poor orphan taken into Mr. John Jarndyce’s guardianship after her godmother (aunt) dies.  Although she recounts her background (which is highly important!), the real story begins when she is brought together with Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, who, although they didn’t know each other before, are cousins and also both are orphans like Esther.  The difference between Esther and this pair is that they are two of the remaining principals in Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  They are off to live with Esther’s guardian, John Jarndyce, at his home, Bleak House.  Esther has been chosen as Ada’s companion and is installed as head housekeeper (she had been at a boarding school, where she not only went to school, but helped teach and “mother” incoming students).  That last point is easy to forget but important to remember – Esther is treated throughout as Ada and Richard’s social equal, but in reality, she is a servant and has to work for her keep while they are idle (at first…).

The other narrative is in third person and is, maybe, partially omniscient.  It follows a convoluted story around Lady Dedlock, Sir Leister Dedlock and his attorney, Mr. Tulkinghorn but follows many other people, high and low.

As all of Dickens, this one takes on a lot of social issues of the day.  The Chancery (high civil court), civil law in general, and all of the people involved (clerks, scribes, lawyers, etc) are the main target for Dickens.  He describes several types of lawyers, from the self-important gregarious to the vampirish – Dickens’ description of Vohls, 50 years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, seems to define that night creature better than most.  Of course, the cold, calculating Mr. Tulkinghorn is drawn with the greatest detail.

Other big topics are the politics of the day and, even more, the aristocracy and manor system.  Sir Leister, his hanger-ons and their beliefs act as the caricature for that entire system here.

Strangely enough, Charity and Causes (philanthropy) were in his sights as well.  He was all for charity, i.e., generosity to other humans and helping those in need, but his charity was based on empathy and compassion for people in need, to really help where help was needed, more than the Sense of Mission that Charity (capital “C”) too often takes.  The people with causes where ridiculed, while those with real heart, be it Esther herself, or even the slightly ridiculous Mr. Snagsby giving Jo a coin whenever he saw him, are treated more kindly.

It isn’t just Charity, it is the preachy style of Christianity that, as Jo put it, seems to be those preachers trying to make themselves feel better, not helping those they preach to, hits Dickens ire.

Another theme, perhaps the grand unifying theme, one that too often seems be overlooked, is motherhood.  This entire book is about nothing if not motherhood, seen from both a child’s point of view, even if the child be 50, to the mother’s view, particularly of a mother’s grief over a dead child, as shown by the brick layer’s wife, Jenny.  It is a feeling, as Dickens’ points out, shared by women whether of the poorest of the poor, like Jenny, or the highest of the high.  And then there is Mrs. Rouncewell, whose favorite son had run off at least 30 years previous, who still lamented his absence.  Also, it is seen from the other side, from the orphan, be it Jo, the street boy, or even Esther herself, denied the kind, motherly touch and yearning for it her entire life.  So, yes, motherhood is perhaps as big of a theme as the law.

As is common with Dickens, there is a huge cast of characters, all with these interconnecting lives.  Some of the characters are very two dimensional, some obviously placed for a specific purpose, either for the plot or to make a point, some give a comic relief.  But there are a few characters in the book that are drawn with skill as true people, as alive as you and me.  We also have characters from the poorest of the poor, like the bricklayers or Jo, to the rich businessman, like Mr. Rouncewell, to the highest of the elite aristocracy, like Lord and Lady Dedlock.  And, as mentioned, the entire legal system is shown from poor copiers to the highest paid lawyers.

As is usual with Dickens, the story is sprawling and wordy.  It isn’t necessarily bad, but if you are looking for sparse, go elsewhere. Of course the wordiness is very 19th century.  And this does paint a very good picture of the time, almost as good of a picture as Dickens paints of London in the opening – one of the  greatest descriptions of all times (see my take on the opening here).

As is shown in many of his books, Dickens had a pretty good understanding of human nature and was able to display the world from all classes.  He was also a master at manipulating emotion when it suited him.

Over this week I am going to talk about a few topics.  There are so many that stand out to me, both what I mentioned above and beyond, like how the male Dickens in a male dominated society wrote a book with so many female main characters, and even from a female point of view.  I’ll leave that to others, as will I leave the odd relation between Mrs. Bagnet as the true head of the household compared to some of the downright misogyny that is occasionally on display here.  Other big topics are displacement (like Mr. Tulkinghorn displacing his resentment of Lord Dedlock to his actions against Lady Dedlock) and seemingly contradictory opinions on a large variety of topics.  And, of course, the way time flows – what is the timescale of the book?  Why is it that Jenny has just lost her child through the entire book?

As I write these posts, I will try to keep most of the spoilers out, but there are places where they will be necessary.  Since we were all supposed to have read the book…  Anyway, if I have a post where I know I put in a spoiler, I will try to warn you.

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Bleak House Main Challenge Post

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37 thoughts on “Bleak House Day 1 – Overview

  1. Pingback: Coffee Share Curation of Combinbing Challenges – Marsha Ingrao – Always Write

  2. Marsha

    Trent, again, you did a fabulous job with all your essays. Each of them have so much meat without giving away too many of the answers in the book. Looking back on the book, the revealing of Esther’s parentage could have almost marked the end of the book, but as you said, it occurred about 3-4 chapters into the book. The murder of Mr. T. later in the book could have also marked the end of the book, but it had a happy ending far beyond either of these solutions. Thanks again for hosting. This was a pleasure. :)

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      It is odd that the biggest mystery was solved so early and the next biggest mystery solved when there was still so much book left, and yet the book worked, possibly being better for it.
      I enjoyed it and enjoyed doing these little essays :) Glad you were able to join in :)

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  3. Pingback: Monday Morning Blooms & Bleak House Challenge A to Z Takeaways📚☀️😊 – priorhouse blog

  4. Pingback: Dickens Challenge – Bleak House Recap Post | Trent's World (the Blog)

  5. D. Wallace Peach

    I was forced to read Great Expectations in high school, Trent, and it was just not a book I was interested in at age 14. Ever since, I’ve just had an aversion to Dickens. Not fair, but there it is. I don’t know why schools do that to kids. So, I’m impressed that you picked up Bleak House and just started reading! I’ll be very curious to see what you think when you get to the end.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I think Dickens can be a bit much for high school students! Because of how wordy they are, and how much is implied instead of said despite all of those words, they can be difficult for adults…
      Yvette Prior and I read Little Dorrit last year and so continued this year with Bleak House, so not something I just picked up on a whim. Unlike Little Dorrit last year, I read straight through this in just a couple of weeks. I then wrote these 5 essays (this is the first one) way back in March when I finished.
      I did really like the book. There is a lot there, with quite a few characters to keep track of and a lot of plots small and large, but I did enjoy. Dickens was an author that seemed to understand humans better than any since Shakespeare. He often used that knowledge for flat caricatures to make a point, but his main characters are closer to being flesh and blood people than any other author I’ve read. He was also a master manipulator and knows how to make you hate a person when only kind words are used. Very interesting, but you have to be in the right mind set!

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      1. D. Wallace Peach

        I know Yvette is a huge Dickens fan. I might have to try again some day, especially after your tantalizing description above. High School English also destroyed Faulkner for me. I ended up hating reading. It wasn’t until Tolkien lit up my brain that I started my love of reading.

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        1. trentpmcd Post author

          No pun intended, but Tolkien is magic…
          I will admit that it takes mentally shifting gears to read Dickens, which doesn’t always happen right away, but once in that slower horse and carriage pace, it’s worth the read.

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          1. D. Wallace Peach

            I think/hope that teachers now understand that the mere enjoyment of reading is more important than what’s read when it comes to kids. At least giving them choices among the classics would help. I loved the Brontes and Harding and Austin. :-D

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  6. Retirement Reflections

    Hi, Trent and Yvette –
    Inspired by this challenge, I recently finished reading Bleakhouse. I am delighted that I did. (I may not have read it otherwise,so thank you!)
    I have focussed my What’s On Your Bookshelf post (June 16) on both this book, and this challenge.
    I look forward to following your posts on this topic!

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Cool, glad you read it! Our original challenge was for this week, but I think there is at least one other person posting on the 16th, so we’ve extended it out to the 20th – if you want to be part of the challenge, just drop a link here :)

      Like

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  7. Pingback: Monday Morning Blooms & Bleak House Challenge is THIS WEEK📚☀️😊 – priorhouse blog

  8. Resa

    Of course, I’m reading posts backwards!
    Excited to read the picture Dickens paints of London.
    I love everything I’ve read of his.
    You are really on top of this. Thank you!

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I’ve never done an analysis with a book like this. It was a lot of fun :) I didn’t write them to be read in any particular order except the intro and then on the last day the recap, so no worries about backwards reading.

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  9. Prior...

    My thoughts on today’s post?
    1) I agree about the theme of motherhood and the different aspects
    2) and of course the courts as a theme and some of jargon and time delays – wow – I believe that did wake up some folks – and while the courts today in the US are backlogged – their is expediency for youth and so I believe many changes have been made since the darker days! I have more to say about the courts -but like how you added that to day one
    3) the wordiness part was 19th century but it also likely related to the serial nature of the installments
    -and over 20 months people had to have something to sink into –
    For many this was a highlight of the month – there were not libraries to easily visit and there was no social media for entertainment – no tv and no radio yet
    So one of my 25 points will mention the wordiness and what can be sludgy – but also had a purpose ((and is perhaps why not everyone wants to read dickens))
    4) I am also glad you are not worrying about spoilers
    Because reflecting on a masterpiece would be so hindered if you had to curtail words for those that might not have read it – sigh! And how annoying when someone over caters to those that don’t want spoilers when the real aim is to fully explore what the author did and this will need to sometimes reveal details 💛and I say don’t hold back!
    Also it is the kind of book where folks might get more if the details are known – they might track better —

    Okay – enjoyed this so much and see you for day 2

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks, Yvette, I’m glad you liked this first little essay.
      I am surprised that with all I read about the book (after I read it), there was not one single mention of motherhood as a major theme! Wow. It was so much there in every one of the little subplots and most of the characters!
      I have heard of modern suits over estates that have gone for years and even decades, but I think it was much more common then.
      I do know people who say, “Dickens was paid by the word and wrote like he was paid by the word…” Yeah, I guess in ways that is true, and yet, it does add richness to the writing.
      I am holding back a little on some of the spoilers, though if someone talks about them, I will as well. Let’s say the worst kept secret in the book, that I knew by the third or fourth chapter ( maybe a little later) and came out in bold by the middle of the book! OK, you know, Esther’s mother. But there are some things, like the murder case, that I would be a little more reluctant to talk about (though, I did give parts of the outcome in a couple of the essays, if you read between the lines…). I do agree that if there is a discussion between people who have read it, nothing is off limits, no secrets too deep, it is all on the table. Why else have a discussion?
      Also, my guess is, if someone reads it 6 months from now, they won’t remember anything I said about, say, Caddy Jellybe.

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      1. Prior...

        Hi t
        Thanks for the reply
        And when I read about the book the top two themes I found had “domestic” and family relationships and then the courts.

        One of my top 25 take aways is the love theme – but of course dickens has couples that vary greatly
        And in our bleak house story we have love denied and unfulfilled (captain and lady D) and then love fulfilled with others

        And yeah – getting paid by the word and considering this was across 20 months of installments needs to be considered for original reception to the target audience.
        -/
        😊☀️

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  10. Prior...

    hi T
    Excellent opening essay post!
    And at first I was a little worried I essays this week would impact my Main Post – but I don’t think it will interfere at all – because I am sharing my top 25 takeaways – it might make for a long post but that is my preference right now
    And in the 25 points I address – there might be a little overlapping with some things you mention (here or in the other upcoming ones) and so I might just refer to your posts

    And it is fun to see how we both have a different approach to our shares – super fun!
    -/

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Seeing the way we take it, and the different direction Derrick went (a little overlap, but still good) and hopefully others will take. And, yeah, it is just one book, so there will overlap, but we all see it different, so the overlap is from different sides.
      Looking forward to your 25 take aways!

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  11. Emille

    Never thought about the openness of Dickens showing to write about so many female characters! He probably had a good relationship with a few, especially his mother (I couldn’t resist that psychological touch here). My smile is the image of the cattle I miss seeing on my way to the store:) Hope you find some positve news this week! Emille

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I read an article about how taken Dickens was with the female mill workers in the US when he visited. I think he did a better job than most males of his day looking at things from the female PoV. And perhaps his mother influenced him ;) I’ll be over in a little while.

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  12. Pingback: Dickens Challenge – Bleak House Intro Post | Trent's World (the Blog)

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