Bleak House by Charles Dickens
I just finished Bleak House. I’ve never read so much as a word of Charles Dickens before, nor did I have any particular desire to. Whatever impression I had of him was that his work was quite long-winded, dull, and trite…but his work kind of sits astride the history of the novel in English like a collection of 900-page behemoths. And I’d had glimmerings that there might be something worthwhile in him, mostly from my friend Becca (including this blog post of her), and through the various breathless praises heaped on him by various British authors.
I liked Bleak House, of course. It was not just great, it was also kind of shocking. I’ve never read anything like it. And I have numerous reflections on it which I will proceed to demarcate via numbered sections.
I. This Being The First Such Numbered Section
Even someone who’s never read Dickens can’t help but be familiar with his style of farce mixed with drama. It’s been transmitted down to us by approximately seventy-eight filmed or televised versions of A Christmas Carol. It even has its own epithet – “Dickensian” – and is exemplified by the way he gives his characters these perverse, resonant, Anglo-Saxon names like “Jellyby” or “Bucket” (or my most totally favorite name ever, which will be discussed in a numbered section to follow).
But I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. The characters, at least in Bleak House, are too large and broad to work as real human beings. They’re total creatures of invention, more like the denizens of dreams than those of the world around us. Take, for instance, Lignum Bagnet, the retired soldier, who takes his friend George on walks where Lignum waxes rhapsodic about the virtues of Mrs. Bagnet, and then closes by saying that he’d never tell Mrs. Bagnet these things, of course.
“The old girl,” says Mr. Bagnet in reply, “is a thoroughly fine woman. Consequently she is like a thoroughly fine day. Gets finer as she gets on. I never saw the old girl’s equal. But I never own to it before her. Discipline must be maintained!”
Now, something about that doesn’t ring precisely true psychologically. If he can boast to every random passerby about how great she is, then he would probably also tell her. How could he avoid it? That’s the kind of humorous, or farcical quality.
But there is also something that does ring true, in that we can easily imagine a person who is so fully, so exuberantly in admiration of his spouse that he wants to shout it to everyone, but is somehow not fully articulate enough to be able to do so. That’s what lends the farce it’s sort of emotional impact. People acting nonrealistically is funny, by itself, but when they do it in ways that is emotionally resonant, there’s something else going on…
The dreamlike aspect is that the story doesn’t really exploit this tension. Mrs. Bagnet is fully aware that her husband loves her. They have a fine relationship. Her husband’s quirk exists on some other plane of storytelling, it’s a fiction even within the story itself. Just like, in, say, a musical, the characters sing and dance to express their personalities, in this novel there is some whole new range of tricks and conventions that characters use.
Hmm, I’m not doing a very good job of describing what I found interesting about book’s storytelling. Let me put it this way. The thing it most reminded me of was a television sitcom, like Friends or Scrubs. You know how in any sitcom with any kind of story or character arc, you’ll eventually come to care what the characters do and who they have sex with and all that stuff even though they’re character basically buffoons? But it’s okay, because the demands of the story allow them all to be buffoonish in ways that act as a stand-in for serious behavior? Like how J.D’s bromance with Turk is actually kind of about real friendship in a way that our brains can sort of unconsciously understand even as we laugh? Well this is the first time I’ve really seen something like that in a book. I think that books are normally too empathetic, and too understanding — the internal monologue is too readily available – to be unrealistic in quite that way.
II. This Second Numbered Section Is Long-Winded Just Like Charles Dickens Is Often Said To Be.
It would be hard to make the claim that Dickens is not long-winded. Given the way his plots are assembled, they can basically be of any length he wants. And he chose to make that length roughly 350,000 words. But buried within that long-windedness, there’s some good writing. When I hear that an author is long-winded, I assume that their work is going to be filled with long pages of visual description that I will eventually skip.
But not only are the descriptions not really that long, they’re also very good. They actually convey some kind of information to me, a person who is awful at visualizing things. I think this might be because Dickens’ descriptions are also wholly invented, they’re not even attempting to be descriptions of real people or real places. They’re more like descriptions of an impression in the author’s mind. Take, for instance, this paragraph which I chose totally at random:
As the excellent old gentleman’s nails are long and leaden, and his hands lean and veinous, and his eyes green and watery; and, over and above this, as he continues, while he claws, to slide down in his chair and to collapse into a shapeless bundle, he becomes such a ghastly spectacle, even in the accustomed eyes of Judy, that that young virgin pounces at him with something more than the ardour of affection and so shakes him up and pats and pokes him in divers parts of his body, but particularly in that part which the science of self-defence would call his wind, that in his grievous distress he utters enforced sounds like a paviour’s rammer.
Now, honestly, can you visualize that? What do “long and leaden” nails look like? What does it look like when a person slides down in his chair and becomes a shapeless bundle? What does it look like when someone pats and pokes someone into shape, and makes him utter sounds like a “paviour’s rammer” (a paving rammer). None of that means anything, visually or aurally.
But the words are enough. They call up impressions of other words we’ve read, in other passages, in other books. They weave an imagine with their connotation and denotation alone, without any recourse to our stock of visual images. I like that a lot.
III. Complete Thematic Disarray
There are about thirteen major plotlines in this book and thirty minor ones. They’re connected in Crash-like fashion by the characters coming into and out of each others lives, and being secretly related, and that kind of stuff. But other than those bits of author fiat, I have no idea what thematic linkage there is between the various stories.
If you read about Bleak House on the internet, it will tell you that the novel is an indictment of England’s Chancery Court. And sure, it is that…for about 30,000 of its words. All the other words are about falling in love and getting married and finding out who your parents are and murdering folks and trying to figure out who murdered folks and trying to escape from disgrace and all kinds of stuff like that.
What’s the linkage? I mean, it certainly all seems to fit together on some unconscious level, but I wonder to what extent the stew of stuff in this book is just the usual mix of Dickensian elements, and to what extent the stuff in this book represents elements uniquely combined for this book. I’ll probably need to read more Dickens to figure it out.
IV. Prince Turveydrop is a bomb name
Just say it to yourself, “Prince Turveydrop”, “Prince Turveydrop”, “Prince Turveydrop”. It is utterly mellifluous. I am sorry my cat already has a name. If she didn’t, or if she’d had the current one for fewer than sixteen years, she would now be named Prince Turveydrop. think I will name my child Prince Turveydrop. Prince Turveydrop Kanakia.