Bleak House

Bert Hornback looks at Radiance in 'Bleak House'

Bleak House
is hardly a title to make a reader think of radiance—or great expectations.  And its grim, grimy opening paragraphs are as off-putting as anything in European literature. The narrative voice in the first chapter is in a category all by itself:  it is a hostile voice.  It angrily introduces us to “London,” and to the “High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners,” which

has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire. . . its worn-out lunatic in every mad-house, and its dead in every churchyard. . . [it] gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearing out the right. . .so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope; so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart; that there is not           an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does often give—the warning, ‘Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!’  

Chancery is Dickens’s hell—but it is real, not mythical. And the lives it ruins - “no man’s nature has been made better by it”- are real lives. And the city which it represents is both London and, for Dickens, this world.

            But Bleak House is a double novel, shared by Dickens’s angry omniscient narrator and a young woman named Esther Summerson. Esther begins her narration (she knows she is writing a “portion of these pages”) in the third chapter by telling us that has had since her childhood “always rather a noticing way,” and an ambition to “understand” her world: this world.

            Esther is one of Dickens’s many, many orphans. Sometimes it seems that Dickens’s world is in a state of orphanage.  (Some of his orphans, like Mr. Dick in David Copperfield, are adults.)  Dickens’s answer to orphanage is love, and friendship.  In Our Mutual Friend, when John Harmon and Bella Wilfer marry, Dickens concludes the chapter lyrically, 

And O there days in this life, worth life and worth death. And O what a bright old song it is, that O ‘tis love, ‘tis love, ‘tis love, that makes the world go round!

Esther’s cruel godmother, Miss Barbary, has told her that, as she is an illegitimate child, she is “different from other children…set apart.” A “disgrace.”  “Submission, self-denial, diligent work are the preparations for a life begun with such a shadow on it,” she tells her young ward. Esther translates this triple-loaded cruelty, resolving to be “industrious, contented, and kind-hearted.”  And she determines always to “strive to do some good to someone, and win some love.”

Bleak House is full of orphans, as all of Dickens’s novels are.  And there are additional children—like the Jellybys—who might as well be orphans.  In chapter four of the novel, Dickens sends Esther to visit the Jellyby household.  It is chaotic, and Mrs Jellyby sits at the center of the chaos - “in a nest of waste paper”—writing letters for her charitable “African project.”  Her children, meanwhile, “tumble” about her, fall down flights of stairs, get their heads stuck in railings; her eldest, Caddy, is her amanuensis, and exists—angrily—“in such a state of ink.” 

Through the course of the novel, Esther will learn this world as the omniscient narrator sees it, but she will not become so angry as he is.  Esther narrates chapter five—beginning the second monthly number of the novel, as it was originally published—on the second day of the novel:  the day after that with which Dickens which began the novel:

London.  Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but lately retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holburn Hill.  Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.  

Esther’s narration is not so rhetorically charged—nor so angry—as Dickens’s was.  But it echoes Dickens’s in chapter one:

We drove through the dirtiest and darkest streets that ever were seen in the world (I thought), and in such a distracting state of confusion that I wondered how the people kept their senses… 

And then,

Although the morning was raw and although the fog still seemed heavy—I say seemed, for the windows were so encrusted with dirt that they would have made Midsummer sunshine dim…

Esther and the omniscient narrator are seeing the same world—and it needs much work to make it better.

That’s why Jo, the poor young crossing-sweeper, is one of Dickens’s heroes. Jo doesn’t enter the novel until chapter eleven. At the inquest into the death of an unknown man, Jo is called to testify—but not allowed to do so in court.  Jo knew the man: the man had given him money when he had any, and had shared his meager rations with Jo.  And Jo would have testified, “He wos wery good to me, he wos!”  When poor Jo dies, later in the novel, Dickens explodes in anger, protesting against this deadly wrong world, Dickens honours Jo, at his death, with thirty-five of his most angry, outraged words:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day. 

Esther is never so angry, though she sees the same world that Dickens sees.  As the joint narrators of this novel, they show us this world.  It is noisy, and crowded:  there are at least ninety characters named in the novel, numerous unnamed extras, and several different crowd scenes.  Having seen this world, we must join Dickens—and Esther--in doing the work that needs to be done in it.

            As in most of Dickens’s later novels, enlightened happiness is the goal.  Enlightenment must mean seeing this world as it is:  knowing it.  Happiness comes from work:  from working to make this world what it should be.  And like Bleak House itself, that work is never finished.

The final chapter is not written by the omniscient narrator, but by Esther, who is living and working for good in this world.  And her narration ends the novel—with a dash, not a full-stop.

            The wonderful thing about radiance is there is no circumference.  It is open-ended


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