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Old 07-17-2011, 11:58 PM   #1
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Post The MobileRead Literary Book Club July 2011 Discussion: Bleak House

It is now time to discuss our July selection, Bleak House by Charles Dickens. fantasyfan has volunteered to lead the discussion, and any of you may post your thoughts at any time you like. Anyone is free to join in the discussion. Let us begin!
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Old 07-18-2011, 04:55 AM   #2
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OK Here we go!


Bleak House is vast, complex and creates a feeling of chaos, so it might be useful to start with one specific area which has received a great deal of attention and branch out from that hub.

The most striking feature of Bleak House is its use of a dual narrative structure. This has caused considerable controversy. Some take the view that it is this structure that makes the book great and others, like E.M.Forster, feel that it is the book’s most serious flaw.

Briefly the two voices are as follows:

1. First, there is the omniscient narrator who easily switches between characters and scenes. The tone tends to emphasize cynicism, anger. and indignation. The ON writes in the present tense. This voice seems concerned with the malignant effect on the vulnerable by the actions of societal power structures and power manipulators.

2. The other is the first person limited narrator, Esther. She tends to be more gentle and specifically compassionate in her attitudes and relationships with those who suffer; she apparently personifies Dickens’ ideals of femininity and is more optimistic than the ON. Esther writes in the past tense--apparently from a journal.

As I read through the novel some exploration routes opened for me. I’ll share some of these with you and you can ignore, comment upon or branch out from them as the spirit strikes!

What did you think of the narrative structure? Is it relevant at all? Did it contribute to your enjoyment of the novel?

Do you think that Dickens has successfully managed to play these two voices off against each other?

Do the voices help illuminate Dickens’ world, his themes and character portrayal?

Is Esther really a believable and engaging character?

What do you think of that awful Skimpole? He was evidently based on Leigh Hunt. I detested him. One of the most engaging characters for me was Detective Bucket--also based on a real individual. I think that both tie into the power structures of the novel in different ways.

And what of that strange ending? Is Esther saying that life simply goes on? That there is no finality? After all, she and John Jarndyce can only salvage things; they have no permanent answer to the problems presented in the novel

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Old 07-18-2011, 07:49 AM   #3
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I, for one, found Dickens to be more flowing and readable when he was speaking through Esther. The omniscient narrator often irritated me with his style. I understand that Dickens was always criticising the society around him, but it felt much less sledge-hammer when Esther was speaking than when the narrator was.
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Old 07-18-2011, 08:51 AM   #4
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I suspect that Esther is an idealised version of his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth who moved in with Dickens and his wife Kate and eventually supplanted Kate in the home. Dickens worshipped Georgy {as he called her} and he died in her arms. There's absolutely no evidence of any sexual relationship between the two and it seems that Georgy was brought into the home partly because she had an uncanny resemblance to another sister-in-law, Mary who died suddenly, only 17 years old. Dickens remained obsessed with Mary and probably transferred that to Georgy whom he referred to as his "little house-keeper" Note how John Jarndyce refers to Esther!
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Old 07-18-2011, 09:39 AM   #5
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There is something of a contradiction in Esther. We develop a view view of her as good, kind, modest, self-effacing, patient and so on. But from where do we get this impression? Why, from Esther herself when she chooses to narrate other people's positive appraisals of her. Hardly the act of a truly kind, modest, self-effacing person.
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Old 07-18-2011, 12:49 PM   #6
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I had no problem with the dual narrative structure. So the book was told partly from the point of view of omniscient external point of view, and partly, the parts Esther is personally privy to, as though Esther is reading from her diary at a date after all events in the book? It was always clear to me when one or the other applied as the narrative. I do wonder if the fact that this book was written in serial from for publication in parts influenced that choice by Dickens.

One thing that I feel is important to keep in mind for this books, and number of other books by Dickens, is that Dickens was certainly writing popular fiction, and did want commercial success, but he also was consciously writing to achieve social change. Maybe the most important writer in this regard of his age.

Spoiler:

Not a spoiler, just a long quote from another book:

Quote:
“First it produced the horrors of urban poverty and then the dismal counter-measures of bureaucracy and regimentation. It must have seemed―may still seem―insoluble; yet this doesn't excuse the callousness with which prosperous people ignored the conditions of life among the poor on which to a large extent their prosperity depended, and this in spite of the many detailed and eloquent descriptions that were available to them. I need mention only two―Engels' Conditions of the Working Classes in England, written in 1844, and the novels written by Dickens between 1840 and 1855, between Nicholas Nickelby and Hard Times.

Engels' book is presented is presented as documentation, but is in fact the passionate cry of a young social worker, and as such it provided, and has continued to provide, the emotional dynamo of Marxism. Marx read Engels―I don't know who else did: that was enough. Everybody read Dickens. No living author has ever been more hysterically beloved by a larger cross-section of the community. His novels produced reform in the law, in magistrates' courts, in the prevention of public hangings―in a dozen directions.”
from Civilisation by Kenneth Clarke
The need for reform of courts and the legal system was of course the major theme of this book. Not only the central thread of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, but also the case of Mr. Gridley and even the lawsuit between Sir Leicester Dedlock and Lawrence Boythorn. Then there is the fact that the villain of the story, to the extent that there is what could be called a villain, is the lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn. One can almost imagine Dickens, while writing this, chuckling over such jokes as:


How can you spot a lawyer in a crowd?

He will have his hand in someone else’s pocket.


Dickens was often writing with the hope of prompting social change. However, his characters were seldom what one would call social activists, and real social change almost never occurs in his books. Dickens seems to have been content to hold up a mirror in order for mid-19th England to examine itself.



I guess I didn't really find the ending strange. As I stated Dickens seems to have had the intent to bring the problems and inequities of England to the attention of his readers without proposing a solution. And as far as the characters go I thought he tied everything up rather well.

One can imagine the children of Allan and Esther Woodcourt always happy at visits from wealthy 'Uncle' Jarndyce after the couple settles into a comfortable middle class life.

I really like the John Jarndyce character by the way, and did from this passage when he was first introduced:

Quote:
I thought he was very strange; or at least that what I could see of him was very strange, for he was wrapped up to the chin, and his face was almost hidden in a fur cap, with broad fur straps at the side of his head, fastened under his chin; but I was composed again, and not afraid of him. So I told him that I thought I must have been crying because of my godmother's death, and because of Mrs. Rachael's not being sorry to part with me.
"Con-found Mrs. Rachael!" said the gentleman. "Let her fly away in a high wind on a broomstick!"
However, I actually found him too good, first in his seemingly bottomless generosity and philanthropy to all, even the richly undeserving. I also thought Skimpole detestable. Also the magnanimous way he steps out of way for Esther to marry Woodcourt, and even facilitates that. Did he never really love, or lust after, Esther that he was so happy to give her up in the end?

The ends for Lady Dedlock and Richard Carstone, dying, were to my mind consistent with what was necessary for the novel. What would Lady Dedlock's future be with her past, including the existence of Esther, revealed? Would she acknowledge Esther? I know that she was supposed to be a tragic figure, but I did not think much of her. When she reveals to Esther that she is Esther's mother the reasoning she offers for insisting that that must never be revealed is about the benefit of Lady Dedlock more than anyone else. I believe that Dickens did not want here to be accorded too much sympathy as revealed in the implied contempt in this quote:

Quote:
My Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in the early twilight from her boudoir at a keeper's lodge, and seeing the light of a fire upon the latticed panes, and smoke rising from the chimney, and a child, chased by a woman, running out into the rain to meet the shining figure of a wrapped-up man coming through the gate, has been put quite out of temper. My Lady Dedlock says she has been "bored to death."
A social parasite like most English wealthy nobility.

The death of Richard Carstone also made sense. What could become of a man who had grown to adulthood never applying the effort to accomplish anything , being content with waiting for the inheritance to fall in his lap, when that inheritance vanishes?

The fate of Ada Claire is left hanging, but then she was never much of a character anyway. Dickens often introduced these female characters who, other than being young an beautiful, had little else to offer. Like some beautiful knick-knack on a shelf, and just as consequential. This is often counterbalanced by a female character, usually of similar age, that is not as physically attractive, but is someone more substantial and more of the type one would want to spend time with, including the rest of ones life. Here it was Ada Clare and Esther Summerson as the pair.

I agree that Inspector Bucket had admirable qualities in his dedication to his duty and no-nonsense approach to things. On the other hand he mercilessly hounded poor little Jo, even to Jo's death, simply because a wealthy patron found Jo's presence in London inconvenient.

One of the characters in this novel I really liked was William Guppy. Guppy because he was a character who though starting from nothing manages to make something of himself, and this while maintaining a code of morals and honor and attempting to do good. That and he is just one of these somewhat bizarre characters that Dickens fleshes out so well.

This book also shared a characteristic common to all of Dickens' novels. The wordy passages describing people and places. Personally this is one of the things I really like about Dickens, the way he uses the English language so well to create living images in the reader's mind.

In all I liked this book as a a good tale and as a moral indictment of the injustices of English society at the time.

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Old 07-18-2011, 06:25 PM   #7
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For me one of the high points of Esther's narrative occurs in chapter 35 when she has the delirium while suffering from Smallpox. It is written with remarkable beauty and is very moving. It's the one point where Esther shares something of the universality of the Omniscient narrator.

I very much like John Jarndyce too. In fact I think Esther should have married him, not Allan Woodcourt. Allan comes into the novel rather late and does a series of good deeds {to make him worthy of Esther}. His actual relationship with Esther and why they should love each other is never spelt out in any significant way. I know there's an age difference between Esther and John, but the Victorians weren't really hung up on that.

BTW do any of you have an opinion about the way Dickens generally portrays women in this novel?

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Old 07-21-2011, 05:52 PM   #8
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As I said elsewhere, I had very mixed feeling about the novel. I disliked most of the characters, especially Esther. The only ones at all interesting to me were, of course Jo, Phil (Mr. George's employee), Mrs. Bagnet (Mr. B somewhat) and Bucket. Mr. Snagsby became more interesting as the novel wore on and I was glad of his frequent appearances. The rest for me were so totally one dimensional that they quickly became boring. John Jarndyce...I expected to like him from his introduction passage mentioned by Hamlet , but I quite soon tired of his fecklessness. Even though he did make something of himself I can't even say I liked Mr. Guppy (Hamlet).

Fantasyfan is right on about Esther and Jarndyce: they should spend eternity together admiring one another. Well, that's not quite what she said. The Jellybys and the Smallweeds, were they supposed to add some humor? Old Mr. Smallweek being constantly "shaken up", throwing things at his senile wife?

What kept me going (other than the thought I was missing something given Dickens' lofty reputation) was his descriptions of 19th Century London. And I have to say Dickens is a pro at characterization, just that I don't find his characters sympathetic.

Having spent my working years around lawyers, judges, courts, etc., I did find some of Dickens' complaints valid, but I also knew a good many that were anything but his dour portayals of them and that spent the major part of their careers helping the underpriviledged. Writing this last sentence it just came to me...my major complaint against Dickens is his total lack of balance.

I probably did miss something because, I'm embarrassed to say, I didn't catch the dual narrative structure until fantasyfan mentioned it.

Even considering the serialization and need for expansion, I probably would have liked it better if it was a good deal shorter.

I can't say I found the ending strange...I was just glad it ended!
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Old 07-21-2011, 07:48 PM   #9
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This is the fifth or sixth Dickens novel that I have read and it is not one of my favorites. I just didn't warm up to Esther,Allan and John Jarndyce. In other Dickens novels, he managed to have characters who were good without being bland and dull. The main good characters in this novel Allan, Esther and John just didn't work for me. They came off as walking sermons and I didn't care what happened to them.

I liked George/Phil and the Bagnet family best. I liked the Inspector Bucket scenes. Unlike Charliebird , I did find the Jellybys funny, but I agree with him about the Smallwoods.

In the end I enjoyed reading this novel because like all the Dickens that I have read, he creates a fantastic world and I enjoy getting to experience such a different time and place.
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Old 07-22-2011, 03:27 PM   #10
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I did have problems with Esther's character--not least for the reasons outlined by TGS. In trying to create this modest, gentle, saintly, self-effacing character Dickens really set himself a nearly impossible task. She's maybe too good to be true. Another fictional orphan, Jane Eyre, works far better simply because she is something of a rebel against and critic of the system. Esther seems to accept it and work within it.

There are some good moments for Esther all the same. She is aware of the horrors of marriage for some women in the lower classes. In one of her visits she clearly witnesses the brutalization of a wife. Later when visiting a family with Detective Bucket, it's clear that the husband holds the threat of physical violence over his wife all too obviously. Dickens must have felt that dramatizing this social horror was far more emotionally effective when filtered through the Esther character than it would have been if it had been simply stated by the omniscient narrator.

I think this is the key to Esther's narrative function. The ON is a very powerful voice but he is remote. Esther provides a personal view. She humanises the themes and relates directly to the various characters. Since she is clearly an optimist and tries to see the best in people--much more so than the ON--her criticism of Richard Carstone is especially damning. The same applies to her dislike of Mrs Jellyby and her support for Caddy.

Esther's relationship with Charley was quite sensitive and very believable. Through this specific maid-mistress relationship, Dickens could effectively dramatise the general truth of the essential human equality of all despite differences in social class and occupation.

I rather liked the way Esther accepted the proposal of John Jarndyce. There actually was something quite sweet about the scene. On the other hand, as i said before, I didn't find the "romance" with Allan Woodcourt at all convincing. He was really a very boring character. But, then, I suppose in the heel of the hunt, Esther isn't exactly a live wire either.

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Old 07-22-2011, 05:40 PM   #11
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Chiming in on some of what has been said since my first post. I agree that many of the characters are thinly developed. However there are so many characters in the constellations of characters swirling about the principal characters of Esther, John Jarndyce, and Lady Dedlock that to pursue development for all would have created a massive work. Sometimes the characters seemed to be there for color and humor, e.g. the Smallweeds, and sometimes to to serve as archetypes for a class or type of people in the book, e.g. Jenny.

I enjoyed how Dickens' took aim at various 'do-gooders'―Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, and Reverend Mr. Chadband―who ignore the poverty and injustice right around them, including in their own families, while expending time and money accomplishing nothing for distant strangers. In fact if anything making the world a worse place.

The female characters in this book were all rather weak in my opinion. Most because Dickens really did not devote enough attention to them, Mrs Bagnet being an exception. The two principal female characters also struck me as weak. Esther while she had a good heart, confined herself largely to expressing her views in her diary, while taking what ever bone was thrown her direction and not being confrontational in the face of the wrongs she encountered all around her. Lady Dedlock was a bland character that invoked no sympathy from me.
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Old 07-23-2011, 03:11 PM   #12
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I am surprised that someone hasn't whacked me for not recognizing the very obvious: Dickens' characters are vehicles for his social commentary, they are characterizations! It's so obvious...maybe that's why it's not been mentioned.

In that vein it's hard for me to be so critical. I would say if Dickens' were writing now it would not be television scripts but Doonesbury-like comic strips.

Expanding on Hamlet's comment about the number of characters and given Dickens' penchant for lengthy and repeated descriptions, imagine the length of a novel with fully developed characters.
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Forgot to mention how much the original illustrations by "Phiz" in the MR copy of BH so defly capture Dickens' various caricatures and much enhanced the reading experience for me.

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Old 07-24-2011, 03:50 PM   #13
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One of the things that impressed me most in the novel was the fact that the Court of Chancery which is supposed to be one of the pillars of order in the state and im meant to provide stability and fair judgements does exactly the opposite.

Individuals are distorted through its workings. In one dramatic moment John Jarndyce warns Richard not to trust his future to the Court. The latter ignores him and his affection for Jarndyce is distorted and he marries Ada for money--poisoning the genuine love that existed between them.

The question arises as to why Richard is such a wastrel. The reason lies in the fact that he is a ward of the court and has been conditioned to wait until his future is settled and he receives his money. Thus, he never seriously makes plans to find a vocation which will give meaning to his life. Therefor his entire personality is distorted leaving him no ambition and an ethical philosophy that lacks significant values,

Mr Gridley is another victim of the court. In the end his attempt to make it act with justice costs him his life.

Jarndyce realises how horrible the system is and he regards it as a curse. His advice to Richard and his opposition to their engagement is an attempt to salvage something for them in human terms. He believes that Carstone will have to prove himself in the crucible of the real world before he can marry Ada.
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Old 07-24-2011, 03:51 PM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CharlieBird View Post
Dickens' characters are vehicles for his social commentary, they are characterizations!


Thanks for sharing that insight. It helps to clarify Dickens' themes.

IMO, two characters that fit CharlieBird's analysis would be Jo and Mr Tulkinghorn, They caracterize two very different ends of the social and ethical spectrums. One is poor, good, and vulnerable; the other is rich, evil, and a power manipulator.

I'm sure there are plenty of other examples.

Last edited by fantasyfan; 07-24-2011 at 04:26 PM.
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Old 07-25-2011, 01:01 PM   #15
astrangerhere
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I adored the satircal farce that was Mrs. Jellyby! Dickens had sort of a sledgehammer wit when it comes to his social commentary, but Jellyby was truly a gem. Children who live in squallor, lacking education and culture that were sacrificed on the clear whim of their "charitible" mother.
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