169 of 177 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2004
It's a monster of a book, and that's not really a reference to the length necessarily (although at 900+ pages, you can't help but be a little daunted). Bleak House has big plans for you, it wants to grab you and shout at you and whisper at you and tell you ten thousand things all at once in dozens of different accents. It's a book, really it is, with a mission, and an appropriately large dollop of missionary zeal.
Dickens was already a household name when he wrote it. He'd already cast his net far and wide over an increasingly eager audience (Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby had all garnered great praise for him, and Martin Chuzzlewit's extensive American episode - after his trip there in 1842 - had helped his popularity no end in the US). He was world famous. He had also just begun editing the weekly journal Household Words, a publication he hoped would help highlight the social injustices of the age. Bleak House is confident and furiously angry in many respects addressing, as it does, much of the same agenda that Household Words railed against week in week out.
The plot centres on the interminable case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, a years-old law suit creaking its way through Chancery (a reference to two cases: Day v Croft, a suit begun in 1838 and still being heard in 1854; and Jennings v Jennings, begun in 1798 and finally settled in, wait for it, 1878, although, as Dickens says in his Preface, 'if I wanted [more]...I could rain them on these pages, to the shame of a parsimonious public').
"Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant, who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grand-mothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps, since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee house in Chancery Lane, but Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the Court, perennially hopeless."
Circling this legal colossus is a cast as memorable as any that Dickens assembled before or after. The demure and impassive Esther Summerson, a resilient young woman carefully uncovering her past; Lord and Lady Dedlock, landed gentry living in a shadow-filled mansion in rural Lincolnshire; the threatening and ultra-clever lawyer, Tulkinghorn; Jo, a wretched street boy; and a whole swathe of legal junkies, obsessed acolytes flitting around the Courts of Chancery and Lincoln's Inn Fields. Every one always mentions the characters in Dickens - ah! the characters! they say - but then, they're remarkable, and wonderfully realised. But, as the case drags on, things fall apart and the centre - definitely - cannot hold.
When an affidavit is discovered amid the J v J papers, written in a sinister and familiar hand, Tulkinghorn's investigations kick off a series of events that lead down a mazey, dark path towards an unexpected conclusion. The plot becomes ever more labyrinthine and to help us shed some much needed light on the matter we get Inspector Bucket (great name) one of the earliest detectives in fiction.
All is division in Bleak House. The Dedlocks and the suit's lawyers on one side, everybody else on the other. When the two sides meet (weighty social irony in use here) the sparks light up the dark corners of the filthy London streets and someone invariably comes off worse. This is where the anger creeps in. Creeps in? Nah, floods in. This is where Dickens's agenda falls into place like a guillotine and you wonder how he ever managed to get on the side of the Toffs six years later for A Tale of Two Cities:
"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."
There's humour though, in fact there are plenty of real laugh out loud moments. The moment when Lord Dedlock discovers that someone has the audacity to stand against him in the election and that he's - egad! - an 'industrialist', is a splendid attack on the baronet's smug pomposity.
Narrative hops around from player to player, resting most often on a first-person account by Esther, who is the conscience of the story, but beyond her everybody gets a focus and story line, and the extended sequence of tying it all together, starting with the solving of the murder about 150 pages out, heralds a very satisfying series of dénouements.
So, is it one of the best books ever written? I'm not at liberty to say, of course, that's a question I'll have to come back to in my dotage. Certainly, I can't think of anything to put in the negative column. Dickens is fastidious in his plotting, there's nothing he leaves unsaid. There's no filler here (an amazing thing to say you might think, but it's true), no dull chapters, no extensive flowery prose, no muttered 'get on with it' moments. He fulfils his obligations to his social concerns, he creates sympathy and antipathy where he requires it. The villain, Chancery, gets a roasting ... yet he has a surprise for everyone at the last.
But, I am smitten with it, yes. I do think it's going to stay with me forever and - get this - I'm already looking forward to the re-read. I was blown away.
65 of 68 people found the following review helpful
on May 24, 2004
This book is without a doubt as relevant now as it was when Dickens wrote it. In fact, its probably more so. As G.K. Chesterton said, when Dickens wrote this book, he had grown up. We have the civil courtroom as it really is, a grinding machine that breaks lives underneath it every day. We see the lawyers who feed off of all this human misery, and encourage their clients to wreck their lives while piously portraying themselves as upholders of the law.
Of course, this book is about a lot more than just the law. One of the most amusing subplots involves various women involved in charity. As the character Mr. Jarndyce says, there are two kinds of people who do charitable work. Some accomplish a great deal, and make very little noise, and some make a great deal of noise, and accomplish nothing. Of course, most of the ones in this book are of the second catagory. The most memorable by far is Mrs. Jellybee, who obsesses over a colony in Africa while her own family falls apart around her. It's exactly like people today, who want to save the whales or free Tibet while people in their own neighborhoods starve.
The characters in this book are excellent, and far more realistic than in most of Dickens's works. Mr. Jarndyce is the heroic father figure, but he is a real one, who tried to be kind and guide his family but can only watch helplessly while his nephew slowly destroys himself trying to overcome the court, which of course is impossible.
Many people have had trouble with the character of Esther Summerson, and her relentless goodness and self-effacement. I think she is a fantastic character, and is Dickens's way of reinforcing the message of the book, that you need to find happiness in your own life, and things like lawsuits do nothing but destroy happiness and should be avoided. No one changes the world in this book. They just help those that they can and try to go on with their own lives. That's why this book shows a more mature view of Dickens. This is great reading for anyone, especially anyone involved in the law. Five Stars for this book!!
113 of 122 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2001
This is the second book by Dickens I have read so far, but it will not be the last. "Bleak House" is long, tightly plotted, wonderfully descriptive, and full of memorable characters. Dickens has written a vast story centered on the Jarndyce inheritance, and masterly manages the switches between third person omniscient narrator and first person limited narrator. His main character Esther never quite convinces me of her all-around goodness, but the novel is so well-written that I just took Esther as she was described and ran along with the story. In this book a poor boy (Jo) will be literally chased from places of refuge and thus provide Dickens with one of his most powerful ways to indict a system that was particularly cruel to children. Mr. Skimpole, pretending not to be interested in money; Mr. Jarndyce, generous and good; Richard, stupid and blind; the memorable Dedlocks, and My Lady Dedlock's secret being uncovered by the sinister Mr. Tulkinghorn; Mrs. Jellyby and her telescopic philanthropy; the Ironmaster described in Chapter 28, presenting quite a different view of industralization than that shown by Dickens in his next work, "Hard Times." Here is a veritable cosmos of people, neighbors, friends, enemies, lovers, rivals, sinners, and saints, and Dickens proves himself a true master at describing their lives and the environment they dwell in. There are landmark chapters: Chapter One must be the best description of a dismal city under attack by dismal weather and tightly tied by perfectly dismal laws, where the Lord Chancellor sits eternally in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Chapter 32 has one of the eeriest scenes ever written, with suspicious smoke, greasy and reeking, as a prelude to a grisly discovery. Chapter 47 is when Jo cannot "move along" anymore. This Norton Critical is perhaps the best edition of "Bleak House" so far: the footnotes help a lot, and the two Introductions are key to understanding the Law system at the time the action takes place, plus Dickens' interest in this particular topic. To round everything off, read also the criticism of our contemporaries, as well as that of Dickens' time. "Bleak House" is a long, complex novel that opens a window for us to another world. It is never boring and, appearances to the contrary, is not bleak. Enjoy.
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2003
I found this the best written prose that I have read so far by Dickens, and it ranks amongst the best written books that I've read by anyone. His assassination of the British establishment sometimes almost made me wince, yet I always found it entertaining and not preachy. I didn't find the plot as good, or the characters as sympathetic as A Tale of Two Cities (my favourite), but it beats the melodrama of Great Expectations by a long shot. I actually found this a far more damning indictment of society than Hard Times, contrary to what I'd been led to believe. Highly recommended.
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2000
It opens with one of the finest descriptive passages in literature - a depiction of the London fog and dirt. And, out of this seemingly primeval slime, the characters emerge. We are made aware of a court case, Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which has dragged on for years, and about which no-one knows all the details, but which destroys everyone it touches. There is plenty of documentation, but no-one has the time to go through it all. And many of these documents are in the hands of Krook, who cannot read. Here, it seems to me, are foreshadowings of 20th century expressionism, and the seeds of Kafka's "The Trial" and "The Castle".
The characters range from the heights of aristocracy - Sir Leicester Dedlock who is never bored, as he can always "contemplate his own greatness" - to the illiterate boy Jo, who has always lived on the streets, and who knows "nothink". We are invited to find connections between them, as everything is connected to everything else. The tone is dark, menacing, and tragic. There is no shortage of humour or exuberance: Skimpole and Chadband, for instance, are among Dickens' finest comic creations. But they do not lighten the darkness: quite the contrary. And neither can human goodness set things right: Esther's orderliness cannot impose order on the larger scheme of things, and neither can Jarndyce's benevolence prevent tragedy.
The scope of this novel is huge, but each new set of characters seems to introduce us to yet another circle of Inferno. The quality of the prose is astonishing, and the structure and organization of such masses of material masterly. And the novel also has a certain poetry to it, as in Richard Carstone's dying words: "I shall begin the world." Certainly, Dickens has created a world here that is a grotesque but nonetheless recognizable distortion of our own, and has animated it with his unique vitality and imaginative power. It is, without doubt, one of the world's greatest novels.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 2006
The enormity of Bleak House hits you like a ton of bricks from the first page. You know by the end of the first chapter reading it won't be a walk in the park. So many seemingly unrelated characters are introduced in the first few hundred pages that it left my head spinning. I even considered putting it aside after 300 pages. Then a funny thing happened. Somewhere around the 500 page mark, the book took on a momentum of it's own. Character's you didn't see the point of when introduced a few hundred pages back become familiar, like old friends, and you cherish every moment you get to spend with them. You actually wish the novel would keep going well beyond it's 1000 pages.
This is a moving novel. If you have a heart, it will make you cry a few times. If you have a sense of humour you will find yourself bursting into hysterics uncontrollably for whole chapters at a time. There is one character, Dr Bayham Badger, who plays a tiny role in developing the character of Richard Carstone. Well, my God, this character is hilarious. His pre-occupation with the greatness of his wife's two previously deceased husbands, Captain Swosser and Professor Dingo had me in stitches. At various stages in the book, I made my way back and re-read the chapter where Bayham Badger is introduced, and cracked up laughing each time!!
Another really funny couple are the Snagsby's. Not to put to fine a point on it, but the comment Mr Snagsby makes about the lamb chops cooking is one of the funniest one-liners I've ever heard.
The only thing I found strange is the abrupt way the book moved on from the death of one of the major characters, bypassing almost completely the grief this death would surely have caused. It left me wanting more information. It is also left me thinking. Maybe that was the point?
Anyway, that's being picky. The way all the disparate pieces come together, the breadth and depth of the writing, the biting social commentary contained in this book, is just monumental. Those reviewers who gave this book less than 5 stars, well, I'm not sure what else they want from a book.
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on June 4, 2003
"There is little to be satisfied in reading this book"?? I couldn't disagree more. Bleak House left a profound impression on me, and was so utterly satisfying a reading experience that I wanted it never to end. I've read it twice over the years and look forward to reading it again. Definitely my favorite novel.
I don't know what the previous reviewer's demands are when reading a novel, but mine are these: the story must create its world - whatever and wherever that world might be - and make me BELIEVE it. If the novelist cannot create that world in my mind, and convince me of its truths, they've wasted my time (style doesn't matter - it can be clean and spare like Orwell or verbose like Dickens, because any style can work in the hands of someone who knows how to use it). Many novels fail this test, but Bleak House is not one of them.
Bleak House succeeds in creating a wonderfully dark and complex spider web of a world. On the surface it's unfamiliar: Victorian London and the court of Chancery - obviously no one alive today knows that world first hand. And yet as you read it you know it to be real: the deviousness, the longing, the secrets, the bureaucracy, the overblown egos, the unfairness of it all. Wait a minute... could that be because all those things still exist today?
But it's not all doom and gloom. It also has Dickens's many shades of humor: silliness, word play, comic dialogue, preposterous characters with mocking names, and of course a constant satirical edge. It also has anger and passion and tenderness.
I will grant one thing: if you don't love reading enough to get into the flow of Dickens's sentences, you'll probably feel like the previous reviewer that "...it goes on and on, in interminable detail and description...". It's a different dance rhythm folks, but well worth getting used to. If you have to, work your way up to it. Don't start with a biggie like Bleak House, start with one of his wonderful short pieces such as A Christmas Carol.
Dickens was a gifted storyteller and Bleak House is his masterpiece. If you love to dive into a book, read and enjoy this gem!
42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2005
It's dark, it's absurd, it's mysterious, and so complicated that one character actually spontaneously combusts. It took me nearly six weeks to work my way through this book, and keeping track of the characters (many of whom have more than one name) was a serious challenge, but the book absolutely (if you'll parson the pun) blew me away.
Esther is a lot more interesting than most people seem to think - she's neurotic, she's obsessive-compulsive, and terribly, terribly repressed, entirely on purpose (I'm shocked that more hasn't been written about the possibility that she's grappling with homosexuality, covering up her feelings by pushing herself into 'duty, duty.') (Well, that's what one does in literary criticism nowadays. In the fifties they looked for commies, then they moved into civil rights...now the hunt is on for the gay characters). Without her cheeriness (even though it seems like she's faking it), the novel's view of the world would be hopelessly bleak. The balance is good.
Switching back and forth between Esther's first-person narrative and the omniscient, nameless narrator was really rather avant-garde for Dickens, who never tried the same thing again. And the prose in the omniscient sections is, at times, as great as any prose Dickens ever wrote.
Dark, spooky, foggy and muddy though the book is, it's also hilarious. Mrs. Jellyby's story, and several of the other comical, upper-class goofballs made me laugh out loud.
It's a great detective story, a great mystery, a soap opera, a legal thriller, social commentary, the memoire of a neurotic, and , in a way, a 1000 page shaggy-dog story. Quintessentially Victorian, and weird enough to be post-modern. It's also a bit of a mess, but let's overlook that for a moment - it's worth it.
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2006
I have nothing to say about Bleak House, other than that it stands beside David Copperfield as Dickens' greatest achievement, and thus, at the pinnacle of English literature. Failing to read Bleak House is like never tasting chocolate. And, as with chocolate, you might not like it, but if so, then you know there is something wrong with you.
The Everyman's Library edition shows the quality of this series of books. The binding is strong, the built-in page-marker useful, the typeface is clear, and the pages are sturdy. All good assets in a book that you will likely read several times. The editors must be praised for including a preface by GK Chesterton. However, they place the introduction by Chesterton at the end of the book as a sort of anachronistic footnote, and place at the beginning of the book, an introduction by Barbary Hardy.
The contrast between Hardy's rambling, confused, and petty introduction, and Chesteron's impressionist but accurate comments, are not to the benefit either of this edition or Barbary Hardy. Hardy sound her one shrill note of feminism, and then confusedly repeats other people's exegesis of Dickens. Her expectations of Dickens commit the triple crime of faulting a caveman for not knowing calculus - that is, she expects Dickens simultaneously to know the impossible, the inappropriate, and the ineffectual.
The Penguin edition of Bleak House contains an introduction by Nabakov, which, while overanalytical and dryly academic, was at least insightful. If you must waste your time (as I did) reading scholarly dissections of the great Dickens, I recommend the Penguin edition. If you can resist the temptation to set foot into Barbary Hardy's whiny little swamp, then the Everyman's Library edition is far superior.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on July 15, 2003
This is one of Dickens' most mature, sophisticated, and modern works, largely free of the sentimentality and crowd-pleasing melodrama for which he is known. An angry work filled with spleen about the inhumanity of the legal system and the way it grinds people up and spits them out, Bleak House is also notable for the strong ray of hope it holds out in the person of its protagonist, Esther Summerson, and her guardian, Tom Jarndyce. The story concerns an interminable legal case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, that has been grinding on for so long that nobody involved with it really knows what it's about anymore, and any money that could possibly be won by any of the litigants has long been swallowed up by legal fees. Caught up helplessly in this incomprehensible mess are Tom Jarndyce and his orphaned wards Esther Summerson and the kissing cousins John and Ada Clare. Also involved in the affair in some mysterious way are the haughty and aristocratic Dedlocks and an enigmatic legal clerk known only as Nemo--the Latin word for "no one." Part mystery, part legal thriller, Bleak House is also one of Dickens' most satisfying books for a modern reader. As a spirited indictment of the legal system it ranks with Nicholas Nickleby and Our Mutual Friend as among Dickens' strongest statements on the side of the poor and disenfranchised against the faceless powers that would crush them.