Bleak House

Bleak House Study Guide

Bleak House was begun at Tavistock House, Dickens' London home, in November 1851, continued at Dover, and completed at Boulogne in August 1853. It was originally published in nineteen monthly parts, the last of which was double the size of the preceding eighteen, from March 1852 to September 1853. It was published as a book later that year. Bleak House continued Dickens' successful string of fiction, following David Copperfield and preceding Hard Times, and went through several printings.

Beyond the popular success of its own day, Bleak House has developed a reputation as one of Dickens' most impressive achievements as a novelist. Many fellow writers, such as G.K. Chesterton and, much later, Vladimir Nabokov, consider the book to be Dickens' best, the one in which the classic traits and concerns of a Dickens novel -- likable characters, gripping storylines, social activism, humor, panache, grotesquerie and theatricality -- come together with the greatest force. Among its many qualities, Bleak House survives perhaps most vividly as an impassioned denunciation of hypocrisy, neglect, and selfishness, both institutional and personal. His chief target in the book is the convoluted, spirit-sapping process of English civil law known as Chancery, though Dickens targets several other social ills -- incuding "fashionable" society, institutionalized philanthropy and the London slums. In general, Dickens rejects beaurocratic, system-based, corrupt processes of law and social change in favor of quiet personal charity, captured when Esther Summerson says " is right to begin with the obligations of home, sir; and that, perhaps, while those are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted."

Inevitably, Bleak House has had its detractors as well as its admirers. Dickens' treatment of his female characters has drawn special criticism, and it is undeniable that Ada and Esther are totally unrealistic "types" of women, capturing the Victorian virtues of sisterly affection, loyalty, willingness to serve, kindness, gentleness, modesty, and gratitude. This ideal of womanhood -- saintly, winsome and prone to faint -- limits Esther and Ada to prescribed roles as selfless servers of men. However, Dickens gives even Esther a good measure of fire and spirit, shown best in her sharp criticisms of people like Mr. Skimpole and Mrs. Jellyby, and creates complex portraits of femininity as well. Lady Dedlock, especially, is presented in all her flawed glory.

One characteristic of the book that will help a first-time reader to distinguish and recognize the individuals within his huge cast -- and, indeed, that helped Dickens' original serial readership hold the story in suspense for weeks and months -- is his trick of using linguistic tics to "announce" his characters. John Jarndyce, for example, constantly references the "East Wind" during awkward moments, and Old Mr. Turveydrop refers incessantly to his "comportment." These tics are sometimes funny, sometimes (perhaps) distracting, but always useful in capturing the particular moral being of his varied bunch. Dickens' names, too, as in nearly all his writings, announce the character of his characters, from the flighty Miss Flite, to the crooked Krook, to the vociferous and hulking Mr. Tulkinghorn. As such things show, Dickens' purpose is never straight-forward realism even as he addresses the very real social problems of his era. He works with types and grotesqueries, capturing through exaggeration, like a political cartoonist, the foibles and virtues of humankind. Indeed, Esther is a caricature of feminine service as much as Tulkinghorn is of institutional corruption. It is through the composite of all these types, through their existence together, that Dickens captures best the complexity of "real" human life, rather than within a particular character. The whole of Bleak House is thus as unsettling, dense and roiling as London -- or as humankind, perhaps -- itself.