Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Bleak House - Finished!! (Spoiler Alert!)

Well, it took me long enough, but I finally finished "Bleak House" last night.  Whew!  What a big, sprawling novel!  And after all the bitching and moaning I did at the beginning about how I just couldn't get into it, and damn it was so huge, and how would I ever be able to keep track of all the characters, etc., well, I actually was sad to end it.  I was in this world for so long, and got so used to the characters, that I was sorry to leave them.  Looking back, I now think this is the first book I've read in quite a long time that I really want to read again...not immediately, but not years from now either.  I think by reading it again I will be better able to get a grasp of things in the early parts of the book, where I felt confused by the characters, and I think that confusion made me miss a lot of things that I would get on a second read.

And what a wild ride this book turned out to be!  Did the book have a happy ending, or a sad ending?  Answer:  All of the above!  Did it have a first person narrator, or a third person narrator?  Answer:  All of the above!  Was the book a comedy, a tragedy, social satire, a detective novel?  Answer:  All of the above!  I mean, this book was all over the place, and yet, was also a fit coherent whole.  In the end, all the craziness, and all the oddball characters, and all the narrator shifts, and all the various moods and themes, they all fit together.  It all made sense.  This to me is proof of Dicken's genius.  Very few authors could pull this off.  Bravo, Charles!

I have several comments and thoughts about the book.  First, I liked the contrast between the tragic part of the novel's conclusion (the death of Esther's mother, the Lady Dedlock, who ran away from her husband, Sir Leicester Dedlock, because she knew he had found out about her having born a child before they were married.  She feared he would throw her out and heap scorn upon her, when really he loved her so much that he didn't care.  But she didn't know this, and ran off and died in the snow) with the happy part of the novel's conclusion (Esther's finding out that the man she loves still loves her, despite her smallpox scarred-face, and so they get married).  There's something for everyone!  But isn't this how life is?  Some things turn out well, and others end up tragically.  Then you grow old and die, unless you're part of the tragedy, in which case you just die.

Second, I love how the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, which has gone on for years and years, ends.  It ends when the lawyers figure out the estates involved no longer have any money to pay for the suit to continue any further, and so they drop it immediately.  No thought of justice, or the law...the money's gone so that's the end of it.  And ironically, this happens just as a new will is discovered that would have put the suit to a satisfactory end, had it been found in time.  And the court breaks out in laughter at this conclusion.  Ha, ha, ha!!  Man, Dickens did not respect lawyers.  Fortunately times change, and no one ever makes fun of lawyers anymore.

Third, I loved how Richard, one of the "wards of Jarndyce", the cousin and wife of Ada, Esther's "darling", never really could figure out what he wanted to do with his life, and finally gets sucked into the lawsuit...studying it and going to court everyday with the hope (wrong!) that it would be resolved soon and he'd come into some money and could live a life of leisure.  Instead, he falls in with a crooked lawyer, loses all his money, and becomes unhealthily obsessed with the case.  He dies just after the case's conclusion.  Wow, this rings a bell.  I've known several people who were promising in their youth, but then became obsessed with something, or fell into really bad habits, and their lives just went off the rails.  Moral:  don't let this happen to you!

Fourth, what was with Mr. Jarndyce's marriage proposal to Esther?  He was her guardian, her father figure.  And then he proposes marriage, although once he makes the proposal, he doesn't do much to follow through until nudged by Esther, and then when he realizes Esther and Allan Woodcourt still love one another, he quickly arranges them to get together, and he drops the proposal, tells the two of them to get married, and fixes them up with a house.  Jarndyce is a very good man, but what's with this proposal.  It seems, well, icky to me.  Would this proposal have seemed this way to a Victorian audience?  Have times changed?  Or would the reaction 150 years ago have been the same as mine?

Finally, I like how the two houses named "Bleak House" are really the two happiest places in the novel.  Oh, the irony of it all!


Rohan Maitzen said...

Yes, yes, yes, and yes--what you said! When reviewers throw around the word "Dickensian" at novelists like, say, Zadie Smith, I think of Bleak House and feel how little these newbies deserve the comparison. Mind you, it's hard to imagine us accepting the kinds of things Dickens does--with plot, with language, with spontaneous combustions.

I think the Jarndyce proposal would have been a bit creepy even then. There's a more malevolent version with Bounderby and Louisa in Hard Times (there, after he kisses her cheek, she wishes she had a knife to cut out the piece of flesh). And in David Copperfield real happiness only comes with the passing of the "child bride" and the growth of a mature love.

Now, the acid test of character: did you cry over Jo's sad end? (And did you appreciate the way Dickens falls into iambic pentameter at the close of the passage: "And dying thus around us every day"... Amazing.)

What's next?

Robby Virus said...

Jo's death indeed saddened me deeply, although I didn't cry. I had really hoped he would make it. When people use the word "Dickensian", I'm not exactly sure what they mean, but in my mind it makes me picture a character like Jo. A tragic orphan, living in the slums, working as a crosswalk sweeper, pushed around and used by everyone until he dies of poverty, hunger, and disease. And I think that's why I didn't cry at his death...because Jo's character was a little too close to the Dickensian stereotype that I have in my mind. I think if I'd gone into the book never having heard of Dickens I would have bawled my eyes out.

And I did not notice the iambic pentameter. That's incredible.

And while we're on the topic of Jo and poverty...I loved Dickens vivid descriptions of the slum Tom-all-alone's. I also just love the name "Tom-all-alone's".