An Introduction to Bleak House

Updated: Feb 14

Serena Kerrigan-Noble - English Language and Literature Student @ Lincoln College, Oxford

 

Charles Dickens’ Bleak House was first published serially in twenty parts between March 1852 and September 1853. The narrative is divided between the novel’s heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by an omniscient, third-person narrator. At the centre of the novel is the interminable case of Jarndye and Jarndyce being held in the legally stagnant Court of Chancery, which becomes a microcosm for the moral stagnancy of the rest of society. The ubiquitous fog and mud in the novel are symbolic of the moral obfuscation of the law process, as well as of the moral degeneration of the characters. The Lord Chancellor is located both physically and morally “at the heart of the fog” and Chancery becomes a metonym for the corruption taking root in all societal institutions, and Mr. Tangle’s contraction of “My Lord” into “Mlud” suggests that the legal process itself is becoming one with the London mud.


The Court of Chancery acts as a centripetal force, drawing characters inexorably into its interminable legal process. Dickens destabilises the Victorian dichotomy between the public and private through the double narrative, as moral corruption transcends class divisions in the novel and spreads from the lowest to the highest levels of society. The metaphor of Chancery having its “decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire” (15) demonstrates how the corruption and inefficiency working at an institutional level is propagated at every other level of society. Chancery becomes a microcosm for the iniquities being propagated at an institutional level and repeated by individuals. As Q.D. Leavis observed, Dickens is concerned not only with a stagnating legal process, but with how “the laws of human nature”, distort human relationships. Whilst Esther’s past tense narrative seems to establish a comfortable distance between the reader and the suffering within the novel, the shift to present tense in the third person narrative reminds us that street urchins like Jo remain unacknowledged, yet “dying thus around us every day” (734).


The corruption of Chancery finds its analogue and result in Tom-all-Alone’s, aptly named after the first suitor in the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The dilapidation of Tom-all-Alone’s suggests that the foundations of society are also crumbling and threatening to spontaneously combust. Consumption accrues a double meaning in the novel, both in terms of the avariciousness of the law, and in terms of the physical and moral decline which inevitably results from contact with it. The lawyer, Vholes, typifies the vampiric energies of the law, reflected in the simile of him observing his client, Richard Carstone, as if “he was making a lingering meal of him with his...professional appetite” (624). Dickens’s depiction of the filth of Tom-all-Alone’s has both a political and symbolic dimension. Between 1849 and 1852, a series of reports on poor sanitary conditions in towns were released. Dickens was a passionate advocate of improving sanitary conditions in England, delivering a speech to the Metropolitan Sanitary Association in 1861. His argument that “No one can estimate the amount of mischief which is grown in dirt” has its parallel in the description of “the street mud, which is made of nobody knows what, and collects about us nobody knows whence” in the novel (150). As Edmund Wilson observed, Dickens “anatomises society” in the novel, diagnosing the “injustice which breeds injustice” (630). Physiological decline is linked with the decay of moral values and the potential collapse of society in the novel. Disease functions in the novel as a symbol of what Terry Eagleton termed, “negative interdependence”.


Dickens satirises the “Telescopic philanthropy” practiced in the novel, which overlooks the immediate moral ties connecting us to our fellow men. Dickens considered ‘Nobody’s Fault’ as a possible title for the novel, affirming Graham Smith’s claim that the novel is an indictment of that “exclusiveness of vision that fails to see the validity of claims that lie nearer home”. Esther’s father’s alias, “Nemo” is Latin for “No one”, intimating how the poor are ignored by the society which should provide for them. The narrator’s direct address in his expostulation, “Dead, my Lords and Ladies” and the collective pronoun “us” implicates not only high society but the reader (734). The narrator seems to point at society as a whole, like Tulkinghorn’s “Allegory”, as responsible for the corruption in society. As George Orwell argued, it is not only social institutions, but “human nature” itself which Dickens takes issue with in the novel. The world of Bleak House is one in which moral responsibility has been suspended. Dickens implies that the ultimate moral failure is an inability to acknowledge the connections between themselves and others, ties which transcend both temporal and class boundaries. Dickens affirms the presence of a tangled “web of very different lives”, drawn together by common vice and suffering (703).


Glossary:

Ubiquitous (adj)- Present, appearing, or found everywhere; widespread, prevalent, predominant

Obfuscation (noun)- Darkening or dimming of colour, light, or the sight

Inexorable (adj. and noun)- Incapable of being persuaded or moved by entreaty; not to be moved from one’s purpose or determination; relentless, rigidly severe

Dilapidation (noun)- The acting of bringing (a building, etc.) into ruin, decay, or disrepair; the condition of being in ruins or in repair

Accrue (verb)- To grow by addition, to increase; to gather up; to accumulate or collect

Avariciousness (noun)- Immoderately desirous of accumulating wealth; greedy of gain, grasping

Expostulate (verb)- to ask for, demand, claim, debate, argue


Further Reading:

1. Allan, Janice. M., Charles Dickens’s Bleak House: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge. 2004

2. Collins, Philip. Dickens: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge. 2009.

3. Dickens, Charles, Bleak House. London: Penguin Books Ltd. 1996. First published 1853.

4. Eagleton, Terry, The English Novel: An Introduction. Dickens. London: John Wiley and Sons Incorporated. 2013

5. Hawthorn, Jeremy, Bleak House: An Introduction to the Variety of Criticism. London: Macmillan Publishers. 1987

6. Leavis, Q.D., Bleak House: A Chancery World. In F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, Dickens the Novelist. London: Faber and Faber. 1970

7. Orwell, George. Charles Dickens: Bleak House. ed. Page, Norman. Harmondsworth. 1971.

8. Page, Norman, Bleak House: A Novel of Connections. Boston: Twayne Publishers. 1990.

9. Smith, Graham, Dickens, Money, and Society. Los Angeles: University of California. 1968.

10. Stoehr, Taylor, Bleak House: The Novel as Dream. Dickens: The Dreamer’s Stance. New York: Cornell University Press.

11. Zabel, Morton Dauwen, Bleak House. ed. Ford, George and Lane, Lauriat. New York: Cornell University Press. 1961.