Charles Dickens is known for his comedy as well as his social criticism and reformist temper, so when readers pick up most Dickens novels, they look forward to gaining hope and laughter along with their tears. However, the title of what many critics say is Dickens’s best novel, Bleak House, sounds pretty discouraging to new readers. “Bleak” can mean stark, bare, exposed, charmless, dreary, or without hope. What could possibly be cheerful or hopeful about a Bleak House? And yet, for over 160 years, readers from many different backgrounds have loved and praised this novel. Why?
I can think of at least ten reasons people love Bleak House—strangely, the same reasons a few readers have hated it! Ultimately, though, most readers discover that Bleak House is not bleak at all, but rather ends with encouraging light and wisdom for all people who are oppressed by unjust systems gone out of control.
Here’s my list. Note: this book is so rich, not even ten reasons can cover all its events and characters. I’m saving my two favorite reasons to love Bleak House for last!
Ten Reasons People Love (or Sometimes Hate) Bleak House
1. It goes after Lawyers and Their Strangling Red Tape.
Bleak House focuses on exposing the abuses of early nineteenth England’s corrupt and outmoded Court of Chancery. Over the years this court had spawned a thousand useless regulations and procedures requiring so many documents and so many different types of legal personnel for every case, that the Court moved as slowly to render judgments as the 40 foot “Megalosaurus” Dickens imagines he might meet on a foggy day in the nearby neighborhood.
With jurisdiction over civil matters directly influencing people’s personal lives, like disputes over wills, trusts, land law, and infant guardianship, Dickens found the Court of Chancery’s corrupt machinery a necessary target for moral outrage, and wrote the novel in part to attack it. In Bleak House, he created the long-running case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Dickens’s fictional, but possible, case had begun as a simple dispute between two parties over a will. When Bleak House opens, the case has pulled in countless defendants and remains unresolved after more than a generation.
Dickens knew what he was talking about where Chancery law was concerned, since he became a junior clerk in a law firm at the age of fifteen, and later a reporter whose beat was the Court of Chancery. Much later, Dickens became embroiled in a lawsuit himself. He sued someone who turned The Christmas Carol into a play without his permission. Eventually he won the suit, but the defendant having gone bankrupt, Dickens was left to pay all the court costs, which amounted to more than he would have gotten if the loser could have paid him. No doubt his own experiences gave Dickens plenty to say about Victorian law. (For more on Dickens, Bleak House, and Victorian legal systems, see this excellent blog post by Mimi Matthews.)
By the time Bleak House was published (issued in parts from 1852 to 53), some of the injustices of the Chancery court system had been addressed, although more reforms were to follow in coming years, up to 1870. However, the novel was far from obsolete. Bleak House still stands as an indictment of corrupt and failing systems of all kinds, from governments to businesses to social systems to religious systems, right down to the system of a single family.
When these systems reach the point of enriching or supporting the people who run them instead of the individual people they are supposed to serve—individuals, their families, and especially, the children– what happens? That’s what Bleak House is about.
By the way, the phrase “red tape” has long been symbolic of obstructionist bureaucratic procedures, but it’s interesting to know that legal red tape is a real thing. In Dickens’s day, it was used to bind official legal documents. In Bleak House, Mr. Snagsby, the man who sells legal supplies and stationery, stocks some red tape in his shop.
2. Somebody dies via spontaneous combustion!
Dickens provides readers with a lurid description of the death of Mr. Krook, proprietor of a “rag and bone” shop near the Court of Chancery. Krook is an illiterate, grasping old man who attempts to profit from buying collections of old legal documents in the hopes he can find something he can sell or blackmail people with. He has collected so many old legal papers in his dirty shop that people jokingly nickname him The Lord Chancellor (the government minister who heads the Court of Chancery). Completely devoid of the milk of human kindness, dry and inhuman, Krook bursts into flame and burns down to a puddle of wax and ash that leaves black smears on the windowsills, as witnessed by an out-of-work law clerk who lodges in Krook’s house.
When the chapters describing the spontaneous combustion came out, George Henry Lewes (George Eliot’s partner and literary critic) published some letters saying there was no such thing as spontaneous combustion of people. Dickens took umbrage, replying in his preface of the 1853 edition of the novel that “I do not wilfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject. There are about thirty cases on record, of which the most famous, that of the Countess Cornelia de Baudi Cesenate, was minutely investigated. . . .”
For someone who also asserts in the same preface that “In Bleak House I have purposefully dwelt on the romantic side of familiar things,” a defense of a fictional device based on purported facts seems unnecessary. Even if you don’t believe in spontaneous combustion, Dickens’s description of it makes it feel real enough, and of course it is symbolically appropriate.
Inspector Bucket, a Victorian Columbo
3. Bleak House creates Inspector Bucket, one of the first fictional police detectives.
For me, the Inspector Bucket character is a delight. With his charm, his ostensibly humble demeanor, his understanding and sympathy for humanity, his doggedness, and his incisive intelligence, Bucket reminds me strongly of my old TV favorite, Columbo, the character created by actor Peter Falk for the NBC Mystery Movie series in the 1970s. Just like Columbo, Bucket even has a clever wife who plays a role in the plot but is never seen.
According to scholar Linda Strahan, Inspector Bucket is quite true-to-Victorian-life.1 Dickens knew many Victorian policemen personally, and wrote a series of articles on their methods for his magazine. In Bleak House, Bucket departs from procedure only in a couple of points where needed for Dickens’s complex plotline.
Strahan notes that not only does Bucket ably represent the skill and humaneness of the true police of the time, he created the mold for many an English fictional detective in novels, film, and TV, right down to this day. Check him out and see if you recognize his qualities in any of the detective fiction you have read.
4. It has a murder mystery. . .
. . .involving a noble family, a celebrated Lady, a disturbing secret from the past, a love story, and a fierce French maid! And that is all I need to say about that, I think. Read the book to enjoy unraveling this the complex storyline.
Narrators and Points of Light
5. Bleak House has Esther Summerson, the nicest person in Victorian literature.
Bleak House is narrated by two voices, a third person narrator who speaks in the present tense, in a voice by turns melancholy, sardonic, and prophetic. But this omniscient narrator shares the storytelling with one of my favorite fictional Victorians, Esther Summerson.
Esther is a sweet, caring, hardworking, self-effacing young woman with a sharp understanding of the people she encounters, so it’s surprising that this character is controversial. Some people just can’t stand her. They find her character sticky-sweet, even hypocritical, because she often insists that she is humble and untalented, but that everyone, being kind, insists on praising her.
Vladimir Nabokov says in his Lectures on Literature that Dickens made a mistake in leaving half the narration of the novel to Esther, and that he wouldn’t have let her near it2. I agree with almost everything Nabokov said in his Lectures (I just love his insights), but this is one point where I must disagree.
Esther is a wonderful, even necessary character to this story, and a superb narrator, speaking feelingly and perspicaciously about every soul who crosses her path. Bleak House is by its nature a dark story, all about how people are destroyed by corrupt and uncaring systems. Such a story needs a point of light, and Esther provides that, giving truth to the meaning of her name: “star.”
I don’t think Esther is a hypocrite; instead, like all of us, she is complex. Like so many heroes and heroines in Dickens’s works, Esther was an emotionally abused child, which accounts for her diffidence and perfectionism. But she bravely determines that she will try to overcome her early traumas and try to do some good in the world. In large part, Bleak House is an account of how much good one small, disregarded person can do, with just a little love and encouragement.
Read the book and see what you think about Esther.
6. Bleak House has some amazing writing in it.
Since we are talking about narrators, let’s look at a couple of examples of Dickens’s powerful style. The book opens with the omniscient narrator’s famous and much-imitated description of a foggy day, emblematic of the spiritual fog created in people’s lives by the Court of Chancery. It reads like a prose poem:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Here’s an example of Esther as narrator, giving a moving description of two poor brick maker’s wives, whom she and her fellow ward Ada meet on a charitable call. One woman is clasping the body of her dead baby:
An ugly woman, very poorly clothed, hurried in while I was glancing at them, and coming straight up to the mother, said, “Jenny! Jenny!” The mother rose on being so addressed and fell upon the woman’s neck. She also had upon her face and arms the marks of ill usage. She had no kind of grace about her, but the grace of sympathy; but when she condoled with the woman, and her own tears fell, she wanted no beauty. I say condoled, but her only words were “Jenny! Jenny!” All the rest was in the tone in which she said them. I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another, how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives.
Toward the end of the novel, Inspector Bucket recruits Esther to journey with him as they search for a missing suicidal woman with close ties to Esther. Esther’s description of this tense, fearful journey is a fine piece of impressionistic writing. Here’s a sample:
I was far from sure that I was not in a dream. We rattled with great rapidity through such a labyrinth of streets that I soon lost all idea where we were, except that we had crossed and re-crossed the river, and still seemed to be traversing a low-lying, waterside, dense neighbourhood of narrow thoroughfares chequered by docks and basins, high piles of warehouses, swing-bridges, and masts of ships. At length we stopped at the corner of a little slimy turning, which the wind from the river, rushing up it, did not purify; and I saw my companion, by the light of his lantern, in conference with several men who looked like a mixture of police and sailors. Against the mouldering wall by which they stood, there was a bill, on which I could discern the words, “Found Drowned”; and this and an inscription about drags possessed me with the awful suspicion shadowed forth in our visit to that place.
For Dickens, Families Come First
7. Bleak House argues for putting the needs of children, family, and nearby neighborhoods first.
The character of Mrs. Jellyby is famous for letting her home fall apart, her husband and her children living unattended in squalor while she devotes all her efforts to raising funds to settle Europeans in African Borrioboola-Gha to civilize the natives. Instead of teaching her daughter Caddy what Victorian women need to know, she presses her into service as a clerk, leaving her always inky and untidy and seething with anger at her unnatural life.
Here’s a little scene in the Jellyby household, narrated by Esther upon her first visit to the Jellyby’s:
Where are you [in the letter], Caddy?” [asked Mrs. Jellyby.] “‘Presents her compliments to Mr. Swallow, and begs–‘” said Caddy. “‘And begs,'” said Mrs. Jellyby, dictating, “‘to inform him, in reference to his letter of inquiry on the African project–‘ No, Peepy! Not on my account!” Peepy (so self-named) was the unfortunate child who had fallen downstairs, who now interrupted the correspondence by presenting himself, with a strip of plaster on his forehead, to exhibit his wounded knees, in which Ada and I did not know which to pity most– the bruises or the dirt. Mrs. Jellyby merely added, with the serene composure with which she said everything, “Go along, you naughty Peepy!” and fixed her fine eyes on Africa again. However, as she at once proceeded with her dictation, and as I interrupted nothing by doing it, I ventured quietly to stop poor Peepy as he was going out and to take him up to nurse. He looked very much astonished at it and at Ada’s kissing him, but soon fell fast asleep in my arms, sobbing at longer and longer intervals, until he was quiet.
Some readers wrote objections to the argument made through the Jellyby character, suggesting Dickens was undermining desirable works of international charity. Personally, I don’t think Dickens was arguing against caring about the world; he was arguing against neglecting your children and family while you do it. Read the book and see what you think.
8. Bleak House is a casebook in how different people react when the System grinds them down.
Bleak House shows vividly how different people can react while waiting for the justice system to deliver closure that never seems to come.
Some people seethe continually with anger, like Mr. Gridley, “the man from Shropshire.” His case began 20 years ago as a simple dispute over a few hundred English pounds, with costs now mounted to many times the amount of the original suit. He just stays angry all the time, jumping up every day to petition the court and haunting lawyers’ offices.
Some people go mad, like poor little Miss Flite, a woman from a working family who can no longer even remember the cause of her legal dispute. She lives in a garret and attends the court every day with a bag full of worthless “documents,” always expecting a judgment “very soon.”
Many more people put their lives on hold, thinking life will be great and all problems solved when the lawsuit is finally won, like Richard Carstone, the good man John Jarndyce’s ward. A likable young man, Richard was born into the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit. He thinks he will inherit a lot of money when the case is settled, and therefore has trouble concentrating on taking up any pursuit that will prepare him to look after himself. He tries being a physician, a lawyer, and finally, a soldier, but none will do. He throws them all over so he can spend more time and borrowed money trying to forward his suit.
These and other characters become stuck in their lives, induced one way or another to put everything on hold until the mythical day their cases will be resolved and life will be good again. Dickens shows in Bleak House the many ways that choice is a bad mistake.
Keys to Transformation
9. MJ’s Favorite reason to love Bleak House, Part 1: It shows us a hopeful way to respond to systemic injustice.
While Bleak House enumerates the victims of bad systems, it also shows us brave individuals who refuse to be victimized.
John Jarndyce, the owner of the literal Bleak House, is the loving “fairy godfather” of the book, who refuses to become embroiled in the lawsuit. He draws on his other, independent means in every way he can to aid the people who have been hurt by it. He adopts three young people who were wards of the court because they were orphans of Jarndyce families involved in the suit. He offers affection and kindness to everyone within his circle and refuses to define the world based on the terms of the nightmare lawsuit.
John Jarndyce does not find it easy to maintain his distance from the problems of the world; to help the issue, he christens his study “the Growlery,” giving himself a specific place and scheduled times to mull over his anger at various injustices. This helps him focus on cheerful and upbeat actions the rest of the time, and courage to go on with his life independent of the injustice that haunts its edges–at least, as much as he can. Sage advice for us all.
Though not a direct victim of Jarndyce, Esther Summerson is a victim of prejudice engendered by a narrow, unfeeling religious and social system. We have already discussed her determination to offer love and kindness and useful labor however she could. The young physician Alan Woodcourt, whom Esther loves and admires, also does his part to offer succor to the suffering wherever he may. Other strong characters, like Mrs. Bagnet, the ex-soldier’s wife, and Mr. George, the shooting gallery owner, try to help the downtrodden.
It’s true, though, that try as these characters might, they cannot always overcome the suffering engendered by systemic injustice, and in fact, bring harm upon themselves while trying to help. As the story shows, Esther suffers extremely when she catches smallpox trying to help the sick, homeless boy Jo. But Esther’s suffering in this case is also a good work, drawing attention to the fact that suffering anywhere in the community affects everyone within it.
Of course, as Bleak House illustrates, many injustices are too great to be addressed by individual effort, no matter how kindly or determined. Bleak House tells the truth that sometimes, all the well-intentioned can do is to witness. But witnessing, in itself, is a positive work.
10. MJ’s Favorite Reason to love Bleak House, Part 2: Bleak House points the way toward personal and societal transformation.
Dickens’s massive novel shows characters caught in the vice of institutional injustice from every angle, but the ultimate message is one of hope.
As several brave individuals struggle forward through the story to be responsible, loving, kind, and useful, they illustrate Dickens’s remedy for worldly wrong. Does he want bad institutions to be changed? Without doubt. As Bleak House poignantly shows, the damage wrought by bad systems is inhumane and far-reaching. But as much as possible, this novel suggests, life and love should not be put on hold until that day when reform is accomplished and justice is finally rendered.
Illuminated by love, John Jarndyce’s Bleak House is not bleak at all. Dickens believes that love trumps injustice. And that is why I, and many readers before me, have loved Bleak House.
1Strahan, Linda. “There’s a Hole in the [Inspector] Bucket: The Victorian Police in Fact and Fiction.” Clues: A Journal of Detection, vol. 23, no. 3, 2005, pp. 57-62. EBSCOhost.
2Nabokov, Vladimir, “Bleak House,” Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. pp. 100–102.
Esther Meets Krook. By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Esther Helps Caddy. By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Richard Carstone. By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons