Thursday, January 6, 2011

Literary Bite: Bleak House

My book club's theme is "Books We Haven't Read But Wish We Had Or Feel We Should." At our meeting to discuss Wonder Boys (which slightly strayed from the aforementioned theme), we talked about our next reading experience. 

How about some Charles Dickens? I suggested as we lounged on the floor of 6x6's apartment in a post-brownies sugar coma. My mama says that Bleak House is good, so do you want to do that for November? We all agreed that a trip to 18th century England was a good idea...until I went home and googled the book. Umm, guys, it's over 900 pages...maybe we should make this a 2-month-er?  A series of emails followed, joking about the impending "Bleak Christmas," the brick-esque nature of the book, the paid-by-the-word nature of Dickens' writing.

But I really enjoyed it! Charles Dickens is a literary genius, but you have to be patient. He spends almost the first half of the book on extensive descriptions of what seem to be random side characters. But don't get discouraged! As you continue, you realize that he was introducing necessary plot points, just in the most round-about way possible. His descriptions are amazing, he really captures all aspects of humanity in his pantheon of characters - from the sweet and generous Esther to the conniving Mr. Skimpole. (Another thing - great names!)

Some Dickens description examples:

"And there he sits, munching and gnawing, and looking up at the great cross on the summit of St. Paul's Cathedral, glittering above a red-and-violet-tinted cloud of smoke. From the boy's face one might suppose that sacred emblem to be, in his eyes, the crowning confusion of the great, confused city--so golden, so high up, so far out of his reach."

"The father of this pleasant grandfather, of the neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant, was a horny-skinned, two-legged, money-getting species of spider who spun webs to catch unwary flies and retired into holes until they were entrapped. The name of this old pagan's god was Compound Interest."

I'll be honest, I still don't have all the characters completely straight...but that didn't seem to really hurt my experience. And when the story picks up, it's intriguing and suspenseful - really a page-turner! I couldn't put it down for my entire flight back to CA after Sister1's wedding - that's about 7 hours of Dickens! (A caveat - not all my fellow book clubbers feel the same. LLC and LOTR-Emily claim that Dickens is the world's best cure for insomnia.)

Dickens presents some very interesting themes, all of which are as relevant today as they were when he wrote the book in 1853. The narrative centers around an arduous inheritance case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce as a critique of the cumbersome legal system and example of fruitless obsession. Dickens analyzes human nature, mostly focusing on how some people take advantage of others (think Mr. Voles, Harold Skimpole, and Mr. Turveydrop). Other themes Dickens touches upon are extreme poverty (Jo), the ineffectiveness of charity (Mrs. Jellyby), and bad parenting (every character). The theme of bad parenting creating disillusioned children that perpetuate the abuse is very central to Bleak House. This theme can be extended to society as a whole, with bad "parents" (the legal system and government - aka Jarndyce v. Jarndyce) neglecting and abusing all the people of England.

"The Universe, I'm afraid, makes a rather poor parent."

This is not a book for the faint of heart, but if you consider yourself a Reader, then I think Dickens is an absolutely mandatory author to have in your arsenal.

To help you in your reading, here's a brief character guide. You can read a more detailed one here, but it will give away some major plot-points. (See what I mean? Lots of characters!)

Obviously, as the presenter and recommender of this book, I will be attending our impending book club meeting IN COSTUME. I'm thinking Jenny...

Bleak House Character List
Esther Summerson -  The narrator and protagonist. Esther, an orphan, becomes the housekeeper at Bleak House when she, Ada, and Richard are taken in by Mr. Jarndyce. Everyone loves Esther, who is selfless and nurturing, and she becomes the confidante of several young women. 
Mr. John Jarndyce -  Esther’s guardian and master of Bleak House. Mr. Jarndyce becomes the guardian of the orphans Ada and Richard and takes Esther in as a companion for Ada. Generous but uncomfortable with others’ gratitude, Mr. Jarndyce provides a warm, happy home for the three young people. Mr. Jarndyce has sworn off any involvement whatsoever with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit.
Ada Clare -  A ward of Jarndyce. Kind, sweet, and naïve, Ada becomes Esther’s closest confidante and greatest source of happiness. She falls in love with Richard.
Richard Carstone -  A ward of Jarndyce. Affable but lazy, Richard can’t decide on a career and seems to have no passion for a particular field. Eventually, he becomes obsessed with Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
Lady Dedlock -  Mistress of Chesney Wold, married to Sir Leicester. Lady Dedlock, revered and wealthy, is seen as haughty and aloof. 
Sir Leicester Dedlock -  Master of Chesney Wold. Sir Leicester is a strong, respected man who is very formal but loves Lady Dedlock. 
Mr. Tulkinghorn -  A lawyer involved in the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. 
Mrs. Baytham Badger -  A woman who talks incessantly about her former husbands.
Mr. Badger -  A doctor who agrees to take Richard on as an apprentice.
Mr. Matthew Bagnet -  A soldier who owns a musical instrument shop. Mr. Bagnet incurred debts to help George Rouncewell.
Mrs. Bagnet -  A woman who does all the talking for her husband.
Inspector Bucket -  A detective hired by Tulkinghorn to investigate Lady Dedlock’s past.  His wife helps him with his detective work.
Mr. Lawrence Boythorn -  Mr. Jarndyce’s friend who is given to hyperbole. Mr. Boythorn feuds with Sir Leicester about trespassing. He was once in love with Lady Dedlock’s sister, Miss Barbary.
Mr. Chadband -  A pompous preacher who takes any opportunity to orate.
Mrs. Rachael Chadband -  Esther’s former caretaker.
Volumnia Dedlock -  Sir Leicester’s vain and bored cousin.
Miss Flite -  An insane elderly woman who lives above Krook’s shop, keeps birds, and adores Esther, Ada, and Richard, and attends every Jarndyce court hearing. 
Mr. Gridley -  A man who gave up his life for the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit.
Mr. William Guppy -  A clerk at Kenge and Carboy.
Guster -  The Snagsbys’ maid, given to having fits.
Captain Hawdon (Nemo) -  Krook’s dead lodger. 
Mademoiselle Hortense -  Lady Dedlock’s French maid. Mademoiselle Hortense is jealous of Lady Dedlock’s attention to young Rosa. 
Mrs. Jellyby -  A blustery woman who is obsessed with her “mission,” the Borrioboola-Gha in Africa. She neglects her family entirely.
Mr. Jellyby -  The defeated husband of Mrs. Jellyby.
Caroline (Caddy) Jellyby -  Mrs. Jellyby’s put-upon daughter and a friend of Esther’s.
Jenny -  The wife of an abusive brickmaker.
Jo -  A street urchin who helps Lady Dedlock find Captain Hawdon’s grave.
Mr. Tony Jobling (Mr. Weevle) -  A friend of Mr. Guppy’s, who takes Captain Hawdon’s old room.
Mr. Krook -  Owner of the rag-and-bottle shop. Mr. Krook collects documents even though he can’t read. He dies by spontaneous combustion.
Liz -  The wife of an abusive brickmaker.
Charlotte (Charley) Neckett -  The oldest of three orphaned siblings. Charley becomes Esther’s beloved maid.
Mrs. Pardiggle -  An obnoxious do-gooder who forces her sons to give their money to her charities.
Rosa -  Lady Dedlock’s beautiful protégée, who is in love with Watt Rouncewell.
Mr. George Rouncewell -  Mrs. Rouncewell’s wayward son and a soldier. He runs a shooting gallery.
Mr. Rouncewell -  An ironmaker who is George’s brother.
Mrs. Rouncewell -  The loyal housekeeper at Chesney Wold.
Mr. Watt Rouncewell -  Mrs. Rouncewell’s grandson, who wants to marry Rosa.
Harold Skimpole -  A friend of Mr. Jarndyce, who calls himself a “child” and claims to have no idea about time or money. 
Bartholomew (Chick) Smallweed -  Grandfather Smallweed’s grandson.
Judy Smallweed -  The granddaughter who accompanies her chair-bound grandfather everywhere and shakes him up. 
Grandfather Smallweed -  A shrill old man who can barely sit upright in his chair. Grandfather Smallweed threatens and wheedles other people to get his own way. He lends George money.
Grandmother Smallweed -  The insane put-upon wife of Grandfather Smallweed.
Mr. Snagsby -  A law-stationer. Mr. Snagsby gets inadvertently caught up in everyone else’s secrets, although he pays Jo not to tell anyone a secret of his own. He sneaks around to avoid his wife’s prying eyes.
Mrs. Snagsby -  Mr. Snagsby’s suspicious wife, given to drawing inaccurate conclusions from her eavesdropping and spying.
Phil Squod -  A crippled lodger at George’s Shooting Gallery.
Mr. Turveydrop -  A man proud of his deportment.
Prince Turveydrop -  The young dancing teacher who marries Caddy Jellyby.
Mr. Vholes -  The sneaky, immoral lawyer determined to get as much money as possible out of Richard’s involvement with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit.
Allan Woodcourt -  A doctor and friend of Mr. Jarndyce. 
Mrs. Woodcourt -  Allan Woodcourt’s mother, who stays at Bleak House to observe Esther’s steadfast commitment to Mr. Jarndyce.