Biston Betularia (pepperedmoth) wrote,
Biston Betularia

Bleak House

When I was young, I loved several things in my books: I loved my passionate fondness for the characters, to the point of believing them almost real, certainly having existences and thoughts and lives beyond the page. I loved how a good story made the world vanish, and for the space of a few hours (or however long I found to hole up with my book) I was entirely outside my own existence.

I especially loved and dreaded the end of a perfect book, when I would often feel a bittersweet longing to continue onwards with the characters, a regret that their adventures had come to an end, and a satisfaction of a journey well completed. In the best of books, I felt that I, too, had accomplished and learned something important in the journey.

In childhood, the best and most satisfactory example of this was the end of The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo and many of his companions sail off into the West, leaving others behind. Like Sam, I always felt sadly bereaved, left behind, but the better for having been there.

In adulthood, this feeling has, unfortunately, rarely come.

I can escape easily enough. If I suspend my critical faculties, most drug store romances can take me away- and for longer and cheaper than the price of a movie in theaters, too.

There's often a character I'm fond of, too. After so much Christie, Poirot and Miss. Marple are as vivid as anyone I might meet on the street.

But that bittersweet regret at the end of a good book? Vanishingly rare. In my adult life, besides affectionate re-readings of The Lord of the Rings, I can only name Middlemarch and The Age of Innocence.

And today, I finished Bleak House, and happily add another.

Bleak House, if approached in the style of high-school English where one must say what it is ABOUT, in some literary way, is ABOUT the corruptions of the English legal system in the 1840's when Dickens was writing it.

Of course, since Americans are reading and enjoying it 150 years later, that turns out to be the least of what it is ABOUT. And also of course, since it is Dickens, the ride is much more entertaining and involved than such a dry explanation would imply.

Bleak House is part social commentary, part mystery, part comedy of manners, and part portrayal of human behavior when caught up in corruption.

Dickens is of course, and famously, a caricaturist, but I find that in Bleak House his caricatures are written with a lighter touch, and show more clearly the human truth behind them. They certainly seem more human than the characters in Great Expectations or Oliver Twist, which I remember loathing in high school.

There are genuinely good characters here (Jarndyce the benevolent guardian and Woodcourt the generous physician are but two examples). Their goodness seems real and possible (well, perhaps except for Esther herself, who is a bit much). There are very few truly evil characters here, and none of them are a cartoon of evil, like Fagin. No, this evil is believable and palpable and present today (Tulkinghorn). Better, there are characters with a delightful moral ambiguity.

There were bits of humanity here that made me wince in recognition: Mrs. Jellyby, the dedicated activist, who spends every ounce and particle of her soul in misguided activities overseas, while her entire family goes to wrack and ruin around her. Mrs. Jellyby was, in fact, the only character I found much connection to, as her shortcomings are also mine (and my church's, I sometimes worry). Skimpole was a caricature, but a caricature of a tendency I've seen at work more subtly, but quite often- an amoral renunciation of responsibility.

But more than anything, Bleak House was a great story that caught my fancy, made me sad to leave, and from which I came away feeling richer than I had started.

Time well spent, every minute.
Tags: books

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