Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In my review for A Christmas Carol I asserted that I will read most anything with “Dickens” on the cover, and this is a good example; I cannot recall any reason for it being on my reading list except for it being by Charles Dickens.  This is probably one of his lesser-known works, and there might be a good reason for that: in many respects it has not aged well.  But we’ll get to that.  First, we should probably talk about why I read Dickens in the first place.

Most of the time it’s not for the stories, which might seem like a strange statement.  Certainly A Christmas Carol has a great story, and Nicholas Nickleby is the only book I’ve read that managed to make a character’s suicide into a stand-up-and-cheer moment, but I typically don’t find the stories in Dickens books all that compelling.  Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities (possibly my least favorite Dickens book that I’ve read, but that’s a different review), and now Bleak House: I don’t so much read them for the stories as I do for the descriptions and the characterization.

In other words, I find Dickens’ writing itself far more compelling than I do his narratives.  The story of Bleak House, for instance, was both a bit challenging to parse, a little tedious, and somewhat outdated.  The problem with reading a story like this one today is that it was very clearly originally written as satire, but Dickens’ Britain is sufficiently removed from my own experience that I understand the humor and the satire in only the most general of terms.  It is a testament to the strength of his description and characterization that a modern reader can understand what he is attempting to critique at all.  Well, that and the fact that the modern American legal system sounds almost as supersaturated, clogged, and illogical as the one Dickens was critiquing.

So yes, by about halfway through the book I did finally figure out what the main conflict and plot really were.  Prior to that the book was driven primarily by the strength of its characters.  Any author seeking to improve their characterization should study Dickens, because the man was a master of that delicate art.  In just a few words he can elucidate characters more vivid than other authors manage in an entire book, and those characters might appear for no more than a paragraph before they disappear, never to be seen again.  Other times, they will be introduced as a minor character who will then pop up again and again in the most unlikely of circumstances.  Whenever the book began to drag, and I would start thinking about skimming, some new vignette with new characters would be presented, and even if they were doing nothing more interesting than having a dance lesson I found myself pulled back into the narrative.

It did drag in places, I will admit.  There were characters who, while just as richly characterized, were not as interesting, and it was for a long time difficult to perceive how they interacted or related to the main plot and the characters who were more interesting.  There were also places where I thought that Dr. Seuss had taken over for a paragraph or two, like the discussion about the politics occurring between Coodle, Doodle, Goodle, Hoodle, Moodle, and Noodle, or the legal drama being enacted between Cory, Bory, Dory, Lory, Mory, Gory, Hory, and Nory.

I could, and probably should, write a whole post on my thoughts, derived from this reading, on Dickens’ techniques for characterization and description, and what makes them work so well.  Although I alluded to some of these in a vague sense in my post on description by omission, there is far more that could be discussed.  Before I can write that post, however, I need to better frame in a technical, wordy way for myself what about his techniques works so well and make his writing so compelling to me.  That being said, such observations should probably be taken with a grain of salt, as there are many people today who don’t like Dickens’ writing at all.  While there are certainly places where I think he could have been a little more concise, for the most part I don’t object to his verbose tendencies, and even appreciate and enjoy them.

Coming up with some sort of a recommendation for this book is difficult.  If you don’t like Dickens, I’m not sure that I would recommend reading it; it’s not really one of those Dickens books, like A Christmas Carol or Great Expectations, that I would recommend that everyone read.  It’s also straight fiction, which if you’re like me you might have a hard time getting into without some dedication.  There’s something about just plain fiction, without the speculative elements, that I tend to find more tedious and harder to get into than any nonfiction book or ancient tome.  Then again, I did enjoy the book, and there were only a few times that I thought it was getting too long and I should move onto something else (which feelings were mostly a symptom of keeping rigidly to my book-a-week target).  If pressed, I think I would say that if you enjoy fiction and/or enjoy Dickens, this would be a great book for you to read.  With that tentative endorsement, I will return to trying to internalize just what makes Dickens’ writing so compelling.

2 thoughts on “Bleak House Review

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