Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

BleakHouseCoverOfficial Synopsis from Goodreads: Bleak House opens in the twilight of foggy London, where fog grips the city most densely in the Court of Chancery. The obscure case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, in which an inheritance is gradually devoured by legal costs, the romance of Esther Summerson and the secrets of her origin, the sleuthing of Detective Inspector Bucket and the fate of Jo the crossing-sweeper, these are some of the lives Dickens invokes to portray London society, rich and poor, as no other novelist has done. Bleak House, in its atmosphere, symbolism and magnificent bleak comedy, is often regarded as the best of Dickens. A ‘great Victorian novel’, it is so inventive in its competing plots and styles that it eludes interpretation.


Genre: Classic literature
Setting: 19th century London

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Review: Stunningly powerful and well worth the time it takes to read! Bleak House by Charles Dickens is one of those massive classic novels that everyone either has already read or intends to read one day, and I truly believe it is a novel that everyone should read.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled 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.

I found Bleak House hard to get into and at the beginning found the plot difficult to follow, but that may have been because I’d pick the book up, read it for ten or fifteen minutes, then set the book down and not pick it up again for a week or so. Once I made finishing Bleak House a priority and started reading it more regularly, the plot and characters started clicking and I couldn’t put it down! From bored Lady Dedlock, to kind Esther Summerson, to ambitious Richard, to the stalkerish Mr Guppy, to perfectly villainous Mr Tulkinghorn, to the mysterious Nemo, to caring John Jarndyce, to the heartbreaking Jo, to the humorous and frustratingly childish Mr Skimpole, to the loving Ada, and to “Shake me up!” Grandfather Smallweed, Bleak House is filled with memorable characters and moments.

I will die here where I have walked. And I will walk here, though I am in my grave. I will walk here, until the pride of this house is humbled. And when calamity, or when disgrace is coming to it, let the Dedlocks listen for my step!

Dickens does not shy away from the depiction of poverty here, and there are scenes of poverty that will break your heart. No one can read of the plights of Jo or Jenny and not be moved. Besides showing the poverty, the reader is transported to 19th century London, with the fog and atmosphere. It’s dirty, it’s poor, it’s wealthy, and it’s bustling and slow. This is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read, and the descriptions of the locations and characters are fabulous. Even though it’s a wordy read, there’s so much here that you don’t want to miss that you won’t want to skim this.

He wears his usual expressionless mask—if it be a mask—and carries family secrets in every limb of his body, and every crease of his dress. Whether his whole soul is devoted to the great, or whether he yields them nothing beyond the services he sells, is his personal secret. He keeps it, as he keeps the secrets of his clients; he is his own client in that matter, and will never betray himself.

Dickens wrote Bleak House as a serial, and you can feel this format while reading. Chapters tend to end on a cliffhanger or revelation, and certain happenings leave off at an important moment and we don’t see those characters again for several chapters. All this kept me wanting to read more and more and stay up late into the night reading away!

“Could you trust in him?”

“I shall never try. The dark road I have trodden for so many years will end where it will. I follow it alone to the end, whatever the end be. It may be near, it may be distant; while the road lasts, nothing turns me.”

“Dear mother, are you so resolved?”

“I am resolved. I have long outbidden folly with folly, pride with pride, scorn with scorn, insolence with insolence, and have outlived many vanities with many more. I will outlive this danger, and outdie it, if I can. It has closed around me, almost as awfully as if these woods of Chesney Wold had closed around the house; but my course through it is the same. I have but one: I can have but one.”

There were several gasp-inducing moments in this book, from a surprising gunshot, to spontaneous combustion (that scene was one of the creepiest I’ve read), to moments of quiet desperation and inner strength. Bleak House has pretty much everything you’d want in a book. There are characters to root for and characters to despise, and there’s murder, ambition, greed, kindness, love, friendship, blackmail, poverty, wealth, heartbreak, desperation, and happiness. There is so much that happens in this book that I can’t wait to experience it again someday. Bleak House is an ambitious read that is well worth the time it takes to read. Unforgettable!

Bottom Line: Memorable moments and characters make for a stunning read.

LINKS ***the Amazon link is an affiliate link which means I receive a small commission if you click the link and make a purchase***

Amazon: Book |   Miniseries
Goodreads
My Review of Great Expectations

Have you read Bleak House? Have you watched the PBS Miniseries starring Gillian Anderson? What is your favorite Dickens book? Who is your favorite Dickens character?

 


10 thoughts on “Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

  1. I am SO GLAD you loved this one – it’s my absolute favourite book of all time! The spontaneous combustion scene is wonderful, and the murder scene with all the clocks telling him “Don’t go home”… ooh! And little Miss Flite – she breaks my heart every time! And all that fog!! If you’ve never seen the BBC adaptation with Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, I highly recommend it – it really captures the atmosphere and has a fabulous cast. 😀

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    1. I can see why you love it so much!! I really can’t wait to read it again – there’s so much in it!! That gunshot made me jump when I read that scene! Dickens just writes so well – I felt like I was right there with all of that fog. The “fog everywhere” quote I think is my favorite one – just sets the scene right away at the beginning of the novel! I’m watching the series now – I just finished episode 4. The casting is phenomenal! Charles Dance is a perfect Mr Tulkinghorn!

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  2. I audited a class one semester because I felt I had a gap in my education: I knew little of Victorian Era writing. The professor chose three huge tomes, one of them being Bleak House. I didn’t understand what was going on until we talked about the context. In that period, all court decisions were made based on precedence. If it happened before, however the court ruled is how they have to rule this time, too. But this is before Google and digital files. They would have clerks dig through mountains of court cases to find precedence, and this is why the primary case in Bleak House sits in the court system for so long.

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    1. I just kept imagining all of that paper piled up!! Having the case be somewhat unexplained also added to the mystery. I thought Richard’s story and his focus on the case was incredibly sad.
      What other novels did you read for your class?

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      1. We also read Vanity Fair and Middlemarch. Then, the professor added some essays to discuss science at the time, which included Darwinism and hygiene challenges when you have buildings that are all connected and have no ventilation.

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        1. I love Vanity Fair! Becky Sharp is such a fascinating love her / hate her character! I haven’t read Middlemarch yet. It’s quite interesting how science really seemed to take off during this time period. It was quite fashionable! And yeah, the hygiene is what always gives me pause when I think “oh I wish I lived in that time”. I guess everyone was used to it and wore a ton of perfume/cologne.

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          1. I hope you read Middlemarch! Especially since you like Vanity Fair and Bleak House. They’re three peas in a pod. There’s more science in Middlemarch, including a woman who wants to marry a guy so she can be his assistant.

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