Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bleak House Read-a-Long: FINISHED.

I have been participating in this monstrous read-a-long hosted by Amanda at The Zen Leaf of Charles Dicken's Bleak House.

If you have been following for a good amount of time, you should know one thing about my reading habits: I HATE Charles Dickens. I mean, I haven't had a positive experience with his writing ever and the only reason I have him on my list is that well, I can't say I've read a lot of classics if he's NOT on there. Many people associate Dickens with classics, so I feel this huge need to give him a try.

The read-a-long was the perfect opportunity to get this mammoth novel out of the way. My own edition was 818 pages.

I only managed to be on time with my first post, but I finished this monstrosity just in time to post my final thoughts on it.

I should say from the beginning that I was not impressed with the structure and style of the novel as a whole. Large portions are narrated by the heroine-Esther, but random chapters are told from an omniscient narrator. This left me feeling confused. Had Dickens only told the novel from one point of view or the other, I may have had an easier time reading it. Also, Dickens threw in so many sub-plots and characters that I had difficulty keeping track of who was who and what exactly was going on. Taking Amanda's lead, I began reading the Sparknotes before reading the sections to help understand just what was going on.

These were my two biggest issues. I can understand that Dickens released this serially. I can give him props for developing such a massive story that was so incredibly detailed. And, in the end, it seemed to work out. But this is where I have to wonder, how many of those sub-plots, twists and turns were really needed? Dickens was obviously paid for larger and more intricate pieces. much of it was simply padding?

This was my big problem with Great Expectations last fall. The basic story was good. It was the middle part that dragged on and on and on. I liked the story with Magwitch and Pip. It was the ramblings in the middle that I thought were unnecessary.

So, those were my problems. But now you're asking: what is this story all about?

Bleak House is a complicated novel. At the core is a court case (Jarndyce v. Jarndyce) that holds the fate of all in its clutches. It has moved through the courts slowly and has been a huge expense. Obviously, Dickens was commenting on the structure of the British legal system, but much of this was so intertwined with everything else I didn't pay great attention to it. It had a lot to do with wills, inheritances, and the like.

Esther is an orphan (supposedly) and when her guardian passes away, she is taken in by a proprietor, sent to school for six years, and eventually finds a place in his home with his two other wards, Ada and Richard. The three of them are close and eventually Richard and Ada fall in love. While Richard wants to push the court case through to get his hands on what is due to him, their guardian, John Jarndyce, hopes that Richard will choose a profession to support himself and Ada.

There is also the story of Esther's mother, who is not dead and does not know that Esther still lives. Another side plot involving her search for Esther's father (not her husband??) and her discovery of Esther also unfolds.

In all, I liked the idea of Bleak House, but I didn't like the product. There are certain cases where length is needed. And here, I felt that there were large portions that were just excess. I was frustrated by my own inability to follow the story between sections and chapters as the narrator changed and the plot focus constantly switched. Honestly, Dickens needed an editor to tell him to focus his novel on the story of Esther and her role. If she was the narrator he picked, then well, he needed to stick to telling her story.

Anyway, I am glad I can mark another Dickens novel off my list. It was the biggest, so I am glad its over with. I have five more Dickens novels to go. I can only hope that they are not as painful.


  1. Oh, Lordy, Bleak House is the bomb! It is up in the stratosphere with Our Mutual Friend (my fave) and Little Dorrit (my second-most fave). I am willing to bet that Bleak House will grow on you as you read other novels and reflect back upon it. It is monumental and Tolstoyan in scope and drama. Dickens' Domebey and Son is another novel that nearly rises to this level as well. I enjoyed your honest review too. Cheers! Chris

  2. Why oh why do you torture yourself by putting that much Dickens on your list?? You should swap him out for something else! :)

    Personally, I liked Great Expectations and it never felt rambly to me. I wish Bleak House had been more like that.

  3. Oh, I am so sorry you hated it. Bleak House is the book that made me love Dickens. Well, actually the miniseries -- I suppose my experience would have been different if I'd read the book first.

    I went and looked at your list to see which were the five other novels you plan to read. I've read all five of them and of the remaining novels, I liked Oliver Twist and Tale of Two Cities the best. I HATED Hard Times -- it's the shortest one, but I didn't like the plot or any of the characters or anything about it. Copperfield started out well but the middle dragged and I hated the love interest. Nickleby is okay.

  4. Personally, I think ATOTC, OT, and HT are some of his weakest novels; just my humble opinion, mind you. I stand by my recommendations for Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit, and Dombey and Son.

    I think that there are more important authors in the Victorian period, but Dickens is one of them. I am sure you are aware, but I encourage you to look at Eliot, the Brontes, Gaskell, and Hardy too. Cheers! Chris

  5. Some interesting comments on here, its seems a love/hate one. I read Dickins as a teenager and it put me off ever since LOL

  6. Wow, you are still going to keep going with more? I am another non-fan of Dickens for the same reasons. He is way too long-winded for my taste. I joined the Bleak House read-along very late (I believe 3 weeks ago) in order to push me through the novel. I really enjoyed the movie, and I think this is because his ideas are great. He just doesn't know when to stop. I'm still stuck in Bleak House, just a few pages beyond where I left off. I am now contemplating removing it from my "reading now" list. There are too many other books I could be reading.

  7. To be clear: you hated the spontaneous combustion scene?

    How would Esther have narrated that scene?

  8. (Heh. I forgot about the spontaneous combustion. Crazy!)

    I have to agree that Dickens sometimes reads as though he were paid by the letter (and wasn't he?). You should give Dombey and Son a try, though. It is more compact than the others but emotionally complex, and with charming comic relief. I listened to the audio version and when well narrated it's a pleasure to listen to.

  9. I feel I should point out a couple things:

    1. the spontaneous combustion scene was one of the few redeeming qualities. It made me chuckle.

    2. I really love Victorian authors. I have long considered Eliot to be a favorite of mine. I have also had wonderful experiences with Hardy, Gaskell, and the Brontes. There is simple something about dear Charles that irritates me.

    3. I will still give him a chance. I'll probably host another poll to see which I should read next. I won't give up. I am determined to like something he wrote.

  10. I applaud you for finishing this! I'm with you here: I just have no love for old Charles. But I promise that if you find a title by him that you actually like (I'm not even suggesting that someone could love his works...) I'll be sure to give that one a go.