In the Bible, in Ecclesiastes, it says that "there is nothing new under the sun" (1:9). I’m fairly sure the writer had bigger things in mind than literature, but in Bleak House it’s becoming almost uncomfortably true.
Everything I thought I knew about characterization or plot structure, everything in fiction I thought was modern or innovative, is in Dickens. In this novel, he did it first and he did it better, especially when it comes to his characters. As a writer, it makes the novel technically fascinating. As a reader, it’s a web of personalities in which I’m willingly tangled.
It’s been nearly 400 pages since I last stopped to reflect on the book in Part One, and I’m no nearer to understanding the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Despite the claims on the back of the book, however, I have come to realize that the story is not about the case; it’s about the people in the case. This novel is one of the truest versions of a character-driven narrative I have ever read. To reduce a summary of Bleak House to Jarndyce and Jarndyce is to short change the book and totally miss the point. The case is only mentioned in a passing way, but the characters are constant. In fact, the characters are so vivid and so complexly woven that it is easy to forget about the case altogether.
While the main characters are interesting in their own right, they often seem to be reader-surrogates in the story, watching the events around them more than truly being involved. The secondary characters, however, make things really interesting. They bring out some of Dickens' best creativity and, I think, his sharpest criticisms as well.
Take, for example, Mrs. Jellyby, a woman on a mission. She’s out to establish a settlement in Africa called Borrioboola, somewhere in Nigeria, and save the natives. She’s so wrapped up in her good work that the house, children, husband and all have gone completely to pot. The house is in such a filthy state of disarray, I couldn’t help but think about the Duchess from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Mrs. Jellyby tranquilly resides over the chaos around her, not stopping to notice the madness because it has nothing to do with her mission. Her work, and the resulting negligence of the rest of her life, has driven her husband to bankruptcy and turned her children into animals. The satire of charity workers didn’t surprise me half as much much as the fact that such people existed in Dickens’ day.
Don’t get me wrong – the well off have a definite responsibility to help the less fortunate. At the same time, it smacks of hypocrisy to spend all your energy helping someone or being somewhere else at the expense of paying attention to your own home (or town, or country, for that matter). How much help can you really be to the far reaches of Africa if you can’t even help your own family? (I also think it’s interesting that the West has been trying to ‘help’ Africa for so long, and it is still so big a mess.)
And then there is Mr. Chadband. I’m not really sure what Chadband does, aside from talk. He’s one of those people who likes to answer his own questions, and given our electoral situation, he’s especially appropriate. “My friends, why do I wish for peace? What is peace? Is it war? No. Is it strife? No. Is it lovely, and gentle, and beautiful, and pleasant, and serene, and joyful? O yes!” (ch. 19). It felt like someone had switched on CNN inside my book. How anyone can use so many words to say so little is beyond me. I mean we’ve had something like 19 debates on the Democratic side alone and what have we really learned about the candidates? One appears to be a little more snarky than the other, but other than that I haven’t heard a whole lot of specifics. It’s not just politics either. I know I’m not the only one who’s had to sit through a meeting where a supervisor or, worse, a consultant, talks for an hour without telling me anything new or useful. One time, I actually had a woman spend half an hour talking about her cats to a room full of high school teachers. She wasn’t the only catty one there by the end of it, I can tell you. But, I digress.
What continually surprises me as I read Bleak House is that people don’t change. Oh, the fashions and the places may change, but the personality types certainly don’t. Make no mistake, this is a period piece. If the aesthetics of 19th-century London turn you off, you probably won’t like the book. If you can get past that, on the other hand, you will find yourself wrapped up in characters which are complex, interconnected and so, so familiar. I think when Dickens was writing this, especially given the satiric elements, he was writing about his world, his London. He was so expert in capturing these characters, however, that he created something truly timeless. As I keep reading, the threads connecting these characters grow ever more taught. How they will all be unknotted, and which ones will break, I'm not sure. Getting to the end of this mamoth book, though, is a journey I am more than willing to make.