Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I was looking forward to reading Bleak House for years. I heard it was a well written, thou complex, book which you had to “work” for. I like books I have to “work” for, thou with work I do not mean boring or completely outside of my level of competence. I wanted a book that would challenge me and make me grow as a reader. I expected Bleak House to be one of my new favourite books, akin to The Woman in White. It is not, but it is really, really close to being everything I needed and wanted it to be. I don’t know if it’s worse to be horrible (in my eyes) or being really, really close to being a book I love, but can’t.

The story is about Esther, an orphan whom is hired to be a companion to Ada Jenkins. She is a ward of the state, an orphan in the care of the government, because she is rich and has a stake in the court case Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce is at the heart of the drama in the story. A court case that has lasted for several generations (and inspired by a court case at the time). Ada, Esther and Ada’s cousin Richard, move into Ada and Richard cousin Mr. Jarndyce. Mr. Jarndyce also has a stake in Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, but on the other Jarndyce than Ada and Richard. In the story we find a rich tapestry of characters and sub-plots that in one way or the other connects to the court case.

The writing is beautiful:

As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

Charles Dickens also mixed narrators. One of the narrators is a third person, all knowing, present form. The other is Esther telling her story in first person, past time. Dickens has received a lot of critique for this technique, especially commenting on the two narrators not meshing. I liked it. It allowed us to see the full picture of what was happening, and to see Esther’s inner struggles and feelings.

Now you may be asking what I didn’t like.

This book made me think about what it takes to call a character flat. Alternatively, to be more precise, is it correct to say Esther is a flat character?

Often we talk about flat characters as if they are very evident the moment you see one. I didn’t really know how to feel about Esther. Let us look at Esther as a character. Her aunt, whom severely emotional abused her, raised her. She realises she was born outside of wedlock, and due to her aunt she starts believing that this makes her undeserving of love. This backstory does two things. One, it creates a character with so low self-esteem it’s almost painful to read. Two, it explains and fuels her desperation to do good, in the hope one day this will make her deserve love. She goes out of her way to help and assist, even when she doesn’t want to, because of this desperation to one day be loved. Esther isn’t a flat character.

Yet, the books framing makes her become one. A well-rounded character has flaws, which either hinder them and which they have to overcome or become undone by them. This happens with many of the other characters in the book. Yet, Esther never suffers due to her flaws (her low self-esteem). Everyone loves Esther the moment they look at her. She never struggles. There is always someone who wants to help her because she’s just oh-so-perfect. Esther does get a higher self-esteem, but there is no reason for it to happen. She just improves because that’s what the story demands. Charles Dickens created an interesting character, and then framed her as a Mary Sue. Her flaws aren’t flaws. Even sever disfigurement (and Dickens needs to be given credit for writing an “ugly” female character) hinders her in any way. Why should I care about her when everything falls so nicely in place for her every-single-time? *loud scream* I wanted to like this book. I really wanted to like this book. But, Charles Dickens made it impossible for me to like this character and if you don’t like her you’re just going to be annoyed most of the read.

I’m not surprised Dickens did this. He was obsessed with Mary Hoggarth, his wife’s dead sister.  One of the reasons, some speculate, was that as someone who is dead she could be whatever he wanted her to be. She would be perfect for all time, because she would never be her own person with her own wishes and desires. You can see this idealization in Esther. While all characters are made up by the author, she is nothing but what the author wants. She never gets to be her own character, even if she could have been interesting if she had been given the opportunity. If Esther had been allowed to be flawed, or her flaws to have consequences, Bleak House would have been one of my new favourite books. As it is now, I can just admire the book for its part.

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4 thoughts on “Bleak House by Charles Dickens

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  1. But there are so many other great characters in this book why get hung up over the blandness of Esther? It’s typical of most 19th C lit that female characters are either whores or madonnas which is one thing that bores me a bit about 19th C lit. I think Dickens was no worse than most writers of his times. I loved BH when I read it a few years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, and I did like to book a lot. Esther just stopped me from loving the book as much as I thought I would. And I don’t think Dickens was worse than his contemporaries. (Maybe Wilkie Collins being the exemption). It was just funny, because I haven’t read that many “angles in the house” trope books (didn’t even now that was a trope until reading up on BH). And the strange thing is that I don’t think Esther is bland, I think her framing makes her bland. Which was just a strange realisation. But I do recommend the book, if for nothing else since (almost) all of the other characters are GEMS.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I do love anything Wilkie Collins have written, and can recommend The Moonstone as something similar to The Woman in White. But, it’s not as good as WIW. The characters in WiW are so much better…

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