Satire, The Female Voice and Dickens
Charles Dickens is a name to be reckoned with in the world of literature. He owned the Victorian Era, writing stories that last beyond his time , and creating characters who create deep impressions on the readers. mind. He is not just another novelist, he is a brand. His works and masterful storytelling has inspired a lot of other writers. To say that his literary influences reverberate until today is an understatement. His critical works also helped institute reforms in a Victorian London beset with societal and cultural challenges.
Perhaps one of Dickens’ most critical works is Bleak House. The narrative follows a plethora of subplots and a diverse set of characters. At the heart of these subplots is Jarndyce versus Jarndyce. It is a legal case lodged in the Court of Chancery, and its progress is detailed in the narrative. This legal case concerns the fate of a large inheritance, wherein the testator has created several conflicting wills. The lack of clarity and closure made the case drag for years.
Contemporaneously, the main narrative follows the fate Esther Summerson, a young girl who is believed to have been orphaned and is under the care of Miss Barnaby. When Miss Barnaby passed away, John Jarndyce became her legal guardian. Chancery lawyer Kenge was commissioned by Jarndyce to look after her. Esther moved in with Jarndyce at Bleak House after completing six years. She moved in with two of Jarndyce’s wards – Richard Carstone and Ada Clare – who are both beneficiaries of wills being contested in Jarndyce versus Jarndyce.
“I found every breath of air, and every scent, and every flower and leaf and blade of grass and every passing cloud, and everything in nature, more beautiful and wonderful to me than I had ever found it yet. This was my first gain from my illness. How little I had lost, when the wide world was so full of delight for me.”Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Originally published as a series between March 1852 to September 1853, Bleak House is a multifaceted and multilayered narrative prefaced by a fictional legal case. As these layers are unpeeled, the novel’s satirical nature surfaces. This satire sheds light on the English chancery court. Chancery or equity courts is one half of the English legal system; the other half being law courts. Chancery courts deal with cases involving wills and estates, or with the uses of private property. However, these courts have long earned the ire of many an English legal reformer, including Charles Dickens.
The satirical nature of Bleak House centers on the issue concerning chancery courts. Several chancery litigation are noted to be delayed, whether deliberately or not. Some took years, even decades, to be concluded. Jarndyce versus Jarndyce is a fictional case explored in the novel but it was inspired by actual cases of disputed wills and estates. In the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the case dragged for years that legal fees consumed the estate resulting to the case being abandoned. There are allusions to greed and corruption which contributed to the collapse of the chancery court. The novel would play a central role in percolating a judicial reform movement that resulted into a critical legal reform in the 1870s.
From the central case, the narrative then diverges into different directions. Intersecting with the story of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case is another story that involved sleuthing. This subplot primarily follows Lady Honoria Dedlock, the wife of Sir Leicester Dedlock and the mistress of the Chesney Wold estate. She was also a beneficiary of a contested will and tried to do her own investigation while in the guise of a maid. Lady Dedlock’s story was but one of the several blankets of mystery the narrative was wrapped in. The elements of detective and mystery fiction gave the narrative a different texture and complexion.
Another layer that permeates throughout narrative is the story of Esther Summerson, one of the wards John Jarndyce is in-charge of. Her coming-of-age forms another mantle of the story but the mystery surrounding her identity created the backbone of the novel’s drama. Her legal guardian, Miss Barnaby, raised her with concealed contempt, calling Esther as the disgrace of her mother. This apparent abuse turned Esther into self-deprecation but also made her thankful for every blessing she receives.
“I mean a man whose hopes and aims may sometimes lie (as most men’s sometimes do, I dare say) above the ordinary level, but to whom the ordinary level will be high enough after all if it should prove to be a way of usefulness and good service leading to no other. All generous spirits are ambitious, I suppose, but the ambition that calmly trusts itself to such a road, instead of spasmodically trying to fly over it, is of the kind I care for.”~ Charles Dickens, Bleak House
In the arteries of Bleak House are several subplots, some arcing on the others while others stand independently. These subplots gave the narrative different dimensions. As a staple in Victorian period literature, the novel has overtones of romance, love and desire. It also examined the dynamics of the different relationships such as that of a mother and daughter, and a wife and a husband. The novel also contained some of Dickens’ social criticism, such as his view on charity and the sense of being charitable.
Each subplot also ushers in a vast quantity of characters. Dickens created a diverse demographics of the characters. Each character, including the secondary characters gave the narrative different textures. Their tones, their voices, their background stories gave a rich backdrop to the story of Esther Summerson and Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The Bleak House is also a physical house where John Jarndyce resides and where he moved his three wards to. The house, vivid in details, was a character on its own. This is also a testament to Dickens’ brilliant writing which made the inanimate come alive.
Dickens’ writing and language gave the narrative a different spark, different life, a distinct flavor. It was rich in tones and had a pulsating, upbeat rhythm. In stark dichotomy to the earnest voice of the law and the court are comic reliefs full of humor and wit. Dickens has that canny ability of balancing different level of tones to enrich the tapestry of his work. The crests and troughs perfectly captured the atmosphere of the place and the attitude of the time.
There are some elements, however, that distorted the narrative. One glaring element is the narrative structure which fuses Esther’s first person point-of-view with an omniscient narrator. Whilst these two narrative voices run parallel to each other, they never converged. Esther she repeatedly echoed her ineptitude and limitations throughout the narrative. Her refusal to disclose her own thoughts, opinions, and even feelings afforded little intimacy, making her lose the sympathy of the modern audience. Viewed differently, it is no surprise that Esther is the only female narrator in Dickens’s vast literary ensemble.
“One disagreeable result of whispering is, that it seems to evoke an atmosphere of silence, haunted by the ghosts of sound – strange cracks and tickings, the rustling of garments that have no substance in them, and the tread of dreadful feet that would leave no mark on the sea-sand or the winter snow.”~ Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Bleak House is, without a doubt, an ambitious literary piece in which Dickens tried to do a lot. He painted with broad master strokes that evoked powerful scenes. He, however, created one too many subplots, and characters. The wealth of passages and details further helped add confusion. There were parts of that came across as too tedious, and some that were unnecessary. The narrative dragged, in perhaps a subtle allusion to a’ parody of the snail-paced litigation process in the Chancery court system. With a vast set of characters, it was also ostensible how not one character created a deep impression the way Pip or Miss Havisham did.
Its flaws, however, were minor compared to its impact. Bleak House still stands out in the pantheons of literature. It is a testament to Dickens’ literary wit and his earnest desire to usher in reform, using his works and vocation as primordial instruments. His fascination with the legal system resulted into a labyrinthine work that swells with interesting subplots, colorful characters, and diverse subjects and themes. Parts-mystery, parts-satire, parts-romance, parts-social criticism, parts-character study, parts coming-of-age, Bleak House is a timeless masterpiece that consolidates Dickens’ reputation as one of literature’s top storytellers. And also one of its most influential.
Characters (30%) – 21%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%
It has been a decade since I read my last Charles Dickens novel. I have been promising to read more of his works but I have been putting it off. Actually, Bleak House was part of my 2019 Beat the Backlist challenge. However, I put it on hold because of its length, and included it again in my 2020 Beat the Backlist challenge. I guess the lockdown is a blessing in disguise for it allowed me time to read. However, I found myself floundering in Bleak House. I did enjoy David Copperfield and The Great Expectations but Bleak House simply dragged. There were too many subplots and characters that it was a challenge keeping up with any of them. I still gave this one a high remark because helped institute changes.
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Publishing Date: 1993
Number of Pages: 740 (with 20 pages of notes)
Genre: Novel, Victorian Gothic
Bleak House is one of Dickens’s finest achievements, establishing his reputation as a serious and mature novelist as well as a brilliant comic writer. It is at once a complex mystery story that fully engages the reader in the work of detection, and an unforgettable indictment of an indifferent society, its representations of a great city’s dark underworld, and of the law’s corruption and delay, draw upon the author’s personal knowledge and experience. But it is his symbolic art that projects these things in a vision that embraces black comedy, cosmic farce, and tragic ruin.
In a unique creative experiment, Dickens divides the narrative between his heroine, Esther Summerson, who is psychologically interesting, in her own right, and an unnamed narrator whose perspective both complements and challenges hers.
About the Author
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on February 7, 1812 in Landport, Hampshire, England.
Dickens was already a voracious reader. At a young age, he has read the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Alain-René Lesage’s Gil Blas. He has also read The Arabian Nights and the Collected Farces of Elizabeth Inchbald. Dickens’ formal education begun at a dame school, and then to a school run by William Giles. When the Dickenses moved to the Marshalsea debtor’s prison in Southwark, London in 1824, Charles boarded with Elizabeth Roylance in Camden Town to finish his final term of work. John Dickens, the family patriarch, was forced by his creditors into the debtor’s prison. To helps his family and to pay for his board, Dickens left school and worked ten-hour days at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse.
Dickens resumed his studies at Wellington House Academy after his family was released from the debtor’s prison. After leaving the school. he went to work as a junior clerk at the law office of Ellis and Blackmore. He left the law office to be a freelance reporter. His literary career took off with the publication of The Pickwick Papers in serial form from April 1836 to November 1837. He would fellow it up with more successful novels published in serial forms such Oliver Twist (February 1837 to April 1839), Nicholas Nickleby (April 1838 to October 1839), and A Tale of Two Cities (April 1859 to November 1859). He has also published a score of short stories and short story collections, Christmas short stories and novellas, poetry collections, and plays. His last work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood was unfinished, with only six of twelve planned numbers completed.
Charles Dickens passed away on June 9, 1870 after suffering a massive stroke.