Yesterday I left off talking about how Bleak House is a novel about “the system.” The idea of the system was relatively new at the time, at least to the general public. But to Dickens, it probably only brought further clarification to what he had been writing about all along. With the concept of a system, rather than an individual problem, an issue like poverty suddenly becomes something bigger and one can start seeing all of the parts and pieces that create it and keep someone who is in it from getting out. Also within a system, we can start looking at how things are connected together, how something over here affects something over there.
In Bleak House Dickens tries to give us a view of both the forest and the trees. We have the Chancery court and the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce that has gone on for so long there are few who can remember what it was all about in the first place. And then we have the current Mr. Jarndyce who wisely stays away from the court and tries to pretend there is no case to which he is a party. Instead he busies himself with taking in three orphans. Two of the orphans, Richard and Ada, are cousins of Mr. Jarndyce, wards of the court, and, as it turns out, a competing party in the suit. The third orphan, Esther Summerson, has a long backstory, but has just finished school compliments of Mr. Jarndyce, and is now brought to Bleak House along with Richard and Ada to be both housekeeper and companion to Ada.
Esther is one of the two narrators of the book. The story moves back and forth between her personal first person narrative and a limited third person narrator. Through Esther’s eyes we watch the long and drawn out coming of age of Richard and his subsequent obsession with the suit followed by a sad ruin as he had pinned all his hopes on getting a settlement out of the suit.
This is the core but there is a cast of dozens and dozens and dozens. And because this is a book about the system, all of these characters at one point or another touch one or more of the other characters in ways that are both expected and unexpected. It is therefore imperative that the reader pays attention to everything because later on it will matter (I did not know this at first and at time had a hard time figuring out who characters were and what they had done prior to their present appearance). And so it happens that Jo, a poor, homeless orphan boy who gets pennies and half crowns from sweeping and the kindness of a few neighbors, a boy who doesn’t know “nothink,” becomes a pivotal part of the story, touching the lives of the poor and wealthy alike.
The system also has a way of allowing those who work for it to deny having any kind of responsibility for it. Mr. Gridley, a man ruined by the courts says it all:
“There again!” said Mr. Gridley with no diminution of his rage. “The system! I am told on all hands, it’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system. I mustn’t go into court and say, ‘My Lord, I beg to know this from youis this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice and therefore am dismissed?’ My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there to administer the system. I mustn’t go to Mr. Tulkinghorn, the solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and say to him when he makes me furious by being so cool and satisfied as they all do, for I know they gain by it while I lose, don’t I?I mustn’t say to him, ‘I will have something out of some one for my ruin, by fair means or foul!’ HE is not responsible. It’s the system. But, if I do no violence to any of them, hereI may! I don’t know what may happen if I am carried beyond myself at last! I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”
This is not a book in which you feel the love for lawyers. It is a book in which people caught in the system or on the fringes of it, try to live their lives as best they can. Some succeed at it better than others. Some manage to keep a good heart while others become bitter and hateful. The ending is not an unclouded happy ending. But the book is not depressing, there is still quite a bit of humor that made me smile and sometimes guffaw.
It is a long book and there is a slow stretch about the 1/3 mark, but I highly recommend it. A book that would make an interesting companion is The Trial by Franz Kafka
I am counting this book in the literary fiction category of the Bloglily Summer Reading Program. Now for the points. I did not borrow the book from the library. I read it on my Kindle and if you are interested in perusing my notes and highlights, such as they are, you can view them online. I did write about the book (10 pts), suggested another book (10 pts), wrote the book title down in my summer reading booklet (10 pts) for a sum of 30 points for the book. I do believe that puts me at 70 points total for the summer reading program. Woo!