Staff Pick: Bleak House and The Dickensian Way

January 31, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 13 3 min read

coverWhen I say, referring to Bleak House by Charles Dickens, “They don’t write books like that anymore,” I really mean it. Reading it is like a guided tour of things serious authors aren’t allowed to do. Exactly two of the characters are complicated and unpredictable, everyone else is either angelic or demonic. Dozens of pages go by with nothing happening except amusing characters having silly conversation. Halfway through the book an entire chapter is devoted to introducing a new character who never goes on to do anything integral to the story. And a few of the characters start crying almost every time they have a conversation.

Bleak House felt unlike the modern fiction I’m used to reading until I realized that the comparison is a disservice to Dickens. You have to embrace Bleak House for what it is – a rambling, confusing, verbose, over-populated, vastly improbable story which substitutes caricatures for people and is full of puns. In other words, an 800-page Dickens novel.

And that description only fits if you want to call it a novel. Its original readers read it in 20 monthly installments. Reading it in a matter of weeks is kind of like watching a season of Lost on DVD over a weekend. You start to notice how often character descriptions are repeated, how many important topics are discussed at regular intervals, how new characters and twists are fabricated to buy time.

As a serial, it’s much more likeable. I started to read Bleak House slowly, and found that dropping in on its world was reliably amusing and full of pathos. Some episodes of the story stand alone. They don’t advance the plot or broaden the characters, but rather stop to ponder what happens when a London street urchin needs a place to sleep, for instance. Once I’d abandoned hope of narrative momentum in Bleak House, the episodes were nice to read. Dickens may have slowed the story to a crawl to prolong the income he was getting from it, but even when he writes about unimportant characters accomplishing very little, there’s something to like on every page.

Dickens, a keen observer of mankind, was one of its sharpest critics and proud champions. He was viciously capable of drawing cruel, unapologetic characters, but he seemed more fond of creating characters that he liked – either because they were heroically good-natured, or because they were so bizarre that he had no qualms about making them look ridiculous. Unlike many modern writers, as he’s toying with the fortunes of his characters, he doesn’t mind that you can tell how much fun he’s having.

In one scene, a gentleman whose dignity is being insulted reacts by appearing as magnificent as possible until, at the final insult, “Sir Leicester’s magnificence explodes. Calmly, but terribly.”

Bleak Houses’s jester, Guppy, is always bursting in on people and subjecting them to ludicrous conversation, which Dickens delights in relating. During one exchange in which he is being particularly bothersome to his interlocutor, “Mr. Guppy considers this a favourable moment for sticking up his hair with both hands.”

These goofball scenes, of course, are juxtaposed by the depraved condition of man that Dickens is also always so eager to show us, and the predictably rosy ending for Dickens’ favorites among the cast is offset by a surprisingly high body count.

I can’t escape the impression that Dickens was just mucking around half the time. (In order to get rid of one character whose usefulness was over, he killed him by spontaneous combustion.) But if Dickens is only trying half the time, you’ve still got an enjoyable book. I wouldn’t want all of the books I read to be so meandering and indulgent, but it was nice, in this case, to sit back and watch Dickens amuse himself.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.


  1. “You have to embrace Bleak House for what it is – a rambling, confusing, verbose, over-populated, vastly improbable story which substitutes caricatures for people and is full of puns. In other words, an 800-page Dickens novel.”

    …or a David Foster Wallace novel….or a Salman Rushdie novel…or a Tom Wolfe novel…or a Thomas Pynchon novel…etc. This description could fit them all.

  2. Yeah, I have to say that this review didn’t elucidate anything that hasn’t already been said about the book. Bleak House was a revelation to me when I first read it years ago, and in opposition to what Ms. Potter says, I and a few other readers/authors, found it quite modern in its voice and narrative capabilities. But, you know, whatever rattles your saber, right?

    I would like to know what Ms. Potter expects from her fiction. I’m curious to know if she thinks that going back a hundred or so years would change her mind on how she viewed and digested the prose and plot. What I’m getting at, I think, is…isn’t this always the main problem with historical fiction/fiction written long ago: that it doesn’t have the relevancy to pack a punch to the gut? Why does a novel have to be coherent on every page or rather why can’t it not have a meandering digression on where Jo sleeps?

    Again, I have to agree with Gary above. This could be the complaint about every large novel.

  3. You have an interesting take on how the book rambles about. Maybe that’s the best way to read it, because I always take a very straight, rigid approach to it as this brutally comic novel about the cruelties of the English justice system, both hilarious and baldly sentimental (regardless of what Prof. Nabokov said to the contrary). It has such an odd structure, the way it hands the story off to Esther every other chapter. I love the characters, like Skimpole and Mrs. Jellyby. For weeks after I read it, I kept trying to drop the phrase “not to put too fine a point on it” into conversation. Never quite worked.

  4. I feel like you’ve missed the point a bit with this comment:

    “Once I’d abandoned hope of narrative momentum in Bleak House, the episodes were nice to read. Dickens may have slowed the story to a crawl to prolong the income he was getting from it, but even when he writes about unimportant characters accomplishing very little, there’s something to like on every page.”

    You have already noted that it was written in 20 installments (and Dickens did write in installments, unlike George Eliot, for example, who wrote her novels completely and then published them in serial form – they do stand up better to a quick reading over the space of a few days, whereas Dickens can get tiresome with the repetitions you mention). There is narrative momentum, but it is very carefully manipulated within each of the twenty sections. Almost every section ends with resolution, rather than a cliffhanger. Just because it might be different from the modern fiction you usually read, it doesn’t mean that narrative momentum doesn’t exist.

    And why would you treat a book written a century and a half ago in the same way as modern fiction? Do you read/see Shakespeare and think how unrealistic it is that (some) characters speak in couplets? Every period, every genre, every medium is going to have unique characteristics of course.

    The twenty monthly installments format was used by Dickens for the majority of his works (with some exceptions such as Great Expectations). The content of each installment was sketched out in advance. So I don’t think it’s right to suggest that he was buying time in order to earn more money.

    I think it’s interesting that you didn’t mention the complex dual narrative structure – the omniscient narrator and the portions told by Esther.

  5. Krook had to die. His death was dark and perfect and part of the larger plot. This is just one of the many things that you seem to have missed.

    Sorry to pile on…but I love Bleak House and one of the things that struck me when I read it was how tightly woven it was. You seem to be saying the opposite. And, in doing so (very nearly) writing it off entirely. This is extremely unfair and I’d hate for anyone reading this to think that Bleak House is something to be skipped or skimmed. It isn’t.

  6. This was an extremely general, dismissive essay. Bleak House is absolutely worth reading, writing about, and discussing. But not in such broad, frankly silly, strokes.

  7. I had a little different take on Ms. Potter’s essay–it seemed to me she was trying to get people to read Bleak House, to pick it up and to finish it despite storytelling devises that seem out-of-date, and despite Dickens’ authorial quirks.

    I liked Bleak House very much, for the rich variety of human specimens, and for Dickens’ ability to tell a story. As an example, the pursuit sequence near the end of the book thrilled me in a way that very few designated Thrillers have.

  8. Yeah, this made me want to read Bleak House, which has never been anywhere near the top of the stack of books-I-want-to-read. Thanks, the Millions!

  9. Yeah, my take on it is similar to Don Hackett and Alex’s. I fear some readers may be looking to take offense. There is nothing wrong in explaining ways in which a Dickens novel differs from most modern works, and that understanding those differences can help one enjoy a Dickens novel better.

  10. This is an excruciatingly poor pen-dribble, unworthy of The Millions. A sizable number of informed critics and readers consider “Bleak House” one of the supreme examples of the novel form. It is clear that Ms. Potter hasn’t the slightest understanding of what she has read. What an embarrassment.

  11. I thought I was just the strange one who really enjoyed taking the “guided tour” of Bleak House. I, too , would probably have never picked up this Dickens novel had it not been, (suprisingly, at least to me) on a Book Adventures list for children they could read for points (and, no, not Accelerated Reader) so that I picked it up for my older son (the one I alluded to earlier who devoured the Hardy Boys; this is what he moved onto) for us to read through together. Now, he did have a somewhat hard time plodding through this very different from a juvenile Hardy Boys books, especially with just skipping over any other Dickens books that might have been an easier transition. However, I enjoyed his observations. The one I suppose that stood out the most to both of us was (and I’m sorry I don’t still have it in front of me and I’m terrible with names) the old man with the housekeeper with two sons who was going to send them to college but the older one, I believe, had gone north to Scotland to work with James Watts, who had just begun work on the steam engine, which was just scandalous. The whole idea of working with your hands was just something you just did not do. This being read by same said son, who in addition to being a voracious reader, was at the same time, also quite mechanically inclined but also running into this attitude with his school. – “Oh, no, you don’t want to work with your hands; you want to go to college.” “Oh, yes, I do want to work with my hands so no, I don’t want to go to your liberal arts college.” – came away from Bleak House with a lesson I don’t think is intended by Dickens scholars but I’m not sure but that he himself would have approved.

  12. I consider myself a reasonably well read person but found Bleak House a fairly difficult read. I abandoned it at almost the halfway point but hope to revisit it someday. The characters were hard to keep straight and the plot was, to me, a little hard to follow.

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