Bleak House Is Like Crack
I recommend that everyone read Bleak House, not for the message, not for the whatever, but for the ride baby, the ride. If plot is your thing, then maybe Bleak House is not for you. Actually, I rather need to know the plot beforehand to enjoy the book. If this is the case, I recommend watching the 465 minutes 2005 BBC DVD Bleak House, starring Gillian Anderson. Even though I like Diana Rigg, the 418 minutes 1985 BBC Bleak House is a sleeper compared to the 2005. Neither one follows the book, but are close enough. And different characters in the movie say what other characters actually say in the book.
On the other hand, you could just read the plot summary from wiki and get that burden out of the way (if it is your burden as plot seems to be for me).
Anyway, I think I have put my finger on what I love about the novel, Bleak House. It is the characterizations. George Elliot is good with Middlemarch, she is fine and dandy with her whole community web and the characterization of many of the community’s members but it is limited, limited because even though the narrator is supposedly omniscient, she does not seem to dive into the consciousness of other characters as deep as she does with the protagonist, Dorethea. I would not say it is a limited omniscient but it is a slanted omniscient, or maybe an economised omniscient. Whereas Dickens uses two narrators, a third-person narrator who is omniscient and dives into almost every character fully, and a first-person narrator Ester Summerson who is very observant. Dickens does not slip up. Esther does not relate anything that Dickens does not construct a way to account for. There is a reason she sees, hears, or interprets. Out of the two narrators, I do like the third-person narrator a little better because there is more wit and sarcasm. Esther utilises wit and sarcasm as well, but it is filtered by the naiveté of learning, growing and processing what is happening and why. I am comparing Middlemarch with Bleak House because both have an enormous amount of characters and were written around the same time.
Dickens brings the readers into the conversations. When three men are having lunch, the reader feels as if he or she is having lunch with them too. When a family is sitting around a fire, the reader is sitting around the fire. The ride in Bleak House is like visiting many new acquaintances, but not having to participate in the conversation, but having the luxury to watch and listen.
The following (after a quick summary) excerpt is an an example of Dickens’s mastery. Mr. Snagsby, (who owns a stationery shop catered to lawyers), for the first time in his life witnesses the underbelly of destitution. Police inspector Bucket takes Mr. Snagsby to Tom-All-Alone,a very poor part of London in order to find the crossing sweeper Jo, –because that nasty sinister up to no good lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn needs a word with Jo. The condition of where these poor people live and how they live haunt Mr. Snagsby. Also, Inspector Bucket makes Mr. Snagsby promise he will not tell anyone about their outing (and business with Tulkinghorn). Struggling with this new knowledge about poverty, Mr. Snagsby actions are causing Mrs. Snagsby to feel suspicious. Even though in the grand scheme of this story Mrs. Snagbsy has no great part, Dickens takes the reader through Mrs. Snagsby mind, starting when she first feels something is troubling her husband to concluding that he is the father of the boy crossing sweeper (he is not the father, nor is he a womanizer). It is hilarious. Here goes:
There is disquietude in Cook’s Court, Cursitor Street. Black suspicion hides in that peaceful region. The mass of Cook’s Courtiers are in their usual state of mind, no better and no worse; but Mr. Snagsby is changed, and his little woman knows it.
For Tom-all-Alone’s and Lincoln’s Inn Fields persist in harnessing themselves, a pair of ungovernable coursers, to the chariot of Mr. Snagsby’s imagination; and Mr. Bucket drives; and the passengers are Jo and Mr. Tulkinghorn; and the complete equipage whirls though the law-stationery business at wild speed all round the clock. Even in the little front kitchen where the family meals are taken, it rattles away at a smoking pace from the dinner-table, when Mr. Snagsby pauses in carving the first slice of the leg of mutton baked with potatoes and stares at the kitchen wall.
Mr. Snagsby cannot make out what it is that he has had to do with. Something is wrong somewhere, but what something, what may come of it, to whom, when, and from which unthought of and unheard of quarter is the puzzle of his life. His remote impressions of the robes and coronets, the stars and garters, that sparkle through the surface-dust of Mr.Tulkinghorn’s chambers; his veneration for the mysteries presided over by that best and closest of his customers, whom all the Inns of Court, all Chancery Lane, and all the legal neighbourhood agree to hold in awe; his remembrance of Detective Mr. Bucket with his forefinger and his confidential manner, impossible to be evaded or declined, persuade him that he is a party to some dangerous secret without knowing what it is. And it is the fearful peculiarity of this condition that, at any hour of his daily life, at any opening of the shop-door, at any pull of the bell, at any entrance of a messenger, or any delivery of a letter, the secret may take air and fire, explode, and blow up–Mr. Bucket only knows whom.
For which reason, whenever a man unknown comes into the shop (as many men unknown do) and says, “Is Mr. Snagsby in?” or words to that innocent effect, Mr. Snagsby’s heart knocks hard at his guilty breast. He undergoes so much from such inquiries that when they are made by boys he revenges himself by flipping at their ears over the counter and asking the young dogs what they mean by it and why they can’t speak out at once? More impracticable men and boys persist in walking into Mr. Snagsby’s sleep and terrifying him with unaccountable questions, so that often when the cock at the little dairy in Cursitor Street breaks out in his usual absurd way about the morning, Mr. Snagsby finds himself in a crisis of nightmare, with his little woman shaking him and saying “What’s the matter with the man!”
The little woman herself is not the least item in his difficulty. To know that he is always keeping a secret from her, that he has under all circumstances to conceal and hold fast a tender double tooth, which her sharpness is ever ready to twist out of his head, gives Mr. Snagsby, in her dentistical presence, much of the air of a dog who has a reservation from his master and will look anywhere rather than meet his eye.
These various signs and tokens, marked by the little woman, are not lost upon her. They impel her to say, “Snagsby has something on his mind!” And thus suspicion gets into Cook’s Court, Cursitor Street. From suspicion to jealousy, Mrs. Snagsby finds the road as natural and short as from Cook’s Court to Chancery Lane. And thus jealousy gets into Cook’s Court, Cursitor Street. Once there (and it was always lurking thereabout), it is very active and nimble in Mrs. Snagsby’s breast, prompting her to nocturnal examinations of Mr. Snagsby’s pockets; to secret perusals of Mr. Snagsby’s letters; to private researches in the day book and ledger, till, cash-box, and iron safe; to watchings at windows, listenings behind doors, and a general putting of this and that together by the wrong end.
Mrs. Snagsby is so perpetually on the alert that the house becomes ghostly with creaking boards and rustling garments. The ‘prentices think somebody may have been murdered there in bygone times. Guster holds certain loose atoms of an idea (picked up at Tooting, where they were found floating among the orphans) that there is buried money underneath the cellar, guarded by an old man with a white beard, who cannot get out for seven thousand years because he said the Lord’s Prayer backwards.
“Who was Nimrod?” Mrs. Snagsby repeatedly inquires of herself. “Who was that lady–that creature? And who is that boy?” Now, Nimrod being as dead as the mighty hunter whose name Mrs. Snagsby has appropriated, and the lady being unproducible, she directs her mental eye, for the present, with redoubled vigilance to the boy. “And who,” quoth Mrs. Snagsby for the thousand and first time, “is that boy? Who is that–!” And there Mrs. Snagsby is seized with an inspiration.
He has no respect for Mr. Chadband. No, to be sure, and he wouldn’t have, of course. Naturally he wouldn’t, under those contagious circumstances. He was invited and appointed by Mr. Chadband–why, Mrs. Snagsby heard it herself with her own ears!–to come back, and be told where he was to go, to be addressed by Mr. Chadband; and he never came! Why did he never come? Because he was told not to come. Who told him not to come? Who? Ha, ha! Mrs. Snagsby sees it all.
But happily (and Mrs. Snagsby tightly shakes her head and tightly smiles) that boy was met by Mr. Chadband yesterday in the streets; and that boy, as affording a subject which Mr. Chadband desires to improve for the spiritual delight of a select congregation, was seized by Mr. Chadband and threatened with being delivered over to the police unless he showed the reverend gentleman where he lived and unless he entered into, and fulfilled, an undertaking to appear in Cook’s Court to-morrow night, “to–mor–row–night,” Mrs. Snagsby repeats for mere emphasis with another tight smile and another tight shake of her head; and to-morrow night that boy will be here, and to-morrow night Mrs. Snagsby will have her eye upon him and upon some one else; and oh, you may walk a long while in your secret ways (says Mrs. Snagsby with haughtiness and scorn), but you can’t blind ME!
Mrs. Snagsby sounds no timbrel in anybody’s ears, but holds her purpose quietly, and keeps her counsel. To-morrow comes, the savoury preparations for the Oil Trade come, the evening comes. Comes Mr. Snagsby in his black coat; come the Chadbands; come (when the gorging vessel is replete) the ‘prentices and Guster, to be edified; comes at last, with his slouching head, and his shuffle backward, and his shuffle forward, and his shuffle to the right, and his shuffle to the left, and his bit of fur cap in his muddy hand, which he picks as if it were some mangy bird he had caught and was plucking before eating raw, Jo, the very, very tough subject Mr. Chadband is to improve.
Mrs. Snagsby screws a watchful glance on Jo as he is brought into the little drawing-room by Guster. He looks at Mr. Snagsby the moment he comes in. Aha! Why does he look at Mr. Snagsby? Mr. Snagsby looks at him. Why should he do that, but that Mrs. Snagsby sees it all? Why else should that look pass between them, why else should Mr. Snagsby be confused and cough a signal cough behind his hand? It is as clear as crystal that Mr. Snagsby is that boy’s father.
**What if I were to say, Bleak House is like trail mix? Would that be better? (I strive to include all readers, but of course, I must humbly note my struggle is inferior to the crack head’s struggle).