Charles Dickens's Bleak House: Public and Private Worlds

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  • Topic: Bleak House, Charles Dickens, Court of Chancery
  • Pages : 19 (7640 words )
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  • Published : March 12, 2013
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Bleak House:
Public and Private Worlds

In discussing Charles Dickens' mature novels, James M. Brown writes, "His social criticism is embodied in a vision of social experience in its generality-the essential quality of everyday social relations throughout the system, and the general possiblities for a fulfilling social life" (14). This seems to me a very apt and succinct description of the themes of Bleak House. Though tremendously dense in plot and varied in character, the novel is remarkably unified in vision and theme. Brown's characterization also points to the novel's unique structure of a double narrative. Though the narratives overlap at times, social and public concerns tend to be related by the third-person narrator, while private and domestic life, and the possibilities for fulfillment, are the prime subjects of Esther Summerson's narrative. Still, Bleak House is much too complex a work to be dealt with fully in hundreds of pages, let alone in fifteen written by a Dickens neophyte such as myself. It has been hard work to simply narrow my analysis approropriately but the double narrative provides an obvious guide. The third-person narration contains the themes of economic interconnectedness and social criticism while Esther's narration emphasizes moral connectedness and individual responsibility. My analysis will explore the parallel narratives and their themetic spheres. Though I'm not sure about Joseph I. Fradin's assertion that the double narrative of Bleak House is "a metaphor of the divided modern consciousness," I agree with his suggestion that the technique "carries the dialectic between self and society" in its expression of both Esther's subjective perception and the third person's objective and ironic social analysis (41). The suggestion of synthesis is intriguing and I will conclude with a speculative look at what the novel has to say about 'life as a mystery that must be discovered', the function of revelation in the text, and the possibility of either social or individual transformation within this fictional world. The tone of the impersonal third-person narrator is variously ironic, urbane, familiar, detached, witty, and, at times, expressive of real anger. The reader can easily detect the bitter irony in many narrative remarks such as the description of "One ruined suitor...who can by no means be made to understand that the Chancellor is legally ignorant of his existence after making it desolate for a quarter of a century" (7), but also enjoy the humorous portrayals of characters like Mr. Chadband who has "a fat smile, and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system" (235). The narrator wittily describes Sir Leicester, "He would on the whole admit Nature to be a good idea (a little low, perhaps, when not enclosed with a park fence)..." (12), yet outrage and anger are clear in the announcement of Jo's death, "Dead, your Majesty...And dying thus around us every day" (572). The narrative is in the present tense and the style is often cinematic, functioning like a roving camera that can sweep over a scene as when London is introduced in the opening chapter or that can zoom in on the details of a character like Mr. Tulkinghorn in the second chapter. The narrator also sometimes resorts to a journalistic style, employing clipped sentences and sentence fragments, as in the novel's opening paragraphs which contain sentences like "Fog everywhere" (5), or when relating the events surrounding the discovery of Nemo's body, "Public loses interest, and undergoes reaction" (131). These passages convey a sense of objectivity and detachment, often serving to introduce the reader to a new setting or perspective, thus reasserting one of the third-person narrator's functions in Bleak House: "to constantly remind us of the great scheme of things" (Smith, Charles Dickens: Bleak House, 11). Yet I agree with the critics who maintain that this narrator is only relatively omniscient. There are...
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