As far as my favorites are concerned, A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield don’t have anything to worry about just yet. Nevertheless, Bleak House falls somewhere between “Absolutely amazing” and “Total and complete brilliance” on the awesomeness scale. As with every other Dickens in my experience, I read the first half of the book in about two months and the last half in about two days. Yes, it takes some time to get into. But once it sucks you in, there’s no escape. The compelling situations, fascinating characters, and intricate mysteries keep you turning pages to the very end, and leave you wanting more.
While Bleak House itself is a good place, the word “bleak” in the title gives an accurate description of the book’s tone. Though Dickens’ usual macabre touch is mostly lacking, there is no denying that it’s a bleak tale on many levels. But the hope is there, very plainly, alongside the serious warnings. If I had to label the message of Bleak House, I would say that it is a story that contrasts wisdom and folly.
Capable, conscientious, affectionate Esther Summerson knows nothing of her lineage, having been brought up by her godmother. Her life is one of misery and solitude until she is placed under the care of her guardian, Mr. Jarndyce, an eccentric, warm-hearted bachelor. Mr. Jarndyce’s two other wards - cousins Richard and Ada - adore Esther as well, and she finds herself completely happy and loved for the first time in her life.
But the Jarndyce family has a curse hanging over them in the form of a court case - “Jarndyce and Jarndyce” - which has been dragging out for years. Fortunes have been spent, men have taken their own lives, and it has become the laughingstock of the courts. No one remembers what it is about, and Mr. Jarndyce would prefer to forget the whole thing. But when Richard begins to become obsessed with it, Esther and her guardian are afraid it will destroy him.
Then slowly, darkness enters Esther’s own life, in many forms. She learns of her shameful heritage and her tortured mother. Illness robs her of her beauty, and she is brought face-to-face with the poverty and tragedy of the poorer classes. She watches as Ada’s heart breaks over Richard’s folly. She sees intrigue ruin the lives of those close to her, and learns that people are not always what they seem.
Through it all, her bright, kind personality shines, as she casts sunshine on those around her, always thinking of others before herself. And she finds that even in the darkness, hope can prevail.
The contrast among the various women in this story is striking. Esther herself is wise, humble, not particularly clever, but good-hearted and kind. Every deed she does is for the sake of others. Everyone loves and trusts her, despite the slur upon her birth. She loves homemaking, and deems keeping house for her guardian a delightful way to repay him for all he’s done for her. And rather than following her own dreams or desires, she chooses to give up the man she loves in order to keep a promise made to another. Selflessness drives everything she does.
Starkly contrasting is the haughty, anguished Lady Dedlock. The self-centered actions of her youth bring trouble on everyone around her, cause her constant fear, and threaten to destroy her marriage. Even when her softer side is manifest, the way she shows it is selfish and thoughtless, with a couple of rare exceptions. Lady Dedlock is a confused, tortured woman, one whom it is hard to love but very easy to pity.
Then there’s Mrs. Jellyby. Mrs. Jellyby, mother of eight children, wife to Mr. Jellyby, and obsessed with a mission - Africa. This woman dedicates her life to Africa, constantly writing, speaking and working, all to help the poor people of Booriboola-Ga be able to have coffee. Meanwhile, her children get hurt and get into trouble, her house is an utter disaster, her husband has become so weary of life he can hardly hold his head up, and her oldest daughter Caddy learns to almost hate her. Such a noble woman! One of the most touching lines in the book comes when Mr. Jellyby pleads with Caddy on the eve of her wedding; “Please, don’t ever have…a mission.”
Finally, there’s Ada. She’s the stereotypical sweet, fair, loving Dickens heroine. Beloved by all she comes in contact with, her angelic personality leaves us little to relate with. However even she is guilty of foolishness, of a very serious nature. She is engaged to her cousin Richard and loves him very much. But as Richard is sucked deeper and deeper into the mire of the Jarndyce case, she refuses to see his mistakes, clinging to hope of helping him to rediscover his better self. While this is beautiful on the one hand, it poses a very grave problem: is this really the man she wants to be the father of her children?
There are so many interesting and contrasting examples of manhood in this book that I cannot possibly mention them all. Most prominent is Mr. Jarndyce, the kind and eccentric guardian whose fatherly presence shines throughout the story. He loves to do good for others, but dislikes being thanked. His behavior towards women, including his wards, is consistently gentlemanly and respectful, but towards men who mistreat others he shows neither respect nor patience. He refuses to let himself become engulfed in the Jarndyce case, and he never stops caring for Richard, even when Richard comes to nearly hate him. He gives others the benefit of the doubt whenever possible, and his charity towards all is a beautiful thing.
Then there’s Mr. Skimpole - in his own words, “a child.” He “knows nothing of money,” and he always has a very convincing argument as to why he needn’t work, pay for anything, or give thought to the needs of others. After all, he is “only a child.” While his innocent manner is initially charming, the reader very quickly becomes disenchanted with Skimpole. He uses others unscrupulously in order to maintain his life of leisure, he keeps all the best things for himself while his family must take what they can get, and despite the fact that he “cares nothing for money,” he’s willing to betray his friends to gain a few pounds of it. While there is certainly something to be said for childlike innocence, this degree of childish irresponsibility in a fifty-year-old man is disturbing indeed.
Mr. George is an honorable man to his very core. A former soldier who now trains others in the use of firearms, his rugged but sweet and principled character is refreshing in the sea of folly and weakness in the story. He is willing to lay down his life and liberty for his friends, and he is repeatedly compassionate to those who have even less than himself. The one grief of his life is his belief that in running off to the army as a young boy, he broke his mother’s heart. Mr. George was my personal favorite character because of his simplicity, honesty, loyalty and strength.
Lastly, there is poor Richard. Initially a bright, hopeful, affectionate youth, he degenerates heartbreakingly into an obsessed, confused shell of his former self. Rather than choosing an honorable profession and sticking to it, he drifts among multiple options, finally giving them all up in the hopes that one day his side of the case will win, and he’ll be rich enough so that he’ll never need to work. Deeper into the mire he sinks, always downward, a slave to his own folly, leaving the reader longing for hope.
Hope is found in wisdom - when Esther, Mr. Jarndyce, and Mr. George make the wise choice, regardless of whether or not it fits their desires, hope and joy blossom - not only for themselves, but for all around them. In the same way, the folly of the other characters not only destroys their lives, but causes heartbreak and pain for others. Proverbs 15:21 says that “Folly is joy to him that is destitute of wisdom: but a man of understanding walketh uprightly.”
There is much to be gleaned about wisdom and folly from this book, and I highly recommend it to the mature reader. There are some mildly disturbing parts, and one character was born out of wedlock, which is a major plot point - although it’s interesting to see how this situation is perceived as extreme folly and horrible scandal, rather than just normal, as in today’s fiction.
Perhaps more than any other book outside God’s Word itself, this book showed me that “He that handleth a matter wisely shall find good: and whoso trusteth in the LORD, happy is he.” (Proverbs 16:20)