First of all, because it is Dickens' best book. Yes, it's over 800 pages long, and it does start out with a deathly dull chapter about the legal system (as you read it, it kind of makes you live through how excruciatingly slowly a case would grind through that system). But keep going! It will be worth it. I read this book once in high school and once in college, but I think this time I enjoyed it the most.
The story is told from two points of view: the third-person, omniscient narrator, who relates things in the present tense, and the first-person point of view of Esther Summerson, a young girl with a mysterious background and a severe, unhappy childhood. The plot is dense and complex, and there are so many characters that it is astonishing to see how deftly Dickens weaves them all into the storyline, so that each and every one of them becomes essential. And the characters are just wonderful - even the ones you only meet occasionally become memorable. The man is a master at bringing them to life in just a few sentences. By the end of the novel you will feel you've known them all your life.
There are a billion places you can go to for a plot synopsis of the book, so let me just say that the novel involves an interminable lawsuit, romance, murder, mistaken identity, dark secrets, a suspicious wife, a crazy old lady, a prodigal son, a venomous maid, blackmail, and many other delightful things. One of the first police detective characters ever to appear in fiction, the intrepid, intelligent and delightful Mr. Bucket, is here – and he was based on a detective who was a friend of Dickens’. For more information on the real-life Mr. Bucket and the novel, check out the Wikipedia entries.
This book was written, as were many of Dickens' novels, as a serial. So readers read and lived the story, a little bit at a time, for over a year before it was finally concluded. For readers back then, it must have been what The Sopranos and other such shows are for people today - they discuss them with friends and coworkers, feel like they know the characters, feel as though they've lived the story along with them. (Although, from what I understand, the end of Bleak House is much more satisfying than the end of The Sopranos!)
It took me about a week and a half to get through the book, and it made me wonder how it would have changed my experience had I read it in installments, spaced out over months, the way it originally appeared. Would I have been able to keep track of all the characters? Maybe people at the time would re-read the previous episode right before the next one came out, the way I like to reread the last Harry Potter book in order to refresh my memory for the new one.
In fact, I was just talking with Virginia Gal about how sad it is going to be when we finally read the final Harry Potter novel. We have journeyed with him for years, sharing life at Hogwart's, friendships, adventures and rivalries. It is fun that we are still experiencing the same kinds of feelings as readers did in Dickens' time.
Usually the novels by Dickens that most people read are the shorter ones (teachers probably are attempting to avoid outright mutiny while still hoping to expose students to Dickens' work), which usually means Oliver Twist or A Tale of Two Cities. Maybe David Copperfield. They aren't bad, but they really can't compare to Bleak House. It's as though all the strengths from his other books combine to shine in this one: characterization, pacing, dialog, plot, imagery - along with his usual biting criticism of society's ills. It is wonderful that he may have influenced the subsequent massive reform of the legal system, but it is also discouraging that so many of the other social issues he wrote about (spouse abuse, child abuse, neglect, poverty, etc.) are still so very prevalent today.
I wish my version of the book contained the original illustrations. It seems that when work goes into the public domain, it is printed the cheapest way possible, with the tiniest font size, the thinnest paper, and the poorest binding. But still, the pictures in my mind were incredibly vivid - some of the scenes were downright cinematic.
Dickens is truly the master - so many things that other wonderful writers are doing, even today, were born with him. Do yourself a favor and experience the master at the top of his form. You won't regret it.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (Modern Library, 2002; originally published in twenty monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853)
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