On the heels of Kony 2012 and the economic crisis Charles Dickens’s biting, sardonic indictment of corruption and “charity” in his novel “Bleak House” is strikingly relevant. Dickens focuses his ire the legal system, which creates endless confusion and constant schemes. He also focuses on people, mostly women, who pour time and energy into helping “poor natives” while ignoring the rampant misery beating at their doorstep.
Dickens follows exploitation, hypocrisy, and murder into every home, every neighborhood, and every social class in London. He opens with the Lord Chancellor, one the Great Officers of State in British government, but gives equal attention (and perhaps even more attention) to Jo, a street sweeper.
The story is structured around the life of Esther Summerson, an orphan under the care of an elderly retired lawyer. Esther does not know her own heritage, and struggles to find out who she is while dealing with a number of personal issues. However, the book is more than this. It bounces back and forth between chapters entitled “Esther’s Narrative” that are told from the point of view of the young lady and scenes throughout London: from the Inns of Court to collapsing tenement houses.
The book can seem a bit long-winded and drawn out (my edition ran for eight hundred and eight pages). Yet, it is important to remember that Bleak House was not first conceived as a singular novel to be read at once, but was serialized into twenty installments released over the course of a year and a half.
Dickens social criticism is poignant and biting. The character Mrs. Jellyby lets her children suffer and go without while she devotes herself to African charities that never seem to change anything. He goes even further with his hatred of the legal system exemplified below:
…to consider that, while the sickness of hope deferred was raging in so many hearts this polite show went calmly on from day to day, and year to year, in such good order and composure…as if nobody had ever heard that all over England the name in which they were assembled was a bitter jest…I could not comprehend it (317).
The author’s real power comes in his ability to evoke careful imagery and his word combinations often surprise and delight with their wit and sound. He is a master of description, which gives life to a story that might otherwise be dull. Take for example this passage:
Chesney Wold is shut up, carpets are rolled into scrolls in the corners of comfortless rooms, bright damask does penance in brown Holland, carving and gliding puts on mortification, and the Dedlock ancestors retire from the light of day again. Around and around the house the leaves fall thick – but never fast, for they come circling down with a dead lightness that is somber and slow. Let the gardener sweep and sweep the turf as he will, and press the leaves into full barrows, and wheel them off, still they lie ankle deep.
What separates Dickens from other novelists who critique their own societies is his attention to the personal. The book is not a pasted-together plot that exists for the pure purpose of riling up anger at the status quo, but is a charming and emotional tale about one young woman’s struggle to define her identity and her destiny. Dickens ending, which focuses on the adult lives of characters we have seen grown up, gives us the impression that life goes on. In some ways this is a more powerful appeal for change then an ending where skinflint lawyers evilly rub their hands. It reminds us that there is beauty in life, goodness and love that needs preserving. Dickens not only points out where we should fight, but reminds us that there is so much worth fighting for.