Bleak House: Chapters 14-17

bleak-house1I only have a few moments to weigh in a bit on Bleak House:  I took the day off work yesterday as i wasn’t feeling entirely well, and I had visions of spending most of my afternoon curled up with the book.  Alas, I instead got to thinking and writing about Brian Burke;  several hours and 3000 words later, I had piffled away most of my reading time.

The story has advanced but slightly in this small segment of the book;  we have learned that Esther’s suitor is Dr. Allan Woodcourt, a young surgeon who took care of Miss Flite, the deranged woman who loiters about Chancery speculating comically about what is to come on the Day of Judgement.   We have learned also that one of Esther’s charges, Richard Carstone is not terribly interested in pursuing a career in medicine, and arrangements are made instead to have him withdraw from that with a view to pursuing articles of law.

Chapter 16 is entirely concerned with Lady Dedlock’s mysterious visit to London to find out more about the law copyist who died alone of an overdose (in an earlier chapter).  This chapter, like all of the chapters concerning the Dedlocks to date, is recounted in the present tense.   I suppose that Dickens chose to use this device for a reason,   perhaps to heighten the tension and suspense in an otherwise lackadaisical narrative.   These chapters are also recounted from the perspective of an omniscient narrator who refers almost familiarly to the Dedlocks.  By contrast, the chapters about Esther allow the reader into Esther’s thoughts, in the manner of an ongoing confessional, and are recounted in the past tense.  I am finding the constant shifting between perspectives and tenses to be somewhat jarring, and I suspect that Dickens himself was ultimately less than satisfied with the result, which (to my mind) heightens the reader’s awareness of the artifice surrounding the book and thus distances him or her from it.

My favourite passage from this section occurs in Chapter 15.  Esther’s guardian Mr. Jarndyce is gently challenging Skimpole (the carefree freeloader) about Skimpole’s unorthodox economic theories.  In particular, Skimpole has expressed the belief that meaning to disburse funds ought to be as satisfactory to their intended recipient as the actual transfer of coin;  Jarndyce points out that things would not go well for Skimpole if, following the same logic,  the butcher were to simply intend to give him meat.  Skimpole responds:

“My dear Jarndyce,” he returned, “you surprise me.  You take the butcher’s position.  A butcher I once dealt with occupied that very ground.  Says he, ‘Sir, why did you eat spring lamb at eighteen pence a pound?’  ‘Why did I eat spring lamb at eighteen pence a pound, my honest friend?’ said I, naturally amazed by the question.  ‘I like spring lamb!’  This was so far convincing.  ‘Well, sir,’ says he, ‘I wish I had meant the lamb as you mean the money!’  ‘My good fellow,’ said I, ‘pray let us reason like intellectual beings.  How could that be?  It was impossible.  You HAD got the lamb, and I have NOT got the money.  You couldn’t really mean the lamb without sending it in, whereas I can, and do, really mean the money without paying it!’  He had not a word.  There was an end of the subject.”

There is an absurdist humour underlying this passage that must be part of a genetic bequest to English authors, as it could just as easily be drawn straight from the pages of a Douglas Adams novel.

New characters are still being introduced, making me wish I had taken Mike’s suggestion and started drawing up a chart to keep track of the dramatis personae;  I am still managing to keep everybody straight, but only barely.  I really hope Dickens starts killing a few folk off if he plans on introducing any more walk-ons.

I’ll read more after tonight’s edition of the Battle of Ontario:  Toronto at Ottawa.

Bleak House: Chapters 4 -13

The story has begun to unfold and gather some steam. It seems to concern the burgeoning romantic relationship between Richard and Ada (the wards in the interminable lawsuit known as  Jarndyce).  There is another narrative thread that appears to centre on the aristocratic and comedically pompous Dedlock clan.

As with all of Dickens’ novels that I’ve previously read, there are layers of mystery and a certain suspense throughout, but I would hazard a guess that one of the more central mysteries of the book has begun to unfold in this latter thread.  Chapters X and XI, “The Law Writer” and “Our Dear Brother” had to do with the demise of an anonymous (or nearly so, as he is known as “Nemo”, Latin for “no one”) copyist or “law-writer” whose corpse is discovered inside his paltry lodgings by the Dedlock family lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn.  It is evident that Nemo was an opium user and  Dickens takes time to recount at some detail the proceedings of the Coroner’s inquest that decides, upon the barest of evidence, that Nemo’s squalid end was precipitated by an accidental overdose.   Here, it seems to me that Dickens engages in a little literary sleight of hand;  he focusses the reader’s attention on the mindless buffoonery of the inquest and the melodramatic sadness of Nemo’s lonely passing, but I would hazard a guess that these are intended to distract the reader from those questions more central to the unfolding narrative, such as the nature of Tulkinghorn’s mysterious interest in the copyist and of his purpose for seeking out Nemo’s lodgings in the first place.  In chapter XI, there are numerous references to both Tulkinghorn and Krook (Nemo’s eccentric packrat of a landlord) skulking around the deceased man’s “portmanteau” (which I am given to understand is a large travelling case of some kind).  These odd circumstances, coupled with a later curious exchange beween Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock concerning the circumstances of the copyist’s death, augmented by Dickens’ constant reminder that Tulkinghorn is a walking repository of secrets, are surefire signs that there is more than meets the eye going on here.

It goes without saying that there are many things that make Dickens’ work immediately identifiable:  his gentle, but fondly rendered satire of those inhabiting a low station in life (such as, so far, Esther’s unwelcome suitor Mr. Guppy);  his far less fondly rendered satire of the self-important and tediously wrong-minded rich (such as Lord Dedlock);  and the masterful ease with which he summons an element of pathos (usually in reference to children, such as the rejected witness at the inquest, Nemo’s only known friend “Jo”).  One more characteristic of Dickens’ writing that is very much in evidence in this portion of the novel is the author’s ability to irreparably savage, in the space of a sentence or two, the entire character of those he intends to depict as mean-spirited and selfish, and to do so in a light-hearted comic tone that cloaks, but does not diminish, the devastating effect of his judgements upon the reputation of those so off-handedly attacked.  Consider the passage about Mrs.  Snagsby, the law-stationers wife – moments after introducing her, for the first time and noting in passing her nose to be sharp and frosty at the tip, Dickens tell us:

Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby are not only one bone and one flesh, but, to the neighbours’ thinking, one voice too.  That voice, appearing to proceed from Mrs. Snagsby alone, is heard in Cook’s Court very often.  Mr. Snagsby, otherwise than as he finds expression through these dulcet tones, is rarely heard.

Little more than a pargraph later, Dickens mentions that:

Mr. Snagsby refers everything not in the practical mysteries of the business to Mrs. Snagsby.  She manages the money, reproaches the tax-gatherers, appoints the times and places of devotion on Sundays, licenses Mr. Snagsby’s entertainments, and acknowledges no responsibility as to what she thinks fit to provide for dinner, insomuch that she is the high standard of comparison among the neighbouring wives a long way down Chancery Lane on both sides, and even out in Holborn, who in any domestic passages of arms habitually call upon their husbands to look at the difference between their (the wives’) position and Mrs. Snagsby’s, and their (the husbands’) behaviour and Mr. Snagsby’s.  Rumour, always flying bat-like about Cook’s Court and skimming in and out at everybody’s windows, does say that Mrs. Snagsby is jealous and inquisitive and that Mr. Snagsby is sometimes worried out of house and home, and that if he had the spirit of a mouse he wouldn’t stand it.

In the space of little more than three or four paragraphs, then, Dickens has established, without a shadow of a doubt, that Mrs. Snagsby is one miserable piece of work.  He does so without really ever seeming to be uncharitable towards her – making reference, somewhat comically,  to the opinions of neighbours and “rumour” rather than resorting to an outright and direct disparagement of her character.  The effect is both enduring – no reader would ever thereafter react warmly, sympathetically or favourably to Mrs. Snagsby – and endearing – as though we, the readers, share with the amiable author a secret wisdom, flowing only from mean gossip engaged in by others, about the laughable foibles of the caricatured Mrs. Snagsby.

I’ve said it before, but this is Dickens at his best;  no doubt the story is intended to have relevance as a social and political commentary, but the timeless quality of Dickens is firmly rooted in these deft depicitions of humanity; in all its pomposity, its absurdity and venality.  Mike has called these exercises “character lessons“, and the term is apt.  The essential truth of them, I would suggest, is underscored by the fact that Dickens’ villains are recognizably human, even to a modern observer, and he holds them up to sometimes viscious ridicule in much the same way as, for example, a television show like The Office satirizes the everyday “villains” among us:  even as the characters are lampooned as asinine, wrong-headed and verging on malevolent, they are still essentially human, more to be pitied than hated, and comically endearing.

As far as Dickens’ commentary on bureaucracy, I took note of the following quote from Chapter V::

My head ached with wondering how it happened, if men were neither fools nor rascals; and my heart ached to think they could possibly be either.

-Richard Carstone wonders about the machinations in court.

NaNoReMo Project Update

Mike, I haven’t abandoned the project.  There’s something going on at work this week that demands my full attention.  I probably won’t have an update until Friday night/Saturday morning.

Hang in there.  Meantime, get ready for the Brian Burke era in Toronto by reading this excellent review of Brian Burke’s resume to date.  Can’t spare the time to read it?  Here’s a hint about the thesis:  “Canucks” and “Ducks” both rhyme with “sucks”.

Bleak House: Chapters 1, 2 and 3

Mike and I have decided to strike out on our own for National Novel Reading Month 2008 – the gang over at defectiveyeti are reading Lolita, but Mike and I (having both read the book) have instead selected Charles Dickens’ Bleak House as the book we’re going to read together.

Mike’s already got his summary of the first 3 chapters up, and he has set a target to post on Tuesdays and Thursdays about his progress in the book.  I am going to try and follow the same procedure.  Staying true to form, I don’t have a detailed first post ready yet, and I’m already behind schedule because I am much less reliable than our friend from the Left Coast.

According to wikipedia, Bleak House is Dickens’ ninth novel, and it was published in twenty monthly installments beginning in March of 1852 (Dickens often serialized his novels;  if he were alive today, he would be writing for LOST, and that show would not suck nearly as much as it now does).  I haven’t read much more of the plot synopsis at wikipedia, because I don’t want to ruin the story for myself, but as i understand it, Dickens was moved to write the book as a result of his experiences working among England’s lawyers.  If I’m not mistaken, it is a commentary on the bureaucratic absurdities and injustices that Dickens observed in the courts.

I have no doubt that the book will strike somewhat of a chord in me for those reasons at this particular point in my professional career.

It’s going to be a bit of a change for me;  on the weekend, I read the two Dirk Gently novels by Douglas Adams.  Adams is always such an easy read, and his tone is light and airy, almost conversational;  the contrast between Adams’ direct style and Dickens’ Victorian, meandering prose is startling to my eyes at the moment, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it shortly.

I won’t cover the same ground that MIke did in his excellent synopsis of the first three chapters.  My own thoughts are that Dickens showed himself most distinctly in Chapter Two, which is the reader’s introduction to Esther Summerson, who (I presume) will be one of the book’s protagonists.  In a very short chapter, Dickens manages to introduce the (apparently) orphaned Esther, depict her guardians as loveless and severe to the point that (in the space of only a few paragraphs) the reader manages to start developing a healthy dislike for them.  It then transpires that Esther must leave, and Dickens takes pains to show that Esther is so genuine and good-hearted that she feels as though it must be her fault that her departure is not evoking much of a reaction at all in others.  She finally departs, leaving behind her only real solace, a doll in which she had hitherto confided her insecurities and private upsets.  Dickens is a master at working the emotional levers, and the connection between reader and Esther is near immediate.

I am hoping that the book will produce one of Dickens’ signature characters, someone like the execrable Uriah Heep, the lowly but noble Barkis, or the hopelessly deluded, optimistic and prolix Micawber (all from David Copperfield ), Sydney Carton from Tale of Two Cities, or (possibly the most enduring character ever) Ebenezer Scrooge himself. I have to confess that I’m always terrible at remembering plot details once I’ve read a book (or seen a movie, for that matter); for me, it is always the characters I remember.   That may be one reason that I’ve reacted so positively to Dickens’ work in the past, as he seems to invariably be able to capture the essence of a type of person that we’ve all met and imbue one of his characters with all of those traits.

As an aside, if memory serves me correctly, Mike and I made each other’s virtual acquaintance at around this time last year, in the midst of our mutual participation in last year’s NaNoReMo at dy;  thus ends the first year of our virtual correspondence.   I have very much enjoyed getting to know each other through teh Intarwebs, learning a little (from a guy who knows a lot) about photography, and following along with Mike’s attempts to retain all of his digits, to refrain from going barking mad at work, and of course with figgy’s growth and development.   Virtual fist bumps to Mike;  I look forward to continuing our correspondence and commisseration.  My best to theVet!