Bleak House would be impossible to describe in terms of plot. There are lots of plots, many of which eventually become connected, but not until the second half of the book. The plot elements vary from bad law cases to family secrets to blackmail to forgery to spontaneous combustion.
My thoughts on Bleak House are…not kind. In fact, if I hadn’t been reading it for the readalong, I never, ever would have finished it. After reading Great Expectations earlier this year, I was prepared to think perhaps my first experience with Dickens (A Christmas Carol) was just a bad read and that I might actually like the author after all. Bleak House put an end to those thoughts. I hated it.
Really, it was the way it was written that I hated. I suppose the story itself was good enough, if you don’t count all the amazing coincidences and the miraculous deus ex machina and the fact that the story itself only counts for a small fraction of the 850+ pages of the book. Shaved down, Bleak House could have been fun – in fact, I’m prepared to bet watching a movie version of it will be much better. But the book itself? Ugh.
I guess I just expected Dickens to be something more than the Victorian equivalent of a TV sitcom. Bleak House was published in monthly installments of about 40 pages, each one equivalent to a cross between a few 1980s household staples: Family Matters, Full House, and America’s Funniest Home Videos. Every character was a stereotype, from the angelic blond-haired-blue-eyed beauty, to the “perfect” woman who is mild and obedient, to the “bad guys” who invariably have a “major physical defect”: short height, bent back, acne, or greasy hair. Not only were these “characters” personified solely by their stereotypical qualities, but they were assigned a set joke that was repeated every single time they appeared on the page. After a hundred repetitions, I just wanted to gag.
Some of it, of course, can be attributed to the serial form, and trying to help people remember the characters when there were just so many! But at the same time, it’s very possible to help people get to know the same number of characters in a fraction of the time by giving them real personalities. Zola, for instance, does that incredibly well. But Dickens does not go deep for his characterization. He’d rather use the stereotypes and gags that made up the farce of Bleak House.
It is interesting to see how little things have changed, though. We no longer need to read our sitcoms, but we do still watch them. People watch the same shows every week, and those shows are incredibly repetitive, no matter if the show is dramatic or funny. I’m not saying this is a bad thing! Personally, I love NCIS, which does tell the same jokes every week, all 7 seasons so far, and I still love it. My problem with Bleak House was that it was like watching a sitcom that I despise. It’s really just a matter of taste and preference. I don’t like farce. I don’t like stereotypes. I don’t like gags. I don’t like repetitive writing or wordy fluff or the canned-laughter comic timing that Dickens uses. I prefer more subtlety in both my drama and my humor. And therefore, I don’t like Bleak House.
I won’t say Bleak House is a bad book, just that I personally hated it and was rather disappointed by the whole experience. I have no plans to read anything more of Dickens in the future. That’s one good thing finishing Bleak House did for me – it permanently confirmed what I suspected regarding my feelings towards Dickens. I still like Great Expectations, but I’m going to guess now that that will remain the one exception to the rule, and I have no intentions to try to read myself out of that judgement any time soon. There are enough other authors in the world for me to explore.
If you ever plan to read Bleak House, keep in mind that there are like 50 different plots in the beginning, and that they don’t start coming together until about halfway through the book. There’s almost no movement for a very long time. You have to be patient with it. Knowing that the first half of the book is purely introduction and setup might help you to work your way through this tome!
A note on the BBC adaptation:
I borrowed this 8-hour adaptation from my friend Karen, and after watching, I do wish I’d just watched the movie version instead of reading the book. There were some minor changes to the plot, but for the most part, it was pretty faithful to the book. On the one hand, that meant that the story was far more understandable and followable, and that all Dickens’ fluffery was cut out. It was also a lot easier to see the themes that Dickens was playing off of, which is a good thing because I didn’t get any of that out of my reading experience.
On the other hand, most of the characters still held on to that Dickensian stereotyping, melodrama, and one-sidedness. The people I disliked in the book (Guppy, Vholes, Skimpole, Smallweed), I hated even more in the movie. The jokes got old, the melodrama was WAY over the top, and there were no characters I really felt connected to. Not feeling connected meant it was difficult to be happy or sad when happy/sad things happened.
In the end, I liked the movie more than the book, though it wasn’t a favorite. It was fun to watch once, but it’s not one I’ll ever want to see again and I’ll probably forget it in a few months. It has the great advantage over the book of cutting out all the unnecessary stuff and being much, much shorter, and it still portrays everyone exactly as Dickens wrote them. I highly recommend it for people who really want to know the story of Bleak House but can’t seem to get into the book itself.