OK, so this is not a new book. It’s not even a recent book. It’s a 160-year old book, in fact. But it’s a book that I finally read all the way through recently, thanks to the incentive supplied by an about-to-finish Continuing Ed course on the novel.
I take these courses for one of two reasons. Some courses I take because I have a lot of interest and a bit of background in a topic, and I want to participate in an often lively and always thoughtful discussion. Other courses I take because I don’t know enough about the topic, and I can use the push to invest some time and effort on it.
Bleak House is the second kind of course. I’d read some Dickens, but before now I never found the time it takes to read an 800-page novel. Besides, I knew what it was about, so there was no need to read it.
Of course, I was wrong. Bleak House is a very good, maybe a great novel. I know that there are those who think that it is Dickens’s best novel. And I’ve heard that there are some who believe that it comes close to being the best English novel ever written.
I don’t know about that last claim, but I do understand that those who hesitate to bestow the title on the novel do so because of their problems with Esther Summerson, the co-narrator.
Bleak House contains some of Dickens’s best social and political satire, not to mention some of his best comic characters, who have some of his best comic names. What else could an aged and foppish dancing master be called, if not Mr. Turveydrop? Here are all of the characteristics that make Dickens’s books so popular, and they’re here in abundance.
Social reform for the social reformers, clever humour for the wits, melodrama for the emotionally eager — there’s something for everyone here.
But then there’s Esther. She’s a very nice girl, and her fate adds a note of vindication and hope to a novel otherwise filled with injustice and suffering. But is she an effective narrator?
Much of Bleak House is related by the usual anonymous and omniscient narrator. These parts of the book contain the most direct and focused satire, and the most overt social criticism. Had the entire novel been told this way, Bleak House would have been a more conventional and perhaps a more popular book.
Those who criticize Esther tend to criticize her for not being like the omniscient narrator. She does not always see people and events as they are. She lacks the sharp social insights that fuel the satire in other parts of the novel.
Yet in my opinion this is not always a weakness, and not necessarily a weakness at all.
Esther tells us that she sees things accurately, but that she doesn’t understand them with any insight. She wishes that she did, but she knows that she doesn’t. She has accepted the negative characterizations with which she has lived all her life, to the extent that she has no confidence in herself, or in her judgement.
But that’s not really her role. That’s the role of the omniscient narrator. Esther’s job is different. She doesn’t have to understand her circumstances deeply. Thanks to the guidance of the omniscient narrator, we have enough information to do that for her.
In that sense, I’m suggesting, Esther is an artful counterpoint to her fellow narrator. Between them, they move the story from beginning to end, and between them they give us the emotional and moral points of view of both the knowing sophisticate and the innocent victim. Between them, they give us both an intellectual and an emotional entry point into the moral centres of the story. Either one of them is inadequate to the task.
The objective narrator is too coldly calculating; his rage is too cerebral, too abstract, to affect us fully. Esther is too unschooled, too self-deprecating, to supply the edgier insights that illustrate Dickens’s themes. But together, they give us the whole package.
I think that by using this dual narrative structure, Dickens strengthens rather than weakens the novel. I don’t think that it would rise to greatness without such a device.
It’s interesting to consider how Bleak House compares with a book like Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Twain manages to convey both inexperience and understanding, innocence and knowledge in Huck’s telling of the story. Huck is shrewder than he should be, and he misses very little. Unlike Esther, Huck gives us both insight and feeling. That’s what makes him such an enduring and endearing character.
Bleak House has no Huck. Poor Jo can have no access to the refined social worlds that Dickens wants to criticize. And none of the better-bred characters can descend convincingly enough into the world of Tom-All-Alone’s to carry off a story of this scope. Dickens needs two points of view, and one can argue that the class system of mid-19th century England bars him from successfully using a single character to achieve them. Twain’s rural America was an easier setting, one in which a young rural lad might reasonably be expected to experience all of the things that await him.
So I liked the dual narrator structure of Bleak House. And I liked the novel more, not less, because of it.