What attracted me to Bleak House was the Chancery Court suit of Jarndyce V Jarndyce. Having always had an interest in stories with legal touch to them, it was natural for me to be drawn to the book. Besides, having learned that this book inspired a judicial reform movement which led to some actual legal reforms in later years and knowing the power of Dickens’s satire and being curious to learn what in the story that truly inspired such a movement, I was most interested in reading it.
True to my understanding, the main part of the story is dedicated to the Chancery Court suit which is running for years without a foreseeable ending. Dickens, ever being the reformer, mocks the Chancery justice system which causes delays till the cases are passed from generation to generation. “The Lawyers have twisted it into such a state of bedevilment that the original merits of the case have long disappeared from the face of the earth. It’s about a Will, and the trusts under a Will—or it was, once. It’s about nothing but Costs, now. We are always appearing, and disappearing, and swearing, and interrogating, and filing, and cross-filing, and arguing, and sealing, and motioning, and referring, and reporting, and revolving about the Lord Chancellor and all his satellites, and equitably waltzing ourselves off to dusty death, about Costs. That’s the great question. All the rest, by some extraordinary means, has melted away.” This powerful satirical criticism of the system very much impressed me. I have always enjoyed the satire in Dickens’s works, but if he ever used that tool to his greatest advantage, it was definitely in this work.
In addition to the main theme, there are several subplots. All the subplots are connected to the main theme or its characters. However, some of the subplots have their own story as well. These subplots touch on different themes. Poverty is one; especially the plight of poor children who are abandoned or orphaned. It was heart-wrenching to read the subplot touching on Jo, a poor orphaned (or abandoned) child who lives a miserable life far more suited to an animal than a human. The compassion in which Dickens says the story of Jo brought me to tears many a time. Love and Duty are another. This theme is only secondary to the Chancery suit and occupies a major part of the story through the stories and characters of Esther, John Jarndyce, Ada, and Allen Woodcourt. Philanthropy is also another theme, and here both real philanthropy and pretensions are brought to light. John Jarndyce represents the true and real philanthropist who disinterestedly acts for the benefit of others. And there are some other characters who make a show of it. I truly felt that these pretentious philanthropists were representing the British government of the time. Dickens was a social reformer and raised his voice through his pen to lash at the government for its inadequate measures to improve the lives and living conditions of the poor. All these themes coupled with the mystery theme bring intrigue, colour, and variety to the book. Reading the book was like reading many different stories.
In Bleak House , Dickens uses a wide array of characters ranging from the aristocrats to the poor living in slums. In my reading life, I doubt if I ever have come across so many characters in one book. Although I have read reviews where it is commented that it was hard to follow so many characters, I didn’t have any difficulty keeping track of them. Perhaps it may be due to my reading the book very slowly. The use of the different characters and a large number of them kept the story alive and moving. There was no reading minute that I felt to be boring. Many of the characters held my interest, but I liked John Jarndyce, Esther (our heroine, surprisingly new in a Dickens novel), and Allen Woodcourt the most. And my sympathy was freely won by Jo, Lady Deadlock, Ada, and a little grudgingly, by Richard.
One of the major writing tools of Dickens is his use of satire. In Bleak House, this tool is amply directed at every quarter. However, in addition to the satirical, philosophical, and matter-of-fact Dickens we usually meet, I also met a sensitive, sympathetic and compassionate Dickens in Bleak House. His prose is beautiful and the style is elegant, that even the too verbose parts were read with pleasure.
True to the title, the story is bleak, although there are few happy endings. But no matter how “bleak” the nature of the story was, it was a treat to read it. I truly enjoyed the read. Its diversity in themes, characters, and settings took me through a very pleasant and memorable journey. I have read that Bleak House is considered to be the best work of Dickens. While I may have my own opinion about that point, I can see why it’s being so said.