Bleak House by Charles Dickens
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Over twenty consecutive months, Charles Dickens enthralled readers with his monthly installments of the novel Bleak House, a complex and compelling portrayal of the English judicial system. Serialized in his own magazine, Household Words, between 1852 and 1853, the book is deemed to be his finest work and is his ninth novel.
Using an innovative literary technique known as “free indirect discourse,” where the narrator himself speaks through the medium of one of his main characters, Dickens uses the heroine Esther Summerson and an unidentified narrator as the vehicle for his story.
Esther Summerson is a young woman who is brought up under mysterious circumstances by several people, including an aunt who hates her, a Chancery lawyer and finally another lawyer John Jarndyce, a wealthy, extremely kind and compassionate man. After completing her education, she moves into the Jarndyce residence, appropriately named Bleak House, where two other wards of his also live. Secrets begin to tumble out of many cupboards as one of the wards, Richard Carstone, begins investigating a century old case, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. It concerns a complicated and huge inheritance case which has been going on for generations. In fact, the phrase “jarndyce and jarndyce” has entered the English language as a metaphor for interminable court proceedings.
Almost all the major characters in the book are connected in some way to this case. There are plenty of wonderfully named, extremely memorable characters in the convoluted structure of plots and subplots, masterfully constructed by a writer working at his peak. Many of them are based on real people Dickens knew while the accounts of the legal system are based on his real-life experiences as a court clerk. The portraits of scheming lawyers like Mr. Tulkington and the merciless moneylender Grandfather Smallweed and an almost bewildering host of minor characters make Bleak House one of the most interesting and entertaining novels.
Dickens’ magnum opus focuses extensively on the ills of the English judicial system, but it is also a brilliant detective story. Inspector Bucket, a police detective, is put in charge of the murder of Mr. Tulkington and this leads to the unraveling of a deep and secret plot. A mysterious note written by a dead man known only as “Nemo,” an aristocratic lady with secrets of her own, her suspicious husband, her disappearance and Esther’s romance with a country doctor are some of the elements that make up the sweeping panorama of Bleak House.
Whether you’re reading it for the first time, or it’s an old favorite, Bleak House is indeed an invaluable addition to your bookshelf.
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