Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Best Novel I Read in 2007: Bleak House

The best novel I read in 2007, the novel that spoke to the year 2007, is Dickens's Bleak House. I agree with Edmund Wilson that Bleak House is a masterpiece; the novel is the greatest written by a Englishperson.

Dickens in his novel was describing England in the 1840s as a Bleak House, a nation dominated by corruption as symbolized in his fictional world by the Court of Chancery, supposed to fairly settle wills and estates. Within the novel the lawsuit Jarndyce versus Jarndyce in the Court of Chancery has lasted for a generation, destroying the heirs who patiently wait forever for judgment as the lawyers' fees eat up the whole estate so at the end the heirs get nothing, the estate is bankrupt, and only the lawyers have profited. What's great about Dickens is he makes judgments: against lawyers corruption, against the corrupt Court of Chancery, against the brutalization of the poor and the homeless. Well, right now the United States is also a Bleak House dominated by corruption: the corruption of the Iraq War totals billions. What is missing in a lot contemporary fiction is Dickens' moral judgments.

I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a novel which won a recent Pulitzer Prize for fiction; the well-written novel has a father and son trying to survive in post-apocalypse America. In many ways I thought the Road was metaphorically saying this country is now so bad off all a decent person can do is suffer it--I find that a huge cop out. Give me Dickens any day of the week instead.

Bleak House is long--881 pages. Hurrah to great length of a wonderful novel! I loved to leave the presentday Bleak House U.S.A. go to into Dickens' world where he creates characters who care for the poor, the orphans, and reunite destroyed families. As his heroine Dickens has Esther Summerson, a poor orphan, raised by an aunt who rejects her until she is rescued by wealthy John Jarndyce who rescues seven orphans, giving them a home.

Like her guardian Mr. Jarndyce, Esther is the ethical heart of the corrupt inhumane society. One small example is when Esther finds Jo, a homeless boy suffering from smallpox, so she takes him home to give him shelter and care when her maid Charley (also an orphan rescued by Mr. Jarndyce), gets smallpox, so Esther nurses her night and day until Charley recovers. Then Esther gets smallpox, so Charley nurses her night and day until Esther recovers. What's amazing in the cold brutal Bush's America of 2007 is that these characters go out of their way to care for each other. Further, Dickens says that the wealthy can't wall themselves from the poor: the wealthy will get the same diseases as the poor. Mr. Dickens says there's so safe gated communities to run to. Dickens would say either we care for each other or we will die.

One character I love is the homeless boy Jo, born an orphan in the most destitute level of society. Someone is always telling Joy to "move on" just as people in the USA tell the homeless to "move on." In the first half of the novel only the penniless clerk Nemo was kind to Jo while the rest of the callous society turned their backs on the poor boy. Well, I loved Dickens' sentiment--his emotions--for Jo. The brutal society just hounds Jo until he is sick and near death, when the kind doctor Allan Woodcourt carries him to refuge in the soldier George's fencing studio where Jo can die not on the street. In the end a whole group of people help Jo in his dying--George; his roommate Phil; the doctor Allan Woodcourt; the stationer Mr. Snasby who writes Jo's will and confession. These people redeem society, give it a heart.

But Jo still a boy does die, and Dickens addressed the reader:

"Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my Lords and Gentleman. Dead! Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day. "

Well, I love Dickens' moral outbursts because homeless in USA are dying thus around us every day, and he is still right to address directly his readers, the men and women "with heavenly compassion in your hearts."

Dickens also thinks pride will kill you, and our society in 2007 and 2008 has been overrun with material pride and greed. One character with too much pride is Mr. George, a young man who ran off to become a solider; he never felt he did well enough as a soldier to face his family, so he cuts himself off from them for years. Also Lady Dedlock was killed by her excess pride. As a young woman Lady Dedlock had an out-of-wedlock baby whom she gave away and then she later got married. She was terrified to tell her husband about her past, terrified she will be rejected by all of society, and terrified she will bring shame to his family name. Terrible terrible pride dominates both of them. But George has befriended the Bagnet family, and when he's falsely accused of murder, his good friend Mrs. Bagnet goes gets George's mother, brings her back to London, and reunites mother and son.

In contrast, Lady Dedlock flees rather than confide in and trust her husband, and she winds up dead a few days later. Her husband, who loved her dearly, would have forgiven her anything, and is striken with a stroke right after she disappears. Overcoming his pride helped George regain his family, reuniting first with his mother, then with his brother and lastly with his brother's family, giving George a whole family life for the first time in decades, but pride leads to Lady Dedlock's death.

Reading Dickens I totally fall in love with his moral voice: he is a moral, ethical England, a caring England. Dickens' novels led out of the wretched callous brutal society he described starting with the reform of the corrupt Court of Chancery --Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!Iin the 20th century. I'm sick and tired of 20th century modernist novels which give into cynicism, telling us how bad things are in 2007 and 2008. We all know how bad things are in 2008. Cormac McCarthy isn't news. Give me Dickens any day of the week. Give me novels of 881 pages! YES!

5 comments:

Lyle Daggett said...

I love Dickens too. I've never read Bleak House, but once I did open a copy on a bookstore shelf, stood reading the first couple of pages, just to get a little feel of the book. I remember indelibly his description of the muddy streets, mud everywhere, an empire of mud. This just from the first two or three pages of the book.

Now you've got my interest going again. Maybe I'll need to go find the book and read it.

Thanks for posting this.

Richard Taylor said...

I read all (or almost all) of Dickens books - when I was about 12! But I re-read Bleak House again in 1968
(it was being taught at Auckland Unversity)
- I must tackle Dickens again as an adult.

I remember I started with The Pickwick Papers - as a boy I loved the mysterious words and the fascinating characters and the atmosphere; the higgeldy piggeldy streets of London.

I often wondered (later) if Eliot got his image of 'yellow fog' in Prufrock from the opening of Bleakhouse - the fog is metaphorical or symbolic of the corruption of the law and the the interminable lawsuits and other devious matters* - I remember Jarndyce and Jarndyce - the endless law case.

*Recall "Streets that lead like a tedious argument of insidious intent..."

Richard Taylor said...

I read Cormanc McCarthy's quite strange - symboliste? - book also - in fact I have first(British eition of it for sale) - I think we need the McCarthys and the Faulkners, and the Dickensenes - but your summation here is refreshing and it is a good, and inspiring, synopsis of the novel - reminded me of a it - we certainly need humanity - indeed the world is still much as in Dickens time but we need some of Dickens's humanity.

That said, we need also - the "wicked" cynicism - in reality most great writing is actually satirical rather than accepting of this ultimate cynicism - alhthough e.g. "The Sound and the Fury" seems perhaps too dark ('..a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing/..' Macbeth (Shakesepear the Nihilist?) at times..but McCarthy and Faulkner as indeed Dickens are writing in the satirical tradition of Dickens (who is also satirist but one of corruption etc - but perhaps even style at times) and indeed Joyce also writes in that tradition (his is less perhaps social satire -if it is that -than a brilliant pastiche/satire in the deep sense of Swift and Pertronius etc ("sartura").
It is question also of focus for writer. But all of them (I feel) - humanity or not - are primarily artists - not essentially socialists or reformers as such.

But again - this is a good post

California Writer said...

Yeah, you're right the fog in the beginning of Bleak House symbolizes the blindness of the corrupt society. I like your Elliot quote which seems apt to Bleak House, but it would be funny if Elliot that arch-modernist would be influenced by oh my god the great sentimental moralist Dickens.

Also, I like your suggestion to rethink Cormac McCarthy's novel as satire maybe of Bush's America or taking certain important tendencies of Bush's America and pushing them to extreme. Maybe.

What I'm reacting against is certain tendencies of modernism such as L.A. noir to just present how brutal or corrupt society is without any alternative. I like dickens because yes, he gives us the corruption of society but also
gives us characters who stand opposed to society's brutality.

peter said...

Hi Julia,
I love Bleak House too. One of my favourite characters is Richard Carstone. Although he is a tragic figure, he does have more insight into his situation than Esther has about her own. I'm also a fan of Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, two other wonderful books about society, but also great love stories, just like Bleak House.
Do you have a favorite Dickens novel?
Peter