Saturday, February 9, 2013

Book Review: Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853) Conclusion

Poor Richard!  He spent all his time worrying over that dreaded court case.  When it finally went wrong, he just wasted away and died within hours.  Really?  I mean, is it that easy to die in Victorian Britain?  Well, if you’re not in the “working class”, the answer is yes.  Those leisured classes were dropping like flies, swooning away for this and that at the drop of a hat.  When the court ended, Richard couldn’t even yell at the judge because he had blood in his mouth.  What?  Did he bite his tongue?  They kept alluding to him wasting away for months before this under the care of the good and wise Woodcourt.  Wasting away?  From worry?  Are they going to stamp that on the official certificate of death, signed by the coroner?  Cause of death – worry.

It’s a good thing the poor class doesn’t have anything to worry about.  I mean, right?  Or were poor people just so much stronger than the weak and simpering idle rich?  Take for example Jenny and Liz, the brickmakers’ wives.  Surely, they suffered more than any of the other characters in the novel.  They were beaten, they were poor, they had drunken, abusive husbands, and one of them had her infant die in her arms.  And yet they survived to the end of the story – more than can be said of some of the other characters.

Because Dickens serialized his books, and because he often wrote them as this went on, it's a wonder he was able to bring cohesiveness to the whole thing in the end.  But it’s not perfect.  How can it be?  We find new characters introduced even in the very later chapters of the book.  We see old characters RE-introduced, or we see characters given a make-over that is sometimes inconsistent to how they were originally drawn.  If Dickens decides, later in the book, to come up with some unlikely relationship, he had no qualms about giving some explanation as to why a character acts differently, or why that relationship was not previously revealed.

Some of the characters were quirky, such as Mrs. Jellyby.  But others were simply well drawn, fitting true to life.  Some were downright boring.  Mr. Jarndyce, “the guardian”, is the older male equivalent of the good and self-sacrificing Esther.  While Allen Woodcourt, “the doctor”, is the younger male equivalent.  Together they make quite a nest of goodness and virtue, never deviating from their strong-yet-sweet course of doing good for others and receiving praise and happiness in return.  Yay!

And let’s not forget the beautiful Ada.  She’s good.  Why?  Because she’s beautiful.  Yes, she’s our “pet”, our “little darling” whom everyone loves.  She has blonde hair and curls and blue eyes and therefore is to be held up as the essence of perfection.  In accordance with this, she must be a good little girl.  And she is.  Oh, my attentive readers, she is so good that she marries a ne’er-do-well and gives him all her money just so he can keep on a-spendin’.  She sticks with him to the end.  She is a child.  She is probably the singular most one-sided, undeveloped character in the novel.  What is there to not like about her?  Well, I ask you this: what is there to LIKE about her?  Oh, sure, I know.  She’s blonde and blue eyed and nice.  I shouldn’t say she’s like a child in the novel, because even children have depth.  This person has none.

For me to like a character, show me that character at their best, then at their worst, and then show me how they redeem themselves.  Show me a character with indecision, but ultimately making the right decision.  But we don’t have anything close to that.  We have simple characters who do exactly what they are programmed to do.

And when I hear people say this is a “complex” novel, I have to smile to myself.  Sure, the storyline ends up being complex, but not due to its own nature.  It’s complex only because Dickens felt the need to tie every person together somehow.  I don’t call that complex, I call that contrived.  And it wasn’t contrived as part of some grand design, it was put together as it went along, sometimes after the fact.  But that’s Dickens.  With many Dickens books, get used to every person in the book somehow being connected to every other person, sometimes in the most astounding and unlooked for ways, just as a means of creating a vast web.  We get to call this complex and look wise while we say it.

My favorite good character was Lady Dedlock.  She was multifaceted and tragic.  We loved her and felt sorry for her.  Had she lived in a modern novel, we could have seen her survive to the end.  I like seeing a character with different sides to her personality.  We have reason to dislike her, but also reason to like her.  My favorite bad character is, of course, the horrid Mrs. Jellyby.  The night before her daughter's wedding breakfast, she won't even leave the room until late at night.  Then Esther comes in to clean and decorate in only a few hours.  It's not that Mrs. Jellyby refuses to help, it's that the idea doesn't even occur to her!  And if it did, she would dismiss it as silly.  How would that help the poor villagers of Borrioboola-Gha?  That's Dickens at his best.

Many of the characters are either good or bad.  But there are some middle of the road characters such as Volumnia and Sir Lester Dedlock (although they continually misspelled his name as Leicester).  When they were first introduced in the story, who knows what Dickens planned to do with them.  But in the end, they were merely props meant to stand for certain types of characters within society.  If they lived or died it didn't matter to the end result of the story.  We keep them there because we don’t know what else to do with them, so we make them out as good as possible and let them go their way.

One frustrating aspect of Dickens’ novels is that the “bad guys” never get what’s coming to them.  In modern writing we are used to the satisfaction of seeing all things tied up in a nice little package.  Dickens was not that sort of writer.  He introduced characters for the sake of the character, not because he needed an arch-villain that would get his ultimate come-uppance.  His characters were drawn from life (or drawn from the Victorian idea of real characters), and therefore didn’t need to be shown with any particular ending.

Take for instance Mr. Smallweed in this novel.  Surely, he is a bad person.  We are given him as a “bad guy” and we accept that.  So what’s to be done with him?  Does evil befall him?  Does he realize the error of his ways?  Do we get to see him regretting all he’s done?  No.  He is introduced and he is used in this book for nothing more than what he is – a representation of real-world greed and selfishness.  What happens to him is not Dickens’ concern.  He has served his purpose, he has brought peril and frustration to our beloved characters.  He is a well-made plot device for introducing conflict.  Beyond that, if Smallweed survives or even prospers is not apparently an interest to Dickens, or even a consideration.

This sort of thinking leaves many, if not most, of Dickens’ novels ultimately unsatisfying.  Dickens goes to so much trouble to show how his good and virtuous main characters have happy lives, but goes to very little, if any, trouble to show how the bad characters come to bad ends. 

Remember, conflict drives the plot.  Above all, it’s conflict.  We want it, we crave it.  But we hate it at the same time and can’t wait until the end when all conflicts are resolved to our satisfaction.  Dickens always gave us resolution to conflict.  But what I see is he doesn’t give satisfaction in the way we expect it today.  In an odd sort of way, that makes his novels closer to modern literary fiction than the drama fiction many people think of him as having written.  Literary fiction is more character driven and Dickens was all about his characters.

Bah, enough of this.

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