Study Questions for Bleak House
The opening chapter has often been singled out for appreciative comment. Why? What are the key rhetorical patterns you detect? What is the point of the repeated images? What kind of London--what kind of England-- is depicted here? How far have we come from The Pickwick Papers?
Dickens plays with many complex contrasts in Bleak House: the third-person narrator and Esther Summerson; "In Chancery" and "In Fashion"; London and Chesney Wold; the philanthropic approaches of John Jarndyce and Mrs. Jellyby; Bleak House and Tom-All-Alone's. What is Dickens trying to get us to see by creating so many contrasts? Do they inform the larger meanings of the novel in any way?
What differences are there between the two narrators? Is there a pattern to their narrations? How is the complex story divided between them? (Along with this question, you might consider the ways in which the novel's original readers would have experienced it in its monthly instalments.) Do the narrations intersect--that is, does Esther appear in the sections she doesn't narrate? How do we characterize the two narrators? Why does one speak in the present tense, one in the past? What is Dickens trying to do with them, especially with his controversial and in many ways psychologically acute portrayal of Esther through her own words? Why does Dickens write Esther so that she occasionally withholds information from us? Why does the novel end as it does, with Esther in mid-sentence? Why does Esther tell her story, and for whom?
Esther is, of course, another one of Dickens's orphans....
The meaning of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has been lost; what remains are "walls of words" (ch. 1), document bags, and sheets of parchment. In what ways does Dicken's characterization of the case find an analog in the novel itself?
For a novel that centers on a court case, what do we really know about J & J? What do we learn about the will that ends the case? Why doesn't Dickens include dramatic courtroom scenes (we almost get to watch the end of J & J, but along with Esther and Allan Woodcourt, we can't get into the courtroom!). Dickens had been a court reporter earlier in his life, and he could describe courtroom scenes with real skill (see The Pickwick Papers and A Tale of Two Cities, for instance). Why does he deliberately refrain from showing us the court in action here?
Bleak House presents--well, a bleak outlook in most ways. But in the novel, Dickens also creates many humorous characters and situations. What are some of these, and how do the comic and serious elements in the novel work together? You might think in general terms about whether the novel is tragic or comic (regarding which, consider the rush of incidents in the last ten chapters).
Compare the structure and characterization of Bleak House to Dickens's earlier novels. What similarities and differences do you note? (See Appendix 3 for Dickens's plan for the novel)
Dickens certainly plays the social critic in this novel (see especially the brief but powerful paragraph that concludes chapter 47). But what exactly is Dickens criticizing, and what precise solutions does he posit? What is the place of the law in his social critique? How does disease as a plot element and a metaphor fit in? What kind of philanthropy or social action can cure England of its ills?
And then, of course, there's spontaneous combustion....
The central narrative element in the novel--Lady Dedlock's exposure and its result--is spurred on by class assumptions. (Would Jenny have worried so much about having a child out of wedlock?) Given the large cast of characters (consider Tulkinghorn here, as well as Mr. George and Mr. Rouncewell), the discussion strand that begins with chapter 2, and Sir Leicester Dedlock's moving transformation into something like a human being near the end of the novel, what do you think Dickens is getting at? What are his own ideas about the dangers and values of class distinction?
Inspector Bucket suddenly becomes prominent in the dramatic conclusion of the story. In what ways is Bleak House an early detective novel? Do other characters engage in detection as well? Do we as readers double Bucket in this respect, also working out "whodunit"?
In what ways do the illustrations punctuate the text?