Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
Progress: 115/288 pages
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
Bleak House - Nicola Bradbury, Charles Dickens, Terry Eagleton "The few words that I have to add to what I have written, are soon penned; then I, and the unknown friend to whom I write, will part for ever. Not without much dear remembrance on my side. Not without some, I hope, on his or hers." p.985

This is Dickens in 1853 writing to his reader through Esther as he brings to a close what I and just about everyone on my GR friends list acknowledge as Dickens' finest, most memorable novel.

Dang, but it holds up well – whether 160 years since publication or the 25ish since I first read it. I will not let so much time elapse before my next re-read.

My overall impression mere hours after turning the last page is that this novel is about the imperative of kindness. Concrete, tangible, purposeful acts of compassion to counter a world where the hope of justice is futile and where charity is arrogantly misapplied or applied with a colonial sledgehammer and too far afield to do any good for anyone who really needs it.

"There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all."

Dickens' rage against those he sees as parasites (embodied here by lawyers), sucking dry the bodies that feed them, feels very contemporary. Yet this theme - while paramount and obvious, and the one I identified with most 25+ years ago - is set against its more subtle opposite: kindness and compassion, embodied in the Allan Woodcourts and Mr. Jarndyces of the novel (the latter of whom makes a specific issue to defer and evade acknowledgement of or gratitude for his charity).

The counterweight of the many and varied acts of kindness and compassion set against scenes of great tragedy and sadness give this novel its extraordinary balance, sweep and power.

It seems to me that what Dickens is saying and showing us is that kindness is the real heart and soul of justice, the emotional context for it not just the intellectual construct. He is saying, I think, that raging against the machine - seductive as that is, especially for the young! - is a less effective antidote to injustice than is acting with kindness and compassion. The former is the intellectual response, the professional one. The latter is for all the rest of us, who go about our lives every day the best we can.

You can get sucked in, as Richard Carson does, to a system that will ultimately destroy you - a system that will, like those who live off of it, self-combust in a puff of inconsequential smoke without you having done much of anything to hasten that process along.

Or you can just try to do the best you can with what you've got: "strive ... to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted, and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could," as our almost insufferably optimistic but ultimately endearing heroine, Esther, does.

These characters' many, many acts of kindness -- not just the obvious ones of Esther and Mr. Jarndyce, but the small and more subtle ones such as Mr. Bucket's steady, diligent attempt to save Lady Dedlock; George's care for Phil, and his and Phil's care in turn of Jo; Sir Leicester's immediate, unquestioning forgiveness of his wife; Liz returning the favour of bringing medicine to Jo, as he had to her; and pretty much every scene Allan Woodcourt is in; plus so many more! -- never failed to bring a lump to my throat.

These characters are as real, and as well-rounded, and as deeply-felt and drawn as any in literature. They are shaded in a way that Dickens' characters often aren't. While some remain pretty much black and evil (Tulkinghorn), others change and grow, and if not completely reform, at least soften by the end. Some of the most grotesque (Guppy, the Smallweeds) become merely ridiculous, and therefore easily assimilated into the kinder, gentler post-Jarndyce v. Jarndyce world. (How delicious is the portrayal of the Leicester-Boythorn feud at the end! How marvellously nuanced and rendered harmless, albeit necessary, is that conflict!)

The characters rest within a plot that is part mystery, part character study, part love story, part social satire, part morality play – and which is as well-constructed, fast-paced and as ‘tight’ as it is possible for Dickens to be (remarkably so, in 900+ pages).

If you quibble with Dickens for his caricatured, one-note characters; his purplish prose and sentimentality; his wandering, sloppy and choppy plotting (all of which I have, in other works), I’m pretty sure you won’t here.

Bleak House is a masterpiece, and once again, I’m left feeling nothing but awe and gratitude for the experience of reading it.