5 thoughts on “Recent Criticism of Bleak House: Observations and Reflections

  1. Pingback: English B1918 S18: The Victorian Novel – Renata Kobetts Miller, Ph.D.

  2. Rumaisa Jumana

    Victorian Review of “Bleak House”

    George Brimley was an English literary critic and essayist who was born in Cambridge in 1819. In his review of Dickens’s Bleak House published in The Spectator in 1853, Brimley cites an ‘absolute want of construction” as the greatest fault of Bleak House; according to him, Dickens discards plot, while “he persists in adopting a form for his thoughts to which plot is essential, and where the absence of a coherent story is fatal to continuous interest” (Brimley).

    In Bleak House, the series of incidents which form the outward life of the characters has no close and necessary connection. The great Chancery suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which lays the foundation for this novel, did not have the smallest influence on the character of any one person concerned. As Brimley states, “this great suit is lugged in by the head and shoulders, and kept prominently before the reader, solely to give Mr. Dickens the opportunity of indulging in stale and commonplace satire upon the length and expense of Chancery proceedings, and exercises absolutely no influence on the characters and destinies of any one person concerned in it” (Brimley).

    For Brimley, in addition to all other faults of construction, the mixture of an autobiographic narrative with a third-person omniscient narration produces an awkward effect and “is left in its natural awkwardness with no appliances of literary skill to help it out” (Brimley).

    Moreover, Brimley objects to Dickens’s “love of strong effect, his tendency to turn characters into caricatures, and his utterly untrue and inconsistent portrait of Esther.” Esther’s unconscious goodness seems highly inconsistent as she never fails to note down the praises that are showered upon her all the time; additionally, Brimley states that “it is impossible to doubt the simplicity of her nature, because she never fails to assert it with emphasis”. For Brimley “such a girl would not write her own memoirs, and certainly would not bore one with her goodness till a wicked wish arises” (Brimley).

    Although I disagree with Brimley’s assertion that Dickens blatantly discards the plot of the novel, I agree with his claim that the portrayal of Esther was somewhat contradictory and unconvincing. Dickens’s purpose was to portray Esther as a warmhearted and naive protagonist from the beginning to the end of the novel; however, as Brimley pointed out, Esther’s repeated mentioning of her supposedly kind and sympathetic nature gave rise to a contradictory and inconsistent portrayal of her character.

    Source Citation:

    Brimley, George. “Dickens’s ‘Bleak House’.” The Spectator, vol. 26, no. 1317, 24 Sept. 1853, pp. 923-925.


  3. Rumaisa Jumana

    Recent criticism on “Bleak House”

    The name of my article is “Home-made Savages: Cultivating English Children in Bleak House” and is written by David Plotkin who teaches at the University of California, Irvine. In this article, Plotkin analyzes the portrayal of Jo and some of the other children in Bleak House who are explicitly described as ignorant savages and reflect children who are utterly untrained and uncultivated.

    Through the representation of Jo and throughout Bleak House, Dickens indicates that unless children are born and reared within a carefully maintained household, not only do they suffer personally, but the idea of what it means to be English is itself questioned. As Plotkin states, “neatly ordered homes and proper families are necessary for the cultivation and growth of English children. The novel presents an anxiety that the lack of clear boundaries between household and world, a breakdown or blurring of borders, entails a breakdown of family and a threat to country” (Plotkin 17).

    For Dickens, “creating homes out of bleak houses occupies a central place in the plot of the novel, and this transformation, from disordered house to tidy, comfortable, familiar home translates into a yearning for an equally tidy, comfortable and familiar homeland” (Plotkin 18). Thus the connection between homes and homeland is repeatedly indicated throughout Bleak House. Moreover, as Plotkin states, “the novel also registers an anxious desire about cultivating Englishness, which, at its most basic level, must take place in well-ordered homes emulating the values of proper middle-class families. Order, cleanliness, a clear division between inside and out-these qualities define an ideal homeland on the figurative level; but they also literally define the ideal home, which is the precondition for truly English citizens” (Plotkin 18).

    In addition to this, Plotkin states that Dickens’s “fears about growing class difference are also fears about losing the common cultural ground, the imagined homogeneity, which supports an imperial nation. The uneducated and uncultivated become outsiders inside the nation, blurring the ideological distinction between center and periphery which is necessary for national identity in an imperial context” (Plotkin 19).

    Thus, through the portrayal of Jo, Dickens demonstrates what really happens to children when they are not reared in proper English families or households. I find Dickens’s approach to problems regarding a proper family and home quite interesting as it successfully points out the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor of urban England. Dickens manages to point out that there is a world within a world, a neglected England within a revered England. As a result, it can be seen that there are not only two nations within England, but two nations with different cultures and traditions.

    Source Citation:

    Plotkin, David. “Home-Made Savages: Cultivating English Children in Bleak House.” Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1997, pp. 17-31


  4. DGK

    Christopher Herbert in “The Occult in Bleak House” argues against Henry James’ criticism that the “fantastic element in [Dickens’] work is an uncontrollable reflex akin to hallucination rather than art.” Instead, the use of occultist themes and images is an intentional strategy aimed at exposing the Victorian scene as a field of interwoven and incomprehensible phenomena. Urban poverty, madly dysfunctional courts, an epidemic of neurosis are all features of contemporary existence, which are not coincidentally present, but linked to some underlying, enigmatic principle.
    He begins with an examination of the novel’s structure, where the intermingling of first and third person narrative voices displays the Victorian tendency towards both romanticism and rationalism. A third person narrative is inherently fantastical, hovering above the story like a ghost, whereas Esther’s narrative is anchored in banal, tangible, familiar experience. Dickens complicates this relationship, however, by disrupting Esther’s identity and discovering through her sometimes “the unreal is more substantial than the real.”
    Throughout the story characters and places are impregnated with occultist descriptions or happenings; and so a novel focused on the problems of modern society: poverty, disease, dysfunctional bureaucracy, becomes a kind of ghost story. Unlike Wordsworth’s conceptualization of gothic-romance fulfilling a public need for distraction from an “almost savage torpor,” Dickens uses these tropes to show how the problems themselves are occultist. For instance, the power of Chancery operates with disastrous effects throughout the rungs of society, without maintaining an intelligible form, or being operated by anyone in particular. Aptly described as a “horrible phantom,” precisely because of this supernatural construction. Thus, Dickensian Gothicism is a form of realism; an attempt to describe what eludes description.


  5. Aquilah Jourdain

    Aquilah Jourdain
    Recent Criticism of Bleak House

    In “Metonymy and the Dense Cosmo of Bleak House”, written by Benjamin Joseph Bishop, he argues that Dickens’ Bleak House has a fundamental problem as a result of excessive metonymy. He continues to say that “the associative link established between any given item…perpetually upsets the novel’s choice to settle on any one thing,” which alludes to the novel’s congested text. Bishop also believes that Dickens’ storytelling gives the reader the inability to discern what’s unique about the novel where they’re also unable to focus on the raw essence of a character or object.
    Bishop also draws a comparison between Dickens and George Eliot, favoring Eliot’s character driven work and organized narration that pulls the reader in versus Dickens who pushes the reader out with his stuffed writing style. Stating this, Bishop ties his comparison to Eliot’s criticism of realists stating that they often remove themselves from the worlds in which they create, which he feels Dickens does in Bleak House.
    Moving on to criticism on narration versus writing style, Bishop states that Dickens would have been subject to another piece Eliot’s criticism of realists stating that he falls short to get a “real Knowledge of the people” as she so mentioned. His lack of true realism, according to Bishop, comes up short when it comes to Esther’s narration; no matter where Dickens places it, her narrative is held back by the excessive use of metonyms and unimportant wording.
    While I could see the case for Bishop’s argument, I still struggle to agree that Dickens’ writing comes up short or lacks a good sense of realism. While some aspects of Bleak House are fantastical, I do not think that these elements cancel out the world Dickens creates in this novel, or makes his characters any less real.

    Bishop, B. J. “Metonymy and the Dense Cosmos of Bleak House.” SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, vol. 54 no. 4, 2014, pp. 793-813. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/sel.2014.0038


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