This month, we are reading the tenth instalment of Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, consisting of Chapters 30 to 32. This instalment was originally published in December 1852.
If you haven’t read the previous instalments but you want to dive in now, it’s never too late! Feel free to start at any point, and post your comments in our previous related discussion threads (which you can find listed below).
Chapter 31 is actually chapter one of the second tome.
I wonder why Dickens didn’t end the first tome with chapter 29 when Milady discovers that her daughter is actually alive… ? It would have been logical if you ask me.
Well well, other than that, new intrigues (about which there isn’t much to say, since it is like that since the very beginning), except that I wonder how shocking it must have been to readers of back then to have the book they are reading describe to them how an alcoholic caught fire (spontaneous combustion) to not only die and burn, but to also melt and cover the walls in foul smelling / dripping body grease… (?) lol.
I don’t know, but if people back then were as sensible (and emotionally unstable) as the characters in this book, surely a couple of them readers had a stroke.
[EDIT] I just saw (I should’ve looked first) that it is the French version I am reading that is split in two tomes (?). It would seem that the Gutenberg version just goes on — chapter XXXIII, XXXIV — as a long single tome.
It still doesn’t make much sense where they decided to split it (French version, Hachette, Paris, 1857), though.
Dickens is very good at quirks of voice and conversation. I have just noticed a trait of Esther Summerson’s narration, after three instances of it in less than half a chapter. Esther has a tendency to interrupt her own streams of consciousness, typically at exactly the point where I thought we were about to get to the nub of the topic in hand. It seems quite realistic, as if she is thinking aloud, but then I remember that she appears not to be entirely reliable as a narrator, so I wonder what she means by cutting off her exposition like this.
Three examples from the first part of Chapter 30:
“She was such a sharp little lady and used to sit with her hands folded in each other looking so very watchful while she talked to me that perhaps I found that rather irksome. Or perhaps it was her being so upright and trim, though I don’t think it was that, because I thought that quaintly pleasant. Nor can it have been the general expression of her face, which was very sparkling and pretty for an old lady. I don’t know what it was. Or at least if I do now, I thought I did not then. Or at least—but it don’t matter.”
“It was in vain for me to try to change the subject, as I used to try, only for the sake of novelty or perhaps because—but I need not be so particular.”
“These were perplexities and contradictions that I could not account for. At least, if I could—but I shall come to all that by and by, and it is mere idleness to go on about it now.”
Well, speaking from my experience, it is quite challenging, writing in the first person, to transition from one line of thoughts to another while a) making it look natural as b) you drift away from the action sequence of your novel. By that what I mean is that it is no longer what’s happening that drives the “story” forward, but rather, for a moment, the sole narrative. (I’ve put “story” between quote marks because the story (as in “action sequence”) is actually on halt for the duration of such. Only the narrative moves forward. Independently of the story it serves.)
You can’t just hop from cake icing to ice skating. (Did your narrator forgot to take his/her medication this morning?) And you can’t have a long transition from one idea to another, just for the sake of transitioning. (Unless you don’t mind your novel ending up a boring/tedious read.)
Otherwise it is quite easy on the opposite, always having something happening. It is kind of being able to be saved by the bell – on demand – anytime you need. Done with this ? and on with the next action. A bit like if I’d want to tell you all about the butterflies, so pretty, that I have in my backyard all summer long and — wait, someone’s at the door.
So perhaps Dickens had to have her say what is there to read, and since, as you point out (and I agree), that’s how most people’s brains operate, why not ?
Perhaps he had written way more, and editing out what’s no longer in the final draft, he just went for that. (It works anyways. And there’s even some kind of a hook to it. Questions left unanswered – got to keep reading.)
There are many questions in this book. I’m not sure that some of them will ever be answered.
Where has Jo gone? And why did he leave?
Is there a reason why Mrs Jellyby and Mr Turveydrop both suddenly start behaving as though they are normal, loving parents at the end of Caddy’s wedding? Is this supposed to be the redemptive power of a marriage ceremony, or is Dickens trying to tell us something else?
The depiction of the soot and grease throughout the building is truly gruesome. Just thinking about wiping human combustion residue off your fingers after innocently touching a window sill is stomach-churning, especially if you originally thought it arose from pork chops being cooked in a nearby hostelry. But are we really meant to believe in spontaneous combustion? Or did Dickens intend it to be hyperbolic, perhaps indicative of irrational panic and credulity both in the characters who find the body and in general society? It seems striking that he shifts the narrative perspective to a “we” angle in the final paragraphs of Chapter 32, suggesting that we, the readers, are in the room with Tony, Mr Guppy and the charred remains of Mr Krook. But surely a possibly unconscious Krook, possibly doused in alcohol and oozing with ketones, was just set alight by sparks from the nearby fire?
Now I come to think of it, did Krook ever intend holding the meeting at all? Why was “the appointed time” set to the late hour of midnight? Has Krook in fact killed himself by self-immolation, destroying the letters in the process? And if so, then why?