Bleak House Introduction
In A Nutshell
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Just before writing Bleak House in 1852, Charles Dickens took a break from being a novelist.
He was in the middle of his career, had already written some extremely popular books (including Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol), and was already a super-famous guy (and well on his way to being the most famous person in the world). Still, he took a couple of years off. Not to relax or anything, but to work on some other stuff: finding funding for cleaning up London slums, being a public health and anti-pollution activist, thinking about getting into Parliament, and reading about the ridiculousness of the Court of Chancery.
When he did finally get back to writing novels, he put out a series of very long, very complex works. Each has zillions of characters living at every level of society. Each focuses on a specific institution or bureaucracy, which is usually strongly criticized and mercilessly mocked. And each is a masterpiece.
Bleak House was the first of these later novels (the others are Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, and Great Expectations), and remained Dickens's second-favorite thing he ever wrote. (His favorite was David Copperfield.) This is saying a lot, because not only did he write novel after novel after novel, but he also—in his "spare" time—wrote plays, short stories, and magazine articles; toured the country doing live readings from his works; and was a political activist with many causes. Somehow in there he also found the time to get married, have ten kids, then leave his wife for an 18-year-old actress. Now that's energy.
Meanwhile, Shmoop needs two cups of coffee just to open our eyes in the morning.
On the one hand, Bleak House is the story of a girl named Esther Summerson uncovering the truth about her parents, and in the process setting off a chain of events that includes murder, suicide, betrayal, love, and fear—and also pretty much every other emotion you can imagine. On the other hand, the novel is a pretty profound discussion about the philosophy of charity and philanthropy. How much should we take care of the less fortunate? Are some more deserving of charity than others? Should the poor be dependent on the good will of private individuals, or does the state have some kind of responsibility for helping them? During Dickens's day in Victorian England, most laws criminalized the poor rather than trying to help them get a leg up.
How on earth does this novel do these two totally different-sounding things? Well, in a neat trick, part of the novel is told through the eyes and voice of Esther, and part through an all-knowing third-person narrator. And never the twain shall meet. (Well, they actually do very, very briefly at the end of the novel.) This lets Dickens do two things at once: he gets to snarl and sneer and generally be a mean-spirited observer of idiocy, incompetence, hypocrisy, and callousness (think of this voice as those two old guys in the balcony of The Muppet Show), and also he gets to be all emotional and sensitive and caring and sweet (imagine the nicest, most humble and modest person you can, then multiply that by four).
So, London life from all sides, from all points of view, from every perspective—and all simultaneously.
Why Should I Care?
Have you ever seen a cop show where crimes are investigated and solved? Ever seen a movie where the police figure out whodunit based on clues? Shmoop's betting you have, because, let's face it, they're everywhere. So guess where they come from? That's right. They come from this very novel. Dickens was one of the first writers to create investigative policeman working out the details of a twisty and complex mystery, solving a murder and catching the murderer with enough evidence to convict, and locating a missing person. That's pretty much every police procedural plot story written since, all rolled into one.
Pretty cool in and of itself, right? Except when Dickens does it, he also sets up a blueprint for good police work that's still being followed in fiction today. Bucket has a couple of things going for him as a policeman: he's got a bunch of good beat cops behind him, he's an awesome reader of people, and he can work an interrogation like he's just a having a friendly chat. When he works, he comes into contact with the highest of the high and the lowest of the low – and everybody gets a version of the same calm, polite, professional treatment. We even see a little bit of his family life – devoted, supportive wife, who is clutch for helping do investigations.
Basically, from this novel on, every other police detective is either trying to be a Bucket or trying to overturn the model and be an anti-Bucket. Think of the jaded, cool characters on Law and Order – they are the modern Buckets. And then think of the broken, dysfunctional guys on The Wire – they are trying to go against that super-professional Bucket archetype. That's some pretty powerful precedent right there.