by Charles Dickens
Autobiography; Family Drama; Literary Fiction; Mystery
Well, at least half of Bleak House is autobiography (the Esther half, obviously). Esther tells the story of her childhood, young adulthood, and eventual maturity. Looking back over her life, Esther figures out some stuff about why she is the way she is. And so, like every good autobiography, this one turns into a bit of a session with the shrink. (Why was she so insecure all the time? Oh, maybe it was because the psycho aunt who raised her told her nothing but how awful and horrible it was that she was born.) Also, by telling her story, Esther gets to relive – and hopefully get past – some shocking and nightmarish experiences. Like that time she found her mom dead on her dad's grave.
And speaking of mom and dad, where would this novel be without family connections? Sure, there is the whole main plot of Esther, Lady Dedlock, and Captain Hawdon – the family that didn't get a chance to be. But think about how many different kinds of families we meet, and how many styles of parenting and childrening (take that, English language!) we see.
There are parents who nowadays would have their kids taken away by social services for neglect, like Mrs. Jellyby and Skimpole. There are parents who are child-raising superstars, like the Bagnets. There are parents who wish they still had their kids, like Mrs. Rouncewell, and there are kids who are really badly off because they are parentless, like Charley, Tom, and Emma Neckett. There are families sucked into and destroyed by the horrible morass of Chancery law, like the Jarndyces, the Flites, and the Gridleys. And there are large, improvised families created out of dysfunction and violence, like Jenny and Liz and their baby, or Jarndyce, Ada, Richard Jr., Esther, Woodcourt, and the little Woodcourts.
This is a "canonical text." This means that it's one of a small group of novels, poems, and pieces of drama that are almost universally acknowledged to be important pieces of literary art. What is interesting, though, is that at the time when it was published, it could have been considered "popular fiction" as well. It was certainly what we would now call a bestseller, and it appealed to pretty much every kind of reader – those who read just for plot, thrills, and chills; and those who thought about themes, characters, and Big Ideas.
And of course, it would be hard to ignore the fact that Bleak House is also, on top of everything else, a mystery novel. Is a horrible crime committed? Tulkinghorn's murder. Are there multiple potential suspects? Mr. George, Lady Dedlock, Hortense. Is there a detective puzzling the whole thing out using clues and evidence? Inspector Bucket, at your service.