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Bleak House

More than just a doorstop.

Wait, wait, come back. Yes, we know that you saw the words Bleak House and thought, "No thanks. I'll pass on the opportunity to read the biggest book ever about a sad building." But don't be fooled by the size (or name). Bleak House is hilarious, moving, and totally readable.

Yes, Charles Dickens writes a lot of words. But those words matter. At its heart, Bleak House is about connection: how one of the wealthiest women in the land is connected to one of the poorest; how the slums aren't so far off from the country; and how we should be helping people right here in front of us, not just the folks across the globe.

With all sorts of readings, activities, and projects that make Dickens as fun and understandable as Seuss, you will

  • see how Dickens's sweeping imagination encompasses nearly every corner of London society, from the very low to the very high. 
  • experience one of the first-ever police detectives. All those serialized cop shows you like to watch? They owe their fictional employment to Dickens—in more ways than one.
  • look at pictures. Seriously—it's illustrated!
  • get to say (honestly) that you've read one of Dickens's longest books.

Course Breakdown

Unit 1. Bleak House

1 book. 15 lessons. 1000 pages. Don't panic! This unit will give you the low-down on one of Dickens's bleakest novels, without making you run for the hills.

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 2: Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

In the last number, we opened with London and then moved onto Esther. In the beginning of this number, we start with Esther and then swoop back to Lincolnshire, ancestral home of the Dedlocks.

Did you try turning it off and on?

And notice how we do it: at the beginning of Chapter 7, after two chapters of Esther's narrative, the third person narrator pops up with one simple word: while.

What's the big deal? Think about it: "while" is a word that indicates that two events are happening at the exact same time: "While I was home reading Bleak House, my friends were off seeing the new Zac Efron movie." "While my teacher was lecturing about Victorian London, I was practicing writing Mrs. Shmoop Gosling on my Trapper Keeper."

In fancy language, using "while" expresses something we can call simultaneity: the sense that two things are happening at the same time. Esther is exploring London at the same time that the Dedlocks are stuck in Lincolnshire. And that idea is super important for Bleak House: it has two plots, two protagonists, and one time. All of these complex, interrelated events are happening at the exact same time all over England, but they're brought together in the world of the novel.

Again, this is one of those things that seems like NBD to us. We're savvy TV watchers and we're used to keeping track of multiple plots. (Game of Thrones sometimes visits five or six separate plots and locations at one time.)

But it was still a fairly new technique in the 19th century, which many historians and scholars believe had a new sense of simultaneity thanks to sped-up technologies like railways and telegraphs.

As we read the next handful of chapters, let's ask: why does it matter that all these things are happening at once?