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.
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.
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?
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.2: Little Old Woman
Close your eyes for a minute. Closed? Obviously not, since you're still reading this.
It's okay. Just try to imagine that you're a reader in the mid-19th century, and you've spent all month reading Number 1 of Dickens' latest and greatest. Maybe you read it out loud with your fam around the fire at night; maybe you stayed home sick from school to curl up under the covers with it.
Either way, you're all caught up and just dying to read more about that spooky Mr. Tulkinghorn and wacky Miss Flite—not to mention Esther, Ada, and Richard. (Now there are some characters you can identify with.)
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.2a: He and I
Just as we're getting comfy with Dickens' rather bizarre, mean-spirited narrator, along comes narrator #2: Esther Summerson.
Esther doesn't get much love—in fact, some critics have suggested that Dickens should have axed her entire story—but, come on. Dickens was a brilliant novelist, so he must have had some point. And, now that we've spent some time looking through the third person narrator's sections, we should at least give Esther the same consideration. Right? It's only fair.
Carefully re-read the beginning of Esther's narrative:
I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever. I always knew that. I can remember, when I was a very little girl indeed, I used to say to my doll when we were alone together, "Now, Dolly, I am not clever, you know very well, and you must be patient with me, like a dear!" And so she used to sit propped up in a great arm-chair, with her beautiful complexion and rosy lips, staring at me—or not so much at me, I think, as at nothing—while I busily stitched away and told her every one of my secrets.
My dear old doll! I was such a shy little thing that I seldom dared to open my lips, and never dared to open my heart, to anybody else. It almost makes me cry to think what a relief it used to be to me when I came home from school of a day to run upstairs to my room and say, "Oh, you dear faithful Dolly, I knew you would be expecting me!" and then to sit down on the floor, leaning on the elbow of her great chair, and tell her all I had noticed since we parted. I had always rather a noticing way—not a quick way, oh, no!—a silent way of noticing what passed before me and thinking I should like to understand it better. I have not by any means a quick understanding. When I love a person very tenderly indeed, it seems to brighten. But even that may be my vanity.
I was brought up, from my earliest remembrance—like some of the princesses in the fairy stories, only I was not charming—by my godmother. At least, I only knew her as such. She was a good, good woman! She went to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to lectures whenever there were lectures; and never missed. She was handsome; and if she had ever smiled, would have been (I used to think) like an angel—but she never smiled. She was always grave and strict. She was so very good herself, I thought, that the badness of other people made her frown all her life. I felt so different from her, even making every allowance for the differences between a child and a woman; I felt so poor, so trifling, and so far off that I never could be unrestrained with her—no, could never even love her as I wished. It made me very sorry to consider how good she was and how unworthy of her I was, and I used ardently to hope that I might have a better heart; and I talked it over very often with the dear old doll, but I never loved my godmother as I ought to have loved her and as I felt I must have loved her if I had been a better girl.
Create a Wordle of these paragraphs.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Quiz 1.2b: Off to Chancery
- Course Length: 3 weeks
- Grade Levels: 11, 12
- Course Type: Short Course
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1