Jay Hoffmann

Books, movies, and code

Bleak House and Narratives

Bleak House is a sharp critique of industrialism and capitalism, and Dickens skillyfully intertwines his critique with a captivating narrative, masterfully elevating his message. And it gets me every time.

He is often able to take his not-so-subtle criticism of modern governments and capitalism and infuse with narrative intrigue to make the former more engaging.

On its own, Dickens’ extended commentary on the hypocrisy and absurdity of bureaucracy and greed might seem dry and overdone. But by weaving these commentaries into a page-turning story, Dickens keeps the reader engrossed. He doesn’t merely place these two elements side by side; he combines them.

Take, for example, Sir Leicester, who often conveys Dickens’ strongest criticisms of Britain’s nobility. From his estate, Leicester judges the lower classes and finds the notion of them ruling laughable. Dickens sets up Leicester’s criticism by referring to a time when aristocratic rulers were absent due to a verbal dispute.

This stupendous national calamity, however, was averted by Lord Coodle’s making the timely discovery that if in the heat of debate he had said that he scorned and despised the whole ignoble career of Sir Thomas Doodle, he had merely meant to say that party differences should never induce him to withhold from it the tribute of his warmest admiration; while it as opportunely turned out, on the other hand, that Sir Thomas Doodle had in his own bosom expressly booked Lord Coodle to go down to posterity as the mirror of virtue and honour. Still England has been some weeks in the dismal strait of having no pilot (as was well observed by Sir Leicester Dedlock) to weather the storm; and the marvellous part of the matter is that England has not appeared to care very much about it, but has gone on eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage as the old world did in the days before the flood

This is the kind of thing that is gripping and amusing in short bursts. With his overwrought prose, Dickens exposes the frivolity of the ruling class, and in fact, it’s very uselessness. And on its own, that’s plenty powerful and insightful. And it highlights the disconnect between the victims of modernity, and its progenitors.

But then Tulkinghorn, Leicester’s lawyer, comes in. Behind Sir Leicester’s back, Tulkinghorn has been engaged in a cat and mouse game with Leicester’s beloved wife, Lady Dedlock. He has recently come to the conclusion that Lady Dedlock once had a daughter out of wedlock with a wayward naval soldier, who died shortly after. He has yet to reveal his discovery to either Lady Dedlock or Sir Leicester, but means to lay his cards on the table to her, to engage her in a conversation about it.

So when Leicester asks Tulkinghorn about this very disconnect between his own aristocratic caste and the lower classes, Tulkinghornn points to pride. Then he tells a story.

The captain in the army being dead, she believed herself safe; but a train of circumstances with which I need not trouble you led to discovery. As I received the story, they began in an imprudence on her own part one day when she was taken by surprise, which shows how difficult it is for the firmest of us (she was very firm) to be always guarded. There was great domestic trouble and amazement, you may suppose; I leave you to imagine, Sir Leicester, the husband’s grief. But that is not the present point. When Mr. Rouncewell’s townsman heard of the disclosure, he no more allowed the girl to be patronized and honoured than he would have suffered her to be trodden underfoot before his eyes. Such was his pride, that he indignantly took her away, as if from reproach and disgrace. He had no sense of the honour done him and his daughter by the lady’s condescension; not the least. He resented the girl’s position, as if the lady had been the commonest of commoners. That is the story. I hope Lady Dedlock will excuse its painful nature.

And just like that Tulkinghorn, and by extension, Dickens, drops a narrative bomb into the middle of the chapter. With only a slight nod to Lady Deadlok (“I hope Lady Dedlock will excuse its painful nature”), he reveals the whole the story at the center of the book. It’s a bold flourish of dramatic irony, but it’s also a brilliant dovetail off his rebukes of the ruling class. Tulkinghorn’s disdain for the “pride” of the Rouncewells (which we will find out later is not nearly as arrogant as Tulkinghorn makes it out to be), shines more of a light on his own deceitfulness than it does his target.

And in Bleak House, Dickens does this over and over again, chapter after chapter. And I love it every time.