Monday, February 26, 2007
"Bleak House" Charles Dickens
The great mystery of this book is the double narrative, an innovation for Dickens. One told in the 1st person past simple, and the other told in the 3rd person present simple, a double distancing, not only in voice, but also in tense. One's initial reaction is that Dickens began in the present simple because he wanted to aim for the timeless immediacy of a sketch in this condition-of-England novel, but then realised that it was going to be difficult to sustain it over a whole novel, and so introduced a more conventional narrative voice.
However, there must be something else going on here. He had already used a sustained interiority in David Copperfield, and was to do so later again in its mirror, Great Expectations, but in this book he combined the interiority of consciousness with a reporter’s eye for detail. It’s tempting to read the use of this double narrative as an investigation of the place of the individual within the historical process, the relation between the private and the public, the National and the Domestic, as one of the chapter headings signals.
The first voice we encounter is the impersonal 3rd person singular, present simple, or the no-time tense. This gives the writing a timelessness, a static quality, and also an immediacy. This is not a historical moment, but the timeless world of myth or fairy tale. The London we encounter here is not the jaunty London of the Sketches, but something altogether more sinister, shrouded in darkness and fog and diseases, a site of murder, spontaneous combustion, extortion, blackmail and suicide.
The writing is marvelously strange, with an opening paragraph of extreme conciseness, impressionistic in detail, with no verbs or main clauses, relying on gerunds and subordinate clauses to give it life and movement.
This voice frequently employs this kind of strange impressionistic writing. In the chapter immediately following the spontaneous combustion, the opening paragraph is marked by inversion and repetition: Now do those two gentlemen…… now do they note down…Now do they set forth, now do they show…how this account, with a simple clause coming only at the end of the paragraph: All this and more…..the two gentlemen write down. The sentences here are marked by extreme length and complexity, with interruptions from many subordinate clauses. These two chapters mark the high point of this narrative technique and contain some of the finest prose Dickens ever wrote.
It’s this voice that describes the condition of England: moribund, static, petrified, paralyzed. The plot strands that belong exclusively to this voice are the Dedlock family, the spontaneous combustion, Tulkinghorn’s murder, the minor plots of the Snagsbys and the Chadbands.
The second voice is the voice of Esther. This voice is in the personal, 1st person, past simple. The character is looking back and reporting events and her reaction to them. This is not as simple or as straight-forward as it seems, for it appears that Esther is as great a genius at constructing narrative as Dickens himself, and as great in writing discourse. Of course, Esther knows the end of the story as she writes the beginning of it, and her withholding of detail to create suspense and to show an unfolding consciousness of her own character and her position in the world is one of the characteristics of the bildungsroman. Not to mention her awareness of an implied reader, who also has access to the other voice. The plot strands that belong exclusively to this voice are the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, Richard’s downfall and death. This voice is concerned with the domestic.
Although the two narrative voices are distinct and separate and describe two distinguishable worlds, there is no clear division between the different realms and the concerns assigned to them. The narrative switches unpredictably between the voices, and the reader is just getting used to one voice, when it is interrupted by the other. There are also numerous places where the events the voices describe, and the characters they draw, intersect. In fact, one of the themes of the book as enacted by its structure is the interconnectedness of everybody. Dombey and Son (1846- 48) marks a division in Dickens’s work between the earlier novels written on the hoof, as it were, in which the plot unfolds improvisationally according to the demands of the installments, and the later ones in which the plot is carefully thought out and more attention appears to have been given to the overall structural design from the beginning. The earlier Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), for example, veers off in a completely unforeseen direction when Martin junior goes off to America, a decision made by Dickens to try to boost popularity of the work. It is also marked by thumping coincidences to help the story come together as a plot. Bleak House (1853-54), has no such coincidences. Every character in the novel is related to one or both of the plot strands, there are no minor or incidental characters, and everyone is connected to everyone else, in a kind of mid-Victorian Six Degrees of Separation. It’s possible as an experiment to imagine taking away one of the named characters in the book, and see how the plot falls apart. In his pre-Dombey books, some characters are surplus to requirements, and removing them does not result in the disintegration of the plot. In nothing in Dickens’s career so far had this much attention been given to the underlying pattern. The first named character in the book whose name is voiced by another character is Mr. Tangle. While this is of course a metaphor for the law, it is also a metaphor for the underlying structure and intention of the book, to show that the inhabitants of the city are not as disconnected as they might feel; to show that we are all connected to each other in ways that we cannot know.
In spite of her scorn for Dickens’s methods, George Eliot used the same design and intention in her 1873 masterpiece, Middlemarch, in which images of webs abound.