Saturday, May 28, 2011

Week 6 (Chapters XL through XLIX) (A Guest Post)

This week's guest post comes from Canada -- from reading group member Blackbird_Bones (follow her on Twitter!) And, as always, **SPOILER ALERT** -- Read no further if you have not read through chapter XLIX:

Dickens always strikes me to the quick.

Getting immersed, losing myself utterly in the storyline of Bleak House has been considerably easier than I ever expected, despite undergoing the same experience while reading Great Expectations for some coursework a few years ago. Daunted by the prospect of The Dickens, so old & revered amidst the English canon.

Much to my surprise, Dickens’ serialized sectioning of the novel quickly tangled me in the plot. Each chapter contained just enough action to keep the story moving briskly and as an author, he perfected the art of efficiently describing characters who make a mark on your memory & haunt you with their choices long after they’ve closed the end cover. This, of course, can also be said of Bleak House and is one of the main reasons for the success of its deeply-embedded satire.

The drama within chapters XL-XLIX deals mainly with the conspiratorial world of Chesney Wold. Specifically, it is Mr. Tulkinghorn’s melancholy story of a woman who was shamed by the townspeople for having given birth an illegitimate child, stolen away from her by her husband after she was publicly exposed that strikes a chord among those listening. Our discovery that it references the lives of Lady Dedlock and Esther is momentarily unbelievably uplifting, with both characters experiencing the momentous joy of finding each other against what seem to be staggering odds.

However, this revelation is quickly compromised by the level of fear possessing Lady Dedlock that she will be found out. Her guilt & inability to extract her consciousness from her past errors (so similarly to Miss Havisham in Great Expectations) leave her painfully incapable of appreciating even Esther’s presence, despite it being quite possibly the best thing that could have happened. Rather, she is driven to neurosis by the prospects of her secret becoming realized by others and she swears Esther to secrecy, meaning that they cannot publicly interact or engage with one another.

As Chapter XLI plays out, she seems about to commit suicide as she confronts Tulkinghorn about his knowledge of her past, moving ambiguously towards the room’s window while stating definitively that she is leaving Chesney Wold. However, Tulkinghorn decries this, recommending that she remain in the house until the truth surfaces. Through these couple of chapters, we are shown explicitly how deep Lady Dedlock’s shame runs. She is unable to overcome it even when she has the chance of a lifetime to develop a relationship with Esther and Dickens hints at the possibility that it is only either through death or a complete withdrawal from the world she knows that she could provide her with any relief.

This strategy, one of preceding sad or hopeless moments with those of potential happiness and delight (and the quick interchange of the polarized atmospheres within the text) intensifies the emotions of the novel - the depression is that much more severe when contrasted with the pleasure of a few moments prior. In Dickens, happiness and sadness are so highly polarized when juxtaposed in such a short space that both seem to be magnified tenfold. Thus, Bleak House engages us without necessarily seeming unrealistic or exaggerated. Its force impresses us, but remains believable in the process. This gives the story one of its most prominent strengths, as it means that the satirical element is much more subtle here than in other works in the genre (such as Orwell’s Animal Farm or Cervantes’ Don Quixote) but still effective. Bleak House is intensified ever so slightly, staying plausible while being slightly more engaging than most realism.

The following chapters generally cover the aftermath of Tulkinghorn’s story and Lady Dedlock & Esther’s pact to avoid giving themselves away by ignoring one another. However, Esther’s highly positive impression of Mr. Jarndyce causes her to reveal the secret to him. This results in one of the most affecting scenes of the novel thus far as he responds with compassionate understanding. Through this interaction, we become privy to perhaps the most major difference between Esther and her mother: Esther has not experienced the pain and bitterness that is a result of being condemned and ostracized. Her naivety has very positive effects, as it allows her to open up to others in a way that Lady Dedlock, fearful even of those who are closest to her, cannot. Even though these chapters are depressing ones, we are ultimately left with the impression that if the secret does come to light, there is some hope that Esther will not be isolated or suffer as intensely as her mother has, her innocent trust the key to keeping the past from repeating itself.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Open Forum

Thoughts on the book so far, now that we're past the halfway point? Is Dickens just for kids? How does reading Dickens now compare to memories you may have of reading Dickens back in high school or junior high? Is the book too long? Too old? Are the characters too cartoonish? Is reading the book a pleasure or a chore? Does the book make you want to read or reread more stuff by Dickens? Are you disappointed the world hasn't ended yet? How does radio work? How do people know where do dig mines for gold? Is time an illusion? Do other people really exist? Do blind people see in their dreams? Is there a purpose to manned space exploration? Should Greece be allowed to fail? Can poetry be translated? Are cloth diapers really better for the environment than disposable diapers? Is it cruel to neuter one's dog? Is it wrong to circumcise baby boys without their consent? Should one try to master one foreign language or try to gain a basic understanding of many languages? Can you call an offensive foul during a game of pick-up basketball? Are we all infinitely old?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

(Much Belated) Week Four Thoughts: Chapters XXIV-XXXII


Do not read any further in this post if you have not read through chapter 32.

As I began to realize that I had finally arrived at the infamous Spontaneous Combustion scene in the book, a weird elation began to come over me. It was sort of like arriving at a particularly spectacular and famous vista, reached only after a long, arduous, maybe treacherous hike or climb: here I was, at the famed Spontaneous Combustion scene, "a thick, yellow liquor, . . . offensive to the touch and sight, and more offensive to the smell" dripping all around, "and a dark greasy coating on the walls and ceiling." (Ch. 32.) Though I had been eagerly waiting for this event, it still came as a stunning, ridiculous surprise.

And this is perhaps part of the genius of the book: at almost precisely the midpoint of the book, Dickens inserts, as if taking a cue from Michael Bay or Robert Rodriguez, a spectacular explosion. To this point, most of the action in the book has consisted of words, written, read, deciphered, compared, copied, etc. And indeed, right before Krook's explosion, Guppy and Weevle are waiting for the Appointed Hour to receive/take from Krook a bundle of letters belonging to the late Captain Hawdon; Guppy and Weevle are standing around, waiting, and speculating as to what the content of the letters might be, whether Krook may have been able to decipher the contents of the letters, etc. And that's when the book takes a turn into lurid, horror film antics, and "[h]ere s a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is -- is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? O Horror, he IS here! and this, from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him." (Ch. 32.)

The scene is spectacular and stunning, because there is nothing in the book that prepares us for it. Knowing that the book was produced in installments, one wonders if the Spontaneous Combustion was always part of the plan, or if it was an idea that came to Dickens, perhaps as he approached a deadline, as he sat scratching away on his own "desk bespattered with a rain of ink," perhaps near the Appointed Hour of midnight. (Ch. 20.)

The image of the "desk bespattered with a rain of ink" -- the desk that Weevle inherited from the late Captain Hawdon -- keeps appearing in my mind. Dickens repeats this image in chapters 10 and 20. The image first appears as Tulkinghorn looks in on Captain Hawdon's room, and finds him dead.
It is a small room, nearly black with soot, and grease, and dirt. In the rusty skeleton of a grate, pinched at the middle as if Poverty had gripped it, a red coke fire burns low. In the corner by the chimney, stand a deal table and a broken desk: a wilderness marked with a rain of ink.
(Ch. 10.) The image is repeated with the "desk bespattered with a rain of ink" in chapter 20, when describing the room again, now with Weevle as the inhabitant.

I'm going to bring this back to Krook exploding. The parallels between the scene in chapter 10, when Tulkinghorn finds Hawdon dead in his room and the scene Guppy and Weevle come across in the wake of Krook's explosion are striking: the noxious miasma, the images of soot and grease coating the walls, the small fires still smoldering. The image of the "wilderness marked with a rain of ink" marks the scene of Hawdon's death, and serves as a type of representation of his death: the law writer lost in dissolution, the ink he used to form legible documents sprayed wildly, illegibly. That image of the "rain of ink" is recalled in the scene of Krook's death: the grease smearing the walls and ceiling are a close parallel. Moreover, Krook was himself always attempting to ape the law writers, with his sweaty and anxious attempts to scratch out words on his wall, "from memory." Indeed, when we first come across him writing, he scratches out the title of the book "BLEAK HOUSE." (Ch. 5.) In that same chapter, we are, as noted in an earlier post, given a long and rich description of his junk shop -- a place full of, among other things, "quantities of dirty bottles." (Id.) "There were a great many ink bottles." (Id.) And an advertisement for the law-writing services of Nemo -- or Captain Hawdon.

My suggestion is that there are strong connections between the deaths of Krook and Hawdon, and odd parallels in their descriptions. With both characters, there is a fixation on their handwriting -- and, in particular, the physical, embodied nature of their writing. Dickens does focus on the bodily, physical nature of handwriting at various places in the book. Krook straining at his wall is the most obvious example. The "rain of ink" at Hawdon's desk is the residual trace of his physical exertions of law writing; and we are told of his tremendous physical feats of law writing: "The advantage of this particular man is, that he never wants sleep. He'll go at it right on end, if you want him to, as long as you like." (Ch. 10.)

There is something going on here, that I'm still working out, about the bodies of these two characters, the bottles of ink, the scenes of their deaths, and the rain of ink, or the spraying of grease. With their deaths, legibility is exploded: the substance of writing, no longer under the control of a disciplined will, flies out, into chaotic illegibility. It's a weird and unfinished idea in my mind, but I do think part of the idea is that Krook's Spontaneous Combustion is his final piece or act of writing. But it is an act that goes beyond writing, in destroying the very possibility of writing or legibility. And like his own previous attempts at writing, this final act is one he does not himself control or understand. I think only further reading will help me figure out if that makes any sense or if it's just a completely stupid idea.

Your thoughts on Week Four and the book so far? If you've made it this far, you're probably in for the long haul. We're past halfway now -- it's all downhill from here!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Reveal (A Guest Post)

Yet another guest post from one of our fantastic members, TheDudeAbides. **SPOILER ALERT** - the post mentions things that happen through Chapter 36, so be careful, if you haven't gotten that far yet:

The nice thing about technology wrapped in the Kindle is that I can highlight quotes and post them to my Twitter account. It lets the world know with no uncertainty that I am picking out nuggets of golden prose to share with the world from the great Charles Dickens. Much of the feedback I got from my twitterites was confusion. Why in the world would you want to read Bleak House? Well to be honest a month ago I would have questioned my choice of reading material too. Aside from the forced reading in high school by nuns who loved it and sold it like holy water , I haven't spent much time with Mr. Dickens. In fact the closest I've gotten to the perennial classic "A Christmas Carol", was Bill Murray's Frank Cross in Scrooged.

My self assigned journey into reading Charles Dickens or Chuck D as I call him was brought on by a desire to read the classics. I filled my Kindle with all kinds of free books that sat there like dusty old memories wanting to be renewed with life again. But for me it was always an exercise in reading the first chapter or so, putting it down and thusly neglecting it as I turned to the latest Dan Brown mystery. I will admit I read the Michael Bay of crappy fiction, but don't we all have our guilty pleasures? So when I stumbled upon @Tolstoysbeard's twitter account and found there was an online book club that was reading ridiculously old and long books I was sold. It seemed the perfect venue to "force" me to read books I really wanted to read but lacked the structure to do so. Peer pressure and the fact that I would let down people on the internet if I didn't keep up seemed timely and appropriate.

One chapter in and I was ready to log in to and pay whatever money to get the skinny on the book so I could give up and just report in with the help of the yellow and black book that everyone is all too familiar with. I really slogged through the first chapter, but once we started moving on I really enjoyed the fluidity of Chuck D's prose, and even though I was reading Victorian vernacular, I was moving through quite nicely. The Chapters moved along and a concoction of characters would pop in and out and I felt if I would need the assistance of some iphone app to keep track of them all. Moving along I got the feeling that the narrator and protagonist in this story, Esther Summerson, wasn't coming through as a strong character and even quite boring. So poking around the internets, because the internets are good for that, I found an opinion of Dickens's Esther by some to be a quite banal lead in this story. I found that interesting but I wanted to continue on to explore this elusive Esther.

After being sick and taking respite in the country Esther is confronted by Lady Dedlock whilst on the Ghost Walk. This revealing chapter is where Esther finds out the truth about Lady Dedlock being her mother and how she must keep this secret and never tell anyone the truth. Chapter 36 was a riveting chapter to read and it drove home, for me, the complexity of Esther and her longing for her mother.
"I told her that my heart overflowed with love for her, that it was natural love with nothing in the past had changed or could change. That it was not for me, then resting for the first time on my mother's bosom, to take her to account for having given me life, but that my duty was to bless her and receive her, thought the world turned from her, and that I only asker for leave to do it."
The entire chapter weaves in happiness and despair, for both mother and daughter are reunited for a brief moment but must continue on their paths alone with the secret of their relation intact. It must have been hard for Esther yet we see such compassion. My meager summary can't do this chapter justice so I will leave it here with encouragement to read it in whole for it was the chapter that made me believe in Bleak House and I am excited to see what happens next.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Havin' a Larf at Bleak House?

During the very first week of our reading spree, I took Bleak House to the new Silver Lake Meadow, where friends were meeting up for a lounging session. I didn't know everyone there, and like a nerd, I came armed with a book to read in case we came across a spot of calm and silence. I tried to slip Bleak House out for a second, and immediately it was noticed, and I was mocked. I explained why I had brought a big fat paperback to the park and this was the response.

"What KIND of person willingly reads Bleak House? I had to read that in high school. All I remember was making a map of the characters. I mean - honestly - why are you reading that?"

Number 1: I did not know this girl. This was one of the first, awesome things she ever said to me!

Number 2: Had I been deeper in the book at that point, I would have had my comeback: Because, you simpering dimwit, it's actually, quite, quite funny!

Full disclosure, like many other simpering dimwits living in Los Angeles, I am here in the hope of writing and selling my work for the purposes of entertaining people in whatever medium I can cram myself into. Picking up a book that is 157 years old (!!!) and finding it to be both amusing and extremely compassionate, has been a real revelation. You mean to tell me reading something written in proper English can be funny? Oh LOLCATS, how you do fail us so at times.

Anyhow, I wanted to isolate some of my favorite little laughs we've come across in Bleak House.

-- The entire passage in which we meet little Peepy is hilarious a piece of old-timey slapstick. Peepy has gone and got his head stuck between two railings of a staircase:

"As I found (after pacifying him) that he was a little boy with a naturally large head, I thought that perhaps where his head could go, his body could follow, and mentioned that the best mode of extrication might be to push him forward. This was so favourably received by the milkman and beadle that he would immediately have been pushed into the area if I had not held his pinafore while Richard and Mr. Guppy ran down through the kitchen to catch him when he should be released. At last he was happily got down without any accident, and then he began to beat Mr. Guppy with a hoopstick in quite a frantic manner."
Even just the phrase "beat Mr. Guppy with a hoopstick" alone is pretty funny.

-- Dickens is a master of names that are fun to say/read: Krook, Pardiggle, Guppy, Jellyby, Tulkinghorn, Snagsby, Smallweed. And then we come across the character of Mrs. Badger, who has been thrice married, and whose full name is really Mrs. Swosser Dingo Badger, if you put it all together.

-- The very-bored Lady Dedlock and the vain Sir Leicester are often the recipients of Dickens' sharp wit:
"Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state, and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man to have so inexhaustible a subject. After reading his letters, he leans back in his corner of the carriage and generally reviews his importance to society.

'You have an unusual amount of correspondence this morning?' says my Lady after a long time. She is fatigued with reading. Has almost read a page in twenty miles."
My GOODNESS these people are vain, tedious and hilarious, the Victorian equivalent of this SNL skit. (Plus, shout-out to the previous Bleak House post. Here is another Dickens comment about literacy.)

Alright, hit me with your #dickenslols if you have 'em. I use tiny little post-its to mark off passages of the book that I've found interesting, and so far, it's honestly a lot of marked-off #dickenslols.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Week Three: Chapters XVII-XXIII

Gerhard Richter, Lesende (Reading), 1994

This week, I'm writing about reading. Specifically, about the attitude toward reading demonstrated at various points in the book so far.

Frequently the book depicts reading as an utter waste of time and effort. Men of action (Boythorn) do things. People waste away their youth and energy getting lost in fruitless searches for meaning or sense in reading. The prime example is Richard and his attempts to delve into the obscurity of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce:
"I have looked well into the papers, Esther -- I have been deep in them for months" -- he continued, recovering his cheerfulness in a moment, "and you may rely upon it that we shall come out triumphant. As to years of delay, there has been no want of them, Heaven knows! and there is the greater possibility of our bringing the matter to a speedy close; in fact, it's on paper now. It will be right at last, and then you shall see!"
(Ch. XXIII.)

One can sense the hopelessness of Richard's efforts in the paragraph above, his false hopes and delusions. Richard's reading is wasted effort. The law, his temporarily chosen profession, in its most obfuscatory and obscure manifestation in the Jarndyce case, breeds words like maggots; they keep coming, mindlessly, relentlessly, overwhelmingly. The words spill out into the most idle and useless forms, ending up in Krook's bottle and rag shop, on a "little tottering bench of shabby old volumes . . . labelled 'Law Books, all at 9d." (Ch. V.) These law books, it is worth noting, are in a shop along with discarded rags and bones: detritus no one else wants, waste that Krook seems to hoard, and no one wants to buy. The words in the old law books are as outdated, irrelevant, and useless as the other junk in Krook's shop.

Richard is sucked into the world of Jarndyce's proliferating words, in which he will find no light, no illumination -- only fog and confusion. Guppy takes satisfaction in knowing that his potential rival is on such a fool's errand: "It is a source of much gratification to Mr. Guppy, therefore, to find the new comer constantly poring over the papers in Jarndycde and Jarndyce; for he well knows that nothing but confusion and failure can come of that." (Ch. XX.) The legal case continues to produce words, but no meaning. The words simply add up -- along with the costs; piles of papers become volumes, whole libraries, of utterly useless writing.

Then we have the world from Jo's point of view -- a world of mysterious and baffling symbols:
It must be a strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows! To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postment deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language -- to be, to every scrap of of it, stone blind and dumb! It must be very puzzling to see the good company going to the churches on Sundays, with their books in their hands, and to think (for perhaps Jo does think, at odd times) what does it all mean, and if it means anything to anybody, how come it means nothing to me?
(Ch. XVI.)

What ties the reading and non-reading of Richard and Jo together? For both of them, the words they are surrounded by are obsfuscatory, confusing, dead ends. For Richard, as much as for Jo, he "shuffle[s] through the [law], unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant" in the papers of the Jarndyce case.

The book is full of people trying to learn to read (Krook), unable to read (Jo), or wasting their time and energy in futile efforts to glean truth or insight from reading (Richard). For all of them, words remain mysterious symbols, and their efforts to find meaning are futile -- they all remain "in utter darkness . . . ."

But this isn't the only manner in which reading is portrayed. For contrast, there is the case of the Smallweeds, and their hard, pinched, and crabbish existences, free of fiction and fancy:
During the whole time consumed in the slow growth of this family tree, the house of Smallweed, always early to go out and late to marry, has strengthened itself in its practical character, has discarded all amusements, discountenanced all story-books, fairy tales, fictions, and fables, and banished all levities whatsoever. Hence the gratifying fact, that it has had no child born to it, and that the complete little men and women whom it has produced, have been observed to bear a likeness to old monkeys with something depressing on their minds.
(Ch. XXI.)

With the Smallweeds, Dickens shows us a view of life squeezed dry of any wit or whimsy. There are no stories, no fictions in the Smallweed household, and, as a result, no children -- only small "little men and women" who "bear a likeness to old monkeys," as they have no capacity for wonder or fancy. Dickens here offers a view of the value of reading, especially fiction, in showing the caricature of its complete absence in the Smallweed household, where the members are concerned only with practicalities, currency, commerce. Fiction is the opposite of those things, in this dynamic. In fiction, Dickens suggests, one finds some hope, and some light -- if not truth.

Your thoughts on Week Three -- and the book so far?