By today’s standards, life was quiet in Dickens’ era. Railways existed, but cars, trucks, planes, radio, movies, and television didn’t exist. Most shops and places of public entertainment closed early. No crackling neon signs put any “buzz” in the night. At night, one could read or play cards — provided one could afford to burn the oil or candles; it was cheaper and easier to be inactive from sundown to sunup. On Sundays, everything was closed but the church doors and the park gates. Far fewer people were tyrannized by the deadlines that today’s technology has made the rule of the workplace.
As a result of this slower pace of life, Victorian people generally had what contemporary psychologists call a “low threshold” — meaning that in order to feel pleasantly stimulated, they didn’t require loud, gaudy, psychedelic, fast-moving, or ever-changing stimuli. Young people had, as always, their problems, but one of them was not a tendency to “burn out” early. In Victorian England, patience and easygoing ways were far more common than nerves and distractedness.
What this meant for literature is that proportionately more people had more time for reading, and, at the same time, they were psychologically well prepared for the art of reading. Reading is a quiet, completely unsensational activity, and it demands a certain patience. Time and patience are what the past, including the Victorian days, is all about.
Of course, there are other reasons why the Victorians read so assiduously. Dickens’ era had a rapidly growing middle class, one that read and one that was large enough to ensure a constant demand for the printed word. The middle class was still trying to “prove itself” — to show the world that it was at least as fit to govern as the aristocracy. To establish and maintain its good name, this class had to show itself moral, sober, knowledgeable, responsible, and even, if possible, literate and refined like the lords and ladies. Knowledge and refinement were to be gained mostly from books, magazines, and other printed matter. To read was to gain, to become, to advance: Such was the unconscious motto of a great part of the Victorian public. One should also note that most reading material was quite inexpensive in Dickens’ London.
Victorians also read because they needed answers to new problems. The epoch was one of rapid and large-scale social change. Rampant industrialization and the enormous, largely unplanned growth of cities brought many difficulties. Urban crowding, child labor, the proliferation of slums, inadequate wages, unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, periodic widespread unemployment with little provision for the unemployed, vast increases in the incidence of alcoholism, venereal disease, and tuberculosis are only the most obvious ones. Controversy raged over what should be done about the situation.
The era was also a period of the breakup of traditional beliefs, of intense debate and confusion over values and concepts — moral, religious, scientific, and economic. New theories of biological and geological evolution were being proposed, and new approaches to the study of the Bible were vigorously challenging traditional interpretation. People wanted firm guidance on these and other issues. Those who could or might provide it were the writers. It was the public clamor for illumination that caused more and more poets, novelists and essayists to devote much of their time to thinking about — and speaking out upon — the issues of the day. Dickens himself began his writing career as an entertainer, a humorist — the comic Sketches by Boz and Pickwick Papers were his first books — but soon found himself caught up in the intense popular demand for clarification and advice. His third book, Oliver Twist (1838), began a series of social messages that ended only with his death.
Most of Dickens’ readers had strong religious and ethical convictions. The Victorian middle class, at all levels, was heavily Protestant. Most of the “dissenting” churches (for example, Methodism and Congregationalism, those outside the established Church of England) were evangelical, and even the established church had been notably influenced by evangelical religion. Evangelicals emphasized, among other things, strict moral behavior; they felt a need to make such behavior highly, sometimes even aggressively visible. Their approach to temptation and evil was like the approach to a contagious disease; the unfortunates who had “fallen” were to be avoided and denounced. Generally, evangelicals wanted to be (at the very least, to seem) not just “good” people but models of goodness, exemplars of righteousness — and to live only amongst other such models. When it came to reading works of fiction, the evangelical in every Victorian wanted the author to offer characters whose purity made them paragons. For the sake of context and contrast, the author might provide distinctly wicked characters; these needed to be converted to virtuous ways, or punished, or both. Strongly evangelical habits of mind did not predispose readers either to understand or to identify with morally in-between characters.
On the other hand, Dickens himself was a nominal Anglican rather than an “evangelical.” He was not pious and not even a regular church-goer. Thus, by no means, does he represent an example of a Victorian author conforming unquestioningly to the expectations of religion or religiosity. He reserves the right to create morally in-between characters (Richard Carstone is an obvious example), and when he wants to write pure entertainment — a ghost story or an adventure tale without any “edifying” value — he does so. Nevertheless, Dickens was determined, always, to remain popular and make money, and so his fiction does, on the whole, seek to ingratiate itself with the middle-class world. Most of his books and stories are well stocked with “pure,” or at least admirable, characters. Villains are reformed or punished. Story endings are happy.
Though Dickens is known to have had no objection to the bawdy elements in his much-loved Fielding and in other eighteenth-century writers, he defers to the sexual puritanism that was conspicuous in Victorian society. He also shares the tendency of many in his audience to idealize and sentimentalize Woman. He was realistic enough to recognize that not all women were pleasant, and, in fact, some of the most monstrous characters in his books are females; but very often the good women (and girls) are Pure Goodness and, partly as a result of such exaggeration, not quite real or interesting. But such characters satisfied his own desire to contemplate an idealized femininity, and, of course, in his day, these characters helped sell the books.
Though Dickens deplored injustice and needless suffering and satirized, sometimes bitterly, anyone or anything that perpetrated them, he was by nature too much in love with life, too fun-loving and spontaneous, to be (or even to pose as) morally grave or cautionary or ethically obsessed. Like Shakespeare and Mozart, he personifies prolific creativity, and his first impulse is to celebrate. He probably could not have brought himself to stay with the theme of social reform if he hadn’t been able to do so creatively — through exciting incidents and vivid characters that were fun to create, and through mocking tones, wry or hilarious cracks. One way he got around his evangelicized readers’ desire for fictional characters who were paragons of virtue (and who, being so, are likely to be artistically uninteresting) was to concentrate, much of the time, on child characters. Children might be but aren’t expected to be perfect, and being naive and inexperienced, they can more easily be indulged and forgiven than adults. Of course, Dickens had an imperative reason for creating so many child characters: His own childhood — especially its vicissitudes — haunted him.
Dickens ranks with Shakespeare, Moliere, and Aristophanes as one of the world’s greatest masters of comedy. In his lifetime he enjoyed the greatest popularity any English author has ever known, and to this day, “Dickens” is an almost mythical name, conjuring up associations even for many people who have read little or none of his work. Obviously Dickens’ comic art struck some perennially appealing note. However, it is not comic achievement alone that accounts for Dickens’ unprecedented popularity. In his childhood and early adult years, he experienced hardship and intense suffering. His own misfortunes gave him a keen sense of the harsh realities of life and developed in him a ready sympathy for people — especially children and young adults — beset with difficulties and sorrows. Thus, well before his writing career actually got going, he was accustomed to perceiving human experience in terms of its deeper, more complicated side, as well as its lighter side. In the mature Dickens, optimism and a zest for life — hence, a basically comic rather than tragic or pessimistic outlook — tended to prevail but were balanced by a desire to deal with serious and even painful themes. It is partly this balance, this wholeness, that prevented Dickens from being merely another amusing but rather superficial author.
In many of Dickens’ novels, the comic element, or much of it, is actually in the service of a serious vision of life: The comedy does not exist simply for its own sake but is partly a means of presenting serious material in a way that makes for enjoyable reading. In Dickens’ later novels, the comedy becomes subdued. As an example, note that Bleak House, which marks the end of Dickens’ youthful ebullience, reflects his frustrations. He was by that time unhappy in marriage, and he thought that his work was having little or no effect on social conditions in England.
Nevertheless, despite its dreary atmospheres, dingy locales, and troubled characters, Bleak House remains with the genre (class) of comedy, in the sense that, by and large, all ends happily rather than tragically or pathetically. The book’s principal villain, Tulkinghorn, is eliminated. Hortense, the killer, is brought to justice. Lady Dedlock lives long enough to be reunited with her daughter. Suffering brings out the best in Sir Leicester and George Rouncewell. The ending itself is supremely happy, and all along the way there are droll characters like Phil Squad and vibrantly laughing ones like Boythorn; and there is plenty of smiling amiability, as personified, for example, in Mr. and Mrs. Bagnet. Laughing — rather than bitter — satire is always cropping up. Nor should we overlook the comic contribution of Dickens’ prose style. In it, irony abounds; the wry, amusing comment becomes standard fare.
Bleak House is generally regarded as one of Dickens’ most impressive novels and a masterpiece of world literature, though not one of the greatest novels of all time. This acclaim does not mean that the book is flawless; it means that despite imperfections, Bleak House is still widely read and enjoyed. Some readers agree with G. K. Chesterton, who says that there is a certain monotony about the book: “the artistic . . . unity . . . is satisfying, almost suffocating. There is the motif and again the motif.” The book has also been faulted for having so many characters and lines of action (plots and subplots) that the intensity of the main action is diluted. Another charge is that none of the major characters is a fully developed, lifelike, and interesting figure. About such indictments, readers have to make up their own minds.
The book certainly has variety. Aside from diversified characters and plot lines, it combines romance and realism and resembles more than one fictional genre. In part, Bleak House is what the Germans call a Bildungsroman (literally, a formation novel), a story dealing with young people’s initiation into the adult world. It is also partly a romance and partly a murder mystery (in fact, it is the first British novel in which a professional detective figures strongly). Bleak House is also a novel of social criticism. The main point of the novel is the needless suffering caused by the inefficiency and inhumanity of the law and, by extension, of all forms of institutionalized inhumanity.
Both the social criticism and the comic elements are typical of Dickens’ novels. Typical also are several other features of Bleak House. As in almost all of Dickens’ fiction, the main setting is the city. It is the city, not the country, that brings his imagination to its richest life, and, of course, it is in the city that the worst and the greatest number of social problems are manifested. As usual, too, there are many characters.
Several are vivid — they “come alive” to our imagination. Most of the characters are distinctly “good” or “bad” rather than in-between. Few, if any, undergo a significant change (development). And, as is often the case, there is one character who is so benevolent (and well off) that he is able to reward the deserving and bring events to a conclusion that is at least typical of Dickens and of Victorian novels in general. No less characteristic is the abundance of highly dramatic (tense, high-pitched, or otherwise striking) incidents. There is the inevitable fascination with eccentrics and grotesque people and places — like Krook and his shop and Mr. Snagsby and the paupers cemetery. And, of course, there is the sympathetic portrayal of a beleaguered child — here, little Jo.
“Pure” — that is, virginal, incorruptible, and self-sacrificing — heroines like Esther Summerson and Ada Clare are as Dickensian as anything can be. So are happy endings, and though Bleak House presents undeserved sufferings and untimely deaths, the story does end happily for several of the principal characters, including John Jarndyce, Esther, Ada, and Allan Woodcourt.
Dickens’ novels — especially those prior to Bleak House — are often marred by incoherence: Sometimes the main point they start to make is abandoned; in other cases, no main point ever seems to develop. In this respect, Bleak House is atypical: No one can miss the insistent theme of the malaise and misfortune caused by “the law’s delay.” Untypical also is the emotional restraint. In earlier novels, Dickens often allows his characters (or himself as narrator) to express certain sentiments — especially pathos and gushy praise of “goodness” — in exaggerated terms and at length. Such effusions, acceptable to most readers in Dickens’ era, seem sentimental or even maudlin today. Bleak House also breaks away from Dickens’ earlier habit of relying heavily on coincidences that add drama and help the author out of plot difficulties but remain cheap and wildly implausible. In Bleak House, Dickens seldom seems to be “stretching things.”
A common method of publishing novels in Victorian England was serialization in monthly magazines. Dickens published Bleak House in monthly installments in his own highly successful magazine Household Words between March 1852 and September 1853. Serialization affected Bleak House in various ways.
First, serialization meant that Dickens wrote as he went along: He did not outline the entire novel or even plan very far ahead — in fact, he was often so busy that he could barely meet the printer’s monthly deadline for receiving the manuscript of the forthcoming installment. With some of Dickens’ novels, this haste and extemporaneity resulted in some loose plot construction and in patches of writing that lacked polish. In Bleak House, Dickens managed to avoid these pitfalls of the serial method. The plot, though complicated, is tightly woven, and the prose style is consistently effective. Serialization may even have worked to Dickens’ advantage, in this case at least. The magazine readers had a whole month to let their memory of the previous installment grow dim. The best way around this difficulty was for the writer to create really memorable scenes and characters. Thus, serialization may have prodded Dickens to offer striking material and suspenseful narration. It may have encouraged his already well developed taste for caricature — highly simplified but striking character portrayal — and for grotesquerie: Both are inherently attention-getting, arresting. Unusual prose style itself is one way of producing a vivid impression. In Bleak House, inventive wording, dynamic sentences, sustained, energetic irony, and present-tense narration contribute enormously to keeping the reader’s interest.