Bleak House was written about a century and a half ago. Prose style, like almost everything else, has changed. Naturally today’s reader may find Dickens’ manner rather unfamiliar and in some ways a bit difficult. In order to see Bleak House in the right perspective, it is necessary to pursue this point. Many people today are no longer well-practiced readers. Television and film are the preferred pastimes, and what people do read is more likely to be journalism (or the captions under pictures) than the prose of a literary artist like Dickens. Dickens wrote for an audience that loved to read and was unafraid to tackle a work of serious literature. Such a receptive and well prepared, or at least cooperative, audience freed Dickens to pitch his writing at a level that satisfied his artistic conscience.
In other words, Dickens was not forced to use only a very limited vocabulary or to forego subtleties of tone and emphasis; nor did he feel obliged to keep all his sentences short and simply constructed when emotion or the complexity of an idea cried out for longer or more complicated ones. He also knew that his readers were responsive to playfulness in words and hence would not insist that he keep coming bluntly to the point and “get on with things”; and so he was free to play one of his favorite roles: the entertainer — here a verbal entertainer, as elsewhere a mimic or theatrical entertainer (Dickens was an active public reader, actor, and practical joker as well as an author). In Bleak House, Dickens turns a “classical allusion” into a joke — but only because his readers, far more literate than today’s readers, would recognize the allusion and therefore appreciate the twist.
When we read Dickens (or any nineteenth-century writer), we need to remember this fortunate, productive relationship between the author and the reading public. Despite their strong streak of puritanism and the limitations inherent in their middle-class outlook, Dickens’ readers, far from demanding that the author write down to their level, were generally eager to have a book that helped them up to a higher level. They wanted guidance on the issues of the times and they also wanted to “progress” personally by becoming more knowledgeable (about sundry matters) and more skilled in language. Nineteenth-century society considered skill in writing and reading necessary for anyone who aspired to be genteel — or even civilized. In a great many households and throughout the educational system, the promotion of these skills had the power of moral force. In short, a writer in Dickens’ era had great respect for his audience and a strong rapport with it — an exciting situation to be in!
Even in casual conversation, the characters in Bleak House (except for those at or near the very bottom of the social ladder, like Jo) speak rather elaborately. Their grammar (unless Dickens is making fun of some idiosyncrasy of expression) is flawless; they command a sophisticated vocabulary and tend to favor the formal word or phrase; their sentences can become quite involved without becoming unclear. It may be hard for us to believe that people ever really spoke that way. But they did. Correctness, in language as in manners, was a central concern for the typical middle-class person. Correctness and relative formality of expression were part and parcel of a society that was both stratified into classes and strongly influenced by classical education.
Bleak House has two oddities of technique — that is, the manner in which the story is presented. First, throughout the novel, there is an alternation in the point of view from which the story is being told. Second, there is a corresponding alternation between present tense and past tense.
Sustained use of present-tense narration is so unusual that, as we read, we hardly know what to expect from moment to moment. Thus there is a sort of suspense in the method itself as well as in the plot. It forces us to be enjoyably alert — and we’ve already had to become quite alert in order to catch Dickens’ persistent verbal irony — that is, his saying one thing but actually meaning something else. This combination of continual irony and present-tense narration gives the writing great intensity.
By far the larger part of the story is narrated in this way by the omniscient author.” But, surprisingly, Dickens switches every now and then to “Esther’s Narrative,” allowing Esther Summerson to do some of the telling. This alternation strikes many people as an awkward and highly artificial technique because the reader remains aware that “Esther’s Narrative” is still really Dickens’ narrative. In other words, the alternation causes the point of view to call attention to itself for no good reason. The simultaneous change from present to past tense makes the awkwardness all the more conspicuous.
On the other hand, even if they “come at a price,” Esther’s narratives are a welcome relief. Present-tense narration is (as noted above) vivid and intense — it is the closest that fiction can get to the intensity of drama, where action is unfolded in the present, as one watches. But for this very reason, relief is needed. In an immensely long work like Bleak House, intensity can become fatiguing.
With the switch to the lower intensity of past tense comes an equally welcome change of tone. Dickens’ “omniscient author” narration is almost consistently mocking or satiric in tone. It is a brilliant achievement but it is still basically monochromatic, or one-toned. Esther’s narratives provide the contrast. Her outlook is as fresh and innocent as Dickens’ is suavely jaded, and she has as many tones as she has responses.
Within the omniscient author portion of the book, Dickens makes his presentation as entertaining as possible, going out of his way to create variety and liveliness. He keeps us awake and amused by varying his tempo and the lengths and structures of his sentences; he uses racy colloquialisms, creates original figures of speech, forceful repetitions and parallel constructions, staccato-like fragments, and other attention-getting techniques.