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Readers have been enjoying the novels of Charles Dickens for 200 years and have become acquainted with his sometime sassy style, as well as his knack for confusing the brains of fans as they try to remember the large array of characters in each of his writings. Bleak House could arguably be one of his more difficult novels in terms of the individuals who appear as the story goes on.
The backdrop of Bleak House is an inheritance court case that has gone on for generations and numerous families have gotten pulled into it, as well as various lawyers and fanatics. This is the cause for the abundance of characters.
Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the court case, is the cause of many of the problems addressed in the novel. It causes individuals to go insane, commit murder, cast off their own friends, overdose, commit suicide, and also highlights many social issues such as law, poverty, family life, and illiteracy.
Family life is criticized in various ways. In families where there are role reversals, such as the Jellybys who have a mother at the head of the family, things always seem to go wrong. Many instances occur where the female takes over the duty of what is traditional that of a man and this causes the domestic sphere of the home to be turned upside down.
In a few cases, such as the Jellyby and Pardiggle families, the children are neglected completely or used to aid the mother in acts of what she believes to be charity. Dickens uses these families to poke at the idea of charities because a majority of the charitable works are to aid foreign peoples, not to address issues in the mother country of England.
This makes readers think why aid is given out to far away countries before the problems nearest to them are not resolved first. Dickens takes it to the extreme in Bleak House by showing families that would rather take care of African children or Native American tribes before they can cast an eye on the troubles of their own sons and daughters.
After addressing the interest in foreign charities, Dickens reveals the characters that live in extreme poverty in England. He deals out many heartbreaking death scenes of the poorly neglected individuals who often cannot even read a store sign. Even more depressing is that they have no interest in bettering their condition because they do not want to spread their contagion (both physical illness and their condition of poverty) to the more well-to-do classes by entering their homes or even talking with them.
Despite wanting to stay as far removed from the upper classes as possible, a few poverty stricken characters get involved in the Jarndyce case. This leads to new issues, such as a young woman aiding Lady Dedlock, wife of a baronet, in a murder investigation. For years, Lady Dedlock has put on a mask of boredom to cover for a deep secret and also to punish herself for the circumstances of the secret. She is not the only one that puts up a defensive and often indecipherable mask.
Her husband’s lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn also does not allow the public and co-workers to delve deeper than his surface emotions. The only individuals who seem to be able to understand the truth behind anyone’s appearance and fronts are the the servants. Ultimately, they are the ones who are the most valuable in each household throughout the novel.
Upon beginning the novel, readers will find themselves overwhelmed with the cast of characters and may even consider looking for a chart that explains the relations of the characters to one another as well as to the court case underlying the numerous plot lines. Although dull at times, Bleak House eventually picks up with a murder mystery plot as well as a romantic plot.
When the novel is finished, all the questions it has raised will cause readers to want to go back and figure out if they are ever answered. Readers will also find themselves in numerous “Ah ha!” moments as Dickens reveals clues to the relations of characters to the court case, their roles in the murder investigation, and to each other.