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Bleak House is a novel by Charles Dickens, first published as a 20 episode serial between March 1852 and September 1853. The novel has many characters and several sub-plots, and is told partly by the novel''s heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by an omniscient narrator.

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Don Quixote
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A System Out of Control
Reviewed in the United States on June 19, 2019
I picked up _Bleak House_ (1853) after hearing several critics refer to it as Dickens’ masterpiece. While I have not yet read _David Copperfield_ (1850), the author’s personal favorite among his books, and can claim only a limited knowledge of Dickens, I keep in mind G. K.... See more
I picked up _Bleak House_ (1853) after hearing several critics refer to it as Dickens’ masterpiece. While I have not yet read _David Copperfield_ (1850), the author’s personal favorite among his books, and can claim only a limited knowledge of Dickens, I keep in mind G. K. Chesterton’s assessment of the novel I consider in this review: it is his best novel, but not necessarily his best book. In other words, _Bleak House_ may not be marred by the formal imperfections found in Dickens’ most popular works, such as the implausible _Oliver Twist_, but then there is something so fascinating about these imperfect works that the reader gives the author a break. Here’s Chesterton again: Dickens was a great writer, even if he wasn’t a particularly good writer. Length is also a factor to consider. When I was in college, I was assigned _Great Expectations_. The professor told us it was not Dickens’ best, but it was short enough to be manageable, and he considered it superior to _Hard Times_ and _A Tale of Two Cities_, two other popular choices with educators. As a result, the 1,000-page _Bleak House_ is the masterpiece few people read.

Like that other literary monster, Tolstoy’s _War and Peace_, _Bleak House_ is not one book, but several. The story, to begin with, is split into two threads. An omniscient narrator relates events in the present tense, while Esther Summerson, the novel’s heroine, narrates events from her perspective in the past tense. In addition, _Bleak House_ contains several genres. This is a legal drama, a romance, a detective story, a bildungsroman or sentimental education, and indictment of social injustice, and perhaps much more. Dickens, however, does not go into lengthy philosophical considerations the way Tolstoy does in his longest work. _Bleak House_ drags at times, and several passages could be shortened or directly omitted, but all in all, this is a compelling humanistic story.

What lies at the heart of _Bleak House_ is not human. The story revolves around Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a Court of Chancery case that has been going on for years as a result of conflicting wills. The case is, in a sense, a pretext for the story, as it gives unity to the novel. _Bleak House_ is the story of several characters whose lives are directly affected by this legal monstrosity. The main characters are Esther, introduced as an orphan at the beginning of the novel, and the distant cousins Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. These three are eventually taken in by John Jarndyce, master of the estate known as Bleak House. John, Richard, and Clare are related, and hope to receive a large sum of money once the case is settled. John regards the case as a curse, while Richard puts his hopes in it, and becomes increasingly involved in the proceedings as the story develops. Other important characters are Lady Dedlock and her husband Sir Leicester, inhabitants of Chesney Wold, and their lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn. Revelations about Lady Dedlock complicate the plot and tie these characters to Esther and her friends. Finally, one must mention Allan Woodcourt, whose crucial role I will let the reader discover for him/herself.

Like many other Dickens novels, _Bleak House_ presents many colorful secondary characters. Dickens paid so much attention to these “background” figures that, were it not for the fact that they appear sporadically, one feels they would eclipse the protagonists. One of the first to appear is the comic Harold Skimpole, who claims to know nothing about money as it flies out of his hands, and only wishes for the world to let him live his life. There’s also the elderly Miss Flite, who keeps several birds in cages and plans to set them free as soon as the court case is settled. Others worthy of mention are the alcoholic, illiterate Mr. Krook, who walks around with a cat on his shoulder; the young crossing sweeper Jo; Mr. George, a former soldier who owns a shooting gallery; and the detective Mr. Bucket.

“The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself,” the narrator points out in the second half of the novel. “Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.” _Bleak House_ condemns an institution that has escaped the control of the human beings who brought it into existence. This is, then, a surprisingly modern novel. Dickens is a master at portraying the ways in which we may become trapped in our own labyrinths. The point he makes about the English Court of Chancery applies to many human institutions, including our current socioeconomic system. We build a structure in order to shape chaos into order, and spend the rest of our lives maintaining that structure, which comes to control and devour us.

A Dickensian axiom also present in _Bleak House_ might be stated thus: hard times bring out the best and the worst in human beings. Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce will lead the characters to sympathy, love, sacrifice, hostility, envy, blackmail, and murder. Some will find their destiny as a result of the case; others will let themselves be consumed and destroyed by it. One of the characters in this novel--I won’t say which one--is simply one of the most correct, virtuous human beings ever portrayed in literature. Some will deem this character too good to be believable. I choose to think there are such people in our world. Dickens never fails to give me hope, even though his stories rarely end well for all the characters involved. _Bleak House_ is a hopeful novel, but it is also incredibly sad. It is, furthermore, often perplexing. The most famous example of this occurs in the exact middle of the novel, as a character dies by spontaneous combustion. Critics have read this event as a metaphor for long court cases, the costs of which consume the very same assets the parties are fighting over.

_Bleak House_ may not be Dickens’ most enjoyable novel, but it is formally outstanding and offers a variety of memorable characters and situations. Nabokov felt that splitting the narrative in two by adding Esther’s first-person thread was a mistake. I couldn’t disagree more. Without Esther’s narrative, the novel would have been quite dull. If you’re new to Dickens, I recommend beginning with _Great Expectations_ or _Oliver Twist_. While you will definitely notice the flaws, these novels are page-turners. But by all means, make _Bleak House_ the second or the third Dickens novel you read. It would seem that one should love the imperfect Dickens before one loves the perfect Dickens. He is, in this sense, like the beast in “Beauty and the Beast.”

If you’re looking for a physical copy, I recommend the Penguin edition. (My picture shows the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition; the text is the same as that of the paperback version.) It includes a preface by Terry Eagleton, an introduction and sufficient notes by Nicola Bradbury, and three appendices, one of which reproduces some of Dickens’ working notes for the novel.

My next Dickens novel will be _David Copperfield_.

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the book!
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G EVAN STODDARD
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Lovely, Satisfying, Dickens at His Best
Reviewed in the United States on January 1, 2020
How does Dickens create such a large cast of distinctive and memorable characters, keep them all straight, give them such individual voices, and foresee their destinies from beginning to end? I do not know, but in “Bleak House” he does. This is now my favorite Dickens... See more
How does Dickens create such a large cast of distinctive and memorable characters, keep them all straight, give them such individual voices, and foresee their destinies from beginning to end? I do not know, but in “Bleak House” he does.
This is now my favorite Dickens novel. Such an array of hilarious characters he gives us, along with a creepy villain, the noblest of patrons and friends, and the most attractive heroine of any of his novels as the central consciousness.
This novel, as expected, pillories the bureaucratic institutions that oppress the poor while feeding the wealthy. It ridicules the class system that sustains an idle nobility. It praises the common man and woman who treats others with kindness. All these we expect from Dickens, and he does not disappoint here.
In addition, however, “Bleak House” brilliantly juxtaposes the old world of decadent, “noble” England, where blood was determinative, with the vibrant if turbulent new world of the industrial revolution, in which ambition would trump lineage.
Sentimental? Yes, “Bleak House” is sentimental surely. But it is satisfying. All get their just desserts. The good and noble triumph. All is well with the world at story’s end. This reader turned the last page with nostalgia and regret.
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nomemprunte
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
An almost stereotypical Victorian novel, Dickens style
Reviewed in the United States on March 20, 2019
As implied above, many of the plot mechanisms common to the era are present: orphans, convoluted lineage, a patron/guardian figure, and last moment lottery ticket plot twists. There''s also an unwanted suitor, a suspicious foreigner, and a noble woman with a guilty... See more
As implied above, many of the plot mechanisms common to the era are present: orphans, convoluted lineage, a patron/guardian figure, and last moment lottery ticket plot twists. There''s also an unwanted suitor, a suspicious foreigner, and a noble woman with a guilty conscience. But one thing that sets this story apart is it''s critical look at the collateral damage inflicted by the grinding juggernaut of the (what would now be called) probate courts-which are, in a way, the main supporting character. The other main difference is Dickens. He paints with higher contrasted hues. His heros are most magnanimous and his villains are more calculatingly cold. One warning: this book shows signs of having been composed in periodic installments so the plot does seem to be in intermission in a couple of places, but that''s par for the course for a mostly Victorian novel.
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Anthony Mitchell
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A Fine Addition the Dickens Library
Reviewed in the United States on July 21, 2017
This is a well-written novel that has interesting characters and lots of dimensions. It speaks on the unjustness of the law in those days and in law in general I believe. I''ve now read most of Dickens'' more popular works. They can be long by today''s standards, but I must... See more
This is a well-written novel that has interesting characters and lots of dimensions. It speaks on the unjustness of the law in those days and in law in general I believe. I''ve now read most of Dickens'' more popular works. They can be long by today''s standards, but I must say that they always please me in the end. He knows how to build his characters and the relationships between them. He''s very good with names as well as most characters'' names tells you something about them right off the bat. He also throws in a good bit of humor. Yes, this is yet another winner in the vast Dickensian library.

I do warn that this book starts off with no narrator that I could see in the beginning but does get around to one and is rather slow in the beginning. It may wear on your patience but it is definitely worth it. Enjoy!
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J. Edgar Mihelic, MA, MBA
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Episodic text
Reviewed in the United States on November 15, 2020
I had been thinking to myself I need to brush up on some nineteenth century British literature to fill a hole in my own reading history. I reached out to a friend and asked what the best Dickens was to him, and he said Bleak House. So, I bought the book, and... See more
I had been thinking to myself I need to brush up on some nineteenth century British literature to fill a hole in my own reading history.

I reached out to a friend and asked what the best Dickens was to him, and he said Bleak House.
So, I bought the book, and it is a big brick of a book, almost a thousand pages.

I learned some things. Like I have joked in the past that Dickens got paid by the word and you can tell. I do not think that it is really a joke. I just think the expectations about what a book looks like are different. I still remember in high school keeping a reading journal for myself reading a Tale of Two Cities because there was so much going on. I think that instead of thinking of something like Bleak House as a novel it’s more like a TV show now, where it is episodic and driven by that kind of arc even if now we talk about them as novels. Like the Soprano’s or something.

I also joked that the thing was very character driven, but not in a good way. The writer of the afterward notes that there is 48 characters, and you feel it. The first half of the book is basically a character introduction and twenty pages of focus on them and then a new character. There is not a lot of narrative momentum, and if I were editing this for adaptation to film, there’s dozens of characters who could go out the door.

Because there is really nothing that happens. People die and get married and have disfiguring illness, but it is not until page 483 that something of note really happen. And then it feels incidental to the plot. The whole overarching thing holding the book together kinds of resolves weirdly and unsatisfactorily.

The weird thing is that overall, it is not bad. It just does not cohere in a big picture, so it took me forever to read. But I did read it, so it was good enough I wanted to keep carrying through with it.
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Julianne Quaine
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Hold what you have close and beware of pipe dreams
Reviewed in the United States on September 11, 2019
Fascinating story of a long running legal case to determine the inheritance of Jarndyce and Jarndyce and the impact on the uncertainty of the case of the likely inheritors. One young man sacrifices his future for his unfulfilled expectations from the case while others... See more
Fascinating story of a long running legal case to determine the inheritance of Jarndyce and Jarndyce and the impact on the uncertainty of the case of the likely inheritors. One young man sacrifices his future for his unfulfilled expectations from the case while others sensibly ignore it and get on with their lives. Along with this narrative is the mystery of Esther and her parentage, the treatment of women who don’t comply with societal expectations, and the importance of family. With a cast of many from all walks of London life whose intricate connections are gradually revealed this is an absorbing narrative which critiques Victorian England from parenting through to poverty.
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Bernard Sussman
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
BLEAK HOUSE: comparing Penguin & Oxford editions
Reviewed in the United States on August 28, 2011
If you''ve decided to read Dicken''s BLEAK HOUSE, one of the longest of the great English-language classics, your next decision is probably which edition to read. The Signet paperback edition is perfectly readable, as are most other simple editions. They have... See more
If you''ve decided to read Dicken''s BLEAK HOUSE, one of the longest of the great English-language classics, your next decision is probably which edition to read.

The Signet paperback edition is perfectly readable, as are most other simple editions. They have the text, and often the original illustrations, and sometimes a helpful introductory essay by some scholar. But, if you''re in the long haul, you probably would want an annotated edition with lots of reader aides. Your two most obvious choices are the Penguin paperback and the Oxford World Classics paperback.

Either one is a good choice and should be satisfactory, but I made a point of comparing both editions (I had a real jones for plowing through this novel, which is still mentioned in law school classes), so I can offer some insights.

Penguin edition: regular retail price (not the Amazon discount) $13. Total pages 965 of which the novel (including the author''s preface and the illustrations) uses 894 pages, with 12 pages of footnotes (grouped by chapter, keyed to the page number). Size of type 8 points, dimensions in inches 7 1/8 H x 4¼ W x 1 9/16 Thick, weight just a smidge over one pound. The chapter name is at the top of each page. There is an appendix of Dickens''s jottings on the development of the plot, which is (in my opinion) not very useful.

Oxford World Classics edition: regular retail price: $12. Total pages 945 + 29 pages of introductory notes, of which the novel uses 914 pages (in this edition the illustrations take an entire page, which is blank on the back), notes use 29 pages (keyed to the page number). Size of type 8 points, dimensions 7¾ H x 4½ W x 1 13/16 thick, weight approx 1¼ pound. The introductory notes include two simple maps of the London and of the Inns of Court, circa 1850, - but you can find similar maps on the internet.

Both are scrupulously based on authoritative printings of the novel and nicely printed, so much of the qualitative difference is in the footnotes. The two sets of footnotes are different, often to different places in the text, but both demonstrate a thorough grasp of Dickensian lit (I learned that there are at least two longstanding periodicals devoted to Dickens, countless books on him and his times, and that he wrote a wealth of newspaper articles and letters that are relevant to stuff in this novel).

I would be hard pressed to choose one of the two editions -- I finished this book by having one edition by my bedside and the other with me everywhere else -- but the Oxford edition, although a trifle more bulky, seems to have (slightly) more helpful footnotes.
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mb
1.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
another cheap reprint
Reviewed in the United States on November 2, 2019
Type too small, no line spacing. Once again a modern publisher has done a poor knock-off of the original 19th century version. Type shrunk to make a difficult book unreadable. Best evidence, compare the clarity of the modern introduction font vs the... See more
Type too small, no line spacing.

Once again a modern publisher has done a poor knock-off of the original 19th century version. Type shrunk to make a difficult book unreadable.

Best evidence, compare the clarity of the modern introduction font vs the smudgy font of the novel''s text. So bad.
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Top reviews from other countries

Gregor
1.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A review of this particular edition, not the book in general
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 10, 2020
So I''ve just finished Moby Dick and smugly believe I can read anything if I can read (and enjoy) that. Bleak House is from the same era but one page in and I''m baffled. Here''s a direct lift from the text: ''Both the arena of favor and the Court of Chancery are things of...See more
So I''ve just finished Moby Dick and smugly believe I can read anything if I can read (and enjoy) that. Bleak House is from the same era but one page in and I''m baffled. Here''s a direct lift from the text: ''Both the arena of favor and the Court of Chancery are things of precedent and utilization: oversleeping Rip Van Winkles who have played at unusual video games through a deal of thundery weather; napping beauties whom the knight will wake sooner or later, whilst all the stopped spits in the kitchen shall start to show prodigiously!'' Video games?? This appears to be some sort of computer-generated re-translation. Sentences are impossible to parse in places and ''five pounds'' (money) is translated into ''10 kilos''. Words like ''guys'' and ''kids'' spring up here and there. I''ve downloaded the 49p version and it''s fine.
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M. Dowden
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Jarndyce and Jarndyce
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 21, 2020
I must admit that I have always had a certain preference for 19th Century fiction, and when you are looking for something a bit chunky and enjoyable to read then you cannot really go wrong with Dickens. Like most people I have read this before and have seen dramatic...See more
I must admit that I have always had a certain preference for 19th Century fiction, and when you are looking for something a bit chunky and enjoyable to read then you cannot really go wrong with Dickens. Like most people I have read this before and have seen dramatic adaptations, but it is always great to re-read. Here we have the third person narrative style mixed with the first-person narrative, from Esther Summerson, the heroine of the tale. With numerous memorable characters, a tale that takes in the richest to the poorest, a satire on the legal profession, incorporating secrets, suicide and murder, along with other elements, so there is more than enough to get your teeth into with the number of sub-plots. Although perhaps a little slow in the earlier chapters, we can see Dickens setting his characters out and moving them around rather like a chess player, placing them in the correct place for them to continue the tale. At the heart of this though is the legendary case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has been going on for decades, with very few people knowing the origins and problems that have arisen over the period. With those awaiting to see if there will ever be an ending to the famous case, so there are those who sponge off others and try to profit by nefarious means, and of course the lawyers, who manage to get as much as they can financially from the case as it very slowly makes its way through Chancery. With Esther, so we see that she does not have any knowledge of her mother, but as this progresses, so we find out who the woman really is, as she is taken in by John Jarndyce, who an unwilling family member of the case also takes in two wards from it, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. Dickens really weaves a great and memorable tale as he brings to life the period he is writing of, not only giving us some great characters, such as Mrs Jellyby, who is more interested in her ‘good works’ than her husband and children, who all suffer, Krook, who once his time is up Dickens kills off by spontaneous combustion (as only he could do), Inspector Bucket, one of the first proper detectives to appear in English literature, the spongers Skimpole and Turveydrop, and of course the lawyer, Tulkinghorn. This book with its biting satire of the law did help as part of the cause to bring about reform, and we can see how people suffer at the hands of the law, with the monies needed to fight certain cases through to the bitter end. By giving us two narrative styles here so we see what is happening, and how Esther feels and reacts. Really this story has a little bit of everything in it thus giving a lot of satisfaction to the reader as you work your way through this long novel.
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richard ewence
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Charles Dickens'' longest book - and it felt like it.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on November 14, 2019
Bleak House was one of the books we studied for English A Level so, 40 years later, I thought it would be good to read it again. Well, let''s just say that it''s taken an awful long time to get through it. The book is set in fog and the plot is permanently bogged down in a...See more
Bleak House was one of the books we studied for English A Level so, 40 years later, I thought it would be good to read it again. Well, let''s just say that it''s taken an awful long time to get through it. The book is set in fog and the plot is permanently bogged down in a way that is meant to represent the endlessly impenetrable workings of the Court of Chancery in the case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce. The last quarter of the book is livened up by the introduction of Inspector Bucket, in what is arguably the earliest example of a Dective Story in English Literature (as I seem to remember from my A Level notes). But a rattling good yarn (like Nicholas Nickelby or A Tale of Two Cities) it ain''t, and the cast of characters is so long and bewildering that it was almost impossible to remember where and when they had been previously encountered in the story - never mind being able to follow the plot. However, let''s just say that it was absorbing (of time as much as anything) and provided a feast of Charles Dickens - for anyone who likes that sort of thing.
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David Bisset
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A Dickensian masterpiece
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on November 8, 2017
For some reason I had never read this novel. I am now not surprised that many scholars consider it to be the greatest of all Dickens'' novels. It has a myriad of characters: a complex plot; an impassioned attack upon the whole Chancery system; magnificent descriptive...See more
For some reason I had never read this novel. I am now not surprised that many scholars consider it to be the greatest of all Dickens'' novels. It has a myriad of characters: a complex plot; an impassioned attack upon the whole Chancery system; magnificent descriptive passages - and language which reached the heights of eloquence. Reading this book is a memorable experience!
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Harvest
1.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Very poor version of a great book.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on August 17, 2020
Terrible and what feels like a rushed version of this book. The whole thing is filled with random words that do no appear in the original, such as video game and e book. Totally unreadable. Feels like it has been scanned into an illiterate computer and then spat out. One of...See more
Terrible and what feels like a rushed version of this book. The whole thing is filled with random words that do no appear in the original, such as video game and e book. Totally unreadable. Feels like it has been scanned into an illiterate computer and then spat out. One of the great books of literature ruined by predictive text. Avoid.
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