Book Report: Critical Essays on Charles Dickens's Bleak House
27 May 2004, 3:37 PM
Still on that Bleak House kick, YHB made it the whole way through Critical Essays on Charles Dickens's Bleak House, a collection of eight essays from varying viewpoints and methods. Or methodologies. Not sure.
I’m afraid I am going to be snide through this note. And without real cred for snidosity; I haven’t taken a lit class in fifteen years, and the three college-level courses I did take were light on secondary sources, anyway. OK, when I say light, one of them had none at all, and was in fact student-run (and notorious). Another was a freshman intro, and had perhaps one or two essays, I think, in addition to lots of primary sources. The third did assign some essays of the sort that this book collects. So, I’m saying that I have no idea whether this gang of writing is good, bad, or representative of its ilk, so my reaction is absolute, rather than relative.
Another warning: there are SPOILERS for Bleak House in what follows. I assume all my Gentle Readers know that I may well spoil the book I’m noting, but this is a warning for a different book, which is the subject of this book but not of this note. Anyway. So if you are still in the middle of Bleak House, or planning to read it someday, skip the rest of this note. Unless, I suppose, you’ve already seen the Masterpiece Theatre version.
Among the things that annoy me about this sort of essay is the tendency to overstate the case.
“The juxtaposition of Lady Dedlock’s brooding face and [her maid] Hortense’s black eyes [in a mirror] connects the two by contiguity alone. But Lady Dedlock has already disguised herself in her maid’s cloak to visit Captain Hawdon’s grave. The fusion of the two women is more or less complete.”
Lawrence Frank, “Through a Glass Darkly: Esther Summerson and Bleak House”, p. 69
More or less. Well, less. I mean, the point that I think Mr. Frank wants to make is that these two tricks make us think of one in terms of the other, and that by thinking of the two characters together, I can learn something about each of them that I hadn’t previously happened on. And that’s true. But they aren’t fused. They remain two different characters.
Mr. Frank is not alone in this, tho’ I won’t bore Gentle Reader with further examples. It’s just rhetorical hype, and it annoys YHB, but that’s not a real problem. It is a problem when the writer isn’t just using it for hype. Mr. Frank, after all, knows that Hortense is a character herself, and is metaphorically describing them as fused to make a point. I’m not sure Michael Ragussis, in “The Ghostly Signs of Bleak House”, understands that language is not a disease. I’m not sure he understands that names are not infectious. He did appear to be making a metaphor, at first, but then he treats the metaphor as if it had substance.
Mr. Ragussis’s essay has another problem I saw in a few of the articles, and I don’t know how to describe it. It seems to me that essays of this sort can do three things which are pretty useful: they can describe what Dickens intended to do and how he achieves that, they can describe the water Dickens was swimming in to show what he put in without knowledge or deliberation, or they can describe how the water we are swimming in ourselves refracts the story as we read it. Some of these essays I could put into one or more of those categories; Michael Steig’s fine “Bleak House: Iconography of Darkness” shows how Dickens used his influence on Phiz’ illustrations to achieve certain things, and how Phiz achieved them. “Will and Society in Bleak House”, by Joseph I. Fradin, makes some actual if not altogether persuasive and on the whole negligible points about Dickens’ intentions regarding “the dialectic between self and society”, tracing the various ways it plays out in the text, and reinforcing the idea (which I believe is George Orwell’s) that Dickens’ solution to all social problems is that people simply be nicer to each other. Well, Mr. Fradin wouldn’t call it a solution, but a rejection of other solutions. Much the same is the point of H.M. Daleski’s “Bleak House”, which, however, sees the play of the idea in different aspects of the book. “The High Tower of His Mind: Psychoanalysis and the Reader of Bleak House”, by Albert D. Hutter attempts, I think, to describe the water a current reader swims in, in order to explain how and why we enjoy reading it. I say “I think” because I don’t really understand the article, which makes claims about “universal psychological function” and “individuation”; it may well be that the man is talking sense, but if so, he isn’t talking to me. Still, I dimly understand what he is attempting, and I think it might be worth doing.
On the other hand, “The Ghostly Signs of Bleak House”. Heck, I have no idea what it’s about at all. I don’t know what “Bleak House I: Suspended Animation”, by Robert Newsom is about, either. Both of them seem to combine obvious falsehoods with baffling obscureness. I suspect that both are sufficiently deep into deconstruction that they have not only divorced words from meaning in the text at hand, but in their own works. Here’s Newsom: “Though Esther does not use the word ‘cause’ here, nevertheless she is implicitly carrying on the elaborate play on the word that has begun in the first chapter with ‘the cause’ of Jarndyce and Jarndyce and that in many ways forms the novel’s real subject or asks the central question—‘Where do I come from?’” (p. 141) As Jon Stewart would say, wha-a-a-a-a? Is the elaborate pun on ‘cause’ (legal causes, philanthropic causes, and causation, I think) the novel’s real subject? If it is, what does that have to do with “Where do I come from”? If the “Where do I come from” question is interpreted causally, so as to make sense in the context, it’s a trivial point; of course a central plot point is the mystery of Esther’s parentage, but then that mystery is solved two-thirds of the way through the book. And if Esther can carry on the so-called pun by a reference to one thing causing another, isn’t the pun carried on through Little Dorritt, and the Maltese Falcon and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood or any book anywhere that has any discussion of any two events which bear, one on the other, some influence? And if any one of these stupid points really is your point, isn’t there some way you could have said so?
Oh, and here’s Ragussis:
The novel’s ever-present stain, a sign of the disease of language, explains the convergence of discourse with intercourse, of inkstain with bloodstain. The stain is at once a point of origin (the stain of the love letters, the father-writer’s stain of procreation) and an end point (the stain of Hawdon’s grave, the stain of Lady Dedlock’s shame that forces her to this same grave, the stain of blood on Tulkinghorn’s floor). Hawdon’s stained desk is the center of the novel: the inkstain on this desk is as inescapable as his past (in fact his writing does lead back to his past, and to his ultimate identification). This stained desk is the workplace of the sin of language, where the fathers name is blotted out, erased, only to give rise to a series of false names that make a ghost of the father—a sin that is visited on the daughter.
p. 151 [the paragraph goes on for 257 more words, but the typist collapsed]
It’s possible that Mr. Ragussis is just saying that there are a lot of references to stains of varying kinds, and that stains and blots and so on, literal and metaphoric, are also connected to disease, which also appears in the book a lot, and so, um, you see, oh, people give false names a lot, too, which is like a stain, sort of, if you look at it right, and um, what’s your fucking point?
Sorry about that. Anyway.