In George Brimley’s review of Bleak House he claims the novel to be a failure for the reasons it is a success: “Bleak house is, even more than any of its predecessors, chargeable with not simply faults, but absolute want of construction. A novelist may invent an extravagant or an uninteresting plot – may fail to balance his masses, to distribute his light and shade – may prevent his story from marching, by episode and discursion: but Mr. Dickens discards plot, while he persists in adopting a form for his thoughts to which plot is essential, and where the absence of a coherent story is fatal to continuous interest.”
Like Howard Jacobson said 150 years later, “If you haven’t got the heart for messy, dirty Dickens, then leave him alone.” Brimley is right that in Bleak House, Dickens invented a strange and extravagant plot, failed to balance his masses, failed to distribute light and shade, and prevented his story from marching by episode and discursion, but none of this is because of want of construction, but because of a brilliance and originality of construction, which freed him from the demands of a coherent story – the shackles of conventional narrative – and allowed him to cultivate a linguistic and literary freedom. With his literary freedom, he creates and manipulates endless symbols; With his linguistic freedom, he tells his story and supports his symbols with diverse and commanding prose; both of which have intrinsic value, creating his vision of apocalyptic London as vividly as possible; and also extrinsic value, expanding our consciousness with modern renderings of ancient symbols, and with poetically rendered philosophical passages.
In Bleak House, Dickens’ does not set us off on a linear expedition from scene one, which he will never depart from, as he does in Great Expectations; in the words of professor Cunningham, Bleak House arrives like Crusoe’s ship, full of boxes inside of boxes, ready to be unpacked. It is in the act of unpacking each one of them that Dickens’ departs from coherent narrative, because he chooses to dwell in certain boxes a little longer than Brimley would call balanced, and chooses to keep other boxes closed, in a way Brimley would say is want of light. But because of the attention to certain objects and character-traits that Dickens affords himself with this methodical unpacking narrative style, he cultivates a literary freedom to examine the symbolism in each of his novels boxes.
In Thomas Carlyle’s parable of two men, one of whom, in red clothes, tells the other, in blue clothes, to go hang himself, and because the red symbolizes law, and blue, criminality, the man in blue walks to the gallows and is hanged, we see that while clothes have little intrinsic value, as symbols they are as valuable as our institutions themselves, since our institutions would cease to exist without them. Such are the extrinsically symbolic letters and documents of Bleak House, which, while at the end of the novel are garbage, stuffed in bags, during the novel, are the hinges for people’s life and death, happiness and misery.
Carlyle continues, speaking of symbols that have both intrinsic and extrinsic value, “Of this latter sort of symbol are all true Works of Art.” He claims these symbols can alter the old symbols on which our being is built, and progress society, “A Hierarch, therefore, and Pontiff of the World will we call him, the Poet and inspired Maker; who, Prometheus-like, can shape new Symbols, and bring new Fire from Heaven to fix it here.” Such are the characters and characterizations in Bleak house, which are represented by simple traits but altar the symbols of the past. Dickens destroys symbols representative of old, outdated ideas, and searches for new ones while exploring the boxes of his novel. When he characterizes the law as a fog, the old symbol of the law as solid and resolute is gone, and a new symbol of something foggy, odorous, serpentine, and destined to combust again and again like the mythical phoenix replaces it. With his characterization of children as unnaturally constrained and ill taken care of by their parents, he destroys the classic symbol of loving natural parents, and searches for new symbols in kind-hearted guardians. The simple characterizations of charitable philanthropists in the book as impractical, alters previous symbols of simple Christian charity, and also searches for a new symbol, which we do not find in Mrs. Jellyby, whose plans for Borrioboola-Gha waste all her time, as she makes her children miserable; nor in Mrs Pardiggle, whose entirely unsuccessful schemes don’t help the brick makers; but in all the characters that try to help Joe, who is visibly suffering, and especially in Esther, whose personal compassion is entirely selfless and unconscious, yet thoroughly self-conscious.
To complain that this is a lack of construction because no cohesive story emerges from these symbols – that none of them becomes a center for the novel – is to miss the point. In opening the boxes of his novel as he chooses, he gives himself the literary freedom to stay true to his vision of a nightmarish foggy world in which all the characters are lost, searching for answers to which the questions are unknown. And he also creates symbols, through retailorings of old symbols, that have extrinsic value, expanding our consciousness to include the center-less, foggy, messy part of our own world, despite their existing only on materially cheap pieces of paper.
Dickens’ inventive mode of storytelling also affects the language of Bleak House. Because the language is not constrained by a linear mode of storytelling, Dickens has the linguistic freedom to vary his writing to best suit what he is writing about, allowing him to stay even truer to his vision and symbols, and to produce writing with extrinsic and intrinsic value.
On the surface, the language is also messy. Today, we would call it “experimental fiction.” But it is successful experimental fiction, in that it breaks the rules of the language in which it is written to successful effect. It is full of sentence fragments, indeed, it begins with sentence fragments: “London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather…Fog everywhere;” it is also full of almost indecipherably long sentences, “Shirking and sharking , in all their many varieties, have been sown broadcast by the ill-fated cause; and even those who have contemplated its history from the outermost circle of such evil, have been insensibly tempted into a loose way of letting bad things alone to take their own bad course, and a loose belief that if the world go wrong, it was, in some off-hand manner, never to go right;” it has fast passages, slow passages, wandering scenes and points of view, and methodical dwelling moments, all tailored to best fit the part of the novel he is writing, and tailored so freely because it is not obliged to move from one plot-point to the next.
When Dickens writes his symbolic moments, like in the deaths of Krook and Joe, he uses this freedom of language to leave the narrative and point out his symbolism: of The Chancellor: “The Lord Chancellor of that Court, true to his title in his last act, has died the death of all Lord Chancellors in all Courts, and of all authorities in all places under all names soever, where false pretences are made, and where injustice is done;” and of Joe: “The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead!/ Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.”
And some passages, with truly extrinsically valuable writing, rise above the novel entirely, like this piece of dialogue hinting at the injustice of the concept of original sin: “They die in prison, though. Their lives, poor silly things, are so short in comparison with Chancery proceedings, that, one by one, the whole collection has died over and over again. I doubt, do you know, whether one of these, though they are all young, will live to be free! Ve-ry mortifying, is it not?”
While the novels language is undoubtedly messy, and chargeable of faults, it is not chargeable of lack of construction. Without the deliberately messy construction of it, it would not be so intrinsically valuable, suiting every scene of the novel so well, nor would it be so extrinsically powerful, leaping off the page and into our consciousness.
Brimley said that Bleak House is unbalanced and want of light. He should have gone further. He should of said that the vision in Bleak House, the symbols of Bleak House, and the very writing of Bleak house, were all unbalanced and want of light; because that was Dickens intention with the novel, and he achieved it masterfully, constructing a mode of storytelling that gave him the literary and linguistic freedom to stay true to his vision, and with the truth of his vision – the symbolism and writing – expand our consciousness. That a critic could read this as folly, is a testament to how thoroughly Dickens’ got his haunting, folly-ridden vision across, exposing the harsh melancholy side of reality through his imaginative unreality.