Montreal Dickens Fellowship Study Questions: “Bleak House”
October 20, 2020
- Dickens is a genius at setting the tone of his novels right away. How does he achieve this with the opening paragraphs of “Bleak House”? Are you hooked from the beginning by the symbolism of the fog and the primeval ooze everywhere (in nature and in chancery!)?
- Chesney Wold and the Deadlocks are a study in stagnation. Even their name reflects their ineffectiveness. What do you think of Lord and Lady Deadlock? What do you make of Lady Deadlock’s unexpected reaction to the handwriting of Tulkinghorn’s legal documents? In the midst of the deadness and boredom, how does this foreshadowing of some dramatic event to come, add to our interest and the suspense of the novel?
- Bleak House is unique in that it has two separate narrators. After the first two chapters, narrated by an omnipresent third person who narrates in the present tense, the third chapter is taken over by Esther’s narrative (related in the past tense). As you continue to read, compare and contrast the two narrative styles. Why do you think Dickens chose to tell his story in this way? Does this format add or distract from the story?
- In just a few words, Dickens is able to convey a very strong impression in terms of his characters. What do you make of Miss Barbary? Mr. Kenge? Ada? Richard? “Bleak House” is remarkable for its huge number of major and minor characters. How does Dickens make them all so unique and memorable? Make a list of characters as you encounter them and note how they relate to one another.
- Mrs. Jellyby and her family are very dysfunctional. The total absorption of Mrs. Jellyby by her African missionary work leads to the effectual abandonment of her husband and children. Comment on Caddy’s black (inky) slave-like appearance in the context of her mother’s preoccupation with foreign natives. Notice the detail in which Dickens “catalogs” the Jellyby household. Dickens had been disgusted by the 1851 Crystal Palace World Exhibition, which highlighted England’s industrial and imperial progress on a very grand scale. “Bleak House” has been said to be Dickens own large-scale “home exhibit” of England’s neglected domestic social and spiritual shortcomings. Comment.
- Birds play a prominent role as symbols in this novel. Discuss Miss Flite’s birds in terms of their relationship to the imprisonment caused by chancery.
- Compare and contrast Mr. Krook and the Lord Chancellor in terms of waste, hoarding, decay, collections of mounds of useless papers and their guardianship/ landlord ship of the victims of the law (the wards in chancery, Miss Flite)
- What is your first impression of Mr. Jarndyce? What is his motivation for helping Esther, Ada and Richard? How do the changes he made to Bleak House, since his uncle’s tragic death, reflect his character? Can you think of other examples in which architecture or décor are reflective of the characters that inhabit them?
- Dickens was an astute businessman as well as a great writer. He wanted to sell books and appealed to his public with melodramatic, sensationalist and gothic elements in his story. One of these is the ghost story associated with Chesney Wold. Another is Mr. Guppy’s mysterious attraction to Lady Deadlock’s portrait. Another is the soldier son who never returned. How do these add to the suspense, mystery and interest of the novel? Do they make you want to read on?
- Do you like Mr. Skimpole? Given that he is Mr. Jarndyce’s friend, what does this say about John Jarndyce? Esther is leery of him. What does this reveal to you about Esther’s character?
- Compare and contrast Mrs. Pardiggle and Mrs. Jellyby in terms of their parenting skills. Who is worse?
- Do you like Mr. Guppy? How effective is Dickens use of his minor characters for comic relief?
- Comment on Dickens’s depiction of the death of Nemo. The room description, his name (“no one” in Latin and “omen” backwards) and the odor of opium all portend evil.