From the Archives: The Last Time I Taught Bleak House

bleakhouseoupFor some reason this phrase has been running through my head to the tune of “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” I don’t know why I would be feeling nostalgic about teaching Bleak House, though it was rather a while ago–it was Fall 2008, to be precise. Because we’ve started work on it in my 19th-century fiction class this week, I’ve been reviewing old notes and also old blog posts, which prove (among other things) to be a valuable archive. Because (so far at least) my ideas about the novel haven’t really changed in the meantime, and because a lot of people who might stop by and read this post almost certainly never read my earlier ones, I thought I’d repost a couple of them, starting with this one about the beginning of the novel and the beginning of my class discussions of it.


From the Novel Readings Archives: Fog. Mud. Smoke. Soot. Gas. Fog.

Bleak House Shadows (Phiz)

No, that’s not today’s prediction from Environment Canada (though there is something implacable about today’s weather, even if it’s not yet November). This week in one of my classes, it’s time for Bleak House–by comparison with which, nothing else I’m doing at work really matters. The introduction to our Oxford World’s Classics edition remarks that the opening ‘set piece’ is ‘too famous to need quotation.’ Well, I don’t know about that, especially because I consider it an aesthetic accomplishment self-sufficient enough to render critical commentary not just redundant, but irritating. Here are the first four paragraphs, then (three of them composed entirely, it’s worth noting, of sentence fragments).

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time–as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Sure, there’s plenty to be remarked about this passage, beginning with its literary virtuosity and metaphoric ingenuity. Dinosaurs and compound interest? Snowflakes in mourning? ‘Fog’ used 13 times in one paragraph? Gas that’s ‘haggard and unwilling’? I’m reduced to the exclamatory mode some critics objected to in James Wood’s How Fiction Works: “What a piece of writing that is!” It puts to shame other writers called ‘Dickensian’ for no apparent reason except that they write multiplot novels with quirky characters and lots of emotion. There’s also its extraordinary efficiency at launching both governing ideas and dominant images of the vast novel it introduces; fog, mud, and infection order the thinking of Bleak House as much as webs do the same for Middlemarch. But really, the point of this passage is just to read it, to experience it, and then to carry the impression of it with you as you read on. (Is this response ‘aesthetic’? I’m not sure, or at least I’m not sure I could separate my admiration for the literary features of this passage from my sense of its ethics–or, better, its ethos.)

Today I’ll give a brief introduction to Dickens and some context for the first publication of Bleak House. Then my chief concern is to help my students find some reading (and note-taking) strategies to make their experience of the novel rewarding, which means helping them organize the mass of material (and the array of characters) they will be rapidly confronted with. We’ll do some ‘getting to know you’ work first of all: who do we meet in each of the first few chapters, and how are they connected? I’ll encourage them to keep a list of characters in each plot or location and to draw lines between them as relationships are discovered. They will have a chaotic criss-cross of lines before too long, which of course is the point–everything and everyone is connected, as Dickens challenges us to realize with his disingenous questions in Chapter 16:

What connexion can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of sunshine on him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!

My other main strategy is to get them thinking in terms of themes and variations. Today, for instance, we’ll look at how many ways the idea of housekeeping is refracted across the different story lines. Finally (though this is certainly not my last priority) I will try to convey, and make contagious, my enthusiasm for Dickens’s language in the novel, and to get them thinking about how his literary strategies (including the kinds of wild metaphors we get in the first few paragraphs) are important to his conception of the ‘condition of England question,’ and to his answer to it.

[originally posted October 27, 2008]

2 Comments to From the Archives: The Last Time I Taught Bleak House

  1. Don Hackett's Gravatar Don Hackett
    January 12, 2013 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    Not the least of the great things about this novel is the pursuit sequence near the end. At the time I read it, I thought it one of the three most thrilling bits I had read recently. The other two: The sustained-pitch ending of Robert Crais’ Demolition Angel, a literate crime novel and intentional thriller; and and an electric shock moment near the end of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise.

  2. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    January 12, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Don, I haven’t read those other two examples, but I have to agree about how thrilling — and devastating — the chase scene is in Bleak House. (You remind me that I bought Suite Francaise some time ago and have yet to read it!).

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