Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fire, bells, murderous refuse - this connects to that - I did not write up the bird theme in Bleak House, but was tempted

The tightly planned, or brilliantly improvised, nature of Bleak House is evident throughout the novel, or in another sense not evident, since so much of the matter that makes up the planning is unlikely to be evident to the first-time reader, nor much of it to the second-time reader, and I doubt that I the third time was a complete charm for me, either.  Amazing that Dickens could keep track of it all.  I know, he had notes, but so did I.

So of course I did not pay particular attention, when I read the book twenty years, when the heroine dreams that she is “no one,” because I did not know that there was a character almost literally named No One; once I did know, having reached Chapter 10, of course I did not remember Esther’s words from way back in Chapter 4; even if somehow I did, I would not understand the significance.  More sneakily, Nemo is first mentioned in Chapter 5, but only as an incidental detail in an advertisement.

Even something as unsubtle as the constant association of the junkman Krook and fire – “the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth, as if he were on fire from within” (Ch. 5) – is almost invisible the first time through.  Unsubtle once you know what happens to Krook in a scene I might put in the ten greatest scenes in fiction if I thought in terms of Top 10 lists.  It is just more stuff in a novel crammed with stuff, and in that case a chapter that features twice as much stuff as usual because it is partly set in a junk shop.  “There were a great many ink bottles.”  I don’t think that is anything more than scene-setting, but I used to wrongly think that of so much else in the book.

This is Esther writing.  She is on her way to Bleak House.  It will be the seventh bleak house she has visited in less than fifty pages – another thing I counted this time – but the first one actually named Bleak House:

It was delightful to see the green landscape before us and the immense metropolis behind; and when a waggon with a train of beautiful horses, furnished with red trappings and clear-sounding bells, came by us with its music, I believe we could all three have sung to the bells, so cheerful were the influences around.  (Ch. 6, first paragraph)

Now, the last line of the same chapter:

So I said to myself, “Esther, Esther, Esther! Duty, my dear!” and gave my little basket of housekeeping keys such a shake that they sounded like little bells and rang me hopefully to bed.

As Edgar Allen Poe once said so memorably, “bells, bells, bells, bells, \ Bells, bells, bells.”  Maybe I should have been keeping track of a bell theme, but I believe it just serves as a lovely way to pull the beginning and end of this chapter together.

Here’s another one.  Lady Dedlock, “bored to death,” is vacationing in Paris, where “poor wretches” are “encompassing” the city “with dancing, love-making, wine-drinking, tobacco-smoking, tomb-visiting, billiard card and domino playing, quack-doctoring, and much murderous refuse, animate and inanimate” (Ch. 12) – what could that mean, with murderous refuse?  Just a few lines earlier, Lady Dedlock’s French maid was offhandedly mentioned.  Why would I think these details are connected?  All will be revealed, 590 pages later.

So much of this kind of thing, so much, everywhere in the novel.  All those ink bottles.


  1. Perhaps a "spoiler alert" notice would have been a good idea; some readers unfamiliar with BH might appreciate the heads-up. Even my previous readings have been refreshed by your posting. I am not sure I wanted to be refreshed.

    Nevertheless, you -- as almost always -- provide plenty of thought-provoking and eye-opening criticism. Well done!

  2. Not wanting to start a “spoiler alert” discussion, but I always felt like Wuxpectations was a place where readers adverse to “spoilers” should [t]read lightly. Look for the old A Watched Plot Never Spoils discussion.


    As for all these details, I figure when writing a serial novel, a seasoned pro like Dickens start off by leaving little treats all over the place that he can pick up later and make part of the main course. He has a plan, but he also makes sure not to lock himself in too tightly, but keeps a few doors open in case he wants to explore some more. When done well, those treats are good in their own right, so we don’t mind when they’re not an integral part of the main course. Treats to doors to treats again. Dickens I ain’t.

    Perhaps all those ink bottles were setting up a part of the book that Dickens never wrote. That could be a fun exercise, to try to figure out what *might have been* through internal evidence in the text. Fun for someone other than me.

    For non-serialized novels, I imagine the author would go back through the text and clear out a lot of those surplus ideas.

    I gather a lot of fans of TV shows these days spend a lot of time close-reading every episode and discussing them online, trying to figure out which details might be significant in the future, or coming up with alternative "readings" to what's going on. I recall a localized variant of this went down in my small town back when _Twin Peaks_ was on. I daren’t even wonder what might have gone down on _Lost_ forums.


    Tom, this post makes me curious about how you take read and notes. Do you keep a list in the back of the book like: "Bells, page N, NN, NNN ...."? I find myself occasionally disappointed with how poorly I read a lot of books, so I've started thinking a bit more about how others go about it. Fondling the details is certainly appealing. Perhaps keeping a blog is a good incentive to thinking harder about books, rather than plowing through them and thinking later "Oh right, Howards End. Uhh, there was a house. 'Only Connect', right?" and realizing I might well know less about it now than I did prior to reading it.

    Self-consciousness is a damning thing here. Worrying about my future self scoffing at my naive notes. If I go back to a book in ten years and find "Irony!" in the margin, maybe that's not really such an awful thing. It's not like Nabokov's going to read my notes, but apparently I expect my future self to be a real jerk.

  3. It's possible I meant to write "read and take notes" in the first sentence of the third part.

  4. I am not averse to spoilers, and I do not want to piss off anyone by mentioning such things, so I will simply repeat my observation, Tom, that your perceptions and critiques interest me. Now, as I slouch off to hide again beneath my bridge, where some people must think I live my trolling life, I will try to avoid further offense.

  5. I suspect I have driven off any readers who are believe books are spoiled by knowledge. This was my third reading of Bleak House - I found it fresh and tender, if anything more flavorful than ever. I will continue to employ the standards of writers in The New York Review of Books and The New Republic (RIP), of Edmund Wilson and Virginia Woolf, of James Wood and Ruth Franklin.

    If anything, the last two days have been all too respectful of theoretical readers who do not know the book, making the posts too cryptic. Krook is associated with fire because he spontaneously combusts - kaboom! Man, what a scene.

    A great example of Øystein's argument, too. Obviously Dickens knew what was going to happen to Krook from the beginning, so he could build images around his plan. In other cases he must have just spilled a lot of ideas into the book for possible later use, or fixed on themes so general (birds, say, or dust in Our Mutual Friend) that he could find something creative to do them on the spot. I know Nabokov discovered his imagery by writing, and then made it all fit together with revision, but a true serial novelist does not have that luxury.

    The books that might have been - I think this is pretty close to what some writers really do.

    Ah, for the Days of Watched Plots Never Spoil, when I was so full of ideas and energy, so confident in my bluster, so eager to spend a week writing about golems or mummified cats.

    Daniel Deronda has a reference to mummy cats. You can be sure I made a note of that!

    Because I read so many library books, I make notes in a spreadsheet, a system with plenty of disadvantages. Some of those notes are just what you describes, a page number and "bells" or "Krook fire" or a quotation that somehow describes the novel, so will make a good title for a post. Some books end up with almost no notes, which usually means I did not get too far below the surface.

    Sometimes, especially when a book is new to me, most of the notes are on the wrong track and will not be useful. I have no idea what I am going to do with Daniel Deronda, which I have not been reading well. A problem for the new year, since I won't finish it until then.

    Blogging really has helped my memory for the details of books, for scenes. Or at least the parts I write about.

  6. Spreadsheets! What you say about some notes being on the wrong track is the sort of thing I don't think about when I read posts and essays and marvel at all the things people see.

    Following D.G. Myers' suit and always read with a pen in hand, and perhaps occasionally re-reading Professor Burstein's "I never see those things" might do my reading some good.

    Yeah, Golem week really was something, ditto the Scottish clishmaclaver; but the Chernyshevsky series this year is just about the craziest thing I've seen in the litblog world. And to think you guys got so much good stuff out of it! I'd give up within ten pages with a "nah, I ain't feelin' it" and totter back to Flashman or something.

    R.T.: Sorry, English being my second language, there's a good chance that tonal subtleties get warped in both my reading and writing. I was certainly not offended (or even lightly miffed) and sure hope I didn't cause you any vexation.

    1. No vexation here, kind sirs, but my foggy notions I hope will be forgiven. See Beyond Eastrod for background (e.g., recent medical distractions but not excuses).

  7. The spreadsheet might as well be a plain text file for all I do with it. With Bleak House using the spreadsheet did allow me to keep a running total of pages in the omniscient and Esther sections, but I do not normally do anything like that.

    Given the resutls, Brustein's practices must be ideal.

    I appreciate the kind words about the various events, especially the Chernyshevsky reading. That was great, great fun. I will return to it in some way in a Best of the Year post.