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Reading “Bleak House” in Brunswick

March 1, 2024

Dila Cakir

For much of the month of February, on every Monday and Wednesday from 2:50 to 4:15 p.m., I left behind the crisp air of the Maine winter for the thick, implacable fog of Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House.” The novel, which was published in serial form between 1852 and 1853, was Dickens’s ninth. But it was our first in “Victorian Realism,” the class taught by Professor of English and Cinema Studies Aviva Briefel that serves for me as a coveted escape from the tedium of college life.

With the Penguin edition standing at a formidable 989 pages, “Bleak House” is—above all other things—long. Its characters can be difficult to keep track of and its manifold plots winding. But it is also bursting with life and teeming with wonderful oddities: There are characters with names like Mr. Turveydrop and birds with names like Spinach. There is spontaneous combustion, murder and love between cousins. There is an interminable court case and a government inhabited by the likes of Sir Thomas Doodle, Lord Coodle and the Duke of Foodle.

Through these eccentricities, Dickens constructs a world that is at once profoundly intimate and incomprehensibly large. He weaves together the lives of disparate individuals—a shrewd detective and a poor orphan, a destitute copyist and a haughty lady, a brickmaker’s wife and an anxious law stationer—excavating improbable connections. He excoriates the English court system, advances a scathing critique of foreign philanthropy and interrogates the linkages between contagion and poverty. In short, the novel contains multitudes proportional to its length.

With hundreds of pages to read in between classes, Dickens inevitably followed me into the weekends. And into casual conversation. And into parties and Orient production nights, and, it seemed, just about everything that I did. (The editors-in-chief of this paper are likely reading this with vexation—and you thought all of the talk about “Bleak House” was over!)

I was far from alone in my obsession. Outside of class, many of us continued to pose and debate a number of incisive questions about the novel: Is Esther gay or bisexual? Are Phil Squod and George an item? Which of our friends corresponds to which character in the novel? Our infatuation with “Bleak House” culminated in the creation of a March Madness-style bracket of its 60-odd characters; Hortense, the French maid, emerged triumphant.

Thus, despite the 3,000 miles and nearly two centuries separating us, “Bleak House,” like its fog, left an indelible mark. In reflecting on my reading experience, I am reminded of one passage in particular. In it, the narrator considers the entanglements between the novel’s various characters—entanglements that transcend social and class boundaries—offering a meditation on the ways in which we are unwittingly implicated in each other’s lives: “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 light upon 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!”

The improbable bonds that sustain the world of “Bleak House” are part of Dickens’s attempt to “narrate a larger collective,” as critic Pamela Gilbert writes. Gilbert contends that Dickens “work[s] toward an embrace of a larger collective,” but, as she notes, it is a collective that is circumscribed along national and racial lines; thus Dickens’s attempt to expand the boundaries of community ultimately falls short. And though Dickens’s conception of the collective certainly would not have included me, I am nonetheless moved by these unexpected entanglements—both those forged within the diegesis and those forged in our class’s collective experience of reading the novel. As we obsessed over Dickens’s characters, we found ourselves, like them, “very curiously brought together.” And so, against all odds and across great gulfs, I find Dickens imbricated in the contours of my daily life in 21st-century Brunswick, Maine.

Mina Zanganeh is a member of the Class of 2025.


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