The novel that spoke to the year 2007 and 2008 is Dickens's Bleak House. I agree with Edmund Wilson that Bleak House is a masterpiece; the novel is the greatest written by a Englishperson.
Dickens in his novel was describing England in the 1840s as a Bleak House, a nation dominated by corruption as symbolized in his fictional world by the Court of Chancery, supposed to fairly settle wills and estates. Within the novel the lawsuit Jarndyce versus Jardyce in the Court of Chancery has lasted for a generation, destroying the heirs who patiently wait forever for judgment but the lawyers' fees eat up the whole estate so at the end the heirs get nothing , the estate is bankrupt, and only the lawyers have profited. What's great about Dickens' he makes judgments: against lawyers corruption, against the corrupt Court of Chancery, against the brutalization of the poor and the homeless. Well, right now the United States is also a Bleak House dominated by corruption: the corruption of the Iraq War totals $100 billion. What is missing in a lot contemporary fiction is Dickens' moral judgments.
I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a novel which won a recent Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but the well-written novel has a father and son trying to survive in post-apocalypse America. In many ways I thought the Road was metaphorically saying this country is now so bad off all a decent person can do is suffer it--I find that a huge cop out. Give me Dickens any day of the week instead.
Bleak House is long--881 pages. Hurrah to great length of a wonderful novel! I loved to leave the presentday Bleak House U.S.A. go to into Dickens' world where he creates characters who care for the poor, the orphans, and reunite destroyed families. As his heroine Dickens has Esther Summerson, a poor orphan, a flawed human being, raised by an aunt who rejects her until she is rescued by wealthy John Jarndyce who rescues seven orphans, giving them a home.
Mr. Jarndyce and Esther are both the ethical heart of the corrupt inhumane society. One small example is when Esther finds Jo, a homeless boy suffering from smallpox, so takes him home to give him shelter, and her maid Charley (also an orphan rescued by Mr. Jarndyce), gets smallpox, so Esther nurses her night and day until Charley recovers. Then Esther gets smallpox, so Charley nurses her night and day until Esther recovers. What's amazing in the cold brutal Bush's America of 2007-8 is that these characters go out of their way to care for each other. Further, Dickens says that the wealthy can't wall themselves from the poor: the wealthy will get the same diseases as the poor. Mr. Dickens says there's so safe gated communities to run to. Dickens would say either we care for each other or we will die.
One character I love is the homeless boy Jo, born an orphan in the most destitute level of society. Someone is always telling Joy to "move on" just as people in the USA tell the homeless to "move on." In the first half of the novel only the peniless clerk Nemo was kind to Jo but the rest of the callous society turned their backs on the poor boy. Well, I loved Dickens' sentiment--his emotions--for Jo. The brutal society just hounds Jo until he is sick and near death, when the kind doctor Allan Woodcourt carries him to refuge in the soldier George's fencing studio where Jo can die not on the street. In the end a whole group of people help Jo in his dieing--George, his roommate Phil; the doctor Allan Woodcourt, the stationer Mr. Snasby who writes his will and confession. These people redeem society, give it a heart.
Jo still a boy does die, and Dickens addressed the reader:
"Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my Lords and Gentleman. Dead! 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. "
Well, I love Dickens' moralism, because homeless in USA are dying thus around us every day, and he is still right to address directly his readers, the men and women "with heavenly compassion in your hearts."
Dickens also thinks pride will kill you, and our society in 2007 and 2008 has been overrun with material pride and greed. One character with too much pride is Mr. George, a young man who ran off to become a solider; he never felt he did well enough as a soldier to face his family, so he cuts himself off from the for years. Also Lady Dedlock was killed by her excess pride. As a young woman Lady Dedlock had an out-of-wedlock baby whom she gave away and later got married. She was terrified to tell her husband about her past and terrified she will be rejected by all of society and bring shame to his family name. Terrible terrible pride dominates both of them. But George has befriended the Bagnet family, and when he's falsely accused of murder, his good friend Mrs. Bagnet goes gets George's mother, brings her back to London, and reunites mother and son.
In contrast, Lady Dedlock flees rather than confide in and trust her husband, and winds up dead a few days later. Her husband, who loved her dearly, would have forgiven her anything, and is striken with a stroke right after she disappears. Overcoming his pride helped George regain his family, reuniting first with his mother, then with his brother and his brother's family, giving George a whole family life for the first time in decades, but pride leads to Lady Dedlock's death.
Reading Dickens I totally fall in love with his moral voice: he is England, a moral, ethical England, a caring England. Dickens' novel helped spur the reform of the corrupt Court of Chancery and then the growth of the welfare state--Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!-- in the 20th century. I'm sick and tired of 20th century modernist novels which give into cynicism, telling us how bad things are in 2007 and 2008. We all know how bad things are in 2008. Cormac McCarthy isn't news. Give me Dickens any day of the week. Give me novels of 881 pages! YES!
Causes Julia Stein Supports
Doctors Without Borders