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Archived Group Reads 2012 > Bleak House Chapters 1~4

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Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) Published in March 1862
For discussion of these chapters


message 2: by Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) (last edited Nov 13, 2011 09:49AM) (new)

Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) I found these initial chapters to be wonderful. I liked that in this novel, Dickens is introducing the characters a bit more slowly. My heart went out to Esther in the chapter that described her treatment by her cold hearted godmother. How one can blame a child for what I think was the misfortune of her birth? As if she asked to be brought into this world! Yet, this girl has grown to be a lovely woman in all ways it seems. She takes joy and happiness in the small things like companionship and the idea of sharing with others. So far, at least for me, Dickens has created a character that I love already even though I know so very little of her.

I am loving the mystery of the children's parentage and what Jarndyce has to do with it
all is a mystery....and Mrs Jellyby is quite something. While worrying about the ills of Africa, her
family and home are falling down around her.


message 3: by Bea (new)

Bea | 233 comments The book's use of two narrative voices is very interesting. There were other books that are epistolary or have multiple first-person narrators but I can't think of any others that combine a first-person narrator and an omniscient narrator. Esther's world-view is much more upbeat than the author's even when she describes sad happenings.

And, yes, she is a dear.


message 4: by LauraT (last edited Nov 14, 2011 04:48AM) (new)

LauraT (laurata) | 497 comments I say in advance that I've read this book at the beginning of this year, so it is "fresh but not too much"!!!
Marialyce wrote: I found these initial chapters to be wonderful. I liked that in this novel, Dickens is introducing the characters a bit more slowly. My heart went out to Esther in the chapter that described her treatment by her cold hearted godmother. How one can blame a child for what I think was the misfortune of her birth?
I'm afraid that that was the standard with which people were judged by that time - and sometimes also nowadays, I'm afraid! TEll me where you come from and I'll tell you WHO you are ...

Esther is one of the best Dickens' femail character I've met so far in the novels I've read; much more "real" than Little Dorrit, or Agnes in David Copperfield


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) Interestingly, I just found this.....a bit different POV than ours Laura and Bea....

In chapter 3, Esther Summerson replaces the third-person narrator, a shift that has the effect of pulling us deeper into the story. Although Esther claims to have difficulty in telling her story and asserts right away that she isn’t very clever, her voice is clear and unhesitating as she tells us about herself and how she became involved in the Jarndyce case. Esther comes across as slightly self-pitying in her descriptions of her strict, emotionally distant godmother and her unhappy birthdays, but her self-deprecation and constant denial of her own intelligence are manipulative gestures that both endear us to her and give her an excuse in case we don’t like the story. In other words, she is so insistent that she is not clever and is so doubtful of her ability to tell the story correctly that she has a lot of leeway to tell the story according to her own very subjective view. If things turn out to be different from the way she describes them, she can claim she warned us of her fallibility from the start. Also, even though Esther claims to be unimportant to the story, she clearly relishes talking about herself. (from spark notes summary)

I just didn't look at it like this at all, but I have to say it does make me think.....


message 6: by Katie (new)

Katie (katies_books) | 21 comments I’m new at group read discussions, but excited to join in!

I have to admit that I felt a little lost for the first couple of chapters, where Dickens focuses very heavily on the workings of the Chancery court. Luckily there are notes in the Barnes & Noble Classics edition that helped clarify the Victorian England court system a bit. But it seems like, at least for now, having only a basic understanding won’t interfere with an enjoyment of the plot. Once Esther’s narrtive began, the book started to move at a good pace.

The end notes in my edition draw a short contrast between Esther and Jane Eyre (first end note to chapter 3). According to the note, Dickens found Jane’s rebelliousness objectionable while Charlotte Brontë thought Esther’s narrative was “weak and twaddling.” I haven’t read nearly enough of Bleak House to make up my own mind yet, but right now I like Esther and think that on the whole she’s very sweet.

Marialyce wrote: "Interestingly, I just found this.....a bit different POV than ours Laura and Bea....

In chapter 3, Esther Summerson replaces the third-person narrator, a shift that has the effect of pulling us de..."


The Spark Notes summary brings up a good point, but it makes Esther sound calculating and purposefully manipulative. Based on the first few chapters, that doesn't seem like an assessment in keeping with her character at all. Esther's disclaimers probably come from a lack of self-confidence more than anything else. It does open the possibility of an unreliable narrator discussion, though.


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) First of all, Katie welcome. We are so happy to have you with us and so glad you decided to join in.

I did not know about the Jane/Esther comparison and find that so interesting. I have the same impression of Esther that you have currently. However, I can see that some might consider her too good. She seems to find joy in the most mundane things which is often a very hard thing to do.

.....and the court system who can understand that even today?


message 8: by Alice (new)

Alice (alicelevene) All I can say is, I'm liking it so far. It seems to have kicked into gear pretty quickly. I'm liking the humor and mystery. Could Mr. Jarndyce possibly be the man she met in the coach? It's always a small world with Dickens...

Also, the comparisons between the lower class families and what say Esther is used to, always make me feel ashamed. Because it seems nowadays most households resemble Mrs Jellyby's. I certainly was quick to compare it to my five sibling family, although hers is slighly more pitiful. And I by no means think what goes on in my house is any worse than anywhere else, in this day and age. Weird how standards have dropped...


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) I wonder what Dickens would say if he saw our modern times, Alice? We have come a long way from his time, yet our lives seem more chaotic.


message 10: by Sherin (last edited Nov 16, 2011 09:55AM) (new)

Sherin Punnilath (shery_7) | 10 comments I really liked the humorous way in which the initial narrator.

Liked Esther's character too. But as I complete 6th chapter,she's getting on my nerves by reminding in every alternate paragraph about her unworthiness of people's affection and gratitude :p


message 11: by Bea (new)

Bea | 233 comments Esther can get on my nerves too but when you remember that she was treated in her most formative years as a "misfortune" and "disgrace" her extreme modesty is perhaps more understandable.


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) Makes me wonder if a character can be too good, too praiseworthy, too modest... Also I wonder if Dickens is making her so good as a kind of statement that no one could be this wonderful? So he might be pulling our leg in a way....

I am looking out for the fact that Esther might be a somewhat unreliable narrator. Anyone have any thoughts on this?


message 13: by Bea (new)

Bea | 233 comments (view spoiler)

Not much of a spoiler but if you don't want to know whether Esther is unreliable, don't read it.


message 14: by Kyle (new)

Kyle (kansaskyle) Like Katie mentioned, I was a bit lost at the beginning, but now I'm startying to piece things together.

This seems like an abrupt start to the novel.


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) Kyle, so happy to see you here. I did like the start but more so because of the limited characters that were introduced. That first chapter was difficult and it only became more understandable when Esther enters the story.


message 16: by Katie (new)

Katie (katies_books) | 21 comments I'd like to keep the question "can a character be too good?" in the back of my mind as the story continues. After Esther gets into a few scrapes (as I'm sure she will, what with having over 700 pages left to go!) it might be easier to answer that question. Same thing for Esther being an unreliable narrator.


message 17: by Valetta (last edited Nov 21, 2011 03:34AM) (new)

Valetta | 27 comments Katie wrote: "The end notes in my edition draw a short contrast between Esther and Jane Eyre (first end note to chapter 3). According to the note, Dickens found Jane’s rebelliousness objectionable while Charlotte Brontë ..."

I've recently watched the new Jane Eyre movie, probably that's why the comparison between Esther and Jane immediatley came into my mind when I started reading Bleak House. To be honest, I partially agree with Charlotte Brontë and Dickens'comment about Jane's rebelliousness is exactly the reason why I find sometimes Esther a bit annoying. There's a passage in the book where she says she'll try to be always good and never plaintive so people will love her. I understand that, after the terrible treatment she received from her godmother, she strongly desiderd to be loved but it seems to me that here Dickens is suggesting that to be loved you have to be modest and subdued, especially if you come from a unfavourable position. It sound as if Esther decides to suppress some of her needs and of her emotions in order to win the favour of other people, exactly the opposite of what Jane Eyre does.
Please don't get me wrong, I like Esther on the whole, she's very sweet and all but sometimes I think she's expressing an attitude which I don't completely like.


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) I agree, Valetta. Esther does seem to be too good. I wonder if Dickens thought her to he the ideal woman? I also wonder if she will eventually find that no matter how good you are, there will always be people who do not like you?


message 19: by SarahC (last edited Nov 23, 2011 05:19AM) (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1424 comments Ha ha, I was just making comments on this question in the comparison thread. It is an interesting thing to ponder. Valetta, yours is really food for thought as you also compare the character of Jane Eyre. I just think Jane --although both 19th century women, had a different character altogether than that of Esther. In a sense that if she and Esther had met in a room, might have had nothing in common.

I believe if you look at them as both women of that era though, neither of independent means, both had to conform and did conform, even Jane Eyre. Jane did still have to conform, play a role, be "good" if you will. To be independent at all, she had to live the life of a governess -- being proper, accepting the restrictions of her position, obeying the household. Women did have to be subdued, play the part, conform. Esther did not have the power to play the role in the story that the men did, for example.

So maybe Dickens is not saying to be loved you have to be subdued, but, for women, to exist, you have to, if you live before the 20th century.


message 20: by Valetta (new)

Valetta | 27 comments SarahC wrote: "Ha ha, I was just making comments on this question in the comparison thread. It is an interesting thing to ponder. Valetta, yours is really food for thought as you also compare the character of Ja..."

I agree with what you say about the women of the nineteenth century and certainly also Jane Eyre had to conform in some way, in order to survive. Anyway it seems to me that Dickens is encouraging a subdued behavior in women while in some way Charlotte Bronte depicts is as a questionable necessity.
I dont' know, maybe I'm too strict in my judgement but I've had a feeling that Esther was living this necessity to conform on a more personal level, making herself to be always good and cheerful in order to win other people's love.


message 21: by Martha (new)

Martha (marthas48) I did enjoy these first chapters quite a bit. Love the description of the fog in London ... really sets the tone for the court system, doesn't it? So thick you can't see where you are. Most people don't even remember the original complaint of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Dickens was very good at setting a mood. :-)

I don't think it's odd that Esther wanted to be good so she would be loved. Her godmother/aunt made it clear all of her life that she was not lovable and if she asked unwanted questions, she was deserted. Didn't matter if she was crying or distraught, in fact her feelings didn't matter at all. Jane Eyre might have thrown something at her, but Esther learned to be quiet and not 'rock the boat'.

Great characters. Those poor Jellyby children!


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) Yes, Martha, those poor children certainly are being dragged up.


message 23: by Vikki (new)

Vikki (silverstarz) | 5 comments I found the details about the Chancery court quite easy to follow, but admitedly I've been studying/working in law for about 7 years. I agree with what Martha said the fog setting the scene for the court and Jarndyce & Jarndyce.

My first impression of Esther is that she comes across as quite a frank and honest narrator.

Mrs Jellyby's house certainly seems very chaotic - I'm glad I'm not one of those children!! I feel sorry for Miss Jellyby, she seems almost trapped into helping with her mothers Africa projects and has no oppurtunity to learn other things. I imagine given the oppurtunity she could develop much more.

It's been ages since I've read any Dickens but enjoying Bleak House so far, looking forward to reading more and joining in more discussions here. :o)


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) Some commentators have theorized that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case was inspired by the dispute over the will of the father-in-law of eighteenth century writer Charlotte Smith; the Chancery case took thirty-six years to get through the court.


message 25: by Greg (new)

Greg | 16 comments I'm new to the group (and Goodreads) but am quite excited.

First of all, Dickens is a master. The first two chapters are pure realistic symbolism. The mood is one of confusion, with unending, impenetrable fog the perfect metaphor for the court case. I must confess that I'm still a bit confused as to the court proceedings, and am worried that I've missed the significance of some subtle points.

The narration shift to Esther did throw me, but it was a good change of pace. Interestingly, I trusted the third person narrative with its dark mood much more than I trust Esther. She seems too self-deprecating and unaware, but perhaps Dickens is drawing her as an ideal of the Victorian age, much as many people of suggested already. To me, her character and what she is revealing to us is very much a defense mechanism - pure virtue or she can claim ignorance if events turn out to be unsupportive of her virtue. I'm also naturally suspicious of all other characters at this early stage, as Dickens has a tendency to reveal flaws of character later on in his novels. I find myself almost on guard against Esther's narration, as if she is too naive about the motives of those around her. I'm especially curious about the man who road in the coach with her, and the old lady who talks to the young adults outside of chancery.


message 26: by Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) (last edited Dec 14, 2011 03:45PM) (new)

Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) welcome Greg...we are excited to have you join us.

I also found the court/chancery part to be confusing, purposely so I think.

I agree with you at this point about Esther. she seems not to want the spotlight, but does seem to enjoy the accolades. She is quite an interesting character and is a part of the major story.


message 27: by Bea (new)

Bea | 233 comments Welcome, Greg! It looks like you have all the right antennae at alert for this great, great novel.

I agree with Marialyce that the chancery part is purposely confusing. I believe the book notes somewhere that no one alive understands it, including the Lord Chancellor.

It just occurred to me that Esther makes one of the purest prayers ever on her birthday. The next 900 pages will reveal whether it is answered, and a whole lot more.


message 28: by Greg (new)

Greg | 16 comments I'm anxious to find out! I have lots of catching up to do. Thanks for the warm welcome.


message 29: by Deedee (new)

Deedee | 34 comments Hello - I've just started Bleak House over the weekend. I found the first 2 chapters difficult to read and understand. Fortunately, there is the internet, so I read what cliffnotes had to say, then re-read the first two chapters and it made more sense. Dickens starts this novel far away from the central story, literally in the fog, and gradually takes step by step towards the story.

The second 2 chapters were more accessible. I really liked Esther and, so far, don't see any of the "self-pitying" that spark notes ascribes to her.

I know I'm a month or so behind everyone, but I read quickly and expect to be "catching up" soon.


message 30: by Martha (new)

Martha (marthas48) I've had to read sections more than once in order to understand them. :-)


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) I hav looked at the Cliff notes too! I like what you said about the fog, Deedee. Great way of looking at the novel's beginning.


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