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Archived Group Reads 2011 > Our Mutual Friend~Bleak House Compare/Contrast Chapters 1~17

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Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) Have you found any similarities of differences in these two novels?


message 2: by Bea (new)

Bea | 233 comments Both books begin by setting the stage atmospherically. Chapter One of Bleak House is built from the London fog (metaphorically the soup of Chancery) and Our Mutual Friend starts on the river Thames, which itself will be an important character in the novel. Differences are that OMF starts directly with plot and characters; whereas Bleak House waits until Chapter 2 to get into the action.


message 3: by Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) (last edited Nov 13, 2011 03:47AM) (new)

Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) I agree, Bea. They are very visual beginnings and intense in their own ways. I do feel that Beak House's start was a bit more somber though. Right away we could see Dickens dislike for things lawyerly.

Both beginnings appeal to the senses. I loved the moodiness of the Thames and the foggy, muddiness of the area surrounding the Chancery. Dickens well knew the appeal of the visceral to his readers and employed it in both of these novels. He drew his readers quickly into a world that seems sinister in both books. (slightly more so in BH, I think)

In OMF, the characters do seem more human though(at least to me!) BH's characters so far seem mechanical, more like pieces on a chessboard.


message 4: by Ellie (last edited Nov 13, 2011 04:42AM) (new)

Ellie (elliearcher) | 85 comments I love the way the characters in BH are-they seem as paralyzed, in their very being not only in their actions, as the fog enforced in London in the opening. The river in OMF is more fluid, carrying things (and people) along. It is the source of bad but also of good, much more alive than fog.

In other words, for better or worse, I think the mechanical quality of the characters in BH is a deliberate choice on the part of CD. For me, BH is almost more like a poem (The Hollow Men, I suppose) than OMF, which is more the realistic, multitudinous 19th century novel-only carried so far that it too becomes poetic, at least in parts.


message 5: by SarahC (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1424 comments The use of elements in Our Mutual Friend does mix so poetically. Water of course, in so many ways. Dust -- in literally mounds upon mounds, stories high (the most chilling representation in the story, to me really). And small uses of other elements like fire -- Lizzie's small blazing brazier -- in which she hopes to see something bright and warm for her and Charlie -- as that cold, dark water literally surrounds them all the time.


message 6: by LauraT (last edited Nov 14, 2011 03:23AM) (new)

LauraT (laurata) | 497 comments Marialyce wrote: Both beginnings appeal to the senses

I find them almost "phisical" in this sense!


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) They are and someone mentioned that the Thames seems to be a character unto itself...

I noticed in contrast to the way that Lizzie seems to dote on her father, Miss Jellyby seems to dislike her mother.

The way in which the store in OMF and BH are described(both kind of sinister like) seemed similar. They evoked, with the bones, the rags, the taxidermy, the old furniture that aura of staleness, mustiness, and ugliness, again appealing to heightened senses and a type of fear inducing element.


message 8: by Christyb (new)

Christyb | 44 comments The East wind. In Bleak House, whenever something puzzles Mr. Jardyce he says the wind must he from the east. In Our Mutual Friend, Mr. Wegg set up his booth Dickens says it was in the path of the East wind. I wonder why the theme of the east wind runs through his works. I wonder if at the time, the east wind was said to bring bad things.


message 9: by Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) (last edited Nov 19, 2011 08:52AM) (new)

Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) I think it is the harbinger of bad things. In Mr Jarndyce's character it makes him seem odd or eccentric whenever he mentions it. I missed the reference to it in OMF. Thanks for mentioning it, Christy.

I will be on the lookout for the mentioning of the wind in the future. (for some reason I can't help but think of The Wizard of Oz with the wind and the witch of the east and north. Wasn't It the wicked witch of the east that Dorothy kills?)


message 10: by SarahC (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1424 comments Yes, it was, Marialyce. The east wind reference does sound ominous. It is funny, I have been thinking about Wiz. of Oz references lately. And especially in the movie, when the Witch of the West and the monkeys would fly in on the dark stormy skies -- of course with the tornado tied in to boot (a real-life ominous wind).

Heavy atmosphere -- Dickens could create that, couldn't he?


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) I think there might be some kind of tie in with the book of Job too! See if I can find where I read that. Have to look that up eventually.

Yes, he most certainly could stir up the elements to make things very onerous.


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) Does anyone see a similarity between Lizzie (OMF) and Esther (BH) Are Dickens' women characters the type who often wear their hearts on their sleeves?


message 13: by Bea (new)

Bea | 233 comments Lizzie and Esther are both motherly well before their time. I think both seem guarded about many things. They are caring people but I don't see them as wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

I noticed the references to the east wind in both books also. It's more prominent in Bleak House. I didn't notice it in OMF until spending this time with a print version. I don't have the book with me now but a footnote to my edition of OMF says that the east wind does indeed blow in bad luck according to folklore. Presumably the Victorian reader would have known this from childhood.


message 14: by SarahC (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1424 comments I know different readers have referenced the "good" women characters of Dickens and that would include these women, right Marialyce. I don't know how I feel about the "good" label, because I see him representing those in life who have to carry the burden. And maybe these women represent just the fact that, at some point, for everyone not to starve, or for the family or unit not to fall apart, selflessness has to rise to the top. Meaning it is there in most of us, but extreme circumstances make it the logical choice.

I absolutely know how debatable my thinking is on this. With the Lizzie Hexam, Esther Summeson comparison, I also think of Amy Dorrit. They were all dealt situations in which life would have fragmented without their compassion and actions.

I read some of those recent commentaries about the Dickens biographies. So maybe Dickens saw that it was often the women who were the compassionate ones (I interpreted maybe that is what you meant by the heart on sleeve).

However, since we read Little Dorrit here earlier also, I think I could say that Arthur Clennam also had this in his nature, and it rose to the top. He was brought to despair by the coldness of his mother and his friendless place in life. He wanted to correct that and past wrongs and repair his life so that he could have bonds with people -- friends and people he tried to help like the Dorrits. And isn't John Jarndyce somewhat similar in his trying to help the "wards" of Jarndyce & Jarndyce and make amends in the way he can?


message 15: by Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) (last edited Nov 23, 2011 07:28AM) (new)

Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) These women, including Amy Dorrit, do seem to put family before any of their own wishes. In fact, it is often hard to tell what they personally want except for the fact that they wish to make others happy. It does seem like they are self sacrificing woman. To me, there seems like there was absolutely no sense of rebelliousness, no selfishness, no things that we often expect from both women and men which is what I meant by the too good statement in one of the threads.

I wonder what others think? Is this Dickens idea of a "perfect" woman? It is hard for me to tell at this point. I know in the end of Little Dorrit (view spoiler)

I guess ultimately, I am looking for that bit of a flaw that might make these characters a tiny bit more self serving.

I almost picked up the new Dickens' biography yesterday at Barnes and Noble, but I controlled myself! :)


message 16: by SarahC (last edited Nov 23, 2011 07:17AM) (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1424 comments I know -- I am controlling myself on book buying too!

I think just my own personal "worldview" of Dickens makes it hard for me to see that he is presenting the ideal or perfect woman-- or man. He did not really, to me, present the perfect anything. He presented more the complex world of human emotion and human failings, rather than human perfection, dealing with the complex mess that life can be. Like I was saying above, it even seems the self sacrificing of the women could be viewed as the person just seeing that somebody has to "pull it out of the fire" before everything is destroyed, because no one else is there to step up and do it. That is another thing Dickens does -- he presents characters who have no one left to turn to - it is them or nothing.

I know I am veering off here, and I won't give a spoiler, but take even just the beginning of the young John Harmon story -- told by Mortimer in Chapter 1 or 2 is it? Young John Harmon has been cast off by his father, and the only other relatives we know about are dead (probably are other extended relatives somewhere, but Old Harmon has probably run them off years ago). So whatever decisions young John makes, it is all of his own resource and conscience to make them, good or bad. So rather than the "good" or "bad" character element, I see Dickens as writing about the alone, despairing, and forgotten.

This will probably be easier for me to discuss toward the end of the overall Dickens' discussions here, because I keep wanting to bring up things about how the stories wrap up! haha, I'll just to revisit the topic with examples of my thinking then!


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) I see what you are saying, Sarah. Dickens' characters come from their lot in life. The emotional turmoil that goes on in one's life is reflected in their actions, their needs, their behaviour. They have or are developing coping mechanisms to deal with the world around them. So, it is not so much that these women are good, it is the way in which they have learned to deal with the tragedies life has given them.


message 18: by MadgeUK (last edited Nov 24, 2011 03:50AM) (new)

MadgeUK The 'selflessness' shown by Dickens' characters is part of the Victorian attitude towards a life which was much more religious than our own. They took the scriptures seriously and believed that by doing good they would get their reward in heaven. In addition, the wealthy (particularly bankers!) were also great philanthropists and their much publicised generosity filtered down to the lower orders. Many of the charities we know today were founded in Victorian times.

http://www.philanthrocapitalism.net/b...

http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/bu...

The ghostly visitations of Scrooge, for instance, who was a wealthy man, was Dickens' comment upon someone who was not as generous as other wealthy men of the time, and so must be punished. It is perhaps a pity that the uber-wealthy bankers of today are not visited by such ghosts!


message 19: by SarahC (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1424 comments Thanks for that information, although, as you may remember Madge, I always tend to question the generally accepted attitude of the day. If the great men and upper orders felt this kind of movement, I don't know that this would have spoken to the lesser characters of the world such as Lizzie Hexam. I don't dispute what you are saying, but it doesn't address my personal interpretation of what the Dickens lower characters say to me.

And yes, in the case of Scrooge, I was working at a bank when I first re-read Christmas Carol as an adult (in the 1990s no less). I really felt that I was walking right back into the book many days when I went to work!


message 20: by Bea (last edited Nov 24, 2011 10:09AM) (new)

Bea | 233 comments Dickens doesn't seem to be a big fan of organized philanthropy. Esther, Lizzie, John Jarndyce, Boffins, etc. give from the heart. Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle and their ilk come in for some well-deserved abuse.

And then we have "The Dismal Swamp" chapter in which petitioners to the Boffins for charity in OMF are roundly ridiculed. I read that recently and was thinking it is one point of similarity between the two novels.

I imagine Dickens himself was ceaselessly pursued for donations to worthy and unworthy causes.


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) Bea, That Dismal Swamp chapter made me laugh...We just purchased a second home and guess where we are close to? (the Great Dismal Swamp!!!)

Yes, I totally agree..Dickens does not look favorably on the volunteer set who give of their time but not of their heart to others...


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) We are about 25% into both books. Does anyone have any thoughts or things to add about the books?

I would like to possibly discuss the role of the children and young adults in these books. Many of them are not treated well at all so I was wondering if this is somewhat prevalent in Dickens's writing. (I have only read Little Dorrit and The Christmas Carol so certainly am not at all well versed in this or in Mr Dickens)


message 23: by Bea (new)

Bea | 233 comments Well, Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop prominently feature impoverished and abused children. Dickens was forced to work putting labels on bottles in a factory when his own father was imprisoned for debt. I think he had a special place in his heart for poor children.

I thought it was interesting that there are two similar speeches about the fallacy of comparing men to bees in the two books. One comes from Skimpole in Chapter 8 of Bleak House and the other from Eugene Wrayburn in Chapter 8 of OMF. The speeches come from two indolent, but very different, characters. When Dickens stole, he stole from the best!


Marialyce (absltmom, yaya) I had read that about him, Bea. That debtor's prison and his having worked as a young person surely was a life altering event for him in so many ways. Amazing how this so affected his being and of course his writing.

I feel his children are just so pathetic....almost makes one cry with their desperation and need.

I did notice that bee comparison and it was almost as if in reading of it the second time, I had a sense of deja vue.

At this point, I am finding I like Bleak House a bit more. I think (at least for me) it is easier to read.


message 25: by SarahC (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1424 comments And perhaps one of the saddest elements underlying the children Dickens portrays is that these children, teens, etc. are so streetwise. They literally can exist on their own. For example, I am not sure I exactly understand the age of Jenny Lind (Fanny Cleaver) in Our Mutual Friend, but in the beginning of Book Two, Charley and Bradley Headstone perceive her as 12 or 13 years old.

I know the main discussion hasn't reached this far yet, but Jenny is the offspring of two generations of alcoholism, she has physical and probably emotional disabilities, and she basically runs the household and works to make a living. Children like her would have had NO childhood at all.

As we move through the story, though Jenny appears not in her right "senses" to some, but to the reader perhaps she seems the most perceptive, most witty, most straight-to-the-truth of anybody. Were she and other characters like her a commentary by Dickens that these left or forgotten children could rise above in their own way?


message 26: by Bea (new)

Bea | 233 comments I think Bleak House is the deeper of the two books and brings us closer to the inner lives of the characters. On the other hand OMF is such a lot of pure fun that I have a hard time choosing which I like better. I find comic elements in even the villains in OMF, while the whole atmosphere of Bleak House is much more sinister.

I think Dickens is just about through introducing major new characters by the beginning of book 2 in OMF. Bleak House takes a much more leisurely approach.


message 27: by SarahC (last edited Nov 27, 2011 03:22PM) (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1424 comments It is always interesting how we see the novels so differently. I agree that Bleak House is a darker book also, but I honestly see more finesse in Our Mutual Friend. There seems to be so much of the tragic (the truer characters) and the pathetic (the greedy characters) in Our Mutual Friend. That is why I am having a hard time putting it down and picking Bleak House back up -- and don't get me wrong -- I LOVE Bleak House. It is like having to decide flavors at a gelato counter.


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