Hard Times: False, Fragmented and Unfair, Dickens's 19th-Century London Offers a Grimly Prophetic Vision of the World Today. Terry Eagleton on Why Bleak House Remains One of Our Most Urgently Contemporary Novels. (the Back Half)
Eagleton, Terry, New Statesman (1996)
Some novels, like some alcoholic drinks, improve with age. A century or so after they first appear, they may seem more urgently contemporary than they were on the day of their publication. Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, published in the mid-18th century, has a claim to being the greatest of English novels - not least if you think size matters, as it is certainly the longest. But the Victorians found it prudish and preachy, and only with the advent of modern feminism did this astonishing portrait of a cruelly exploited woman come triumphantly into its own. The paranoid fictions of Franz Kafka only really came alive once we had witnessed the rise of totalitarian states. Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent includes the first suicide bomber in English literature, which makes it more relevant now than it was when it first appeared in 1907.
The same might be said of one of the most magnificent of all English novels, Charles Dickens's Bleak House. At first glance, this claim might be doubted. The book opens with one of the great Victorian literary set pieces, a vision of London shrouded from end to end in fog; and pea-soupers, along with Peelers, are features of 19th-century London which have passed away. This fog, however, is more symbolic than real. It is a dank, clammy, putrid, fetid ooze that seeps into every crevice of Victorian society; from the East End slums to the Lord Chancellor's chambers. Later in the book, it will merge into the foul infection which creeps from the human cesspit of Tom-all-Alone's to contaminate the fashionable suburbs.
What also spontaneously combusts in the book is its central plot: the Kafkaesque legal case of Jarndyce vjarndyce, which has dragged on for so long that there is nobody still around who understands what it is about. The lawsuit finally eats up its own expenses and collapses. It is one of Dickens's many images of a social order which is out of control -- one that works by its own impenetrable logic, callously indifferent to the human lives it is supposed to serve.
This is a clairvoyantly ecological vision. Dickens sees his society as rotting, unravelling, so freighted with meaningless matter that it is sinking back gradually into some primeval slime. In Our Mutual Friend, London is one huge dust heap, and "dust" is a Dickensian euphemism. The whole place is awash with garbage, and human beings are becoming hard to distinguish from bits of rag and bone. The sinister Krook of Bleak House dies by spontaneously combusting, reduced to a few spots of grease, as though this whole top-heavy system is in danger of imploding.
The fog is symbolic of this social opaqueness. Men and women in this world are caught up together in the same sombre narrative, their lives subtly intermeshed. In Bleak House, Jo the illiterate crossing-sweeper, the decaying aristocracy of Lord and Lady Dedlock, and the saintly middle-class narrator Esther Summers on are all secretly interconnected without being aware of it. But this is a plot that no one of them is able to fathom. The unlettered Jo and Krook quite literally cannot "read" the world around them. Only the novelist himself can bring these hidden relations to light, laying bare the logic of a world that no one any longer can decipher as a whole.
This, too, has a prophetic feel to it. It is, so to speak, Dickens's version of globalisation. The more unified the world is, the more fragmented it feels. In Bleak House, as in the global banking system, everything connects with everything else; but like the fog, the contagious fever and the lawsuit, these are negative images of human solidarity. It is as though any more positive version of human relations is now impossible to represent. …