Dickens Down the Years

A novel’s continued immediacy


When I last read Dickens’s Bleak House, about 15 years ago, I remember thinking that the novel could easily sustain a 10-week course (the length of a term at my university). Only this year did I get around to teaching it.

As the beginning of the term neared, I panicked. The novel is long and includes dozens of characters, whose peccadilloes Dickens explores in great detail. The plot is murky and leaves much unexplained. How would my students respond to all this, alongside supplemental reading on Victorian society?  Would they find the whole endeavor dull? Would they be stuck wrestling with a book that they didn’t like for 10 weeks? I also felt anxious about the course schedule: one three-hour session once a week in the mid-afternoon. Would it be hard to fill this block of time?

I need not have worried. Although my students found the novel confusing in places, they took to it with surprising alacrity, and enjoyed the background readings that put many of its themes into context. One student began by listening to the audiobook, read by the excellent Simon Vance, then abandoned listening for reading after he began to feel comfortable with the language. Another watched a bit of a BBC series based on the book but also found Bleak House engrossing on its own. Others said that, at first, they struggled to sort out the characters and to acclimate themselves to the style, but it didn’t take them long to become immersed in Dickens’s wonderfully inventive storytelling. In class, one student insisted on reading aloud the description of the loathsome Smallweeds, a family that “has had no child born to it and that the complete little men and women whom it has produced have been observed to bear a likeness to old monkeys with something depressing on their minds”—and everyone burst out laughing. They were amused by the satirical portrait of the rhetorically vapid evangelical preacher, Mr. Chadband, moved by the pathos of the illiterate sweeper Jo, annoyed but admiring of the self-effacing Esther Summerson, repelled by the freeloader Harold Skimpole (“mere child” that he was), and deliciously disgusted by the inebriated and greasy Krook—and by his death by spontaneous combustion. Ultimately, they were awed by Dickens’s ability to create this vast interconnected world, grounded in his particular historical moment but still enormously relevant today. They found in Dickens so much to discuss that we easily filled each three-hour weekly session. One student, a finance major who had wanted to take a Tolkien course that didn’t fit into his schedule, announced that Tolkien was a good writer but that Dickens was on another level entirely.

How wonderful to think that, in the 21st century, a group of students can still find in Dickens the qualities of joy and pity, wit and profundity that enthralled the readers of his own day. This is what makes a classic—a book that a group of disparate people can hunker down with, that delights and instructs, and gives rise to endless, interesting conversation.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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