English, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Mar., 1958), pp. 284-303. Copyright 1958 University of California Press. Used by permission.


In Dicken’s Bleak House the nineteenth-century social order is portrayed with a power and vividness elsewhere unmatched in English fiction. Decaying slums with their filthy tenants, a sedately proud but hopelessly outmoded aristocracy, lawyers and clients lost in a fog of legal obfuscation, a confused and silly parliament engaged in a perpetual game of musical chairs; the magnitude of these symptoms of social distress is impressive, and equaled only by the completeness of the failure of those in power to deal with them. Whatever the dramatic weaknesses and confusions of the book, this satirical image of society is communicated to the reader with unforgettable brilliance, chiefly through a wealth of descriptive detail that is perhaps subtler and more suggestive than in any other by Dickens. The purpose of this essay is first to relate this social satire to what I believe to be the central theme of Bleak House and then to show how the incidental detail, functioning through symbolism and fantasy, sharpens, develops, and intensifies the novel’s satiric meaning.