Lessons From Literature: Beautiful Prose in Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Welcome to the second Lessons From Literature post! Today we’ll be discussing a classic novel: Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

Any good writer has to be, first and foremost, a great reader. In this blog series, we’ll explore the writing lessons I learned from some of my favorite 2017 reads. Each post focuses on one major lesson from a single piece of literature that I read for the first time in 2017. These pieces come from all ends of the genre spectrum, from classic novels to comic books, to illustrate that skillful storytelling depends on the writer and not the format.

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2017 marks the first time I read a Charles Dickens book. I know, I know, it’s shameful to live so long without at least reading A Christmas Carol. However, I made up for it by reading through Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Hard Times, and Great Expectations in a few months. In fact, I had to read them so quickly (to meet deadlines) that I ended up having to skim sections in the latter three (which broke my heart), so now they’re on my re-reading list.

A lot of books out there are considered “classics,” and I’ve read some that made me wonder, “why on earth is this called good literature?” Charles Dickens’s works, however, can justifiably be called masterpieces. You can ponder the social commentary, admire the intricate plots, and get acquainted with fascinating characters, but my biggest takeaway from Dickens’s works, particularly Bleak House, is his stunningly beautiful use of words.

Lesson from Bleak House: Take the time to write beautiful prose.

There’s a vast difference between slapping words onto paper to convey a concept, and artfully shaping them to tell a story. Some people might not like Dickens’s tendency toward long descriptions, but I often found myself awed by the precision of his words. Take this example from the opening paragraph of Bleak House:

“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”

There are several elements to notice about Dickens’s prose style, even in this short section. The first is that his novels are not meant to be read quickly (as I can attest). So many books these days are written with rapid-fire words that pound at you to “keep your interest.” Dickens’s writing is different. You have to let the words unfold, give them time to paint a picture in your head—and once you give them time, you’ll have such a wonderfully detailed mental picture, you’ll think you’re standing in the middle of it. When you read these sentences, can you feel the inhospitable weather? Fight against the pull of the mud on your shoes? Shiver from the damp of the sooty snow?

Another part of the magic in Dickens’s words is his use of metaphor. When he writes “as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth,” he’s referencing the account of Noah and the Flood in the Bible. That’s also why he mentions a dinosaur. Because he compares muddy London to an ancient land just freed from the Flood waters, he says it wouldn’t be surprising to see a dinosaur wandering the streets as well. Those kinds of metaphors and images are ones that stick in your readers’ heads—not because they’re outrageous, but because the connection is both logical and marvelous, and because the image is described so solidly. You can’t get a much better image than “waddling like an elephantine lizard.”

Lastly, I love the imagination in Dickens’s descriptions. He tells you exactly how something looks, but he often takes it a step further. He gives the image a bit of fantasy that removes it from the realm of pure reality. Consider the last sentence of this excerpt. Dickens first describes how the smoke mingles with the snow, turning it black. Then he adds that the snowflakes have “gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” By adding this phrase, Dickens invites his readers to do more than “see” the images. He wants readers to interpret the images, to get a deeper meaning out of them that sets the tone for the whole scene. In Dickens’s work, images have great significance to the rest of the story.

As you can tell, I really like Dickens’s prose. But I’m not saying all great writers have to create stories like he did. I don’t even think that’s possible, because every writer has their own voice and style. Consciously trying to replicate Dickens would result in writer’s block more than anything else.

However, I do think we should approach writing as a craft the way that Dickens did. When you read his work, you can feel the care he took in putting words together. Writing is about much more than making sense. It’s about creating a piece of art purely from words.

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