Wednesday, August 03, 2005

On the Next Episode of Bleak House...

Based on a comment on my Dickens post (see below), I thought I would go through one of Dickens' novels and see how he ended each serialized instalment -- what devices did he use to keep the reader hanging from month to month? Most of Dickens' novels were serialized in monthly instalments of three or four chapters, with a final "double number" that was half again as long as the other instalments. "Bleak House", the novel I picked, was published over the course of nineteen months.

Fortunately, the Penguin editions of most of Dickens' novels indicate where the original instalments began and left off, making it easy to do exercises like this, and, more importantly, making it easy to know where to leave off reading for a while; these novels were not meant to be read all at once, and they're much more effective if you take a little break from them after each instalment.

Anyway, the instalments of "Bleak House" end as follows. As you will see, most of the instalments end with something to keep the readers in suspense until the next instalment; with a couple of exceptions, they don't usually end with deaths or huge set-pieces -- the big murder scene is reserved for the middle of an instalment, not the end of it -- but with little atmospheric details that increase suspense or are comical in a suspensefully sinister way. Oh, and there are spoilers ahead, but none of this will make much sense anyway if you haven't read the book:

Instalment # 1: Esther falls asleep with Caddy Jellyby's head resting on her lap; as she falls asleep, she starts to feel all the identities of the people wshe has met that day melding into one, culminating in her loss of her own identity: "Lastly, it was no one, and I was no one." Then she awakens to see the youngest of the neglected Jellyby children, "so cold that his teeth were cahttering as if he had cut them all."

# 2: Mrs. Rouncewell tells her grandson and drippy love-interest Rosa a story of how "The Ghost's Walk" got its name, and how it is heard whenever calamit or disgrace is coming to the house of Dedlock. The last line of the instalment is "So my Lady says" -- Lady Dedlock hears the ghostly echo of approaching doom.

# 3: Mr. Tulkinghorn goes to meet "Nemo," the law copyist whose handwriting so disturbed Lady Dedlock, but finds him dead of a drug overdose.

# 4: The oblique but clearly significant introduction of the "young surgeon," Allan Woodcourt, into Esther's life.

# 5: Just after a scene where Lady Dedlock interrogates Jo, the crossing-sweeper, for information on her dead ex-lover, Dickens transitions (the literary equivalent of a cut in a movie) to Mrs. Rouncewell remarking that "I never heard the step upon the Ghost's Walk, more distinct than it is tonight!"

# 6: Ends with a scene of Jo alone in the city, "the sun going down, the river running fast, the crowd flowing by him in two streams - everything moving on to some purpose and to one end - until he is stirred up, and told to 'move on' too."

# 7: Mr. Bucket, the detective, uses a ruse to figure out that it was Lady Dedlock that Jo talked to, and tells Mr. Tulkinghorn so.

# 8: Mrs. Snagsby is spying on her husband and entertaining suspicions of him.

# 9: Lady Dedlock says (in soliloquy) that Esther is her child.

# 10: Mr. Krook spontaneously combusts.

# 11: Esther admits that she was in love with Allan, but now that she is disfigured, she is glad that she never told him she loved him.

# 12: Esther asks Mr. Guppy not to make any more inquiries into the question of who her parents were; Guppy agrees but, having seen Esther in her current condition, wants to make it clear that he never made any legally-binding proposal to her.

# 13: Mademoiselle Hortense threatens Mr. Tulkinghorn.

# 14: Jo, dying, meets Allan Woodcourt, who thereby learns of Esther's disfigurement and finds out why Jo ran away; the instalment ends with Allan taking Jo "up out of Tom-All-Alone's" for treatment.

# 15: Mr. Bucket, the prototypical brilliant sleuth, arrests George Rouncewell, the prototypical guy-who-obviously-didn't-do-it-but-gets-arrested-first, for the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn.

# 16: Mr. Bucket learns that Lady Dedlock went out, dressed in black, on the night of Mr. Tulkinghorn's murder, leaving us with the impression that she's the murderer.

# 17: Mr. Bucket and Mr. Jarndyce set out to find Lady Dedlock, who has run away, wrongly believing herself to be wanted for murder.

# 18: Esther finds her mother dead.

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