A Serial Reading of Bleak House

A Newberry Library Adult Education Seminar

See https://www.newberry.org/F20BleakHouse for full registration information.

This seminar presents Charles Dickens’s masterpiece Bleak House in eight manageable weekly serial installments. We’ll read each installment and discuss it—with no spoilers—until we reach the novel’s end. Our discussions will explore Dickens’s humor, social commentary, psychological depth, and dazzling assortment of narrative styles. It may look like a novel, but we’ll come to see that Bleak House is really a variety show with a plot, and serial reading invites us to fully experience the many layers of this fascinating work. For the first session, please read only chapters 1-3. Do not read the book’s introduction or preface. After that, we will follow the schedule of installments below.

Bleak House was originally published in twenty serial installments over nineteen months beginning in March of 1852. Our seminar sessions (except for the first) are structured around the original installment breaks, inviting readers to appreciate Dickens’s development of serialization techniques that shape narratives to this day. The seminar begins with two sessions of shorter readings, then expands to ask participants to read approximately 100 pages each week thereafter.  

The novel’s main story recounts young Esther Summerson’s strange path to self-awareness, her involvement in an interminable legal case, and her encounters with people who would help her, harm her, teach her, and learn from her. The novel depicts events in the lives of dozens of characters, weaving together a meditation on the legal process, personal and social responsibility, economic inequality, the subtleties of human communication, gender roles and expectations, and the nature of financial and moral debt. Bleak House also describes an outbreak of infectious disease, the moral and economic consequences of contagion, and the nature of self-isolation, because coincidence can be a dread spirit.

Each seminar session features discussion of the thematic and formal dimensions of the installment at hand. I have always found that, compared to traditional book discussions, serial reading prompts a deeper and increasingly evolving commentary on specific issues, as well as a heightened sense of recurring images, a reader’s own opinions, and even a reader’s favorite lines. All good novels actually teach readers how to read them, and serial assignments allow us to progressively benefit from the novel’s own lessons early, identifying aspects of technique and form that significantly contribute to an active experience of the rest of the novel. The Newberry Seminar format gives readers the chance to understand what it means to really experience a novel, and to discuss that experience while in the midst of reading. 

Sessions also include spoiler-free excerpts from critical materials and tips on what to look for in subsequent installments. These tips include suggestions for noting particular plot points, character changes, and specific “must-read” sections, among other hints for active reading. Each session also features examples of significant musical works mentioned in the novel as well as brief film clips from adaptations of Bleak House. And, of course, PowerPoint slides highlight some of the historical, artistic, and literary references in the novel, offering a kind of “annotated novel” experience that nevertheless stays focused on the art of the novel itself.

Which Edition is Best?

Any edition of Bleak House will work for this seminar, but I recommend purchasing the Broadview edition edited by Patricia Ingham (ISBN 978-155111-931). This volume has a rather sad-looking cover, but I prefer it over all the others because its footnotes include the fewest and mildest spoilers, and because it includes some excellent supplementary material (selections of which I will provide in PDF format for all seminar participants). The edition is available at Broadview Press in a nicely designed paperback and as an excellent e-book: https://broadviewpress.com/product/bleak-house/#tab-description. You may also contact the Rosenberg Bookshop (bookstore@newberry.org) to check availability.

Each week I will also email additional materials, including a packet of the original illustrations that accompany the week’s reading, and a weekly study guide. Be assured that the study guides are not homework, but a series of tips and suggestions to supplement your own interests and questions. 


Weekly sessions are Tuesdays 2-4pm. Note that we skip a week—November 3, Election Day.
Session 1
(9/29): Chapters 1-3
Session 2 (10/6): Chapters 4-7 (Optional reading: pages 13-23 of the introduction–but only those pages)
Session 3 (10/13): Chapters 8-16
Session 4 (10/20): Chapters 17-25
Session 5 (10/27): Chapters 26-35
We do not meet 11/3
Session 6 (11/10): Chapters 36-46
Session 7 (11/17): Chapters 47-56
Session 8 (11/24): Chapters 57-67

Image: “Consecrated Ground”: Illustration by Hablot K. Browne for chapter 16 of Bleak House, by Charles Dickens. First published in the novel’s 5th installment, July 1852. Scanned image from the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Bleak House, edited by Stephen Gill (2008).